That’s How It Felt (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  13,155


 

From the ridge, the young man watched as the Cartwrights moved about their yard doing odd chores that called for their attention.  Ben and his three sons were totally unaware that they were being observed as they went about their business, gently teasing one another and enjoying the crisp cool day.

“When we’re finished with these chores, boys, how does a cool mug of beer sound to you?” Ben said as he straightened his back, groaning softly.

“Sounds fine with me; you buying, Pa?” Joe asked, glancing around and winking at Hoss.

“I thought it was your turn, Joe,” Adam hurried to question. He had seen the wink that Joe thought he had given to their middle brother thinking he was unobserved, and was quick to pick up the teasing game.

“Come to think of it,” Ben said, with a quick look at Adam, “I do believe it is Joe’s turn.”

“Naw…can’t be!” Joe suddenly jerked around to find his family laughing at him.  He sighed deeply, “Whew…for a minute there, I thought you were serious!”

“We are…” Adam said sternly.

Joe puckered up his mouth and returned to his work. “Then I guess I’ll just have to stay here and have…milk and cookies…” The younger man tried not to look up, pretending to be busy.

“Aw…Joe…ya ain’t gotta stay here…’sides, milk and cookies is for boys…” grumbled Hoss.

“Well, what do you think he is…he certainly isn’t full grown…yet…and besides, he’s too young for beer…” Ben chirped.

Joe could stand it no longer; he raised his head and spun around to face his father and brothers.  The look on his young face caused the others to laugh out loud. “I might be younger than you three, but I do as much work around here as any of you…and sometimes more…and I’m plenty old enough to drink beer…I’ve been drinking beer since I was fourteen and….”

“Fourteen, you say?” Ben said; his expression suddenly turned to a deep frown…though his youngest son was as yet still unaware that the expression was mock.

Joe swallowed, realizing he has spoken hastily.  His grin was sickly and lopsided. “Well…I mean…ere…not really fourteen, Pa,” he stammered, “more like fifteen…maybe it was sixteen…”

Ben’s smile spread across his face. “I was only funning with you son…I remember the first time you had a beer…you were thirteen and I caught you with it in the barn…you and Mitch Devlin, if memory serves me correctly.”

“I remember that,” snickered Adam in his all-knowing way.  “You were sick for days afterward and swore an oath that if Pa wouldn’t thrash you, you’d never take another drink of beer for as long as you live…”

Hoss snickered.  Joe cut his narrowed eyes around at his middle brother. “What are you laughing at?  I remember a few times that you came home pretty well soused!” Joe snapped.

“Alright, alright…” laughed Ben as he moved to slip his arm about his youngest son’s shoulders.  “I think you’re plenty old enough now to have a beer…so, I’m buying.  Let’s call it a day and get cleaned up…”

“I’m halfway to the house now!” bellowed Hoss has he laid aside his work and raced Joe, who had set off toward the house at a run, to be the first one to use the bathtub!

The man on the hillside watched for a moment longer and turned his mount toward Virginia City.  He’d be waiting…much like he’d been waiting for the last two years…it was nearing the time and he wanted everything to be perfect.

*****

“Not much excitement here tonight,” Hoss grumbled as he downed the last drops of frothy ale.

The four Cartwrights sat together at a table in the center of the room.  There were a few patrons at the bar and a few more cowboys scattered about the room.  In the furthermost, darkest corner of the saloon sat a lone man, watching, waiting, and plotting.  He was the same man that had for hours sat upon the hill a short distance from the main house watching patiently the family who now sat in the center of the room.

“Joe,” Ben said, setting aside his half empty mug.

“Yeah, Pa?”

“I want you to ride over to Gold Hill in the morning and check out the mining operations there.  It shouldn’t take you too long; you’ll be home by suppertime,” Ben issued.

“Alright, Pa…but what about that herd of horses you wanted me to move?”

“Hoss and Adam can do it for you,” Ben said, glancing at his two older sons. “I have to ride back into town tomorrow and talk to Walter Clifton about that parcel of land he’s been trying to sell me.”

Ben finished off his beer and stood up. “Guess we’d best head home, tomorrow’s another long day and I’m bushed,” sighed the tired father.

Hoss shoved back his chair and plopped his hat onto his head and waited for Joe and Adam to do the same.

Ben tossed some coins onto the table and led the way to the door.  Unnoticed by any of the Cartwrights, the man in the dark corner rose as well and waited until the family of four was out the door before he slipped quietly to the entrance and watched as Ben and his sons mounted up and rode off down the street.

The stranger smiled.  “Tomorrow…I’ll put phase one of my plan into effect.”

“Did you say something, cowboy?” Betty, one of the barmaids asked as she sashayed along side the handsome stranger.  She was tall and lean with dancing eyes and a well-endowed bosom that she didn’t mind showing off.

The mysterious man glanced down at the scantly dressed woman and smiled. “I was just muttering to myself,” he said softly, taking the lady by the hand and leading her away from the door. “Can I buy you a drink, ma’am?”

“Sure, handsome,” giggled Betty.

*****

“You take care, son,” Ben warned gently in his fatherly manner. He smiled up at his youngest son who was mounted and ready to go.

“Don’t worry, Pa; I can manage all by myself,” Joe laughed with a broad grin.

He knew how his father worried about him. He supposed it was natural, but, after all, pondered Joe, I am twenty years old and certainly old enough to take care of myself.  He let the over protectiveness tone of his father’s voice go without further comment.

“I’ll see you at supper,” Joe called as he spurred his mount into a lively gait.

Ben waved goodbye and then turned to see Adam and Hoss leading their horses out of the barn.

“Shortshanks gone already?” Hoss asked.

“Yes…I hope that boy is careful…” Ben muttered as if talking to himself.

“Aw…shucks Pa, Joe can take care of himself…besides, he’s just riding over to Gold Hill to check on the mines…surely he can’t get into too much trouble…”

Behind him, Adam snickered.  “Wanna bet?” he jeered as he swung his long legs over his saddle.

“No!” chuckled Ben.  “Best get a move on, you have horses to move and I’ve a man to see!”

“See you tonight, Pa,” Hoss called as he followed Adam from the yard.

*****

Ben had spent more time in town than he had actually planned too.  Once he had finished his business with Walter Clifton, he had stopped by the sheriff’s office to visit his old friend, Roy Coffee, now acting sheriff.  They spent more than an hour having a late lunch at Daisy’s Kitchen and by the time that Ben finally pushed back his chair and announced the he needed to get home, the better part of the day was gone.

“It’s a long ride back to the ranch, Roy; I’d best be going…those boys of mine will be wondering where on earth I’m at…” he snickered.

“Well, just tell’em ya old enough to look out for yourself,” the sheriff laughed.  “Take care, Ben and tell them young’ns I said ‘howdy’.”

“I’ll do it, Roy…see you around…oh…and thanks for the lunch!”

*****

Though Ben had been in a hurry to start for home, the late afternoon was so nice that he found himself riding a bit slow and enjoying the landscape around him. He had reached the crossroads, dividing the roads from Carson City, Gold Hill and Virginia City and had paused, wondering whether or not his youngest son had gotten home and what news had he carried with him of the mine operations there.  As he gently urged Buck to continue on, Ben heard his name being shouted and turned to see a man riding hell-bent toward him.  Buck was brought to an immediate stop as Ben waited for the stranger to reach him.

“MR. CARTWIGHT!  MR. CARTWRIGHT!” the young man shouted as he yanked back on his reins, causing his hard breathing mount to raise his front hooves into the air.  The horse whipped around in a circle as the rider clung tightly to remain in the saddle.

“Are you Ben Cartwright?”

“Yes I am…what on earth is wrong?  Who are you?”

“My name’s Howard…Howie…Brunette, Mr. Cartwright…and I’m a friend of your son’s…ere…Little Joe…”

“Joe?” pondered Ben aloud.  “I don’t think I’ve heard my son mention you…”

“No…probably not, sir…we only met a couple of months ago…when he was over in Gold Hill…”

“He was there today…”

“Yes, sir…and that’s why I’ve stopped you.  I ran into Joe a ways back…over near the road to Gold Hill, he was on his way to…Carson City…”

“Carson City? Why for heaven’s sake?” Ben practically shouted. “His business was in Gold Hill.”

