Hell or High Water, The Day Will Come (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  22,646


 

The solemn group of mourners stood silently, heads bowed as the Reverend finished with his prayer.  Joe Cartwright, fifteen, stood as close to his father as he possibly could.  His body quivered, both from the cool autumn breeze and from the grief and fear that had taken root deep in his soul.  Next to him, Adam could hear his younger brother swallow hard and without glancing down at the boy, knew that Little Joe was fighting back his tears.  Tenderly, Adam placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder and squeezed gently causing the younger boy to glance quickly into his brother’s face.  Adam, his lips pinched tightly, nodded his head in assurance at his brother.

Joe turned his head in the opposite direction and gazed quickly into his father’s dark, sad eyes.  The pained expression that the senior Cartwright bore on his face was more than his youngest son could stand.  Joe began to fidget; lowering his head just enough that he could still scan the gathering without the people actually seeing him look their direction.

Across the opened grave, Joe could see Tommy’s family.  His mother was broken hearted and wept openly.  Tommy’s father wore a look of pure outright hate on his face and refused to look down at the small pine casket that was being lowered into the ground.  Instead, the man stared directly across the short distance of space into the face of Ben Cartwright.  His hate was evident, and not many among the group missed the look that Thomas Wellington was giving to the man that he blamed for his young son’s death.  Adam and Hoss both noticed.  Hoss stood to his father’s right and kept a wary eye on the distraught father who had only moments before the funeral service had begun, swore to get even with Ben Cartwright, come hell or high water.

The moment the service was over, Hoss took his father by the arm and attempted to lead Ben away.  Thomas had placed his arm around his wife’s trembling shoulders and turned her toward her own parents, whispering something to his father-in-law.

Ben stood firm, determined to have a word with Mr. Wellington; he looked into Hoss’ blue eyes and shook his head. “Just a minute son, I want…”

Before he could finish his sentence, Wellington stood before him, a deep, angry scowl embedded into the furrows across his brow. “Get out of here…you murderer!” he shouted in Ben’s face.

Joe, frightened, stepped back after being gently pushed to the side by his father.  Adam stepped in front of Joe, putting himself between his brother and the angry man. “Thomas…you can’t mean that?”

“Don’t I?  Well, you’re wrong, Cartwright, I mean every word of it…”

“You know our Pa didn’t murder your boy!” Hoss was quick to defend his father.

“I know no such thing!  As far as I’m concerned…your pa here, was as much to blame for my boy dying as…as…that kid there!” he bellowed, pointing his finger in Joe’s direction. “You’ll be sorry, Cartwright…I’ll get you for what you did to my Tommy, you and that…brat of yours…you’ll both pay…come hell or high water…the day will come!  Mark my word!”

Without giving Ben time to respond or offer his condolences, Wellington turned, took his wife by the elbow and marched to his waiting carriage.

Ben swallowed the guilt he’d been feeling and turned slowly, seeing for the first time, the minuet tears that rolled silently down his young son’s face.  Immediately, Ben forgot his own deep seeded emotions and placing both large gentle hands on the boy’s trembling shoulders, pulled his son into an embrace.  Joe buried his face into his father’s breast, whimpering softly.

“You didn’t kill Tommy…I didn’t kill him…why can’t Mr. Wellington see that?  It was an accident! Oh, Pa…he’s gonna get us!” sobbed Joe.

“No, no, son…Thomas Wellington doesn’t mean what he said…he’s grieving son, that’s all…he won’t bother you…us…” Ben said with more assurance than he actually felt.

He glanced up into the faces of his two older sons and saw in their eyes the same doubt that he knew must be showing in his own.  With a look that told all, he warned Adam and Hoss not to let their brother see their own worries, for the sake of the boy’s well being.

Ben took a deep breath and let it out slowly, hoping to calm his nerves somewhat.  Gently, he pulled Joe’s face away from his breast and forced a smile. “Let’s get you home, son, I’m sure Hop Sing has supper about…”

“But what about…”

“We’ll, talk about the Wellington’s later, son; right now it looks like it might start raining any minute, and I for one don’t want to get soaked.  Thomas will be just fine in a few days…or as well as any father would be, having just lost his only son.  Come on, Joe…you can ride in the back with me; we’ll let your brothers chauffer us home,” Ben said as he continued to lead his family toward the buggy.

Joe chanced a backwards glance at the Wellingtons, but the grief-stricken family had already gone.

“I wish…” Joe paused.

“You wish what, son?” Ben questioned as he waited for Joe to take his place.

“Nothing…it was nothing,” muttered the boy as he plopped down against the soft leather seat and turned his head to the side so that his father could not see the tears that had accumulated once more.

By the time that the Cartwrights reached their ranch, Joe was more than half asleep, leaning against his father’s shoulder.  Hoss jumped down from the front and, glancing at the boy, turned up his lips in a tight smile.

“Poor little thing, he’s plum tuckered out,” whispered the gentle giant.

Ben started to arouse Joe, but Hoss put his hand on his father’s arm to stop him.  When Ben looked into the blue eyes of his middle son, Hoss shook his head no. “Let me carry ‘im,” he said as he slipped his arms underneath the sleeping lad and easily gathered Joe into his arms.

Adam smiled at the sight and whispered softly to his father. “If Joe wakes up before Hoss gets him in bed, he’ll be raving mad…I can just hear him now…”

And that’s exactly what happened; Adam’s words were voiced for him.

“Put me down, you big ox!  I ain’t no baby and I don’t need to be carried!” stormed Joe upon awakening and finding himself in the arms of his brother.

“Take it easy, Shortshanks,” Hoss fumed, “I was just…”

Joe had his feet firmly planted on the ground and was straightening his clothing.  His boyish cheeks were flushed with a light pink color as he glanced around the yard to be sure that none of the men had seen him being carried into the house as if he were just a wee boy. “I know what you were just doing…making me out to look five years old, that’s what!”

With that, Joe turned and stomped into the house.

*****

“Do I have to go?”

Ben looked up from his breakfast into his son’s face.  He was quick to notice how tired Joe looked and knew it was because of all that had happened over the last several days and the fact that the boy had not been sleeping well at night.  Nightmares had kept them all from sleeping the night through without being awakened by the shrill cries coming from the youngest family member’s room in the wee hours of the night.

“I think you should, son,” Ben said, setting his fork aside.  “The best thing for you is to get back into your regular routine…”

“But it won’t be the same…not without…Tommy,” Joe said softly.

“I know, son…I know it won’t be easy for you…”

“Then why do I have too?”

“Because,” Ben paused, taking a breath, “I want you to.”

He waited for the boy to respond, but instead, Joe picked up his fork and began poking at his eggs.  Ben could see how tightly the lips were pressed and noted the sad expression on his son’s face.

“Joe,” Ben said in a low voice, waiting until Joe looked at him before finishing his sentence.  He fixed his eyes on the troubled ones that stared back at him.  “It’s only for a few more weeks, and then school with be out for the summer.”

Joe stuffed his mouth full and swallowed, barely chewing his food. “Alright, Pa, if that’s what you want me to do…”

“I do…”

Joe set his fork aside and wiped his mouth.  “I’m not hungry…may I be excused?”

“You haven’t taken but two bites.”

“I know, but…I’m just not hungry.”

Ben glanced around the table at the others and then nodded his head. “I suppose.  Adam, you ride into town with Joe…”

Joe had pushed back his chair and was halfway to the door, but stopped suddenly and spun around. “What for?” he asked in a harsh tone, returning to the table.  “I know the way…”

“Joseph, watch your tone, young man,” Ben reprimanded sharply.  “Adam is going to ride in with you and Hoss will meet you after school and ride home with you…”

“But why?  I don’t …”

“Joe, I know you don’t…and I know you don’t like this one bit…but for the next little while, one or the other of your brothers, or myself, will be accompanying you to and from school…”

Joe’s face twisted into a frown, his eyes turned dark as he faced his family. “Great…just what I need, a whole family of babysitters…what do you think my pals will say when they catch on to this…I’ll be the laughing stock of the entire district,” the boy grumbled.

“I don’t care what they think…and neither should you.”

Ben got up and circled the end of the table, stopping in front of his son.  Gently he placed his fingers on the quivering chin and tilted Joe’s head upward.  In a more controlled voice, Ben explained his reasons. “Wellington made threats, son…I don’t think he actually meant them, at least I hope he didn’t, but I’m not taking any chances.  I want someone with you whenever you are off this ranch…until the man has had time to simmer down and realize just how foolish he was…threatening a child…”

“I’m not a child.”

Ben smiled slightly; little did his son realize that to his father, he would always be his child. “Threatening a young man, then.”

“I’m not afraid of him…I didn’t do anything…we didn’t do anything…it was an accident!”

“I agree…and I hope in time, Thomas agrees as well, but until that time, you will have an escort…”

Joe let the air puff from his lungs, pulling away from his father.  He glanced around at Adam, his scowl deepening. “Well, come on…the last thing I need now is to be late for school.”

*****

The pair had ridden all the way to the schoolhouse without either saying a word to the other.  Joe was sulking, it was obvious to his older brother and Adam, determined not to get into an argument with the boy, kept silent, until they pulled their horses to a stop in front of the little red building.

Adam watched his brother dismount and tie his reins around the hitching post.  When he’d finished, Joe glanced up at him and then turned to go.

“Joe?”

“What?” he answered, looking around at Adam.

“Pa’s just worried that something might happen to you…don’t be angry with him.”

“I’m not mad, Adam…not really.”

“Then why the silent treatment?”

Joe shrugged his shoulders, twisting his lips in a smirk. “Pa worries too much…”

“Because he cares, Joe, and because…well…he’s afraid for you.”

Joe’s expression suddenly changed and he stepped closer to his brother’s horse. “Pa?  Afraid?”

Adam nodded his head.  “Yeah…he’s always been afraid for you.”

“About what…why?”

“Like I said, Joe…because he cares.  He’s lost so much over the years…and I suppose seeing Tommy get killed the way he did…Pa put himself in Mr. Wellington’s place and imagined how hard it would be to lose someone you care so much about…especially a son.  And then when Thomas made those threats…well…you know Pa,” Adam said with a soft smile.

Joe’s expression softened somewhat and he smiled for the first time in days. “I never thought about it like that, I mean…Pa being afraid.”

The school bell clanged loudly, causing Little Joe to look around. “I gotta go, Adam…thanks…for explaining, I mean.  See ya!” he shouted as he grabbed his things and ran across the schoolyard to join his friends as they filed inside.

*****

For two weeks this same routine continued.  Adam and Hoss took turns riding into town with their younger brother and then home in the afternoons.  It hadn’t taken Little Joe long to grow tired of the process, what with the teasing from his classmates.  His fear that had festered toward Mr. Wellington when his friend had first died had dissipated somewhat and to further his dissatisfaction they had received word that Mrs. Wellington had left her husband and gone back east with her parents.  No one was sure if the separation was permanent or just a lengthy stay for the grieving mother.  As far as anyone in town or the out lying areas knew, Thomas Wellington had continued running his farm much the same fashion as before the accident that claimed his son’s life, keeping close to home and causing no one reason to believe that he still harbored ill feelings toward Ben Cartwright and his young son, Little Joe.

“I don’t know why you have to escort me around,” Joe grumbled one evening as he and Hoss rode home together.

“Because Pa says so, that’s why Joe…because Pa says so,” Hoss answered.

“There ain’t no need to, not any more…”

“Joe, when Pa says it’s alright with him, then Adam and I’ll stop…we ain’t doing this ’cause we wanna…it puts us behind on our work, same…”

“Gee thanks!” fumed Joe.

“Aw, dadburnit, Little Joe…I didn’t mean it like that…hey…where ya going?” Hoss shouted as Joe spurred his mount and raced away.  “Galldangit!”

Joe pulled his mount to a sudden stop and quickly slid down from his horse.  He was half was to the door when Hoss rode into the yard and stopped. “Hey, Joe,” he called as he dismounted, not really expecting his kid brother to wait for him.

Joe spun around.  “Hurry, Hoss…that’s Doc’s buggy…someone must have gotten hurt,” Joe called over his shoulder as he scurried for the door.

“PA!” shouted Joe as he burst into the house, taking no time at all to survey the room before yelling out.

On the far side of the settee, Joe caught sight of Adam as the older brother raised his head slightly above the back of the settee.  Paul Martin’s head also appeared.

“Stop yelling, Little Joe,” Adam warned his brother, watching as the boy hurried around the furniture.

“PA!” Little Joe muttered in a loud whisper.

Fear had filled his eyes and deep within his chest, Joe could feel his heart racing rapidly. “What happened?”

Hoss had hurried into the house, shocked at seeing his father lying on the settee, obviously bleeding; he placed a calming hand on his younger brother’s shoulder.

“Pa’s been shot,” Adam said in a strained voice.  “And I have a pretty good suspicion who did it…”

“Now, Adam,” Ben said weakly.  “You can’t say that it was Thomas Wellington…”

Ben closed his eyes tightly as the doctor swabbed at the bullet wound.

“Boys, let me get him bandaged up, then help me get him into bed…he needs rest right now,” the physician instructed.

“Doc’s right,” Adam said, standing and turning, seeing for the first time the fright on Joe’s face.  He placed a steady hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Pa’s going to be fine, little buddy, the bullet only grazed his shoulder…”

Joe glanced down at his father, seeing Ben open his eyes and look up at him.  He held out his hand to the boy.

“Come here, son,” Ben ordered.

“Yeah, Pa?”

