Word Count: 15,239
Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach
“Ya one of us now, Cartwright…ya cain’t back out, ya dun swore the oath!” stormed the oldest boy in the group. The tall lad, heavier than the boy in front of him, waved his fist in a threatening manner at Little Joe.
“Yes I can…I’ll have no part in what you’re planning to do, oath or no oath…it ain’t right…in fact…I aim on telling my Pa!”
The six bigger boys instantly made a ring around the smaller boy who continued to twist his head from side to side in order to keep an eye on the others. One of the larger boys laughed; it sounded vicious to the boy in the center of the circle and though his heart was beating wildly and his body shook in fear of the six, he kept his repose until the circle began to shrink.
The six boys moved in closer, tightening the ring. The smaller boy whipped around, glaring at the group who had him trapped in the center by their bodies pinched tightly together. There was no escape; there would be a fight not that it would amount to much. It would start quickly and end even quicker for the odds were all stacked against the one lone boy. But the boy determined in his mind that his attackers would not see his fear, and no matter how badly they beat him, he would refuse to let them make him cry. He folded his slender fingers into fists, and set his feet firmly and waited, feeling as if he were an animal caught in a trap.
Joe gulped and braced himself for the assault. He kept his eyes on the boy who deemed himself leader of the pack, but he failed to notice the one directly behind him when the other boy stepped into the circle, breaking away from his cohorts. When the boy jumped onto his back, Joe was knocked instantly to the ground. Before he could collect his thoughts, the others pounced on him and began pounding him with their fists. Blow after blow was planted on every part of Joe’s body. More than once Joe felt sharp pains to his ribs when someone kicked him with the toe of their boots. He tried rolling his body into a ball to protect himself but the weight of the boys on top of his back, prevented him from being able to do so. There was no way he could defend himself and no way that he could return what he was receiving.
Joe was unaware just how long the attack lasted, only that it was over quickly and that every inch of his battered body ached. The group broke away, moving several feet from where Joe lay face down in the dirt. Slowly, he raised his head. The leader stepped forward and then squatted down in front of Joe. Joe tried not to let his tears be seen and he dropped his head back down, resting his forehead on his arms.
“Take that as a warning, Cartwright… ya squeal on us, ya won’t be so lucky, someone other than ya might get hurt…got that?” snarled the boy.
The boy stood up and motioned with his head for the others to follow him. They walked away as if nothing had happened, uncaring that the boy on the ground was struggling to get up and fighting for each breath he drew. When Joe finally made it to his feet, he wiped at the blood that dripped from his nose and lips where he had been punched and kicked. The blood that dripped from one nostril stopped almost immediately, but the split in his lip continued to seep and Joe could feel the swelling that rose and the tingling sensation that went along with it. He stifled a groan as he swayed precariously and tried to maintain his balance. One eye was quickly closing and Joe could only imagine what his face must look like with the split lip, bleeding nose and now the eye that was sure to turn black.
Joe glanced all around him; there was no one near by and he realized that if he were going to make it home, he’d have to do it on his own. Joe staggered toward the tree where he had left Cochise tied. His arm was folded around his mid-section and when he walked it was with a limp. Joe tried to straighten his body, but it was no use, he bent over, giving in to the pain that surged through his rib cage and tried to suck in large gulps of air. His stomach had begun to churn and Joe feared that he might vomit. He was dizzy and had to pause, leaning against his horse until the faintness passed.
“Easy boy,” moaned Joe as he struggled to mount his horse.
It took several attempts before Joe was finally able to swing his leg across the saddle. He righted himself as best he could and then nudged gently at the horse’s sides. The ride home would take him hours, with the pain seemingly on the increase he was unable to ride any faster than a mere walk. Trotting jarred his body, so Joe ruled that out after the first try. His father would be fit to be tied, reasoned Joe. It would be after dark by the time that he reached home and knowing how his father worried about him, Joe knew that he’d be hard pressed to escape a long lecture if Ben’s mood was dark when he reached home.
Ben opened the front door and stood staring into the darkness. His face was shrouded with a deep frown and an angry glare highlighted his deep brown eyes. He was furious with his youngest son. Joseph had promised to come straight home from school this afternoon, but once again the boy was late. Tonight made the third time this week that Joe had failed to do as instructed and his father’s patience had finally worn out. There would be severe punishment in store for the boy, Ben had decided. He’d restrict Joe to his room until he had time to determine what method of punishment would be rendered, and then he…
“Pa? Did you hear what I said?” Adam placed a hand on his father’s shoulder, surprising Ben.
“I’m sorry, son, I guess I wasn’t paying attention.” Ben stepped back into the room and closed the door.
“I asked if you wanted Hoss and me to saddle up and go look for Joe?” Adam repeated his question.
Ben, his lips drawn tight, shook his head. “No…let the boy come home on his own. I’m really anxious to see what excuse he has for tonight’s tardiness,” grumbled Ben as he moved slowly back to his desk.
Adam glanced over at Hoss who was standing before the fireplace, listening. Adam could see the worry on his middle brother’s face. Ben lowered himself into his chair and looked up at Adam who had followed him.
“I was considering letting Little Joe quit school. He is sixteen now, most boys do quit when they get his age and I was thinking of letting this be his last year, but now…I just don’t know.” Ben shook his head from side to side. “That boy show’s no responsibly whatsoever. All I asked of him was to come straight home after school.” He paused and looked at Adam and then Hoss who had joined them, “and he can’t even follow the simplest of instructions, how in tarnation does he expect me to trust him to do the things around this ranch that he’d be doing if he wasn’t in school?” growled Ben.
“Aw Pa…maybe Joe’s horse lost a shoe and he’s awalkin’ home, or maybe…”
“Hoss…I know you mean well, but don’t say anymore. We all know that Joe has…”
They all paused when the sound of the front door opened and banged closed. Ben jumped to his feet and rounded the corner of his desk.
“JOSEPH!” he bellowed.
Joe was standing with his back to his father, facing the credenza. His hat had been removed and tossed onto the top of the table.
“LOOK AT ME WHEN I SPEAK TO YOU!” ordered Ben who now stood with his hands on each hip and his feet placed firmly on the floor.
His brown eyes had turned to ebony and his thick brows were drawn together. There was no doubt that Ben Cartwright was madder than he had been in a very long time.
Adam and Hoss stood shoulder to shoulder, silently, waiting for the full explosion of anger that was rapidly reaching the boiling point.
“JOSEPH, TURN AROUND!”
It took what strength was left in his body and sheer willpower for the boy to turn and face his father. Joe’s arm wrapped itself back across his stomach and his head was bent low.
“I’m sorry, Pa…I…can…explain.”
Joe raised his head momentarily but his knees buckled at the same instant and the boy crumbled to the floor in a heap.
“JOSEPH!” shouted Ben as he rushed to his son’s side. His hands, gentle, quickly turned Joe over and gathered the boy into his arms.
“Dear God,” muttered Ben, seeing Joe’s battered and bruised face. His anger had left him the second that he had see Joe fall to the floor and the whys and what fors that he had expected were now forgotten.
Ben lifted Joe into his arms and hurried to place him onto the settee. “Hoss, tell Hop Sing to get me some soap and water…Adam, pour him a brandy, please.”
Ben brushed back the dampened locks of hair from Joe’s brow. “Joseph, can you hear me, son?” he pleaded softly.
“Pa?” groaned Joe. He raised his hand, searching for his father’s tender touch.
Ben grasped Joe’s hand in his. “I’m here, Joe. What happened? Who did this to you?”
Joe kept his eyes pinched tightly shut. The pain in his ribs when he fell to the floor had seemed to feel as if a sharp pointed knife had been buried into his side. He groaned and tried to take a deep breath.
“Oh…hurts…hurts…Pa. My side…oh…” Joe cried. A lone tear slipped from the corner of an eye and rolled slowly down the side of his face and into his ear.
“Take it easy, sweetheart,” Ben instructed softly as he clung to Joe’s hand. “Adam, send one of the men for Doc Martin and then help me get Joe into bed.”
“I’ll do it Adam, you stay and help Pa,” said Hoss who had just returned with the basin of water and soap.
Hoss passed the basin to Hop Sing who set down the medical supplies, and then Hoss headed for the door. The sight of his little brother and the pitiful sounds that Joe was making was more than the tenderhearted Hoss could stand. And he was mad; furious at whoever had beaten the boy as they had, and he secretly vowed to find whoever it was and return the favor.
“Can you walk, Joe?” Adam asked as he slipped his arm beneath Joe and helped him to rise.
Ben was on the other side of the boy and placed his arm around Joe’s waist. When he tightened his hold in order to keep Joe on his feet, Joe cried out, making a painful noise.
“It…hurts…”wept Joe between breaths.
They had taken only a few short steps when Joe’s knees buckled and he was no longer able to stand. Joe slumped downward, crying as his brother gathered him into his strong arms and hurried up the stairs with him. Once in his brother’s room, Adam carefully laid Joe on his bed and stepped back as Ben came forth and leaned down over his son.
