When the Storm Passes (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  20,939


 

Love is neither physical, nor romantic. Real love is an
acceptance of all that is, has been, will be and will not be.

 

The minute he shut the door, Little Joe Cartwright knew something was wrong. He quickly stripped his green jacket from his slender body and hung it up on the peg behind the door as expected of him. For a moment he paused, feeling the dread begin to build deep within his young heart. Turning, he hurriedly scanned the faces of his family, Adam, his oldest brother, Hoss his middle brother and best friend, and his father, Ben Cartwright, monarch of their massive home and lands, the Ponderosa Ranch. Joe’s eyes rested on his father’s expression. Ben’s usual jovial chocolate eyes were like two ebony lumps of coal, so black were their hue. The usual warmth in the elder Cartwright’s voice when seeing his youngest son after several hours was absent, for Ben said nothing. The boy shivered slightly and watched as his father stood from his red leather chair and silently motioned him forward. Joe gulped softly, turning to chance a quick glance at his middle brother. Hoss’ expression was a mixture of unvoiced emotions as the gentle giant lowered his head to avoid making eye contact with his youngest sibling. The younger Cartwright felt the fine hairs on his neck bristle slightly. Little Joe looked Adam’s way and noted the tightly drawn lips and look of disgust on his eldest brother’s handsome face. Joe’s thoughts as he proceeded forth quickly ran through the events of the day and the day before, trying desperately to drudge up some misdeed he might have committed that would warrant the unexplained scowls on his father and brothers’ faces. But nothing came to mind; he had done nothing that he could remember…least ways, nothing that would cause the storm he knew was brewing silently beneath his family’s calm exterior.

“Did you wanna see me, Pa…ere…sir?” Joe asked after swallowing.

“Where have you been, young man?” Ben barked in a gruff tone.

Joe’s eyes widened a bit as he stole a glance at his brothers. “Up in the north pasture counting the new calves like ya told me to do…”

Ben seemed to be thinking, his eyes wondered from his young son to the two pairs across from him. Their expressions were blank, unreadable, but he could read his middle son’s unspoken word, ‘I told ya so’. He looked back down at the lad. “And how many did you find?” he inquired.

“Hmm…” gulped Joe. “Lets see…now…”

“WELL?”

Joe’s eyes moved upward toward his father’s face. His pa was angry and he had no clue as to why. It worried him…he must have done something to make his father so upset.

“I’m thinking. Pa…are ya mad me about something…I mean, I ain’t dun nuthin’…least ways not that I can recall…”

Ben took a deep breath to steady himself. The thought that he might be too presumptuous crossed his mind. Maybe the boy hadn’t been a part of what they accused him of…he was judging without first hearing the facts, something that he’d always tried to teach his sons not to do. The wind escaped from his lungs in a rush as he placed a heavy hand on the boy’s shoulder. He was surprised to feel the tremors that surged beneath his palm. As he studied his son’s face, it occurred to him that Little Joe might be afraid of him. Suddenly he smiled, bringing instant relief to the worried expression on the younger boy’s face.

“No, I’m not mad at you, son. I’m sorry that you thought I was…” he glanced at Adam and Hoss in time to see them swap glances. “I was just wondering what was keeping you so long and…how many new calves did you find?”

“About 19…there was another, but it was dead.”

“Dead?” his oldest brother inquired, rising from his spot in the blue chair.

Joe nodded his head. “Yeah, the mama was standing over it…guess it must have been born dead…or so it looked.”

“Well, I’ll send one of the ranch hands up there to take care of the carcass,” Adam said, turning to leave.

“Joseph?”

“Yeah, Pa?” Little Joe answered, turning back to look up at his father, instantly wondering why more questions were being directed at him.

“Did you go anywhere else?”

The question seemed to puzzle the lad. His brow wrinkled. “No sir…why…did I forget something you told me to do?”

Ben’s lips tightened slightly. He studied the boy’s reaction closely. His son appeared confused by the question and honestly sincere in his response.

“You didn’t stray over toward McDuffy’s place, did you?”

Joe’s eyes narrowed as the frown deepened in his brow. “McDuffy’s?” He almost giggled. “Why would I want to go over to that old hermit’s place?”

“Joseph…that will be enough of that kind of talk! Mr. McDuffy might be a little strange according to some folks, but he’s a good, decent, hard working man!”

Joe lowered his head. He dug the tip of his pointed boot into the carpet. “I’m sorry, Pa…I didn’t mean to be rude,” Joe said meekly, looking up. His lips parted slightly making him grin at the thought of the strange man in question. “Ya gotta admit he’s more’n a little strange though; he talks funny too…”

“JOSEPH!”

“Sorry, Pa.”

“Alright…but you didn’t answer my question…were you anywhere around Mac’s place?” Ben asked a second time. He studied the look on the boy’s face intently. He wanted to be sure his son wasn’t fibbing to him.

Little Joe didn’t bother to hesitate; he shook his head no. “No sir, I was up in the north pasture the whole day…”

“Good…”

“Why Pa? What makes ya think I might have gone over to the old…er…Mr. McDuffy’s place?” Joe asked as he grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl in the middle of the large square table and rubbed it clean on his dirty shirt.

When his father failed to answer immediately, Little Joe looked up, taking in the troubled expression he saw on his father’s face. “Pa…I said…”

“I know what you said, son…don’t worry yourself any about it…they must have confused you with some other boy…”

“They…who’s they, Pa?” Joe asked. His father sure was acting strange and was making a point of avoiding his questions it seemed to him.

“Just some men came by this afternoon and said they saw a group of boys over in Mac’s lower field and they were forced to run the boys off…”

“Why…was they up to no good?” Joe giggled softly.

Ben’s brows narrowed and his already dark eyes suddenly became dark lumps of coal again. One look at his face and Joe sobered quickly.

“Now how would you know they’d be up to no good?” Ben barked sharply.

Joe swallowed the bite of apple in his mouth and stood up. “I…I don’t know…hmm…I was only supposing…that’s all Pa…honest. Did the men say who they saw…the boys, I mean…did they know who they were…and…what where they doing?”

Ben picked an apple of his own from the fruit bowl and sat back down. “Doc Martin was riding along the road about the same time as Will Horton was coming in the opposite direction. They saw four or five boys running Mac’s milk cow and scattering his chickens…”

Joe scrunched up his nose is disgust, shaking his head from side to side. “And they told ya I was one of them hooligans?”

“They saw a small boy with a green jacket, Joe…” Adam spoke out. He had purposely waited at the door to hear his brother’s response to their father’s question. “They probably…”

“Well it wasn’t me!” Joe said tartly, rising and glaring at his oldest brother. “I dun told ya where I was and what I was doing…I know better’n do things like what them boys was doing…” He turned suddenly to his father. “Honest, Pa…I ain’t lying!”

Ben stood to his feet, placing his uneaten apple back in the bowl as he hurried to stand before his young son. He placed a hand on each shoulder, smiling down at the boy. “I believe you, Little Joe…but…”

“But ya believe the Doc more, huh?” Joe said angrily, pulling away from his father’s tender touch.

“No…that’s not it, son…”

“Then what is it…”

“It’s just that a lot has been happening lately…boys getting into mischief…pulling pranks that might get someone hurt…I just don’t want you to be party to any of it…that’s all,” Ben explained.

Joe took a deep breath and let it out slowly, along with his anger. “I haven’t been, Pa…and I won’t be…I promise.”

Ben smiled, nodding his head. “I was hoping you’d say that. Now,” he said, attempting to change the subject, “let’s go see what Hop Sing has for supper…you hungry, Joe?”

“Yeah…I’m starved,” grinned Joe heading toward the table that Hop Sing was already beginning to set.

“Whoa…you go wash first, young man!”

Giggling, Joe stopped and turned. “Oh yeah…”

“Oh yeah,” mocked his father, barely able to hide the smile that threatened to break open his face.

*****

“See, I told ya so,” Hoss said with a wide grin. “Little Joe ain’t no liar, Pa…leastways, not anymore he ain’t.”

Ben smiled warmly at his middle son. Hoss was forever taking his younger sibling’s side in affairs and dared anyone to trample on the boy, whether physically or otherwise. Ben often wondered if Hoss would dare to overpower him if he took a notion to ‘trample’ the lad…no, decided Ben, Hoss would draw a line at some point. But he admired his son’s loyalty to his younger brother. “I know, son; it’s been ages since Little Joe has fibbed to me…”

“But you still don’t quite believe him, do you Pa?” Adam asked. “I mean, be honest…it is a little hard to think that Doc Martin could be so wrong in what he saw, don’t you? I honestly find it hard; after all, Paul Martin brought the little rapscallion into this world…I find it difficult to believe that such a man could make such a mistake…”

Hoss’ brows drew close together and his forehead wrinkled in a deep scowl as he eyeballed his brother. “Then ya think Little Joe is lyin’, don’t ya?”

“I didn’t say that,” Adam stated firmly as he leaned forward in his chair. “I just said that I find it hard that the doctor could have mistaken our little brother for some other boy…think about it, Hoss, what other kid around about wears a green corduroy jacket…and…rides a painted pony?”

“None that I have ever noticed,” Ben said softly. “Yet Joe was so adamant…so utterly confused by the question. Why he never even acted the slightest bit guilty…”

“Maybe he’s getting better at hiding it…after all, he’s fifteen now and…”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Hoss almost shouted, as he stood, moving to stoke the fire. He jabbed at the flames angrily before turning. “He ain’t lyin’, Adam…I know him better’n you do…almost better’n Pa…and I’m tellin’ ya…he ain’t lyin’!”

Ben stood up and placed his opened hand on Hoss’ back. “I don’t believe Joe’s lying either, Hoss…”

“Then how do you explain it, Pa?” Adam asked as he watched the expressions on both his father and Hoss’ faces.

“Paul made a mistake…simple as that…he made a mistake. And unless I see with my own eyes Joe doing something wrong, or have physical evidence in my hand, I have to believe in him, I have to believe that the boy’s telling me the truth. We all do. We have to have faith in him…”

Adam sighed, resigning himself. “I suppose you’re right, Pa. For Joe’s sake, I hope Doc Martin has make a mistake, ‘cause if he hasn’t…there’s some dark days ahead for that youngest bear cub you have upstairs.”

Ben turned away, unable to mask the fear he felt would betray him. What Adam said made sense; it was hard to think that his life long friend, Paul Martin, could make such an accusation about Little Joe without being positive, yet on the other hand, Ben believed in his son’s truth. Could both of them — Joe and the doctor — be correct…how? Perhaps only time would tell. Ben determined then to keep a closer eye on his son…school was out for the summer, that would make it a little harder as the boy had free roam about the ranch and to the nearby homes of his friends, once his chores were finished and done correctly. Never before had he had cause to worry about his youngest son’s activities; Joe had never been in really serious trouble. But with the foolishness that was going on now, he feared that somehow the youngest of his sons might be lead astray. Oh, he still believed in Little Joe…but something that he couldn’t explain nagged at his deepest thoughts. If it were not Joe that Paul had seen with the hooligans, who might it have been? For now, Ben refused to think about it. “Let’s eat, it’s late,” he mumbled as he lumbered slowly toward the dining room table.

*****

“Aw…come on Little Joe…it’ll be fun,” Mark insisted.

“No…”

“Scaredy Cat,” the older boy said, laughing at the frown on his companion’s face.

“I’m not scared; it’s just wrong,” insisted Joe.

“It ain’t wrong. It’s just for fun. It ain’t like we’re going hurt someone…we’re just gonna scare the hoots outta him.”

“NO!” Joe practically shouted. “He’s a nice old man…and besides…he might be too frightened. What if something happens to him?” he asked, moving from the large boulder he sat on to stand outside of the ring of boys who had gathered at their hiding place to make plans for the afternoon.

The self-appointed leader laughed and glanced around the circle, fixing his eyes on Joe Cartwright, the youngest of the small band of boys. “Okay, so we won’t scare him, well just…run his cows through his corn field…”

Joe took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “No…Mark, seeing as how you’re a city kid, ya haven’t a clue as to how hard it is to get a crop out and pray like the dickens it makes it to harvest. We can’t do that to Mr. McDuffy…let’s just leave the poor old man alone and…go fishin’ or sumthin’ like that.”

Disgusted, Mark Langley stepped up to Joe, sizing the kid up. He stared directly into the hazel eyes that returned the steadfast gaze. In a soft voice, Mark spoke. “Look at me Joe…you will do as I instruct. I instruct you to come with the group to McDuffy’s and help us rip apart his chicken coop and then scatter his hens and we’re going to pull down his corral and run off his cows…and we’re goin’ to pull over his outhouse and …and then you are going to forget the entire episode. Do you understand?”