Joe came forward and kneeled down so that he could be closer to his father.  Ben forced a smile and took Joe by the hand.

“I want you to promise me something, please?”

“Anything, Pa…anything.”

“I don’t want you going outside this house…not until we know something for certain about who fired at me.  Stay inside…mind what Adam tells you to…do…plea…se.”

Ben drifted off into unconsciousness.

“Pa?  Pa?”

“It’s alright, Joe, he’s just sleeping.  I gave him something for the pain.  He’ll sleep for several hours,” Paul said, standing.  He began to roll down his shirtsleeves.

“Adam, you and Hoss help me carry him to his room.  Joe, run ahead boy and turn back the blankets for us.”

“Yes sir,” Joe called, already heading toward the steps.

Carefully the men placed Ben on the bed.  Adam and Hoss stepped back while Joe remained at the foot of the bed, staring into the ashen face of his father.  The doctor covered Ben, making sure his patient was comfortable and then motioned for the others to follow him from the room.

“Is he gonna be alright…I mean…you’re sure, ain’t ya?” Joe questioned the doctor.

Paul smiled, the boy looked scared to death, and the way that Joe kept trying to look into the room at his father, tore at the kind man’s heart. “I promise, Little Joe, your pa is going to be fine.  Would you like to go in and sit with him?”

Joe’s eyes brightened immediately.  “Can I?” he asked in disbelief.

“You may, but son, be very quite and let him sleep.”

“I will, I promise,” smiled Joe, turning and pausing at the door.  “Thank you, sir,” he said as he slipped softly into the room and closed the door.

*****

Two days cooped up in the house had worn on the boy’s nerves.  Joe paced back and forth in front of the fire.  Adam sat at his father’s desk going over the figures in the ledger, trying to ignore the constant clicking of his brother’s heels on the floor.  The noise grew louder and Adam looked up, seeing Joe coming his way.

“When’s Hoss gonna be back?” Joe asked in a demanding tone.

“Soon,” Adam replied, studying the numbers in the columns.

Adam heard Joe sigh deeply and glanced up.

“How soon?” the boy asked again.

It was Adam’s time to sigh and he did so, not bothering to hide his annoyance.  He tossed down his pencil and glared at his brother. “I don’t know how soon, I’m not a mind reader.  He will be back as soon as he can…now why don’t you find something to occupy your mind besides bothering me; can’t you see that I’m trying to straighten out this mess?”

Joe was stunned into complete silence.  He looked with a hurtful expression at his brother and without uttering a word, turned to go.

“Joe…wait a minute…please,” Adam said as he stood up and walked around the corner of the desk.

Joe paused but refused to turn around.

“I’m sorry, buddy…I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that.”

Slowly, unsure whether his brother had actually meant his apology, Joe glanced around.

“Look Joe, I know you’re not much for staying cooped up…and I can’t say that I blame you.  When Hoss gets back and we find out whether or not Roy has any leads as to who took a pot shot at Pa, maybe we can talk him into sitting with Pa for a little while so that you and I can go fishing…”

Instantly, Joe’s eyes widened and he smiled.  “You mean it…fishing…you’ll go fishing with me?”

Adam almost laughed at the boy’s expression. “Yeah, I mean it; I could stand some fresh air myself…”

“But what about what Pa said, you know, about me staying in…”

“I don’t think he’ll mind, as long as I’m with you.  Don’t worry, Joe…I’ll talk to Pa first, how is that?”

“Alright…tell him; I promise not to wonder off …”

Adam was already on his way to see his father, who was still confined to his bed. “Leave it to me, kid,” he laughed over his shoulder.

It was several minutes before Adam reappeared.  Joe jumped from the chair he’d been sitting in behind the desk and waited anxiously for Adam to cross the room.

“What are you doing?” Adam asked in a tone that Joe knew all to well.

“Nothing,” he muttered.

“Doesn’t look like nothing to me.”

Adam grabbed the ledger and turned it around so that he could see.  The marking along the side of his figures was noticeable and he looked hard into the hazel eyes that watched his expression.  Adam could see a tinge of apprehension in their depths.  Suddenly he smiled at the boy. “You little rapscallion…you found my mistake!”

Seeing the bright glow on his older brother’s face, Joe giggled and pointed at the long column of figures. “It was easy…you forgot to carry your number, here and here,” Joe said, beaming.

“I’ll be darn, I did, didn’t I?” laughed Adam.  “Thank you, Joe…I guess I’d just stared at those numbers so long that I couldn’t see the forest for the trees!”

Joe giggled again.  “That’s a good one, Adam…since these figures all have to do with the timber up on the north ridge.”

The front door opened and both boys stopped talking and watched Hoss enter the room.

“Hoss…what did you find out?” Adam rushed to the big man’s side with an expectant look on his face.

“Did old man Wellington shoot Pa?” Joe wanted to know.

Hoss tossed his hat on the credenza as he shook his head. “Not likely, according to Roy, that is.”

“What does that mean?  What did the sheriff find out?” urged Adam.

“Nothin’…when Roy rode out to the Wellington place, he found the place in a shambles.  Seems like the old man hadn’t turned a hand at nothin’ since his wife left  ‘im.  She went back East with her folks and the place was deserted, reckon Wellington must have taken off himself; ain’t no body seen or heard hide nor hair outta him in days.  Roy’s sending some men out to take care of what livestock he left behind,” Hoss explained.

 “I guess that rules him out then as a suspect,” commented Adam.  “Might be for the best.”

“How so, Adam?”

“Simple, with Wellington gone, we don’t have to keep this yahoo caged up inside,” Adam said with a grin at Joe.

“Reckon so…say, how is Pa?”

“Better, Doc says he can start getting up tomorrow…Hoss…how about you sitting with him for a little while…I promised the kid here, I’d take him fishing?” grinned Adam with a nod toward Joe.

Hoss squinted his eyes at Joe, trying hard not to grin.

“Please Hoss…I gotta get outta here for a while…”

“Yeah, he’s driving me crazy, what with his pacing back and forth!” laughed Adam.

“Well…I reckon I could sit with Pa for a spell, I got a couple of things I want to talk to him about anyway.” Hoss ruffled Joe’s hair and started toward the steps. “Catch enough fish for supper, Shortshanks!”

“We will,” shouted Joe as he made for the door.  “Hurry up, Adam…”

*****

“Looky, Adam!  I caught another one!” shouted Joe in excitement.

Adam glanced up, saw the happy glow to his brother’s face return after being absent for weeks and was suddenly glad that he had decided to bring the boy fishing. “Good work, little buddy.  Keep hauling them in like that, and we’ll have more than enough for supper.  I’m going to work my way down the creek for a ways, you stay right where you are…you seem to have gotten into a whole school of fish!”

“Alright, Adam,” Joe called over his shoulder. He baited up his hook with a long slimy red worm and then tossed his line back into the water.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his brother moving steadily down the creek bank and around the bend.

For several long moments, Joe watched his bobber dancing on the water.  When it suddenly disappeared from the surface, Joe yanked back on his rod, snagging another fish.  Wwith a low squeal of glee, he hauled the fish to the shore.

“Wow!” he said, looking up in hopes that Adam had returned so that he could proudly display his catch.  “This is the biggest one yet!” he muttered to himself as he squatted down to remove the hook from the fish’s lip where it had snagged.

A movement behind him alerted Joe to the fact that his brother had returned.  Grabbing the trophy fish by the lower lip, Joe rose up suddenly and spun around, holding the fish out in front of him.

“Look at this one, big brother…………”

*****

“JOE!  JOE!”

Adam looked the opposite direction, down the creek straining his neck to see if he could catch a glimpse of his brother fishing along the water’s edge.

“I told that boy to stay put!” he fumed under his breath. “JOSEPH!”

There was nothing that Adam could find that pointed in the direction the boy could have taken.  Angry, he walked slowly back to the spot where he had left Joe, remembering his exact words instructing Joe to stay put.

With a deep sigh that bordered between anger and worry, Adam walked through the tall grasses toward the bank where he had last seen his brother fishing.  He stopped suddenly; eyes opened wide in surprise as he knelt down.  The fish he picked up had long since stopped wiggling and was now stiff.  A surge of uncertainty sparked fear in his heart as he scanned the ground for…there is was, tossed carelessly among some broken twigs.  Adam reached outward, noting for the first time how his hand trembled as he picked up his brother’s fishing pole and examined it carefully.  He gulped deeply and loudly as the fear intensified.  Rising to his feet, Adam walked slowly, eyeing the ground beneath him intently as he moved over its surface.

At last he found what he had feared he might.  Bending down, he eyed the dulled red speck that covered the edge of a lone leaf.  Adam picked it up, and touched it with just the tip end of his finger.  BLOOD, his heart raced.

Standing to his full height, Adam looked all around, hoping, praying to catch sight or sound of the missing boy.  His mind raced with fear.  Why had he left the boy unguarded?  What had possessed him to move out of his brother’s sound…and hearing?  Where had Joe disappeared to…how badly was he hurt…why didn’t he call out for help…did he injure himself or did…someone…injure the boy?  His senses warned him of danger…his heart raced with alarm and before he gave himself time to panic, Adam was mounted up, racing along the water’s edge, hoping and praying that he would find his brother alive.  Dread pounded hard in the back of his head…his worst fear was that Thomas Wellington hadn’t gone away, but had instead been close by, biding his time…and Adam, with a deep groan of knowledge, accepted the fact that he had opened the door of opportunity for this crazed man…now his brother would pay for his stupidity.  Silently, Adam cursed himself, remembering the man’s harsh words, ‘you’ll both pay…come hell or high water…the day will come!  Mark my word!’ 

*****

“Oh, Adam…no…please…no!”

“I’m sorry, Pa…I…guess I just wasn’t thinking…” Adam stammered. “I can’t believe I could have been so stupid…we were having so much fun…I…I’m sorry, Pa…”  Slowly he began pacing the room, moving around his father’s bed.  His hand brushed his face, but failed in removing the signs of worry and guilt that had stationed themselves there.

Ben pushed himself up, tossing the covers off his legs as he tried to climb out of bed. “Hush now, Adam…this is not your fault…you didn’t intend for this to happen, and no one blames you,” Ben said as he reached for his trousers.

Adam suddenly realized what his father was doing and rushed to the senior Cartwright’s side. “Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded in a gruff tone as he took hold of Ben’s arm.

“I’m going to find my son!”

“Oh no you’re not,” snorted Adam.  “Hoss and I will find Joe, you’re getting back in that bed,” he ordered, sounding much like his father.

“Don’t you dare tell me what to do, young man!”

“Pa…you can hardly stand up alone, just how on earth do you expect to stay on a horse?  Now, please, get back in bed…”

“Adam’s right, Pa…leave this to us…we’ll find Joe and we’ll bring him back to ya, I promise,” Hoss said trying to assure his father that he and Adam could do so without his help.

Exhausted just from the physical exertion of trying to put on his pants, Ben succumbed to his two sons’ demands and allowed them to help him back into the bed.  He leaned back against the thick stack of pillows, sighing heavily.  His dark, expressive eyes closed momentarily and then re-opened.

“Bring him home to me…please,” Ben mumbled softly as he drifted off to sleep.

*****

“I think the first place we should look is at Wellington’s,” Adam said as he swung into the saddle.

“Let’s ride,” Hoss said in quick response.

Both young men kicked sharply at their mounts’ sides and together rode daringly from the yard.

“What are we looking for?” Hoss said after he and Adam had been prowling around the empty house for several minutes.

“Anything…anything that might tell us that the old man has been here recently.”

“Like what, Adam…there ain’t nothing hardly left…”

“I DON’T KNOW…JUST KEEP LOOKING, WILL YOU?!”

Hoss paused long enough in his search for a clue, to eye his brother with a stern look.  The look did not go unnoticed by the recipient.  Adam took a deep breath, letting it flow gently from his lungs.

“I’m sorry, Hoss.  I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that…it’s just that…I blame myself…this is all my fault.”

“Aw…dadburnitall, this ain’t you’re fault, Adam…”

“Yes it is…I shouldn’t have let down my guard…I should never have let that boy out of my sight.  I knew he was in danger…and I just left him alone to fend for himself.”

Adam took another deep breath, his expression wore no mask; his pain was evident both in his eyes and in the tone of his voice. “If anything happens to that boy, I’ll never forgive myself…never,” he muttered, turning to hide from his brother, the wells of unshed tears that had unexpectedly accumulated in his hazel eyes. “There’s nothing in here,” he said at long last, tossing aside the article in his hand.  “Let’s check in the barn.”

The brothers spent another twenty minutes going through the items in the barn, but nothing seemed to be out of place or gave a hint as to what might have happened to their missing brother.

“I’ll look in here,” Hoss said as he ventured into the back room.

Adam continued to search the barn when he was suddenly stopped by the shouts coming from the room where Hoss had gone.

“Hey, Adam…come here, lookit this,” he called.

His brother, who held up a coil of rope, exposing one end, met Adam at the door.

“So it’s a rope…what of it?”

“Lookit…take a close look at this end,” Hoss instructed.

Adam took the end that Hoss waved under his nose and examined it closely. “It’s been freshly cut,” he said in a near whispered voice.

“That ain’t all, Adam, look over there,” Hoss said, pointing to a far corner.

Slowly Adam walked across the small room and stopped, staring at a vacant place where it was obvious that once a small box or container had occupied the spot. “That’s strange.”

“Yeah, and look in the dirt and dust, footprints.  And look at these,” Hoss said pointing to the floor.