 “Yes sir, I know…he told me, but Joe had his head set on going…something to do with the business he was on…mine operations I think he said.  He asked me if I wanted to ride along with him, so I did…as far as Washoe…”

“WASHOE! Good grief, that place isn’t anything but a ghost town…and has been for nearly two years!” grumbled Ben.

“Mr. Cartwright…you need to come with me…”

“Come with you…what on earth for…and where is Joe now?”  Ben was quickly losing his temper; Joe seemed to be doing everything except what he was sent to do.

“Just come with me, sir, and I’ll explain on the way…we need to hurry, Mr. Cartwright…please,” Howie said, sounding very near to begging Ben to come along.

Sighing, Ben gave in and rode along with his son’s friend. “Now will you please explain…why are we going to Washoe and what’s become of my son?”

“Like I said, Mr. Cartwright, I was riding along with Joe…when his horse stumbled and Joe was thrown off…”

“Dear God!” Ben said, appalled at the thought that his son might be hurt badly.  “Where’s Joe now…is he alright?”

“He’s not hurt badly, sir…but he needed to lay down, and…well…Washoe was the nearest place we could think of, so I took him there.  He’s stove up a bit…but he asked me to fetch you…”

“Of course…come on, let’s hurry,” Ben said as he kicked his horse into a fast pace.

The pair rode steadily until they reached the outskirts of the town.  Ben slowed his mount to a walk, glancing around at the vacant, run down buildings.  Most of the windows had been boarded up.  Doors hung on one hinge and banged opened and closed.  The overall appearance of the place was depressing and Ben was anxious to find his injured son and take his boy home…away from this frightful place. “Where is he…I don’t see his horse?”

“I left his horse in the stable…Joe’s in here, Mr. Cartwright,” Howie explained as he slid from his horse and hurried into the building where he and Ben had stopped.

Ben quickly looped his horse’s reins around the broken down hitching post, paused long enough to glance up at the sign that read, ‘Sheriff’s Office’ and then hurried inside, concerned about his son.

“There,” Howie pointed.

Ben saw his son’s body lying on an old cot within the confines of a single jail cell.  Joe’s body was covered with a blanket and the boy had his face to the wall.

“Joseph!” muttered Ben softly has he proceeded to his son’s side unaware that Howie remained where he stood.

Ben knelt down and placed his hands on the form, turning his son’s body over.  Stunned to find nothing more than rolled up blankets beneath the top cover, he jerked his head around just in time to see and hear the cell door behind him clang shut.  Quickly, Ben stood to his feet, watching as Howie turned the key, locking him in the cell and then backing away.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Ben demanded in a gruff tone.

“You’ll find out soon enough, Mr. Cartwright,” Howie said with a sneer.  “Hand over your gun,” he ordered, holding out his hand for the weapon.

His expression changed suddenly and he smiled, showing his even, white teeth as he took the pistol from Ben’s hand.

“Where’s Little Joe?” Ben continued in the same tone.

“Oh, don’t worry, sir, he’ll be along in a while…but first, there’s something else I have to do.”

Howie had filled a bucket with water and went about placing it on a table near the cell, well within Ben’s reach.  Along side, he placed a sack, pointing at it as he explained to his prisoner.

“So’s you won’t get hungry…enjoy your stay, Mr. Cartwright. Oh, you’ll find a candle and one match…just in case I’m not back by nightfall…oh…use it wisely.”

Howie turned to go.

“Wait just a minute!” roared Ben.  “You can’t just leave me here…what in blazes is going on young man…who are you…really!”

“You don’t remember the name…Brunette…Samuel Brunette?”

The younger man could see that Ben was studying hard, trying to remember where he’d heard the name before…or if in fact he had.  Glancing up, Ben shook his head no.

“I didn’t figure you would…but your boy will remember…”

“What do you mean by that…how will Joseph know the name…it doesn’t mean a thing to him!” dared Ben as he moved closer to the bars of the cell.

The younger man’s expression hardened. “Well it means something to me…Samuel Brunette was my father…and your son killed him…” Howie made a sneering expression as he glared angrily at his prisoner.  “That’s why you’re here Mr. Cartwright…”

“I don’t understand…Joseph hasn’t killed anyone…”

“Oh, he didn’t actually kill my father…but he was the eye witness who testified against my father…who, by the way, was found guilty on your son’s word and then hung!  My father was innocent, Mr. Cartwright…just as innocent as you are right now…that’s why someone’s going to…hang…and I’m going to make your boy watch…just like I was forced to do…”

It all came rushing back to him then.  Ben remembered; it was almost two years ago…and it happened right here, in Washoe, before the people deserted the town and it was left to become rubble.  Joe had been witness to a shooting and had testified against the man…Samuel Brunette…and then the man had been hung.  Ben recalled how upset Joe had been when he returned home and told them the story of what happened.

Seems like Brunette kept yelling that he was innocent, that it was a case of mistaken identity but no one would listen.  He’d been tried and sentenced and was being led to the gallows when the convicted man’s son…Ben glanced up at Howie…yes, Howie, had raced into town, firing his gun in all directions, trying to raise a ruckus so that his father could make an escape, but someone had shot back, wounding the boy in the leg.

Howie had been dragged from his horse and haul over to a hitching post where he was handcuffed to a steel ring, unable to get free.  Joe had suffered nightmares for weeks afterward, hearing again the agonizing screams of the boy, pleading with the sheriff and the hangman, the crowd, anyone who would listen, not to hang his father.  Howie had struggled and yanked, pulling on the cuffs and the ring, but it served no purpose; Samuel Brunette was hung in spite of his son’s efforts to save him.  It had been a horrid scene, according to Joe, Ben recalled.  Joe had been heartsick for weeks over the ordeal.

Ben raised his eyes to look into the young man’s face, seeing the hate, the pain and the driving force behind the dark hue of the boy’s eyes. “Joe was only doing his job…surely you know that?” he said in a softer tone. He could feel his insides quivering but he forced himself to remain calm in hopes of talking some sense into this obviously troubled young man.

“I know he was the one who caused my father to die…he’s as guilty as the rest of them…and I aim on making him pay for what he did!” Howie turned to go.  “He’s gonna watch someone he loves, die…”

With those words burning in Ben’s ears, Howie walked out, shutting the door tightly behind him and leaving his prisoner to ponder his fate.

*****

Joe burst through the front door only to find the living room empty.

“PA!” he shouted as he removed his hat and hung it on the peg behind the door.  He glanced around as if expecting his father to appear.  “PA!” he shouted a second time.

Joe untied his holster strap from around his left leg and then unbuckled the belt, careful to wrap it neatly and then placed the gun and holster on the credenza.

“What’s all the racket?” Hoss said as he rounded the corner coming face to face with his younger brother.

“Oh hi, Hoss…where’s Pa?” Joe asked.

“I have no clue…he rode into town early this morning to see Mr. Clifton and he ain’t got back yet,” Hoss explained and then took another big bite of the sandwich he held in his hand.

“Where’s Adam?”

“He got sorta worried about Pa and decided to ride back to town and see what’s keepin’ him…why, something wrong?”

Hoss moved to the settee and sat down.  His eyes followed his brother through the room until Joe plopped himself down in his father’s favorite chair.

“Naw…I just had some news on the mines…reckon what’s keeping him in town so long?”

“Ain’t got no ideay, little brother.  Say, you hungry…I got more sandwiches made?”

“Thanks, don’t mind if I do…I’m getting a little hollow in the middle,” snickered Joe as he followed Hoss into the kitchen and helped himself to one of the sandwiches that were offered to him.

*****

Adam pushed his hat back on his head and started for the door.  As he stood on the boardwalk outside of Walter Clifton’s office, he tried to shake the worry that tugged at his thoughts.  His father had met with Mr. Clifton earlier that same afternoon, just as Ben had said he was going to.  The land deal had been discussed and an agreement had been made.  Walter informed Adam that Ben had left around 11:00 AM, stating that he was going to the bank to tend to final details and planned on meeting with the sheriff afterwards to have a late lunch.