Joe’s eyes never wavered from their stance; he suddenly felt tongue-tied, but he nodded his head.

*****

Little Joe stood in the barn looking down at his trousers, wondering how on earth he had gotten so dirty. All he’d been doing was herding a few steers into a section of pasture that had been fenced off. He’d found one or two of the strays he’d been looking for, bogged down in the mud and he’d lassoed them and pulled them free. The teen shook his head as he pulled his pony into the designated stall. The old steers must have slung the mud onto his pants when he’d wrestled them from the mud pits. “Nasty varmints,” he muttered as he began to unsaddle his horse. “I stink worsen Hop Sing’s pigs,” he grumbled to himself.

For several minutes. he worked steady until the sounds of voices in the yard caused him to stop and peer out from the opened door.

“That’s ludicrous,” Joe heard his father shout.

The sound of his father’s thundering voice was one he had heard often, usually when Ben was mad or upset, as he appeared to be now. Carefully, so as not to be seen, Little Joe hid himself behind the door, hoping to find out why the sheriff and Ted McDuffy were paying his father a visit. He watched as Roy Coffee stepped down from his saddle and faced his father. It was hard to hear every word, for the sheriff had his back to the barn door, but Joe managed to catch a word every so often, and what he heard made him quiver, for his name had come up more’n once.

“I’m tellin’ ya Ben…Little Joe was seen…just as Mac, here says,” Roy stated.

“It could’ve been him, Roy…I sent him out hours ago to round up some steers over by Paiute Falls…he’s been up there all day…in fact, he’s just come in…” Ben argued.

“Pa’s right, Roy. I even rode up there earlier to see if’n he was doin’ alright, and he was working hard…for a change,” Hoss said and then grinned. “Fact was, he was covered in mud practically from head to toe…”

Joe took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, relieved. He recalled Hoss coming up to see how he was doing and how he’d snapped at his brother, accusing him of treating him like a kid when their pa had sent him to do a man’s job. Hoss had only snickered at his little brother’s barking and had left then to tend to other matters. Hoss had glanced back, laughing outright as he saw Little Joe attempting to pull a bogged down steer from the mud.

Peeking again, Joe saw Mr. McDuffy dismount and move nearer to his father. It was easier to hear what the older man had to say for Ben had moved just enough that he could see both men’s faces.

“I’m telling you, Ben Cartwright, that youngest boy of yours was with them other boys. I seen him with my own eyes…I even heard one of the boys calling out to him, using his name, ‘Little Joe’…” the angry man exclaimed. “They tore down my corrals, turned over my outhouse, scattered my chickens and run of my cattle…causing them to stampede right down the middle of my vegetable garden…them cows ran straight through my chicken coop too…everything’s lost, Ben…lost. I ain’t gonna have no vegetables for the winter, my hens probably won’t ever lay eggs again, and my milk cow will most likely dry up…thanks to them hooligans…including your boy…”

“Ted…really, I’m sorry to hear about all your troubles, but I just can’t believe my son would be a part of such goings on. Why, you heard Hoss here say Little Joe was working…”

“It ain’t so, Ben…he was riding with them boys…destroying everything I’ve worked to build up…I seen him with my own eyes…”

“Mr. McDuffy…surely there’s been some mistake…Joseph isn’t that sort of boy, why he’s…”

“You calling me a lair, Cartwright?” Mac demanded, bristling.

Ben sighed heavily and shook his head. “No,” he said softly, “I’m only saying that you must have seen a boy who looked an awfully lot like my son…”

Suddenly McDuffy turned away and pointed towards the barn. “There he is now…ask him…make him tell you what he’s done!” the older gentleman demanded.

Adam turned around just as Joe was making his way toward the group of men. He quickly noted the dried mud caked on his little brother’s trousers and a smile emerged across his dimpled face but just as quickly disappeared.

“Joseph, come over here, please,” Ben called, waving the boy over their way.

“Hi Pa…Sheriff, Mr. McDuffy…” Joe greeted the group in his usual friendly boyish fashion, noting Mr. McDuffy’s deep scowl and dark brooding eyes. Joe swallowed hard, turning to his father. “Did ya want me for something, Pa? I finished getting’ them steers into the padlock Hoss and Adam built for ’em,” the boy explained.

Ben smiled but it was strained. His son seemed totally unaware that something was amiss, and certainly wasn’t acting as if he’d been involved in destroying a man’s livelihood.

“Thank you son…umm…Mr. McDuffy and the sheriff are here to…ask you some questions,” Ben said.

Joe glanced up again at the two men. He had heard only part of the conversation but wasn’t sure as to why either wanted to question him…he’d been working all day.

“What’cha wanna ask me, Sheriff?” he asked.

Roy glanced up at the boy’s family. They were all watching him, waiting to see how he was going to handle the situation. One man claimed the boy was present at his farm while the boy’s own brother claimed to have seen him, himself, rounding up steers just as his father had instructed the youngster to do. The sheriff made a gulping sound and looked down at Little Joe.

“Well….um…Little Joe, whatever ya was doin’, ya sure got dirty…” Roy began.

“Yep…er…I mean, yes sir,” Joe corrected himself, glancing sideways at his father’s reaction. “I had’ta pull a steer outta a mud pit…the silly thing got himself bogged down.”

“Yeah…that happens sometimes,” Roy stated, beginning to feel a bit guilty about being where he was.

“He could have been the boy I saw fall in my pond…got hisself all dirty and muddy too,” Mr. McDuffy exclaimed.

Joe’s eyes widened slightly as he looked up at his father. “What’s he talkin’ about, Pa?” Joe asked.

“Joe, Mr. McDuffy said that some boys raided his place today. They tore down his fences, ran off his cattle and scattered his chickens. His garden was ruined as well…”

“And my outhouse was torn down…don’t forget that!” growled Mac.

“And his privy was torn down,” Ben said, repeating the man’s claim. He had rested his hand on Joe’s shoulder but moved it to the boy’s chin, lifting his son’s head slightly so that he could better see into the lad’s hazel eyes. “He says Joseph, that you were among the group that…”

“WHAT?” Joe yelled, backing up slightly from the group. “That’s a lie…”

“JOSEPH!”

The boy’s eyes were huge as he struggled with trying to keep his temper at bay. “I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to imply that Mr. McDuffy was lying. I only meant…ummm….it wasn’t me…I couldn’t have been there, Pa…honest,” he proclaimed.

His chin had begun to quiver slightly. His father and brothers and the sheriff, plus the angry farmer were all watching him closely. The different expressions on each man’s face confused him. Certainly the farmer was angry. His brothers’ expressions were ones of sympathy and pity. The poor sheriff looked worriedly at his father and Ben’s expression…well, his dark eyes seemed to be boring right into the center of his young son’s heart and soul.

Joe took a step backwards. “I didn’t do nuthin’, Pa, honest…except round up them doggone steers, just like ya told me to do…” he said, glancing from his father to the farmer, to the sheriff and to his brothers.

Hoss moved to his kid brother’s side and placed a reassuring hand on the lad’s shoulder. To Joe, it was like a lifeline and he looked up giving his brother a weak smile. Deep within, he was suddenly filled with guilt for having been so hateful with Hoss earlier that afternoon.

“We believe ya…don’t we, Pa?” Hoss said as he welded his eyes onto his father’s. “At least I do…I dun told them I seen ya up there at Paiute Falls…ya couldn’t of had time to round-up them steers and be involved in such shenanigans as what Mr. McDuffy here says ya was…”

Ben at last nodded his head in agreement. “Hoss is right, Roy,” he said, directing his words at the sheriff. “Little Joe could not possibly have been in two places at once.”

Roy seemed more confused than ever as he turned to the old farmer. “Mac,” he began, “Ya got any other notions on this thing?” he asked.

It was easy to see that the farmer was quickly becoming very angry. His dark eyes blazed like hot coals when he faced Ben Cartwright. “Ask the big fella there what time of day he seen the youngster wallowin’ in the mud with his steer!” McDuffy shouted.

All eyes turned to Hoss, each expecting a quick answer from Ben’s middle son. Hoss glanced around, gulping hard as he tried to remember the time of day he had seen his little brother wrestling with the steer who had gotten himself stuck in the thick mud. Hoss’ blues eyes turned upward; he glanced at the darkening sky, briefly wondering if another storm of a different kind might be brewing. “Hmm…I can’t rightly recall, Pa,” he stammered.

Joe inhaled deeply, feeling his frustration rising to the surface. His eyes met his father’s.

Ben noted the stricken express on the boy’s face and quickly turned to Hoss. “Try, Hoss…it’s very important…”

Sighing, Hoss took a deep breath then smiled suddenly. “I remember,” he grinned. “It was just after lunch…’member, Adam, I came in from town, I was fetchin’ the mail, and I had lunch…fried chicken, potatoes and gravy…”

“HOSS!” Little Joe yelled.

“Oh, sorry,” stammered the middle Cartwright son, “Any way, after lunch, I rode up to Paiute Falls, took about thirty minutes. That’s when I seen Little Joe here, fightin’ with that steer…so’s it must have been close to 1:30…maybe even two o’clock,” smiled Hoss, feeling relieved that he had remembered. He turned and grinned at his little brother, who returned the smile with one of his own.

“Well?” Ben said, placing a comforting hand on Joe’s shoulder as he waited for the farmer and sheriff to respond to the facts that Hoss had provided.

The farmer’s scowl deepened as he glared down at the boy. “It was you…”

“What?” Ben exclaimed. He felt the shudder that ran along Joe’s muscles and beneath his palm. Gently he squeezed his son’s shoulder. Joe, feeling the slight pressure refrained from speaking his mind.

“I said it could’ve been the boy…them rapscallions tore up my place early this morning…long about ten o’clock…” McDuffy insisted.

Adam, who had for the most part, held his thoughts to himself, finally stepped forward and faced his brother,. “What time did you leave the house this morning, Little Joe?” he asked his brother. Adam noticed that his father had moved his hand away and was watching Joe’s face closely.

The worried look on the lad’s face deepened. He seemed to be thinking. “I’m not sure,” Joe stammered at last. “Maybe nine…maybe a little earlier…”

“It was about quarter to nine,” Ben supplied. “Just after Hoss left for town.”

“Then he’d a had plenty of time to be in on the shenanigans and still be up at Paiute Falls by the time Hoss claims to have seen the boy,” Roy stated, looking for the most part as if he wished he were any other place on earth but where he was.

“But I wasn’t…” Joe cried, backing away from the group. “I…I…couldn’t have been…I was…doin’ what ya told me to do, Pa…honest…Hoss saw me…” He squealed, glancing over at his middle brother, hoping for the support he felt he so desperately needed.

Hoss, seeing the near panic expression on his kid brother’s face, felt a stab of pity for the boy. “Yeah, I seen ya, Punkin…but…I mean…”

“I didn’t do it…!” shouted Joe who by now was nearing tears. “Honest Pa…honest…I wouldn’t do nuthin’ like what he say’s I dun!” he claimed as he backed further from the small band of men who all towered over him.

Ben quickly went to his son’s side and placed his hands back on the boy’s shoulders, looking deeply into the troubled eyes.

“Joseph…” Ben said as calmly as he could without frightening the boy more than he already was. “If you need to tell me something…”

Joe instantly shook his head no.

“Son…I…want to believe you, honestly I do…but…”

Joe quickly pulled away from his father, stunned, shocked, heart-broken and on the verge of tears. “You…don’t believe me…” he stammered, looking from face to face. “None of you do…” he cried.

“Now Joseph…”

“NO! YOU BELIVE HIM…” Joe shouted as tiny beads of water rolled from his eyes. “You don’t believe me…do ya, Hoss? Even though ya know I was up at Paiute Falls…” Joe screamed. “You don’t believe me either do you, Adam…course ya never do anyway…!”

“Joe, that’s not so and you know it!” Adam said in his own defense.

“I don’t know no such a thing!” Joe barked in response.

Ben moved again toward his youngest son, stopping as before directly in front of the lad. “I know this is hard for you to understand, Joseph, but…well…what Mac says makes sense…I’m not saying you’re lying to me…and I do want more than anything to believe you had nothing to do with what’s been going on. But son, this isn’t the first time that he says he’s seen you with this group of ruffians. Before, it seemed that it was unlikely you could have been at his place…but this time…”

“I wasn’t! I swear to ya…on my mother’s grave…I wasn’t there, Pa…I wasn’t!”