“Looks like something’s been pulled across the floor…but what?” said Adam, thinking aloud.

“I ain’t got no idea, lessen it was a crate…a box…or…”

“Maybe…a trunk…”

“But Adam, what would Wellington want with a trunk, he sure didn’t take nuthin’ with him when he left…but Mrs. Wellington did…”

“So, the trunk was pulled out for her…to pack her things in…and we’re right back where we started, except for a rope that’s been cut.”

“Yeah, but why…and by who?” Hoss pondered aloud.

“I don’t know, Hoss, maybe Mrs. Wellington had to use some of it to tie the box to the back of her wagon, or to keep the lid shut.  There’ nothing in here either, let’s go…”

“Where to?”

“Back to the creek where Joe and I were fishing…maybe I missed something.”

*****

His head was pounding and the swaying motion he was experiencing did nothing to calm the queasy feeling growing in the pit of his stomach.  Joe tried to move, but found that his arms had been pulled behind him and his wrists tightly knotted together with a rope that already cut into his flesh.  His ankles had been bound as well, making any movement practically impossible in the tight confines of his prison box, which he would learn later was nothing more than a trunk, used for packing clothing and such articles.  The gag that had been stuffed into his mouth and tied about his head had left his mouth feeling dry and he longed for it to be removed and wished more for a long drink of cool water to quench his thirst.

The trunk was tight, the air thin and the growing heat within made it difficult to breath, especially through his nose.  He could hardly fill his lungs and what air he could inhale was dry and hot, sickening him further.  Joe closed his eyes tightly, trying not to let his fear turn to panic.  It was impossible to swallow, making him feel as if he were choking.

The wagon on which he was being carried, hit a deep rut, jarring his weary body against the walls of the stuffy old trunk.  Joe groaned, a deep grinding whine that sounded like a suffering animal that had been caught in a trap.

‘A trap,’ thought Joe…’I’m trapped…I can’t move…I can’t breathe…and I’m about to be sick…NO…NO…I can’t be, I’ll strangle if I vomit…Oh please, God…help me!’

Suddenly, Joe felt his body shudder violently.  His eyes closed, squeezing out his fright before it threatened to overcome him.  He was being lured into a darkened world, void of the distorted images that had taunted and teased his sub-conscious mind, leaving him trembling in fear.  The driving force of survival had taken him beyond his prison box and into a temporary safe haven where he could escape his present dilemma.  It would be hours before the swaying wagon arrived at its final destination, hours before Joe would feel the cool night air brush against his flesh…but he’d remember none of it…for Thomas Wellington was on a mission…a mission to deliver the soul of his son’s murderer into a place known to others as HELL.  A place where the murderer would be made to pay the price for his sin…the day had come, just as he had predicted!

He had failed at killing the boy’s father, but as he glanced over his shoulder at the box from which the piteous sounds had come, Thomas Wellington smiled…he had gotten the boy, and with the boy missing, the father would suffer an anguish that was slow to kill, for grief was like that…a deliberate, unrelenting, agonizing way to take a man’s life.  It would rip the heart right out of Ben Cartwright’s chest!  Wellington laughed aloud.  There was no one to hear his sinister outburst but the creatures that scampered about in the thick wooded confines of the deep forest.  Thomas tried to envision his former friend’s face when he realized that Ben would never find his son…that his boy would be lost to him forever, just as his own son, Tommy, was lost.  He reasoned that if he could not have his son, then Ben Cartwright, the man that he held responsible for his son’s death, should never again lay eyes on his own boy, of that Thomas Wellington vowed.

“Come hell or high water, Cartwright, I promised you, the day would come…and it has…say goodbye to your boy!”

*****

“We can’t give up, Adam…Pa said…”

“I know what Pa said!” Adam barked in a tired voice.  He eyed his brother, seeing the weariness mingled with disappointment that bore evidence to the fear that the gentle giant tried so hard to hide from him. “Look Hoss…we’re not giving up…but we have to get some rest.  Look at us, we look like a couple of ruffians, I’m worn out clear to the bone and I’m hungry.  I need a bath, a hot meal and good night’s rest…we both do.  I’m only suggesting that we go home, check on Pa, find out if perhaps Joe’s made it home on his own and start over from there.”

Hoss hung his head; his lips were pressed tightly together as he nodded in agreement. “I suppose ya right, Adam…it’s just that…well, dangit…” Hoss raised his head and looked at Adam, who could see the deep grief in his brother’s eyes.  “I’m afeared for the boy…”

Adam leaned across his saddle and rested his hand on Hoss’ arm. “So am I, Hoss…so am I.  Come on, mount up; let’s go home…the sooner we get there and take care of business, the sooner we can begin again.”

Without another word, Adam swung himself into the saddle and turned Sport toward home.  It would be a long ride, longer because he had not found the boy that his father loved more than life itself.  Longer still because he blamed himself for his brother’s disappearance and for whatever the kid must be enduring, Adam carried the weight of that guilt on his shoulders.  He knew his father would be disheartened and would refuse to remain behind again when they started out once more.  Adam cast tired eyes upward, muttering in a soft, low, strained voice.

‘If you’re listening…take care of the kid…please?’

*****

Joe had been muttering prayers of his own, but by the time the rolling of the wagon had come to a stop, he had practically given up hope of getting out of the cramped box that had kept him confined for…just how long had it been, pondered Joe.  It seemed like a lifetime to the frightened boy but knew that in fact it had only been hours…long terrifying hours in which he had not been allowed to relieve himself.  He knew that if he weren’t permitted out of the trunk before much longer, he’d soon be riding with damp clothes, for his bladder begged for release.  So when the wagon had actually come to an abrupt haul, Joe breathed a deep sigh of relief.

For several long, agonizing minutes, Joe waited for the trunk lid to flip open.  He was beginning to fear that whoever had bonked him on the head and stuffed him into the trunk had brought him to this unknown destination and decided to leave him there to die.  Panic began to squeeze its fingers around his heart causing Joe trouble in breathing.  With his mouth bound with the gag, Joe began trying to inhale deeply through his nose but it was so hot inside the old trunk that the air had become stale and breathing was difficult.

The frightened boy squirmed about until he was able to lie on his back.  The position put his body in a strain, what with his hands bound behind him, but Joe willed it away as he tried kicking with his feet on the top of the trunk in hopes that he could force the lid opened.  Several times he tried and failed.  The wood was solid and the latch had no doubt been locked.

Joe’s body ached from the effort.  Eyes once dancing with the sheer joy of being alive now clouded with tears.  Thoughts of home and those whom he loved flashed before his mind’s eyes as the tiny liquid droplets rolled from the corners of his eyes.  The fight had gone from the boy but as he closed his eyes, succumbing to his fate, he was suddenly jarred to his senses.  The lid opened slowly, allowing the day’s last warm rays of the sun to blind him, disallowing him to see the face that hovered over him.  Joe squinted his eyes trying to make out the image, fear gripped his heart.

He felt hands grabbling for his arms and suddenly he was hauled from the trunk with such force that everything about him whirled before his eyes.  Hands that boasted of powerful strength dragged him from the back of the wagon to the ground where he was pulled upright into a standing position.  Joe was forced to close his eyes, pulling as much fresh air into his lungs as possible while trying desperately not to faint.  All the while he tried to take in as much of his surroundings as possible.  He struggled to get his bearings, unaware that someone had said something to him.  With a sharp blow to the side of his face, Joe was drawn back from his private struggle to face the current one.  His face stung where the man had slapped him.

Joe felt his body begin to sway and again the strong fingers pinched his upper arms in an effort to keep him upright.  His hazel eyes blurred as he fought to clear the fog from before them.  What was it the man was saying…something about hell and high water…the day had arrived?  Joe had no understanding of the meanings to the words; his thoughts were too jumbled to permit him to think clearly.  His world spun out of control and the last thing he remembered was the man screaming in his face that…Ben Cartwright had seen the last of his son…and then in a relief that Joe had not thought possible, his world sank into a blackened abyss, a deep dark hole where he had no worries or woes and his body didn’t ache and his mind conjured up loving thoughts of his father and brothers…where Joe slept in a place of peaceful retrospect.

*****

“We’ll leave first thing in the morning,” Ben informed his sons.  “I shouldn’t have let you go alone in the first place. He’s my son…and all of this is my fault.”

“Your fault?” Adam said with a puzzled expression.

“Yes, my fault,” Ben repeated.

“But I’m the one who left him unprotected, Pa, not you, not Hoss, but me.”

“That’s non-sense son and you know it.  It was impossible for one or all of us to keep our eyes on the boy every minute of every day.  Besides, I’m the one to blame for Thomas Wellington’s son getting killed, not you and certainly not Little Joe,” Ben stated as he took another jab at the dying embers in the massive stone fireplace.

“Tommy’s death was an accident…it wasn’t your fault…”

“But it was, I should never have allowed Joseph to talk me into teaching the boy to ride, especially after his father had warned him not to go near the horses,” Ben said with a regretful tone.

“Pa, I thought ya said that you didn’t know Wellington had warned his boy to stay away from the horses, until after he took that tumble off that old pony…” Hoss argued.

Ben turned around to look at Hoss who sat on the settee munching on an apple. “I didn’t…unfortunately, neither Joe nor Tommy bothered to inform me of the fact.  It was only after the boy’s neck was broken and I realized that he was dead, did your brother blurt out the truth to me,” Ben explained.  “Joe was wrong for not telling me…”

“Then you think he’s responsible for his friend’s death?” Hoss asked.  He was shocked at his father’s assumption.

“Of course not!” Ben all but shouted.  “I admit he was wrong for not telling me, but Tommy has to bear some of the responsibility for his own actions.  He knew ahead of time that his father did not want him on a horse, but he ignored his father’s order and took matters into his own hands…and look what happened.  I’m not ignoring the fact that Joe and myself included, share part of the blame, but only part…Tommy disobeyed his father and the end result was his own death.”

Adam stood and stretched, first from one side and then to the other. “I agree completely, Pa…but obviously Wellington didn’t see it that way, he blamed you and Little Joe…and now, Little Joe is missing and you were practically killed…and for that, I hold Thomas Wellington responsible…”

“Adam,” Ben cut in, “there was nothing to prove that Wellington had anything to do with me being shot…and apparently you and Hoss found nothing to indicate that Thomas is responsible for your brother’s disappearance.’

“Maybe not, but he is responsible…”

“You can’t be sure of that, you have no proof, and you certainly cannot go around making false accusations, young man!”

Adam’s lips tightened into a fine straight line; his eyes grew slowly darker than normal as he stepped closer to his father. “Haven’t you ever had a gut feeling…I mean, haven’t you ever known something but been unable to prove it?  Well, that’s the way I feel…I know Wellington is responsible, I know he shot you, and I know he has taken Joe.  What I don’t know is where he’s holding my brother or what he is doing to the boy, and those two bits of missing information are worrying me…scaring me in fact!”

*****

Adam wasn’t the only one scared.  Joe was terrified.  He had finally awakened, only to find himself in a dark place, an iron cuff locked about his right ankle and the other end attached to a metal ring welded deeply into a thick board that was akin to a railroad tie.  Pulling on the chain had proven nothing other than to tire the boy.  Joe had stood to his feet and tried to figure out just where he was and what it was he was being held captive in.  All he could make out was that the walls consisted of the thick boards, one on top of the other.  The space was small, allowing just enough room for him to pace from the wall where the chain was secured to the end of the chain, which was only about six feet long.  The ceiling was low, the room totally dark but Joe could hear faint movement on the opposite side of the walls and picked up the faint smell of manure.  He reasoned that he was in a small barn and his thick walled prison was just another stall where horses where held and bedded down.  The barn was old Joe decided, probably built years ago by woodsmen who had cut and sawn the gigantic logs that made up the structure. It was for sure that it would be impossible for him to escape the thick logs, and after trying for over an hour to dig under the logs, Joe had come to the conclusion that he’d only be wasting his time; if he had been able to dig a hole deep enough, he still had the chain to contend with.  It was useless, he was no better off than the animals that were kept there; he was trapped; his only hope now was that his family would somehow find him and set him free.

Joe was sitting with his back against the wall, his knees drawn upward and his head rested on top of them.  On the other side of the wall, he could hear soft talking and knew that someone had entered the barn.  Quickly, he jumped to his feet and inched to the opposite side where a thick door had been closed and securely locked from the other side.

“Hello?” Joe called.  “Who’s there?  Please…help me…please!”

The whispering had stopped but Joe could hear the sound of footsteps coming closer.  Eagerly, he pressed his ear against the thick wood, knowing instantly when the person stopped at the bulky door.  He waited, expecting that the person would unlock the latch and open the door…but several moments passed before Joe heard the footsteps move on, away from the door.

“NO!” he shouted at the top of his lungs, “COME BACK…PLEASE…LET ME OUT, LET ME OUT!” he cried hysterically, pounding on the solid wooden walls with his balled up fists.

*****

“Roy has men combing the south side, we’ll head over to the Wellington place and look around, maybe you boys over looked something,” Ben suggested.  “There’s nothing here,” he said as he mounted up.

The three had ridden back to the spot where Adam and Joe had been fishing and started a fresh search for their missing loved one.  After scouring the area, they had called it quits; there was nothing to point them in any direction that might help them find Joe.

“Come on, let’s ride,” Ben called, spurring his mount into action.

It was two hours later that Ben finally called a halt to their search.  The house, the barns and the buildings had been combed from top to bottom and nothing other than the fact that a good-sized box, crate or trunk had been removed.  Who had moved the item or why was not determined and there seemed that with Wellington gone, they would have no answers to their questions.

