Word Count: 12,660
The rope was tight and had already rubbed his wrists raw; his head hurt where he’d been hit and his stomach churned from being punched numerous times. But those discomforts were minor compared to the ache in his heart. Closing his eyes and leaning back against the hard bark of the tree where he’d been tied for hours, Ben Cartwright could only think on one thing…his youngest son and the harsh, angry words he had spewed at the boy, leaving Little Joe to contemplate the error of his ways. Ben had ranted for a full half hour about how Little Joe seemed to always be in trouble and the careless, thoughtless things he was always doing…never following direct orders, varying from the paths that his father had always tried to lead him down and the most irritating of all…thinking too late about the consequences. Shaking his head as if to remove the memory from his mind, Ben sighed deeply, remembering the hurt that shown in the deep set hazel eyes, the remorseful apology and humbled yet downcast expression that told the angry father that his words had struck a cord in the young man’s heart; but he had ignored the signs, refusing to let the contrite expression sway his anger from where it was directed. Instead, he turned and stomped away, leaving Joe standing alone in the center of the big room.
His last words while standing at the door, just before walking out, came back to haunt him now, when he was so surely alone and in need of help.
‘You might try remembering, young man, that I shall not live forever. How on earth are you ever going to survive without me, unless you think before you act…and grow up?’
Ben took a deep breath, willing away his thoughts, but they continued to linger and plague his memory.
‘That temper of yours will be your undoing one of these days, mark my word!’
Lips pinched tightly, Ben lowered his head, realizing at that moment, that his youngest, most audacious son, was more like himself than he cared to admit. It had been he, Ben Cartwright who had been careless, he had failed to anticipate the trouble that lay ahead for him, and he had stormed from the house as if it were he that was only eighteen years old and not his son.
“Like father, like son,” mumbled Ben to himself, suddenly ashamed of his earlier behavior…and the uncompassionate words he’d had spoken.
“Look where my temper landed me…right in the middle of a holdup!” Ben groaned softly, shaking his head; other words, spoken years before began to harass his thoughts.
His own father had preached to him for years that one should never walk away from an argument or disagreement to leave the dispute in anger, especially with a loved one. Things happen, people get hurt…and often die, leaving the other with a heart full of guilt for words spoken in a moment of anger…for once said, they can never be unsaid, Ben father’s had pointed out. Be careful what you say, speak not in anger…and think, before you speak. How quickly he’d forgotten those long ago lessons. Though Ben’s father, Joseph Cartwright, had never had a son quite like he had…or had he, his conscious quizzed.
“Oh, Little Joe,” he sighed to himself. “I’m sorry son…I’m sorry.”
“Pa sure has been gone a long time,” Hoss speculated aloud.
He directed his statement to his older brother, Adam, who sat in their father’s chair. Hoss had tried to talk to Little Joe, but his younger brother was uncommonly quiet and wore a sullen expression on his face. The boy seemed pre-occupied, lost in thought and had practically ignored his brothers all evening.
“He probably went into town to talk to Roy or Doc…they’re all no doubt sitting around playing checkers,” Adam explained without looking up from the book he was reading.
“Yeah…I guess ya right…but it ain’t like Pa to stay away this long without sending word…”
“And he accuses me of being thoughtless to the feelings of others,” muttered Joe, getting up at last and moving slowly across the room.
The remark drew his brother’s attention from his reading. Adam watched the boy closely as Joe made his way to the door.
“What is that suppose to mean?” Adam demanded.
Joe was busy strapping on his holster. “Nothing.”
Adam glanced at Hoss as he stood up, closing his book yet marking the page with his finger. He moved around the settee and stopped at the credenza. “Where do you think you’re going this time of evening?”
Joe finished tying down the thin leather strips that held the holster in place about his upper thigh. He turned and grabbed his hat from the peg behind the door. “For a ride, I need some fresh air.”
“It’s a might late to go riding,” Adam suggested.
“It’s not totally dark yet, I won’t be long…”
“Pa isn’t going to like this, you know…”
“So what else is new?” Joe said in a grumpy tone.
Before Adam could say anything else, Joe opened the door and disappeared into the fading light. Adam watched from the opened door until Joe entered the barn and then closed the front door. When he turned around, he practically tripped over Hoss who was standing behind him.
“He’s askin’ for trouble,” Hoss muttered, moving out of Adam’s way.
“Isn’t he always? I swear, Hoss, that boy can find more ways to make Pa mad than any other person I know…he just begs for trouble.”
“Aw…he don’t mean to, Adam…he’s just…just…tryin’ to find himself, that’s all. Don’t ya remember what it was like…being that young and always feelin’ like ya had to prove everything…to everybody?”
Adam grinned slightly, highlighting the dimple in his cheek. “Those were the times of my life that I hated the most. I always felt so…so…inadequate…I always felt like I couldn’t do anything right…and Pa…he was so…right…all the time. God, how I hated that!” snickered Adam.
“Yeah…me to, but it seemed like Pa always understood…well, most of the time,” Hoss added.
“Guess by the time you came along Hoss, Pa had this father thing down pat.”
“Well if’n that’s so, what happened when Joe came along? I mean…they butt heads most everyday…why, just today I was out in the yard, and Pa and Little Joe was inside here, and they were going at it something fierce…”
“You don’t say?”
“Yep, and the way Pa stormed outta the house…I could tell he was plenty mad.”
“What’d the kid do this time?”
Hoss’ blue eyes rounded when he scrunched up his face. “Ain’t got no ideay; when Pa left, I came inside. Joe was just standin’ in the middle of the room. I asked him what happened and all he told me was to mind my own business.”
Joe had ridden further than he had intended. His thoughts were still consumed with the argument he had with his father earlier in the afternoon, thus he had paid no attention to the distance or the time. As he pulled Cochise to a halt and glanced up at the darkening sky, he let out a long sigh.
“I’ll probably be in trouble again, Cooch…it’s getting late and Pa’s probably home by now, waiting supper. Come on, boy,” Joe said with a touch of disgust.
He turned his horse around and sharply kicked his mount in the sides. Cochise sprang into action, galloping toward home. The wind beat against his face, the crispness of the night air chilled him, yet when he finally slowed his horse down to a canter, Joe felt somehow refreshed. The gloom that had lingered over him was gone and had been replaced with…with…
“Whoa,” Joe said, pulling back on the reins.
For several long moments, the handsome young man sat silently on his mount, alone in the middle of the road, looking very much like a statue silhouetted against the glow of the moonlight.
“Something’s wrong, Cooch,” Joe said after a spell. “Pa’s in trouble…I can feel it in my gut!”
Joe kneed Cochise into a full run, racing toward home. The instant that he entered the yard, he slid from the saddle and ran across the yard, stumbling and rolling in his haste to get to his family. At the door, he shoved it opened, banging it against the credenza behind and startling Adam and Hoss who jumped from their chairs.
“What the…!!” shouted Adam, glaring at the younger man. “That’s no way to enter this house and you know it!”
Winded, Little Joe tried to explain. “Sorry…but…”
“Aren’t you always!” growled Adam as he turned and returned to his chair.
Joe swallowed, trying to catch his breath.
“Adam…you don’t understand…” began Joe, but stopped when he noted the disgusted look on his older brother’s face.
Joe glanced at Hoss who still stood in the middle of the room, watching him. “Hoss, you gotta come with me…”
“At this hour?” snorted the big man.
“Pa!” chorused both Hoss and Adam.