“But the timing…it is possible…”

“NO! IT ISN’T POSSIBLE, ‘CAUSE I WASN’T THERE!”

“I’m sorry, Cartwright…but I know what…and who I saw…the boy’s lyin’ to ya…” the farmer stated.

Ben, worried, glanced around at the older man and then at the sheriff. “What do you want to do about this, Roy? Obviously there’s some misunderstanding here that certainly needs clearing up…what would you suggest?”

The sheriff was tapping his fingers together. “Ted?” he said, asking the farmer.

“How do you explain this?” snarled Mac as he reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a scrap of red and blue checked material.

Dumbfounded, Ben stared at the scrape for a long moment before taking the piece of cloth from the farmer. No one said a word, for it was beyond obvious that the scrape was the matching piece missing from the front of Little Joe’s shirt.

“Dear Lord,” mumbled Ben, suddenly feeling sick to his stomach by the churning that had unexpectedly erupted in the pit of his gut. Turning, Ben saw the color disappear from his son’s cheeks and his left hand quickly grab at the front of his shirt where the missing pocket had once been.

The man glanced from the sheriff, down at the boy and then looked up at Ben. “I…want the boys arrested. I want them to pay for what they’ve done…”

A soft groan escaped from deep within Joe’s chest as he stood and listened. All eyes turned to see the horrified look on the boy’s face. Ted McDuffy continued. “If ya boy here will tell the sheriff who else was with him…then…then I’ll not press charges against him, as long as you make restitution for his part of the destruction…”

Ben had been unaware that he’d been holding his breath, but he let it out slowly, nodding his head at his neighbor. “That sounds fair enough…” he said, agreeing.

Joe suddenly felt like a wild animal cornered and about to be mauled by the hounds. The five pairs of eyes that watched him put him in mind of the barking dogs he imagined were out for the kill.

“Well, Joe…you heard the man…what do ya have to say?” the sheriff asked the quivering boy.

Everyone stood silent, waiting, watching…expecting him to jump at the chance being offered him, yet he couldn’t speak. His tongue seemed glued to the roof of his mouth, his words lodged in the back of his throat. His only response was to shake his head no. Tears ran freely down his face, making their way to the end of his chin. Joe had lowered his head, unable to meet the intense, watchful eyes of his father. He felt betrayed, he felt alone and desolate…as if something deep within his soul had just died……..his father’s trust in him!

Roy coughed to clear his throat. He felt a sharp, gripping pain in his lower stomach. The sheriff knew what he had to do…it was his duty. “Ben,” he said at long last, breaking the eerie silence that had befallen the group. “I’ll have to take the boy into town…”

“Ya mean ya gonna arrest, Little Joe?” stammered Hoss in shock.

“I’m sorry, Ben,” Sheriff Coffee muttered. “But…it’s my job…my duty.”

Ben was having his own trouble trying to speak. His pulsating heart was pounding hard and when he glanced at the boy, he could have sworn that he could hear Joe’s own heart thumping heavily within the slender chest. He saw the betrayed look in the welling eyes and he, himself felt betrayed, lied to and the trust he once held in the boy…destroyed. In his dark ebony eyes, he felt a sudden rush of tears but quickly swiped them away, lest even they betray him.

“I understand, Roy…” Ben said lowly. Turning to face the other gentleman, he addressed Ted McDuffy. “I’m sorry, Ted…but I understand how you must feel. I wonder if…you’d mind waiting until morning. I mean…it is late…and the boy’s had no supper. I give you my word of honor that we’ll bring Joseph into town first thing after breakfast and turn him over to the sheriff…”

The man, his head low, shuffled his feet. Mac glanced around at all the sullen, unhappy faces — even the boy’s own brothers looked disillusioned; but he fixed his eyes on the accused, speaking to the father as he watched the boy fidgeting. “Alright, Ben. I can understand how you must feel, finding out that ya boy is a trouble maker and a liar…”

Ben felt the bristling vibrations coming from his oldest son, Adam, who happened to be standing nearest to him. He had to bite his own tongue to keep from making a sharp retort. The farmer was childless, and truth was, this man had no clue to his shattered, innermost feelings. He could only assume that Joe’s brothers were just as disheartened as he was.

“I’ll make sure we’re in town early, Roy,” Ben said, addressing the sheriff. “I give you my word.”

“Well, since Ted here agrees, I ain’t worried none, Ben. Your word’s always been good as far as I’m concerned. Now, if my business is finished here…I ain’t had no supper either, so’s I’m headin’ back to town,” he said, turning to mount up. “Ya coming, Mac?”

Ted McDuffy turned toward his horse, stopping long enough to make one last statement. “Ben, if ya boy changes his mind and wants to give the sheriff the names of his friends, my offer still stands…I’ll not press charges on ya boy…”

Ben sighed deeply. “Thank you…”

Ben, Adam, Hoss and Little Joe stood in silence while the sheriff and Ted McDuffy rode away. The embittered father turned to his sullen, speechless young son. The others watched as Ben carefully placed his fingers under the quivering chin and tilted the boy’s head upward. He noted the accumulation of tears and felt his heart flutter. “What do you have to say for yourself?” he asked the boy in a choking voice that trembled when he spoke.

Joe’s lips were pressed tightly together. He pulled away from the tender touch that always in the past had been a source of comfort. Gathering his courage he shook his head. “Nothin’…you’ve done made up your mind that I’m guilty…” he said as he bolted and ran into the house, up the stairs and into his room, slamming the door hard enough to jar the windows.

*****

Ben continued to pace the floor in front of the fire. Hoss sat in one chair while Adam sat in another and together they watched their father stew about what had taken place over the course of the last few hours. After several trips to and fro, Ben stopped and spun around, placing his fingertips deeply into his trousers pockets. His eyes were dark and brooding, his brow creased with furrows, but what was most noticeable was the soft tone when he spoke, as if the fight had gone out of him.

“I cannot believe that Little Joe could be a part of such…obnoxious, disgraceful behavior…and then lie to me…over and over about his part in it!” Ben breathed. “I’m…hell, I don’t what I am…disappointed in the boy to say the least, angry beyond measure…hurt…”

Adam brushed his hand over the front of his face and looked up at his father. All the emotions the elder Cartwright had just mentioned was plain to see. His father was shattered by the knowledge that his youngest son had in a manner of speaking, broken all trust his father had ever had for him, crushed the older man’s spirit and cut their father’s heart into a zillion pieces. The result of his youngest brother’s action embittered even him. He couldn’t help but wonder what would become of all of them now. How would the broken link in their family be repaired…or worse, could it be? Adam stood up and faced his parent.

“I can’t fully understand what you’re feeling, but I do have some of the same notions, Pa. But…just what are you going to do about Joe? Are you going to let him…go to jail…stay there…what?” Adam asked.

“Oh…surely ya ain’t gonna let Sheriff Coffee keep ’im for a spell…are ya, Pa?” Hoss jumped up and quickly asked.

Taking a deep breath, Ben let it out slowly. The pain in his eyes was easy to read. “I…don’t know. If the lad refuses to tell the truth or at least own up to his part in what’s happened, there really isn’t much I can do to help him. He refuses to talk. Why, even earlier when I went up to discuss it with him, he refused to say anything about what he’s done, nor did he mention the other boys names…”

“What did he say…”

“Nothing…other than to claim he wasn’t there…how he could look me square in the eyes and still deny it, is beyond me…” Ben said sadly. “When I asked him about the shirt pocket, all he could say was that he didn’t know how it had gotten there…how could he not know?” Ben added softly.

Adam and Hoss watched as Ben reached into his vest pocket and pulled the scrap of material out of his pocket that had once belonged on the front of his youngest son’s shirt. He fingered it, almost tenderly before looking up at his two sons. Ben held the material up in front of their faces.

“I said I’d not believe Joe’d be a party to such, unless I had physical evidence…I suppose this is it,” Ben remarked bitterly in broken words that seemed forced from his mouth.

Hoss lowered his head, pinching his lips tightly, nodding. “I wouldn’t of believed it either until…until this showed up,” he said, taking the scrap from his father’s hand. He looked at it for a long second and then handed it to Adam. “It sur’enough belongs to Little Joe…”

Adam took a deep breath, sighing as he gave the evidence back to his father. “This little piece of material could send Little Joe to jail…for quite sometime.”

“Aw…he’s just a young’n…they’d not…really send him to prison…would they, Pa?” Hoss inquired with a worried frown.

“Maybe not prison…but certainly reform school…which is almost as bad as some prisons,” Ben explained in a low, trouble, worried and frightened voice. He plopped down on the hearth, burying his face in both of his large, work worn hands. “I simply cannot believe this is happening to me…to Joseph…to all of us,” he moaned. “How could I have been so blinded…so…trusting…where did I go wrong with the boy?” he whined, looking up at Adam.

Lips tight, Adam sat down next to his father and put his arm across the back of Ben’s slumped shoulders. “Pa…you didn’t do anything wrong…you’ve always done the best you could for Little Joe…and for me and Hoss…this is Little Joe’s own doings. He knew better than to get involved in something like this…I don’t want to see the boy go to prison or reform school…but he has to pay for what he’s done…otherwise…he might do worse, later on.”

Ben was nodding his head as Adam spoke. “I know, I know…but you have no idea how his lying…the lying more than his actions, have…ripped my heart apart.” Ben turned tear filled eyes to look at Adam and then up at Hoss who stood over him. “Don’t you understand? I…trusted that boy…trusted him with my life even…and he’s…betrayed that trust…and our love…”

Ben quickly stood up, walking across the room before turning around. “How will I ever be able to believe another thing he tells me…just tell me…how?”

Saying nothing more, Ben slipped out the front door, closing it tightly behind him. He needed fresh air and time to think…time to clear his head of all the smog that had settled and time to contemplate what should be done next in order to help his young, impulsive, wayward little boy. The weight of his burden bore down on his broad shoulders as he slowly made his way to the barn. Once inside, Ben inhaled deeply, struggling to get his wind for his chest seemed to be crushing him as he moved bit by bit toward a stack of crates. Slowly, still breathing deeply he knelt down, folding his hands in front of him. With upturned eyes he began to pray and prayed until at last his words were jumbled and inaudible through the deep sobs that were wrenched from the depths of his broken heart.

*****

Inside the house, Little Joe was weathering a storm of his own. He had refused to allow himself the comfort of crying, he deemed himself too angry to cry, to hurt to feel, to discouraged to continue but worse, to broken hearted to heal. As he lay across his bed, his eyes shut, the face of the one man whom he loved and admired most haunted his thoughts. His father’s face loomed before him and in the image, Joe saw the painful expression of Ben’s dark, ebony eyes, the deep furrowed creases in his brow that had turned the aging face into a grotesque replica of the true features of the man whom he felt had let him down.

Despite his resolve, tears formed in his eyes, billowing up like giant waves across the sands and overflowed unto the pillow beneath his head. Deep, painful sobs lurched from his soul and filled the room with an eerie echo of sounds as Joe cried out his despair.

“It’s a lie…it’s all been a big, fat lie,” he cried, rambling to himself. “I wasn’t there…I wasn’t…I wasn’t!”

He recalled saying the same words to his father, but his father had refused to listen to him. The dirty scrap of material that had been ripped from is shirt had been enough to destroy any trust his father might have had in his son. Joe could only wonder about the tiny piece of evidence that Ted McDuffy had produced and used to demolish any faith his father might have held in him.

Joe felt sick to his stomach. Where had the old man gotten the piece of cloth? He couldn’t remember it being ripped from his shirt…could the farmer have found the scrap along the road and just assumed that he had been among the group of boys who had all but destroyed his property? But how…how…how…that seemed to always be the question.

“How…when I wasn’t even there!” muttered Joe as he pulled himself from his bed and walked to the window.