“What now, Pa?” Hoss asked.

“I’m not sure…it seems we’ve reached a dead end.  Whoever took Joe that day was very clever to have taken a half grown boy, carry him away, probably unconscious and leave no trail, no clues, no anything.  I’ll admit, I’m baffled,” Ben said with such deep disappointment that it was obvious how discouraged he’d become. He sat down on the nearest step and looked up at both Adam and Hoss. “I’m opened to suggestions,” he stated flatly.

Hoss pushed back his big hat and swiped his brow, lost in thought.

“There’s something that’s been bothering me…” Adam stated.

“What’s that, Adam?” his father inquired.

“Wellington…just exactly how soon after his Missus left did he leave?  And how…by stage…no, I checked…wagon then or buggy, horseback perhaps?  What did he take? I mean in supplies, because I checked with the general store and Cass said that Wellington hadn’t bought anything from him since before the boy died.   And the most intriguing question of all…where did he go…back east to join his wife and her family?  I doubt it; Roy said that Mrs. Wellington told him it was over between them, that with all the problems they’d had in the past, their son’s death was the final straw.  So, did he just walk away from all of this?  Why, he had nothing left but this farm…and his hate for you and Little Joe. I suspect that he allowed that hate to consume him, he promised revenge, Pa…now look at the chain of events…”

Ben eyed his son for several moments and then glanced up at Hoss who was also studying his brother’s face.  Hoss glanced down at his father. “He’s got a point, Pa, several of them.  And I might add I find it odd that both Little Joe and Thomas Wellington both seemed to have dropped off the face of the earth!”

*****

The solid wood door squeaked when it was at last pulled opened, letting in only a sliver of light.  Joe, who had been lying on the musty smelling hay when the door opened, raised his head, trying to see who had presented himself.  The figure of the man blocked the light from shining in, preventing Joe from seeing the man’s face, the girth of the man filled the entire door, giving Joe an inferior feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“Get up,” the man with no face ordered.

Quickly Joe did as instructed and pulled himself up from his makeshift bed to stand before the dark silhouette of the man with the commanding voice.

“Who are you?” Joe dared to ask and then suddenly wished he hadn’t.

The man’s hand came out of nowhere, leaving its mark across the dirtied face of the boy captive.  Joe’s head was forced to one side as he staggered backwards against the wall in total shock.

“You speak only when spoken too, no other time, do you understand?”

Joe strained against the darkness trying to make out the man’s features.  He said nothing, but stood lamely against the wall, his hand touching the burning sensation that emitted from his cheek.

Without warning, Joe felt the man’s hands on his upper arms and felt himself mercilessly picked up and slammed against the hard wooden wall.  A cry of pain escaped passed his lips as his body slid slowly to the ground.

“I asked you a question, boy, I expect an answer!” growled the stranger.

“I…understand…” Joe muttered.

A sharp jab of the man’s boot to his mid-section doubled the lad in two, moaning pitifully. “I understand…what?”

“Sir?”

“That’s better…now get on your feet.”

Using the wall to support himself, Joe once again forced himself to stand.  The man moved slightly to his captive’s side to the ring in the wall and checked it, by pulling on it to see if it were loose.  When he was satisfied that the ring was still securely in place, he pulled a tiny key from his pocket and unlocked Joe’s chain from the ring.

Turning, the man looked Joe in the face, made a disgusting grunt and taking the end of the chain in one hand, moved toward the opening in Joe’s stall.

“Follow me,” the man directed.

Joe had no other choice but to do as instructed.  Fearing a repeat of his abuse, he complied willingly and followed his captor out of the stall and into the barn.  Quickly, Joe glanced around him, taking in as much of his surroundings as possible before being led outside, into the light.

Joe was forced to cover his face, shielding the bright sunlight from his eyes.  It was almost impossible for him to see once in the total sun for his eyes had grown accustomed to the dark.

A sharp yank on the chain around his ankle that nearly pulled Joe’s feet out from under him served to distract his attention away from his temporary blindness to the man in front of him.

The man circled the boy, eyeing Joe from head to foot with a disdainful glare that caused the frightened boy to shiver unexpectedly.  Once more the old man made his round, stopping in front of Joe. “There sure ain’t much to ya!”

“There’s enough…” Joe started to retort but stopped when the back of the man’s hand stung his left cheek.

“I already told ya…speak only when told to speak.  Ya ain’t much on followin’ orders are ya?  But I’ll fix that…by the time I’m finished with you…you’ll never open ya mouth again!”

The man tossed back his head making a hideous sound that must have been laughter, Joe was not sure, but the sound sent sheer terror surging through his veins.

“I want all this wood chopped and stacked before supper…if’n ya ain’t got it done by then, there’ll be no supper for you and you’ll keep right on choppin’ and stackin’ until it’s done…you got that?” the man growled.

Joe was leaning slightly to the side brushing his lip where the man had slapped him.  He could feel the tingling in his lip and taste the blood that had appeared when his lip had been split.  Shaken, he replied softly. “Yes, sir.”

“Good, now get to work,” the man ordered, handing Joe the ax.

Joe’s fingers wrapped around the handle of the ax but the man’s fingers refused to relinquish the tool just yet.  The frightened boy looked up hesitantly.

“Don’t go gettin’ any funny ideas…I’ll be watchin’ ya…and this here chain…” the stranger gave a hard yank on the length of chain that held Joe’s ankle in the iron cuff, “ain’t gonna let ya get too far.  I’m gonna fix it so’s ya can only move from here to there, where I want that wood stacked.  Now get busy!”

The man released his tight hold on the ax handle, glaring hard at the boy and then turned to secure the chain around the post of the porch with a heavy padlock.  The chain supplied Joe with only the required space needed for chopping and stacking the wood.

Joe picked up the first of many pieces of sawed logs and placed it on the chopping log for splitting.  He glanced at the enormous pile of wood and sighed deeply knowing that there was no way on earth, had he even been fit enough to do so, to have all that wood split and stacked before supper.  Without a doubt Joe determined sadly, there would be no supper for him this night.

*****

The man was true to his word, he sat on the porch in a rickety old rocking chair with his shotgun propped against the wall within easy reach as he kept a watchful eye on his captive and the work he had been ordered to do.  Occasionally, Joe could hear the man clear his throat.  From the corner of his eye, he watched the man, seeing for the first time the man’s features.  He was an older man, probably sixty or better.  His weathered face bore a wiry beard that was in need of trimming.  His long hair was straggly and covered by a dirty hat that halfway covered the man’s face.  The man, taller than either of his brothers and almost as big as Hoss though lacking in muscle tone, was still an intimating figure to be weary of; Joe had already been subjected to some of the man’s lesser qualities and had no desire to fan the flame and earn himself more of the same, or worse.

It was noon and the sight of the old man munching on his lunch left the exhausted boy with a gnawing, hollow feeling in his gut.  He couldn’t actually remember the last time he’d eaten and he was beginning to think that he could eat about anything right about now, cooked or raw, if it were offered to him.

Joe glanced over at the woodpile and thought that it didn’t look any nearer to being finished than when he had first started chopping.  His arms and shoulders ached and when he stopped long enough to put the ax down and look at his hands, he made a grimace after seeing the blisters that had already broken and started to bleed.

“Get back to work!”

Joe turned around to find the man standing on the end of the porch eyeing him with an angry glare.  Before Joe could react, the man threw something at him, hitting him in the back of the head.  The object didn’t hurt, but it spurred Joe into action; he quickly grabbed another log from the pile and placed it on the chopping block.  As he picked up the handle, Joe was hit again.  The second object repeated the course that the first object had taken, hitting him in the back of the head and then falling to land on the ground next to the first item.

Joe swung the ax, breaking the log into two pieces that fell at his feet.  Setting the ax to one side, he bent down to pick up the two pieces of wood and was surprised to see that the two objects the man had thrown at him were remains of the man’s lunch.  Stalling, Joe picked up the half eaten chicken leg and the remains of the apple and stuffed them into his pockets.  He then picked up the wood and carried it to the side of the house where he had been stacking the pieces.  Without looking up at the man, who by now had returned to his rocking chair, Joe smiled.  He wasn’t accustom to picking up scraps or eating another’s discards, but his stomach had continued to rumble for the passed several hours reminding him that it was a long time empty.  He pushed his pride to the side, anxiously waiting the time when he could actually be alone and eat his meager little meal.

The hours passed slowly; Joe grew wearier with each passing moment. The ax had begun to grow heavy.  It was nearly impossible for the disheartened lad to raise the heavy object high enough over his head to successfully split the short logs.  Joe staggered with the weight as he swung the ax over his shoulder.  When it came down, the log was completely missed.  Instead, the sharp blade of the ax clipped the chain that remained locked to Joe’s ankle.  Joe teetered back and forth for a moment and then fell to a heap on the ground.

Instantly, afraid of more punishment, Joe tried to pull himself upright.  In his effort, he noticed the weakened link in his chain.  He glanced up at the man, who had fallen to sleep in his chair on the porch.  It was obvious by his loud snoring and Joe grasped his chance.  Without making any sudden movements, Joe pulled on the chain, trying to force apart the weakened link, but the chain refused to give.  Glancing again at the man to be sure he was still sleeping, Joe used the edge of the ax head to work at the nearly broken chain.  It took countless minutes to work the link completely through so that he was able to pull it apart at last.  But eventually the chain gave in to the effort.  Joe was free at last and he wasted no time in making his escape.

The iron cuff on his ankle had by now, rubbed the skin raw and even as he ran, Joe could feel the warm blood trickling down into his boot.  He refused to cry out or give in to his pain or his weariness as he pushed himself hard to keep running.  His only goal was to get away and somehow work his way back home.  Joe’s thoughts were on his escape and had no warning when he ran smack into the very man that he was fleeing from.

Instantly the man grabbed Joe, who struggled to escape the strong hands and fingers. “Let go of me!” he shouted, swinging both his arms about in a fruitless battle against his captor’s strength.

The scuffle last only seconds before Joe felt his body hoisted up into the air and then slammed down onto the hard pack earth.  A cry of agony flowed from deep within his chest as the air was jolted from his lungs.  Joe lay in a battered heap at the man’s feet; his body coiled into a tight ball as he lay gasping to refill his lungs with much needed air.

Even as he struggled to breath, Joe felt the man grab at him, hoist his body again into the air.  But rather than being thrown to the ground, Joe was tossed carelessly over the man’s broad shoulder as lightly as if he’d been a sack of potatoes.  The groans that slipped from the boy’s mouth mattered little to the man who carried him.  His aim was to keep the boy and keep him working until his son, Thomas Wellington, could return and claim his son’s killer.

Thomas had taken a trip back to the east coast.  He had long since given up hope that he and his wife could put their marriage back together, too many bad things had happened in a very short time that had worked to decay the bonds between them.  Thomas had only one thing on his mind…and that was to make the man he hated most in life, namely Ben Cartwright, suffer for his part in young Tommy’s death.  At first, Thomas had wanted Ben Cartwright dead, but then decided that killing the man was too fast, too easy, so he changed his mind and his plans.  He’d snatch the boy…the one they called Little Joe…and take him away…far away.  Thomas knew of places back east that liked young boys.  Men who would pay good money to keep a boy…for personal use and when they had grown tired of the lad, they’d hire the boy out.  That’s what he wanted for Cartwright’s brat.

Thomas’ plan had worked thus far.  Snatching the boy had proved to be a challenge, but sure as the sun comes up every morning, he had managed to pull it off, and without a hitch too.  The boy had put up little resistance, even Thomas with his cold heart of steel could easily see that the days past had taken it’s toll on the boy, thus making him that much easier to handle.  The kid had not even remembered being bonked on the head or stuffed in the trunk.  And Thomas knew that the boy had not really seen him, and that gave him an edge.  If he were to be questioned, or fall under suspicion, the kid could not positively say that it were he who had kidnapped him.  Thomas had laughed, for as protective as he knew Ben Cartwright to be in regards to his youngest boy, Cartwright had all but delivered his own son into his hands.

Once he had been able to whisk the boy away, undetected, he had made his way to his father’s mountain home, high in the deep forest just below the freeze line, miles and miles away from the Ponderosa.  No one, other than his own family, knew that the mountain man, known to his family as Whispering Bill, was actually Thomas Wellington’s father.  Or that years before Whispering Bill had been a successful businessman back in Philadelphia until a chain of events had taken from him, the things in life he valued most…his wife and his work.  He had killed a man, two in fact and had, on his way to the penitentiary, escaped and over time made his way to the solitude of the tall mountain peeks.  There he had learned how to survive in the wilderness, made friends with the local natives and built, with his own hands, a small cabin and outbuildings.  The years had passed and back in Philadelphia, Whispering Bill had long been forgotten.

When Thomas had arrived with his cargo and explained to his father why he held the boy captive as he did, Whispering Bill let out a loud roar, swearing to kill the kid himself with his bare hands.  His grandson, Tommy, was the one person who had managed to soften the hardened man’s heart.  Bill had adored his grandson, and believing that the boy had been killed by another boy’s thoughtless act, enraged the big man to no end.  But Thomas had explained to his father his plan for Little Joe and Ben Cartwright.  It took a lot of talk to convince the older man that his plan would succeed in killing Cartwright in the worst way, not to mention the suffering that would be inflected on the brat…and not one person could point a finger at either of them and deem them guilty.  Whispering Bill did something that he rarely did then, and that was to smile.  He liked the idea, so he agreed.  He promised Thomas not to kill the boy…but he would make him suffer…might as well get used to it, he had laughed as he gazed down for the first time into the young boy’s face.  Had he not hated so deeply, had his heart not been so cold or his grandson dead, he might have been moved by the frightened and haunted expression he had seen on the face of the kid, Little Joe.  But his mind was set and his heart had long ago, lost all feeling for man and beast, lessen it be his own flesh and blood.