“Get the medical supplies, Adam, we left them downstairs…and the soap and water…oh, son…don’t forget the alcohol,” Ben asked as he turned his attention to his youngest son.
Adam slipped quickly from the room. Ben sat down on the edge of the bed, taking Joe’s hand into his.
“Joseph, can you hear me?”
Joe nodded his head slightly and tried to open his one good eye. “I…hear…ya,” he moaned.
“Son, can you tell your Pa, who beat you like this?” Ben questioned.
Joe could barely make out the concern and worry on his father’s face looking at his parent with only one eye. But he could certainly hear the anxiety in Ben’s voice. Joe longed to blurt out the entire story, but something deep within himself warned him not to mention names. He was sure if he did, the group of boys would come looking for him a second time, and hadn’t the ringleader warned him against squealing on them? Joe pinched his lips tightly to keep from spilling his guts to his father.
Ben’s watchful eyes had seen the hesitation on his son’s face but believed that the tight lips were due to the discomfort that the boy was feeling.
“Son, are you in much pain?” whispered Ben as he brushed the damp cloth gently over Joe’s battered face while he wiped gently at the dried blood and crusted dirt.
“Some,” muttered Joe.
He felt a measure of relief that his father had not pressed him for an answer to his question. For now, he was safe, but later, Joe knew that he would have to come up with some sort of answer that would satisfy his father.
Ben cleaned the scrapes and abrasions and bathed Joe’s body. Joe tried not to let the pain show on his face, but he knew that with his father’s watchful eyes, Joe wasn’t fooling anyone. Even Adam who had come back into the room with the needed medical supplies was watching the boy’s face intently.
“Has he said anything, Pa…I mean about who did this to him?” Adam asked in a soft whisper.
Ben had finished tending to Joe’s surface wounds but the other, more severe injuries would have to wait for the doctor’s arrival.
Ben shook his head. “No, I asked him, but he wouldn’t say,” answered Ben. “He’s hurting right now Adam, maybe later, after Paul has fixed him up and given him something to make his rest. He’ll feel better then; I suppose we’ll just have to wait.”
Adam stood to his feet; his body language spoke volumes of what he was feeling inside. He walked to the window, gazed out and then whirled back around to face his father.
“I don’t like waiting!” he snapped in a deep tone.
Ben was instantly on his feet and hurried to face Adam. His own face showed his deep concern and anger at the situation and Ben did not try to hide it from his oldest son.
“Well, neither do I! Do you think for one minute I wouldn’t like to get my hands on the person responsible for nearly beating my son half to death?” growled Ben.
His eyes were dark and he stood rigid with his hands on his hips. “Well?” he demanded in a stern voice.
Adam let out a long sigh, his lips tightened. “I’m sorry, Pa…I didn’t mean to imply…”
“It’s all right, son,” Ben said as his expression softened. He put his hand on Adam’s shoulder for a moment.
The bedroom door opened and when both Adam and his father turned, it was with a look of relief that they greeted the doctor and Hoss.
“Paul…thank goodness, you’re here,” Ben greeted the physician with a quick handshake.
Paul returned the greeting and moved quickly to the bedside. “Let’s have a look at this boy,” he said as he pulled the blankets back so that he could make his examination.
The physician stared in disbelief at the bruising on Joe’s body, his face, arms, upper body and he could not retain his gasp when he found the darkening blotches that dotted Joe’s lower body as well.
“Dear God, Ben…who did this?” Paul questioned with a shocked look on his face when he turned and faced the boy’s father.
“He hasn’t said,” Ben said quietly.
“Whoever did needs to be in jail!” Paul made no attempt to hide his disgust from his patient’s family.
“What they need is a good poundin’,” Hoss spoke up to say.
“I agree with Hoss,” added Adam, “and as soon as Joe is able to tell us who it was, that’s exactly what they’re going to get!”
“All right boys, that’ll be enough,” ordered Ben. He reached for the door and pulled it opened. “Out with you…both of you…wait downstairs. I’ll be down as soon as Paul has finished with your brother.”
Ben saw his sons hesitate and nodded with his head toward the door. He understood their anger, for he felt the same as they did, but for now, there was nothing he could do, but wait until Joe was ready to talk.
“Go on,” he said in a soft voice. Ben gave each of them a small smile as they gave in to his demand and started toward the door.
“Joe’s gonna be alright, ain’t he, doc?” Hoss had paused at the door and turned back around.
Paul glanced up from his work and gave Hoss a comforting nod of his head. “I believe he’ll be fine, Hoss…in a week or two…don’t you worry,” Paul said. He turned back to his patient, still talking. “It’s going to take more than this to keep this little scamp down.”
Hoss glanced at his father with a smile spreading across his rotund face as he quickly looked at Adam, too.
A short time later, Paul turned to face the anxious father. He was wiping his hands on a cloth and when he finished, he tossed it into the basin. Paul began rolling down his sleeves as Ben waited for the verdict.
“As I told Hoss, he’s going to be fine, Ben, but I want him to stay in this bed for the next several days. I don’t think you’ll have any problem with him wanting to get up; he’s taken a good beating. He has a couple of cracked ribs, as you can see. Other than the busted lip, black eye and the bruising, I think Joe fared quite well. He’s going to be sore and moving will be uncomfortable for several days; that’s why I’m leaving you these powders. They’ll ease the pain and help him sleep. That’s what he needs right now, plenty of rest…it’ll give his body time to start the healing process before he starts giving you too much trouble about not wanting to stay in that bed. I want you to watch him though for the next couple days, if there is any sign of blood in the urine or if he coughs any up I want to know right away. I’m not anticipating any internal injuries, but I want to be careful, you understand, don’t you?”
“You don’t think…” began Ben.
Paul slipped on his coat and smiled. “Don’t worry, Ben…the boy’s going to be fine, barring any complications, I promise.”
Ben couldn’t stop his eyes from seeking the boy’s face, but he did turn to his friend and nodded. “Thanks for coming out, Paul.”
“Anytime Ben, anytime. You just remember to keep him as still as possible and see to it that he takes those powders.”
They had made their way down the stairs to the great room. Hoss and Adam were instantly on their feet.
“Paul says Joe has a couple of cracked ribs but that he’ll be fine in a few days,” smiled Ben.
“That’s good news,” Adam declared as he shook the doctor’s hand.
“Sure ‘nough is,” added Hoss, “can I go see’em?”
“He’s sleeping right now, but I think if you’re quiet, you can go sit with him for a little while…and then Hoss…give someone else a turn,” laughed the doctor, for Hoss was already half way up the stairs.
Hoss slipped quietly into the room and eased a chair over, next to the bed and sat down. Hoss studied his brother’s face, appalled by the whiteness of Joe’s skin in contrast to the dark bruises. The sight made Hoss’ stomach churn and he scrunched up his face at the pitiful picture his little brother made. He carefully picked up Joe’s hand and held it momentarily within his larger one. Hoss’ thumb gently caressed the back of his brother’s hand and across the knuckles. He noticed the scraps atop the joints where Joe had tried to fight back and when he looked more closely, Hoss noted that under a couple of the nails, his father had failed to remove all the dirt. He lifted the cover slightly and placed Joe’s arm beneath. For a second longer, Hoss remained with the blanket raised as he gazed at the bandage that the doctor had wrapped snugly about Joe’s chest in order to keep the broken rips from being jarred. Hoss also spotted the bruises on Joe’s arms and when he dared to peek further, on his brother’s legs. He lowered the blanket; a dark look crossed his face as he thought of the beating that his younger brother had been made to suffer. Hoss was passed being angry, he was furious and silently he vowed to seek out the one, or ones who had given Joe the pounding.
“I’ll get’em for ya, Short Shanks,” Hoss whispered softly as he wiped the dampness that threatened to turn to tears. “Ya jist wait an’ see!”
A while later, Ben slipped into the room. Hoss was dozing in the chair and had begun to snore softly. Ben glanced at Joe and saw that the boy was resting quietly. He touched his hand to Hoss’ shoulder, waking the bigger boy with a start. Hoss glanced first at Joe and then up at his father. Ben smiled.
“Why don’t you go on to bed, son, I’ll sit with Joe for awhile,” encouraged Ben.
“Alright, Pa. But I think I’ll see if Hop Sing has any of that chicken left. Ya need anythin’ afore I go?” Hoss asked, stretching his long body and stifling a yawn.
“No, I’m fine Hoss, but thank you.” Ben settled himself in the chair that Hoss had been sitting in and watched Joe as he slept. He sighed deeply.
“Ya gonna be alright, Pa?” Hoss asked from the doorway.
Ben turned his head around toward Hoss and nodded. “I was just wondering who did this, that’s all,” answered Ben.