Pulling the drapes aside to look out, Little Joe saw his father walking slowly towards the barn. For a brief moment, the boy wondered if the father had gone to the barn to fetch the leather strap he had threatened him with. Joe remained at the window for several long minutes, waiting to see if his father emerged with the strap but when Ben finally did come out, his hands were empty. But Joe saw his father stop and pull his handkerchief from his back pocket and blow his nose. The actions surprised him, for he knew just how angry his father had been and how close he had come to getting a good hard lickin’. Seeing his father wipe away dried tears was the last thing the boy had expected to find, for his father, or so he thought, had been far to angry to cry…why, Ben had left the room in a huff, slamming the heavy oak door as he went out and shouting to the rooftops about why God had laid such a heavy burden on his shoulders, moaning loudly about reform schools and prisons for little boys and being the death of him. Joe hadn’t understood most of what his father was bellowing about, but he did understand the anger and the fire that burned deep in the dark eyes that seemed to bore through his flesh and into his heart and soul cutting away at the very foundations that had once deemed them as father and son, friend and pal, flesh and blood, bound by a love that no longer was…

Quickly, Joe grabbed his satchel from the wardrobe and began filling it with clothes. He’d decided on the spur of a moment that if his father didn’t love or believe in him anymore, he’d be darned if he was going to jail for something he had no part in…not even to square things with his father. Ben wouldn’t care; neither would his brothers. They’d all be glad to be rid of him. As quickly as he could, Joe finished his packing and shoved the case under the bed and then climbed in between the sheets. He knew his father would look in on him before going to bed…Ben always had before, so to prevent another argument, he’d act like he was sleeping and then, when Ben was gone…he’d grab his things, climb out the window and leave all his woes behind. Joe wasn’t sure where he would go, he hadn’t thought much on it, only that where ever he went, it would be miles and miles away from the place that once been his home.

Joe squeezed his eyes tightly shut and waited. The footsteps in the hall just outside his door warned him that his father was nearing the bedroom door and would in a minute, open it and look inside. He was hardly aware that he was holding his breath. The sound of muffled footsteps stopped just outside the door but the usual squeaking made when opened never occurred. The boy waited, listening, but his father, whom he knew was standing in the hall, did not open the door as expected. Joe’s eyes opened and he turned over, watching for the door to be opened and his father to slip silently into the room. Another moment later the sounds of his father’s steps could be heard continuing down the hall. Seconds later Joe heard his father’s bedroom door open and shut. He gasped, feeling more alone than ever before. His father had failed to come in and check on him as always before, regardless of what might have transpired between them during the day. For Joe it was a first and the knowledge that is father now cared so little for him was like the sharp blade of a finely honed knife that had been jabbed into the center of his already shattered heart, ripping it into more tiny pieces of broken, painful emotions.

It seemed like hours to the boy but when he finally ventured from his bed to grab his satchel, all was quiet in the house. Joe started toward the door but then stopped, changing his mind. ‘The stairs,’ his thoughts screamed at him. He knew that if he took the stairs, they would squeak and might give him away, so instead, he raised the window and quietly as possible climbed out onto the roof. When he reached the edge, he hesitated, looking back at the opened window. With a deep sigh he whispered good-bye to his family and his home and then lowered the satchel to the ground. Being careful not to bang his boots on the roof and risk awaking the others, Joe climbed down as far as possible and then dropped to the ground, landing on his feet.

He then grabbed up his traveling bag and raced across the yard to the barn where he made quick work of saddling his horse. Rather than riding out, Joe led his pinto outside and re-closed the door so that it would look as if it had been closed all night. After leading his horse around the side of the barn, Joe turned again to stare at his home. The burning of tears stung his eyes, but he refused to cry. Instead he mounted up, kicked gently at his mount’s sides and rode off into the darkness and disappearing into the night.

*****

Ben had barely touched his breakfast. His eggs had grown cold while he pushed them about in his plate, using his fork. Adam, who sat at the other end from his father, watched with lowered head as his father dropped the fork he held and picked up his coffee to take a sip. The frown that deepened the already creased brow told Adam that even the coffee in his father’s cup had grown cold and bitter.

The clanking on the steps drew both men’s attention from their breakfast as they turned to watch Hoss as he descended the stairs. The big man’s gait as he crossed the room was slow and deliberate, telling the others that even he had slept poorly.

“Mornin’, Pa, Adam,” Hoss greeted the pair.

“Good morning, son,” Ben answered.

“Hoss,” Adam said, making short words of his morning cheer.

Hoss pulled his chair out and sat down.

“Did you hear any moving about in your brother’s room?” Ben asked.

“Ya mean Little Joe’s?” Hoss questioned.

Ben’s brows drew close. “Well, since we’re all here except him, who else do you think I meant?” Ben snapped.

Hoss lowered his head, looking hurt. Ben was quick to notice and just as quickly he apologized. “I’m sorry, Hoss. I didn’t mean to snap at you…but all this…mess has started to take a toll on me. I didn’t sleep very well and…”

“It’s alright, Pa…really, I understand,” Hoss said. He glanced around at Adam and then turned again to his father. “I don’t reckon none of us got much sleep.”

“No…” sighed Ben, “I reckon not. Hoss, would you mind going up and telling Little Joe that breakfast is ready and to please come down here immediately?”

Hoss finished pushing his foot into his boot and nodded. “Yes sir,” he said, rising but then pausing. “Ya gonna take him into town and turn ’im over to the sheriff?” He watched the expression deepen on his father’s face and the sadness that he’d tried to hide wash over the false calm that Ben had been wearing.

“I’m afraid, Hoss, that your brother leaves me with no other choice. If we don’t take him in, I’m afraid the sheriff will ride out here and take him. I’d rather that not happen…I…don’t want to have to stand aside and watch as Roy puts handcuffs on my boy and takes him…from me…us…” Ben let the air rush from his lungs. “I might be tempted to…do something I’d regret later if that were to happen…and I’d rather not chance that. Please, fetch him for me…”

Again, Hoss nodded that he understood. “Yessir.”

With a heavy feeling in his heart, Hoss climbed the stairs, pausing at his little brother’s bedroom door before tapping lightly. As he waited, images of Little Joe with hands cuffed behind his back, flashed through his troubled thoughts. He sighed heavily and tapped again. When no response from the other side of the door was made, the gentle, caring man opened the door just enough to peek inside. Joe’s bed linens were ruffled and tossed and it appeared to Hoss that the boy was still sleeping. Hoss pushed wide the thick door and walked slowly to the edge of the bed where he stood tall over the sleeping form.

“Joe?” he said in a near whisper. “Pa said it’s time to get up…”

When Joe didn’t stir, Hoss reached down and picked up the blanket and slowly pulled it back. His eyes grew huge and a sudden flutter flickered through his heart.

“Oh no…” he muttered to himself as he allowed the blanket to drop. Hoss turned around, inspecting the room with his worried eyes. He noticed that the shift robe door was slightly ajar so he walked over and yanked the door open wide. Gasping, he shook his head, noting instantly that most of his little brother’s clothing was missing. “Dadburn ya ornery hide, Joe,” he spewed angrily. “Ya dun and got yaself into more trouble…again!” he snorted.

“HOSS! JOSEPH!”

Hearing his father’s loud, booming voice calling him, Hoss quickly shut the door on the half empty shift robe and hurried from the room. When he reached the top of the stairs, he found his father on the landing, obviously heading up to Joe’s room to see what was keeping the two boys.

“Well, is he coming down?” Ben asked, searching Hoss’ face.

Hoss could barely meet his father’s dark, probing eyes. He shook his head. “Nosir,” he answered softly.

“What? What do you mean no…why that little…” stormed Ben as he tried to push his way past the massive form of his middle son.

“Ain’t no use to go up there, Pa…”

“And why not?” Ben demanded, halting his ascend.

“’Cause he ain’t there…his clothes are gone too…he’s…dun…run away.”

Stunned to silence, Ben stood frozen to the spot. All sorts of wild images flashed through his thoughts. By this time, Adam had moved to the bottom of the stairs, staring up at the pair as much in shock as his father and brother.

“Well, I’m not surprised,” Adam finally spoke. “It’s just like our youngest brother to do something so foolish…”

Ben spun around, glaring at his eldest son. “Adam, that will be enough…” he stormed angrily as he turned and retreated down the steps. “Hoss, saddle our horses…please.”

“Yessir,” Hoss replied obediently.

“What are you going to do, Pa?” Adam dared to ask.

“I’m going after him…he couldn’t have gotten far…and…I want you and Hoss to ride into town and tell Roy Coffee what’s happened. Tell him that as soon as I find the boy, I’ll bring him into town,” Ben gulped. “As much as I hate to do it, the boy has to learn his lesson.”

Adam slowly followed his father to the door and as Ben buckled on his gun belt, Adam did the same.

“Pa…”

“What!”

“Joe…well…he was probably scared…I mean…going to jail, maybe even reform school…well…” stammered Adam.

Ben paused and looked sadly at his son. In a calm voice he responded to the statement. “I know, son…I know, and in all honesty, I can’t say that I blame him…though he was wrong to run away from me…” Suddenly, Ben paused, paling considerably.

“What’s wrong, Pa?” Adam asked, seeing the startling change that had come over his father.

“Joe…” Ben said in troubled voice. “The boy was afraid of more than going to jail, Adam…he was afraid of…me…he ran away from…me.”

Before Adam could voice his thoughts, Ben rushed from the house. Hoss had all three horses saddled and waiting for them. Ben hurried to his horse and mounted up. “I have to find him…Adam, you and Hoss do as I asked…be sure to tell Roy I’ll find the boy and bring him in…”

“Pa…” Hoss shouted out as Ben turned to go. “He’s mounted and headed west…probably gone up to…”

“I know, Hoss…his mother’s grave…I’ll look there first…be careful, both of you…”

“You too, Pa…” Adam called as Ben rounded the barn and rode out of sight.

*****

Miles away on a ridge over looking the lush green valley below, Joe pulled his mount to a halt and slid down from the saddle to rest.

“Ya look beat, ol’ boy,” the lad muttered to his horse as he reached for the canteen.

He pulled the cork from the receptacle and took a long swig of the cool water. When he’d drunk his fill, he removed his hat and poured a small amount into it, offering the water to his horse. The old painted pony drank thirstily.

“Good, heh?” Joe said, grinning briefly as the pony bobbed his head up and down.

“Come on, let’s walk a spell,” Joe suggested. He placed the canteen’s strap over the saddle horn and then took the reins and began walking.

Along the ridge, the rocks were getting bigger and bigger as the boy and his horse climbed higher. The air was cooler, not so hot as down below. Joe glanced up at the sky.

“It’ll be dark soon,” he told his pony. “Best we be finding a place to camp for the night.”

It had taken another hour for the boy to pick the right spot. Around him, Joe and his pony was sheltered by the vast rocks that would protect him from the cold night wind. As much as he wanted a fire, Joe knew he’d have to keep a cold camp tonight and for many nights to come, or at least until he was certain that his father had stopped searching for him, for he knew that Ben would look for him. His father’s pride demanded that he do it, find his son and turn him over to the sheriff as if the lad were a common criminal. Joe tried to push the unsettling thoughts from his mind. The boy quickly unsaddled his horse, tossing the saddle gear down on the ground to use as part of his bedding for the night. After brushing down Paint’s slick hide with pine needles he’d found, Joe settled himself into his bedroll, munching on a hard, cold biscuit he’d salvaged from the kitchen earlier that morning.

“Ain’t much,” he muttered to no one but himself. Another bite and he tossed the last crumb into the bushes and then snuggled down into the warmth of the blanket and closed his eyes. Almost instantly he was asleep.

“NO! NO! I didn’t do it…PA…NO…please…don’t send me to reform school! ADAM, HOSS!!”

Jerking and twisting in his bedroll, Joe fought the blanket that trapped him against the ground. His troubled mind fought against the images that continually sprang from deep within his subconscious. He could see his father’s disappointment shining in the dark embers of his chocolate eyes, Adam was shaking his head in disgust while Hoss stood in the background weeping as he watched his little brother being carted off to jail…destined for the reform school.

“NOOOO!” screamed Little Joe, bolting upright from his dark bed. His breath came in short, deep pants. Sweat dotted his brow and tears rolled freely from his eyes. “I didn’t do anything,” he muttered in broken words. At last he lay back, looking at the star filled sky overhead. Minuet droplets of tears continued to over whelm his eyes and spill out only to run down the sides of his face. “Why won’t ya believe me, Pa…why…why…why?”

*****

“What do you mean, Little Joe’s run away?” snarled Roy as he pushed his chair back from his desk and stood up.

His eyes were dark with anger as he moved around his desk and stopped in front of Adam and Hoss. Hoss gulped and glanced over at Adam to see what his brother might do next.

“Just like I said, when we got up this morning, Joe was gone. Pa asked us to come in and let you know…he’s looking for him right now…”

“That little rapscallion…”stormed the sheriff. “I knew I should have locked him up last night!”

“Aw…Roy,” muttered Hoss.

“Aw Roy nothing! What do you think Ted McDuffy’s gonna say now…that I’m not doin’ my job…that’s what he’ll be spreadin’ all over town!” growled Roy Coffee.

“Look Roy,” Adam said in a calm voice, “Pa rode up to the lake early this morning in hopes that maybe Joe went there…”

“Yeah…he does that when he’s got sumthin’ on his mind,” Hoss added.