Adam quickly got up again and joined Hoss.
“What about Pa?” Adam demanded.
“Something’s wrong,” Joe explained.
“What are ya talkin’ about, Shortshanks?”
“Trouble? What kind of trouble?”
“I don’t know…”
Adam let the air blow from his lungs. “You aren’t making one bit of sense, Joe…what kind of trouble is Pa in…and how do you know?” Adam insisted.
“Look, is Pa here?”
“No…should he be?”
“Yes…it’s late…and it isn’t like Pa to be so late…something’s wrong, Adam…Hoss,” Joe anxiously stated.
“Joe, I think Pa’s old enough to take care of himself. If’n he wants to stay late in town, it’s his business…but it doesn’t mean anything’s wrong!” Hoss stated matter-of-factly.
“Don’t you think I know that?” Joe growled. “But something IS wrong, Hoss…Adam, please, ya gotta listen to me…”
“Joe, don’t be silly; Pa’s fine. Now sit down…or better yet, go to bed…”
“BED! I’m not going to bed…just who do you think you are, sending me to bed?”
Joe stood nose to nose with his older brother. His temper was beginning to boil. They wouldn’t believe him, his brothers were practically laughing at him, and their pa needed help.
“I didn’t order you to go to bed, Joe, I only suggested it…and with the mood you’ve been in all day, bed would be the best place for you right now…”
Joe opened his mouth to make a sharp retort, but suddenly, his father’s words spoken earlier that day, came flooding back to haunt him.
‘That temper of yours is going to get you into some real trouble someday, young man, I’d suggest you learn to control it!’
Joe took a deep breath and stepped back, giving himself a moment to calm down. So what if they didn’t believe him or wanted to help him find their pa, he’d do it without them. Suddenly, Joe pivoted on his heels and headed toward the door.
“Where the blazes are you going now?” Adam called, glancing toward Hoss.
“I told you, Pa needs help…I’m going to look for him.”
Without another word, Joe slammed the door shut.
Hoss raised his brows in surprise, glanced at Adam and then sat back down. Adam stared at the closed door for a second longer and then picked up his book, sat down and continued to read, picking up where he left off.
Joe wasn’t sure how he knew his father was in need of help, he didn’t try to reason it out, he just knew, that’s all. Deep down inside of him, he could feel his father’s…whatever you called it…calling out for him. Several times while he was out riding, he was almost sure that he’d heard his father call his name…Joe…Joe…
“This is weird,” he murmured to himself.
As he headed into town, the feeling that something was wrong nagged at him. He wondered if he just felt that way because of the big argument they’d had that morning, or if the nagging feeling was real. Joe admitted to himself that he’d been wrong, ranting and raving at his father as he had…and to think that he had purposely disobeyed a given order his father had given to him just because he believed his father to be wrong. And then to find out that Ben had been correct in the first place, leaving Joe holding the loose end of the rope, so to speak, had only ignited his temper and then the two had clashed. Maybe because Ben’s words had struck a cord in his heart that Joe had the dreadful feeling eating away at him. Still, Joe couldn’t put a finger on the reason, so he decided to do what his father had always taught him to do…and that was to follow his instinct. He just prayed he was right…not that he wanted his father to be in some sort of trouble, but he almost hated the thought of riding into town only to find his father in the saloon enjoying a couple of beers, or down at the sheriff’s office playing a game of chess or checkers. It was likely, and the thought of his father becoming more enraged with him than he already was, wasn’t a pleasant thing to ponder.
Joe swallowed hard, ‘I’ll worry about that, when I find Pa.’
The town was bustling with people as Joe rode down the main street. It seemed odd, it being a weeknight and everyone milling around as they were. Joe briefly wondered if something were wrong, maybe someone had been shot. He was headed for the sheriff’s office anyway, he’d just ask Roy.
“Hey Gus,” Joe called to the local blacksmith.
A crowd had gathered outside the bank office. Gus stood at the back of the crowd. At the sound of his name, Gus turned around. “Little Joe…”
“What’s going on, Gus?” Joe asked as he slid down from his horse and tied the reins around the hitching post.
“You ain’t heard?” the big brawny man asked.
“The bank…it’s been robbed!”
Joe’s eyes widened in surprise; he shook his head. “No, I hadn’t heard, I just rode into town to look for Pa…when did the robbery take place?”
“Little Joe!” a voice called from within the mass of bystanders.
As Joe turned, he saw Roy Coffee pushing his way through the throng of curiosity seekers heading in his direction.
“Hey, Roy…looks like you’ve had some excitement…”
“Some excitement, Little Joe…Harry Gilmore’s been murdered, fifty thousand dollars stolen and your father taken hostage…”
Joe’s eyes suddenly grew wide with fear, hoping he had not heard the sheriff correctly. “What did you just say?”
Roy nodded with his head for Joe to follow and led the way down the street and into his office, away from prying eyes. “Yep…I’m sorry, Little Joe…but them varmints busted into the bank right at closing time. Ben was inside…in fact he was on his way out when it happened. From what the teller says happened, Harry was just closing the safe when the bandits came in…knocking your Pa to the floor. One man stood over him, pointing a gun at him while another pushed the teller down next to Ben. Harry was forced into the vault and ordered to fill some saddlebags with the money. It happened right as the bandits were leaving; Harry went for his gun and was shot down. Ben was closest to the door, they grabbed him, swore to kill him if anyone followed…they meant it too, Little Joe.”
“Do you know who they were, Roy?”
“Yeah…it was Bob Macy and his gang…”
“Macy!” repeated Joe. “Dear God…I thought they were in prison…”
“Were…they broke out two weeks ago…I told your father right away. Didn’t he say anything to Adam or Hoss about it?”
Joe shook his head. “I don’t know, Roy; if he did, they didn’t tell me!”
“Guess ya Pa didn’t want you to know…”
Joe ran his hand over his face. The worry was real, so was the fear that gnawed at his gut. “What are you going to do about this, Roy?” Joe demanded.
“I’m going after them. I just sent a man out to the Ponderosa to fetch you boys…guess you missed the messenger?”
“Yeah…I didn’t come in by the main road. Roy…I understand why Pa might not have wanted me to know…”
“Well, he was just worried about you, Joe…what with you havin’ been a witness against Macy and his boys five years ago…”
“I was a kid then, but I’m not a kid now…he should have told me…”
“Maybe so Joe, but your Pa was concerned about your welfare. You were only…what…thirteen, when you testified against Macy’s gang…and I remember Bob Macy swearing to get even with Ben for letting you send him and his brothers to jail.”
“Joe…” the sheriff paused, placing a firm hold on the youngest Cartwright’s arm before continuing. “I think you should go home…I don’t think Ben would want you involved in this…”
“Home? Roy…I’m not going home, Pa’s in trouble and he needs me…”
“He needs help, I agree, but knowing ya pa like I do, he’d want you to go back home and wait…”
“For what? Wait for what…those men will kill Pa, and you know it, Roy. I’m not going to let that happen…I’m going to look for Pa.” Joe turned, heading for the door.
“Now you wait just a minute, Little Joe, I don’t you to go off half cocked…”
“I’m not going off half cocked, Roy…I already told you, I was going to look for Pa,” Joe said angrily.
“Then you’d best wait for your brothers to get here and ride out with the posse,” Roy advised.
Joe was fighting to control his temper. His father’s words hung in the back of his mind, toying with his sub-conscience but the over-whelming dread that had lingered like a shroud about him, drove him to push on.