*****

Whispering Bill tossed the squirming boy down on his stale hay bed.  Joe landed with a thump, moaning softly.  He immediately crawled to the far corner of his stall, hoping to avoid another beating.  His body ached from the long hours of chopping wood, his hands were raw patches of bloodied blisters that burned with a ferocity that was unquenchable but Joe paid little heed to his bodily pain.  Instead he watched the man he had come to fear.  Bill lit a lantern and hung it on a peg outside the stall door.  Briefly he disappeared and Joe wondered at the man’s absence and thought perhaps he might dare another escape.  But too soon his captor returned.  In the man’s mighty hands, he held a pair of iron shackles, this time with a cuff for both ankles.  Joe’s eyes widened in fear and shock as he realized what the demonic man had plans to do.

“Take off them boots,” he ordered.

“No.”

“WHAT!  HOW DARE YOU DEFY ME!” Bill shouted.

He took a step closer to the cowering boy in the corner.  Joe pressed his body as far into the thick logged pen as he could, but it did nothing to stop the man.  Whispering Bill reached down with both hands grabbing Joe by the front of his shirt and hauled the boy clear up into the air.  He spun halfway around and slammed Joe into the opposite wall and then released him. The boy screamed in pain as he felt his ribs crack.  Slowly he sank to the ground, barely able to stay focused on the man towering above him.

Bill leaned down a second time, hands outstretched.  Joe, though dazed, sprung into action, whimpering with the throbbing pain in his side as he scrambled for the door of the stall.  He was barely halfway through the opening when his feet suddenly flew out from under him, crashing him to the floor.  Joe glanced over his shoulder trying to keep the man from pulling him back inside the confines of the massive log structure.  His efforts were in vain; he was much too weak to make an impressive battle against such a powerful source.

Once Bill had Joe completely within his control he doubled up his fist and drove it one solid time into the boy’s face.  Blood spurted freely from Joe’s nose, but his world had turned black and he had returned to the blessed nothingness of his dark abyss.

“That’ll teach you!”

Whispering Bill quickly removed the one cuff and reattached the double cuffs with the short chain between them.  That secured to his satisfaction, he attached the broken chain to the ring in the wall and stopped to stare down at the unconscious boy, satisfied that the length of the chain had been shortened to four feet instead of six.

Bill stepped over his prisoner but stopped short, seeing something protruding from the boy’s pocket.  Leaning down, he pulled out the chicken leg.  Angered practically beyond control, he rummaged through the other pocket and pulled the now darkened apple from Joe’s jacket.

“Why you little thief…I’ll beat you for this…”

Later, when Joe came to, Whispering Bill kept true to his promise. His boots had been removed and taken away, the only things to protect his feet were his socks, and those had tiny holes in them.  Joe vaguely remembered Hop Sing saying something about putting the socks in the sewing basket, when had complained, so that he could darn them.  Joe had just laughed, to lazy at the time to do so and had instead slipped them on his feet.  Without boots the socks would not last long, neither would the souls of his feet, contented Joe with a heavy sigh.

Joe received the beating he had been promised.  He had been hauled up to his feet, hands chained to the ring in the wall, and his shirt ripped from his back which was made to bare the brunt of Bill’s thick leather belt.  It was a whipping that no other had ever bestowed upon him, for his father had never used a strap on him as fiercely as this man had done, and never on his back.  Joe’s back had bled from the welts caused by the belt, and the pain he endured only served to deepen his ever-growing hatred for the man who treated him less than the animals sharing the barn.

Joe had refused to cry out, refused to give in to this man’s cruelty, but as soon as he had been allowed to lie on his bed of week old straw and he knew the monster had left him alone, Joe had covered his face and allowed his tears to run freely down his face.  The tiny white tracks through the accumulated dirt gave testimony to his longing and his desperation.

“Please…hurry, Pa…I can’t hang on…much longer,” he murmur, over and over until the stinging wounds on his back beckoned him back to his sanctuary of nonexistence.

*****

“Pa, can’t we stop for a spell?” Hoss called out from behind his father where he had been trailing along after Ben.

Ben pulled Buck to a standstill and twisted around in the saddle.  Even from where he sat, Hoss could see the fatigue that had reshaped his father’s face into that of an old man.  Ben’s posture was slumped slightly and his features were void of expression.

“You need to rest, Pa,” Adam said as he inched his horse closer to his father.  “We all do.  You can’t tell us that you’re not tire…I’m tired, Hoss is tired, even the horses are tired.”

“We’ve been looking better’n two weeks and we ain’t no nearer to finding Little Joe than the day we left…Pa…it’s time to call off this search…much as I don’t wanna.”

Hoss fought back the tears that threatened to fill his eyes.  He’d been battling his sorrow for over a week now, fearing the worst, imagining horrid things happening to his little brother and keeping the tears at bay.  They were a constant threat to him.  Slowly he was losing the power of control over them and even now he had to swipe his big chunky hand over the front of his face to keep them from escaping.

Ben looked at both his sons.  He too, saw the weariness in both young faces.  But he wasn’t ready to give up…how could he, he told himself; his son needed him.  Deep within his heart, he knew Joe was alive, knew that his young son expected his father to find him and take him home.  He had never failed at tending to the needs of his family and he had no intention of doing so now…only positive confirmation that Joe was no longer alive, would call a halt to his search.  If it took him the rest of his life, he’d keep looking; he would not go home without his boy, one way or the other.

Ben shook his head. “Hoss, if you want to call a halt to this search, then you should go home.  That goes for you too, Adam.  But I’m not quitting…not until I know something for sure, one way or the other.  Is that understood?”

“But Pa…”

“No…I won’t ask you to stay, Lord knows and I know that we’re all worn out.  I won’t hold it against you…if you want to quit…but I can’t.  Don’t you see…Joe needs me…he’s probably scared to death…he might even be hurt…only God knows what’s happened to my son!”

Ben’s voice cracked and he lowered his head using his hand to brush aside the tears that had unexpectedly filled his eyes.  After taking a deep breath he looked up, all the sadness that was in his heart, reflected in the chocolate hue of his dark eyes. “I’m sorry,” he muttered.

“No, Pa…we’re sorry,” Adam said.  “Look why don’t we just stop for the night and get a good night’s rest?  We can push on in the morning.”

Adam cast a glance in Hoss’ direction.

“We don’t want to stop looking for the boy anymore than you do,” Adam explained.

“Are you sure, son…both of you, because if you want to go home…I’ll understand…this hasn’t been easy on any of us…”

“I’m sure, Pa.”

“Me, too…I’m sorry, Pa…for makin’ you think I didn’t want to keep on. It’s just that…well, I’m so dadburn tired and hungry, I could eat that there pack horse…” Hoss grumbled, his depressed mood lifting somewhat.

“Oh no you don’t!” snapped Adam.  “We need this mare…and not for eatin’, but for totin’!” he said with a mock frown and a tone that copied his middle brother’s way of speaking.

Ben laughed lightly, his own dreary mood beginning to dissipate as well. “Then let’s make camp for the night.  I saw a mighty fine stream a ways back, why don’t you boys try to catch a couple of trout for our supper?  I’ll tend the stock and get the fire started…”

“Yummy…trout…I could eat a dozen!” Hoss said as he rubbed his hands together and smacked his lips.

Ben, smiling, glanced at Adam who only rolled his eyes and then turned, slapping his brother on the back.  “After you,” he said laughing.

Together, arms locked around the other’s shoulders, the two brothers marched toward the stream that their father had mentioned.

Ben’s smile soon faded as he watched the pair walk away.  His heart ached for the boy who was absent from them and his heart cried out his sorrow.  Would he ever see the boy again, would he find his son before it was too late?  The worried father pressed his lips tightly, glancing up, all the while whispering a silent plea to his heavenly father to protect his son.

*****

The door opened with a bang that startled the horses in the other stalls.  Joe could hear them moving nervously about.  He hurried to scramble to a sitting position, fighting the pain that gnawed at his insides.  His weakened condition had left him in such shape that by the end of the second week he was barely able to stand without support. As he had feared, the souls of his feet looked atrocious, cut and coated in dirt with dried blood, he was barely able to walk more than a step or two at a time. By the third week, Joe was beyond going.  All work had ceased and for days on end the weakened lad had been confined to his prison, his chains firmly assuring the man that he had only once a day to check on his prisoner. And that was only to bring him his one meal of the day.

The only substance he had been granted was a jug of water and bottle of warm milk, every other day, to go with the hard dried bread that was tossed at his feet.  The water was tainted and the milk bore the flavor of wild onions, a sure sign that the milk cow had been out to pasture.  Joe had taken one taste and almost gagged.  He had been forced to chase down the milk with the tainted water.  The bread he had grabbed quickly, his dirty hands covering the coveted morsel before Whispering Bill could change his mind.  His actions had caused the man to laugh…a soft low, broken rumble that reminded Joe of someone whispering…thus the man’s nickname.

Most times the bread was days old but in the dark, Joe could not make out the mold that sometimes grew on the outer crust and he ate it willingly, without knowing or caring.  The pain that grew in his stomach caused excruciating spasms had become more constant and when one attacked, the ailing young man was forced to cry out and grab his mid-section.  More than once he vomited up the measly contents before it had time to satisfy his inescapable hunger.  His body had become frail and thin, his once fiery spirit had been doused with a good dose of ill-treatment and neglect; even the eyes that before had danced and sparkled with the glow of youth, had taken on a haunted, desolate look.  Hair that had sparkled when the sun’s ray touched the chestnut curls, hung low beneath his ears and had become dulled from the lack of light and a good scrubbing.  Ben would have been appalled to see his son as such, a faded, wasted skeleton of his former self, an undistinguishable figure of young boyhood, hardly the picture of his son that remained embedded in his heart and mind.

Weak and frightened, Joe inched his way to the door of his cell and pulled himself up into a sitting position.  Using what fading strength he could muster, he beat his fist against the hardened door, crying out in a frail, barely audible voice for the man who had not bothered to feed him in two days.  Joe knew how long it had been, for he had heard the man come to milk the cow and turn her and the horses out…that had been the morning before.  That evening, the man had not returned to bed down the animals nor to feed him.  Now, from afar, Joe could hear the cow balling and knew that it was past the time for milking.  He could only wonder what was keeping the man…had Whispering Bill just up and gone away, leaving him caged and chained like an animal to die a slow agonizing death of hunger.  And the stock…what would become of the stock…where was Pa…didn’t he know how badly he needed him…what was keeping him…and Adam…and Hoss…

“HELP!” the frail crackled voice cried out from the darkness.

“Please…someone…help…me!”

*****

“HELLO IN THE HOUSE!” Ben shouted as they rode to the front of the cabin.

“Would ya lookit this place?” Hoss said in a low voice as he stretched around to take in the surroundings.

“Sure is a mess,” Adam agreed.

“Listen to that poor cow, Hoss. Check on her while I look in the house, would you, son?” Ben said as he dismounted. “Adam, come with me, please.”

“Sure, Pa,” Adam agreed, sliding down from his horse.

Ben knocked on the door, but as he did so, the door slowly opened inward, creaking softly.  He turned and cast a wary eye at his son. “Hello?” he called.

When no answer came back to him, he eased cautiously into the cabin, Adam close behind with his hand resting near his pistol.

The pair stopped in the middle of the room, giving their eyes time to adjust to the lighting.

“Look at his,” Adam said, pointing to the dirty plate that still held the remains of a half eaten meal.”

“Stove’s cold too,” remarked Ben as he moved deeper into the dwelling.

Adam poked at the ashes in the fire and then suddenly spun around; a strange and puzzled look disfigured his features.

“Pa!”

Ben stopped where he was and spun around.  Adam had returned to the table.

“What’s wrong, son?”

“Take a closer look at the table, what do you see?”

Ben studied the mess and then spoke in a soft voice.

“A plate, a fork and knife…a jug of…” Ben picked it up and sniffed the contents.  He poured a tiny bit of the liquid into his hand.  “Water,” he said, “and a…bottle of clabbered milk…that’s odd.”

Adam turned away from the table and picked something up from the hearth.  Turning he held up an object for his father to see. “And look at this.”

Ben hurried around the table to take the object from his son.  His expression was one of grave uncertainty. “It’s an ankle shackle…odd.”

“Look closely at the chain; it appears to have been cut with something sharp…”

Ben could only shake his head.  The churning in his stomach made him feel physically ill.  He handed the article back to his son.

“I’ll check the out buildings,” Adam informed his father.  He tossed the shackle and chain into a chair and headed for the door.

“Dear God…ADAM!”

Adam stopped and rushed back to his father’s side.  Ben was standing over a cot, the corner of a blanket in his hand, which he lifted up to expose the body of a dead man.

“Who in thunder…” stammered Adam as he joined his father in a closer examination of the corpse.

“Obviously the man who lived here…” Ben said half to himself.  “Looks to have died in his sleep…probably two, maybe three days ago.”

Ben let the blanket drop, covering the man’s face.  He stared hard at Adam, not liking what they were finding.  Inhaling deeply, he turned away from the site. “See if you can find some shovels, we’ll need to bury this man.  I’m going to look around a bit more and see if I can find out who he is.”