“We’ll be joining up with Pa later…you can come along if you like. But Pa said to tell you, please don’t worry, as soon as he finds Joe, he’ll bring the boy in, just like he promised he would,” Adam said with surety.

Roy seemed to be contemplating the situation and was just about to answer Adam’s comment when the office door burst opened and Ted McDuffy, followed by several other men of various ages crowded into his office. The older man was obviously enraged, his angry dark eyes flashed like hot coals.

“Roy Coffee!” he demanded, glancing crossly at the two Cartwrights, “I’ve just been informed that Joe Cartwright has escaped! What do you have to say about this…what are you going to do about it!!”

Roy sighed deeply as his eyes swept the crowd that had gathered in his office. “Well first off, Mac,” he began, “the boy ain’t escaped like ya say he did, he really wasn’t in custody. And second…these here two boys of Ben’s just rode into town to fill me in, their pappy is out lookin’ for the youngster right now, ain’t that right, boys?” he asked, turning his attention to Adam and Hoss.

“That’s right,” Adam said in a deep voice. He too was watching the crowd, taking note of the men and boys who were there to satisfy their curiosity. “My father will find our little brother and bring him in, just as he said he would.” Adam turned to Hoss, pointing to the door with a nod of his head. “Come on Hoss, let’s get out of here.”

The crowd stood still, unmoving until Adam elbowed his way through and then they began to part willingly to allow the two men to leave. Hoss glanced at several faces, noting the angry stares. Once outside, he paused before mounting up and spoke softly to his brother. “Them men in there sure seemed all fired up about Little Joe not comin’ in…wonder how they know’d he run off?”

Adam, already mounted, shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know, Hoss…and to be truthful, I don’t care. What I do care about is finding Joe and getting him back here before old man McDuffy starts trouble. Come on, hurry up.”

Hoss quickly mounted and followed Adam from town. His brother’s statement about the old man starting trouble for his kid brother worried him. He glanced back over his shoulder, just in time to hear the old man ask for volunteers to help in the search.

“I’ll pay any man or boy, one thousand dollars for finding and bringing that little trouble maker, Joe Cartwright, back to stand trial for what he’s done to me and my place!” McDuffy shouted to the group of on-lookers who had followed him into the street. “I’ll show the kids around here who’s boss and who ain’t! I’ll have my day in court and that weasel will celebrate his birthday in reform school…on that I give you my word…now who’s gonna take me up on it?”

The crowd cheered and then scattered. Hoss felt his stomach churn and quickly nudged his horse faster in order to catch up with his brother.

Back in the street, two young men stood in silence, one watching the dissipating crowd. “Now what?” one boy asked the other. “It don’t look so good for Little Joe.”

Mark Langley looked down at his companion. “I ain’t worried ‘bout what happens to Cartwright…his old man’s rich enough to get him off, I’m more worried about what he’s told and what he ain’t told.”

“Aw…Little Joe ain’t told nuthin’… he can’t remember nuthin’, so how’s he gonna tell what we’ve done?”

“Well, I’m gonna make sure he don’t remember…come guys, let’s ‘help’ find the little brat…then we’ll take care of old man McDuffy, just like we planned,” snickered Mark as he hurried down the street with the others.

Chester Pike lingered behind. His thoughts were on Little Joe and what he and his friends had done to the boy and what they had forced him to be a part of. For the first time in a long time, Chester Pike was feeling something that he’d not felt in many years — guilt. The emotion was almost over-whelming. He had liked Little Joe Cartwright from the moment they had first met. Chester hadn’t been aware of why he was so drawn to the younger kid, not for many weeks and then one day it dawned on him, Little Joe reminded him of his own little brother, Willie, who had died in a freak accident nearly five years prior. Maybe the way his brother had died and believing he’d been a part of the reason caused him now to stop and think about what Mark Langley had planned for Little Joe.

Suddenly, Chester shook his head. “No…I won’t let Mark destroy that boy…nor the kid’s family’s faith in him.” He’d traveled that road once in his own life and the memories of that dark time were none that he wished on any other young man…and especially on Joe Cartwright, who was so much like his brother Willie that it gave him cause to shiver.

The curly headed young man turned in the opposite direction and raced toward the livery where he’d left his horse to be shoed. He’d ride out alone to find Joe’s father and tell him what was in the making. Maybe Mark would be mad enough at him to want revenge, but Chester suddenly didn’t care what Mark or the others thought. The wee little voice deep down inside of him that his mother had always claimed was God’s voice, had spoken to him, pleaded with him to do the right thing. He might be in for the beating of his life, once his pals learned what he’d done, but it didn’t matter, not now, not with Joe Cartwright’s life hanging in the balance.

*****

Adam and Hoss had finally caught up with their father but even with three pairs of sharp eyes, they had yet to find a trace of their missing family member. Wherever Joe had disappeared to, he had made certain that he’d not be followed. Even Hoss, who was as good a tracker as anyone around, was having a hard time picking up the boy’s trail.

Hoss, having dismounted to inspect the trail, turned and looked up at his father and brother. His eyes fixed themselves on Adam’s hazel eyes. “I reckon we taught ’im too well, Adam, guess he must’va been payin’ attention after all.”

Ben’s lips were pulled tight and straight across his face. “Well…it’s the first time he ever paid any heed to what one of us was trying to teach him!” he growled. “Hoss, haven’t you seen anything…hasn’t he even broken a twig…”

“No sir, not that I can see.” Hoss pushed his big hat further back on his head and wiped the sleeve of his shirt across his brow. He looked up at the sun. “It’s gettin’ hot…might be the boy’s up in the hills lookin’ for water, Pa…he’s bound to be gettin’ thirsty…I sure ‘nough am…so’s ol’ Chubb.”

“Pa, there’s a small stream further up…the way gets a little more rockier, but if memory serves me right, it should only be about half a mile or so up that draw,” Adam explained as he pointed the way.

The three Cartwrights were watering their mounts and unaware of the young man who watched them, trying to gain courage to face the trio. Chester gulped hard, rubbing his throat with his opened hand in an effort to help him swallow. After pulling his hat down further on his head, he nudged his horse gently in the sides and began moving downhill toward the stream and where Ben and his two sons were just mounting up.

“Mr. Cartwright!” Chester shouted before the men were able to move on. “Mr. Cartwright,” he said again, a little louder in order to draw the men’s attention.

Ben pulled back on his reins and turned Buck around, seeing the boy behind them. Adam and Hoss stopped as well, wrenching their necks around to see who might be calling out to them.

Ben glanced with a puzzled frown at his sons and then edged up next to the boy and his horse. “Did you want or need something son? Are you hurt?” Ben asked.

“No sir,” the boy answered quickly. “I…I just need to speak to you…”

“Can’t it wait…I’m sort of in a hurry, I’m looking for my son…”

“Little Joe…yes sir, I know you are…and that’s what I need to talk to you about…Little Joe,” stammered Chester. He fidgeted nervously with the leather reins held tightly in his hands and dared to look the older man in the eye.

“Joe? You know my son?” Ben quizzed.

“Yes sir…and there’s something ya should know…something’s gonna happen…”

“What’s gonna happen?” barked Hoss as he moved forward. “There better not be anythin’ happenin’ to my baby brother…cause if there is…”

“Hoss! That will be enough, can’t you see you’re frightening the boy?” Ben growled. He turned back to the boy who looked as if he had seen a ghost he was so pale.

“What’s your name, son?”

“Chester Pike, sir…”

“Well now Chester, what is it that you need to tell us?” Ben said in a gentle manner. “Do you know where my son is? If so, I need you to tell me immediately so that I can get to him…”

Chester shook his head no. “I ain’t got no idea where he’s got to, Mr. Cartwright, honest…but I do have something important to tell you…”

“Then why don’t we get down and sit…over there, under that ledge where we’ll be in the shade and then you can explain?” offered Ben.

After agreeing, Chester dismounted and tied his horse to the same branch where the Cartwrights had tethered their own mounts and then followed the grown men to the spot indicated. Once he was sitting, he looked around at the worried, curious faces and took a deep breath.

“Well, sir,” he began, “it was like this…”

*****

Little Joe had at last reined in his pinto pony and slid from the saddle. He’d pushed the old pony hard and years of training had warned him that if he didn’t stop soon and give his horse a long needed rest and a cool drink from the bubbling stream, he’d do severe damage to his horse and put himself on foot. Joe pulled the saddle down from the horse’s sweaty back and using the saddle blanket, began to rub vigorously as the animal refreshed himself with a drink of water.

“I know you’re tired old boy, so am I, but we gotta keep going soon. Pa ain’t far behind. I don’t think he knows it yet, but he’s been trailing me most all day,” Little Joe explained to his pinto, who turned at the sound of the boy’s voice to look at his master. “I know, you don’t understand a word I’m saying do you?” Joe said as he petted the animal’s neck. “Don’t matter…go on, finish your drink.”

While his horse finished drinking from the creek and then began to pull at what little grass he could find, Joe crept along the ridge, making sure to stay behind the big boulders so that he wouldn’t be seen by the three men that moved silently upward toward his hiding place. Joe watched for several long moments, his father and two brothers. They had stopped and Hoss had dismounted and was looking closely at the ground. When Hoss turned to look upward toward the rocky hills, Joe scrunched down to stay out of sight. Looking again, Joe saw his middle brother standing close to their father, obviously telling Ben something.

“Probably managed to pick up my tracks,” Joe muttered to himself. “Why…I don’t understand why Pa even bothers, he’s all but turned his back on me…thinking I’ve been lying to him and believing I did all those horrible things to that old man.” Joe’s lips tightened into a thin line as his face puckered up in disgust. “He promised the sheriff he’d take me into town…and when he found out I’d slipped out, I bet he was madder than a wet hornet…I forced him to break his word. Hmm…if he catches me, he’ll probably wallop me good before he sends me to jail…”

The boy made a sniffling sound and then leaned back against the rock, forcing himself not to give in to the tears he felt burning his eyes. His heavy heart beat wildly in his chest. He was bone weary, hungry and in any other case, would have run straightaway to his father and begged to be forgiven. But Joe believed this time it would be a wasted cause, he believed his father would never forgive him, though Joe had nothing to be forgiven for…and that was what was breaking his heart. His father doubted him, mistrusted him, and worse, wanted…no, expected him to pay for crimes he hadn’t even committed. Blinking had forced the tears to spill over the rim of his eyes but he hurried to wipe them away. A deep stabbing pain of remorse for what had severed his relationship with his father caused him to inhale deeply. His fists balled up and in a moment of anguish, he slammed his left fist into the hard rock. Another stabbing pain immediately engulfed his hand. Joe grabbed it with his right and clamped his jaw tight in order to keep from crying out.

Disgusted with himself, he turned to go, but stopped suddenly, dead in his tracks. He unexpectedly found himself staring face to face with the very man he was trying to avoid. Panic filled his heart, fear seized his thoughts; dread of what lay ahead of him should his father force him to go back with him, gave him cause to turn the other direction and start to run in order to keep Ben from grasping his arm and preventing his escape.

“No Pa…no…” he said in a near whisper as he turned and bolted blindly off in the opposite direction.

Joe ran between the two large rocks that were to his left. Ben was close behind when he stopped suddenly, grasping with his hands on the two boulders on either side of him that his son had just squeezed between. It was as if a sharply honed knife had pierced his heart when he heard the blood-curdling scream.

“AWWWWWWW!!!”

“JOSEPH!” screamed Ben as he watched in horror while his youngest son disappeared over the cliff. Ben held on with both hands while he leaned over the rim and searched for the boy who had fallen. His heart thumped wildly with fright as his eyes roved to and fro.

“JOSEPH! JOSEPH!” he yelled at the top of his voice and then listened intently for a response.

“PA! What’s wrong?” shouted Adam from behind as he quickly slid down from his mount and hurried to join his father. Hoss was only inches behind and together the three leaned out far over the edge.

“Joe’s fallen, he went over the cliff,” Ben explained worriedly. “I’ve got to get to him,” he said as he began to climb down.

Adam grabbed his father by the shoulder, preventing Ben from descending the canyon wall.

“Pa, it’s much too dangerous for you…let me go…I’ll find him…”

“NO!” shouted Ben angrily. “He’s my son…this is…my fault…”

“Nonsense,” Hoss said quickly.