“I’m not waiting for anyone, Roy…just tell me what direction they rode out and I’ll be on my way.”
“I ain’t gonna tell ya a thing…you’ll wait for the posse or…or…I’ll lock ya in a cell until Adam gets here.”
Roy saw the dark look cross the young man’s face and was forewarned. Quickly, surprising Joe, Roy grabbed the youngster’s gun from his holster and pointed Joe’s gun at him.
“Roy…what the hell are you doing?” stormed Joe, taken off guard by the sheriff’s actions.
“I’m sorry, Little Joe, but I’m lockin’ ya up until Adam gets here.”
Roy waved the weapon toward the door that opened into the cellblock. “Go on, move.”
Joe’s eyes were full of venom as he stared at the sheriff, but he moved where Roy had pointed. When he reached the open cell, he paused, looking back over his shoulder at the sheriff. His expression was full of indignation. “I hope you don’t regret this, Roy…if anything happens to my father…I’m holding you responsible.”
“Suit yourself, Joe…now get in there…I’ll let you out when your brothers get here,” Roy promised.
Joe stepped through the door and stopped, too angry to even turn around. He heard the door clang shut and the key turning in the lock. Swallowing back his rage and the desperation that caused him overpowering unease, Joe sat down on the cot. With elbows propped on his knees, Joe buried his face in his hands, disgusted beyond words. There was no use debating the issue with the sheriff, it just was not his day for winning an argument.
Miles away, Ben squirmed trying to ease the stiffness in his arms and shoulders from too many hours of being tied. The small dinghy into which he had been forced rocked from side to side as two of his captives rowed steadily forward. They were headed for a small island, located some distance from the shoreline. Ben had overheard Bob Macy say that the island was a perfect place to hide away until the posse finally gave up looking for them.
While Bob’s brothers headed for the island, Bob would take the horses back to the main road and leave just enough tracks that the posse would be tricked into looking for the trio in the wrong places. Once Jack and Trace had Ben securely situated on the island, Trace would row back to the mainland and pick up Bob. The horses would be hidden away in a small cove that Bob had found five years prior when they had robbed the Virginia City stage line and had hidden away for several days, until being discovered by Cartwright’s brat…the one they called Little Joe.
‘Damn that kid,’ Bob thought, ‘not only had the boy been on the stage the day it was robbed, but also testified against them.’
It was because of the kid’s testimony that all three had been sentenced to five years in prison. Bob had not forgotten; he had made Ben Cartwright a promise to get even and he had every intention of doing so. It had only been by pure coincidence that Cartwright had been in the bank on the day of the robbery. Bob had recognized the man instantly, but it was only later that Ben had put a name to the face that seemed so familiar. Not only was he stunned, but Bob had seen a shadow of fear cross the older man’s face as well and knew instantly that Cartwright was worried about the kid who had sent the three of them to prison.
Ben moaned softly as the bottom of the boat scraped the rocks beneath them. His body had been cramped into a small space and when the two men dragged him to his feet, it took a second or two for Ben to steady himself enough that he could stand on his own.
“Get moving,” Jack ordered as he shoved Ben forward.
Ben said nothing but walked inland of the island until he reached a small, secluded clearing where he was practically shoved to the ground.
“Tie him to that tree,” Jack ordered Trace. “When you’re finished, head on back, I’ll set up camp and keep my eye on the old man. I’ll have something ready to eat by the time you and Bob get back.”
“Good thing, I’m starved,” complained Trace.
Jack looked disgusted. “You’re always hungry! Now get going, and make it snappy.”
Trace untied Ben’s hands, giving him only a moment to flex his fingers and rub his wrists before pulling Ben’s arms back behind him and around the trunk of a tree. The jolts of pain increased and flowed upward into his shoulders as his back was pulled tightly against the hard, coarse bark. The new position was almost unbearable, but Trace seemed undaunted by Ben’s discomfort. When he was finished securing Ben’s hands, he moved around front where he tied Ben’s ankles together. He stretched the long length of rope out and round another tree just feet in front of his prisoner, making it impossible for Ben to move his legs. Trace saw the scrunched up expression on the older man’s face. He laughed, kicked Ben in the thighs until Ben cried out in pain. Again Trace laughed.
“Stop pestering the prisoner!” shouted Jack. “You know what Bob said, he wants Cartwright for himself…” Jack started laughing softly, as if he knew something that Trace did not.
Distracted from the prisoner by his brother’s laughter, Trace move across the camp to face his brother. “What’s so funny?” he demanded.
Jack jerked his head toward Ben. “Him…he has no idea what Bob has planned for him…”
“Well neither do I…what’s Bob aimin’ to do to him?” Trace wanted to know.
Ben, who acted as if he were not paying attention, was in fact, listening closely.
“He’s goin’ after the kid…”
“The kid?” puzzled Trace.
“Yeah stupid, Cartwright’s kid…the boy what testified against us!” laughed Jack.
Trace snickered. “Is he aimin’ on killin’ the boy?”
“Yep…and he aims on makin’ the old man over there watch!” beamed Trace.
Jack rubbed his hands together in anticipation.
Ben felt his stomach do a flip. He glanced over at the pair of thugs. Had they been watching him, they would have seen the intense hate that burned deeply in the dark brown eyes. Ben tugged at the ropes, but it was useless, he was tied securely with no means of getting free.
His heart screamed his son’s name…Joseph…Joseph…dear God…keep my boy safe!
“We’ll be ready to ride in ten minutes, boys. Get your gear ready and meet back here,” Roy said, ordering the small group of men who had agreed to ride with him and the Cartwrights of their departure time.
“Come on Roy…let me outta here,” Joe shouted from inside the jail.
Roy, who stood out front with Adam and Hoss, glanced at the brothers. “I promised him I’d let him out as soon as you got here, Adam,” Roy explained. “He was pretty hot when I locked him up…”
“Do me a favor, Roy,” Adam said.
“Sure…anything, if’n I can.”
“Leave him locked up…”
“What! Adam, you can’t do Joe thata way,” Hoss quickly spoke up.
Adam turned to Hoss. He wore a serious expression. “Oh yes I can. You know as well as I do that Bob Macy swore to get even with Pa. You may not recall what Macy said he’d do, but I sure as hell do…and there’s no way I’m letting Little Joe go with us. He’s safe where he’s at…Macy isn’t daring enough to come back into town…let alone the jail, just to kill Little Joe. Jail is the safest place for the boy, Hoss…” Adam explained.
“But it ain’t fair, Adam. Joe’s got as much right to help find Pa as you or I…he was the one who knew something was wrong…we didn’t even bother listenin’ to’em…and besides, he’ll be so riled up…”
“I don’t care how riled up he gets, he’s staying right where he’s at…Pa wouldn’t want Joe involved, Hoss…you know how he is about the kid…he’d want Joe to be safe…”
“No buts, big guy…unless you want to be responsible for the boy getting hurt…or worse?”
“Aw…dadburnit, Adam. Alright…but, I ain’t gonna be the one to tell’em!” Hoss growled.
“We’re not going to tell him. We’re just going to get on our horses and ride off.” Adam’s lips twisted slightly, forming a small smile. “I’ll let the kid take a couple of punches at me when this is all over…he’ll enjoy that.”
Hoss couldn’t help but snicker, though in his heart, he felt a bit sorry for his younger brother. He could picture the expression on the boy’s face when he realized that they were leaving without him. Sure, Little Joe would be hoppin’ mad, but as Adam said, he’d be safe. The Macy gang was touch, hardened men who thought nothing of watching a man die, and enjoying it, too.