Adam took a deep breath, brushing off the uneasy feelings and stepped down from the boarded walkway heading in the direction of the sheriff’s office.  He’d only walked a short ways when a man stepped from around the corner of a building into his path.  Adam halted his steps immediately. “Excuse me,” he said and started around the man.

The man stood his ground.  Adam paused eyeing the man closely…the man was a stranger.

“I’m sorry,” the stranger said at last.  “I didn’t mean to catch you off guard…I just need to be sure you were who I was looking for…you are…Adam Cartwright…am I correct?”

Adam tilted his head back slightly, studying the man. “That depends…who’s asking?”

The stranger laughed in a light, friendly way.  “I’m sorry.  My name is Howard…well, Howie…Howie Brunette…does that name mean anything to you, Mr. Cartwright?”

Adam seemed to be concentrating.  He shook his head.  “Can’t say that it does, sorry.”

“Oh, that’s alright…I’m really not surprised that your brother didn’t mention me to you…”

“My brother?”

“Yes, Little Joe…he is your brother, isn’t he?”

“Joe…yeah,” snickered Adam, relaxing.  “You know the kid?”

“Yes, we met recently.  In fact, I was with your brother today…over in Gold Hill…he asked me to give you a message…that’s why I was looking for you…they mentioned at the stables you would probably be in the saloon…I looked there, obviously missing you…I saw you come out of that office there as I was leaving the saloon…”

Adam’s eyes narrowed slightly.  “I don’t understand…you say you have a message for me, from Joe?”

Howie bobbed his head up and down.  “Yes…he asked me to tell you that he’s riding over to Washoe and asked that you meet him there…”

The expression on Adam’s face turned into a frown.  His brows narrowed as he looked confusingly at the young man. “In Washoe?  Why on earth does he want me to meet him there…in that God forsaken place?”

“Mr. Cartwright…Adam…Little Joe didn’t go into a lot of details…he just said to tell you it was important business…something about the mining operations over in Gold Hill and that he needed to speak to you about it very privately…He asked that I ride along with you to show you exactly where he is.”

“Why didn’t he ask for our father to meet him?” Adam pushed back his hat for a second time and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“I don’t think he wanted to worry your father about this…really, sir…we need to be going; it is getting rather late you know…and Little Joe is waiting…”

“Alright…I’ll get my horse but I’m telling you…Little Joe better have a darn good explanation for making me ride that far this late and miss my suppertime!” groaned Adam softly as he walked with the stranger towards the stable where he’d left his horse.

*****

“Dadburnit, Little Joe…where in tarnations is everybody?” grumbled Hoss as he poked at the dying embers in the fireplace. “It’s plum near ten o’clock!”

Joe was relaxing on the settee with his feet propped up on the table. He swallowed the bite of apple he’d taken and glanced up from his book to watch Hoss who had begun pacing back and forth.

“Beats me,” Joe said calmly.  “But I think both Pa and Adam are old enough to take care of themselves or come home when they’re ready.”

Hoss spun around, showing a look of concern on his rotund face. “Dangit, Joe…I know that…but it ain’t like Pa to take off and not come home…or at least send word that he ain’t comin’,” Hoss stated matter-of-factly.

“Aw stop your fretting, big brother. Pa probably ran into Adam and they decided to stop off for a beer…they’ll be home directly,” Joe said with assuredly based on years of observing his older family members.

Hoss scrunched up his face.  He rounded the table but stopped in front of Joe.  Joe glanced up and smiled, looking very much like a mischievous little boy. “Ya best not let Pa caught ya with them dirty boots on the furniture, little brother…take ya feet off’n the table.”

Joe responded quickly; grinning at his older brother in a sickly manner he returned his attention to his book, his feet planted firmly on the floor.

*****

“Sure is dark,” Adam commented.  “Wonder why there’s no light?”

The pair had stopped in front of the sheriff’s office and was securing their horses.  Adam glanced around at the surroundings that appeared more grotesque in the fading light.

“He’s got a candle…see the glow inside?”

Adam, still standing next to his horse, glanced at the broken window of the office and saw the soft, faint glow.  He looked at the man with him, his mind racing with doubts and wondering how the younger man knew that his brother had a candle.  Without mentioning the fact to the newcomer, Adam led the way into the rundown building, pausing in the doorway.

“JOE!” he called into the darkness.

“ADAM!” came the reply.

Adam’s eyes must have opened in awe when he realized that the voice was that of his father’s rather than that of his younger brother’s, but had no time to question the fact for he was immediately struck from behind.  His sagging body dropped to the floor in a heap at Howie’s feet.

“ADAM!” Ben called from his prison cell.

Dark angry eyes darted to the stranger’s face.

“Why’d you hit him?” Ben demanded furiously.

Howie pointed his gun at Ben and ordered him to move back, away from the cell door. “Just to ensure that I’d have no trouble out of either of you.  Now back up,” he instructed.

Ben watched but did as ordered.  Howie placed his pistol back into his holster and leaned down, first removing Adam’s gun, tossing it away and then grabbing Adam’s arms and dragging him over to the cell.  He removed the key from his vest pocket, glancing up at Ben.

“Don’t try anything Mr. Cartwright…or I’ll kill him right in front of your eyes…understand?” he instructed as he put the key into the lock.

“I understand,” Ben grumbled. He watched as Adam was pulled into the cell and laid at his feet.  Howie backed out of the jail cell, keeping his eyes on his prisoner as he shut and relocked the door.

Ben squatted down, gathering Adam into his arms and inspecting the lump that had risen quickly on the back of his son’s head. “You didn’t have to hit him so hard!”

“Aw…he’ll live…for a while that is!” snickered Howie.

Ben turned blazing eyes toward the young man. “What do you mean by that?” he demanded.

“Someone’s going to die…or have you forgotten?”

“I haven’t forgotten…but Adam had nothing to do with your father’s death…none of us did…not even Joe.  Your father’s death was of his own making…not ours,” Ben said.

Adam groaned and began coming around.

“My father was innocent…or have you forgotten that?” growled Ben’s captor.

“That’s only your opinion!” surmised Ben.

“Pa?” moaned Adam.

“I’m here son…are you alright?” Ben helped Adam to sit up.

Adam rubbed the back of his head, glancing first at the man who had hit him and then at his father. “What’s this all about?” he asked weakly.

“Let’s get you on the cot, then I’ll explain,” Ben said, helping Adam to his feet and over to the narrow cot where he helped Adam to sit down.

“This…man…” Ben said pointing at Howie. He paused, stunned to see that the man in question had disappeared.

“He’s gone!” muttered Ben. He turned back to Adam and tried to explain.

“Who is he, Pa?”

“His name’s Howard Brunette…calls himself Howie…and he aims on killing one of us…or all of us…I’m not sure,” Ben explained as he sat down next to Adam on the lone cot.

“Why…who is he?”

“Seems he’s the disenchanted son of a man Little Joe testified against in a murder trial about two years ago.  He claims that his father was innocent and that Joe’s testimony was what got him hung…the trial took place right here…in Washoe,” Ben explained.

“Hmm…Brunette…I think I remember that now…Joe was really torn up over that trial,” Adam replied.

“Yes…and now Samuel Brunette’s son is planning revenge and intends to kill one of us and force your younger brother to watch.”

“Then that means that Hoss is probably next…” mumbled Adam.

Father and son exchanged worrisome looks.  Ben swallowed hard; Adam sighed deeply and leaned back against the wall. “Guess all we can do right now is wait,” he muttered.

Ben stood up and walked to the window, looking out into the blackness of night that had quickly descended upon them. “I reckon so…and pray…” the worried father whispered.

*****

“I don’t know about you…but I’m going to bed,” Joe said as he stood and stretched. He glanced down at Hoss who sat staring at nothing. “Hoss?”

“What?”

“I said I’m going to bed,” Joe repeated.  “How about you?”