Ben glared at his two sons with a look of defiance etched into his expression. “I should have warned him instead of trying to sneak up on him…I have to go to him, I have to tell him…he needs to know…that I know…he has to…”

Without another word, Ben began the step climb down the side of the canyon wall. Hoss and Adam watched anxiously until Adam at last spoke. He grabbed Hoss by the arm and pointed.

“There he is, Hoss…”

“Where?”

“There,” Adam said, pointing to a small flat rock that extended out over the canyon. “On that ledge…quick, get some rope and one of the horses. We’ll have to pull both of them up…hurry,” he ordered as he stayed where he was and watched his father. It was obvious that Ben had spotted the boy and was now slowly and cautiously making his way to his son.

The minute he reached the boy, Ben knew they were in trouble. The ledge was only a narrow parturition that extended out from the canyon’s edge. Joe’s crumpled body lay inches from the edge and Ben knew that if the boy moved too much the wrong way, his young life or what remained of Joe’s life, would end that day in tragedy. Carefully Ben inched his way to his son’s side and once he’d squatted down, the worried father tenderly picked up Joe’s head, resting it his large, trembling hands.

“Joseph,” Ben said softly as he watched the boy struggling to open his eyes. “Take it easy, son, don’t move…we’re hanging out on a ledge…easy now,” he cautioned as Joe’s eyes widened.

“Pa?” he murmured lowly.

Ben saw the boy swallow and then pinch his eyes tightly together. Tiny droplets of water squeezed from beneath lowered lashes.

“Hur…ts.”

“I know it does, son…” Ben answered. He cast a sideways glance up toward the top of the rim where he could see Hoss and Adam already lowering a rope. “I’ll have you out of here in no time…just don’t move, son…don’t move!”

“Pa…” Joe muttered as Ben turned away to grab the rope. Hesitating only a second, he turned back to his son and saw that Joe was watching him. The pain mingled with the fear and hurt that his son was suffering was evident on the young boy’s face.

“What is it son?”

“I…have…to tell…you…something. Something…bad…that…I…did…I…remember…”

Ben gave the boy a weak smile, grabbed the rope and returned to his son’s side. “Joe…it’s alright, I already know…”

A puzzled look clouded the boy’s face. He shook his head and tried to speak, but a sharp pain seized him and he arched his back, crying out.

“Awwwe….oh…God…Pa…”

Frightened for his son, Ben hurried to wrap the rope about Joe’s upper body and secure it. “Joe…I promise, everything will be alright…but right now, I have to get you out of here and to the doctor…your leg is in bad shape…and it looks like your shoulder is as bad…”

Joe’s tear filled eyes sought his father’s face, grabbling for Ben’s arm. His chin quivered and his voice trembled as he tried to explain.

“I’m…sorry…Pa…honest…oh…..hurts…hurts….” Joe made a sniffling sound and continued. He gasped for air to fill his heaving, painful lungs. “I…I…didn’t…mean…to…lie…oh…GOD!” he screamed softly as the spasms of pain and grief engulfed him. “I…Mark…the carnival…he…Oh…please…make it…stop!” Within seconds the pain became too much and began overtaking his conscious state, leaving him to wander in a world of black oblivion.

With his son no longer conscious, Ben hurried to tie the rope and then motioned for Hoss to begin pulling Joe to the top. It was slow and tedious. Joe’s body swung perilously to and fro and Ben, helplessly watching below, felt his heart lurch in fear for his youngest son’s life. After what seemed like forever to his father, Joe was soon at the top and Adam hurried to unwrap the rope and toss it back down to his father. While Hoss pulled Ben to the top of the canyon wall, Adam had already begun working on his brother’s leg. He carefully set the broken bone and was in the process of assembling a make-do splint out of broken limbs he’d found on the ground.

When Ben reached the top, he rushed to Joe’s side, inspecting the boy’s breathing, which had become labored. “We best get the boy to town, he may have some busted ribs as well…”

“You stay with Joe, Pa…I’ll make a travois, he ain’t able to sit no horse, that’s for sure,” Hoss determined and then set about making the travois that would serve to carry Joe back into town.

The journey back to town was slow. Ben knew that time was of the essence but the rocky path seemed to stir up the agony that rested deep inside his son’s aching body and with every bump the travois made, Joe cried out his discomfort. Ben rode slowly, sometimes even dismounting to walk beside his son’s body when the way became to rough and uneven. It was late afternoon by the time the four entered the outskirts of town but news of their arrival spread like wildfire. Folks seemed to come from every building along the street to watch their procession. Men and young men alike lined the streets. Women and girls stood silently by the sides of their men until at last Ben reached the doctor’s office.

Adam and Hoss hurried to take loose the travois and using it now as a stretcher, they hurried into the physician’s office. Doc Martin was waiting for them. He motioned them into the back room and shut the door. “Put him on the table…careful now…don’t jar him,” he instructed the youngster’s brothers.

The brothers did as instructed and then immediately backed up out of the doctor’s way. Paul quickly began to remove the restraints that held Joe and then pulled back the blanket. The three senior Cartwrights all took a step forward, peeking over the doctor’s shoulder and down at Joe who lay so deathly still and motionless. Paul paused in his work and scanned the worried, frightened faces.

“Why don’t you and the boys wait outside, Ben, that way I can examine the boy and do what has to be done?” Paul asked politely. The last thing he needed was three anxious on-lookers and he’d already determined that Joe’s leg would need some painful work and seeing the boy suffer more at the hands of the physician was not what he wanted a worried father to be exposed to.

Ben sighed deeply, nodding his head as he stepped closer to Joe. He leaned down and brushed back a lock of the curly, dusty hair. “I’ll just be on the other side of the door son…I won’t be far away…I promise you,” he whispered to the unconscious boy.

“Ben…he can’t hear you,” Paul said softly with a touch of pity in his voice.

Ben glanced up at his friend. “I know…but…just in case he can…I want him to know I’m here…”

“I understand, now, please, the sooner you go, the sooner I can begin my work.”

Adam and Hoss moved toward the door. Ben followed more slowly but soon the trio was in the waiting room. Ben walked to the nearest chair and plopped down. Anxiously, he removed his hat and tossed it onto the table. He looked tired and worried but he felt more frightened and angry than anything else. When he looked up at Hoss and Adam, his eyes conveyed to them his unresolved emotions. “I cannot believe all of this mess…has come down to…Joe’s life hanging in the balance,” he sputtered.

“Joe’ll be alright, Pa…don’t ya worry none…” Hoss said quickly, trying to consol his father.

“Well I am worried…I’m worried about his health, his emotions…what’s been done to him…what…I’ve done to him…”

“You ain’t done nuthin’ more’n the rest of us have, Pa…ya can’t go blamin’ yaself…we all had our doubts,” Hoss stated with sadness. “We’s all ta blame…”

“Pa,” Adam interrupted, “I think Hoss and I need to go…we promised Chester we’d see the sheriff.”

Immediately, Ben jumped to his, grabbing his hat. “In all the rush to get Joe back, I’d almost forgotten…”

“Pa…you can’t go…”Hoss said timidly.

“And why the blazes not!” shouted Ben.

“’Cause, Pa…what if Joe…I mean…er…Joe might wake up and…ask for ya…that’s why,” Hoss explained with broken words.

Ben fell silent as he turned to look at the closed door that separated him from his son. Hoss was right; he was needed here, with his injured son. Hoss and Adam could handle the other matter while he waited here, with Joe.

“You’re right, Hoss…but I want the two of you to be careful, you hear me?” Ben said, shaking his finger at his two oldest sons.

“We will, Pa…” Adam assured him as he started out the door. Hoss was on his heels and nearly collided with Adam when his older brother stopped and turned around. “After tonight, Pa…this nightmare will be over…you just tell Joe for me…if he comes around…not to worry.”

Ben gave both a smile and a nod of his head. “Thank you Adam…Hoss…I’ll tell him…now get going, it’s getting late and Roy will most likely want to be set up before nightfall. Be careful!”

Adam and Hoss disappeared through the door. Ben stood in the opened door and watched the pair mount up. He lingered until the two had ridden down the street and turned the corner out of sight. When he shut the door, Ben sighed deeply and returned to his chair to wait for the doctor to come out and relay to him that his son would be alright. “I have to believe that Joe’s going to be fine,” he told himself.

Before the doctor appeared, Ben had told himself the same thing time after time. His thoughts raced through all that had happened and what was happening with Joe now and how Adam and Hoss and the sheriff were making out. He rubbed his temples with his fingers for his head had begun to hurt and he yearned for a long stiff drink to calm his rattled nerves. The pain only seemed to intensify as the minutes ticked away. At last, Ben leaned his head over, propping it up with the palm of his opened hand and before long he had fallen to sleep, exhausted both physically and emotionally.

*****

In the dark, Hoss and Adam were hunkered down behind the old wagon that sat off to one side of the house where Ted McDuffy lived. Across the yard on the other side, Roy Coffee and several other men lay in wait for the trouble that would soon erupt. The moon, bright only minutes before, had slipped behind dark clouds, living only the stars to light their surroundings. Over to the left of them, three more men waited in silence for the approaching storm that seemed to be brewing. The advancing storm was not of nature’s making, but of the doing of several wild, rambunctious young men who had been reeking havoc around the countryside but who had, for reasons unknown, seemed to have singled out the elderly farmer, Ted McDuffy.

Working on a tip from the informant, the sheriff, with his select group of men, planned this night to put an end to the raging turmoil that these certain young hooligans had been causing. Adam and Hoss were there to help, but had other reasons for wanting to be present. From what they learned earlier, their little brother had been made to be a party to the shenanigans and they were there to confront the leader…determined to find out just why they had set out to destroy, not only the old farmer, but their youngest brother as well; and to find out how they had maneuvered Joe into doing something that was totally against his teachings. With Joe’s life now hanging in the balance, the pair had set their heads to getting answers to the boy’s dilemma. The boy had been so adamant about not being apart of the destructive group, that is, until evidence that even he could not explain, had been found and pointed a positive finger at Joe and his involvement in the wild spree. The shred of evidence that linked Joe to the group of wayward boys had all but destroyed their father’s faith and trust in his youngest son. Both Ben and Joe had been devastated by the turn of events, heart broken, saddened and shamed had left the young boy and father on different ends of the totem pole, sort of speaking. And Joe, in his shattered state of mine had run off…into worse disaster that left the teenager fighting for his life.

Hours passed slowly as the group of men watched and waited. Back in town, another man watched and waited…and prayed.

*****

Ben Cartwright had paced the floor for what seemed like a lifetime, and still his young son made no movement nor any sounds; the boy had not even awakened enough to call out for his father. Guilt was Ben’s companion during the long lingering hours. As he bathed the boy’s head with a cool cloth, the arguments, the doubts he’d had about his son, seemed to overwhelm him and draw him deeper into the remorse he was feeling. Somehow he felt he’d betrayed his son, driven him from his home, away from the very ones who loved him most. For that, Ben felt sure he’d never be able to forgive himself. He’d let his son down, why he’d practically turned his back on the boy…oh, not consciously, but had in his own troubled thinking done what had always promised himself he’d not to do…and that was to lose trust and faith in one of his sons. His heart was sick with worry, heavy with fear and full of dread for what might happen.

Ben pulled his chair up closer to the bed and leaned down, studying the boy’s features. Even in his oblivion, Joe’s pain was evident, written into the soft lines of his young, bruised face. Ben felt his throat tighten and was inclined to brush his fingertips tenderly down his son’s cheeks where dark blotches of black and blue discolored the once handsome features.

“Joe…please, son,” he whispered, “come back to me…I was wrong…so very, very wrong…” wept Ben as he rested his head on the pillow next to his son’s.

*****

“Here they come!” Roy called out in a loud whisper as he watched the group of six boys approaching the house, mounted and at a full run. It was obvious that the boys intended to do their destructive acts and then ride off into the night. But the sheriff had other plans.

They seemed destined for failure right from the start. The hooligans were totally unaware of the trap that had been set for them or of the men who hid in the dark shadows, that is, until it was too late. As soon as the boys approached the front of the house, men rushed from their hiding places forming a circle around the startled young boys. Horses whinnied and reared up on hind legs. Two of the boys toppled off and where quickly snatched out of the way by Roy’s men.

Shouts filled with anger and fright filled the darkness as one after another of the boys were apprehended and pulled off their mounts and taken into custody. It all happened so fast that the boys, those old enough to carry weapons, had not even had the chance to draw down on the lawmen until only one boy remained seated atop his mount.