“COME ON ADAM…OPEN UP…LET ME OUTTA HERE! ROY! YOU PROMISED!! HOSS…THIS AIN’T FAIR AND YOU KNOW IT!”
“Mount up men,” ordered Roy.
“ADAM…DAMNIT…LET ME OUT!!”
Roy looked back toward the door and caught sight of Adam doing the same thing. He knew that Ben’s eldest son had made the right decision, in keeping Joe locked up where he’d be safe, but he sure felt bad about breaking his promise to the kid. Joe’d most likely never have anything to do with him again, and that bothered the sheriff, he liked the boy, in spite of the kid’s temper and impetuous ways that often left the boy in some sort of trouble. He knew that his friend adored his youngest son, and would do anything to keep the boy from harm’s way, even die for the kid if need be. No, Joe was better off where he was; he’d just have to get over being mad.
Joe stomped the short distance to the window and peered out. He was fuming mad as he watched the posse mount up and ride off. With his fist doubled up, he hit the hard, stone, wall, wincing as a surge of pain shot through his hand and up into his arm.
“ADAM!! I’LL GET YOU FOR THIS!!” he screamed out the window, but to no avail, his brother never bothered to look back. Had he taken the time to look, he might have given in if he had noticed the angry tears welling in the soft, emerald eyes that watched the exodus.
“Hold up men,” Roy said as he held up one hand, signaling for the posse to stop.
“What’s wrong, Roy?” Adam asked.
“We’ve lost the trail…such as it were. I think we should split up. Adam, why don’t you take some men and go west, Hoss you take a couple fellas and move on up ahead. I’ll take some men with me, and go east. If you find something, fire three shots.”
“Sounds good, Sheriff. A couple of you come with me,” Hoss said, turning his horse eastward.
The posse split three ways, each going in the direction that Roy had ordered, each group hoping to catch up with the men who had robbed the bank and taken one of Virginia City’s finest men along as a hostage.
Back at the jail, Joe was still raging with unbridled anger. He had paced the cramped little area until he’d about worn himself out. Worry ate away at his nerves, causing his stomach to ache something awful…adding to the discomfort of being hungry, which the sheriff had forgotten to send out for his meal. All of these things piled up and made for a very unhappy, disgruntle prisoner. Unbeknown to the miserable feeling individual in the locked cell, his luck was about to change.
When the door separating the office from the cells opened, Joe jumped to his feet. Emily Stratton from the nearby café smiled as she entered, carrying a tray.
“Why Joe Cartwright, I could hardly believe it when your brother came by last night to ask me to bring you a tray. I thought he was kidding when he said you were locked up…my, what on earth did you do?” the pleasant little lady asked.
Joe smiled in an open, friendly way, hiding his true feelings from the unsuspecting woman. “Nothing,” he laughed. “My brothers thought it would be funny…you know…a big joke, to lock me up over night.”
“Oh my goodness,” she cringed. “How awful of them…I suppose you don’t find it a bit funny, do you?”
“No ma’am, not in the least. But I’ll get back at them…they are always playing some kind of joke on me…say, something smells awfully good.”
“It’s ham and eggs, Johnny cakes and hot maple syrup,” Emily said as she set the tray on the little table nearby. She stood for a second looking around as if confused. “Oh dear…however am I to get the tray inside so you can eat?” she muttered more to herself than to the prisoner.
Joe snickered to himself. “You have to get the keys, Mrs. Stratton, and unlock the door. They’re hanging on a peg on the other side of the wall,” Joe explained. He tried to hide the excitement that was beginning to build, lest the woman suspect he was planning on a getaway.
Emily Stratton glanced around, seeing the keys exactly where Joe Cartwright had said they would be. But she failed to get them. When she looked back at the prisoner, her eyes had become tiny little slits. Joe could barely see her eyes looking curiously at him.
“Honest ma’am, that’s what Sheriff Coffee has to do each time he feeds a prison.”
“Well…I suppose it does make sense,” she muttered.
Joe smiled, giving the doubting woman one of his most cherubic expressions. “You’ve nothing to fear…remember, I’m only here because of my brothers’ sense of humor,” he explained.
“Of course, how silly of me. Here you go,” she said, taking the keys and handing them through the bars to allow Joe to unlock the door himself.
Joe moved quickly, pushing the door opened wide, he grabbed his hat, plunking it down on his head. “Thank you kindly,” he said, touching his fingers to the rim.
“Joe Cartwright…are you not even going to eat?” Emily said, stunned that the young man was leaving.
“Oh,” said Joe as if he’d forgotten something.
He reached over to the tray that Emily now held in both hands and snatched a piece of the ham. “Thanks again,” he laughed, leaning down and placing a kiss on the woman’s cheek.
Emily blushed; her eyes glowed as she watched the handsome young man make his daring escape.
Joe had found the trail that the posse had taken; it had been easy; so many riders had gone along in the search for his father and the missing fifty thousand dollars. From a ridge, Joe watched the group of men who gathered from different directions. His first impulse was to race down the side of the hill and join the group. But he still bristled at the thought of being left behind and locked in a jail cell, unable to help in the search for his missing father.
At this point, Joe had no plans to meet up with his brothers or the sheriff and his group. He’d tag along all right, but from a distance. It was his hopes that it would be he who found his father and not his brothers, he felt in his soul that he owed his father that much.
“This is mostly my fault, Pa…as usual,” Joe sighed. “If I had only done like you said, you wouldn’t have gotten so mad that you felt you had to get out of the house…and away from me.”
Joe wiped his opened hand across the front of his face and nudged Cochise in the ribs. The posse was moving out again; it was time to follow.
Ben scrunched up his face. The increasing pain in his arms and shoulders, not to mention the stiffness in both legs, was beginning to reach unbearable limits. His mouth had become so dry that he could barely swallow. When he had asked for a drink, the three men sitting around the small fire only looked his way and laughed. They had refused to offer him anything to eat and his stomach, sore from the punches the day before, had started to churn and growl, telling him it was long past his feeding time. His misery was mounting and at times, Ben wondered if he would live long enough to tell his youngest son how very sorry he was for the harshly spoken words. Hard feelings had mellowed in his moment of need and Ben had finally realized, from his own past transgressions, that what the boy had been experiencing was nothing short of the same feelings and frustrations that he, himself had suffer at the same age. Now, when he thought about dying, his conscience troubled him that he might not be able to tell Joe how he truly felt and that they were more alike than he had ever anticipated them to be. The words, like father, like son held more meaning to him than they ever had.
Ben, in the mist of his anguish, smiled to himself. He was proud of his son, all of his sons, but Little Joe…so like himself…held a special place in his heart. The boy was the joy of his life, so special in so many ways that it was hard to put words to his feelings. The love he felt for his youngest offspring, took nothing from the love he felt for his firstborn, or his middle son. It was easy to love Adam, though often hard to understand him; they shared a certain bond between them that he didn’t have with the other two young men. And Hoss, thought Ben…what could he say about the man who was so gentle, so tender and yet so much a part of his life and home…like a gentle breeze on a sunlit eve, the man could turn to thunder in a flicker of an eye if tried.
And then there was Little Joe; young, handsome, daring, so impetuous that Ben often worried that the boy would never grow to manhood. But there he was, standing on the brink, part boy, part man…struggling to be one and not the other. Ben smiled again at the memory.
