Left to Die (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  18,579


 

The man gasped for air as he leaned against the trunk of the thick pine. He’d run for what seemed hours and his lungs felt as if they were on fire. Sharp pains stabbed his ribs, and between the two, breathing was nearly impossible. Behind him, he could hear the ones who pursued him, making their way through the thick underbrush. Taking a deep breath to fill his aching lungs, the man took off again but was stopped after only a few feet by the burning sensation that suddenly erupted in his left shoulder. He staggered and then tumbled to the ground, groaning. Seconds later his body was surrounded by the four men who had hunted him down. One man laughed, one man kicked him in the side, while the third man strove to make repeated jabs to his wounded shoulder with the barrel of his rifle. The action caused the downed man to moan in pain, and with the last jab, he lost consciousness. The fourth man did nothing but watch his cohorts, a look of disgust on his aged face.

“That’s enough,” the fourth man ordered. The others backed away, but not before turning the man on the ground over so that they could see his face. “We done shot us a Cartwright alright,” one of them stated. “And, he’s about dead!” he laughed.

“Good; now let’s find our horses and get outta here,” the boss said.

“What about him?” Wade, brother of the boss, asked. Wade, tall and lanky, wore an evil grin on his face as he stood over the wounded man.

“I say finish him off…” Cody, who was the cousin of the boss and his brother, demanded. Laughingly he added, “Just to be sure.”

Will, the boss, looked at the small band of men. He wore a scowl on his face. “Look at him; he’s bleeding to death. He’ll be dead within the hour. Now get going…we have a herd to move,” he growled as he turned from the group and began making his way back toward their horses.

Cody and Wade followed Will back through the brush where they’d been forced to leave their horses. Gus, the oldest man of the group, lingered for just a moment. When the others were out of site, he bent down to the wounded man, who opened his eyes just a bit, and quickly pulled his neckerchief from his neck and stuffed it as best he could inside the man’s shirt and into the open wound in the man’s back, hoping to squelch the bleeding. He hadn’t wanted to add murder to his list of growing sins. The sight of the injured boy sickened him. His stomach churned. He had to get away. “Hope that helps you, kid.” With a last glance at the maimed man, he hurried to join the others.

*****

“We’ve lost over a hundred head, almost a hundred and fifty, according to the count I made this morning.” Adam Cartwright told his father. “I sent Joe into town to talk to Roy…”

“And now he’s missing!” grumbled the irate father. Ben moved from his seat to the hearth where he poked at the burning fire.

Before Adam could respond, Hoss opened the front door and entered the house. Behind him followed the sheriff, Roy Coffee. Ben, seeing they had a guest, crossed the room and greeted his friend.

“Looky who I found!” laughed Hoss. “Roy was on his way out to talk to you.”

“Howdy, Ben, Adam,” greeted the sheriff as he entered the room. “Hoss tells me you lost some cattle,” he started to explain before Ben interrupted him.

“Yes, didn’t Little Joe explain it all to you?” questioned Ben.

“Little Joe…nope can’t say that he has,” Roy explained. “I ain’t seen the boy in…oh, over a week.”

Ben exchanged puzzled looks with Adam. “Over a week,” he mumbled. “Adam sent his brother into town this afternoon to let you know what they found. Didn’t he stop by?” Ben said as a worried frown began creasing his brow.

“No, Ben; like I said, I ain’t seen the boy.”

Adam stepped closer to Roy and looked him in the eye. “Are you sure, Roy?”

Surprise caused Roy’s eyes to widen. “Well, Adam, I don’t reckon I’m so old or blind that I can’t say who I talked to or who I saw.”

Behind them, Hoss snickered earning himself a stern glare from his father. “Oh course you’re not, Roy,” Ben said, speaking up for his oldest son. “It’s just that we’re surprised that Joe didn’t make it into town.”

“I’m sorry. Maybe I missed him?”

“Not likely; it’s been hours since he was supposed to be in town,” Ben said. “I suppose you didn’t see anything along the road?”

The sheriff shook his head. “Nope, sure didn’t, Ben, but then I wasn’t really lookin’ for nothin’ either.”

Ben let out a long sigh and then turned to his sons. “Saddle our horses.”

“We gonna go lookin’ for Little Joe?” asked Hoss. “It’s nearly dark, Pa. Not likely we’re gonna be able to pick up his trail until day light.”

“The boy’s right, Ben. If Joe’s missing as you seem to think, it might be best to wait until morning. I’ll keep an eye out for anything on my way back to town. Which, by the way I need to be going. I’ll file a report on the missing cattle and have a look around tomorrow. If I find anything or hear anything, I’ll let you know. Good luck finding the boy,” Roy stated as he plopped his hat onto his head and made his way to the door.

“Alright, Roy; thanks for coming out,” Ben said as he walked out with the sheriff.

When the door closed behind him, Hoss turned to Adam. Worry was etched into the fine lines of the big man’s face. “Wonder where in tarnation that boy got too?”

Adam shook his head. “I have no idea, Hoss. All I know for sure is that he’d better have a good explanation ready for Pa when he gets back.”

Hoss scrunched up his face. “You don’t reckon something’s happened to the boy, do you?” he questioned.

“I don’t know, Hoss. I can’t imagine why Joe didn’t make it to town. It sort of has me worried, what with those steers missing and who knows how many cattle thieves there might be roaming around out there.”

“You said the cattle were missing from the north pasture?”

“Yeah, and that makes me worry more. You know, all those woods would make a good hiding place. Any man could stay hidden until after one of us checked on the herd, and then once we rode out, simply move them on out to the ridge cut where there’s plenty of places to hide a herd that large.”

Ben had returned to house and had caught the end of his sons’ conversation. “I agree with you, Adam. And I think, in the morning, we should start there. Maybe with any luck we can pick up Joe’s trail. If he headed for town, it should be easy to spot.”

“Sounds good to me,” responded Adam.

“Good. Then I think we should get to bed so we can get an early start in the morning,” suggested Ben.

“You’re right. Guess I’ll turn in,” Adam told his father. “Night Pa…try not to worry too much. Night, Hoss.

“Good night, son.”

“Night, Adam.” Hoss turned to his father. “Night, Pa.”

“Good night, Hoss.”

It was a long time after dark before Ben made his way to his room. He hadn’t even bothered to change but instead pulled his boots off and lay back on his bed. His troubled thoughts kept returning to his youngest son, and Ben worried about the boy’s safety and what might have kept him from going into town, report the missing cattle and then return home. A nagging feeling of doom brewed in his heart until at last, from sheer weariness, Ben finally drifted off into a troubled sleep.

*****

It was dark by the time the wounded man managed to open his eyes. With gritted teeth, he attempted to raise himself up but with little success. Instead, he stayed where he’d fallen, and through blurry eyes, gazed up at the midnight sky. The searing pain in the back of his shoulder and the heat from his rising temperature caused him to moan. The sound was piteous. Off in the distance, the young man could hear the cries of a lone coyote. To the north of him, the faint sounds of barking wolves reached his ears. The sounds they made and the thoughts of what a hungry pack of wolves could do to him in his condition were enough to force the boy to endure the pain of getting to his feet. Using his right hand, he pushed against the ground until he was sitting up right.

“Awwww!” he all but screamed as the pain flooded his entire body. He took a moment to rest, hoping that the nausea would pass, and then catching a grip on a low hanging branch, pulled himself to his feet. Again, he was forced to wait, this time for his head to stop spinning. His left arm was useless. When Joe could stand without swaying, he felt along the length of his arm, feeling the sticky blood that had ran down his back and then followed the length of his arm.

Quite aware of the fact that he had lost a good amount of blood frightened the boy. Carefully, while leaning against a tree, he somehow freed the useless sleeve from his shirt and quickly fashioned a sling in which he rested the arm.

Drops of sweat dotted his brow and his breathing was labored. In the distance, the howls of the wolves seemed to be drawing nearer. Joe wondered if they could pick up the scent of his blood which had collected on the ground and which had begun to seep again from the gash in his shoulder. With this in mind, he set it in his head that he should start moving away from the site where he’d been attacked. Putting distance between him and the pack of wolves was the driving force that made Joe to start walking. He was weak from loss of blood, causing him to stagger and sway as he made his way out of the woods and into the open fields. Joe glanced up at the moon, glad for its brightness that showed him the way. He knew if he could somehow make it across to the other side, the river with clear running water awaited him. There he figured he could wash some of the blood from his body and clothes in hopes of eluding the wolves, for the sound was getting louder and Joe knew the wolves were closing the distance between them.

Fear filled his heart. His mind conjured up imagines of the wolf pack ripping him to pieces. His dread was that he’d die by their means rather than from the gunshot to his back. Either way he surmised, he was doomed…doomed to die. The thought chilled him to the bone and he shivered because of it — or was it from the fever that burned in his body?

“Lordy, Pa…I need you…God, I need you,” he muttered just as he stumbled and fell. For several moments, Joe lay where he’d fallen. He gasped for air to fill his lungs. His body was devoured with agony but he refused to cry out, least he alert the pack of wolves to his location. His heart hammered within his chest and he wanted nothing more than to close his eyes. If he died, so be it.

“No…I can’t die, I won’t die. Get up Joe… Get up…” Joe whispered to himself. “Keep moving…Oh God…it hurts,” he sobbed, no longer fighting the tears that pooled in his eyes. “I’m almost there,” he uttered as he staggered across the open meadow, his aim focused on the opposite side.

The grassland had gotten taller and hindered his efforts. He was forced to step higher in order to squash down the blades just to be able walk. What strength he had fought to maintain quickly dwindled. Again he stumbled and fell. A world of pain no less than a bolt of lightning jetted through his body. As he lay upon the dampened ground, struggling to keep the dark abyss from claiming his body, sucking in air, the soft sounds of a rushing stream reached his ears.

“Water,” Joe mumbled. “Gotta have…water,” he cried as he forced himself to crawl through the thick blades of grass, for he could no longer force himself to get up. His energy and will-power had all but deserted him. When at last Joe was able to reach the clearing, he paused to listen to the sounds of the night.

The wolves were no longer howling, or at least not so that he could hear them. Swallowing, his strength spent, the anguished man forced himself to inch his way to the water. The minute Joe reached the water, he lowered his head and drank deeply. His mouth was parched; his body ached and hurt like blazes, and the refreshing water eased his torment to a certain degree. When he had drunk his fill, he pushed one last time, allowing the water to consume his body and to be gently carried downstream. Much later, the water pushed the unconscious boy to the bank where Little Joe remained, lost in the dark abyss that had at last claimed his damaged, soiled, and failing body.

*****

The Cartwrights had ridden for hours. The sun had risen high into the sky and burned hot on the backs of their necks, and still they had found no trace of the youngest Cartwright. The trail they had first found, just outside the perimeters of the meadow where the cattle had been grazing, had been lost as soon as the soft earth had turned to hard rock.

“What now?” questioned Adam as he watched his middle brother scanning the ground for any clues that might show them the way.

