You Just Wait and See (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  25,327


 

 

Little Joe Cartwright smiled as he peeked from behind the broad Ponderosa pine. He knew he shouldn’t be listening in on his father’s conversation with Hiram Shaw, but Joe just couldn’t help himself. He felt justified for all the anguish he’d been put through at the hands of the new school teacher. His father was really giving the other man what-for and from the look on the teacher’s face, Joe knew the man must surely be cringing on the inside from the lecture that his father was delivering. It gave him a measure of satisfaction in knowing that his father had believed what he had told him about the abuse the teacher had bestowed upon him. Joe glanced down at his hand; it still hurt and probably would for a long time according to what the doctor had told his father. His smile died on his face as he thought back to the first time Mr. Shaw had used the wooden ruler as a paddle to the palm of his hand. It had hurt and Joe remembered that it took all within himself not to cry out in front of the teacher or his classmates. Glancing again around the tree, he saw his father standing with his hands on his hips watching as Mr. Shaw mounted his horse to leave. He jerked his head back and looked on the other side as he watched the man ride away. Joe let the air swish from his lungs, unaware that he’d even been holding his breath.

 “You can come out now,” his father called.

Joe gulped. He wasn’t aware that his father knew he’d been listening. “Come on, son, I know you were eavesdropping again.” Little Joe heard his father chuckle softly as he slithered from his hiding place and walked slowly over to stand in front of his father. When his son stood before him, Ben gently cupped the boy’s chin and tilted Joe’s head upward. “Shame on you for listening,” he chided softly. “You know better.”

Joe pursed his lips. “I’m sorry, Pa. I didn’t mean to… I didn’t plan to but when I came out of the barn and saw him, I just ducked behind the tree. And then when you came out of the house, it was too late to run back to the barn,” Joe explained meekly. He looked his father in the eyes and saw that Ben wasn’t really mad at him. He felt himself relax. “What did Mr. Shaw have to say?”

Ben slipped his arm about the boy’s shoulders and led him to the side porch. “Sit,” he ordered. Instantly Joe did as directed. “He was very remorseful,” Ben explained as he sat down. “And he said it would not happen again. He plans on apologizing to you in the morning. And, he has offered to pay for the doctor’s services. Though he did say that he thought that wasn’t fair considering that his book had been ruined and he’d have to replace it.” Ben watched his son’s face.

“The book wasn’t my fault,” muttered Little Joe, “but my hand was his fault!”

Joe swallowed the knot he had in this throat and continued. “Is the school board going to fire him?” Joe inquired.

Ben studied his young son’s expression. “Is that what you were hoping?” he asked.

Joe was silent for a long moment. “I don’t like him,” he dared. “And he don’t like me…and probably likes me even less now,” he stammered as he hung his head.

“You might think you have reason to dislike the man, son; his actions were a bit over board. But he did say he hadn’t realized that he had hurt your hand so badly,” Ben offered, watching Little Joe open his injured hand and stare at it. “You didn’t answer my question, son. Were you hoping that Mr. Shaw was going to be relieved of his duties?’

Quickly glancing up and then back down at his father, Joe gave thought to his answer. Would his father be angry with him if he spoke what he really felt in his heart, or should he deny his true feelings? “I’m waiting…”

“I wish Miss Jones was back,” muttered Joe in a whisper like voice.

“Joseph…”

“Alright, I won’t lie to you. Yes, I wish he was getting fired…I hate him!” Little Joe almost shouted as he stood up.

Ben’s eyes widen in shock. “Joseph!”

“I’m sorry, Pa…but I told you I didn’t like him.”

“But hate? Isn’t that a bit much, son?” Ben watched his son draw his wounded hand to his chest as if protecting it. He supposed he could understand his son’s feelings to some extent. “Little Joe?”