Hoss let a long sigh slip through his lips and then stood up, glancing with a troubled expression at his younger brother.

“Look Hoss, Pa and Adam are fine…they’ll be home when they’re ready…they’re big boys…”

Hoss grinned and relaxed some.  “I reckon so; you go ahead up, I’ll turn the lamps down and bed down this here fire and then I’ll be up,” Hoss assured his brother.

Joe’s lips made a pinched, lopsided grin.  “Alright Hoss,” he said as he squeezed Hoss thick arm, “try not to worry.”

“I’ll try,” replied the gentle giant in a soft voice.

Joe turned away.  As he did so, he missed the way in which his brother’s smile died and then disappeared.

*****

The next morning, Joe rose to a quiet, still house. As he slipped on his trousers and glanced out the window, he saw that the sun was well up and that the barn door was opened slightly.

Quickly he dunned his shirt, grabbing his boots as he hurried from his room. “PA!” he called from the top of the stairs. “HOSS!  WHERE IS EVERYBODY?”

Taking just a moment to shove his feet into his boots before descending the stairs, he remained puzzled by the stillness within the house.  Joe glanced back down the hallway, still, as if pondering a thought.  He hurried to Hoss’ room and pushed opened the door, not totally surprised to see the room empty.  As he turned to go, his eyes caught sight of the neatly made bed.

“Hmm…” he murmured.

“Adam?” he said, tapping lightly on his older brother’s door.

Joe figured it was too late in the morning for his older brother to still be in bed but he felt inclined to peek inside.  Adam’s bed had obviously not been slept in either.  With growing concern, Joe rushed from the room and without bothering to knock, shoved opened his father’s door.  A loud gasp filled the stillness within Ben’s bedroom, his bed showed no signs that it had been used.

“Where is everyone?” Joe asked himself.

“HOP SING!” shouted Joe, running from the room and down the steps.

“Why you shout?  Hop Sing not deef…” grumbled Hop Sing as he scampered into the main room.

The cook wore a white apron tied about his waist.  His face was dotted with white flour and the expression he wore caused the youngest Cartwright to grin.

“I’m sorry Hop Sing…but where is everyone…it doesn’t look as if anyone slept in their beds last night,” stated Joe.

“Hop Sing not know…Mr. Ben and Mr. Adam…they no come home last night and Mister Hoss leave in middle of night…I cook, food get cold…slave over hot stove…no body here…not bother tell Hop Sing…Hop Sing quit and go back China where he have more respect.  Cartwrights no respect Hop Sing…”

“I respect you Hop Sing,” Joe said as he tried to mask his worries with a smile.  “I’m hungry too…”

“Too late…Hop Sing feed breakfast to hogs…”

“To the hogs?  Golly Hop Sing…”

Joe noted the expression on the little cook’s face suddenly looked anxious.

“Little Joe go find family?”

Joe had moved to the credenza where he began buckling on his gun belt.  His worried expression apparently had not gone unnoticed by the faithful servant.  He nodded his head.

“Yes, Hop Sing…I’m going to look for them.  It isn’t like Pa to stay away this long without sending word…and Adam seems to have disappeared into thin air.” Joe slipped into his jacket and reached for his hat.

“What about Mr. Hoss?”

Once he had his hat in place, Joe squeezed Hop Sing’s shoulder, attempting to put the man’s fears to rest. “I have an idea that Hoss is out searching for Pa and Adam right now.  He was pretty worried last night; I should have paid attention to him.  If he comes back and I’m not here, tell him I’m looking for them, will you Hop Sing?”

Hop Sing’s head bobbed up and down as he stood at the door watching Joe leave. “Don’t you disappear, Lit’le Joe…”

Joe paused and turned, smiling at his friend. “Don’t worry, I won’t…and I’ll find them Hop Sing…you just fix an extra special supper for tonight….see ya,” he called as he swung into the saddle and disappeared around the corner of the barn.

*****

Hoss felt as if he’d been on the trail for hours.  After riding into town early that morning and having a talk with the sheriff which confirmed that he and Ben had a late lunch the day before and that Ben had said he was headed for home, Hoss was more confused than ever.  A short visit to Mr. Clifton’s office proved only one thing: that Adam had stopped by, looking for his father.

So where were they, Hoss pondered thoughtfully.  He had retraced his steps going almost all the way back to the forks of the road.  As he sat alone in the hot sun, Hoss decided to make the short trek the rest of the way back to the forks and start from there, hoping to pick up some clue as to which way his father might have gone.  The concerned young man was hoping that once he found his father, he’d find his older brother as well, for deep down inside himself, Hoss felt as if the two were together.

Carefully Hoss inspected the tracks that he’d found.  For certain, his father had been there for in the dirt were the telltale tracks of his father’s horse’s print.  The unmistakable nick in the iron shoe left no doubt to Hoss that his father had come this way and been joined by another rider.  The tracks took a different direction, leading away rather than back to the ranch.  Uncertain as to why his father might have taken another route, Hoss mounted up and began following the signs left embedded in the dirt.

He hadn’t ridden far when the tracks told him that once again his father and the unknown rider had made yet another detour.  Hoss stopped long enough to take a long swig of the cool water in his canteen. He knew the unknown rider wasn’t Adam, for the print wore a different shoe than what Ponderosa horses wore.  Who was the man riding with his father…and for that matter, where in blazes was Adam?

“Only place in this direction, Chubby, is Washoe.  Now why would ya reckon Pa would want to go there?” mumbled Hoss more to himself than to his horse.  “Come on, boy…giddy-up” Hoss said, nudging his mount into action.

*****

Howie watched from his hiding place behind the old stable as Hoss rode slowly into town.  It would take some doing, he thought to himself, to lure Hoss into the office where the middle Cartwright’s father and older brother were being held in the locked cell.  He’d given it just enough consideration to determine that he’d allow Hoss to snoop around a bit and then find his missing family members in the jail.  He’d go now down to the sheriff’s and hide in the back room, promising Ben Cartwright that if he gave his hiding place away and warned his middle son that he was lurking behind the other door, he’d shoot to kill the big man right before the senior Cartwright’s eyes…might even kill his oldest son as well if his secret was revealed.

Quickly, Howie maneuvered his way around the old buildings and through the allies, keeping a watchful eye on Hoss’ progress into the old ghost town.  He managed to slip into the jailhouse just as Hoss made his way into the old stable.  Howie knew it would be a matter of time before the big man found them, once he’d spotted his family’s horses stabled in the barn.

From their jail cell, Ben and Adam looked up as Howie quietly opened and closed the door.  Ben stood up and moved to the bars that separated him from his captor.  Howie glanced at the older man and then smiled. “Your boy’s comin’ Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben cast an anxious glance at Adam who had suddenly risen and joined his father.

“Joseph?” Ben asked, fully expecting it to be his youngest son.

“Naw,” snarled Howie as he watched through the window, keeping track on Hoss’ whereabouts.  “The big one…Horse…”

“Hoss…” muttered Ben correcting his captor.

Howie turned around to glare at his prisoner.

“If you’re aiming on killing a man, the least you can do is get his name right,” Adam said with little emotion in his voice.

Howie said nothing just turned and continued to watch out the window.  Seconds later, he backed into the room.

“Here he comes,” Howie said, pointing his gun at Adam and Ben.  “Keep your traps shut when he comes in or I’ll drop him where he stands…got that?”

Ben swallowed the hate that had begun to boil up into his throat and nodded his head. “I’ve got it.”

“You too,” Howie whispered, shaking his gun at Adam.

Adam said nothing only turned his back to his captor and moved to sit down on the cot.  He leaned his back against the wall and watched for the door to open.  When it squeaked opened, Ben’s back stiffened and he became more alert.

“Pa?” Hoss said in a whisper-like voice.

Ben wanted to cry out to warn his son, but he saw Howie give him a warning look and in the eyes of the man who hid, Ben saw the truth.  Howie would not hesitate to kill Hoss.  Ben was forced to remain silent.  He waited with baited breath as Hoss stepped deeper into the dimly lit room.