“I don’t know…let me think!” snarled Ben. He was tired, thirsty and worried.

Hoss glanced back at Adam, who refused to respond to the tart statement. Swallowing, he dared to make a suggestion. “Pa?”

“What?” Ben answered as he turned toward his son.

“Well, I’ve been sitting here studying this mess. We know Joe didn’t go to town, but why? What did he do instead? We followed him this far. Did he happen to see something that gave him reason to come this way?”

Ben’s brows rose slightly. “That’s an idea. I haven’t given a thought as to why he came this way, but what you say makes sense. Maybe the boy was onto something…or someone,” answered Ben.

“Maybe he’s followin’ them cattle rustlers,” Hoss added as he mounted up. “I reckon we need to go on over this here pile of rocks, Pa. Maybe we can pick up his trail on the other side.”

Ben nudged his horse. “The only way to be sure is to go look.” He waited as Hoss took the lead and together the three men crossed the rock mountain. They rode in silence until they reached the opposite side and then stopped again.

“See what you can find, Hoss, please,” Ben said, addressing his middle son. He had complete confidence in the young man’s tracking ability, for Hoss Cartwright was about as good a tracker as anyone around, probably better.

“Sure thing, Pa,” Hoss said as he dismounted and began searching the ground.

After a few minutes, he grinned up at his father and brother. “Hotdigitydog, Pa, I dun found some tracks!”

Both Ben and Adam dismounted and knelt down to look at the tracks that Hoss had found.

“Looky here, Pa…these tracks belong to Little Joe’s pony…and over here there’s a bunch more. Looks to be about four horses and riders,” explained the big man. He moved a few feet away and squatted down again. Ben followed.

“And here, two fellas dismounted. From what I can tell, Joe was still on his horse,” he continued. Hoss looked into his father’s eyes and gulped. “You reckon Little Joe dun run into them thieves and got himself into a bundle of trouble, Pa?”

“I’m thinking he might have, son. What do you think, Adam…Adam… Now where did he wander off to?” fumed Ben and both he and Hoss rose to standing position.

“I’m right here…and look what I found!” Adam said as he held Joe’s hat out for his father and brother to see.

Ben took the hat from his son’s hands and gentle looked it over. “Dear lord…that boy can find more trouble than anyone else I’ve ever known,” he muttered. “Let’s hope he’s not hurt…”

“Pa, these here tracks show five horses headin’ thataway,” Hoss pointed off to the horizon.

“There’s nothing but open grazing land on the other side of those woods. It’s surrounded on three sides by high rock formations. It would make a good place to hide those cattle until someone moved them out. Those woods are thick though, let’s keep following these tracks and see where they lead. But we need to stay close to the edge of the woods so as not to be seen.

All three men mounted up, and this time, Ben led the way down the slope, following the tracks made by the previous riders. The three men had ridden a good ways down the slope when Hoss suddenly pulled back on his reins.

“Hold up a minute,” Hoss issued as he quickly dismounted and began walking around, inspecting the ground.

“What is it?” Ben asked.

“Joe’s horse started running, right about here,” explained Hoss, pointing. “And right here,” he said as he moved forward a bit, “them other fellas horses started running. I bet you anything, Little Joe tried to out run’em…you know, get away from’em.” Hoss had a smug look on his face as he watched his father’s reactions.

“You’re probably right, son. Joe would try something like that. Come on, let’s see where this takes us,” Ben said as he nudged his mount forward.

“Looks like he headed for cover. Those woods most likely,” Adam said as he rode along-side his father.

Using caution, the three Cartwrights rode into the dense forest, not knowing what might await them.

*****

The four cattle thieves pushed the herd hard. It had taken them the better part of the day before they were able to reach the river where they drove the bovines into the flowing rapids. Gus and Cody stayed close to the front of the herd while Will and Wade stayed to the rear.

“Keep ’em close together!” shouted Will. He yelled at the steers to keep them from drifting apart and end up floating downstream. They’d waste precious time if that happened by having to round up the stragglers.
When the last steer was safely on the other shore and the one straggler was driven back to the others, the rustlers were more than ready to rest. As the cattle settled down and began to graze on the sparse grasses, the men began to make an early camp. Not one man was willing to ride herd for the evening. They were either too tired or too lazy. Finally, Gus, the oldest of the four, stepped forward.

“I’m going to ride back,” he explained to Will, “to double check that no one was following us.”

Will, who was trying to get a fire started, glanced up at the old man. “You do that,” he snapped. Wade and Cody snickered. Neither man cared one bit for the old man. They had been grumbling to Will about the lack of work Gus was doing and how he was always complaining. They were more than ready to be rid of him and Cody had even suggested to Will and Wade that they be rid of Gus permanently. Wade had agreed with the suggestion but Will had put the two younger men off. “Let’s wait until we get these steers closer to our buyer…then I’ll let you boys take care of the ornery cuss,” he had told them. “That way we can split the money three ways instead of four.” Cody and Wade were quick to agree.

Gus turned from the others and remounted his horse. With just a quick glance over his shoulder, he nudged his mount toward the river, back the way he had just come. He grinned to himself; now was his chance to get away. Ever since he’d learned that it was Cartwright cattle that Will was planning on stealing, Gus had regretted joining up with the threesome. The Cartwrights were good people, and Gus had always admired them, especially Ben Cartwright and what the man had always stood for. He’d only agreed to help his three young friends to steal a few head because Will had promised him a small fortune once the job was done. He hadn’t known that Will’s ‘few’ would be more than a hundred head. But he’d kept his mouth shut because he needed the money for back taxes before the bank foreclosed on him and he lost his ranch and everything else he’d worked a lifetime for.

But when they’d found the youngest Cartwright kid trailing them, Gus knew then that things would turn nasty. Will had devised a plan to trap the boy, which worked to their advantage. Things were going their way until the kid had made a break for it. They had chased after young Cartwright and had almost caught up with him and would have if the boy hadn’t taken off through the thick forest. The young man had been forced to leave his horse due to the heavy under growth and had managed to stay well ahead of them on foot, running and darting in and out of the thickets. It was only after the kid began to tire and they, themselves, had also been forced to proceed on foot that Will and the others had become so enraged that Will claimed he would kill the kid the minute they caught up with him. It wasn’t long afterwards that Will got his chance. When Cartwright had stopped to rest, so had they. And then, once their victim took off, Will raised his rifle, sited his target and pulled the trigger. Young Cartwright dropped in his tracks, and when he did, Gus’ stomach did a flip-flop, making him more nauseous than he had ever been in his entire life. And if that had not been bad enough, when they reached the boy and found him still alive, barely, Cartwright had been bleeding profusely.

With no concern whatsoever for the dying young man, Will left Joe Cartwright lying there in his own blood, to die slowly. It broke Gus’ heart, though he held his tongue, for he knew to argue the point with his hot-headed, callous, hard hearted boss would earn him the same fate as the Cartwright kid.

Now he had his chance. He’d make his way back to where Will had gunned down the boy, and knowing that the kid was most likely dead, he would at least take the body home to his father, explain to Ben Cartwright what happened and his involvement in the murder, and then face his fate. Gus could only hope that he could even find a body. He prayed that wolves or bears had not found the young man and left nothing of his remains to carry back to the Ponderosa.

*****

“Ain’t we suppose to meet up with that Bowers fella what’s gonna buy the herd, tomorrow?” Cody asked as he squatted down to be eye level with Will.

“Yeah, later tomorrow, over at Twin Peaks. He said he’d be there and have his wranglers move the herd on down to his place.”

“What about Gus?” Wade asked.

“Forget about him. He’s useless anyway,” barked Will. “If he comes back, he’ll get the same thing as that Cartwright kid.”

“What if he rats us out?” Cody wondered out loud.

Will smiled wickedly. “He won’t. He wouldn’t admit his involvement, because if he does, he’ll hang right along with the rest of us for killing that boy. As it stands, he might get out scot free but he won’t get his share of the money. And if they should happen to catch up with us, which they won’t, and he does try ratting on us, we’ll just tell ’em we ain’t seen the boy, and that Gus must have killed him when he rode back to be sure we weren’t followed. And, if he does come back, I’ll let you kill ‘im anyway, if’n you still wanna.”

The other two men snickered. “That’s a good plan, Will,” Cody smirked. “You sure are smart when it comes to this kinda stuff,” he remarked.

Will gave his cousin another lopsided grin. “That’s why I’m boss, Cody, and not you!”

Cody lowered his head and snickered. He wasn’t sure how to take his cousin’s statement. Did Will mean to imply that he was too dumb to come up with good ideas or was Will simply patting his own back?

Either way, Cody let the subject drop. He sort of hoped Gus would return; he’d never really killed a man like his cousin had killed Joe Cartwright, and his trigger finger was getting itchy to give it a try.

*****

“We’re gonna have to leave the horses here, Pa. That underbrush is too thick for them to go any further and these here tracks head straight into the woods,” Hoss said as he looked up from the tracks he’d been studying. “Right here’s Little Joe’s print and these here,” he pointed to several more footprints, “must be the men what’s chasing ‘im.”

Hoss waited while his father and Adam dismounted and collected their rifles and canteens.

Ben inspected the ground around him. He was by no means pleased with what he was seeing. It was obvious even to an untrained eye that the woodsy ground all around them had been tromped down and broken, leaving a perfect path for them to follow. He swallowed; fear wrapped its evil fingers tightly around his heartstrings. “Let’s go — and keep your eyes and ears opened,” he ordered as he led the way through the forest.

The three men walked for nearly an hour, stopping occasionally to check their surroundings. The trail wasn’t hard to follow. It was plain that Joe was being pursued by the four men in question. With each step, Ben took his heart ached with fear for his youngest son.

Ben stopped suddenly. From a broken limb of a nearby bush, he pulled a small scrape of green material. He examined it closely and then held it up for his sons to see. “Look at this,” he said in a heavy voice. “It’s part of Little Joe’s jacket,” he stated as he handed the tiny scrape to Adam. Adam turned the scrape over and over, and then glanced at his father. He watched Ben’s face and the emotions that played on his features.

“I’ve got a gut feeling about this,” Ben stated to his sons. He swallowed hard. “Joe’s in trouble. He needs us. It’s almost as if I can hear him calling out for help,” muttered the worried father.

Hoss sighed deeply. “We’ll find ‘im, Pa. Come on. Let’s keep movin’.” Hoss took the lead, walking a little faster. He’d had the same feelings of Joe being in need, but he had kept them to himself, not wanting to worry his father any more than he was already worried.

Hoss led his family another quarter mile through the brambles before he stopped suddenly. He dropped to his knees, a repulsive feeling rose into the pit of his stomach.

Hoss knew what it was before he even touched it. Carefully he ran his finger through the thick gel-like substance and then held his hand up so that he could better see the goo. “Pa,” he muttered, rising slowly to his feet. “It’s…blood…lots of blood.” His voice trembled and his blue eyes misted with unshed tears.