Little Joe turned away from his father. “Well,” he stammered. “Maybe I don’t actually hate him. But I certainly don’t like him one little bit,” he said as he turned back to face his father, hoping to see a smidgeon of understanding in the dark eyes. “I wish he wasn’t going to be the teacher, he’s not fit…”

“Son, he explained that he thought he was doing the right thing…”

It was Little Joe’s turn to widen his eyes, which he did. “He called me a liar, Pa! And he wouldn’t even begin to listen to me…not that I wanted to rat on my friend, but…” he swallowed hard, fighting back the tears that threatened to spill forth. “He may say he’s sorry,” Joe dared to glance up at his father. “But he won’t be. He will have it in for me for sure now, you just wait and see.”

“Oh son, surely you don’t believe that,” Ben said as he put a comforting arm about his son and drew him close.

“I do. Like I said, you just wait and see,” cried Little Joe.

*****

As Little Joe crawled into bed that night, his thoughts were troubled. He worried about having to go to school in the morning and facing the teacher. He didn’t tell his father, but Little Joe worried about what Mr. Shaw’s attitude would be toward him. Inside, Joe knew it would be bad. Unconsciously he rubbed his sore hand. Mr. Shaw had threatened him with a beating he wouldn’t soon forget if he, Little Joe, ever told anyone about what he had done. Fearing that his father would not be likely to believe that, Joe had omitted the statement from the facts when his father had seen his hand and he’d been forced to explain what had happened. Now he dreaded the teacher might try to make good his promise. Unless whatever his father had told the teacher had put enough fear into the man’s heart of what Ben would do to him should he ever laid a hand on his son again? Truth be told, Joe was afraid of the man. He’d seen the teacher’s temper and knew first- hand what the man was capable of doing.

Little Joe snuggled down into the warm blankets and closed his eyes. The fateful events of the last few days flashed vividly before him.

*****

“You come straight home from school, son,” Ben called to his fifteen-year-old son as the boy mounted his horse.

“I will, Pa,” Joe laughed, waving.

“And try to stay out of trouble,” Adam, Joe’s oldest brother, called, grinning.

“I ain’t gonna get in no trouble,” Joe called, trying to sound mad, but the grin on his face and the twinkle in his eyes showed he really wasn’t.

“Your use of the English language is horrible,” Adam stated, wrinkling his nose in disgust.

Little Joe giggled, “Got ya!”

Ben, who was standing behind his eldest son, put his arm about the young man’s shoulders. “It’s amazing how many ways that boy can find to get to you,” he chuckled.

Adam looked at his father. “Us, Pa…me, Hoss and you!” he stated and then turned toward the barn. Behind him, he heard his father’s deep laughter. He smiled to himself; his father was right, Little Joe did get to him…especially him. But usually he didn’t mind, Little Joe was a jokester, everyone knew that and accepted it as such.

*****

“What are you up to?” Little Joe asked in a troubled tone.

“Shh…I’m gonna get that mean old teacher,” answered Cody Anderson as he stuffed another piece of chocolate into the teacher’s book and slammed it shut. Little Joe made a grab for the book but Cody had managed to get it closed before Joe could stop him. Cody laughed and then turned away, making his way to his seat. Little Joe stood in shock at what his friend had done. Quickly he grabbed the book, opening it to the page where Cody had smeared the chocolate. The book was ruined and Joe was sick at heart.

“What are you doing!” demanded a deep voice from behind him. Spinning around, his heart almost stopping, he stood looking into the dark and very angry eyes of the school teacher. “Not…Nothing, Sir,” Joe stammered as he moved the book behind his back. “Give me that book!” Hiram commanded as he held his hand out and waited for the nervous boy to comply. With hands shaking, Little Joe placed the book into his teacher’s outstretched hand then looked down as he watched Hiram open the book to the pages where the candy had been smashed. The man’s hands began to tremble. Little Joe’s heart was racing wildly. He chanced a peek upward at his teacher and was startled to see the man’s eyes glowing red with anger. The man’s features became distorted, giving him a devilish appearance.

“How dare you!” Hiram whispered in a gravelly voice. “Do you know what you have just done?” he demanded of his student. “You little fool; I should thrash you until the hide falls off your backside,” the teacher threatened.

Joe was scared. He believed the teacher just mean enough to do what he said he would do. “I…I…didn’t do it,” Joe tried to explain.