“I’d give my life for you Joseph…or you Hoss…and you Adam. You boys are my life’s blood…I…love you, each of you,” sighed Ben.
Ben leaned back, shutting his eyes in an attempt to ward off the chill that caused him to shiver. His thoughts took him back to his own youth, where his own father was forever lecturing him about one thing or another. Had he been as misguided as his own son at that age, he pondered. Probably, he had finally had his fill by the ripe old age of sixteen, when he had run away from home and gone to sea. Thinking back to the time, Ben could only reason that he had been much more headstrong than his youngest son. For whatever reasons, Little Joe had stuck around and endured. Chuckling softly to himself, Ben rationed that he had given his youngest son more reasons to leave home than his own father had given him.
For what seemed liked hours to the youngest Cartwright, he had followed the posse from one point to another without reaching any conclusion. They seemed at a lost as to which way to go, having divided up and rejoined more than once now, Joe decided that they were no closer to finding his father than when the hunt first began. He was growing weary, not to mention hungry and by now was beyond disappointed that their luck was just plain old no good.
Joe stopped in a small grove of trees and watched the posse re-group. He could tell that Roy was talking, most likely giving out orders to the next move. Adam said something, then Hoss and once more the group divided up and went separate ways. Undecided which group to follow, Joe got down to give his horse a much needed rest and to wash the dirt from his throat. In the far distance, he could see the blue waters of Lake Tahoe. The sun had begun its descent giving the reflections of the majestic mountains on the water a breathtakingly beautiful picture before his eyes.
“It’s beautiful up here,” he whispered to Cochise, gently rubbing the soft velvety end of the pinto’s nose.
Joe was just about to turn away from the panoramic sight when a glitter caught his eye.
“What in blazes is that?”
Curious, Joe watched for another flicker. It was moments later, but his patience was rewarded. “There it is again! I wonder what it could be.”
Joe kept his eye on the spot far off in the lake, near a little island. He mounted up. “Let’s move down to the shoreline, Cooch…that flickering is coming from that little island…maybe…no…wait just a minute,” Joe said in a surprised tone. “I remember Bob Macy saying…a long time back…something about the island in the lake making a good…damn…hideout!”
Joe jerked the reins around, forcing Cochise to turn. When he kicked the horse in the sides, the gelding reared up slightly and took off down the slope toward the shore.
“That’s it, Cooch,” Joe called to his horse, “Pa’s being held captive on the island, I’d bet my life on it!”
Little did the young man know that he would come very close to loosing that bet.
Joe neared the shoreline and slid down from his mount. Moving Cochise into a grove of trees, out of sight, so that he could look around yet remain unobserved. The sun had moved as day began to darken. He walked along the edge of the woods, scouting the ground for any tracks that might tell him that the group of four men, Macy, his two brothers and his father had been in the area.
Half an hour later, Joe found what he had hoped he would. A quarter of a mile inland, he spotted tracks, leading up a small ridge. As he studied the prints, he could easily tell that only one man was mounted and that, that man was leading the other three horses. Joe glanced around, wondering where the other three might have gone. Could they have had a boat or canoe stashed away that was used to row out to the island? If so, where did they hide the horses? Joe kept walking; his eyes never left the ground. The tracks were here and there, easier to read in the soft ground and almost invisible over the places where the rocks were more in abundance. But with the desire to find his father and restore their relationship fueling his determination, Joe pursued the tracks until he stumbled unexpectedly into the little secluded cove where the Macy gang had hidden their horses.
Joe’s eyes opened wide in surprise, he had hoped he would find the proof he needed and now, here it was. He remained hidden, being sure that he was alone before approaching the four horses that had been hobbled to stay within the boundary of their hideaway.
Joe approached Buck first. His heart seemed stuck in his throat as he ran his hands gently over the smooth hide of his father’s favorite mount. It was hard to swallow. A feeling of being near his father washed over Joe as he examined the horse from front to back and then on both sides of the saddle.
“Blood,” the boy murmured softly, touching the congealed drop with his fingers.
The tempo of his heart rate suddenly increased. He glanced around, half expecting someone to slip from behind the trees and attack him. Buck snorted and tried to nuzzle the boy. Joe gently petted the long silky neck taking time to look the steed in the eye.
“Don’t worry, ol’ boy, I’ll bring him back to you,” Joe promised.
After a quick examination of the other horses, Joe began looking around. He knew that with the horses tethered the way they were, the men had planned on staying away for some time. Joe wondered where they had gone…had they made their way to the shore and somehow gotten his father into a boat and out to the island? Believing that was exactly what had happened, Joe searched the ground, hungry to find the tracks that would prove him right once more.
The light of day was fading quickly and Joe knew that if he were to find what he was looking for, he’d have to do it now…later would not be good enough, he had to know tonight, before it was too late. He was worried sick about his father; in his mind, he had visions of Ben being beaten, hurt beyond his endurance. The pictures that those thoughts conjured up drove him to hurry.
“There,” he sighed.
He had found the tracks. Glancing up, Joe felt relieved that there remained enough light to follow the trail out of the grove of trees and down to the shore. Once near the water, Joe stopped, hunkering down behind a tree so that he could scan the water. He could see nothing but the soft ripples that lapped at the beach and then retreated out again into the lake.
Determined not to give in to his frustrations, Joe walked along the edge of the water, looking for some sort of boat that could be used to take him out to the island. He’d been watching the spot where he had earlier seen the flickering, but nothing out of the ordinary seemed to be going on. Assured that he was alone, Joe stood on the water’s edge, staring off into the distance toward the island. His gut feeling was that his father was there. And hadn’t Pa always told him to follow his instinct?
‘I could swim out to the island. No, the water’s too cold. But if Pa is there…then he needs me. I have to get to him…I have to swim, there’s no other way. I’ll just ignore the cold.’
Joe stripped off his jacket and then his boots and placed them nearby so that he could grab them when he got his father off the island. As he walked barefooted into the water, he spied a log that had been washed to shore by the current. He could use the log to cling to when he got tired on his way out to the island. Hopefully he could keep his gun from getting wet as well.
The instant that he entered the water, his body began to shiver. It was colder than first expected, but Joe gritted his teeth, determined to find his father, and clinging to the log, floated and kicked his way to the island. The going was slow and tiresome and several times, Joe was forced to stop kicking and rest by half laying on the log he used for support. Joe realized that he’d never been a strong swimmer, not like Adam or Hoss or even his father for that matter. He supposed it was because of his size, but sheer will and the love he held for his father was cause enough to keep him from turning back.
The water was icy cold and Joe felt chilled to the bone, but ignoring the discomfort and after resting several moments, he forced himself to go on.
By the glow of the moon, Joe could see the little island beginning to emerge from the darkness, yet it was more than an hour later before he could feel the rocky bottom beneath his feet. Pushing the log aside, Joe stumbled to the shore, exhausted. The long swim had taken its toll; Joe lay face down on the shore’s edge, his lower body slightly covered by the gentle waves that washed ashore. For several long minutes, Joe remained where he had fallen, sucking in large amounts of air to fill his heaving lungs. When he could, he raised his head, glancing around, taking in his surroundings.
At last, he pushed himself to his feet and in a crouching position he slipped into the thick, nearby woods that made up the island. Being careful not to be seen, he moved along the line of trees, staying out of the soft glow of moonlight and having walked several hundred yards before seeing the little dinghy that was tied off to a fallen tree, hidden in a small cove at the water’s edge. Fresh hope replaced the downtrodden gloom that had begun taking precedence during his long swim in the bone-chilling water.