Adam took a long look at the darkened pool that spread out over the forest floor. His own stomach began to churn. “He was shot…probably from behind,” he declared. Anger seeped into his soul; fear and dread twisted themselves around his heart. “The bastards,” he cursed softly.

Ben stood next to his sons. His eyes seemed to have become glued to the patch of blood — his son’s life blood, he told himself. He took a deep breath to replace the air that had drained his lungs empty. Slowly, he let it out, hoping to squelch the rising bile that threatened to spew forth. When he moved away from the blood that had darkened with the hours since it had collected on the soft moss, his two sons followed him.

The anxious father pointed to the ground. “He’s not dead.”

“From the amount of blood he’s lost…”

“No!” growled Ben. He took a second deep breath. “See…he’s crawled away…and over here, he’s up and walking.”

Hoss wiped his finger on some leaves he’d picked up and moved to inspect the ground where his father had seen signs that perhaps Joe had, at least for a while, survived the shooting, if in fact he had been shot and not hurt by other means.

“Pa, Hoss. Look at this. Four sets of boot prints lead off in the opposite direction. Those men must have cut back this way after Joe was shot,” Adam told them. “And I found this,” he added, holding a spent shell up for his father to see. “And this.”

Turning to Adam, Ben took the rifle shell from his son’s fingers. His face paled as the realization of what had happened to his youngest son became a reality.

“What’s this?” Hoss asked as he took the second object from his brother’s hand and looked it over carefully. He looked up at his brother. “Looks like Joe must have stuffed his neckerchief into the wound.”

Adam shook his head. “It’s not his. Joe’s neckerchief was green, not white,” Adam insisted. “Someone, most likely one of the four, must have tried to stop the bleeding. But why, if they were so intent on killing him?”

Hoss scrunched up his nose. “That don’t make no sense. Why shoot him and then try to save him?”

“Maybe whomever that belongs to just dropped it and Joe used it himself. Either way, we won’t know until we find your brother. Joe’s tracks shouldn’t be hard to follow, not with him bleeding like he was. Adam, why don’t you cut back and get the horses while Hoss and I follow the tracks. He’s headed out of the woods, so meet us in the meadow. Just watch for us to come out of the woods. If we happen to find Joe before we get to the meadow, I’ll fire three shots,” Ben told his son.

“What about them cattle thieves, Pa?” Hoss wanted to know.

Ben shook his head. “I don’t give a hoot about them, not yet anyway. We need to find Little Joe and we need to hurry.”

“All right Pa. I’ll fetch the horses and meet you in a little while. Be careful; those men might be nearby,” warned Adam.

*****

Joe moved slightly as he struggled to open his eyes and raise his head. The cold water rippled across his body causing him to shiver violently. With his good hand, he tried to grasp something that would aid him in pulling his body from his wet prison but his efforts were in vain. Soft, muted groans erupted from deep within as he tried to push himself upright but the pain in his left shoulder was so intense that it left him breathless. “Pa…” he managed to whisper as the blackness regained its control over him. His head, barely out of the water, rested on a hard flat river rock. The blood that had started to ooze again after his escape across the open meadow had stopped. The cold water had its advantages and disadvantages for the wounded man, but only God on his throne would know which of the two would be either the boy’s undoing or his saving grace.

*****

Gus stumbled into the clearing, totally unaware that Ben and Hoss Cartwright were there. Just minutes after Adam had left to retrieve the horses, Ben had heard movement in the brush and whispered to Hoss to take cover behind a large tree.

Side by side, Ben and Hoss waited, and when Gus broke into the clearing, they exchanged curious glances before moving to face the other man. Both had their guns drawn and pointed in Gus’ direction.

“Hold it right there,” ordered Ben as he and Hoss showed themselves.

Gus stopped in his tracks, totally taken by surprise at the other men’s presence. His arms went up. “Mr. Cartwright,” he spurted. He swallowed hard. “What are you doing here?” He knew it was a stupid question but he was at a loss for words. All his good intentions of collecting Joe Cartwright’s body and confessing to the boy’s father his part in the boy’s death suddenly deserted him.

Ben moved closer. “I could ask you the same thing, Gus,” Ben stated.

Gus’ heart beat hard and he hoped his one-time friend could not hear how hard it pounded. His brow became dotted with tiny beads of sweat. “I…um…”

Ben studied the man’s face. He was aware of the way Gus’ hands shook and of the sweat that appeared on the man’s weathered brow. Ben suspected that the man acted as if he were guilty of something and was reluctant to speak up. “Speak up, Gus.”

Gus swallowed the lump in his throat. It was now or never. He pointed at the browned spot that had once been bright red with fresh blood. “I guess…I’m lookin’ for…” He took a deep breath.

“What you lookin’ for, Mr. Hamilton?” Hoss asked.

“The boy…same as you,” Gus quickly replied.

Hoss’ brow furrowed as he glanced at his father. “Little Joe?” he asked.

“What do you know about my son?” snapped Ben as he took a step toward the older man.

Gus lowered his head, shaking it back and forth as he sought a spot to sit down. When he was perched on a fallen tree, he chanced a look at Ben. “I…um…know what happened to your boy…at least up to that,” he said as he pointed to the dried blood a second time.

Ben felt his blood run cold as anger consumed his soul. His breathing was almost labored as he glared at his neighbor and the man whom he had always considered his friend.

“It’s a long story, Mr. Cartwright…but I can tell you this. I swear on my own son’s life, I didn’t have anything to do with killing the boy…”

Hoss grabbed the man by the shirt and jerk him off his feet. Anger burned in the blue eyes that were normally filled with compassion. “What do you mean? Who killed my little brother?!” he roared in a loud voice while shaking the man with both hands.

“Easy, Hoss…let him explain,” Ben said as he removed Hoss’ hands from the man’s body.

“It was Will Holcomb…and his brother, Wade and that no-account cousin of theirs, Cody Holcomb. They are the ones that’s been stealing your cattle, Mr. Cartwright…and when they caught Little Joe trailing after us, they set a trap to take him prisoner. I swear to God, I didn’t think they’d kill him…but the boy escaped and that made Will crazy and he swore he’d kill Little Joe. We chased after your son and when he stopped right here to catch his breath, Will gunned him down. Shot him in the back…”

Ben sighed, sickened with fear for his son.

“Mr. Cartwright, Hoss…the boy wasn’t dead when we left. After the others went back to their horses, I tried to stop the bleeding. Little Joe was out cold but he weren’t dead,” Gus rushed to explain.

Hoss, his hatred showing in his eyes, glared at Gus. “So you just walked off and left my little brother to die?” he growled.

Ashamed, Gus nodded. “I reckon we did. Will wanted to move the herd out before you and your pa found out that the kid was even missing.”

Gus looked Ben in the eyes. “I don’t have any idea where the boy is now…”

Hoss turned to his father. “Joe must have tried to get home, Pa. Maybe…he ain’t hurt as bad as all that blood makes it appear.”

“I hope your right, son.”

Gus stepped forward. “Mr. Cartwright…I’d like to help you find the boy…and…then afterwards, I’ll tell you anything you want to know about your cattle and…those what done the harm to your boy.” He gulped. “And I’ll take whatever punishment you deem fit. I was only gonna rustle a few head of your cattle ’cause I needed the money for back taxes…”

“And my son’s life was the price for those taxes? Why in God’s name didn’t you just come and ask me for the money!” Ben Cartwright shouted as he fought to control his own rage. His control gave way to his anger and grief, and as Ben turned away, he doubled his fist. When he turned back to Gus, he plowed the man’s face with every ounce of strength he could muster. Gus was sent tumbling backwards and rolled over and over before coming to rest against a tall Ponderosa pine. Ben rubbed his knuckles.

“Pick him up, Hoss, bring him with us. I’ll deal with you later,” Ben snarled at Gus. “Where’s your horse?”

“In the meadow,” muttered Gus as he wiped his bleeding nose and lip on the sleeve of his worn shirt.

Hoss grabbed Gus’ arm and practically dragged him through the woods until they reached the open meadow where Adam was waiting with the horses for them. His brows rose slightly at the sight of Gus Hamilton. He glanced at Hoss but said nothing. His father’s expression said as much.

“Find his horse, Adam. It’s down that ways a bit,” ordered Ben.

It took only a few minutes before Adam returned with Gus’ mount.

“Mount up…and I’d advise you not to try anything, if you want to live to see tomorrow,” Ben snarled.

Gus nodded. “I ain’t gonna take off, Mr. Cartwright. I done told you. I didn’t want anything bad to happen to your boy…honest.”

Ben ignored the man. He turned to Hoss. “Son, see if you can find something that might tell us which way Joe might have gone.”

“Yes sir, Pa.”

It took Hoss only a few moments to find where Little Joe had made his way through the meadow grasses. “This way,” he told his pa.

It didn’t take the Cartwrights and Gus as long to cross the field as had Little Joe in his wounded state. The trail was easy to follow; often times, blood was found in tiny spots on the mashed down blades of meadow grass. The sight sickened Hoss as he walked along eyeing the path his brother had set. Panic squeezed his heart and the gentle giant feared the worse for his best friend and youngest brother.

When the small group of men reached the other side and the river bank before them, Hoss turned to his father. “I can’t find any tracks, Pa. Right here, it looks as if Joe might have gone into the water,” he told the others.

“Could be he was in need of water…and if what you say is so, he could have easily been carried downstream,” Ben said. He dismounted and moved to stand with Hoss. “God…he could have drowned if he was unconscious when he went in…”

The distraught father glared up at Gus. Before he could say anything to vent his anger at the man, Adam stepped forward and gently placed his hand on his father’s arm.

“I’ll take this side; Gus can ride with me. Why don’t you and Hoss cross over and take the opposite side. Maybe, with any luck, we will find him.” His dark expression bore resemblance to his father’s but he held himself in check. Once they found Joe and assessed his injuries, then he would deal with Gus Hamilton and the others who had sought to bring such worry and misery upon his family.

They searched for a very long time, carefully inspecting both sides of the river and its banks in hopes of finding their missing family member. They were almost to the point of giving up when suddenly Gus called out to Adam.

“Adam, look…down there!”

Adam turned his horse around and backtracked toward Gus. “Where?”

Gus dismounted and pointed down to the river’s edge. “Over there, by that bolder, just to the right.”

“Here, hold my reins,” Adam said as he tossed them to Gus and began making his way down to the edge of the water. The ground was dry, and beneath his feet, pebbles hampered his efforts as he tried to keep himself from slipping and falling. When he’d reached what he knew instantly to be a body, he called out to his father. “Pa…Hoss, I found him…”

Ben jerked his horse to a halt. “Dear God,” he muttered. “Is he alive?” he shouted as he searched for a place to cross so that he could get to his son.

Adam reached down and grabbed Joe by his shoulders and carefully pulled his brother’s body from the water. The wound in his back was easy to spot. The bullet when it entered the body had ripped the material from both his brother’s jacket and shirt. Adam gently turned the boy over.