“Me too, I’d sure ‘nough like to get my hands on who ever it was,” Hoss said between clenched teeth.
“Hoss,” Ben stood up and moved to the door. “I don’t want to hear anymore talk like that…do you hear me? We’ll let the law handle it when Joe wakes up and can tell us what happened.”
“I’m sorry, Pa…it’s jist that…well, the boy ain’t hardly big ‘nough to fight one fella, let alone more’n one at a time,” Hoss muttered.
“What makes you think Joe was fighting more than one?” Ben asked, glancing back at Joe who had moaned softly.
“Look at’em, Pa…one fella couldn’t have done that much damage…no matter how much bigger than Joe he might have been…It had to be more’n one…and if’n it was…well, me and Adam dun decided to…”
“You and Adam have decided nothing! Do I make myself clear? I said that Roy will handle this…and I mean it Hoss. You had better make that clear to your older brother as well!”
Ben turned back into the room and closed the door, leaving Hoss standing alone in the hallway. He couldn’t blame his sons for feeling as they did, he felt the same but there was no way he would give his older boys permission to seek out whomever had beaten Joe and take the law in their own hands. Besides, decided Ben as he smoothed the blankets covering his son, the ones who did this were most likely boys…and his sons were grown men.
The soft murmur drew Ben’s attention to the boy on the bed.
“I’m right here son,” Ben said, taking a seat on the edge, next to Joe.
Joe struggled to open the one eye that had somehow escaped the beating. “Water…” Joe begged, his voice barely above a whisper.
Ben quickly poured a glass of water and returned to the bed. He gently raised Joe’s head and tipped the glass to the bruised lips. Joe instantly tried to pull his head back, causing a few drops of water to dribble down his chin.
“Hurts…” he cried.
“Alright son,” Ben said, removing the glass and helping Joe to lower his head. “Let’s do this with a spoon.”
After Joe’s thirst had been satisfied Ben placed the glass and the spoon on the bedside table and sat on the edge of the bed.
“Feel better?” he asked Joe.
Joe slowly nodded his head. “Thanks, Pa,” he muttered.
“Joe…I don’t want to press you…but can you tell me who did this to you?” Ben inquired. He gently brushed at a fallen lock of hair, and waited.
Joe closed his eye; the other was swollen shut. For several moments he was silent until his father had begun to think that perhaps Joe had fallen back to sleep.
Joe opened his eye, seeing his father’s face looming over him. “Pa…please…I don’t want…to talk about…it.”
“But Joseph…whoever it was, needs to be punished…you have…”
“NO!” snapped Joe. “It doesn’t matter…besides…I can’t tell you.”
“Can’t tell me? Joe, that makes no sense…why on earth can’t you tell me?”
“Pa…” Joe felt his throat constrict and he fought the urge to cry. “I just can’t…besides…I…I…don’t know who they were…” he lied.
Ben was getting angry. “That doesn’t make any sense either…why would someone just beat you nearly to death if they didn’t have a reason…or think that they had?”
“Pa…I don’t feel so good…please…can I just go back to sleep?”
Joe’s chin had begun to quiver and he was afraid that if his father insisted on continuing this questioning, he would break and spill his guts. Cory’s warning stuck in his mind…Joe had no doubt that the other boy and his gang of thugs would make good his promise. Next time, the beating would be worse, or someone else might get hurt…and Joe wanted no part in being the cause of someone else’s pain.
Yet a part of Joe Cartwright knew that what the boys were planning was wrong…and if they carried through with their plan…someone might get hurt, or worse, killed. His inner self knew that he should tell his father, but the beating he’d just received was too fresh, his pain too new and his fear of the group weighed heavier at the present than his conscience.
Ben could see that he was getting no where in questioning his son, and also knew that the more he pressed Joe for an answer, the less likely he was in finding out what he wanted to know. Joe was famous for tucking away his feelings and only allowed them to surface when he was ready…Ben had no choice at the time, he would have to wait until Joe was ready to talk. Hopefully that would be soon, for whoever had beaten the boy was still at large and though Ben would never voice aloud to his son, his fears for the boy’s well being, he was afraid for the boy. He had no idea what was the reasoning behind the beating, and he could only wonder that the person or persons responsible might try again.
Two days later, when Joe was able to sit up in bed, Ben was no closer to getting an answer to his question than when he had first asked Joe about it. He paced back and forth in front of the fireplace, his fingers stuffed into the openings of his pockets. Hoss and Adam had seated themselves on the settee and while Ben paced, they waited for Roy Coffee, the town’s sheriff to come down the stairs. He had arrived earlier and had insisted on talking to Joe about what had happened. Ben warned his friend that it wasn’t likely that Joe would open up and give him the information that he was seeking, but he was welcomed to try.
All heads turned toward the steps when they heard the upstairs bedroom door close. The three watched as Roy ascended the stairs, a frown furrowing into his brow. Ben glanced knowingly at his sons while moving to meet Roy at the bottom of the stairwell.
Ben looked expectantly at the sheriff.
“I don’t understand it Ben, he won’t tell me a thing. If’n I didn’t know no better, I’d say the boy was protecting someone!” announced Roy.
“That’s ridiculous,” stammered Ben. “Why on earth would Joe want to protect the person who beat him?”
“Now Ben, how should I know…he’s your son. Has he told ya anything, more than he didn’t know, or couldn’t tell ya?” inquired Roy.
Ben let out a puff of air. “No…no he hasn’t…and I don’t understand why!”
“Pa?” Adam said as he joined his father at his side. “Maybe Joe’s afraid to say…I mean…it’s possible that whoever it was, threatened him. Perhaps Joe’s afraid of someone else getting hurt…or earning himself another beating?”
“That’s possible, I haven’t thought about that, but Adam…that still doesn’t explain why Joe was beaten…only that he’s afraid to say who it was,” Ben said.
“Maybe he seen sumthin’ he shouldn’t have…and he was beaten so’s he wouldn’t tell what he seen,” suggested Hoss.
“Ya know, Ben…Hoss might have somethin’ there. There sure has been a lot of unexplained things goin’ on ‘round town,” pondered Roy aloud.
“What do you mean, Roy?” Adam spoke up to ask.
“Well…old man Swanson came in today, he was madder than a hornet too…said that someone salted his well and turned all his horses out of his corral. The old man complained that it took him and his men all day to round up those strays and get’em back to the corral. Swanson also told me that someone threw a rock through his window with a note attached that said he need beware…things were heatin’ up…well Ben, I think this is more than a bunch of kids playin’ pranks of folks,” explained Roy.
“What did that mean…things were heatin’ up?” Hoss asked, puzzled by the comment.
“Don’t know…Swanson don’t know either. He did say that he saw a couple’la boys nosing around his barn the other night. In fact Ben,” Roy turned to his friend, “it was the same night that Joe got hurt.”
“Did he see who they were?” asked Adam.
“No, they run off afore he could see their faces well enough to recognize them,” explained Roy.
“Reckon Joe seen sumthin’ he shouldn’t of?” Hoss spoke up before the others. “Maybe he planned on tellin’ on’em, that’d be reason ‘nough to get beat up.”
“Might be he knows more’em he’s atellin’ ya Ben,” predicted Roy.
Ben and Adam swapped troubled looks. Ben’s brows rose slightly. “Are you suggesting, Roy, that Joe might have been involved?”
“No…I ain’t asayin’ that Ben…but Hoss is right; the boy might of seen somthin’,” answered Roy.
“But the Swanson place is all the way on the other side of Virginia City. To my knowledge, Joe’s never even been to Swanson’s,” Ben explained.
“He went with me, right after the Swansons moved in,” Adam told his father. “In fact, both of us helped Mrs. Swanson carry in some boxes.”
Ben seemed to be thinking while the others had grown quiet. “I suppose the only thing to do, is for me to question Little Joe again,” sighed Ben. “I’ll be back, make yourself at home Roy, Hoss ask Hop Sing to make some sandwiches, please.”
Ben turned and marched up the stairs. He dreaded the confrontation with his youngest son. Joe still wasn’t feeling up to par, and when Ben had last questioned the boy, Joe almost had burst out in tears.
Ben rapped lightly on the door and then gently pushed it opened. When he peeked inside, he could see Joe propped up in the bed with his head resting back against the pillows. An opened book was spread across his lap. When Joe heard his father, he raised his head and smiled.
“Hi ya, Pa,” the boy smiled.
“Hi son. How are you feeling?” Ben asked as he pulled the chair to the side of the bed.
“I ain’t hurtin’, much, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“That’s a good sign. Maybe when the doctor comes out tomorrow, he’ll let you go downstairs for a while, how would you like that?” smiled Ben.
“I’d like it fine…I’m about tired of these four walls,” Joe said as his smile faded.
Ben glanced around at the room as if to agree with his son. “Joe, I was wondering something…” he said a moment later.