Mark Langley yanked and pulled his horse in different directions, trying desperately to shake off the big man who grabbled at his body in a vain effort to unseat him. It was only when he’d pulled his mount to the left that Hoss stumbled over something on the ground and lost his footing, falling face down into the dirt. Mark’s vicious laughter rang in the ears of those who watched helplessly as the boy turned his horse again, nudging the sweaty beast into action, trampling the heavy man beneath his sharp hooves.

Hoss groaned painfully as he felt the hooves digging into his back. Adam, who had been busy restraining another boy, turned at the sounds of anguish to see his brother desperately trying to roll away from the thundering hooves.

“HOSS!” Adam shouted as he rushed to push the horse and its rider aside.

Mark laughed again as his horse turned the opposite direction, giving Hoss the time he needed to roll out of the way. Once Mark’s had his back to them, Adam sprung from the spot where he stood unto the boy sitting on the horse. His hands grabbed the boy by the shirt and before Mark could take action, he felt his entire body being yanked from the saddle and tossed to the ground as easily as if he’d been a sack of grain.

Stunned, he lay on the ground at Adam’s feet, staring with huge, frightened eyes up at the man who had just unseated him. He fought to free his pistol from its holster, but before he could manage to remove it, Adam leaned down and grabbed the boy by the front of the shirt and pulled him to his feet.

Doubling up his fist he snared at the lad, “I ought to kill you!”

“ADAM…ADAM…no…I’m alright…”Hoss shouted as two men helped him to his feet. Limping, Hoss made his way to his brother’s side. He was huffing and puffing, but he managed to get his words out before his brother hammered the boy with his right fist. “I’m just shaken up…I’ll sport some bruises, but I’m okay…” he assured his older brother.

Adam lowered his fist and released the boy into Roy’s custody. “Come on, ya varmint,” the sheriff said gruffly to Mark Langley.

From the doorway of his home, Ted McDuffy hurried outside. Satisfied that all the boys had been captured and were now being herded, with hands tied behind their backs, to the wagon that he had supplied to the sheriff, Mac hurried over to Hoss and Adam. His smile showed his satisfaction with a job well done. “Ya did good, boys,” he said to the brothers. “Ya alright, boy?” he asked Hoss.

“Yessir…I’m fine,” Hoss answered.

“Well, ya tell ya pa that I’ll be in soon’s it daylight to see him. Now that we know the truth about your kid brother, I’ll be dropping the charges…”

Hoss grinned broadly, showing his pleasure. Adam’s lip formed a tight smile but he nodded and shook McDuffy’s hand. “Pa will be glad to hear that, sir. So will Joe, once he knows the truth himself.”

“Well ya just tell the boy, not to worry…”

“We’ll do just that…once he wakes up…ya know, that fall might near kilt him,” Hoss explained as worry once again showed in his soft blue eyes. “Adam, ya reckon we best be gettin’ back…I wanna make sure Little Joe’s alright…”

“And I want to tell him what’s been going on…see you, sir,” Adam called over his shoulder to the old farmer.

“Boys, I’ll see ya back in town,” Roy told the Cartwrights. “I know ya anxious to find out about Little Joe.”

“Yessir, we sure are.”

“Well, thanks again for ya help…I’m glad we managed to round up these hooligans without ever firing a shot…no one man got so much as a scratch…’ceptin’ Hoss here,” Roy smiled as he watched his hired men lead the last of the boys to the wagon to be carted off to jail.

“I ain’t hurt much,” Hoss chuckled.

“I’m glad it went well too, Roy…I just wish Little Joe had been as lucky. These boys really messed with him…I’m not sure he’ll ever get over this,” Adam said with certainty.

“Sure he will Adam, once ya pa explains everythin’ to ’im, he’ll see the light. Might take some time…but he’ll be alright. Remember, he’s a Cartwright…he’s a fighter…he won’t quit on ya! Now I best be goin’. Take care,” Roy called as he turned to go.

Adam and Hoss stood alone for a moment, each lost in their own thoughts; each wondering how Little Joe was doing and how he would take the news, once they told him the entire story.

“We better get a move on, Hoss, it’s almost daylight…and Pa will be worrying…as usual,” Adam suggest.

Hoss limped his way over to his horse and then mounted up. Together the headed back into town and to the doctor’s office.

*****

The soft moaning on the bed alerted Ben that his son was at last beginning to stir about. With any luck, he thought, Joe would wake up. It was almost morning and the last dark rays of night were beginning to fade away as the morning crept over the mountaintops and slowly but surely began to spread its glistening rays across the open skies.

Ben hurried to the bedside, sitting in the chair that long ago lost any comfort for his weary body. Leaning over, he gently brushed back the lose locks of auburn curls.

“Joseph,” he called softly and watched as the boy struggled to return to the world he had kept locked away for so many long, haunting hours. “That’s a good boy, son…open your eyes. Your pa’s here…”

Joe struggled with the last lingering effects of his oblivion in order to do as the voice commanded him to do.

“Joe…come on son…there…you’ve almost got it!” Ben was happy to announce. But the pleased expression died as soon as Joe’s eyes had opened and found his father’s face looming before him. The sadness and agony that tarnished the emerald crystals broke the heart of the senior Cartwright. Ben suddenly felt himself begin to perspire. He tried to smile. “Welcome back.”

Joe closed his eyes momentarily and then re-opened them to stare up at his father. “I…wish…I was…still gone,” he muttered in a tired, weak voice.

Another forced smile spread across Ben’s face as he dabbed Joe’s brow with a cool cloth. “You can’t mean that, son…”

Suddenly Joe turned his head away from his father, unable to meet the man eye to eye. Ben heard his son sniffle.

“Joe…”

“I…lied to…ya…Pa…”

“No, son…”

Joe’s head turned slowly on the pillow. He looked up at his father and fought against the tears that threatened to spill over.

“Yes…” he said, interrupting what his father was saying. “I…don’t know…why…but…it was as if…I’d forgotten…what I’d done. And then…when I fell…I suddenly…remembered…oh Pa…what’s wrong with me? I’m so mixed up…”

The boy could no longer contain his tears. Ben leaned down and gently pulled Joe into a half sitting position and held him close to his chest, sure that his son could hear the rapid pounding of his heart. “I’m not sure about all of it son…but I know someone who can explain it to you…to us…all of us…”

Joe, feeling secure in his father’s embrace, stopped whimpering long enough to ask his father whom.

“Chester Pike…”

Joe moved his head enough so that he looked up at Ben. His expression showed more confusion than before. “Chester Pike…I don’t understand, Pa…”

“Well, maybe we can explain it to you, Little Brother,” Adam, who had appeared in the doorway with Hoss, entered the room and pulled himself up a chair. “It’s not all that confusing, but…I’m afraid you might not like some of the things I’m going to tell you, Joe.”

“I don’t care what things they are…Adam…I have to know… I mean…” Joe glanced again at his father. “I know I was with those boys…when they did them things…I know now…I didn’t know then…I mean…oh dadburnit…I’m not sure I know what I mean,” he said weakly as he leaned back against the pillows that Ben had propped up behind him.

“Then, if you’re up to it…I’ll try explaining to you…are you up to it?” Adam questioned. He studied his brother’s face, appalled by the dark bruises and cuts and scratches that shadowed the boy’s face.

“My leg hurts awful…and my shoulder…”

“Why don’t we wait then, until Joe’s more rested?” his father suggested.

“NO…no…I wanna know now, Pa…please…cause…I gotta set things right…” he lowered his eyes as if suddenly ashamed of himself. He wiped his good arm under his nose, using his shirtsleeve to clean away the tears and mucus that dripped from his nose.

Ben sat back down, facing the boy and tenderly lifted the boy’s chin so that Joe would have to look at him. “If anybody has to set things right…it’s me, Joseph…I…” suddenly Ben’s own throat seemed thick and talking was becoming hard. “I…doubted you, son…I…thought you…were lying to me…I chose not to believe in you…I was wrong…”

“But, Pa…I…I did lie…I…I didn’t mean to…but it was like…oh…it’s hard to explain. I know in my head, I did those things…but my…heart told me…I really didn’t…or I really didn’t…want to…” Joe’s voice trailed off until it was not much more than a whisper.

The expression and confusion shining in his eyes tugged at Ben’s heartstrings. He smiled, caressing Joe’s face. “Let’s hear what Adam has to say, then we can decide what we should do about this mess.”

Joe swallowed hard and then nodded his head. His eyes moved away from his father’s face to rest on Adam’s instead. “Well?”

“It’s a long story, Joe…if you get tired and need to rest, you just tell me…okay?”

Again Joe nodded, agreeing. He was tired, sleepy from the medication, and he hurt something awful, but he had to know…he just had too.

“Your friend, Chester Pike, came to see us…Pa, Hoss and myself. He had quite a story to tell us but unfortunately, he only got to tell us part of the story…Pa, we saw him again before we met up with Roy, he told us the rest of what’s been happening then,” Adam said as he looked from his brother to his father and then back to Joe.

“Chester told us that Mark Langley has been involved in all the destruction that’s been going on over at the McDuffy place and that he and several other boys were in on it to…including you, Joe…”

“But…”

Adam held up his hand to silence his brother. “Joe…there’s no denying that you were part of the group…but…and it’s a big but…you couldn’t remember being there, doing those things. That’s why you were so insistent that you were telling Pa the truth about not being where you were…”

“I don’t understand, Adam…”

“It’s really simple, little brother. Do you remember several weeks ago when Pa let you go to the carnival with your friends?”

“Yeah…Chester, Mark, Luke, Jed…me…and couple others, why?” Joe asked.

“What does one thing have to do with the other?” Ben wanted to know.

“Well, it’s simple really…while Joe went with Chester and Mark to watch the hypnotist, unbeknown to Joe, Langley thought it would be funny to have Joe hypnotized. What he didn’t tell Joe was that he and the others had slipped the hypnotist a few dollars to hypnotize Joe without his even being aware. That way, Mark could make Joe do things that he wouldn’t normally do…like destroy the old farmer’s crops, scare his hens, run off his cattle…”

Joe’s eyes looked huge as he listened in stunned silence. Adam gave the boy a comforting smile. “Mark would tell you do such and such and state that later you would not remember doing it. Joe…it was a cruel, mean trick to play on you…and it wasn’t funny at all,” Adam added as he glanced from Joe’s face to his father’s worried, concerned face.

Ben’s eyes were dark with anger but he said nothing as he watched the changing expressions on his youngest son’s face. The hurt, the disillusionment and the guilt was written all over the youngster’s face. Adam hurried to finish explaining.

“Chester told us that last night, Mark and the others were going to raid McDuffy’s. They planned on burning down the old man’s barn. That’s where we’ve been…helping Roy prevent that from happening…”

“And did you?” Joe wanted to know.

“Yes…thankfully we did, and no one was hurt…except Hoss,” he added.

All eyes turned to the big man standing on the opposite side of the bed. Hoss grinned at them.

“T’weren’t nothin’ just a scratch or two, see?” Hoss laughed, showing them the bright blue and black bruise on his upper arm.

“He could have been hurt badly…Mark’s horse stepped all over him…”

Joe’s lips twisted in a tiny smile for the first time in days. “Good thing Hoss is as big as he is…was the horse hurt?” he teased.

The four of them laughed heartily at Joe’s attempt at teasing his brother.

“Go on, Adam…tell us the rest…”

“Wait a minute, Pa…” Joe said, speaking up. He turned to explore the expressions on his father’s face and in Ben’s eyes. “I honestly didn’t remember doing those things, Pa…I didn’t know I was lying to you…honest…”

Ben placed his work callused hand on his son’s arm and gently squeezed. “I know that, Joe…now…but I didn’t know it then. I should have known something was up…I’ve never doubted you before…I shouldn’t have doubted you now…”

“It’s alright, Pa,” Joe tried to assure his father. “Neither of us knew what they were doing to me…to us…” he added.

“Well, I agree with your brother; it was a cruel, vicious trick…and I’ll see to it that those boys are properly punished for what they’ve done…”

“Which reminds me, Pa…Joe, Mr. McDuffy said to tell you, not to worry about what’s happened. He won’t be pressing any charges against you because he knows you didn’t take part in this willingly…” Adam explained.

“Whew…” breathed Joe. “There’s something else though, Pa…”

“What?”

“When I fell…and hit my head…before you got to me…I remembered…I mean, everything that I’d done came back to me in a flash. I could see everything that I’d done. I wanted to tell you…I tried to explain…but…but the pain got to me first…all I remember was you holding me, telling me I’d be alright…and then…I must have blacked out…”

“You did, son…and when we got you here…the doctor gave you something for the pain that kept you sleeping for most of the night and into the morning…” Ben told his son.