The body shook from the cold, yet the boy’s brow burned with fever, alerting Adam to the fact that Joe was still, if barely, alive. Joe’s face was pasty white and his lips had a tint of blue to them. Adam feared the worst, so to confirm his brother was still really alive, he placed his fingers to the pulse spot on Joe’s neck, searching for a pulse. He closed his eyes to concentrate better. It was several seconds before he felt what he’d been hoping to find. When he opened his eyes, his father had squatted down next to him. Hoss stood over both of them. Both wore a mixture of fear and dread in their expressions that he was sure reflected his own troubled thoughts.

Adam’s expression was grim. “He’s alive, barely,” he said softly. “He’s ice cold from being in the water…”

“Let’s get him on level ground and see what we can do to make him comfortable and get him warmed up,” Ben issued.

Hoss wormed his way between them. “I’ll carry him,” he said as he bent down and gathered the unconscious kid in his massive, strong arms. Turning, Hoss made his way back up the bank and carefully laid Joe down on the soft grass. He looked up at Gus. “Start a fire…make it nice and hot. And hurry it up!”

Gus quickly moved to gather wood and do as Hoss had instructed. Ben and Adam were immediately at Little Joe’s side. “Hoss, get our bed rolls, please, and place them as close to that fire as you can. Adam, help me get him out of these wet clothes so we can see how badly he’s hurt. We’ll wrap him up in the blankets afterwards.”

“The bullet went deep,” Ben said after examining the entry wound. “And it looks as if some infection might be trying to start.”

Adam, who worked next to his father, nodded in agreement. “At least the bleeding has stopped.”

Ben’s expression was one of concern. “Probably being in the cold water helped that. But the water was dirty…that wasn’t in his favor.” He looked up at Hoss who stood bent over them, trying to see his little brother’s wound. “Hoss, you take Gus with you and find some good strong branches and make a travois. Once we start home with him, Adam can ride into town and fetch Doc Martin…and the sheriff,” he added as he glanced up at Gus, who was busy keeping the fire going.

“Hand me the whiskey bottle,” Ben ordered. “I’m going to have to use it to disinfect this wound and I’d rather do it now while Joe is unconscious than to cause him more pain if he were awake.”

Adam handed the whiskey to his father and helped Hoss hold Joe upright so that Ben could pour the strong liquor into the hole in Joe’s back. “Can’t you try to probe for the bullet too, Pa? Joe’s burning up with fever and the longer that bullet stays in, the worse the infection and the less likely that the kid will…” he swallowed hard, “survive.”

With the bottle paused just above the opening, Ben shook his head. “I can’t, son; it’s too deep. I’d kill him for sure if I tried, especially in the shape he’s in.” Tipping the bottle upward, Ben allowed the liquid to begin at the top of the entry hole and slowly drip into the wound site, fill the cavity and overflow. Joe’s reflect action was to arch his back in pain. He moaned softly.

“It’s hurting him, Pa!” Hoss whispered as tears filled his eyes. The big man, so gentle and compassionate, swallowed several times and refused to allow the tears their release. “Shh…Take it easy, little brother. You gonna be alright now,” he whispered into his brother’s ear.

“There, that should do it for now. Help me bandage him up, Adam,” Ben instructed. Minutes later the two had Joe wrapped warmly in the blankets and laying on one of the bedrolls as close to the fire as they could safely place him. Meanwhile, Hoss and Gus had set about collecting small saplings and shaping them into the required travois.

Once the travois was finished, Hoss tied it off to Ben’s horse, Buck. He helped his father place Little Joe onto the contraption and tie him securely so that he would not roll off during the long ride home. “Pa will have you home and in your own bed real soon, Short Shanks…you hold on now, you hear ol’ Hoss?” whispered the big man to his younger brother. Gently he brushed his fingers through Little Joe’s thick curls and then turned away, unable to contain his emotions.

Ben and Adam doused the fire and gathered their things. “You ride into town, son,” Ben told Adam. “Have Doc Martin meet us back at the ranch. Explain Joe’s condition so he’ll have an idea what to expect.” He paused and looked at Gus. “I suppose I owe you a bit of thanks for helping us out,” he muttered. “That doesn’t excuse your other actions; I hope you understand that Gus.”

Gus, who stood next to his horse, only nodded his head in agreement.

“Then let’s mount up. Adam, take Gus with you. He can explain his actions and tell Roy about what’s been going on. I need to get your brother home and in the bed. Please tell Paul to hurry,” Ben instructed as he swung his leg over the saddle and settled in for the trip home. With one more glance at his son bundled tightly to the travois, Ben nudged Buck forward.

Several times along the way home, Ben and Hoss stopped to make a check on Little Joe. The boy had begun to stir about, trying in his bewildered condition to escape the ropes that held him bound to his moving cot. Each time, Ben would wash his son’s battered face with cool water from his canteen and whisper encouraging words in an effort to comfort and reassure the boy.

“We’ll be home soon son. Just hang on a little longer and then the doctor will help you.” Ben leaned closer to Joe. “I need you to keep trying, Joseph…I…love you son…”

The ailing lad tried desperately to open his eyes. “Pa…” he uttered softly. “Hurts.”

“I know, son, I know and I’m so sorry…Joe…Joe…” cooed the worried father.

Hoss placed his big beefy hand on his father’s shoulder. “He’s slipped away again, Pa. Come on, let’s keep moving. We’re almost home.”

*****

Doctor Martin and Adam came from the house as soon as they heard the sound of voices in the yard. Paul rushed to Joe’s side so that he could make a quick inspection of the boy’s injuries. When he pulled the ropes away and carefully unwrapped the top blanket from around his patient’s body, Ben heard the sudden intake of air as the physician’s eyes took in the sight of his best friend’s son.

“Dear Lord, Ben…we best get him in the house. Hoss, can you carry him upstairs? Hop Sing has everything ready and waiting. Ben, Adam told me about the bullet in his back; I’ll need to operate right away.” Doc Martin continued to issue orders and give the tired, worried father a brief summary of what he would be doing to help his patient.

By the time the doctor and Ben reached the house, Hoss had his brother upstairs and lying on the bed. Paul hurried up the stairs but stopped on the last step. Turning to Ben, who was close on his heels, issued one last order. “Ben, I need you and Adam to wait down here until I’m finished. I’ll have Hoss come down to keep you company…”

Ben shook his head. “No, I need to be with my son…”

The doctor was not to be put off. He glanced at Adam who stood behind his father.

“Please, I know you both want to be with Little Joe, but I really need all of you to wait down here. I insist, Ben. I can work better and quicker if I’m not having to deal with…you understand, don’t you, Ben? Joe will need you more when he’s over this, and he will need you alert and well.”

Paul didn’t give either man a chance to respond. He turned and hurried to Joe’s room where his patient waited. A minute later, Hoss exited the room and joined his father and brother in the living room.

“He woke up when I laid him on his bed, Pa,” Hoss told them. “He said to tell you not to worry.” He smiled. “He’s gonna be fine, Pa.”

Ben sat down wearily in his red chair. He sighed deeply. Worry was etched into the fine lines of his tired face. “I wish I were as sure as you seem to be,” he grunted. “He’s lost an awful lot of blood. More than enough to kill him. That bullet in his back is deep, nearly went all the way through to his heart…his fever is raging…he about drowned in that cold water…he’s…”

“Stop it, Pa,” Adam interrupted in a loud voice. “You’ve all but buried the boy.”

Ben sprang to his feet, anger burning in his dark eyes as he stepped up to Adam. “How dare you speak to me in that tone!” he shouted.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Adam said meekly. “But I had to say something. Pa,” Adam’s voice was soft and respectful. “I know you’re worried sick. We all are…but Doc’s right. Joe needs us to stay strong; and hopeful. We can’t lose faith now…”

Ben took a deep breath to steady himself. Looking at Adam’s face and seeing the concern and fear that he tried so hard to mask only told him that his son was just as afraid and worried for Joe’s well-being as he was.

“I’m sorry, Adam,” Ben said as he placed a hand on his son’s arm. “You are right. We have to have faith. The good Lord has brought us this far and He will see us through…regardless of how things turn out.” He gave both Adam and Hoss a weak smile and then turned away. “I think I’ll get some coffee and make a sandwich. Want to join me?” he asked, casting a glance over his shoulder at both young men.

Hoss clamped his hand down on Adam’s shoulder. “Doc said he would be awhile, so what say we join Pa in the kitchen?”

“And why not?” Adam agreed as he allowed Hoss to gently guide him into the next room.

*****

“He’s out, Hop Sing,” the kindly physician said in a soft voice. “You ready?”

“Hop Sing ready. Hop Sing hold lamp high. You start now. Most anxious to get operation over with,” Hop Sing replied.  He took a deep breath, held the lamp high so that the doctor could see to make the first incision into Little Joe’s back.  Once the cut was made, Hop Sing moved the lamp to the table and handed the doctor the probe. With steady hands, Paul Martin, physician and long-time friend of the Cartwrights, began the dubious task of finding the bullet. Every so often Hop Sing would dab the beaded sweat from the man’s brow. He’d also dab at the fresh blood that oozed from the new incision, and silently, he prayed for his favorite number three son.

“That bullet is very close to the heart, Hop Sing,” Paul told his helper. He withdrew the probe and took a deep breath. “I can’t find it,” he complained anxiously. “And Little Joe’s breathing is getting weaker.” He carefully inserted the probe to try again. “Come on…come on,” he muttered to himself.

“Doctor…boy not breathing!” Hop Sing said in a loud whisper.

Paul steadily removed the probe from the incision and placed it on the tray. Leaning over his patient, who was face down, he muttered to himself, words that the anxious servant could not hear. “Come on, Little Joe…don’t do this now!” Paul pressed gently down on the boy’s back, repeating the movement several times. “Breathe, Joe…for God’s sake… Your father needs you, boy…can you hear me?” The physician’s fear was rising as his patient had yet to respond to his words. Paul moved his hands down Joe’s back to his waist and then pushed, almost hard, with both hands as he worked his way to the boy’s shoulders, being careful not to infect more pain or damage to the already injured left shoulder.

“Breath, dammit,” Paul cursed. It was something that the kind-hearted doctor rarely did and only did now from frustration and fear of letting his best friend’s youngest son die while under his treatment.

When Joe at last moaned softly, Paul released the air from his own lungs; the young man in the bed took a deep breath, filling his. “He’s breathing, Hop Sing. Hand me that probe. I’ve got to get that bullet…it’s now or never.” With the instrument in his hand, Paul probed again and at last turned to smile at Hop Sing. “I found it!” A moment later he dropped the oppressive thing into the China bowl beside the bed. It pinged as it rolled around and came to a stop at the bottom.

Using skilled hands, the surgeon cleaned and stitched the wound. “I think it best we not mention to his family about his…breathing problem, Hop Sing. No need to scare them any more than they already are,” he suggested. Hop Sing nodded his head in agreement as he helped with the bandaging and then carried the soiled items from the room.