“Pa…if it’s about what happened to me…” Joe hung his head, not wanting to look into his father’s eyes for fear of revealing the truth about what happened. He was worried about what Cory might do next, and who might get hurt in the process.
“Well, not really…but the sheriff had some interesting facts to share with us.”
“Really? Like what?”
His father’s words had spiked his interest and he found himself hard pressed to keep it from showing. He had been wondering what Cory and the others had been up to since he had been laid up, and he hoped that he had not followed through with his plans to…
“He said someone salted Owen Swanson’s well and then threw a rock though his window. Seems there was a warning attached to it that rather frightened him and his wife. Mr. Swanson said that he spied a couple of boys messing around his barn, but they ran off before he could see who they were,” Ben said.
He tried to keep his voice calm and not make it sound as if he were pressing the boy for information, but rather just sharing with him what Roy had told them.
“A warning…what kind of warning?” Joe asked worriedly.
He knew that Cory hated the Swansons. The boy had blamed the older gentleman for his father losing their farm. Cory’s father had been so far in debt and the back taxes had added up to such that Mr. Melton had been unable to pay them. When the banker said either pay up or the ranch goes up for public auction, Cory’s pa had become so enraged at the banker, that he had pulled a gun on the man and threatened to kill him. Mr. Swanson had been standing nearby when the incident took place and when he saw what was happening, he slipped in behind the other man and knocked the gun from Mr. Melton’s hand.
Mr. Melton had been held in Roy Coffee’s jail until he simmered down and two days later, after the sale of his ranch, Roy let the man out. Melton had made his way to the saloon and had drank himself into a stupor and had started making his brags about how he would get his farm back, even if it meant killing Owen Swanson, for the older gentleman had been the man who had bought Melton’s farm for the back taxes. Melton had been so overcome with hatred that he had tried to waylay the other man and his wife one afternoon while the couple had been on their way into town. Owen Swanson had managed to get to his gun first, seconds before Sam Melton fired on him. Swanson shot once, killing the other man instantly.
Cory had told Joe and the others what had transpired that night and the boy had gone on to tell them that he had promised himself that one day he would get back at Mr. Swanson for killing his father and for stealing their farm from them. Joe had known the boy for little over a year and though he wasn’t overly fond of Cory, he had felt a measure of pity for the boy. The fact that Cory had very few friends was another factor that had drawn Joe to the boy. Only after Joe had gotten to know Cory better, had he learned that Cory had more friends than first thought and that those friends were much older than himself and were no longer in school.
“The note said that Mr. Swanson should be aware and that things were beginning to heat up.” While Ben had been explaining about the note, Joe had been lost in his own thoughts and when his father had begun speaking, Joe was drawn away from his pondering.
“Roy couldn’t figure out what that meant, neither could Mr. Swanson…”
“And he thinks I can?” stammered Joe in an accusing tone of voice.
His father’s words, and the fact that two boys were seen around the Swanson’s barn, gave Joe reason to fear that Cory and his gang might be getting ready to set a fire. A fire that Joe feared might just as easily cause the death of the older man and his elderly wife.
“Joe, calm down, Roy didn’t mean anything like that, why on earth would he think you might know anything about it…unless…maybe you do?” Ben watched the look on Joe’s face and how quickly his son averted his eyes.
Ben’s hand reached for Joe’s and gently took his son’s into his own. “You don’t know anything about all of this…do you son?” he asked as calmly as he could.
Joe’s eye darted to his father’s face and just as quickly Joe looked the other way. “How would I know…” his voice faltered right at that moment and he hated himself for having to lie to his father.
“I don’t know anything…how could I, I’ve been lying in this bed for three days?” snapped Joe.
“It happened the night you were beaten,” stated Ben.
He was more positive than ever now, after seeing the look on Joe’s face, that Joe did, in fact know more than he was willing to tell.
“So…I would like to think that if you did know something, you would be honest enough to tell me,” Ben said, fighting to control the emotion in his voice.
“You think I’m lying?” Joe practically shouted. His eyes filled with tears and began to seep from his one good eye.
“Joseph, I didn’t say that…and I didn’t mean to make you think…”
“Then why’d ya even bother to ask me in the first place, if ya already had your mind set that I was fibbing to you?” Joe began to cry in earnest. “You never believe anything I say…why should this time be any different?”
“Son, please…I didn’t mean…”
“Yes you did!” cried Joe as he lowered himself down in the bed and tried to turn away from his father.
Ben stood silently, heartbroken that his son had become so upset with his questioning. He leaned down, pulling the covers up around Joe’s body and hesitated briefly before placing his lips to Joe’s cheek and kissing the boy gently.
“I’m sorry Joseph. You rest now, we’ll talk again later.” Joe made no response to his father and Ben turned at last and left the room.
The next afternoon, Paul did give Joe the freedom to be up and about for short periods of time. Joe made the most of it too, the first place he wanted to be, was outside. Ben, after much arguing with the boy, allowed Joe to sit on the side porch with him while he worked on the books. Joe had brought the book along that he had been reading and was lost in the pages when the sounds of an approaching horse caused him to look up. Instantly, Joe glanced at his father and then back at the rider.
Ben had seen Joe cast his eyes sideways at him and Ben had noted the troubled expression that Joe quickly masked as well. He could only wonder at the reasoning and more so, why this particular young man happened to be stopping by.
“Joe, isn’t that Sam Melton’s son?” Ben said in a low tone as he watched the boy dismount and tie his horse’s reigns to the hitching rail.
“Hum…yeah, Pa…that’s Cory,” Joe answered without looking at his father.
“Wonder why on earth he’s here?” said Ben and then hushed as the boy made his way toward them.
“Hi ya, Little Joe,” Cory smiled as he tossed his hand up in salute. “Mr. Cartwright?” he greeted Ben.
“Cory,” answered Ben, somewhat caught off guard by the boy’s friendly greeting to Joe.
He hadn’t been aware that the Melton boy was a friend of Joe’s. It wasn’t what Ben would have preferred, for he had heard talk about the boy in town. It seemed to Ben that the boy had a reputation as being a troublemaker, according to the sheriff, and the fact that Cory was a couple of years older than Joe wasn’t a plus either. Ben stood for a moment and watched his son. The smile that was present only minutes before was gone now and in its place was the beginnings of a scowl, and Joe seemed a bit uncomfortable, either by the boy’s arrival or his father’s lingering presence, Ben wasn’t sure.
“Hi Cory,” Joe said in a small voice. “What brings you out this way?”
Ben heard the slight quiver in Joe’s voice and made a quick look at his son’s expression.
Cory grinned from ear to ear, a smile that in Ben’s thinking was forced and not altogether sincere. There was something going on between the two boys, of that Ben was certain, and whatever it was, definitely was making his own son uncomfortable. It was for sure, by the actions of his son, that Ben could easily see that Joe was not happy with the other boy’s visit.
“I came by to see how ya was. Some of the fellas in town was talkin’ about what a bad way ya was in…I thought I’d drop by and see for myself,” Cory said in a voice that he tried to make sound as if he really was concerned.
“Well, now you’ve seen,” snapped Joe, forgetting his father who still stood behind him.
Ben cleared his throat, drawing Joe’s attention away from his quest. Joe turned to his father, seeing the look of dismay on his face. He gulped, worried that with Cory’s appearance, Ben might get suspicious and start asking questions again.
“If you boys will excuse me, I have some things to take care of inside. I’ll let you two visit for a while without me hanging around,” laughed Ben lightly.
The remark caused Cory to laugh as well.
“Cory…it’s nice to see you again. I hope your mother is well?” Ben asked kindly.
“Oh yessir, Ma’s fine, thank ya for asking, Mr. Cartwright,” smiled Cory.
“Joseph, don’t be too long son, you know what the doctor said about you only staying up for a short time,” Ben added before he turned to leave.
“All right, Pa…I won’t be long…I promise,” Joe said as he offered a small smile to his father.
Cory was relieved to know that the old man had no inkling what he had done to his son. He glanced at Joe and smiled though the smile was more a smirk. Satisfaction shown in Cory’s eyes and Joe was quick to note the glimmer. It made him mad and he glared at the other boy, who only laughed again.
When Ben had gone inside and closed the door, Joe turned on Cory.
“Why in blazes are you here?” he demanded.
“I dun told ya…I came by to see how ya was makin’ out,” Cory said as he plopped himself down in the chair that Ben had been sitting in.
“Fine, you’ve seen, now go home!” snarled Joe.
“Now…now…Little Joe, is that anyway to treat a friend?” laughed Cory.
Joe’s temper was quickly reaching the boiling point and it showed on his face. “You aren’t a friend of mine…now get out of here,” he ordered.
Cory stood to his feet, towering over Joe. The laughter died and the smile disappeared. The older boy leaned down, near Joe’s face.
“I just wanted to make sure ya heeded my warnin’ about keepin’ ya mouth shut about my business. And I’m glad to see ya have.” Cory grinned then and patted Joe’s cheek with his opened palm. The third pat was hard and caused Joe to draw back.