“Adam…” Hoss’ voice was low, almost a whisper as he crept cautiously into the office, pistol drawn.

A movement to his right caught his attention.  The big man turned quickly, spying his father and brother locked in the cell.

“PA! ADAM!” he said loudly, holstering his gun and moving to the cell.

He placed his thick fingers on the bars of the cell door and shook them with all his strength, unaware of the man behind him.  The door was unyielding.

Ben stepped back.  He had yet to utter a word.  Adam’s dark eyes moved upward, glancing from his brother’s worried face to the man approaching from behind.  More than anything, he yearned to warn his brother, but the loaded pistol in Howie’s hand prevented him from calling out that warning.

“Hold it right there!”

Hoss felt the pointed barrel of the gun jab deeply into his back.  His hands became frozen to the cold cell bars.  His body automatically stiffened.  Dark, narrowed blue eyes turned to stare at his father’s face that he suddenly realized looked pale and drawn. “What’s goin’ on here?” he asked his father as Howie eased forward and took Hoss’ gun from his holster.

“This man…” snarled Ben, “seems determined to murder one of us…and force Joseph to watch,” Ben explained.

“What!” Hoss practically shouted. He dared himself to turn around and meet the penetrating eyes of the young man who held him at gunpoint.

“Are you nuts?” Hoss demanded of Howie.

“Some might think so…here…open the door,” Howie ordered as he tossed the key to Hoss.  “You two…back up against that wall and don’t try anything…or the big man gets it in the gut!”

Hoss hesitated momentarily until he heard the pistol being cocked. “I mean business mister.  I care little which of you I kill…now open the door!’

“Do it, Hoss…” Ben issued.

Hoss’ lips were pinched tightly as he did as instructed.

“Now get in there with the rest of them!”

Hoss placed the key in Howie’s outstretched hand and moved to the far wall where he stood with his father and brother.  Howie made quick work of shutting and locking the door.

“Ha!  So far so good, Mr. Cartwright!” he taunted.  “Now…all I have to do is wait…Joseph will be along soon…and then…one of you will die…”

Howie laughed loudly at the stunned expression on his prisoners’ faces and then walked out of the office, slamming the door behind him.

Adam watched out the window as their keeper rode out of town.  Hoss turned to his father. “What in blazes is goin’ on, Pa…who is that man and why on earth has he got us all locked up in here?” Hoss wanted to know.  “And what’s he mean he’s gonna kill one of us and make Little Joe watch…what’d we ever do to’em anyways?”

Ben sighed deeply, worried.  “It’s a long story, son.  Let’s sit down and I’ll try to explain it to you.”

*****

Joe tied his mount up in front of Roy Coffee’s office and stepped onto the boardwalk.  Just then the door to the office opened and Roy stepped out into the mid-morning sun.

“Well howdy, Little Joe, what brings you into town so early in the day?” Roy said greeting his best friend’s youngest son.

“Howdy, Roy,” answered Little Joe.  “I’m looking for Pa and Adam…you haven’t seen them have you?”

“Lookin’ for Ben…and Adam ya say?  Hmm…why’s that?” asked Roy.

“Cause…neither of them came home last night…and…” Joe hesitated, feeling a little silly for being such a worrier.

“Didn’t come home?  That’s funny.”

“Why?” questioned Joe.

“’Cause, last time I seen ya pa was late yesterday afternoon.  We had lunch over at Daisy’s and then he said he had to get home.  I figured he done just that,” explained the sheriff.

“Well he didn’t make it home, Roy…and to be honest, I’m getting a bit worried.  Hoss said Adam went to look for him last night and now he’s missing.  Hoss and I just figured maybe Adam met up with Pa and they decided to stay in town last night, but then this morning, I get up and Hoss is gone.  Hop Sing said he left late last night after I went to bed, so I reckoned he went looking…”

“And now Hoss is missing as well?” Roy said as he rubbed his opened hand across his chin.

Joe sighed deeply.  “Yeah…”

“That’s strange.  But I know for a fact Ben was headed home, Joe; I watched him ride out of town.  As for Adam or Hoss, I ain’t seen hide nor hair of neither of them.  What are you aimin’ on doin’?” he asked as Joe had turned to mount up.

“I’m going to back track, Roy and see if I can pick up a trail.”

“You want I should ride along with you?”

“No…but thanks, Roy.  If I don’t find something soon, I’ll be back and then we’ll get a search party to help out.  Say, if you happen to see either Pa, Adam or Hoss…will you tell them I’m looking for them and to please stay put!”

Joe smiled as if to make light of the situation but in fact he didn’t find a thing funny about his family’s disappearance.  Fear had filled nearly every fiber of his being and he didn’t like the dark feeling of doom that had settled about him.

“I’ll tell’em Little Joe, you just be careful, ya hear?” called Roy as Joe rode off.

Joe tossed his hand up into the air in acknowledgement and retraced his path out of town.  For several miles he rode until he reached the same forks that Hoss had.  There he slid down from the saddle and studied the ground with great care.

“That’s Buck’s track, Cooch,” he muttered to his pinto.  “I know cause of that nick in his shoe…and there’s Chubb’s deep print…and there’s a couple more horses.  Could be Adam’s, might not…but who is the fourth man?”

Joe glanced up to scan the horizon and then swung into his saddle.

“Only one way to find out, ol’ boy; let’s ride.”

An hour later, Joe sat at the edge of Washoe taking in the entire main street.  Nothing seemed out of order, if one could put order to a ghost town that is.  Haunting memories of his past and the long weary days spent there nearly two years ago came back to shuffle their way through his thoughts.  Those thoughts left him feeling disturbed and troubled.  Why on earth would his father come to Washoe?  His father knew of the trial where he’d had to testify against a man charged with murder.  Ben knew too of the incident involving the accused man’s son and of the nightmares that Joe suffered long afterwards.

The fine hairs on the back of Joe’s neck rose suddenly and he shivered as if he were cold. “Something’s not right, Cooch,” he said in a whispered voice.  “They’re here…I can feel it in my bones…but where…and more importantly, why?”

Joe nudged his horse forward, walking Cochise at a slow pace as man and rider made their way cautiously into town.  Joe stayed to the middle of the street and scanned his surroundings, making a mental note of each run down building.  He had followed the tracks as far as the dilapidated stable, noting that the horse’s tracks ended at the closed door.  Joe had no need to see inside, he knew his father’s horse and Hoss’ horse were just on the opposite side of the shut door.

In front of the stable, which was at the further most end of town, Joe dismounted and led his mount down an ally and left him.  Lacing the reins around a post, Joe petted the end of Cochise’s long velvety nose. “You stay put,” he whispered.

Nearing the window of the stable, Joe rubbed a clean spot on the dirty glass and peered inside.  It was as he thought — stabled inside was not only his father and Hoss’ mounts, but Adam’s as well.  A fourth horse that Joe did not recognize was stabled there with the others.  He moved slowly along the side of the building, keeping his back flat against the walls to make his self as small as possible, least someone be lurking around the corners.

Joe checked each building as best he could as he worked his way down one side of the street, always keeping to the shadows, always watchful, and always fearful of what he might find behind the next closed door.

His heart raced, sweat beads had begun to collect on his brow and run down his forehead into his eyes.  Where were they?  The question beckoned to him a hundred times a minute it seemed to the apprehensive stalker.  Joe stopped to catch his breath.  It was then that he heard the squeaking of a board.  With eyes wide and ears listening intently, Joe ventured a peek around the corner of a building.  Nothing!  His hungry eyes traveled up one side of the street and back down the other for as far as he could see.

The entire place gave him the creeps.  It was here that he’d given testimony against a man and it was here that the man had been found guilty and hung…on his words alone.  Joe shuddered and glanced again at the empty street.  All was still, but Joe knew, deep in his gut, that his father and Adam and Hoss were here…they were that bonded that when one was in trouble the others sensed it; and Joe felt that sense now.