“Alright, Pa…I guess I’d better help Hoss with the stock out in the corral…if this man died three days ago, they’re probably hungry.”

“You’re right…no wonder that cow was bellowing like she was…she’s hurting to be milked.”

Adam hurried out to the corral where Hoss had already found a milk bucket and was milking the cow.  The tender hearted man had quickly seen that the stock was in need of his services and had already taken the horses back to their stalls and fed them.

“I see you’ve tended to the animals…their owner is dead…looks to have died two or three days ago,” Adam explained.

Hoss lifted his head slightly, but continued with the milking. “No fooling?  Where’d ya find’em?”

“Inside.”

“No wonder ole Bessie here was ayellin’,” Hoss muttered.  “She sure ‘nough was about to bust!”

“Did you find anything in the barn?”

“Nope, just put the horses in there and fed them.  Nothing odd in there that I could see…’cepting there was one stall with a padlock and chain on it.”

“What was in it…anything?”

“Naw…didn’t look, the door was locked.  I just figured whoever owned this place must have kept tools and stuff locked up in there…or feed and such.”

“You’re probably right.  I’m going to look for a shovel; that man needs burying.”

Adam made his way to the barn, stopping to check on the horses.  They greeted him with a wary eye but continued to feast on their grain.  Adam looked all about, searching for a shovel to dig the man’s grave.  He eyed the shovel in a far back corner of the barn and grabbed for it.  Halfway out, he stopped and examined the padlock on the stall, totally unaware of its contents.  With his eyes squinted, he tried to peer through the tiny separation in the logs but it was so dusky inside the enclourser, that he could see nothing other than the darkness on the opposite side.  With a shrug of his shoulders, he hurried to join his father who, by now, had managed to get the man prepared for burial.

*****

It took the three over two hours to dig the grave and lay the man to rest.  Ben said a few words and Hoss hammered the makeshift cross into the ground, marking Whispering Bill’s final resting place.  By the time that they finished, the sun was beginning to lower in the western sky.

“We might as well stay here tonight.  I’ve already got a fire going, that cabin was chilly.  And there appears to be plenty to eat…though we have to clean up the mess,” Ben informed his sons.

“Sounds good to me…I’m hungry…”

“You’re always hungry,” Adam said with a chuckle as they made their way to the cabin.

“Aw…shucks, Adam, I’m a growin’ boy!”

*****

“Say, Pa,” Adam began as they sat back to relax after a filling supper.  “Did you find anything that tells who this fellow might be?”

“No, nothing,” Ben remarked in a solemn tone of voice.

“Sure is nice up here…gonna be dark soon,” Hoss said from where he stood at the door gazing out at the sun nearing the tips of the far distant mountains.

“Hoss, close the door, please, it’s chilly.”

“Yes sir,” Hoss replied as he did what his father requested.

As he turned, Hoss spied a white slip of paper lying on the floor under the old rocking chair that Ben had sat down in.  “Hey, Pa…what’s that paper,” he asked, pointing.

“What paper, Hoss?” Ben answered.

“There, under ya chair.”

Ben bent over and seeing the paper Hoss was referring to, picked it up.  He leaned back, studying what appeared to be the start of a letter.

“Hmm,” he muttered.

“What is it?” Adam asked as Hoss joined them and sat down on the small hearth in front of the fire.

“Seems to be a letter of sorts.  It’s not finished…”

“What’s it say?” Hoss wanted to know.

“Well, let’s see….

“Dear Son…”

“That’s all?” Hoss inquired, scratching his head.

“Seems to be,” Ben answered as he stood up.  “Probably writing to his son to tell him he was ill or something,” Ben said, tossing the now crumbled paper into the fire.  He signed deeply.

“Thinking about Joe?” Adam asked softly.

Ben, his lips tight, nodded.  As he moved from the fire to the back of the cabin, Ben saw a small, crudely made table in the dark corner beyond the bed where he had found the stranger.  Curious, he wandered over to the table and began looking through the small array of papers.  His eyes suddenly spotted a photograph.  With hands that visibly shook, he picked up the picture and held it up to the light.  Inhaling deeply, the color drained from his face….

“Dear God in heaven!” he muttered, gathering the attention of his two sons.  “Would you look at this?”

“What’s wrong, Pa?  You look as if you’ve seen a ghost!” Adam said as he stood to his feet.

“Take a look.”

Ben passed the photograph to Adam.  Hoss peered over his brother’s shoulder.  The boys took one look at the picture and then glanced up at their father.

“It’s the man we buried…but I’m not sure about the other man…wait a minute!  Thomas Wellington!” Adam said in a voice so filled with rage that it quivered when he spoke.

“The older man…the one we just buried…must be Wellington’s…father!” Hoss stammered.  “If’n he is…”

“Pa…you aren’t thinking that perhaps…this man we buried might have known something about Joe…”

“Adam,” Ben said gravely as he moved across the room.  He stopped in front of the chair where earlier, Adam had tossed the shackle and short length of chain.  “You don’t suppose…you don’t think…dear God…” Ben uttered in a stressful fashion.

“Joe’s been here…but…where is he now?” Adam said, more so thinking aloud rather than making a statement.

All three men had worried, thoughtful expressions on their faces.  Ben looked up.

“I haven’t found anything but this,” he held up the chain, “that says for sure that the boy’s been here…if this man is Thomas’ father…it’s possible that he aided Wellington on getting Joe as far away from us as he could…”

“Did either of you find anything in the barn, or the sheds…besides hungry animals I mean?”

“No sir…just the milk cow, two horses and a bunch of squawkin’ hens…”

“Me neither…”

A long unnatural silence fell among the perturbed men.  Each was lost in their own thoughts, letting their worst fears come to a climax.  It was Adam who toyed with the shackle and chain and then in a burst of unrelenting anger, jarred his family from their deep ponderings.  “OH MY GOD!” he practically shouted, startling his father and brother.

Ben’s eyes grew enormous and he quickly grabbed his son by the arm. “WHAT?”

“Joe…Little Joe…I think I know where he is…and if he is…”

Ben saw his son swallow an entire well of grief and rushed to follow Adam from the house.  Hoss sprung into action as well and ran behind the others to the barn.  Adam slung back the door, banging it hard against the side of the barn.  Frantically he searched for something in which to use to break the lock from the door of the stall.  He was determined to examine the contents, his fear of what he might find he kept to himself.

“What are you doing, Adam?” Ben demanded, watching his son dart about the interior of the barn.

Adam stopped before his father.  Ben could see the tiny sweat beads that had collect on his son’s brow despite the cool night air.  Adam pointed a long slender finger at the lock, unable to keep his fears to himself any longer.

“Something to break the lock…”

“But why?” Ben insisted.

“Because I think behind that door you will find your son!”

“WHAT!”

“Adam wait…try this…I found it in the man’s pocket!” Ben said as he pulled a key from his vest and handed it to his oldest son.

“Hoss, get a lamp…quick,” instructed Ben as he watched Adam fumbling with putting the key into the lock.

After another try, the lock opened and taking a deep breath, Adam pulled the heavy wooden door opened.  The stench that emitted from the enclosure, forced the trio to cover their noses.

“Gib ma the light,” Ben muttered, his nose, covered by his hand, muffled his words.

Hoss passed the lantern to his father who stepped into the stall and held the lamp high over his head.  His hand fell away from his face as the realization of what he saw ripped the heart from his chest.  There, lying in a pile of stinking hay, covered in dirt and grime and stench was his youngest son.  In the glow of the lantern light, Ben could make out the deteriorated shell of the boy whom he had searched weeks to find.  Ben’s heart thumped hard, causing a stabbing pain in his chest that caused him to teeter and reach out to grasp a handhold.

Hoss was quick to his father’s side, grabbing the lantern in one hand and his father with the other.

“Take it easy, Pa,” cautioned Hoss.

Adam had pushed aside his repulsion at the smell and knelt down beside the unconscious boy.  With hands as gentle as any ever possible, he turned his brother over onto his back, gasping at the sight.

“Joe?” he called.  “Joe…buddy, it’s me…Adam…”

Ben seemed to snap from his reprieve, kneeling down next to Adam.

“Is he…?”

“He’s alive,” said Adam, turning and giving his father a reassuring smile.  “Barely…but he’s alive.”

Hoss still claimed the lamp, but set it down by Joe’s feet. “I’ll find something to get this chain off’em,” he said in a thick voice.  He stepped out of the stall and surprisingly was back in only seconds.  “This should do it,” he said as he took the chisel and the hammer and began pounding away at the chain that held his baby brother prisoner.

It took several tries before the big man was able to break the chain, but at last it gave in and Joe was free.  The shackles were still in place, but Ben’s present concern was getting his son out of the stink hole where he had been for…God only knew how long.

“Let’s get him to the cabin, it’s warmer there and we can get these shackles off him…and get him cleaned up.”

Ben hoisted Joe into his arms without hesitation.  The smell had been forgotten the instance he had spotted his son and was of little concern to him that the dirt and grime now smeared across the front of his own shirt.

With his treasure now safe in his own arms, Ben hurried across the yard toward the warm cabin. “He weighs nothing…nothing at all…” he muttered as he dashed across the yard.

Once inside, Ben lovingly placed the boy on the cot where the man had once slept.  He cradled his son’s head in his arms, refusing to relinquish his hold.  His disgust at what he saw in the full light was evident on his rugged face.  The once happy-go-lucky boy, so full of the zest for life, had been in a matter of weeks, transformed into a straggly, filthy, ragamuffin who bore no semblance of his former self.

Overcome with deep empathy for his son, Ben pressed Joe’s head against his heart, bowing his head.  He fought to maintain his sorrow, but his emotions had been confined for too long.  The sobs that racked his body and filled the room bore evidence to his grief and the long hours that he had prayed that he would find his son alive.  The release was needed; it purged his soul, renewed his faith, granted him the power to go on to finish what he had started.

Behind him, Adam and Hoss stood silently, each battling emotions of their own.  They waited patiently, almost reverently, for their father to regain control of his despondency, for each knew that their father’s inner strength would be greatly needed in the days and weeks ahead, if his son were to make a full recovery.

Adam knelt down behind his father, placing a hand on the trembling shoulders.  His own voice was thick with passion for never before had he seen his father so broken, so stricken with emotion. “Pa…please…we need to tend to him,” he whispered lowly.  “Please.”

It was several moments before Adam saw his father raise his head and look up at him.  Tears rolled slowly down his whiskered face; his compassion and love for the boy he held in his arms shown in his expressive, tear filled eyes.  Somehow, from deep within himself, Ben managed a wee smile and nodded his head. “Yes, we do,” he said.  “Let’s get these rags off first.  Hoss, heat some water to bathe him…” Ben’s voice had become strong again; he was in charge once more.  Glancing up at Adam, whose hand still rested on his father’s shoulder, Ben muttered in a low voice, “thank you, son…thank you.”

It took all three to get the boy cleaned up.  Ben and Adam first striped the remnants of clothing from the battered body and then Ben began the dubious task of bathing his son.  He had dug around among the stranger’s meager toiletries managing to find what was left of a bar of homemade lye soap.  Using as much care as possible, he started by first washing Joe’s hair and then bathing his mal-nourished body.  As he bathed and rinsed, Adam followed along with a towel from their supplies and dabbed as tenderly as he could at the bruised and battered flesh.

Anger shone in Ben’s dark eyes as he moved inch-by-inch over the dirtied and crusted filth that had accumulated from weeks of being deprived of bathing.  Occasionally Ben would grunt in disgust, having Adam and Hoss, who stayed near the stove to keep clean water warmed, look his direction.

“I cannot believe this shell of a boy is my own son,” Ben muttered, gazing with compassion into the thin wane face.  “If that man were still alive…I’d kill him a hundred times over for doing this to my son!”

“Hoss…bring us more warm water,” Ben ordered.  “He’s getting cold and starting to shiver.  Adam, apply that ointment on thick…especially on his hands and the bottoms of his feet.”

Hoss poured more of the hot water into the pan that his father was holding out to him.  The steam rose up from the water sending a mist of vapor into the air.

“Please, Hoss, look though our belongings and see if you can find something to make bandages out of.  His hands and feet should be wrapped,” Ben instructed as he continued to bathe the unconscious boy.

“The broth’s about ready, Pa…reckon we can get him awake ‘nough so’s he can eat?”

“We’re going to try, Hoss…he certainly needs some liquids in his system, his skin is much to dry,” Ben said.

“Here’s the blankets, Pa,” Adam said, returning with blankets from their bedrolls.”

“Thank you, son…help me wrap him up and we’ll hold him while Hoss pulls these filthy linens, such as they are, from the cot…Hoss hurry, please.”

“Got ‘em, Pa; go ahead and lay him down.”

Adam and Ben eased Joe down on the narrow mattress and made sure that the boy was wrapped warmly in the blankets.  Ben scooted as close to the cot and his son as possible.  With gentle hands that still trembled, he brushed back a lock of the damp, chestnut curls. “Joseph?” he whispered, leaning closer.  “Joe…it’s your Pa, boy…can you open your eyes for me?” Ben’s tone was near pleading as he lovingly stroked Joe’s thin, pale cheek. “Everything’s going to be fine now, son…your brothers are here too…”

Softly, Joe moaned and tried to turn his head in the direction that his subliminal intellect could hear the sound of the familiar voice and yearned to return to the present, but his awareness was locked away in his darkened abyss, safe from the suffering and pain he had been enduring and refused to allow itself to leave the refuge of its sanctuary.