“What’s going to happen to them…Mark, Chester…and the others? I feel…responsible for hurting Mr. McDuffy…I can’t believe he’s not going to hold me accountable too…it’s almost…not fair to the others.”

“Joe, what they did to you…what they made you do, how they made you a part of their evil…wasn’t fair to you. You could have been killed…you almost were…and I hold no one but them responsible for that!” declared Ben with a wisp of anger still lingering in his voice.

Joe nodded his head slowly and then turned to Adam. “What about Chester…was he there…did he take part in what they had planned for the old man’s barn?”

Adam shook his head no.

“Chester spent the night in jail, Joe…” Hoss explained. “He wanted to…said he felt safe locked up.”

“Safe?” Ben asked.

“Yes…he was afraid that if Mark and the others found out that he squealed on them, they might…kill him…so he asked Roy to lock him up.”

“Where is he now?” Ben questioned.

“Roy said he’d turn the boy over to his father once he got the others back to jail. So I reckon the boy’s gone home.”

Joe sighed deeply and leaned his head deep into the pillow behind his head.

Ben watched the weariness spread across Joe’s features. “Why don’t we let your brother rest for a spell?”

Adam and Hoss agreed. “Sure…I could do with a cup of hot coffee…”

“And I’m stravin’,” Hoss added.

“Aren’t you always?” teased Adam. “Let’s give Joe time to rest; we’ll get something to eat and then go by Roy’s and see what he’s going to do with those boys. Can we bring you back something, Pa?” Adam chuckled as he stood up and pointed at Little Joe. “He’s already asleep!”

Ben smiled, shaking his head no as he covered Joe with the blanket and then silently led the others from the room. Once in the outer room, he confided in his sons.

“Joe’s gonna be laid up for sometime with that broken leg. He’s gonna have a lot of time to think about what’s he done…”

“Mr. McDuffy don’t blame him none,” Hoss hurried to say.

“I know that…but Joe blames himself…for several things…being a part of the ruckus…for allowing himself to become involved with such people…but mostly for believing he lied to me…” Ben explained to both.

“Maybe if McDuffy were to talk to the boy…assure him that he doesn’t hold any ill feelings toward Joe…” suggested Adam.

“That might work…I think while Joe’s asleep, I’ll have a talk with the man…I feel as if I owe him something…you know, sort of to make up for some of the damage that Joe did to his place.”

“He was riding into town with Roy…so he’s probably over at the sheriff’s office now.”

Ben slipped an arm around both of his sons in an affectionate way. “Then that’s where I’ll be. I want to thank both of you for…helping out your little brother the way you have…it means a lot to me…and it will to Joe when he realizes what you’ve done.”

“T’weren’t no problem, Pa…Joe’d do the same of us…wouldn’t he, Adam?”

“Sure…he’s a good kid, Pa…I have a suspicion that he’s going to feel guilty about this for a long time…”

“That’s likely, but knowing Joe…what a fighter he is…he’ll find some way to work through it…” Ben said positively.

*****

Ben knew his son quite well. For the weeks that Joe was confined, he brewed daily about his part in the shenanigans. Regardless of the fact that Ted McDuffy had visited Joe on more than one occasion, and assured the boy that he held no ill will towards him, Joe still struggled with his conscience. He was stunned at the fact that he’d allowed himself to be so easily maneuvered by Mark Langley and the others. Being used as a pawn to work their evil doings, something that he’d not normally have been a part in, worried Joe that he still might fall under the spell of having been hypnotized.

Ben had gone to great lengths over the passed few weeks to track down and bring the hypnotist back to his ranch to assure Joe that he was no longer under Mark’s command. Long nights and many nightmares later, Joe slowly began to heal both mind and body and when the day came that his cast was to be removed, he was ready to put into action the plan he had formed during his days of recuperation.

*****

“Well, the leg looks fine, Joe…Ben, he should be up and about by the end of the week,” Paul explained to both father and son.

“Can I get up…I got things to do…” Joe complained.

“You can get up and move about the house, young man…but I don’t want you putting any weight on it just yet…”

“But I got things I need to do!” Joe insisted.

“Joseph, you heard the doctor…whatever you think you have to do…it can wait,” Ben scolded.

Joe made a scowl but relented at last. “Alright…a week…I’ll wait a week, but not a minute longer,” he grumbled.

The physician glanced up at Ben and grinned, Ben rolled his eyes.

*****

“Have either of you seen your brother?” Ben asked a week later.

Both Adam and Hoss shook their heads. “Not since this morning…I seen him ride out just after breakfast.”

“Did he say anything to you about where he was going?”

“Nope.”

Before Ben could study further on the matter, Roy Coffee rode into the yard. “Howdy, Ben…Adam, Hoss?”

“Hey Roy,” Ben greeted heartily. Adam and Hoss shook hands with the sheriff after he dismounted.

“What brings you out this way?” Ben asked.

“I just rode out to tell you about them boys I arrested.”

“Oh…what’s going to happen to them?”

“Well, looks like the younger of the group, Chester Pike, will be staying pretty near close to home for a spell, under his father’s watchful eyes. The judge let him off easy due to the fact that he admitted his part and told us what the others were up to. Seems he couldn’t let it go on any longer…he said that Little Joe reminded him of his younger brother, who died sometime back…and he didn’t want to see something bad happen to your boy,” Roy explained.

“And Langley…and the others?” Adam inquired.

“Langley’ll most likely serve some time, probably about a year and the others all are on probation for a couple of years. McDuffy spoke up for them…said he understood that they were all just boys…being led astray by an older boy…so he asked the judge to go light on them. Judge Myers ordered the boys to do some community service, so he put them to work helping all the elderly citizens he could find that needed things done.”

“That’s a good idea, might teach those boys some responsibility and some compassion!” Ben agreed.

“I thought so too, Ben. Say, I saw Little Joe earlier.” asked the sheriff.

“I hope you’re not looking for him…but then you said you saw him…where? I have no idea where that boy’s gotten to!” he teased.

The sheriff chuckled merrily. “No, I’m not looking for him…I already know where Little Joe’s at,” Roy announced.

“Well I’m glad somebody knows…I was just asking his brothers if they’d seen him…where is he?” Ben laughed.

“Over at McDuffy’s place…”

“McDuffy’s?” Ben seemed surprised. “What on earth is he doing over there?”

Roy’s eyes began to dance. He laughed softly. “You mean you don’t know?”

Ben, his hand on his hips, shook his head and then glanced at Adam and Hoss. “No.”

“He’s workin’, Ben…hard.”

“Joe’s working?” snickered Adam.

“That’s a first,” chuckled Hoss.

“Alright you two, that will be enough,” grinned Ben who knew that his two older sons were teasing. He turned back to the sheriff. “Just what is it that my youngest son is working at?”

“Why Ben, he’s helping old man McDuffy put his place back into order…he’s fixin’ fences, building chicken coops…just about everything that them boys destroyed, Joe’s helping the farmer mend…that’s what he’s doin’!”

“Well, I’ll be,” Ben muttered. “He did find a way to make things right.”

“What did you say, Pa?” Adam asked after hearing his father muttering to himself.

Ben seemed to have lost attention to what was going on around him. His thoughts were miles away as he turned suddenly to the trio. “I’ll be back later,” he told him and then went to his horse, mounted up and rode off.

“Well now, I wonder where he’s goin’?” Hoss asked as they watched Ben ride out of sight.

“I don’t know,” Adam said as he too watched their father disappear.

“I gotta get back to town,” Roy announced. “I’ll be aseein’ you boys…”

*****

Ben pulled his mount to a stop and watched from a distance. It was as Roy had said; Joe was working side by side with the old farmer. A feeling of pride in his son suddenly swelled his heart. He knew Joe had worried for weeks about how the old man was going to fix his place up and Joe’d been worried about his part in the destruction of the man’s property. The knowledge that his young son had found a way to help both the old man and himself recover from their ordeal was a blessing that had been unexpected. Ben was proud of his son, proud of the fact that the boy wanted to do something to make things right for both of them and to settle in his mind a sort of a self-punishment for what he had done.

Ben nudged his horse on. McDuffy had disappeared into the barn and had left Joe hammering away at a fence railing. Joe looked up from his work when he heard his father ride up.

“I was wondering where you’d gotten off to,” Ben said, dismounting and tying his reins to the fence railing. He walked over to the boy and put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “You tired. Are you sure you’re not over doing it?”

“I’m fine, honest Pa,” Joe assured his father. “You…don’t mind…do you? I mean…I…I wanted to do something to help him…make up for what I’d done to him…”

“No…I don’t mind, son, if you feel you must.”

“I do…I gotta, Pa…I felt so horrible for hurting him…he’s a nice old man,” Joe said, his voice growing thick. “Did ya know…he used ta have a boy…his name was Joseph too…but he died when he was about…my age…” Joe said, gulping.

“No, I didn’t know that, Joe,” Ben said, gently squeezing his own son’s shoulder. “I’m proud of you son, for what you’re trying to do…”

Joe quickly smiled up at his father but just as quickly as the smile appeared it disappeared.

“Something wrong, son?”

Joe tightened his lips and looked up at his father. Ben noted the sad expression.

“Joe?”

“I…ere…I wish I could…do something to…make it up to…you.”

Ben seemed puzzled. “I’m not sure what you mean, son.”

Joe moved away a step and faced his father. He’d been troubling over the fact that he’d lied to his father and that Ben might think less of him for what he’d done.

“Pa…I lied to you…”

“Joe…”

“No! Please…let me finish…I’ve been…meanin’ to talk to you…but until right now…I…I didn’t have the guts…”

Joe saw his father smile at him and felt his self relax a bit. .

“Why don’t we go sit in the shade then and we’ll talk?” Ben suggested.

Together, father and son made their way to the big shade tree and sat down, leaning their backs against the wide trunk.

“Now…what was it you wanted to talk to me about, son…what did you need o tell me?”

“Just…just how sorry I am…for…everything…lying…to you…hurting you…and Mr. McDuffy.”

Joe’s voice was low as he looked timidly over at his father. He was somewhat surprised to see his father smiling down at him. He just supposed that Ben would have still been mad at him.

“Joseph, I know…now…and I understand…now, that you didn’t lie to me intentionally. I realize that you honestly believed you were telling me the truth. My mistake was in not having enough faith…not so much in you…but in myself…as a man, as…your father…to realize that you were…in a sense, telling me the truth. I was blindsided by the…the evidence, the scrape of material from your shirt. I didn’t think about the possibility that you’d been ‘used’ or ‘set up’ by your so-called friends. I should have had more faith in you…more trust…”

“It wasn’t your fault Pa…”

“Nor was it yours…”

“Then…you…still…” Joe gulped and whispered his next words. “Love me…just as much?”

Ben laughed. It was more in relief than at the boy’s comment. He grabbed Joe into a hug and squeezed him tightly. When he released him, Ben tried to explain his feelings.

“Joseph, let me tell you something about love…real love, the kind I have for you…Love is neither physical, nor romantic. Real love…like ours…is an acceptance of all that is, has been, will be and will not be. I won’t stop loving you just because you make a mistake…and I hope that when I make a mistake, you’ll not stop loving me. You are a part of me…Ben Cartwright…you are a part of your brothers, Adam and Hoss…to stop loving you would mean I’d have to stop loving them or even myself…that Joseph, will never happen…no matter what you do. My love is engrained from my heart to yours. It isn’t shallow like a spring puddle, but deep and abiding, like Tahoe…it’s eternal, like God’s love for all of his people. Do you understand, son, what I’m trying to say to you?”

Joe, his eyes filling with tears, could only nod his head. He leaned over against his father and allowed Ben to slip his arms around his shoulders once more.

“I…love you too, Pa…I always have, I always will…far after we’re both gone from this place,” Joe whispered.

“I shall always love you Little Joe…we’ve weathered this storm and survived…we will have many more storms in our lifetime, but always remember, when the storm passes…our love will still be here…lasting…eternal…like our souls,” finished Ben.

Joe smiled up at his father, and then at the sky. The clouds were gathering and turning a deep grayish in color. Joe pointed at them. “Speaking of storms…I think we best get home before both of us gets soaked!”

Ben glanced up, agreeing with his son. “Lets get a move on,” he called as both hurried to their horses.

Joe sprang into the saddle ahead of his father, turning back and calling out. “I’ll race ya! Last one home has to muck the stalls…” With that, the boy and his horse were off like greased lightening. Ben lagged behind, on purpose…it was Joe’s turn to muck, but he’d do it for the boy…just this once…it was worth it to hear the boy’s happy laughter return.

***End***

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