He had worked his way down about halfway when he stopped suddenly.  Across the street and directly in front of him was the old blacksmith shop.  A tattered and worn fragment of a rope dangled from a beam high over the opened door.  The sight sent a shivering rush of cold chills down the young man’s spine.  It was from that very beam that the man had been hung.  Joe swallowed trying to wash down the dry feeling that had formed in his throat.  His nightmares flashed before his opened eyes.  He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, forcing the visions from his mind and his thoughts.

Whatever it was that drew his attention to the vacant sheriff’s office, Joe could only wonder.  But he felt impelled to go there, as if drawn by some unforeseen force. His hand trembled only slightly as pulled his .45 from its holster and held it down to his side and began the slow trek toward the partly opened door.  Only God knew what was waiting on the other side of that door, but Joe was determined to find out for himself.

The ominous stillness that engulfed the whole town gave Joe the creeps.  It was as if it were almost too quiet…too still, unnatural.  He paused for a moment, looking back over his shoulder and taking note of the fact that not even one bird could be heard chirping.  Odd he thought, for the hour.  A gentle breeze blew sending the scent of pine and wild lavender into the air amid the dust particles that floated in the air.

With his back pressed firmly against the wall, Joe pushed the door to the sheriff’s office opened.  It squeaked softly, sounding loud in the quiet that seemed deafening.  Slowly, Joe inched his way forward until he was well within the room.  The lighting was dim within, thus forcing Joe to wait a moment to allow his eyes to adjust to the interior.  A sound behind him caused to Joe to swirl around.  His mouth formed a perfect O at the sight of seeing his family locked behind the bars of the old jail cell. Quickly, he holstered his gun but before he could make a move, he was hit from behind.

The youngest Cartwright’s body slumped to the floor in a heap at Howie’s feet.  A small dot of blood appeared in Joe’s hair as Howie holstered his gun.  He snickered as he glanced over at Ben and his two sons who had moved to stand side by side against the bars, staring helplessly at the youngster lying on the floor.

“You bastard,” muttered Adam.

Howie’s eyes turned dark but he said nothing.  Instead he pulled from his back pocket a set of handcuffs that he clicked tightly around Joe’s wrists and then pulled the Cartwright’s gun from his holster.

“Call me names if it makes you feel better,” Howie said, straightening up, “makes no difference to me what you call me…doesn’t change a thing…one of you is still going to die!”

Howie dipped the dipper into the bucket of water and slung it into Joe’s face.  Immediately, Joe began to wake.  The wounded boy reached up to touch his head, becoming aware of the cuffs around his wrists.  He glanced up, seeing again his family and seeing for the first time, the young man who had clobbered him over the head.

“What’s going on?” he muttered, looking from his captor to his family.  “Why do you have my family locked up?” he demanded as he pushed himself into a sitting position.

“I had too…I had to force you to come looking for them.  And you did, just as I knew you would,” explained Howie. He had his gun pointed at Joe who by now was getting to his feet.

“But why?” Joe said, moving to the bars where he’d be closer to his family.

“Don’t you know?”

“No…who are you anyway?” Joe asked.

The question seemed to anger the other man.  “Look at me Cartwright…don’t you even remember me?” Howie spat at Joe.

Joe stared hard at the man trying to figure out if he knew him or not, but his head was hurting from the blow he’d received and his thoughts were muddled. “I don’t know you!” he muttered after a short time.

“Brunette’s the name…”

Joe’s eyes widened slightly as he cast a wary glance at his father. “Brunette?”

“Yeah…name mean anything to you now?” Howie asked. He’d moved to the desk where he propped one hip onto the edge.  Joe’s response was to look away and lower his head.

“I see that it does…you remember my father…you should…you’re the reason they hanged him…”

Joe’s eyes flashed dark as he turned them upward to look at the man. “I didn’t hang your father…he got himself hung…”

“On lies…”

“I know what I saw,” Joe pressed.  “I saw your father shoot and kill a man…”

“NO!” Shouted Howie, moving closer to Joe and waving his gun under the youngest Cartwright’s nose.  “You thought you saw my father…but you were mistaken…”

Howie moved backed a step or two.  Taking a deep breath to calm himself, he leaned against the desk and smiled at Joe. “That’s why you’re gonna watch one of them…” he pointed the end of his pistol at the three men behind bars to indicate who he was referring to.  “One of them is gonna hang…just like my pa hung…and you’re gonna watch.  You’re gonna know exactly what it felt like to see someone you love, die…”

“You’re out of your mind!” growled Joe as fear for his family coursed through his veins.

“Am I?” laughed Howie, “you just wait…now, Cartwright…which one shall it be?”

Joe looked nervously up at his family.

“Him?” Howie asked, pointing to Hoss.  “Or maybe him?” he jeered, indicating Adam.

“You can’t be serious…they didn’t do anything to you…” Joe said with firmness.  “They’re innocent…all of them…”

“So was my father…but they hung him anyway,” snarled Howie.  “Outside, Cartwright,” he ordered.  He waved his gun at Joe, but Joe refused to budge.  Howie pointed his gun toward Joe’s family and cocked the hummer. “I’d just as soon shoot one or two…and hang the other…but either way…one’s gonna hang…now move or fatso here gets a bullet to the gut!”

“Go on, Joe…” Ben said softly, “Do as he says…”

“Yeah Joe…do as you’re pa tells ya,” mocked Howie as Joe began backing out the door.

Once outside, Joe quickly scanned his surrounding.  Inside, Ben, Adam and Hoss huddled next to one another, all three straining to see out the barred window, anxious to see what was happening outside.

“There’s no place for you to run, Cartwright…” mocked Howie. He had seen the look on Joe’s face and knew that his captor was going to try to make a break for it, hoping to sneak back and rescue his family, but Howie knew it would never happen.  He was there on a mission and nothing…absolutely nothing, would stop him from doing what he came there to do.

“What’s happenin’?” Hoss asked as he strained to see.

The big man had moved from the bars of the cell and was trying to see through the opened door.

“They’re talking…” Ben explained.

“Look over there, Cartwright,” Howie ordered, pointing with his gun toward the barn where a long rope had been tossed across the outside beam.  One end was tied off to the fence, the other one dangled above the ground with a hangman’s noose gently blowing in the breeze.

Joe felt his stomach knot up inside.

“Which one shall it be?” Howie asked. He rather enjoyed the horrified expressions on his prisoner’s face.  He noted that the youngest Cartwright’s face had paled considerably.

“You’re nuts,” Joe muttered.  “They didn’t do anything to you…they’re innocent, can’t you get that through your head!” he growled as he lost all sense of reality and charged at the man.

But Howie had been expecting such a move, he dashed out of the way, bringing his pistol up and firing at Joe.  Joe screamed as the bullet ripped into his upper leg causing him to plummet to the ground.

“JOSEPH!” screamed Ben from within his prison cell. He twisted around to face his two sons, panic and horror written into his expression.

“He’s shot your brother,” shouted Ben fearing for the life of his youngest son.

Joe lay wallowing in the dirt holding tightly to his leg where blood spewed forth in a gush of red.  Howie reached down and grabbed Joe by the short chain that connected the cuffs about the boy’s wrists and drug Joe over to a post where he demanded that Joe unlock one cuff and slip it through the ring that was hammered deeply into the thick post.

He tossed the key down at Joe’s feet. “Do it and make it quick like,” Howie ordered.

Groaning, Joe did as instructed.  Once one hand was free, he paused.  Howie kicked Joe in his wounded leg, causing Joe to cry out. “Don’t think about doing something stupid…hurry it up, get that cuff back on!”

Joe, his teeth gritted tightly against the searing pain, did as instructed.  Howie grabbed the key and shoved it back into his vest pocket.  Leaving Joe bleeding but secured to the post by his handcuffs, he returned to the jailhouse.  Joe watched as the crazed man disappeared.  He yanked and pulled on the ring but it remained steadfast to the post.

Again and again the wounded man pulled and yanked desperately trying to break free, unaware of what was going on inside the jail.