Though it was dark in the woods with only fragments of moonlight to guide his way, Joe worked his way slowly inward. With each step he took, he paused, listened closely and strained his eyes for a sign that might tell him he was on the right path. Anxious to help his father and settle the differences between them, Joe forced himself to move with caution so as not to give himself away. He knew nothing of what to expect, knowing only that Macy had two other men with him, the same ones that he had testified against five years prior when he had been just a kid. It was a known fact that Bob Macy had made a promise to return to Virginia City one day and get even with Ben Cartwright and his youngest son. It made little difference to Macy that Joe had been only thirteen at the time. The bandit and his gang had no clues to the fear that Joe had suffered through for many months after Macy and the others had been carted off to the penitentiary to serve out their time. For innumerable nights, Joe had awakened his family with cries that stemmed from the frightening nightmares, leaving him weak and shivering with fear.
The dream had always been the same, a dark lonely night, with the smell of pines hanging on the gentle breeze. Joe had seen himself lying on his stomach, creeping along the ground. Just as he raised his head up, hands reached from the darkness, fingers tightened about his neck and in his daze, he could hear his father calling out his name…
The nightmare ended there, Joe struggling to free the vise like fingers from around his neck before the lack of air could claim his life. Many times over the last few years, the dream had come back to haunt the young man’s nights. Never had Joe known for sure the outcome…funny he should think of that nightmare now as he gazed up at the treetops, noted how the wind just tickled the uppermost branches and when he inhaled deeply he caught the scent of pine that was hanging heavy in the air. As he searched the dense woodland, he suddenly felt very isolated…and very lonely, chilled still by the dampness that lingered in his clothing and with a feeling that something peculiar was about to happen.
Joe paused, listened and then picking a faint scent, sniffed at the air. “Smoke,” he muttered to himself. “Fire…someone’s got a campfire.”
Crouching nearer to the ground, Joe inched his way through the trees. The scent of smoke was gradually getting stronger. The sound of voices caused Joe to stop and sink to the ground. On his stomach, Joe used his elbows to pull himself along as he worked his way as quietly as possible toward the sound. Through the trees he could make out a small fire and around its warmth, Joe could see two men, one with his back to the tiny blaze, warming himself. It was Bob Macy!
Joe felt the excitement growing as he quickly searched for his father. Ben was nowhere to be seen. A sudden rush of dread washed over Joe; fear that something bad had happened to his father caused the anxious youth to feel a bit nauseous. As if on cue, Bob Macy stepped away from the fire. Joe gasped and quickly covered his mouth with his hand. Across the clearing, on the opposite side, he could make out the still form of his father, tied in a very agonizing position. The distress that Ben felt was evident in his expression, even from that distance. Joe swore softly under his breath. He had to get to his father. Carefully, Joe studied the area, looking for the third man, which was nowhere to be seen. Deciding that his best move would be to make his way around the circle of the tiny clearing until he could come up directly behind his father and cut the ropes that held Ben in such discomfort, Joe pulled his hat down low over his ears, shielding his face. Hopefully, he could maneuver through the thicket without alerting the three bandits-turned-kidnappers, from knowing of his presence.
The going was tough. The ground that was covered in leaves, pine needles and moss was cold and damp and Joe instantly felt that dampness in his clothes that had not yet dried out. The wetness on the ground did help in muting the noise of Joe moving in a steady movement toward his goal. As he neared the tree where Ben was tied, Joe paused, checking his surroundings. He had been lucky that the third man had not reappeared. Joe knew that man could not be too far, the little boat was still tied in the cove. The only other option he could think of was that the three men had used two boats instead of one in transporting his father to the island. That could account for the absence of the third kidnapper. Had one man rowed back to the mainland? And if so, why?
Joe’s question would remain unanswered until later. Bob Macy was coming toward his father. He ducked his head down as low to the ground as possible, peeking out just enough so that he could see what was happening. Macy stopped in front of Ben. Joe saw his father raise his head but could not see the expression in Ben’s dark eyes.
“I see ya ain’t doing so well, Cartwright,” sneered Bob Macy. “Ain’t such a big man now, are ya?” he taunted. “Won’t be long now…Mr. Big Man…by this time tomorrow, that big mouth kid of yours will be dead.”
Ben looked deeply into his tormentor’s eyes as he studied the man’s face. He had no idea what the man planned, though there was no doubt that Little Joe was involved and that Macy planned on snubbing out the boy’s life. Ben swallowed, hoping that his fear for his son did not shine in his eyes or that his expression did not give away his true feelings.
“I think you will be somewhat surprised, Macy…Joseph isn’t a little boy anymore…and he’s very capable of taking care of himself,” Ben said, sounding more confident than he actually felt at the present time.
“Don’t you think I know that? I’ve seen the kid around town, I’ve seen him shoot, and I have to admit that he’s fast and pretty damn good, but he ain’t good enough. Besides, I have something of his that he values…you…and that will make him careless. He’ll be at a disadvantage too…if I was planning on shooting it out with him, but I’m not Cartwright. Oh…don’t look so relieved, I still plan on killing him…but not so quick-like…slow…I plan on making him suffer…suffer for the five years he took from me. And I plan on making you watch…that will make you suffer, ’cause I know how much you love that brat. Ha…like father, like son…you’ll both die…when I deem it time,” laughed Macy.
He spun around on his heels and walked back to the fire where he sat down, his back to his prisoner. Trace sat across the fire from his older brother. Jack, the middle brother, was nowhere to be seen. Joe knew he had to be careful and keep a close eye out, lest Jack return from where ever he was.
Joe slithered along on the ground until he was within reach of the tree. He kept down low, using the tree and his father’s back to keep from being seen.
Ben felt himself tense up. He knew someone had come up behind him, but he had no clue as to who it was or whether that person be friend or foe. He steeled himself for an attack, but he kept his eyes straight ahead, watching Bob and Trace.
Joe crawled up on his knees and leaned in close to his father. “Shh…” he said barely above a whisper. “It’s me, Pa, Joe, I’m gonna get you outta here,” he explained as he worked at cutting the ropes with the knife he had pulled from his pocket.
Ben turned his head slightly, trying to see over his shoulder. He could hardly believe that it was Little Joe who had found him; he’d been expecting Adam or Hoss, or both, but certainly not his youngest son. But then he almost laughed to himself. Wasn’t Little Joe the most daring, the one lest intimidated, and the one most likely to place himself in danger, giving no thought to the outcome? Wasn’t Joseph the one son, most like himself?
“How’d you get here?” Ben whispered and then turned to be sure he hadn’t been heard.
Joe continued to work on the ropes as he explained in a low whisper. “Swam.”
“What! That water’s like ice, you’ll catch pneumonia!”
Joe almost snickered. Here he was in the mist of a gang of thieves, trying to free his father and all his father could think of was his catching a cold…or worse!
“Shh…” ordered Joe.
He had his father’s hands free. As Ben lowered them, Joe heard the soft moan that escaped through his father’s lips. Still hunkering down behind his father, Joe rubbed Ben’s wrists, trying to bring the circulation back to his hands and fingers. “Do they hurt?”
“Some,” muttered Ben. “I’ll be alright.”
“Can you untie your ankles?”
“Probably…what are going to do?”
“I’ll be right back,” whispered Joe, lowering his body back to the ground.