Downstairs, Ben and his sons heard the door to Joe’s room open and close. Together, moving as one, the three went to the bottom stair. It was Hop Sing who walked slowly down toward them.

The trio blocked Hop Sing’s way. “Well?” asked Ben. “How’s he doing?”

Hop Sing smiled at his boss. “Doctor got bullet. See?” he said as he held up the China bowl. “Doctor finished…just getting number three son comfortable. He be down in minute to talk to you. I clean up mess…please…move?” he asked.

“Oh, sorry, Hop Sing,” Ben said as he stepped aside so that the little servant man could continue to the kitchen. Ben took a deep breath and released it. “He must be doing alright then,” he said, relieved to know that the operation was at last finished and that the bullet had been removed from his son’s back.

*****

It was several minutes before Paul finally left the room. Hop Sing had returned to the bedside to stay with Little Joe until the doctor had spoken with the worried family, knowing that, before long, Ben would take his rightful place beside his ailing son.

*****

The door to the upstairs room opened and closed, causing three heads to turn and three pairs of eyes to watch as the physician made his way downstairs. Paul stopped on the bottom step, facing Ben, Adam and Hoss. For several seconds, no one said a word. Then Paul smiled. “He’s doing all right, Ben. Right now he’s sleeping. The bullet was very deep, almost too close to his heart to suit me, but I got it.”

“Thank the Lord,” Ben muttered.

“He’s still running a fever. We’ll need to keep him bathed off but there doesn’t look to be any infection. I thought at first there might be, but I really think all that time he spent in the cold water kind of put a halt to things. He’s very, very weak, Ben. And he’s lost way too much blood, so he’s going to be weak for a good while until the blood starts reproducing.  Hop Sing and I have cleaned him up and changed the linens, so he should be comfortable enough, at least until the pain medicine starts to wear off. And when it does, I’ve left more and explained to Hop Sing how to and when to give him more.”

“I… don’t know how to thank you, Paul,” stammered Ben. His emotions were about to get the best of him. He felt his body begin to tremble as the worry began to ebb.

“You don’t have to thank me, Ben. I care very much for that boy, you know that. And I’d do everything in my power to keep him alive. And it was touch and go in there for a while tonight.”

Ben’s eyes darkened. “He is okay…isn’t he…or I mean, he will be, won’t he?”

“I’m certainly not God, but I’m betting on it as of right now. With lots of rest and prayers, mind you, I do honestly believe that Little Joe will do fine. It won’t be easy, Ben…and things could change for the worse, but let’s not think like that; we need to stay positive. He’s young and healthy…which is all in his favor.”

Hoss gave Adam a wide toothy grin as he slapped his brother on the back. “Doggonitall, I knew everythin’ was gonna work out. Now all we gotta do is catch them varmints that done gone and shot Little Joe and stole our cattle!”

Adam’s smile was lopsided as he grinned at his middle brother. “That’s all?” he teased.

“That’s a job for the sheriff. And we will let him handle it, do you understand me…both of you?” Ben knew his sons were anxious to apprehend those responsible for putting their younger brother’s life in danger. Any man wise enough to know the bond between the three would do well to fear their wrath. Ben himself feared what his sons might do to another man when the other was threatened. “I asked you both a question!” He saw their expressions change and then relax.

“Yes sir, we hear you,” admitted Hoss. “But we wanna ride with Roy when he goes alookin’, don’t we Adam?” Hoss looked at Adam, waiting for his brother to confirm his request.

“Yes…most definitely,” Adam assured Hoss.

Ben slipped his arms about each of his sons’ shoulders. “Let’s just wait and see what Roy says about that. And if he does not care, then you have my okay.”

“Good. Now Ben…” The Cartwrights turned back to the doctor, who seemed to have been momentarily forgotten. “If you don’t mind, I think I will make use of that spare room you have. I really think I should stay close by tonight, until I know for sure that Little Joe is out of the woods. It might be several hours yet.”

“Of course, Paul. I’m sorry; I should have thought of that. If you need anything, anything at all, let Hop Sing know. I’m going to sit with Joe tonight. Adam, you and Hoss should try to get some rest…”

“We’ll take turns sitting with Joe too,” Adam insisted.

“We’ll see,” Ben told him. “But for now, you two need to get some sleep. You can stop off and see your brother for a few minutes and then off to bed, both of you!”

Ben knew that Adam and Hoss were just as anxious to see Joe as he was. He also knew that nothing, not even wild horses, could pull him away from his youngest son’s bedside tonight.

Together, the three hurried up the stairs and slipped silently into Joe’s room.

*****

It was after midnight before Ben was finally able to convince Joe’s brothers to get some rest. Reluctantly, both young men retired for the remainder of the night only after they had made their father promise that he would wake them if there was any change with Little Joe. For the duration of the night, Ben stayed close by. Joe was deeply sedated and moved very little. Ben washed his son’s face repeatedly to cool the burning brow. His fever worried his father.

Just before daybreak, the doctor returned to the sick room. “How’s he doing?” he asked Ben.

“Resting…sleeping…nothing more, Paul. I’m worried about that fever,” Ben explained. He was tired, worried and a part of him was angry — mad at Gus, the men who did this to son…and somewhat mad at himself simply because he could not do anything to prevent and relieve the misery his son was suffering.

Paul gave his friend a pat on his back. “Ben, resting and sleeping is good. It’s what Little Joe needs right now. The fever is natural; it’s the body’s way of fighting off infection.”

Ben’s lips were pressed tightly together. His eyes looked tired; dark circles were beginning to appear. “I know, Paul. It’s just that I’m worried about him. I can’t help it,” he said, smiling slightly. “It’s what I do best, especially when it comes to Little Joe.”

Paul checked Joe’s fever but didn’t seem to think it was serious, at least for the time being. He and Ben changed the bandages and made sure the wound site was not showing any signs of infection. The results satisfied both the doctor and the boy’s father.

“It will be daylight soon, Ben. I think I’ll be heading back to town. Joe appears to be doing well right now. If he wakes up and is hungry, feed him some of  the broth Hop Sing has been brewing, and if he acts as if he’s in pain, give him another dose of the pain killer I left with Hop Sing. He’ll be sleepy, and as I said before, sleep is the best thing for him right now. It gives the body time to start healing its self. And Ben, try not to worry too much.” Doc Martin smiled at his friend.  “I’ll be back out tomorrow, unless you need me before then. If you do, send someone for me.”

Ben walked to the door with his friend. “Thank you, Paul, for coming out.”

Paul gave Ben a warm smile. “I’d say it was my pleasure, but it’s never a pleasure when I have to tend to injuries such as Little Joe’s. Maybe someday I can visit just for sake of visiting and not doctoring,” he laughed.

“Soon, I promise,” Ben said, and he meant it. He owed the fine doctor much more than what he could ever repay for all the times Paul Martin had been of service to his family.

*****

“I wonder what happened to ol’ Gus,” Wade asked his brother as they sat together in front of the small fire where they sipped coffee. Cody was riding herd, keeping the steers in close since they were short-handed.

“I don’t know. I figured he bailed out on us. Took off or somethin’,” Will said. “Who cares? If he don’t come back, we can split the money three ways instead of four.” He grinned, then laughed softly.

Will eyed his brother. “What’s so funny?” he asked, pouring more hot coffee into his tin cup.

“I was just thinkin’. With Gus gone…and Cody always complaining and all…what would happen if dear cousin Cody met with…say an accident? There’d be no one but you and me to split with. Fifty-fifty…”

Wade set his cup on one of the rocks that encircled their fire. “Will, are you saying we should kill Cody…our own kin?” he asked, taken off guard by his brother’s statement.

Will took a sip of his coffee and glanced at his brother. “Why not? He ain’t never been no account for nothing; always in trouble with law. Why shoot, he even beat up his own ma not more’n a month ago.” He put his cup on the rock next to Wade’s. “Look, Wade, Cody is just plain loco; he’d kill one of us, or both, if he could, just to keep all that money for himself. So I say, let’s get the drop on him. We can make it look like an accident. That way, if his folks ask, we can tell him he got killed on the drive. After all, they think we’re driving cattle for some rich rancher.” He laughed out loud. “And that ain’t no lie. The rancher just don’t know that we’re driving his cattle!”

Wade should his head and stood up. “I won’t. Will. That’s murder…”

Will jumped to his feet. Anger brewed in his hazel. “What the hell do you call killing that Cartwright kid? I ain’t got nothing to lose,” he growled. “If they catch me, they can’t hang me but once…”

“Shut up, Will. I…don’t like you to talk like that. I…don’t want you to hang…”

Will’s laugh had an evil ring to it as he poked his brother in the center of his chest. “You’re gonna hang right along with me little brother…if they catch us!”

“Me? I didn’t do nuthin’…’cepting steal these steers.”

“Yep…cattle rustling’s a hanging offense, in case you forgot. And as for Cartwright, you and Cody and ol’ Gus are just as guilty as I am. We was all involved. So we might as well do away with Cousin Cody, take the money and high-tale it to Mexico. Take our chances and have us some fun.”

Young Wade looked scared as he began pacing back and forth. Wade watched his brother. “Will, they won’t hang me. I’m barely seventeen years old. I’m just a kid — they don’t hang kids…”

Will stood up. He could see the fear on the boy’s face, and for a fraction of a second, regretted getting his brother mixed up in all his plans to steal Ben Cartwright’s prime beef and then kill the man’s son. When the emotion passed, he turned back to his brother.

“Wade, they don’t care how old you are. Murder is murder and stealing is stealing. You don’t think for one minute that old man Cartwright will let any of us live when he finds out who killed his boy? And you gotta remember, that boy of his ain’t much older than you. What was he — eighteen, nineteen maybe? And another thing, if the old man don’t get us, them other two sons of his won’t stop until we’re both in the ground. Now you listen to me; we have a much better chance of getting outta this without Cody than with him. He’s a loudmouth and likes to brag. If we kill him, get the money from Bowers for the cattle, we can clear out and be gone from these parts before anyone knows what happened to us. You in or not?”

Wade swallowed hard. “Guess I ain’t got much of a choice now. do I? So…I guess I’m in, but I ain’t gonna be the one that kills Cody. I…just can’t…I can’t…please don’t ask me to, Will…promise?”

Will laughed and slapped his brother on the back. “Don’t you worry none, kid; I’ll take care of our cousin.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow, after Bowers pays us. As far as Bowers knows, Ben Cartwright sent us to deliver his cattle and collect his pay. Once we have the money, I’ll take care of Cody. You just keep your mouth shut, hear me?”

Wade nodded in agreement. “I hear you, big brother. I hear you.”

“Good, now let’s get some shuteye.” Will turned the blanket down on his bed roll and laid down. “See you in the morning, kid.”