“Joe…that’s it, son…open your eyes…please, for your Pa?”

Another weak moan was offered in compliance to the command, but still the heavy eyelids refused to respond.

“Joseph…please, please…come back to me…come back to us!”

Ben’s voice cracked.  The anxious father slipped his arms beneath the unresponsive boy and tenderly pulled Joe’s upper body into his arms where he held his son’s head to his breast.

In the furthermost recesses of his abyss sanctuary, the gentle, steady beating of his father’s loving and compassionate heart slowly began to work its magic on the dying boy.  Death seemed to have come to a cross roads, confused by which path to take.

Deep within himself, Joe stood at the same point with death.  A voice from afar had beckoned unto him, forcing him to pause on his journey toward the opposite side.  Death took him by the hand, tugging, pulling, urging…promising…but then the sound of the pleading voice had awakened in him an urgency to return from whence he came.

‘I can’t…I can’t…’ the boy heard himself crying out to the voice.

“Joseph…come back to me…please……..”

The voice was begging, crying…urging.  The voice was full of love and passion, so filled with promise.  Joe stopped again, pulling free of death’s strong fingers.  He looked around, seeking the face behind the voice, yearning to follow the voice’s instructions, but could he…could he…bear the pain…the hunger and thirst…dare he trust the voice?

“I’m afraid…I’m afraid…” his own voice cried suddenly.

“It’s alright, son…I’m here…Adam and Hoss, they’re both here.  I promise you, Joseph…no one will hurt you again…open your eyes, son…try, Joe…try…”

The eyelids seemed to have lost their heaviness and suddenly began to flutter.

“Look, Pa!  He’s coming around,” Hoss said with a big grin on his suddenly happy face. “Come on, Shortshanks, you can do it!”

Hoss laughed and took his brother’s hand, holding it tightly in both his as if to keep the boy from slipping away, down into his secret reverie.

“Pa?  Pa?”

“I’m here, son…we’re all here!”

The fragile boy sought with his eyes, the face that loomed over him.  Barely able to distinguish his father’s features, he drew from his inner being, enough strength to force a tiny smile and utter five short words. “What kept…you…so long?”

Hunger and fear, pain and grief had sapped the glow of youth from the frail body, but looking down at his son, Ben could see a flicker of light that flashed in the deep wells of green and he pulled the boy closer to him.  His eyes moved upward and momentarily closed tightly.  The words whispered were barely perceptible…but the Lord heard.

“Thank you, God…thank you!”

*****

“Drink some more, Joe,” Ben encouraged.  “And then you need to rest…the…”

Joe began shaking his head back and forth, trying to speak.  “No…” he mumbled, “no…sleep.”

Ben handed the bowl he held in his hand, back to Hoss.  He looked worriedly down at his son, whose eyes had misted with tears. “Joe…”

“Don’t…want…to sleep,” he muttered weakly.

After his father and brother had bathed him, Joe had come to enough that he’d been able to take some of the broth that Ben had insisted that he drink.  Weakened to the point of barely being able to speak more than just a few words at a time, Joe could put up little resistance and soon after being spoon fed several drops, had fallen into a deep sleep.

Several hours had passed and it was again time for more broth.  Ben knew that only small amounts should be given to the starving boy, thus giving his son’s stomach time to accept the offering.  Liquids and plenty of rest; that was what Ben insisted that the boy needed in order to regain his strength.

“You don’t want to sleep…but why, son?” The concerned father noted the quivering chin, puzzled by what was happening.

“Coming…back…” Joe said, forcing the words to be heard.

“Coming back…who Joseph…who do you think is coming back?”

Joe squinted his eyes tightly.  His body had begun to tremble.

“Maybe he means the man we buried,” Hoss whispered to his father.

Ben nodded his head in agreement.  He lowered his head close to Joe so his son could hear him better. “Joe…the man…the man that hurt you…he’s dead son, he won’t be coming back.  You’re safe now…”

“No…no…” the ailing young man whined.

“Yes, son…he’s dead…we…your brothers and I, buried him earlier today.  He’s been dead two or three days…he won’t hurt you son, I promise.”

The tiny beads of water rolled gently from the corner of the boy’s eyes.  Tenderly, Ben brushed them away. “Shh…don’t cry, son…please…it’s over and you’re safe now…”

Joe, though weak from long days of physical labor such as he had never known, and from the lack of decent food and clean water, reached up and wrapped his fingers around his father’s wrist.  His chin continued to quiver as he tried to put sound to his words, but they still came out garbled.

“I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me…”

“No…not…him,” Joe finally managed.

“Not him?  Who buddy…who do you think is coming back?” Adam, standing on the other side of the cot, knelt down close the boy.

“Well…Well…ing…ton…” sobbed Joe.

“Wellington?” Ben repeated with name, glanced around at Adam and Hoss and then swallowed deeply.

“Joseph…you don’t have to worry about Wellington…he’s gone, son.  He’s not coming back…”

“You…don’t…under…stand…Pa…”

“No, I don’t, son.  But I promise you…”

“A…fraid…Pa…afraid…”

The fingers that clutched his arm squeezed tightly, surprising Ben that they had strength enough to do so. “There’s no need to be afraid…we’re all here…no one’s going to hurt you, son…”

“He’s…coming…to…take…me…please…don’t…leave me…”

Ben swallowed hard.  He moved his hand so that his hand covered his son’s.  Carefully, so as not to cause more pain in the blistered palm, Ben brought Joe’s hand up to his cheek and held it there. “I won’t leave you, son…I promise.  I will stay right here, in this chair, with you…until you are well enough for me to take you home,” promised Ben, lightly kissing the injured hand.

“Ain’t no body gonna take ya no where’s, Punkin…’ceptin’ Pa and Adam and me…you can bet on that,” Hoss leaned down to reassure the frightened boy.  “And don’t ya worry ya self none about Wellington showin’ up here…I’ll break’em in two if’n he tries anything!”

“Joe,” Adam said softly.  “I’ll stand guard all night if I have too…he won’t get past the door, I promise, little buddy.  Now do what Pa says, and close your eyes…get some rest.  We’ll not let anyone or anything hurt you again…”

“Prom…ise?”

“Have I…or any of us, ever lied to you before?”

Joe shook his head.  Adam gave his brother a smile and a gentle pat. “Then close your eyes!” he ordered.

*****

The routine was the same the next day and the next.  Joe would wake up long enough to sip broth and eat a few bites of soft food…usually eggs or mush and then sleep for hours.  Ben still worried.  The only consolation was that each time Joe would eat, he ate a little more and a little more.  It would take weeks, the fretful father understood that, but Ben was still anxious to get his son home, where the boy would feel safer.  Joe still feared that Wellington would return and somehow manage to take him far away from his home and family.  That fear often left the boy trembling and unable to sleep.  He had clung desperately at times to his father, pleading with the older man not to leave him…it had gotten so that when Joe was awake, Ben could not leave the cabin for a second, regardless that one or both of his brothers remained by his side.  His anxiety was mounting and Ben knew that if he didn’t start home with the boy soon, Joe could easily end up having a nervous break down. “Shh…son, please…I told you, I will be right here…”

“Pa…I saw…him…honest…”

“Joe, it was just a dream.  I’ve been right here, sitting with you…you’ve been asleep…it couldn’t have been him…”

“But it was, Pa…honest…in the window…I saw his face…please, ya gotta believe me!” sobbed the frightened boy.

“Alright, son, calm down, I’ll have Adam take a look around outside.”

Ben glanced up at his eldest son.  Adam took the hint.  He grabbed his pistol and strode to the door.

“I’ll look around; don’t fret, Little Joe…I’ll be back in a few minutes.  Hoss…why don’t you come along?” Adam invited.

“Sure,” said Hoss, rising from the table where he sat and joining his older brother at the door.

Together, the brothers scoured the surrounding area for any signs that Thomas Wellington had returned.  An hour later, they stood alone under the pines exchanging notes.

“I didn’t see a thing, what about you, Adam?”

“Me either.  It was as Pa supposed; the boy was dreaming.”

“Poor little thing…he’s sure ‘nough scared, Adam.”

“Well, with all he’s been through, I can’t say that I blame him.  I suppose had it been I instead of Little Joe, I’d be scared too.”

“Where ya reckon that varmint took off too, and why’d ya think he left Little Joe?  I can’t figure what he was plannin’ on doin’ with the boy, Adam.”

Adam shook his head.  “I couldn’t even begin to guess, and more than likely, we’ll never know for sure.  Come on, let’s go inside and let Joe know that everything appears to be safe.  Maybe he can fall asleep.”

“Shh,” cautioned Ben when the door opened and Adam and Hoss appeared in the doorway.  “He finally went to sleep.”

Adam and Hoss removed their hats and guns and moved deeper into the cabin.  Hoss sat down at the table while Adam poured them each a cup of coffee.

“He sure is spooked about all of this,” Adam whispered to his father.

“Who wouldn’t be…” Ben said with such anger that both Hoss and Adam eyed their parent closely.  “He’s been worked to death, chained like an animal, beaten and starved…and then left to die alone, frightened and sick…I wish I could get my hands on that bastard…I’d kill him with my bare hands!” Ben swore.

The anger had collected in his eyes and deepened the furrows of his brow.  He paced the room.  Deep inside he stewed over the vindictiveness that had been forced on his young son.  Adam and Hoss watched their father silently, fearful of the hatred that they knew was growing rapidly within their father’s heart.  Never, in all their lives had they seen Ben so consumed, so determined, so…infuriated and so helpless to do anything to make right the injustice that Joe had been made to suffer.

“I need to get some air.  Stay with your brother, I’ll be back shortly.”

Ben grabbed his hat and slipped from the cabin.  He had to clear his mind.  The days had begun to run together; so much had happened in the last few weeks that left him feeling incapable of handling the most minor of details.  He had to think, make plans; he had to get his boy home!

*****

“Wonder what’s keepin’ Pa?” Hoss pondered aloud.  “Joe’s about to wake up and he needs to be here…he done promised the boy.”

Hoss opened the door and gazed out into the darkness.  “I can’t see nothing; it’s so dadburn dark.”

“Maybe he walked down to the creek, or perhaps he’s checking on the stock…the horses seemed a bit restless today,” suggested Adam. He moved to the bed where Joe was beginning to wake up.

“I’ll go see,” Hoss said as he stepped through the door and closed it behind him.

“Pa?” muttered Joe.

“I’m here, Joe…Pa had to…to…relieve himself.  He’ll be right back.  Are you thirsty or hungry?”

Joe’s eyes sought his brother’s face.  For a long moment, he said nothing. “He’s here, Adam…Wellington’s here…”

“Aw Joe…that’s not so…why, Pa and Hoss are outside now and everything is fine.  You just relax, pal,” Adam tried to smile, but in the back of his mind, he was beginning to get a bit worried.

His father had been gone nearly an hour and now Hoss was taking too long to fetch their father from the barn…or the creek.  But he couldn’t let his kid brother see the worry he felt.  He masked his expression and forced a smile.

“How about some stew?  Pa made it earlier, and it’s been stewing all evening.  The vegetables should be good and tender by now…how about it?” he stated as he turned to the old stove and started to dip a ladle full into a bowl for his brother.

“Adam…”

Adam turned around just in time to see Joe push himself up and onto the side of the bed.  Even in the soft light that filled the room, Adam could see how poorly his brother’s body resembled his former self.  The sight sickened the elder Cartwright son.  He gritted his teeth to keep from letting loose with a whole slew of cuss words directed at the men responsible.

“Adam,” Joe repeated the name.  “Something’s wrong…bad wrong.”

Adam sudden became aware of the twisted expression his brother wore.  He forgot the stew and rushed to the boy’s side.  Joe was attempting to stand, but teeter precariously.

“Joe…what on earth is wrong?  Get back in that bed!” Adam ordered as he gently took Joe’s arm and tried to force the boy to lie down.

“No…Adam…No!” he shrieked in a trembling voice.

“Joe…do as I say…or I’ll…”

He never got to finish his words.  At just that moment, the door burst opened and his father stumbled through the door.  Ben’s face was battered, his nose dripped blood and his clothes were soiled.  Inside, he paused, leaning heavily against the doorframe.

“Go on, get in there!” the voice behind his father growled and Adam saw a hand reach forward and shove his father in the back.  Ben staggered forward, losing his balance and falling to the floor.

Immediately, Adam left his brother’s side and rushed to his father.  Leaning down, he asked his father if he were hurt badly.  Shaking his head no, he allowed Adam to help him up.

The man laughed at their efforts as he slammed the door behind him.  His eyes quickly made a scan of the room, stopping when they spied Joe, propping himself up on one elbow, looking for all the world as if he’d seen a ghost.

“Well, well, well,” he chanted, moving closer to the cot and speaking only to the frightened boy.  “I see you’re still alive…I really hadn’t expected you to be.  My father must be loosing his touch…he hated you, you know…for killing his grandson.”

“Leave him alone!” Ben demanded.  “Haven’t you done enough to him as it is?”

“Shut up, Cartwright…I haven’t finished with him yet!”  Wellington stood next to the cot, facing Ben and Adam who watched the man’s every move.  Thomas waved the pistol he held in his hand, at the father and son.

His laugh was wicked, sending chills up and down Little Joe’s spine.  He tried to get up and move away from the demonic man, but Wellington grabbed him by the hair of the head and yanked him back down on the cot. “Sit down…you aren’t going anywhere,” he ordered as he shoved Joe.  “Now don’t you move…or I’ll kill your old man,” he said and then laughed when he saw the fear spread across the young face.