Only the bars between them separated the Cartwrights from their jailer.  Howie grinned when he saw the horrified expressions on each face.  Their misery gave him a measure of satisfaction.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Cartwright…your boy ain’t gonna die…but one of you are,” Howie said in a taunting tone.  “I only shot him in the leg…and chained him up…just like they did me.  I was forced to watch my pa die…now it’s your son’s turn to watch one of you die…”

“You’re outta ya mind, Mister,” snarled Hoss.  “Open this here door…now!”

“In time, sonny, in time.  But don’t you worry…you aren’t going to hang.  You’re too big…and heavy…you’d only die quick like.  No…I want the man I hang to do so slowly and painfully…just like my father.  And I want the boy outside to feel every bit of that pain and I want him to know the helplessness I felt when I was made to watch,” jeered the crazed man.  “I want Joe Cartwright to see his loved one squirming and jerking like a chicken with a rung neck.  I want your brother to see the expression on the face of the man I hang…I want that little runt to die a little inside, just like I did!”

He moved just a bit to stand before Adam.  He studied the oldest boy’s face and noted the hate he saw burning in Adam’s eyes.  Howie shook his head.  “Not you…you weren’t even around back then.  I can’t hang a totally innocent man.”

He moved to stand before Ben.  “Looks like it’s you, Mr. Cartwright.”

“NO!” shouted Adam as Hoss reached through the bars and made a grab for Howie’s arm.

Hoss tightened his thick fingers around his captor’s upper arm, but Howie wrenched free when he slammed the butt of his pistol down on Hoss’ hand.

“AUGH!” screamed Hoss in agony.

“PA!  PA!” shouted Joe, tugging furiously on his chains but to no avail. He had heard the shouts and the ear-piercing scream.  The sounds sent shivers of terror racing down his spine. Panic was beginning to over power his rational thoughts.

“Turn around, Mr. Cartwright,” order Howie.  “You two…against the wall,” he ordered, waving his gun at Adam and Hoss.

Neither man moved.  Ben swallowed hard, washing the knot that had developed down his throat.  He nodded his head at his sons.

Adam walked slowly to the wall without uttering a word.  Hoss still refused to move.  He nursed his right hand in his left. “He can’t do this, Pa…he cannot be serious!”

“Oh, I assure you, I’m serious…dead serious,” Howie said as Ben turned his back to the man and allowed his hands to be tied behind his back.

“You’re gonna be dead alright, Mister, if’n you go through with this.  I’ll hunt you down like the animal you are and I’ll kill you with my bare hands!” Hoss spat at the man.

“PA!  ADAM!  HOSS!” screamed Joe in a frenzy.

Howie kept his eyes on the two brothers as he unlocked the door.  He wrapped his free arm about Ben’s neck and pulled him from the cell.  Just as quickly, he shut the iron door and relocked it.  As he eased Ben back, Adam and Hoss rushed to the bars.  Hoss made another attempt at grabbing for his jailer’s arms but Howie was safely out of reach.

“You got any final words for your boys, Mister Cartwright?” he asked Ben.

Ben looked both his sons in the eyes and offered a weak smile. “Take care of your selves…and take care of Little Joe; he’s going to need you both when this is finished.”

Hoss, his eyes misting, nodded his head.  Adam, with a solemn look on his face said nothing.  His lips were drawn tightly and had turned white.  He ached to get his hands on the man holding his father.  Hate emitted from each and every pore of his well-muscled body.  Secretly, he vowed to kill the man…if and when he was ever free of the iron cage that held him against his will.

“Say goodbye,” taunted Howie with an evil smirk on his face.

He released Ben’s neck and pushed him toward the opened door.  Ben set his heels firmly, turning again to his sons. “I love you…both of you,” he managed to say before Howie shoved him into the sunlight.

Joe, his leg still seeping blood from the bullet wound, watched in horror as his father emerged from the office.

“PA!” he screamed as he yanked on the unyielding ring, realizing at that moment that it was to be his father that was to pay for something he had not committed.

Ben walked slowly away from the building, his head held high, his shoulders squared.  He paused when he neared his youngest son.  In Joe’s eyes, Ben could see the fear, the hate and the tears that threatened to spill over.  His heart ached for his youngest son for he knew that Joe would have the hardest time accepting his death.  He resisted the urge to run to his son, though his heart screamed out to hold the boy one last time in his arms, arms that ached from the emptiness.

“PA! NO!  STOP…PLEASE…DON’T DO THIS!” he beseeched of Howie, who ignored the wailing man.

Ben was pushed forward, toward the barn where the noose hung as a grim reminder of what was about to take place.  The sun shone brightly, making it appear that the noose was standing in the spotlight.  Joe screamed again.

“NO…NO….YOU CAN’T HANG MY FATHER!  HANG ME INSTEAD…I HELPED GET YOUR PA HUNG…OH GOD!  PLEASE…STOP!”

Joe’s tears spilled forth as he watched Howie lead his father’s own horse to stand under the noose. “He’s innocent…he’s innocent…” he muttered as he fought his restraints.

Joe had long forgotten the wound in his leg; his only thoughts now were of his father and the horrendous act that this mad man was about to commit. When he looked again, Ben was being helped onto the bare back of the horse.  Howie stood on a box and slipped the noose about Ben’s neck and tightened it securely.

“You gotta understand, Mr. Cartwright, I don’t have anything personal against you…it’s the boy over there…he has to know how I felt…how I cried, just like he’s doing, begging them not to kill my father…”

“I understand your loss…but hanging me isn’t going to bring your father back…” Ben stated. He felt his own fear growing.  He was facing death and it wasn’t an easy thing for any man to do. Behind him, he could hear Hoss calling his name from the jail cell.  He knew Adam would be watching from the window.  But what tore at his heart were the heart wrenching pleas, the helpless cries of his youngest son.

When Howie moved from the box, Ben closed his eyes tightly willing himself to ignore the piteous sounds. He began to pray aloud, hoping to drown out the screeching.  Howie backed up, glanced over at Joe, who was fighting the cuffs and ring with every ounce of strength he could muster.  But Howie knew from experience that nothing the boy could do, would free him in time to save his father from sure death.

The hangman removed his hat and held it in one hand.  Ben had stopped praying; even Hoss had stopped calling for his father, Adam had turned away from the cell window, unable to watch his father die.  Little Joe had fallen silent, his face buried in the folds of his arms.

Howie raised his arm; the hat was high in the air. “HAW!” he screamed as he brought the hat down on the startled horse’s rump.

Joe chose that second to raise his head.  As the horse raced away leaving his father dangling from the end of the rope, his blood-curdling scream pierced the air, scattering nature’s creatures in all directions.

Hoss’ face disappeared into his wide beefy hands as all reserve broke causing him to weep unashamedly.

Adam swallowed hard, gritted his teeth and cursed silently.

Joe twisted his head around unable to watch further as the man he loved most in life, and now in death, struggled against the rope.  In that instance, he failed to see Howie slice through the rope with his razor sharp knife that he had hidden in his boot and his father drop to the ground, coughing and sputtering into the dirt.

It was a hideous laughter that brought Joe from his nightmare back to reality.  He raised his head, dreading what he knew he would see, shocked when he saw his father lying on the ground, trying to push himself up to a sitting position.

“PA!” screamed Joe in a hoarse voice.

Ben raised his head and turned to look Joe’s way.  Joe was lying on the ground, weeping with relief.  Joe watched as Howie reached down and cut the restraints from Ben’s wrists and then back away.  Howie watched the display of emotions that filtered across the older man’s face and he turned to Joe, walking slowly towards the struggling young man.

At Joe’s feet he stopped to stare at the hate that emitted from the depths of the emerald eyes that were shrouded with tears.

“I just had to make you understand what I was feeling that horrible day.  What you suffered just now…that’s how it felt for me,” muttered Howie. He turned his back and walked away, saying nothing more.

Ben managed to get to his feet staggering across the open space while rubbing his throat, until he had reached his son.  Dropping to his knees, Ben gathered the young man into his arms.  Joe buried his face against his father’s leather vest, hiding the fear in his eyes from the one who held him.  Ben’s fingers entwined themselves amongst the thick curls.  He lowered his head, gently brushing his lips across the dampness of his son’s hair. “Shh…it’s all over now, son,” he whispered, unable to speak any louder.