*****

Will had a fresh pot of coffee brewing by the time that Wade crawled from his bedroll. “Smells good, Will,” he said, greeting his brother. He glanced around camp as if looking for someone, which he was. “Where’s Cody? Ain’t he rode in yet?”

Will turned around and held a cup of the coffee up to his brothers. “Cody’s dead,” he said calmly as he turned back to the fire where he had bacon and eggs frying.

Wade had taken a sip of his coffee and spewed it out. “What?” he shouted. “When…how…did you…?”

Rising to his feet, Will faced his brother. “When — last night. How –his horse stepped in a hole, fell on top of our cousin, so no, I did not kill him. He did both of us a favor and got himself killed!”

“Whew,” Wade muttered. “So…I guess it’s just you and me. You do know that now we gotta move those steers ourselves, alone.”

Will handed Wade his breakfast plate. “Yep, but Bowers’ land is just over that rise about five miles. Won’t take us long, little brother, to make our delivery, collect our money and be on our way to Mexico before noon. Now eat up; we got work to do,” He said, smiling up at Wade.

*****

“Pa?”

Ben had been standing at the window,  watching Adam and Hoss preparing to leave. The two older boys were riding into town to join Roy Coffee’s posse who were making plans to search for those responsible for shooting Little Joe and rustling Ben’s cattle. He turned from the window and hurried to Joe’s bedside.

“I’m right here, son,” Ben said as he leaned down and gently felt to see if Joe still had a fever. Pleased, he smiled. “Your fever’s way down. How do you feel, son?” he asked while pulling his chair closer to the bed and sitting down.

“Hurts,” Joe muttered. His eyes were dazed and had a faraway look to them. Ben watched as Joe tried to bring them into focus. “Pa?” the breath expelled from his lungs.

“Shh…don’t talk, son. You need your strength…”

Joe inhaled. “Cattle…beyond…south pasture…about 100-150 head…” His breathing was somewhat labored from his efforts to talk.

“I know, son. But you don’t need to worry about that right now. Adam and Hoss are heading into town and are going to ride with the posse…”

Ben stopped talking and watched as his son’s eyes filled with tears. Taking Joe’s hand in his, the concerned father leaned closer. “What’s wrong son?”

A solitary tear rolled from the corner of one eye as Joe turned to his father. His chin quivered. “They…shot me…in the…back…” He drew another breath. “And…left me…to die!” he whimpered.

Ben had to fight back his own tears. “I know, Joe. It wasn’t right…and when Roy catches them, they’ll stand trial. They’ll be punished for what they’ve done to you,” Ben assured his son.

“Pa…one…just…a kid…younger…than me…” Another gasp for air and Joe closed his eyes. “Why?” he whispered as he drifted off to sleep.

Ben tucked Joe’s arm back beneath the blankets and rose. “For a lousy hundred fifty head of prime beef, that’s why,” he proclaimed with disgust heavy in his voice.

*****

“What do you mean you can’t pay me in cash?” snarled Will.

He and Walt had delivered the Cartwright cattle to Samuel Bowers, just as they had promised the man. Now all the brothers wanted to do was collect their money and head for Mexico. But Sam wasn’t about to give these two strangers that kind of cash. They looked rough, hardened to be so young. He figured the oldest to be no more than twenty or twenty-one, and the younger he reckoned to be eighteen, if that. There was another thing that stuck in his craw. Why had Ben Cartwright sent two boys to do a man’s work? Sure, the older kid said that Ben had hired four of them but that the oldest man backed out halfway there and had high-tailed it back home, and the other man had been accidently killed when his horse fell on him. It could all be on the up and up, but something didn’t seem right, and Sam was hesitate to part with his cash when he knew a bank draft was the typical way that he and Cartwright had always done business in the past.

“I just can’t,” Sam tried to explain. “Cash is not the way that Mr. Cartwright and I do business. I’ve always paid him with a bank draft…”

“You got the cash, ain’t you?” Wade asked the man. He looked over at his brother. Will was boiling mad and Wade knew his brother was about to explode.

Sam nodded his head. “Yes, but I…”

Suddenly, Will pulled his pistol from his holster and pointed the gun at Sam. “Give me the money…now!” He shouted. “Or I’ll blow you into next week,” he threatened. He waited, glancing around to be sure that none of Bowers hired men were watching the exchange.

Sam, knowing that the younger man would kill him for sure if he didn’t oblige him, dug into his billfold for the cash. He counted out the correct amount and held his hand out to Will.

Will, seeing all the money in the billfold, grabbed what had been offered him and snatched the leather money holder from the man’s hand. Sam was speechless as he watched the boy take the cash and then toss the billfold back to him, empty.

“That should about take care of things. Thanks mister,” said Will with a twisted grin. “Let’s go Wade…now.”  He waved the gun under Sam Bowers’ nose. “Keep your trap shut. Give us an hour before you come looking for us, and you might live another day!”

Will crammed his pistol back into his holster, grabbed his reins from Wade’s hands and swung into the saddle. As he turned to leave, he smiled and tipped his hat at the gentleman. “Tell Cartwright I said thanks,” he laughed and kicked his mount into action.

*****

“ADAM…ADAM!”

Adam and Hoss had ridden into town to help the sheriff track the cattle thieves and were on their way to join Roy when Adam heard his name being called. He stopped and turned around, watching as Jimmy Blakely ran down the street.

“I just got this telegram, Adam. It’s for your pa but I thought you might need to see it,” the young man said, huffing and puffing from his jog down the street from the telegraph office. He held the paper up to Adam.

“Thanks, Jimmy,” Adam told the boy as he unfolded the paper and quickly read the words.

“What’s it say?” question Hoss.

“Hmm…that’s strange,” Adam muttered.

“Dadburnit, Adam…what’s it about!” Hoss was getting impatient with his older brother.

Adam snickered. “Sorry, Hoss. It’s from Sam Bowers down in Dayton. He said the cattle he bought from Pa arrived today, but that the two young men who delivered them took off with his money.” He paused and looked over at Hoss. “I didn’t know Pa sold Mr. Bowers any cattle.”

“What two young men?” Hoss questioned, seemingly trying to remember who it was that his father might have sent.

Adam folded the message and stuck it into the pocket on his shirt. “Why don’t you go on down to the sheriff’s office? I’ll catch up with you in a few minutes,” Adam said as he turned his horse around.

“What you gonna do?” Hoss asked.

“I think I’ll send Mr. Bowers a reply and ask him what cattle and what two young men. I have an idea where our cattle and Joe’s shooters might have gone,” Adam said, giving his brother a slight smile.”

Hoss’ brows rose slightly. His grin was sideways as he turned his horse toward the sheriff’s office. If anyone could figure things out, it was Adam, Hoss surmised.

Half an hour later, Adam walked into the sheriff’s office. Roy was just about ready to have his men mount up, but he waited to hear what Adam had to say.

“I got a reply from Bowers,” Adam said, looking first at Hoss and then turning to Roy. “Briefly, he said, about two weeks ago, a man named Gus…yeah,” he said as he looked through the open door that separated cells from the office. “Anyway, seems like Gus approached him to say that Pa would sell him a hundred fifty head of cattle and he and a few men who worked for him would deliver them. Bowers agreed with the price.”

Roy was sitting on the edge of his desk, tapping his fingers together. “Yep…yep, that’s the story Gus gave me. Said he got scared after Will Holcumb shot Little Joe in the back. The other young men — Wade Holcumb and their cousin Cody Holcumb — and himself were takin’ the stolen steers to Bowers in Dayton, but he decided to get out while he could. Said he didn’t want to hang for killing Joe.” Roy snickered. “Guess he didn’t know he could hang for cattle rustling same as for murder.”

“Bowers said that there were only two young men. Wonder what happened to the third?” Adam said to no one in particular, more to himself and thinking out loud. He turned to Hoss and the others. “Guess we know who shot Joe. Now all we have to do is catch up to them.”

“I’ll wire the sheriff down in Dayton; he’ll have to handle it from there. It’s out of my jurisdiction. But at least we have the names of those three. My bet is they’ve headed straight for Mexico.” Roy stood up and turned to the men who had gathered to help him. “Guess you boys can go on home. Don’t have no need for a posse now. I thank you all for wanting to help,” he told them as he opened the door and allowed the men to leave.

When they had all gone, he turned back to the Cartwright brothers. “I don’t want you two taking off on a manhunt. You understand me? Sheriff Collins over in Dayton is about as good a sheriff as there is. He’ll have those youngsters behind bars in no time. You two just get yourselves back to the Ponderosa and help your Pa take care of Little Joe, understand?”

Hoss scrunched up his face while Adam pursed his lips together tightly. “I reckon so, Roy,” Hoss muttered softly.

“Adam?” Roy said.

“Yeah, yeah…” Adam straightened to his full height. “One week Roy…one week. If they haven’t been caught by then, Hoss and I are going after them,” he said as he turned to go. “Come on, Hoss; let’s go see how that kid brother of ours is getting along.”

*****

It was another long night for Ben, who remained at his son’s bed side. Joe tossed about and moaned continually. Hop Sing kept hot coffee brewing for his boss and cool water for their patient. By daybreak, all three men were worn out. Hop Sing had been made to retire, Ben dozed in the over-stuffed chair near Little Joe’s bed and the patient himself had finally given in to the heavy medication and now rested comfortably.

Hoss entered the room quietly so as not to disturb neither his father nor his brother. The sun had just risen over the mountain peaks, and he was most anxious to see how his brother was doing before heading out to the barn to begin his morning chores. He was surprised to see that Little Joe was awake. He smiled broadly at the boy, happiness and relief shining in his clear blue eyes. Silently he moved to the opposite side of the bed from his father and knelt down. He moved close to Joe so he could talk to him and not wake their father. “Hey ShortShanks,” he whispered. “I’m mighty glad to see you awake.”

Joe gave his brother a weak smile and placed his finger to his lips. “Shh… Pa’s worn out. I’m fine, Hoss,” Little Joe told him.

Hoss had his doubts about his brother being ‘fine’ but he kept those thoughts to himself. He could see how pale Joe’s skin was and the dark circles under his eyes. The boy’s expression told him that some pain still existed, though Joe would be reluctant to admit it.

“Yeah, he ain’t left your side for three days now,” Hoss explained. Hoss swallowed hard. “I’m mighty glad you goin’ to be okay. You sure ‘nough had us worried.”

Joe, his lips tightly pressed together and his brow wrinkled, nodded his head. “I was scared, Hoss. After they shot me, they just left me there to die.” Joe’s voice became thick with emotion. “They didn’t even bother to finish me off. Later, I could hear the wolves. I was afraid they’d find me…” he muttered as he wiped a lone tear from his eye.

“Aw shucks, Joe, try not to think about all that. You’re home now and that’s all that matters,” Hoss said in hopes of lifting his brother’s spirits.

“Did they get them?” Joe asked Hoss in a whispered voice. He glanced at his father. Ben was snoring softly.