“Do as he says, son,” Ben said, trying to make his voice as calm as possible.

“That’s right, kid, mind what your old man tells you to do, like a good boy, and maybe, just maybe I’ll let you live a little longer.”

“You there…find some rope and then sit down in that chair.” Wellington had been speaking to Adam, who now glanced around the cabin, finding no rope.

“There isn’t any rope,” Adam said with a touch of arrogance.

The absence of any rope seemed to cause a moment’s confusion for Thomas.  His eyes scanned the room for his own satisfaction. “Take off your belt then,” he ordered Adam, pointing at it with the pistol.

Adam did as instructed, holding it out to Thomas.

“Give it to your father and then sit down.  Cartwright, tie his hands behind his back…and make it good, or I’ll make the kid over there wish he were already dead.”

Ben’s eyes automatically sought Joe.  He could see the fear on the boy’s face and knew that if he and Adam did not comply with this madman’s wishes, they would all be made to pay.  Adam sat down and put his hands behind him, making his father’s job as easy as possible.

Wellington then instructed Ben to remove his belt and use it to tie Adam’s ankles together.  As Ben worked, he glanced up at his son, mouthing the word, Hoss.

Adam made an expression with his eyes that was unseen by Wellington but that told his father he had no idea where the big man had gone.

“Now…you, get over there!” Thomas ordered Ben to sit in the other chair, opposite Adam.  “Put your hands behind your back.”

Ben did as ordered and waited while Wellington removed his own belt and secured his hands tightly.  While he worked, Wellington kept a sharp eye on his youngest prisoner.  When he finished, he moved to the narrow cot where he sat down, causing Joe to try to move away.

The strong fingers laced about his upper arm halted his movements.  Joe winced softly as Wellington’s strong fingers tightened.  His frightened eyes sought his father’s, but Ben was unable to help his son.

“What’s wrong kid, scared?” he asked and then laughed loudly as Joe tried to pull away.

“Why don’t you pick on a man…instead of a boy?” taunted Adam. He was hoping to redirect the man’s anger to himself and away from his younger brother. “Or is that how you normally treat young boys…by starving them half to death…and beating them…is that the way you treated your own son?”

“Adam!” whispered Ben.  He knew his son had said the wrong thing, pushed the man too far, for Wellington had jumped up and was now stomping across the room.  When he stood in front of Adam, he glared down with an evil smirk on his face.  His eyes were fiery red darts of hatred and he said nothing, but then with the back of his hand, belted Adam hard, across his face.  Adam’s head snapped backward, instantly he tasted blood.  His dark eyes flashed black, but his plan had worked; he had drawn Wellington’s attention from his brother.

Behind Wellington, Joe was slowly rising from the bed, and began making his way to the door.  Adam had to keep the man’s attention on himself, until Joe could make his escape.  He worried that boy might not be able to move fast enough; his weakness was evident in his sluggish movements.

“What about your wife?” Adam tempted the man’s anger.  “Did you beat and starve her as well…”

Another slap to the face brought another jarring of his head.  Adam spat the blood from his mouth.  Ben watched fearfully as Joe continued to inch toward the door.

“Aren’t you even curious about your father?” Ben prodded the man.

“My father?” Wellington stated.

“Wasn’t the old man who lived here, your father?”

“Yeah…he’s my father…where is he anyway?  How’d you get the drop on him?  If you’ve done anything to him, I’ll kill you…”

“He’s dead…we found him about three days ago…”

“You what?” Wellington shouted.  “Dead…how?”

“Don’t know…and to be honest with you…I don’t care.  I’d have killed him anyway for what he did to my boy…” Ben’s eyes moved slightly to find how far Joe had gotten on his quest to the door.

The movement was not missed by Wellington, and he spun around to see what Ben was looking at.  Instantly he spied Joe, whose hand had just raised the latch on the door.

“HEY!” Wellington screamed. He turned to dash toward the door, but Ben, his feet untied, tripped the big man, causing him to stumble and giving Joe the needed time to open the door and flee.

Wellington scrambled quickly to his feet, glaring angrily at Ben. “Damn you!” he shouted, hitting Ben across the shoulder with his pistol.

“Aw…” Ben cried out.

Wellington made a mad dash for the door in his quest to capture the runaway boy.  He knew that in the condition the boy was in, it shouldn’t take much to find him and return him to the cabin. “And when I do…you’ll be wishing you were already dead!” mumbled the insane man.

Out on the porch, Joe leaned heavily against the post.  His head was spinning. Trying to focus his eyes was time consuming.  Within the house, he could hear his captor screaming obscenities at his father and could only wonder what the crazed man was doing to his father and brother.  Joe rubbed his eyes.  He could hear the man moving toward the door and he knew if he were to make good his escape, he’d have to do so now.  He had to find Hoss.

Sluggishly, he moved to the end of porch, trying to keep his balance, he stepped down and headed for the barn.  Perhaps Hoss was there.  Suddenly and without warning, he felt hands on his shoulders and then was bodily lifted from the ground and spun around.  Joe found himself caught in a grip akin to a bear hug, leaning with his back pressed against the side of the house.  When he tried to speak, hands covered his mouth and his cries for help came out muffled.

“Shh…be quite, Joseph.”

Joe’s eyes focused on the face; it was too dark to identify the man.  But Joe had no need; he knew the voice all too well.  A rush of relief washed over him as he nodded his head in agreement.  Hoss removed his hand and smiled down at his younger brother, putting his finger to his lips to motion for silence. “When I distract him, go back inside and cut Pa and Adam loose.  Think you can do that?”

Joe nodded.

“Here’s my knife…be careful, don’t cut ya self, it’s sharp…”

Hoss handed the long thick knife to Joe and ruffled the boy’s wayward locks. “Get ready…here he comes…GO!”

Hoss was prepared for the attack he made.  Wellington ran through the door and off the porch into the yard.  His back was to his would be assailant and totally unprepared for the attack that sent his body plummeting to the ground.  He struggled to get up.  Hoss grabbed the man by the shirt and hauled Thomas to his feet, only to send the man toppling over backward from the blow to his chin.

Joe had managed to make his way back inside the cabin.  Ben and Adam were struggling to free themselves from the belts used to tie them.  They both looked up when Joe stumbled into the room.

“Joseph!” Ben cried as relief replaced his frightened expression.

Joe could only smile.  His entire body trembled with weakness.

“Joe…untie me, son…hurry, before you pass out!” urged Ben.

Joe somehow drew from an inner strength and untied his father who instantly pulled the wilting boy into his arms.

“Hoss…” murmured Joe, trying to point to the door.

Ben felt his son’s body go limp.  When he looked down, Joe had passed out cold.  Gathering the boy into his arms, Ben hurried to place him down on the cot and then quickly untied Adam’s hands and ankles.  Just then a shot ran out.  Adam and Ben seemed to freeze momentarily, both glancing at the doorway.

“PA…COME QUICK!”

“It’s Hoss!” Ben said, helping Adam up from the chair.

Quickly, as summoned, they hurried out into the night.  There on the ground at Hoss’ feet lay Thomas Wellington, once a friend to all of the Cartwrights.  Ben pushed forward and knelt down, lifting Thomas’ head carefully.

Blood oozed from the bullet wound in the middle of the man’s stomach.  His time on earth was quickly drawing to a close.  Wellington, his breathing labored, looked up at the man holding him.  All the hate that had been evident for so many weeks had melted away.  His expression was softer, more in liken to the way Ben had known him before tragedy had changed his life.

“Ben…” Wellington muttered between gasps.

“Shh…don’t talk, Thomas,” Ben warned.

“Have…to…not much time…left.”

“Adam, get some water, hurry,” issued Ben.

“No…listen…please,” Wellington gulped.

His eyes closed briefly and Ben felt the man’s body, arch slightly and knew that a surge of pain had assaulted the man.  When the wave of pain lessened, Thomas opened his eyes, searching for Ben’s face.

“Thomas…”

“Ben…I’m…sorry…so sorry…I was wrong…for taking…your boy…”

“Why, Thomas…why?”

“Hated…you…three sons…I had only…one left…”

“One left?  Thomas, I don’t understand…”

Thomas swallowed hard and coughed.  When he could gather enough strength, he continued trying to explain to the three men.

“I had…another…son…William…I…killed him…”

A sob replaced the coughing.  Ben glanced up at Hoss and Adam.

“I wanted him…to learn…to ride…but my father…kept telling me… ‘Thomas, put that…boy…on a horse…and you’re signing…his dead warrant.’  Billy was…crippled…but I wouldn’t…listen.  I put him on…with me…one day…and the horse…stumbled.  Billy was…thrown off…broke his…neck, just like…Tommy.”

Thomas Wellington was gasping for air, but he remained determined to tell his story. “Pa…never forgave…me,” the dying man sobbed.  “After…that…he…hated…me.  Tried…to take…Tommy from…me.”

Tears had formed in his eyes and overflowed, rolling silently down the man’s face. “My wife…never forgave…me…how…could I…forgive myself…when no one…else would?  I preached…to Tommy…to stay…away from…the horses…but he loved…them so…he wanted to…learn to…ride…like…like…your boy…”

“I blamed…you and…your…boy for killing…my…son, not right…not…your fault.  Tell…Little Joe…I’m sorry…forgive me…please…I…don’t really…blame him…”

Thomas fell silent.  His eyes closed.  For a moment, Ben thought that the man had died. “Bury…me…with…my…Pa…………..”

Thomas Wellington’s life story ended right then, on a cold dark night, high in the mountains in the arms of a friend.

The emotion was almost more than Ben could bear.  Gently he placed Thomas’ head down on the ground.  When he scanned the faces of his two sons, they could see that the weeks of worry, the strain of the search and then the relief of finding their loved one alive had taken its toll on their father.

Hoss placed his hand on Ben’s shoulder.  His voice was thick with compassion. “Why don’t you go to Joe…me and Adam will tend to Mr. Wellington?”

“Yes…thank you…both of you…I need to let Joe know that Thomas didn’t really blame him…and that he asked the boy to forgive him for what he and his father did to him.”

All three rose.  Ben turned toward the cabin, but stopped short, seeing his son standing before him.  He had no idea that Joe had come to or that the boy had made his way outside.

“Joe,” Ben cried, hurrying to his son’s side and wrapping his arms about the slender boy.

“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Joe whispered.

Ben had his son’s head turned so that Joe could not see the blood and ghastly hole in the man’s mid-section.

“Yes, son, he’s dead.”  Ben brushed his fingers through the thick chestnut curls.  “Before he died, Joseph, he asked that I tell you something…”

“I know, I heard.”  Joe looked up into his father’s eyes.  “It won’t be easy, but I’ll try to forgive him…I’ll even try to forgive that old man…but I don’t understand why they did what they did…all this suffering, all this worry…all this…death…for what?  Just tell me why, was it because one man could not admit he made a mistake?”

Adam and Hoss had circled their father and brother, waiting for Ben to give an explanation to Joe’s question.  Without realizing it, each one of the two, had asked themselves the same thing.

Taking a deep breath, Ben tried to explain. “You’re absolutely right, Joe…it takes a big man to admit he’s wrong.  Sometimes a man just won’t, he can’t see the light of day until it’s too late, like now.  Thomas Wellington was a man driven…by his own private demons.  First, he lost a son because he was too stubborn or proud…maybe both, to listen to his father, who by the way must have been a remarkable man in his time…but then things happened.

Thomas could not learn to forgive himself for his other son’s death, because he was not forgiven…not by his father nor by his wife.  His inner self could not cope with that…his first son was crippled physically, but he made a cripple out of Tommy as well.  Not physically but emotionally…he deprived him of doing the things that all boys like to do.  And it drove Tommy to sneak behind his father’s back and attempt them, and we all know what happened.”

“So…it wasn’t my fault…or yours, that Tommy fell off that horse and broke his neck?” Joe wanted to know.

“No…it was an accident, son.  I’m glad you said that you would try to forgive Thomas and his father for what they did to you.  Forgiveness comes from the heart, son…and it takes a special kind of person to give that kind of forgiveness.  I’m proud of you.”

Joe forced a smile for his father.  “Pa, can you forgive them?”

Ben looked thoughtful for a moment and then smiled down at his son.  “The way I look at it, if you have enough forgiveness in your heart…then surely I can find enough in mine to do likewise.”

Joe pressed his cheek against his father’s beating heart.  His arms wrapped about Ben’s waist.  Ben could feel the slender frame shiver.

“What’s wrong, son?” Ben asked, glancing over the top of the curly head at Adam and Hoss who looked as puzzled as he knew he must look.

“I’m glad you aren’t going to turn out like Mr. Wellington,” Joe cried softly.

“Joe, what are you talking about, son?”

“Hate, Pa…like Mr. Wellington and his father…they let their hate eat away at them, and it destroyed their lives.  Mr. Wellington’s father hated me so much…he wanted me dead…just because he’d never learned to forgive…and the person he should have forgiven, was his own son!  I’m glad me and you ain’t like that, Pa…”

Ben was over come with emotion.  His answer?  He tightened his hold on the boy he loved more than life itself, leaned down and kissed the mass of curls. He could never imagine himself not being able to forgive his son for anything!  He valued the boy’s love and respect much too much to let hate destroy what was between them.

When he could speak, Ben’s words were simple, but filled with truth.

“So am I, Little Joe…So am I!”

***End***

Return to Debbie B.’s home page

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.