It was too late; Joe had already begun moving backwards, away from his father. Ben kept his eyes on the two men sitting by the fire, worried about what his son might be planning and praying all the while that God would keep the boy safe.
Ben had just gotten his ankles untied when he heard the commotion behind him. When he whirled around, Joe was on the ground, wrestling with Jack, who had appeared out of the darkness. It was hard to tell in the dark, which man was winning the scuffle. Ben kept a close eye on the two men by the fire, surprised that they had yet to hear the hullabaloo going on.
Suddenly, all became quiet. Ben froze, his back still against the tree, pretending that he was still tied. His nerves were wearing thin. Did Joe need him? Had the boy been hurt? Where was his son!
“Come on, Pa…let’s get out of here!”
Joe was crouching down beside his father; his eyes darted back and forth from the two unsuspecting men to his father. With one hand, Joe helped Ben get to his feet, and then gently pushing his father out ahead of him, making Ben lead the way.
“The boat is that way, Pa…I moved it when I got to shore…hurry, I think they’ve seen us,” urged Joe as he glanced over his shoulder.
Father and son stumbled along the twisted little path. The moon had slipped behind a cloud and the darkness had seemed to deepen as they made their way toward the boat that Joe had hidden.
Suddenly, shouts filled the air. Behind them, Joe could hear the two men scrambling through the darkness, searching for their captive and his rescuer.
“I’m trying, Joseph…”
“I’m sorry for what I did…”
“Forget it, son; I’m sorry for yelling at you…and losing my temper…”
It was all said in a rush as the pair continued to dodge their pursuers. But the father understood the son, and vice versa.
“OVER HERE!” a voice from behind shouted. “THEY”RE HEADING FOR THE WATER!”
Shots began to whiz over their heads, sounding too close for comfort. Joe paused to look over his shoulder to judge the distance between he and his father and two men chasing them. In the process, Ben stumbled, tripping over a log. As he crashed to the ground, Joe turned too quickly and almost toppled over on top of his father. Quickly regaining his footing, Joe reached down, grabbing Ben by the arm and hauling him to his feet.
“Run!” Joe said as he spun around and fired at the men who were rapidly gaining on them.
Ben had no need to be told a second time, he ran. Joe fired another shot and then took off after his father, but not before Macy fired another shot. Joe stumbled forward, groaning as the bullet pierced his right shoulder. Somehow, Joe stayed afoot, forcing himself to stay behind his father.
Blood dripped from the wound. The surging pain was near unbearable and the burning sensation coursed down his arm to the tips of his fingers. Joe gripped his right arm with his left hand, clinging tightly to his pistol in the process. Another shot whizzed by his head, sounding loud in his ears. Shooting blindly, Joe fired his pistol twice more.
At last, he and his father had reached the beach. He knew he had to hurry; time was of the utmost importance. If Bob Macy and his brother caught them out in the open, they would be sitting targets. To make matters worse, the moon picked that moment to reappear.
“Over there, Pa…” Joe said, his voice weak as he pointed to a tiny gathering of trees where he had hidden the boat.
Ben, still somewhat off-balance from so many hours of inactivity and his body refusing to react to his commands, finally found the little boat. Hurrying, he untied the boat and stepped in, looking behind to find Joe staggering toward the boat.
“Joseph!” Ben cried, seeing the blood on his son’s shirt. He started to step out of the boat.
“No…” shouted Joe.
“Look out, Joe…behind you!” warned Ben as Bob and Trace stepped onto the beach.
Joe spun around, firing his gun. He saw Trace drop to the ground. When Bob Macy stopped and knelt down over his dead brother, Joe made a run for the boat. Ben had sat down in the back of the boat. Joe tossed his father his gun and set about shoving the boat off, into the water.
Bob fired another shot. Joe felt a stinging in the side of his left arm and knew that the wild shot had grazed his flesh. Not bothering to take the time to see how deeply the wound was, Joe, splashing through the water, hopped quickly into the boat.
Ben had taken up the oars and was already rowing them further and further out into the dark blue waters. On the shore, he could see Bob Macy standing in the moonlight. Even from that distance, Ben could see the hate burning in the man’s eyes and knew that they had not seen the last of that man.
Joe lay in the bottom of the boat panting. Bright red blood soiled his shirt. Ben could hear the soft moans that Joe tried to refrain from making. “Are you hurt badly, son?”
“It hurts like blazes…but I can’t see how bad it is,” moaned Joe.
“Just take it easy…”
Ben had rowed about halfway from the island to the main shore. He set aside the oars and carefully crawled over the middle seat so that he could get to his son. Joe’s eyes had closed, but Ben could see the tight, fine lines that furrowed into his son’s brow and knew that Joe was in pain.
“Let me see…” Ben said, gently moving Joe’s shirt so that he could determine how badly the boy was hurt.
“It’s still bleeding,” Ben said.
Ben quickly removed his neckerchief and used it to squelch the oozing blood. He then ripped the sleeve from his shirt, tore it into strips and tied one strip around Joe’s left arm where the second bullet had grazed him.
“Hang on, son, I’ll have you back to shore in no time,” Ben said, gently brushing back a lock of damp ringlets.
“The horses…they’re in…a clearing,” Joe tried to explain.
“I’ll find them, don’t you worry.”
Ben started to move but Joe grabbed for his father, his fingers lacing around Ben’s arm. “Pa…I’m sorry that I made you so mad…I was wrong in…talking to you…like I did…”
Ben smiled down at the sad young man. “Joe…I was wrong for not listening to you, for not giving you a chance to explain yourself. I did something that my father used to do to me…and I always hated it when he did…”
“What?” Joe asked. He tried to focus his eyes on his father’s face, but the swaying of the boat was making him nauseous and he was more focused into trying not to be sick.
“I made a call judgment about something that I thought you had done…I didn’t give you a chance to defend yourself. I judged you, found you guilty and then…I walked out on you…leaving you to bear the blunt of my guilt…not your own guilt, Joseph. You weren’t really guilty of anything…”
“I yelled at you…”
“You had good reason…”
“No…you’re my father…I should have had more respect. I’m sorry…”
“Joseph…I should have respected you more. I should never have walked out on you the way I did…I’m sorry son, I know how that must have made you feel…it will never happen again, Joe…”
“No…let me finish, please. Joe…my father was a warm, loving, decent man…and I loved him…I still do…but we very seldom saw eye to eye on matters. It drove him nuts and we argued constantly. He said I was stubborn and hard headed, and I thought he was overly strict and demanding, always right…always. But over the years, son, I learned that my father was only strict because…well, because I was stubborn and hard headed…”
Through his pain, Joe smiled. “Just like me?”
Ben laughed softly. “Just like you, son…like father, like son!”
“I guess maybe we’re more alike than you thought, heh?” Joe whispered.
“I guess so.”
“Well, if I can become half the man you are…that won’t be so bad, Pa…” Joe’s eyes closed tightly, he scrunched up his face. “I’m tired…so…tired.”
Ben pulled his jacket off and covered the boy. “Try to rest, son.”
Moving back to his seat Ben picked the oars and began rowing. It took him the better part of an hour, but at last he felt the gravels scrapping the bottom of the boat. He head Joe moan softly. “I’ll find the horses, Joe…and be right back, don’t try to get up!”
Quickly Ben pulled the boat all the way out of the water and onto the beach. He glanced around, trying to determine which direction to start looking for the horses, when suddenly a group of men on horse back burst through the trees and onto the beach. Startled, Ben drew back, glancing back at Joe who had raised his head up.