“No…and I ain’t happy about that either. Neither is Adam. But that old man, Gus…he told Roy all about what happened and who done what. Them rascals done took our steers all the way down to Dayton and sold them to Pa’s friend, Sam Bowers,” Hoss explained.

“I didn’t know Pa sold any cattle.”

“That’s just it, Joe; Pa didn’t sell them. But Mr. Bowers thought Pa had ’cause that Gus fella went down there acting like he was sent by Pa and set the deal up. Trouble was, when that kid shot you, Gus chickened out and came back for you.”

“He did?” Joe asked, surprised.

“Yeah, trouble was, he couldn’t find you. He found us instead — me, Pa and Adam. That’s when he told Pa most of the story. Once we got you home, Adam took the rascal into town to Roy. He told the sheriff everything.”

“So now Roy’s got a posse out looking for the other three? They were just kids, Hoss, not much older than me,” Joe said.

Hoss knew his answer would make his brother mad, but he couldn’t lie about it. “No,” he said.

“NO!” said Joe a bit too loud. They both turned to see if he had awakened their father but Ben slept on. “Why not?” he demanded.

“’Cause what Roy done told us. He can’t do no sheriffing down in Dayton. But he sent a telegram to the marshal down there and Roy promised us that he would see to it that them varmints were caught soon, sent back to Virginia City and punished for what they done to you.”

Hoss leaned in ever so close to Little Joe, and lowering his voice, he whispered, “If they ain’t in jail somewhere within a week, me and Adam are goin’ after them ourselves. Shh…don’t you dare say a word to Pa; he’d have both our hides.”

“I’m going with you when you go,” Joe told Hoss.

Hoss’ eyes widened. “Oh no you ain’t. You ain’t gonna be in no shape to ride a horse, not with that shoulder hurt like it is. So just forget that idea. Me and Adam will take care of them for you…”

“Take care of whom?” Ben asked, surprising both boys. Ben grinned at Little Joe. “Good to have you back, son. How’s that shoulder this morning?” he asked as he felt Joe’s brow for any signs of fever. “Ah…no fever this morning,” he smiled, happy to have his son back.

Hoss stood to his feet. Glancing first at his father and then down at his brother, he explained. “I’ll see you later, little brother. Um…me and Adam gotta take care of them horses and then ride out to the north ridge to mend a fence. See you, Pa,” he said as he quickly exited the room. He hadn’t meant for his father to wake up and hear their plans about going after the men that had shot Little Joe and stole their beef.

“He sure is in a hurry to get to work,” Ben laughed as he pulled his chair close to the bed. “So how are you feeling this morning, son?”

Little Joe forced himself to smile at his father. “Better than I was a couple of days ago.” His shoulder was hurting; he was hungry, thirsty and confused by the unsettling feelings he was experiencing, but he didn’t want to worry his father with those any more than what he already had.

“Hungry?” Ben smiled. “The doctor said you could have some broth if you felt like eating.”

“Sure. Can I have some coffee too? I’m awfully thirsty.”

Ben saw how weak the boy’s eyes were and the dark circles. He knew from past experience that his son was not being totally truthful about the way he felt. Ben saw the way Joe’s lips pinched together when he tried to move to a more comfortable position and the tiny beads of moisture that suddenly beaded on his brow.

“Let me help you get comfortable, and then I’ll have Hop Sing bring you a tray,” offered Ben as he helped Joe into a more upright position and then fluffed the pillows behind his head. “There, I’ll be right back, son.” Ben left to have a tray fixed and was back within just a few minutes. Joe’s head rested against the soft down filled pillows and his eyes were shut. Ben thought that perhaps Joe had gone back to sleep, but by the time he’d placed the tray on the bedside table and turned around, Joe was watching him with sad, tear-filled eyes.

 Immediately, Ben sat down on the side of the bed. “What’s wrong, son?” he asked as he brushed back a wayward lock of hair.

Joe took a deep breath and struggled with his emotions as he tried to put into words his mixed feelings. Ben waited patiently for his son to collect himself.

At last, Joe looked into his father’s eyes, studied his face and finally spoke. “Those men…hunted me down like an animal…shot me in the back, and simply…left me die,” he muttered as a lone tear slipped down the side of his face. “Like…like I was…nothing. They just turned and walked away, Pa…left me bleeding to death…dying…like I was nothing at all.” He gulped. “You have no idea…how that makes me feel.” He shook his head as if to clear the troublesome thoughts. “Nothing. That’s all I meant to them…nothing.” Joe lowered his head a bit to hide the tears that had sprung into his eyes so as not to embarrass himself in front of his father.

Ben’s heart went out to his son. He knew that Joe’s emotions were as heart-wrenching as the painful wounds were to his body. “Joe,” he said softly. “Those types of men are…heartless. They would just as soon kill one of their own as to kill a stranger. What you are feeling right now is, well…justified. And very truthful in that you are right about what they were thinking when they walked away and left you. To them, you were just…an annoyance that they had to get rid of so that they could continue on with their evilness. They didn’t shoot you and leave you because you are you. They would have done the same thing to any man who got in their way. You were a threat to them, a means by which they might be caught…”

Joe wiped his eyes dried. “But Pa, I couldn’t just turn my back on a man who was bleeding to death and simply leave him to die. I don’t understand a man like that.”

“Well Joseph, you wouldn’t simple just shoot a man in the back either, now would you?” his father asked with a small grin on his face.

“I can’t believe you asked me that, Pa.”

Ben laid his hand on his son’s arm. “It wasn’t really a question, son. I know you would never back shoot a man, and that you would never walk away from a dying man without trying to help him. I just wanted you to see how different you are from the ones that did this to you. Do you understand now, Joe?”

Joe looked again at his father, and after several moments, nodded his head.

“Good,” said Ben, rising from the bed to retrieve Joe’s breakfast tray. “Then think no more on the matter. Those men will be caught and punished for what they’ve done, that’s a promise, son.” He sat the tray across Joe’s lap. “Now, let’s get something in your stomach. Coffee first or broth?”

“Coffee, please,” Joe said in a tired voice.

*****

Four days later, Little Joe was sitting downstairs with his father when Hoss came into the house. Joe craned his neck around to smile up at his brothers. “It’s not lunchtime yet,” he teased the big man.

“Ha ha ha,” taunted Hoss. “Just ’cause you’re ailin’ ain’t no sign I can’t still turn you over my knee, little brother,” he jeered and then laughed at Little Joe’s expression.

Ben joined them from his office. He snickered at the boy’s teasing. “So, since it is not lunchtime, what’s brought you home? Is everything okay? Where’s Adam?”

“Golly Pa, I can’t answer but one question at a time,” Hoss grunted, though he smiled at his father. “Roy Coffee’s here to see you. He’s talkin’ to Adam.”

The front door opened and Adam came in with the sheriff following. Ben turned to greet his company. “Roy,” he said. “Good to see you. What brings you out?”

“Howdy, Ben, Little Joe.” He nodded at Hoss whom he’d already spoken with when he arrived. “I have some news, Ben, about those men that shot Little Joe.”

“Have a seat, Roy,” Ben offered. He noticed that Little Joe sat up straighter and knew that he would want to hear the news.

“Thanks,” said the sheriff as he seated himself next to Joe on the settee.

“Please go on, Roy,” Ben encouraged the sheriff.

“Alrighty. Seems as if those two young men met their fate while partaking in a game of poker, down around Hawthorne. Guess the brothers got caught cheatin’. The older kid was playin’ while his younger brother stood off to the side sendin’ him signals. There was a shoot-out and the oldest kid was killed. Wade, the younger one, was taken into custody by the sheriff there. He seen the wanted poster on the boy — seems they was wanted elsewhere besides here. Sparks, I believe. Anyyway, the boy escaped and unfortunately was killed when he shot it out with the deputy down there.” Roy looked over at Joe who was frowning. “Sorry, Little Joe. I know you wanted them varmints to stand trial here for what they done to you, but I guess they got what was comin’ to ’em just the same.”

Joe looked up at his father but said nothing. Ben took a deep breath and turned to Roy. “Thanks, Roy, for letting us know. Guess there’s nothing left to do about it now. Did the boys have any family that you know of?”

Roy, who had gotten to his feet, shook his head. “Not that I know of. No one other than an aunt, the third young man’s mother. We found his body a day or two ago. Looked like he broke his neck when his horse stepped in a hole. Horse was lying there too; his cousins didn’t even bother to bury the kid.” Roy’s expression was one of total disgust. “We buried the kid. At least he had a decent burial.

“What’s going to happen to Gus?” Adam asked.

“Well, most likely he’ll stand trial for rustling your steers, Adam, and being in cahoots with them other three that tried to kill Little Joe,” explained the sheriff.

A look of concern creased Ben’s features. “It’s a shame Gus got himself involved with those three. I’ve always known him to be a hardworking, devoted family man. I hate to think that he might spend the rest of his life in prison or, worse, hang.”

“Rustlin’s a hangin’ offense, Ben. So’s attempted murder.”

“But he didn’t shoot me,” Joe said, speaking up for the first time. “In fact, he tried to help me.”

“Help you?” Ben asked. “By coming back to see if you were dead?”

“No, Pa. After I was shot and the other three took off, Gus stayed behind and tried to stop the bleeding. He…”

“And then he walked off and left you to die?” Ben interrupted in a gruff tone. “He was just as guilty as the others, Joseph. He was with them when they tracked you down, he was there when you were shot, and he left you there, knowing you were bleeding to death. No jury would find him anything but guilty!” Ben was angry. He’d kept all his pent up anger inside until now and it seemed to have exploded without warning.

Roy walked to the door. “Guess I’ll be gettin’ on back to town. I’ll let you know when the judge gets in town.” He turned to Little Joe. “You’ll most likely have to testify, Little Joe, about what happened.” He placed his hat on his head and nodded at the others. “Bye,” he said as he slipped out the door.

Hoss scrunched up his face. He looked from Adam to Joe and from Joe to his father. “Pa,” he said in a soft voice, “ol’ Gus…he’s a married man with half a dozen young’n’s. If they hang ’im, what’s gonna happen to them kids?” He was worried about the family who were as innocent as his little brother had been when he was shot in the back and left to die.

Joe struggled to get to his feet. Adam stepped closer and helped Joe off the settee. “You could drop the rustling charges against him, couldn’t you? And I can tell the jury how he tried to help me; that and the fact that he wasn’t the one who actually did the shooting.”

Ben, a puzzled look on his face, came closer to his son. He studied the young man’s expression, trying to read his thoughts. “You don’t want Gus punished for what he did? I don’t understand, son, why?”

Little Joe took a deep breath. He wasn’t sure himself why he felt the way he did. After all, those men did leave him to die, bleeding almost to death. It had really bothered him a few days ago, but something happened within him that he couldn’t really explain. Maybe it was simply the fact that he beat the odds and that he was alive and he did wake up and see the sunshine and maybe, just maybe, he felt a bit sorry for ol’ Gus and his family. Hoss was right in asking what would become of Gus’ children and their mother if Gus was hanged.