“There’s gonna be a barn burnin’ soon, Little Joe…ya best continue to keep ya mouth shut, lessen ya wanna see someone git hurt real bad like.”
Joe wormed his way upward from his chair and inched his body away from the other young man. “Your crazy, Cory…just plain crazy. Why do you want to burn Mr. Swanson’s barn and take the chance on hurting the old man, maybe even his wife? They’ve never done anything to you…”
Cory’s face twisted into a snarl and he glared angrily at Joe. “Never did anythin’ to me? Why that ole coot stole my pa’s farm right out from under him and then murdered him in cold blood!” growled Cory.
“That’s a lie and you know it, Cory. Old man Swanson was just protecting himself from your father. Your pa drew on him and if Mr. Swanson hadn’t of fired in self-defense, your pa would have killed him…and as for the farm, he bought that place for the back taxes, everyone knows that! My pa told me all about it when it happened,” argued Joe.
“Well, ya ole man don’t know everythin’! Ain’t nobody seed what happened, ‘ceptin’ for Swanson and my pa…and my pa ain’t here to tell his side of the story!”
Cory had circled behind Joe and leaned down to whisper in his ear. “Mind what I said, Cartwright…ya open ya mouth…I might just have to come back here and finish what I started, once I’m dun with the old man and his wife…”
Joe turned slowly around and stared at the boy. “I’m not afraid of you, Cory…you go near the Swansons barn, and I’ll tell my pa. That’s a promise and he’ll…”
“Could be another fire too, sure would hate to see that one over there, go up in smoke, ‘specially with that purty pinto of yours trapped inside, not to mention all them other fine horses ya pa’s got.” Cory nodded his head toward the Cartwright barn, making his meaning plain to Joe. He laughed when he saw the fear that suddenly showed on Joe’s young face.
“Don’t try me, kid…ya’ll never win…that’s a promise!”
Cory moved away from Joe and started toward his horse. “See ya ‘round, Little Joe.”
Joe stood rooted to the same spot, never turning his head to watch the boy ride away. When Joe was sure that Cory was gone, he lowered himself into the chair and leaned back his head, closing his eyes.
Joe sat for several long minutes, lost in thoughts. He tried to tell himself that Cory was just spouting off at the mouth, that he would never really have the guts to set fire to a man’s barn, but Joe wasn’t totally convinced that Cory wouldn’t do as he had sworn to do, either.
Joe glanced around at his own barn. How could he live with himself if they lost their barn? What if Cory meant what he said, that if Joe should tell anyone what Cory’s plans were, he would sneak in some night when they were all asleep and set fire to the Cartwright’s barn. What about the horses…Cochise! Joe’s worried thoughts suddenly turned to his pinto and the picture that Cory had painted of their barn blazing and all of their prized horses trapped inside.
A sob caught deep within Joe’s throat and he silently cursed himself for ever thinking that he could somehow be a friend to a boy such as Cory Melton. Joe now regretted the day that he had disregarded Adam’s warning that he stay away from the Melton boy, and instead had befriended the young man. Adam had tried to tell him that Cory was trouble and if not careful would manage to pull him into it as well. And Adam had been right, for there had been several incidents where Joe had gotten home later than he should have, because of meeting up with Cory and his gang, and Ben had let his anger be known.
What was he to do…who could he turn to now, certainly not his father, for Joe feared his father’s wrath should he find out that he had been party to some of Cory’s pranks around town. And for sure not Adam, for his older brother would only smirk and tell him, ‘I told you so’. There was always Hoss, but Hoss would only want him to go straight to their father and admit the entire truth…a truth that Joe would just as soon not have to admit.
Joe squeezed his eyes tightly shut. It had only been harmless fun, or so he thought at the time. Loosening a saddle cinch here and there, over turning the apple bin that Mr. Cass had placed outside on the boardwalk in front of his store. Joe had stood silently in the background with Cory while the other boys actually pulled the pranks and had snickered along with the others when customers stumbled over the spilled fruit.
Joe shook his head in disgust. “I can’t believe I was so stupid, to think that was funny,” he muttered to himself.
Joe heard the sound of soft laughter behind him and quickly drew himself to attention. He twisted around, surprised to see his oldest brother standing behind him, with a cheeky grin on his face.
“You having a private conversation, little brother?” teased Adam as he came onto the porch and made himself comfortable in the other chair.
“Ha, ha, ha,” sneered Joe.
Adam ignored the smirk on his brother’s face. “I just passed Cory Melton, what was he doing here?” Adam asked.
“He came to see me, what’s it to you?” growled Joe, rising to his feet.
“Nothing to me, Joe, just curious, that’s all. I wasn’t aware he was friend of yours…I thought I warned you about him.” Adam leaned his chair back and propped his feet up on the table. He had a tiny piece of straw stuck between his teeth and he eyed his brother closely.
“He’s not a friend of mine!” snapped Joe, turning to glare at Adam.
“Then why was he here?”
“None of your business!” Joe turned to leave; he had to get away before he allowed himself to say too much.
Joe heard Adam’s boots as they hit the porch. “Joe, wait a minute,” Adam called as he rose to his feet.
Joe stopped, but refused to turn around. Adam quickly moved to his brother’s side, noting how rigid Joe was standing. When he placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder, he was surprised at the trembling feeling that surged beneath his fingers. He stepped around in front of Joe, facing the boy. The bright glistening shine in his brother’s eyes stunned the older of the two.
Joe dropped his head, a tiny bead of water rolled gently down his face. Adam saw the boy swallow.
“Joe,” Adam said softly, “what’s wrong, buddy?”
Joe could not form the words nor force them to his lips. He feared what Cory would do, he was worried what his father would think and say to him, and he felt as if he had no one to whom he could turn. Joe hurt from head to toe from the beating he’d received, and feared more, should he admit to what he knew.
Joe shook his head and finally looked up, surprised to see the compassion in his brother’s eyes. He hesitated briefly before speaking.
“There’s nothing wrong! Just leave me alone, Adam and mind your own business!”
With that, Joe shoved his way around Adam and went into the house, slamming the door behind him. The minute he was inside, he drew a deep breath and hurried up the stairs and into his room where he lay down across the bed. The tears that he fought so hard to control finally were granted their release.
“What was that all about?” Ben asked Adam minutes later when Adam entered the house.
Ben had been sitting at his desk and had started to call out to Joe when he had seen the strange look on the boy’s face as he rushed up the stairs. Ben had stood and started toward the door sure that he had just heard Adam’s voice, when Adam came into the house.
“Not sure, Pa,” Adam said as he took his gunbelt off and laid it on the credenza. “I was just asking him why Cory Melton had been here, and Joe got all twisted out of shape and bit my head off.”
“I was wondering the same thing, about the Melton boy I mean. I didn’t know that he and your brother were friends,” Ben said as he and Adam moved into the great room. Ben took a seat in his favorite chair and started to light his pipe.
“Joe said they weren’t, I asked him the same thing,” Adam informed his father.
“They certainly acted like they were friends…at least Cory did.” Ben paused, seemingly to be thinking. “Now that I think about it, Adam, Joseph really didn’t seem pleased that Cory stopped by. Wonder why?”
Adam shook his head and gave his father a half grin. “Who knows? With Joe, it’s a guessing game, Pa. I warned the boy about that Melton kid, he’s trouble. I don’t like him hanging around Joe and I don’t…”
Adam stopped talking to stare at his father. Ben was laughing softly.
“Adam, someday son, you will make a great father,” smiled Ben as he rose to his feet. “I think I’ll go check on your brother,” he laughed as he gently patted Adam’s shoulder in passing.
Ben tapped on the door and gently eased it opened. He could see Joe lying across the bed, obviously sleeping, so Ben tiptoed over to the side of the bed and picked up the blanket at the foot. Carefully so as not to wake the boy, he spread the cover over his son. As Ben leaned down to smooth the blanket, he noted the shine of dampness on his son’s face, and the moisture, a telltale sign that the boy had been crying, left a dull ache in his father’s heart.
Quietly, Ben slipped from the room and back down stairs. Adam twisted in his chair to watch his father’s entrance and waited until Ben had sat down.
“Hmm? Oh, Joe’s sleeping, son,” Ben stated. “He’s been crying, Adam…”
“I know…when I was talking to him outside, he got upset and I saw the tears build up in his eyes, but he brushed me off and came inside. I tried asking him if something was wrong, but naturally he said no and told me to mind my own business,” explained Adam.
Adam moved from the blue chair to sit on the table facing his father. “Do you think it’s possible that Cory had anything to do with Joe’s…beating?”
Ben seemed surprised at the idea and shook his head. “No…I think something else is bothering Joe. Besides…why would this boy beat Joe up and then drop by to see how he was? It doesn’t make any sense, Adam.”