“PA!” Adam shouted, sliding down from his horse.
“Well, I’ll be!” Hoss added, joining his father and brother.
“Adam, Hoss,” grinned Ben, receiving a slap on the back from the big man.
“Where on earth have you been? Where’s Macy and his gang… are you hurt, there’s blood on your shirt…”
“Hold on a minute!” Ben ordered. “I’m fine; the blood belongs to Little Joe…”
“JOE!” chorused Adam and Hoss.
“Little Joe…I left him locked in my jail!” stormed Roy as he dismounted.
“Over here, he’s in the boat. Macy and his gang shot him…”
“What! Pa…what on earth…”
“I’ll explain later, Joe needs a doctor,” Ben said as he rushed back to the boat. “The horses are hidden in a clearing somewhere,” he called over his shoulder.
Immediately, Roy set some men to looking for the horses. He followed Adam and Hoss over to the boat where there, lying in the bottom was his prisoner. “Well, I’ll be!” he declared.
Ben had Adam and Hoss help Joe to his feet and then onto the shore.
“Sit down, Joe…” Adam ordered, helping his brother to sit down on the soft grass just beyond the rocky beach.
Joe glared up at his oldest brother and then looked up at Hoss, who suddenly began to fidget. “I owe you big time, Adam…I haven’t forgotten that you and YOU, Hoss, rode off and left me…locked in Roy’s jail!” Joe turned to look at the sheriff. “And you…some friend you are…you promised…and you lied…”
Joe swallowed hard as a fresh jolt of pain shot through his shoulder. “Ohhh,” he groaned as his head lolled over onto Adam’s chest.
“We better get him home,” Adam said softly.
“Here, I’ll take ‘im,” Hoss said, quickly slipping his arms under Joe’s body and hoisting the boy into his embrace.
Ben started to follow but stopped and turned to the sheriff. “Roy…Bob Macy is still out on the island, that is, if he hasn’t tried to swim back to shore. His brothers, Trace and Jack are both dead; Joe was forced to kill them both,” Ben explained. “It was unavoidable.”
“Alrighty, Ben, I’ll have a couple of the boys row out and pick up the bodies. I’ll go along to bring Macy back into town. Don’t worry, I’ll lock him up…he’ll be going away for a very long time, this time.”
For the next night or so, Ben Cartwright slept very little. He remained faithfully and lovingly at the bedside of his youngest son. Many thoughts came and went through his mind, stirring memories of not only his son’s past, but his own as well. In each, Ben reflected back on his own youth and compared it to that of his son. His father’s image appeared and reappeared before his mind’s eyes. Ben was amazed that his own father’s face, when it showed itself, expressed a look of love and compassion, an understanding that now, years later, long after his passing, Ben remembered with a love of his own. That love, determined Ben at such a time, had made the final circle, from his own father to himself and now to his own sons. Ben sighed softly as he lowered his tired body into the oversized stuffed chair that was placed next to the bed where his youngest son lay sleeping.
“Oh Joseph,” Ben said in a whispered sigh. He picked up his son’s hand and held it tenderly in his own. “We are so much alike…my father often told me that one day, I would no doubt reflect back on my own life and see myself developing in one of my sons. I see that now, in you…a part of me wishes better for you but the other part of me…well…I’m proud to have a son so like myself…I wonder if your grandfather saw himself in me…and if so, was he as proud of me, as I am you?”
Joe’s eyelids flickered softly. When he opened his eyes, his father’s face loomed before him, and he smiled. “I’m sure he was, Pa,” murmured Joe.
“Joseph…I thought you were sleeping,” Ben muttered, slightly embarrassed that his son had heard his heart’s confession.
“I’m sorry, Pa…I just didn’t want to interrupt you,” the boy smiled.
Ben’s brows rose slightly but he smiled. “Well…it’s the truth, I am proud of you. But…” grinned the proud father, “I want you to know, that was very foolish thing you did…swimming out to the island in that cold water…just to save my hide…”
“Pa…” Joe said, his eyes wide, “I figured your hide was worth saving…and besides, if the boot had been on the other foot, you’d have done the same thing for me…wouldn’t you?”
“He’s got you there, Pa,” laughed Adam who stood in the opened doorway with his middle brother.
Together, Hoss and Adam entered the bedroom and circled the bed, both grinning from ear to ear.
“Howdy, little brother,” grinned Hoss.
“Hi, Hoss, Adam,” Joe answered. He glanced over at his father. “Well, Pa?” he said.
“Well what?” asked Ben.
“You didn’t answer the question…would you have done the same for me?” Joe grinned.
Ben chuckled and nodded his head. “Foolish boy, you know I would!”
All four men laughed happily.
“Say Pa,” Hoss interrupted, “I don’t mean to put a damper on your good mood, or yours, Joe, but Adam and I just got back from town and Roy wanted me to tell ya that Bob Macy t’weren’t no where to be found…”
“What!” Ben said, standing up and giving Hoss and Adam a worried look.
“By the time he got back out to the island, Bob had gone…Roy suspects he swam back to the mainland,” Adam informed his father. “He’s had men combing the country side for him, but they haven’t found anything…”
“He had to be on foot…if he made it to shore, we took all the horses,” Ben pondered aloud. “He couldn’t have gotten too far…”
“Roy said not to worry; he’s probably hightailed it out of here…he’s not likely to come back…” Adam went on, “Roy said there was a possibility he might have drowned. They did find his hat floating in the water.”
“Could be…but we best keep our eyes opened. Bob Macy is a determined man,” Ben warned.
He turned to glance at Joe, worried that Bob Macy might one day return to fulfill his long ago promise to get even. Ben knew that the man hated him and his youngest son, and now that Joe had killed Bob’s two brothers the man would be that much more full of detestation. They would be wise to stay alert.
“Pa…” said Joe, reading the worry in his father’s dark eyes, “you don’t really think Macy would come back do you?”
Ben cast worried eyes around the room. “I wouldn’t put anything past that man, Joe…he came here in the first place to get even with you for testifying against him and his brothers five years ago. Now with both brothers dead…he will have even more reason for revenge.”
There was a long silence in the room; each man was considering the possibilities.
“Adam,” Joe said, breaking the silence, ready to change the subject and take his father’s mind off Macy and what he feared the man might do. He wore a lopsided grin on his face.
“Don’t forget…I owe you.”
“Owe me, for what?” puzzled Adam.
“Don’t tell me you can’t remember…you left me locked in a jail cell…”
“Oh…that…” stammered Adam, suddenly looking guilty.
Ben laughed aloud, the anxious moments had passed…for now.
“Say, shortshanks, ya never did tell us how ya got outta that cell?” Hoss stated. He wore a confused expression on his face. All eyes turned to Joe, waiting for a response. Joe giggled, leaned back against the pillows and folded his arms across his chest. Ben noted the bright sparkle in Joe’s hazel eyes that were focused on his two brothers. He had been informed that his two older sons had left their younger sibling locked in Roy’s jail, and he himself had wondered just how Joe had managed to get out.
“That, Hoss…and Adam…for your information, is something that I cannot divulge. It is a secret that I will take to my grave,” smirked Joe.
“Well now, if that doesn’t sound just like our father talking!” groaned Adam as he gave Hoss a knowing look, disgust written all over his handsome face.
Ben laughed aloud, Joe giggled in that high-pitched tone of his. The father looked down at the young man in bed; Joe looked up at his father and smiled.
“Like father, like son,” they chorused.