Ben’s eyes sought the opened door of the sheriff’s office where he caught sight of Adam and Hoss as they strained against the bars.  He nodded his head at them to assure them that he was safe.

Howie emerged from the barn with his horse, leading his mount across the street where he joined Ben and Joe.  Ben gently released his son and stood up, facing the other man.

“Why?” demanded Ben in a broken voice.

“I’ve already told your son why…my father was innocent…I wanted your boy to know how it felt to watch an innocent man die,” Howie said.

He reached into his pocket and tossed the keys to the handcuffs and the key to the jail cell in the dirt at Ben’s feet.

“How can you be so sure your father was innocent?” Joe demanded in a course tone.

“Because,” Howie said as he swung into his saddle. “Because my father told me he was innocent…and he never once lied to me, not in his entire life!” Howie explained.

Without another word, he turned his horse, kicked gently at his sides and rode out of town.  A small cloud of dust filtered into the air, obscuring the departing rider from the eyes of those that watched.

Joe moaned softly, the pain in his wounded leg suddenly burned like fire.  Ben quickly knelt down and grabbed the keys from the dirt, unlocking the cuffs and setting his son free at last.  Joe was helped to his feet and led into the office where Ben made him comfortable in a chair.

“Toss me the key,” Adam said in a rather demanding tone.

Ben did as asked.  Seconds later Hoss and Adam were free.  Adam leaned over his father who was tending to Joe’s leg.

“Are you alright, Pa?” he asked.

Ben nodded his head.  “Throat’s a bit sore, but I’m fine.”

“And Joe?”

“It’s a clean wound; he’ll survive,” Ben answered.

“Come on, Hoss,” Adam said as he grabbed his brother’s arm and started for the door.

“Whoa!” demanded Ben, stopping both in their tracks. He stood up, glaring at his two older sons.

“Just where in blazes are you two going?” he demanded.

“After him…you don’t think we’re going to let him get away with this, do you?” growled Adam whose anger was fueled by fear, had reached an all time high.

“You’ll do no such a thing!” ordered Ben.

“What?” Adam snarled.

Ben placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder.  “It’s over, Adam…best we try to put this behind us and…forget it.”

“Forget it…Pa…I can’t forget it…and I don’t think Joe can either, look at him!” Adam argued as he nodded his head toward his younger brother.

Joe’s expression spoke for itself; he looked white as a ghost and hate burned in his eyes.

“I want you boys to listen to me…and hear me well…there will be no retaliation against that man.  He’s suffered enough…”

“He’s suffered?  What about us, Pa…what about you…?” Joe said weakly.

“Yeah…what about how he made us feel…how he plum near killed you and scared the bejeehees outta us?” spat Hoss.

“You can’t honestly expect us to forget this, can you?” Adam demanded to know.

“I can…and I do…”

“But I know what I saw that night…his father was guilty, Pa…” Joe insisted.

“Maybe so…but the fact is, that young man believed his father to be innocent.  He trusted what his pa told him…don’t you see, Adam, Hoss…Joe…if I’d told you the same thing…that I was innocent…wouldn’t you believe me?” Ben asked.

“Well, sure, but it ain’t the same…is it?” stammered Hoss who was suddenly overcome with doubts.

“Of course it is…I’ve never lied to you…any of you.  That young man believed in his father…yet he was forced by the town’s people to watch what he thought to be an innocent man, die.  He must have been terrified…just as Little Joe must surely have been.” He glanced down at Joe, who only nodded his head.  Ben pressed on. “The fact that it was his own father made the entire situation that much more horrid.  I don’t know if the boy’s father was actually innocent or not, but Howie believed him to be.  Perhaps he was feeling a bit guilty about being unable to help his father…and in a way, he blamed you, Joe…for your part in his father’s death.  Think of it this way,” Ben went on as he squatted down, placing a hand on Joe’s knee. “Howie in his own way found closure to his torment…by making us feel some of what he was feeling that night.  It wasn’t the right way to go about it…but I don’t deny my fear or know for a fact that he was or was not actually planning on hanging me…I had no clue that all he was trying to do was to prove a point.”

“Which was?” Adam asked.

“That regardless of what others thought about his father’s innocence or guilt, he remained steadfast in his belief that his father was telling him the truth.”

“I think I understand now…” Joe said in a quite voice.  He clenched his teeth from the pain that seared his leg.  “He trusted his father unquestionably…”  Joe glanced up at his own father.  “Just like I trust you unquestionably…in all things.”

Ben smiled for the first time in a very long time.  “You’re absolutely right, Joseph.  And that’s as it should be between fathers and sons.”

“I still don’t think what he done was right,” muttered Hoss.

“Neither do I,” Adam said, confirming his own thoughts on the matter.

“I guess we’ll never be able to really understand his reasoning, but one thing I am sure of,” Ben said and then smiled slightly.

The three of his sons swapped confused glances.

“What’s that, Pa?” Joe finally spoke up to ask.

“I’m glad I’m alive,” Ben snickered, rubbing gently at his sore neck. “Now…let’s see about getting your brother to the doctor, this wound needs proper tending to,” Ben chuckled softly.

As he bent down, he tenderly brushed the side of Joe’s bruised cheek with his fingers.  Instantly, Joe clasped his father’s hand in his own.  Their eyes met briefly, each seeing deeply into the heart and soul of the other.  There were no need for words, each understood the other.  It was only later that Joe found the strength to express it to his father.

*****

“I sure was scared, Pa,” Joe confessed later, after the doctor had stitched his leg and he was lying in the back of the buckboard on his way home.

“I’d be lying, son if I said I wasn’t scared,” Ben said.  “I’ve never come so close to dying before…it was a scary thing, what happened. And it was more horrifying knowing that you were forced to watch.”

“Pa…” Joe said, a catch in his throat broke his words and he could not continue.

Ben saw the deep pain in the hazel eyes that reflected back at him.  They were sitting together in the back of the buckboard, side by side.  Ben slipped his arm about Joe’s shoulders and pulled the curly head down onto his own shoulder.  He knew without voicing it, that there would be many sleepless nights ahead for his youngest son, for himself too.

“Shh…it’s over Joe…you rest now.  Tomorrow is a new day…for all of us…today will be history…and right now, tomorrow is the future…we can’t change what happened to us, but we can change how we think and what we do from now on.  We can’t carry the pain or that hatred with us into a new day…we shouldn’t waste time trying to analyze what happened or why…we just have to learn from it and take what we learned and apply it to our lives, hopefully to make us better men.”

“I suppose, Pa,” Joe said sleepily.  “But I’ll never forget how it felt…never,” sighed Joe.

“Perhaps we’re not suppose to forget…perhaps knowing that’s how it felt, is what we’re suppose to have learned, so that in the future, we can be more in tune with how we judge our fellow man, more conscious of their fears.  You see, Joe…”

Ben paused in his explanation and looked down at his son.  The medicine his son had taken earlier had finally taken affect; Joe had fallen to sleep and was snoring softly.  Ben smiled as he arranged the blanket about both of them, for the night air had a certain chill to it, but inside, Ben felt warmed by the love he felt for his sons.  He was glad to be alive and promised himself that from that day forward, he would live each waking hour as if it were his last, for he had learned in one brief moment, just how valuable life really was and what it was about his life that counted the most…and that was his three sons and the love and trust they had for one another.

Leaning his head back and shutting his eyes, Ben, in his forgiveness of the man who had sent terror into each of their hearts, prayed for that man, asking only that God grant Howie a measure of the understanding and compassion that he and his sons had found.

In time, Howie would find that understanding and only then would he come to the full realization of what horror his actions had bestowed upon his victims during his short reign of terror.  In the meantime, Joe, along with his father and brothers, would work together to put the pieces of their lives back into one.

It wouldn’t be easy, not alone, but each had the others and together, they would become strong once again.  The last battle had not been fought, for there would be many for the four Cartwrights, but as in truth, good would overcome evil…doesn’t it always, eventually?

***End***

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