“Maybe not, Pa…but…but…”
“But, what?” Ben cast worried eyes up at Adam. “What are you not telling me?”
Adam gave his father a small twisted grin. “You know me so well, don’t you, Pa?”
“I’d like to think so, Adam. Now, what is it that you’re having trouble telling me?” Ben said, returning the twisted smile with one of his own.
“Well, Pa…yesterday, when I was in town, I stopped by to see Roy, and he told me…”
Ben stomped around the room. He was seething with anger at his younger son. It was hard to believe that Joe had been a part of what Adam had passed on to him about Cory and his gang of hooligans and had it been anyone other than his older son telling him such, Ben would have most likely doubted the story.
“I can’t imagine what in the world that boy was thinking! And after you and I both warned him about hanging around that kid!” stormed Ben.
Ben flung himself around to face Adam. He wore a glaring look on his face. “I’ve a good mind to march right back up those stairs and give him a walloping he won’t ever forget!” shouted Ben.
Hoss paused in the doorway. He had just gotten back from town where he had gone to get the mail, and the sound of the deep roaring voice of his father caused him to pause. He glanced first at his father’s face and then at Adam.
“Somethin’ wrong?” he said in a wary voice.
Hoss unbuckled his gunbelt and placed it on the credenza next to Adam’s. After hanging his hat on the peg behind the door, he ambled slowly over to join his brother and father.
“Joseph! Who else?” roared Ben.
“Little Joe? But how can he be in trouble…he’s been laid up nearly a week?” Hoss stammered, obviously shaken by the news that Joe had somehow managed to anger their father to such a degree. “’Sides, he’s got two busted ribs…what’d he do this time?”
His question was directed more at his older brother than to his father.
Adam eyed his father but when Ben turned away from them and sat down, Adam started to explain. He took a deep breath, his brows deepened as he pressed his thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose.
“Remember that kid, Cory Melton?” he began.
“Sure…Sam Melton’s boy…the one that swore to get even with old man Swanson for killin’ his pa…why?” Hoss asked, taking a seat on the edge of the stone hearth.
“Joe’s been hanging around with him and…”
“What! Why from what I’ve heard, that youn’on ain’t nothin’ but trouble,” Hoss announced.
“That about sums it up!” grumbled Ben.
“What’s he done…Joe I mean…to get himself in trouble?” Hoss asked.
“Well,” Adam paused and glanced at his father before continuing. “Nothing that Roy can actually point a finger at and accuse Joe. But he has been seen hanging around with Cory when things happened in town…and…Roy suspects that Cory and his gang are the ones that salted Mr. Swanson’s well last week,” Adam explained.
“Last week? But Little Joe was laid up last week…he couldn’t of been in on that…could he?” stammered Hoss.
“No, thank goodness,” Ben snapped. “But just the idea that Joe’s been sneaking around town with those thugs is enough to warrant being in trouble. Roy caught sight of the scamp earlier the night Joe was beaten, and he was with Cory then. That’s the same night that several cowboys came out of the saloon only to find their saddle cinches loose and Mr. Cass at the mercantile had a barrel of apples turned over on the sidewalk. Mrs. Cameron down at the boarding house tripped over a couple of them and fell. Roy said she fractured an ankle in the process.”
Ben made a growling sound deep in his throat and stood to his feet. He paced around the room and stopped at the bottom of the stairs and turned back to his sons.
“If I find out that Joseph had a hand in that, I’ll tan his backside so hard the boy won’t sit for week!” growled Ben.
The loud pounding at the front door brought instant silence to the conversation as each one looked from one to the other. Ben started toward the door.
“Wonder who on earth that could be, this late at night?”
Joe, who had finally wakened, stood at the top of the stairs. He watched as his father hurried to the door. Ben slipped the latch and pulled opened the heavy oak door.
“Mr. Cartwright…please,” stammered the man who Ben instantly recognized as John Ventana, Owen Swanson’s foreman. “Ya gotta come quick,” the man stammered.
“John, come on in…what on earth is wrong?” Ben said, pulling on the man’s arm until he was inside.
John grabbed Ben’s other arm, steadying himself.
“Fire…the barn’s on fire!” he stuttered.
“What!” Ben roared. “Adam, Hoss, quick…get your things. John, we’re on our way!”
Ben made a grab for his hat and gun and stopped long enough to tie the leg strap. Adam and Hoss were already out the door when Ben caught a movement to his right and glanced up, seeing a tearful Joe standing silently. Ben’s movement ceased as he studied the boy’s face, and the high shade of pink that tinted his son’s complexion.
Joe took a step nearer his father. Ben raised upright.
“I’m…I’m…sorry Pa…I didn’t think…he’d go…through with it,” stammered Joe between sobs.
Puzzled, Ben placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “What are you talking about, Joseph?”
Joe raised tear filled eyes upward to look into his father’s face. “The fire…I know who…started…it.”
Joe melted his body into his father’s chest. Automatically, as many times before, Ben engulfed his son with his long arms and held the boy to his heart as Joe blurted out his story.
“Cory said he was going to burn down Mr. Swanson’s barn…for killing his pa…and he wanted me to go along with him and the others…but I told him I’d have no part in it…and that I was gonna tell you…but then he and the others…they beat me up…and he said that he’d burn down our barn some night…with all our horses in it if I told a soul about what they were planning…and I got scared…for Mr. Swanson…and our livestock…and I didn’t know what to do, Pa…or who to go to…I was afraid that if I told…he would do it, so I just didn’t say anything about it…but he did it anyway…I’m sorry, Pa…I’m so sorry…”
Joe’s chest was heaving by the time that he’d finished with his story and his words were slurred and tangled together, but his father had gotten the message.
“Joseph,” Ben whispered as he held the boy tightly to his breast. Ben tilted Joe’s chin upward so that he could see into the troubled eyes. “You wait here, I’ll be back just as soon as I can and we’ll talk about this, all right?” Ben brushed back the dark locks of hair that fell from Joe’s head across his forehead. “Go back to bed, son.”
Joe backed away from his father; his body was trembling as he looked up at his pa. “I was wrong…wasn’t I, Pa, for not telling you?” His quivering chin gave him the semblance of a small boy.
“I really don’t think I need to answer that question for you, son…I think you already know the answer,” Ben said softly. “Now, please, go to bed and wait for me,” Ben tried to smile, but it wasn’t a total success. With a tender movement, he brushed the palm of his hand gently down the tear stained face.
“Pa…Cory…he swore to kill Mr. Swanson…please…” Joe gulped and swiped the back of his hands across his face to wipe the tears that lingered on his cheeks. “Don’t…let anything…happen to the old man…please…” wept Joe.
Ben’s heart was in his throat, speaking was next too impossible. The frantic look on his young son’s face left him with a feeling that his stomach had just flipped upside down. Ben nodded his head, and gently clutched Joe’s shoulder.
“I’ll try Joe…I’ll try.”
Ben ran from the house. One of the hands had saddled his horse and was waiting, mounted on his own horse. Several of the men had ridden along with Adam and Hoss to help with putting the fire out. Hop Sing had even joined the men, leaving Joe alone in the house with everyone gone. Ben mounted quickly and raced to catch up with Adam and Hoss whom by now were nearing the Swanson home.
Joe stood at the door and watched as his father rode off into the darkness. He suddenly felt as if the weight of the world was bearing down on his shoulders as he shut the door at last and slowly made his way to his room. He was on the landing, halfway up when the door burst open, startling Joe from his thoughts.
“There he is!” someone shouted.
Before Joe could collect his senses, two large boys were running toward the stairs. Joe snapped to attention and turned to flee but was stopped by the first boy who hauled him to the floor of the landing by wrapping his strong arms around Joe’s body. Joe clenched his jaw tightly against the pain that the other boy’s grasp was having on his broken ribs.
Joe squirmed around on the floor trying to free himself from the body on top of him. His space was cramped because of the stair railing and Joe felt himself and the one on top of him, tumble down the few steps to the floor below. Pain surged through his ribcage, as he was roughly hauled to his feet and spun around to face Cory Melton and a member of his gang. The two boys stood before Joe, deep rooted anger embedded in each expression.
“I warned ya Cartwright…now ya gonna pay!” yelled Cory as he doubled up his fist and drove it deeply into Joe’s stomach.
Joe groaned as his folded body dropped to the floor. The other boy kicked out at Joe, causing another painful moan to slip passed the boy’s lips.
Cory and his sidekick each grabbed Joe by an arm, hauled him to his feet and dragged him from the house. They stumbled across the yard to the barn, stopping just long enough to yank the door open and shoved Joe inside. Once within the dark interior, Joe was once again tossed to the floor.
“Find some rope and tie him up while I look for something to start a fire,” ordered Cory.
“NO!” screamed Joe as he struggled to get to his feet.
Cory swung out with his leg, kicking Joe just under the chin. Joe’s head flopped backward as Joe fell silent while the darkness claimed his world.