“I’m not sure, Pa,” Joe stammered. “Maybe those steers aren’t worth a man’s life.”

“Well, by golly, those men sure thought those same steers were worth your life,” his father grumbled.

Joe looked trouble. He knew he wasn’t doing a good job trying to explain his feelings to his father. “I know, Pa…I know…but…but…”

Ben placed his arm around Joe’s slender shoulders and gently pulled him close. “I’ll tell you what, son; I’ll talk to Roy. I’ll even speak with both lawyers and I’ll see what we can do about getting Gus a lesser sentence. Those heads of cattle are not so important to me that I’d prefer to see a man hanged because of them, but you, young man…” Ben said as he tenderly poked Joe in his chest, “are very important to me. We nearly lost you, Joseph. We watched how you’ve suffered and how you still try to hide the pain you’re in. I, personally, have a problem forgiving the ones responsible for putting you through all of this. My forgiveness will be long time coming.”

Smiling up at his father, Joe said, “Thanks Pa. I’d hate to see his family suffer because he made a stupid mistake. I’d feel responsible for their welfare if he were to be hung…”

“Joseph, listen to me for a minute. You are not responsible for his family, should he go to prison or if he is to hang. That man made his own choices, not you. He chose to steal; he chose to entwine himself with men of low character. He chose to walk away and leave you to die. His decision, not yours. When you do the crime, son, you have to do the time. And unfortunately, because of his own actions, his own family will also have to pay the consequences. It may not seem fair to you and it certainly isn’t fair for them, but that is something that Gus should have thought about before he got himself involved.”

Joe let out a long sigh. He knew that his father was right. He knew Gus was as involved as the other three, and that because of his involvement, others would have to suffer. It bothered him to be caught in the middle of this. In his heart, he believed Gus to have been a decent man while those other three had been plain mean to the bone. They cared for no one; Joe knew that without a doubt. Gus…well, he was different somehow. Maybe, before the trial, he could convince his father to allow him to speak with Gus about his part in all of this. Perhaps then, he could better understand his own mixed up feelings.

*****

Joe never got his chance to talk with Gus. Two days later, Roy Coffee rode out to the Ponderosa to speak with Joe and his father. The news he had to share was not good.

“Howdy, Ben. Little Joe, how you feelin’?” Roy asked as Ben showed the sheriff in.

“Pretty good,” Joe told him. “I’ve felt better, though.” He smiled.

Roy removed his hat and seemed to be a bit nervous. “Ben, Joe,” he began. “I rode out this afternoon to give you a bit of news…”

“News?” questioned Ben as he glanced in Joe’s direction. “Is the judge coming soon?”

Roy shook his head no. “’Fraid not, Ben. We won’t be needin’ him…”

“Why not?” Joe asked as he rose to his feet and stood next to his father. “What’s happened?”

Roy’s lips were pinched tightly together, and he lowered his head for just a second before looking up at his two friends. “It’s Gus. He’s dead, Ben. I’m sorry, Little Joe…”

“Dead?” both father and son all but shouted. Joe swapped a worried look at his father. His eyes were wide with what Ben thought to be sadness or maybe it was a mixture of anger and sadness mixed into one. “What happened, Roy?” Ben, turning to the sheriff, questioned.

“It happened last night…”

“What happened?” Joe demanded.

“Joseph, give the sheriff time to explain,” Ben growled as he gave Little Joe an impatient glare.

“Sorry, Roy,” Little Joe muttered.

Roy nodded his head. “As I was sayin’, it happened last night. Ol’ Gus had lain down for the night. I was dozin’ in my chair when I heard him moaning and groaning. When I got up to check on him, he was hurtin’ something awful. When I asked him where, he said his chest. I started to fetch Doc, but Gus stopped me and told me to tell Little Joe — and you, Ben — that he was sorry for all the trouble and pain he caused you. He no more than got the words out and he was dead. I reckon his heart gave out on him, but I ran and got the doc anyway and Doc Martin said it looked to him as if I was right about his heart.”

Joe sat down on the settee and lowered his head. A flood of emotions clenched his heart. Ben stood silent for several moments and then shook his head. “I’m sorry to hear that, Roy. I’m sorry for his family, his wife and kids.” He glanced at Little Joe, who sat quietly on the settee with his elbows on his knees and his hands over his face. Ben wondered at the thoughts that might be going through his son’s mind. He turned back to Roy. “What happens now?”

“Well, Gus’ family came by this morning to claim the body, so I reckon there will be a funeral. As for the loss of your cattle…You did say Bowers was having the cattle returned. And the ones what shot you, Little Joe,” he said, turning his attention to the younger Cartwright, “they met their Waterloo in that shoot out. Little Joe, it’s over. Time to move on and try to forget it,” Roy said, hoping that the boy would do just that.

Little Joe stood, his lips tightly pressed together. “I suppose you’re right.” He gave a low grunt. “Guess you can’t hang a dead man,” he said with a touch of cynicism.

“No, I reckon not, son,” Roy said to Little Joe. He placed his hat on his head and started toward the door. “I guess I’ll get back to town. Joe, I’m sorry you didn’t have you day in court, but sometimes things just don’t work out the way we’d like for them to.”

Ben opened the door and followed Roy out into the bright sunlight.

“Ben, I hope Little Joe can put this behind him.”

“He will, Roy. It might take a while, but Little Joe will be alright. Thanks for coming out and letting us know about Gus. I’ll stop by his place and see if there is anything I can do for the family. Maybe it will make Joe feel better if he thought he could help them. He mentioned it the other night about feeling sorry for those kids.”

“Hope so too,” Roy stated as he mounted up. “See you, Ben; take care.”

Ben waited until Roy had ridden out of sight before turning towards the house. He was surprised to find Little Joe standing silently behind him. He noted the downcast expression on his youngest son’s face. When he approached the boy, Joe slowly looked up and into his father’s eyes. Joe swallowed hard.

“What’s eating at you, son?” Ben asked.

“I don’t know if I can explain it, Pa,” Little Joe said in a low voice.

Ben motioned for Joe to come sit with him on the side porch. Joe followed obediently and sat when his father pulled out a chair for him. “Why don’t you try to explain it?” the worried father questioned.

“I guess I just don’t understand why a man wants to waste his life doing wrong,” Joe stated. “Like those boys that shot me…and Gus…”

Ben kind of shrugged his shoulders. “I suppose we never really know what goes on in another man’s house, son. Or what circumstances might lead young, healthy, fairly intelligent young men to make the choices they do. But whether they chose to do good or to do bad… Most people know right from wrong. Just because you grow up in a home where there is nothing but strife and arguing — beatings even — doesn’t mean that you will end up doing horrible things. Even a young man, such as yourself, who grows up in a loving home, might decide to take the wrong fork in the road. The decisions to do either right or wrong — knowingly — is that individual’s own choice. The results or consequences that go along with those choices are something that the individual will have to answer for.”

“I get that Pa. But in my case, no one had to answer for what they did to me…or for stealing your cattle…” Joe stammered.

Ben’s dark eyes widened as he shook his head slowly. “Don’t you think that dying in a gunfight in a saloon or against the law isn’t answering for what they did to you? Joseph, those young men paid with their lives for their wrong choices.” Ben leaned over and placed a hand on Joe’s knee. “Maybe they didn’t have to stand trial or spend the rest of their lives in prison, but they knew why they were in the mist of that gunfight. They knew why they tried to run from the law. They knew they were doomed one way or another for the choices they made.”

Little Joe sighed deeply. “I suppose you’re right, Pa,” he said and then grinned, “You usually always are,” he said and then turned serious again. “But what about Gus? He had a family, kids. Pa, didn’t he know that even though he might have needed money, he had what mattered most to a man?  His family…”

Ben smiled broadly. “Joseph, you are so right. If I lost everything I’ve worked for all my life, it wouldn’t matter at all as long as I still had my three sons. You, Adam, Hoss — the three of you are my life. Not his house, not the money, certainly not the land; just my sons. And I’m very proud of you, son that you recognize that ‘things’ are not what make a man, nor do they bring true happiness. But to have a good, God-fearing family that stands with you and not against you…That is what true happiness is to a man…or at least it is to me, son.”

“I feel sorry for Gus’ family,” Joe said quietly.

“So do I son. Most men would do anything for their family. Some might go so far as to steal and kill.”

“Would you? I mean steal or kill?”

Ben’s brow furrowed. “I’d kill to protect you if someone was trying to harm one of you, if that’s what you mean. But as for stealing… Well, Little Joe, I have to say, I’ve been mighty hungry at times. So has Adam — way back when we were coming west — but never so hungry that I’ve had to steal to feed us. I did a lot of hard work at many different types of jobs and did a lot of bartering to keep us from starving, but stealing…never.”

Joe smiled at his father. “I didn’t figure you’d ever stolen anything.”

Laughing, eyes twinkling, Ben confessed. “When I was just a small boy, I came home from school one day with a big red, juicy watermelon. When I showed it to your Grandfather, he asked me where I got it. I told him in old man Hunter’s watermelon field. My pa asked me if ‘old man’ Hunter knew I had taken it. I told Pa that old man Hunter wouldn’t have cared because those melons were just lying there rotting. Pa asked me again if Mr. Hunter knew I took one of his melons. I remember shaking my head no. Guess I knew by that time I was in trouble,” laughed Ben. “‘Then you stole that watermelon, didn’t you?’ my father shouted. I confessed I suppose I had. Needless to say, my father was not happy with me.”

Joe snickered. “What did he do to you?”

“What do you think? I was forced to return the watermelon to old man Hunter, apologize, and then, Pa and I went out to the wood shed and had a very necessary little talk. I couldn’t sit for about three days!” Ben chuckled. “I never ever took anything again that wasn’t mine or that I didn’t ask for first. I paid the price for the decision I made — just like Gus…just like those young men. Joseph…”

Joe’s eyes sobered. “I suppose it all goes along with what the Bible teaches us. ‘Be sure thy sins will find thee out’.”

“’Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I shall repay’,” quoted Ben. “I’m not saying that Gus’ heart attack was God’s vengeance. It would have happened anyway; it was destined to be. Maybe even his bad choices might have brought it on. Gus wasn’t always a man of dishonor. Try not to harbor hard feelings against him, son, nor for the others. Hate can eat away at your soul, destroy your heart. I’m working hard to let it all go, for myself.”

“I know all that, Pa. You taught me that a long time ago. I promise, I’ll try to put all of this behind me. But can we please find some way to help Gus’ family?”

Ben stood as Joe rose to his feet. “I think we can come up with something.” Ben placed his arm about his son’s shoulders. “Why don’t we go inside, have something to eat and see what we can come up with? Besides, you should still be taking it easy, young man.”

Together, arms locked about each other, father and son entered their home. Putting thoughts and ideas together, they were sure to find some way to help the family that needed so much understanding and compassion rather than the scorn and hatred that others had been feeling towards Gus’ needy family.

***End***

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