“Hurry it up, Ray…those dang Cartwrights will be back soon and I want this barn hot when they get here,” laughed Cory who had found what he was looking for.
In the far corner of the barn, Cory had found a full container of kerosene, used in oil lamps, and he began tossing it all about the barn, soaking everything he could, especially the bales of hay stacked on the opposite wall.
Ray had found a long rope and was working at securing Joe’s arms behind his back. He shoved Joe face down on the dirt floor and pulled his legs up behind his back and tied the ankles together and then secured them to Joe’s wrists with another section of rope.
“How’s that?” he asked Cory, standing back and admiring his handiwork.
“That’s fine, ‘ceptin’ gag him…I don’t wanna hear him screamin’ for his daddy when this place goes up in smoke!” warned Cory.
Ray grabbed a rag from the rag box he found in the tack room and wrapped it tightly about Joe’s mouth. When he was finished, he and Cory backed slowly toward the door until they reached the entrance. Cory stopped and shook the last drops of oil from the container and then tossed in the can. Ray waited until Cory dug through his pockets in search of a match. Cory found what he was looking for and raised his hand to strike the match down the side of the door.
The voice from the side of the barn halted Cory’s movement. He glanced up, stunned to see Joe’s family returning from the fire that had claimed the Swansons barn. Adam jumped from his horse in one leap and dashed toward the two boys. Ray bolted into action by taking off at a full run and rounding the corner of the barn before either Ben or Hoss could grab him.
Cory somehow managed to get the match lit and tossed it into the barn. Instantly the flame ignited the oil and the fire burst into flames, lighting the night sky with its bluish tint. Adam stopped dead in his tracks to stare in total disbelief at the blaze that loomed before him.
Cory, forgotten for the moment, laughed loudly at the Cartwright’s frenzied actions and then turned to catch up with his friend.
“Get the buckets!” shouted Adam as he covered his face with his arm and leapt through the flames that lapped at the doorway. “I’ll get the horses!” he screamed over his shoulder as he disappeared into the wall of fire.
“ADAM!” bellowed his father.
Ben had been on the run to the watering trough when he saw his oldest son disappear out of sight behind the billowing flames. He grabbed a bucket of water and ran to the door, tossing the water onto the fire. As he ran back for another bucket, he could hear the sizzling sound of the water as it welded into the hot inferno.
From across the yard, ranch hands, returning from the first fire, ran to help their boss and his sons. They formed a long line and passed buckets from man to man slinging the precious water into the flames.
“ADAM!” Ben bellowed a second time. He had tried to enter the barn, but the blaze blocked his path and he was quickly becoming terrified for the life of his oldest child.
Just as Ben was about to try a second time, Cochise came barreling out the door, nearly knocking Ben to his feet. He jumped just in time to keep from being trampled. Another minute and a mare followed and then the team of chestnut bays, yet Adam was no where to be seen.
The men forming the line were making headway at putting out the fire from the outside. From within the walls, Adam had managed to kick and scatter the hay out of the way of the overbearing flames. The flames were slowly dying and there was hope in the men’s hearts that the largest portion of the barn would survive the fire.
Adam covered his face with his arm to ward off the intense heat and started out the back door to safety. The smoke was thick and black and he stumbled over something in his path. He fell to the ground with a thud and instantly tried to pull himself up, but stopped suddenly. Adam’s hand groped for the thing that had blocked his path, causing him to fall. He was overwhelmed with emotion when he managed to see through the dense smoke only to find his youngest brother lying on the ground, his arms and legs tightly encased in thick rope.
“JOE!” Adam shouted as he scooped the boy into his arms, ropes and all, and carried him out the back door into the still of the night.
Gently Adam lowered his brother to the ground and removed the gag and then the ropes. Joe began coughing and trying to suck in deep gulps of air to fill his lungs. Adam bent over the boy, holding him upright so that he could breathe better. After several long agonizing minutes, Joe was able to catch his breath and ceased coughing.
Joe peered into the face of his savor, tears formed in his reddened eyes and when he stretched upward, his arms opened wide, he hugged himself to his brother. Adam’s arms entwined themselves about his sibling as he carefully lifted Joe up and proceeded to take him around to the front, where he knew Ben waited in fear for his son, not realizing how very close he came to loosing more than just one of his boys.
“PA!” called Adam as he stepped into the glow of the dying fire.
Ben spun around. On his face he wore a look of enormous relief as he rushed forward and embraced his oldest son. So intent on Adam’s welfare, he barely noticed the bundle in his son’s arms until Adam drew his attention to it.
“It’s Joe, Pa. I found him hog-tied inside the barn,” Adam coughed.
“Joe…dear God…is he alright?” stammered Ben as he turned his full attention on the boy Adam carried.
“I think so…he just needs some fresh air and some water.” Adam carried Joe to the house. With the toe of his boot, he pushed opened the door and when he reached the settee, he lowered Joe carefully onto it.
Ben followed behind and stopped at the door, glancing over his shoulder to see the men had broken line. A few had grabbed shovels from the shed off the side of the barn that had been spared the hot flames and were scrapping away the debris. Hoss, who had seen his brothers and his father heading for the house, stayed with the men to be sure that the fire was completely out.
“HOP SING…GET SOME WATER!” shouted Ben.
Hop Sing appeared minutes later with the water. He was covered in soot and his clothes reeked of smoke, but he smiled down at his boss.
“Boy and barn…both be fine,” he chanted as he padded softly back to the kitchen.
Joe began coughing. “Oh…my…throat…” he whimpered in a hoarse voice. “It’s burning…bad…”
“Here buddy, drink this,” issued Adam as he placed a glass of water to Joe’s lips.
Joe took several long sips before he pushed Adam’s hand away. He searched for his father’s face, finding it as Adam moved away to allow his father to be closer to the settee and to Joe.
“The barn…he set the…fire,” cried Joe, whose eyes had filled with tears.
“We know, son…we saw Cory and another boy when we rode in,” Ben assured his son.
“Ray…Cory’s cousin,” whispered Joe. “Pa!” Joe reached out and grabbed his father’s arm. “The Swansons…are they…”
“They’re fine, Joseph…their barn was a total loss, but Owen and Julia are both okay,” smiled Ben.
“Thank goodness,” muttered Joe as he closed his eyes. When he opened them again, his father was still there. “He…was…going to…kill me…”
Joe’s reserve broke and he began sobbing. The beating, the gang’s plan, his fear for the older couple along with fear for his own losses and the shame he carried for allowing himself to get involved with a group of boys that not only his father, but his older brother had warned him about, and the knowledge that he was a disappointment to his father, had finally taken its toll on the teenager.
Ben pulled Joe to a sitting position and took his son into his arms. He allowed Joe to rest his head against his chest and said nothing until Joe had cried himself out. As he finished, Adam handed his brother a handkerchief, which Joe accepted.
“It’s all my fault,” he sputtered. “I should have told you…when they first planned it,” whispered Joe.
“Joe, let’s not think about what you should or should not have done. At least not right now, I want you upstairs and in a warm bath and then I want you in bed. We’ll talk about everything when we’re all rested,” ordered Ben.
“No buts, young man…now let’s get upstairs. Adam, would you have Hop Sing heat lots and lots of water. I think all of us will need a long soak in the tub, tonight!”
“Sure thing, Pa,” agreed Adam.
He stood and watched his father lead his brother to his room. When they were out of sight, Adam took a long deep breath and let it out slowly. He raked his hand across the front of his face and slowly started toward the kitchen in search of Hop Sing.
“We almost lost you tonight, little brother,” he murmured to himself.
Joe perched himself on the table centered on the side porch. He waited for his father and the sheriff to finish up inside, dreading the moment when he would have to face his father and explain all that he had done. It wasn’t going to be easy, but in truth, Joe was glad to know that he’d soon be relieved of the burden that he had been toting around for so long.
Joe heard the front door open and stood to his feet. Slowly he made his way forward.
“Well Ben, I guess that’s the end of it all,” Roy was saying to Joe’s father. “Now that those youn’ons have skedaddled, there ain’t no way to prosecute them, lessen we find’em. And last word I got…they been seen over in Placerville. I sent wires all about, Ben; they might turn up somewheres, someday.”
“They probably won’t show their faces around here again, anytime soon,” Ben said. His hand was resting on his friend’s shoulder as they walked together toward the horses.
“See ya, Little Joe,” Roy called out as he mounted up.
“Bye, Sheriff,” answered Joe, tossing his hand up to wave.
Roy rounded the barn, leaving father and son alone in the yard. Ben looked at Joe and smiled. As he neared the boy, he slipped his arm about Joe’s shoulder and guided him to the table.
“Let’s you and I have that talk now, how about it?” smiled Ben.
He could feel Joe’s body becoming stiff as the boy tensed up and his heart softened for what he knew would be a difficult conversation for his son.
Reaching the table, Ben pointed to the chair and Joe was quick to sit down. He watched his father as Ben found his own seat and got comfortable. Joe was somewhat pleased to see that his father wasn’t in a bad mood, and hoped that the good mood lasted until they were finished talking.
For the first few moments, neither said a word. Each one was waiting for the other to open the conversation. At last Ben cleared his throat, making Joe gulp.
“Why don’t you start by telling me just how long you have been sneaking around, seeing Cory?” Ben said.
The smile on his face had faded, and the lack of a friendly expression set Joe to worrying that perhaps his father might not be so understanding as he had first thought.
“Not long,” Joe said, and then saw the slight frown begin to form on his father’s face. “About a month,” he added. “No more…I only met him after school three or four times, and then we didn’t really do anything except talk.” Joe stopped, to see how his father was absorbing his words.
“I see.” It was all Ben said. “Go on.”
“Well…that’s about it…later, Cory started bringing those other fellas with him when he came to meet me. I didn’t know they were like they were…honest Pa. Least ways not at first I didn’t. When I realized they were…were…fellas I knew you wouldn’t want me to hang around, I tried to stop meeting them, but Cory…well…he don’t take no for an answer too good. When I didn’t show up one day, down at the lake…that’s where our meeting place was…he and the others started stopping me on the way home from school…at the forks. Cory wanted me to sneak off at night and meet up with him and the boys after dark and go into town…but I never did…really Pa…that’s the truth.”
Joe took a breath and let it out slowly. He wasn’t sure if his father believed him or not, or whether Ben was mad, but his father wasn’t saying anything. Joe didn’t know if that was a good sign or a bad one. Carefully he went on with his explanation.
“I did ride with them one afternoon…we went into town. Cory wanted to show me what he and Ray and the others did for fun.”
Ben raised his head slightly and eyed his son. “Was that the day the apple bin got tipped over and Mrs. Cameron tripped on them?” Ben asked in an even voice. He watched Joe swallow and nod his head.
“Yessir,” Joe muttered in a wee voice. The boy dropped his head, afraid to see the disappointment in his father’s dark eyes.
“Did you know that the poor lady fractured her ankle because of that fall?”
Joe’s head sprung upward, his eyes were wide. “Nosir…when the barrel went over and Mr. Cass came running out, we didn’t hang around to see what happened,” admitted Joe.
“Maybe you should have. She was in quite a bit of pain, Joseph.”
Joe lowered his head again, suddenly feeling very badly about what had happened. He had always liked the kind old lady and was very remorseful for what had happened to her.
“I’m sorry, Pa…” Joe said in a low tone.
“You should be…I expect you to apologize to her…the next time you see her in town,” Ben stated calmly. He almost smiled at the look on his son’s face.
Joe raised only his eyes to look over at his father. “Yessir.”
“What about all the loose cinches on those cowboy’s horses? Did you happen to indulge yourself in that little so-called fun?” questioned Ben.
Joe, his eyes round and his chin quivering just slightly shook his head no. “I only watched when they came out of the saloon and tried to mount up.”
“I see, and I suppose that when they fell in the dirt, you thought it was funny?”
Again, Joe lowered his head. He tried not to smile, but just remembering the surprised looks on some of those cowpoke’s faces was almost too much. Joe took a deep breath and willed the smile away.
“I did laugh at a couple of them when their saddles slid off their horses,” he honestly admitted.
Ben’s head shot up and he glared at the boy. “How dare you!” he barked.
“I’m sorry, Pa…but honest…I couldn’t help it. They were so drunk anyway…they would have fallen off their horses before they reached the end of the street and I thought…”
“That’s were you are wrong, young man…you didn’t think!”
“Yessir…I mean…nosir…I mean…it won’t happen again, honest Pa…ever,” muttered Joe.
“I certainly hope not, young man. Go on with your story…what else should I know?”
Joe thought for several minutes, dreading the part about the Swansons.
“Sometime later, Cory started telling all of us about what happened to his father and how he thought Mr. Swanson stole his father’s farm and then murdered his pa. He went on and on about how Mr. Swanson got off scott free and how much he wanted to get even with the old man for all of it. That’s when Cory and Ray came up with the idea of burning the man’s barn…I told him right away that…I wouldn’t be a part of it.”
Joe stopped and glanced at his father. The anger had left Ben’s face, much to Joe’s relief. The memory of it all was still raw and telling it now was getting harder for the young man.
“Is that when he and the others turned on you?” his father asked softly.
Joe felt the swelling of his chest as he nodded his head. He wasn’t altogether sure how his father knew it had been Cory and the gang that had beaten him up, but he wasn’t surprised that his father knew…Ben had a way of finding out the most diminutive details of just about everything concerning his youngest son’s activities.
“Cory said I had to do it, that I had taken the oath of the pack, but I told him no…and that I was going to tell you…” Joe turned sad eyes up and looked at his father. A sob caught in his throat.
“That’s when they ganged up on me…and beat me up,” he said in a whispered voice.
Joe’s chin began to quiver again and his eyes filled with tears. “He said if I told, something worse might happen…someone could get hurt…or killed.” Joe swallowed again and glanced at his father. “I was afraid to tell you…and afraid not to,” he whispered. “I know…I should have…but…but…I knew you’d be disappointed in me…and…” he swallowed again. “You have no idea how that makes me feel…when you are. And…I didn’t want you to…stop loving…me.”
Ben saw a lone tear fall from Joe’s eye and roll off the end of his chin and he felt his own throat thicken with emotion. Ben leaned over, resting his hand on Joe’s knee. Joe’s head came up and he looked into his father’s dark eyes, seeing the compassion and love that filled their depths.
“Let me explain something to you son, about how I feel about you.” began Ben. “First off, I want you to know that I am not disappointed in you. You made a mistake by not telling me…and it almost cost you your life…it did cost a man his barn, but that can be replaced, you cannot Joseph. Do you understand that?” Ben asked, studying his son.
Joe swiped at another tear and nodded his head.
“Son, loving you makes every day of my life special, did you know that?”
Joe shook his head.
“Well, it does, and being able to love you, fills my heat with happiness because no matter where I am or what my day brings, I know you’re there for me, always, son. And loving you makes the little things more fun…a special day shared between just the two of us, fishing, hunting together, or when I come up to say goodnight…those are the special moments that I cherish, Joe. Loving you is a miracle of life, a marvel, because I understand more each day what a precious gift your life and your love has meant to my life, to your brothers’ lives.”
Ben stood to his feet and pulled Joe up out of his chair and drew him into the folds of his arms. For several long moments, they stood, as they were, each drawing from the other, the love that flowed between them.
When Ben could find his voice, he continued. “Son, I want you to promise me, that after this, you will come to me when you have a problem. You know you can talk to me about anything, son, anything. We might not always agree, but if we don’t, we can work together for a solution. That’s what being family is, son; it’s sharing celebrations when good times abound and having arms to hold you when tears fall. Being family means you belong somewhere special where you’re known and loved just as you are and where you’re encouraged to become the person you still hope to be. Being family means that every season of the year you have a place to call home, a place of your own, where they hold you forever close to their hearts. It’s me and you and Adam and Hoss…and Hop Sing. That’s our family; we’re the ones who love you; we’re the ones you should turn to, not to outsiders and certainly not keeping something bottled up inside of you, eating away at your heart and soul. Can you understand what I’m saying…what I mean, Joe?”
Ben felt Joe’s arms tighten about his body and he heard the soft sniffling sounds that Joe made. He felt the tiny tremors that coursed their way along Joe’s spine and up to his shoulders. Ben could feel the steady beat of his son’s heart as it mingled in tune to his own as their hearts pressed themselves together standing as they were, locked in one another’s arms.
“I love ya, Pa…”
Ben gently pushed back Joe’s head, running his fingers through the thick tangle of wayward curls. He smiled down into the cherub like face of his youngest son. Silently he thanked God for sparing the boy’s life and for giving him a second chance to a be better father, for there were days when Ben felt positive that he was a complete failure, especially when it came to his youngest and most cherished son.
Ben brushed his lips across Joe’s forehead and whispered low, “have no doubt, you little scamp…your old Papa loves you too!”
Joe looked up and smiled. The burden had been lifted at last and relief flooded his soul.
“Pa…can I ride over to the Swansons tomorrow and see if they need any help rebuilding their barn?”
“Joseph, with those ribs…”
“But I can at least carry the nails, can’t I, Pa…please?” begged Joe. “I’d like to do something to…to help them. It would make me feel better…I mean…”
“All right son, we’ll all ride over and help, and when we’re done with their barn, we’ll start on ours, how’s that?” grinned Ben.
“I think that’s just fine, Pa…just fine.”
Ben watched Joe walk to the house. Joe held himself upright, his head was high and he had the walk of a self-assured young man that came only through experience and maturity. Ben smiled, deep down in his heart, Joe was well on his way to being a man that any father could be proud of, and Ben most certainly was…proud.