“You didn’t?” shouted the frustrated man. “Am I supposed to believe you? I catch you red-handed with the book in your own hands, guilt written all over your face and you stand there trying to make me believe you DIDN”T DO IT?” Hiram practically screamed.

Joe cringed. He felt the tears begin to gather and he fought to keep them from rolling down his chin. He glanced to the back of the room at Cody, but his friend sat hunkered down at his desk, his head lowered, refusing to meet Joe’s eyes or to speak up to tell the truth. Joe jumped when Mr. Shaw slammed the ruined book down on his desk.

“Honest, sir, I didn’t destroy your book…my pa taught me better…”

“Your pa… Oh I’ve heard about big Ben Cartwright and how he indulges his youngest son. Well, young man, you will pay for what you have done to my book and to blazes with your father. Now hold out your hand!”

Joe saw Mr. Shaw reach for his wooden ruler and felt his body shudder in fear. “But I didn’t do it,” he stammered, hands behind his back.

“Don’t add lying to your sins young man, the good book says lying is a sin…”

“But…I’m not lying,” Joe tried again to explain.

“LIAR! SINNER!” screeched the maddened teacher. “Your hand, now!” he insisted as he reached out and grabbed Little Joe’s right wrist. He twisted Joe’s arm around until he was able to force the boy’s palm upward. Holding tightly to Joe’s fingers, Hiram slammed the ruler down hard on Joe’s opened hand. Joe inhaled deeply as the burning sensation spread across his palm. Again and again and twice more Hiram showed the young boy’s hand no mercy. It took all Joe’s will-power to keep from pleading for the punishment to stop and harder still to keep from crying in front of his classmates.

When the punishment did finally stop, Joe took several gulps of air to fill his lungs. He grabbed his hand, pulling it close to his chest in a protective manner. Yet he refused to look at it, refused to cry and refused to humiliate himself further thus giving the teacher satisfaction. “Go to your seat. And you will remain inside during lunch, recess and you will remain after school. Do you understand?”

Fighting back tears, Little Joe nodded his head but before he could move Hiram grasped Joe’s chin and roughly forced the boy to look at him. “You are despicable; you know that, don’t you?”

The teacher could feel the boy’s body tremble. Good he thought. The kid was a rich spoiled brat. And he hated rich people and their spoiled off-springs. He’d teach the brat a few manners before the end of the term. Realizing he’d have to keep a sharp eye on the boy, Hiram released his grip on the quivering chin. “Go!” he ordered, pointing the way to Joe’s desk.

Silently, without looking at another student, Joe made his way to his desk where he sat down. He glanced once in the teacher’s direction, noting that Mr. Shaw was placing the book in a drawer in his desk. Little Joe opened his hand to see the damage. His palm was bright red, almost blood red to be exact. And the burning pain was almost unbearable. Joe gritted his teeth, wondering what in the world would he tell his father…or just as quickly worried about how was he going to get his evening chores done. His hand hurt so bad that he feared he might not be able to accomplish them without alerting his father or his two brothers that something was wrong. He’d just have to figure a way to keep his damaged hand hidden from his family. Good luck with that, he told himself as he slumped down lower into his seat.

Hours later, Little Joe sat alone in the class. Mr. Shaw was working on papers, grading them he figured. Joe had finished all the extra work that the teacher had given him as part of his punishment but he was afraid to say anything because Mr. Shaw had warned him about opening his mouth. For another half hour, Joe sat silently at his desk until Hiram Shaw scooted back his chair, making a scraping sound on the wooden floor. Joe watched the man from beneath lowered lashes. Hiram approached the boy’s desk and held out his hand.

Meekly, Joe placed his papers into the teacher’s outstretched hand.

Hiram flipped through them and then glanced at Joe. “You may go now,” he said. “But before you do, understand this young man, I will not tolerate your foolishness or your lies…” Little Joe glanced up at the man. “Every day until the end of this term you will be punished severely for any misdemeanor you may have a mind to commit. Today’s punishment was just a small sample of what I will do to you should you fail to behave in the proper manner. You can tell your father whatever you wish about your hand. I am not afraid of the man nor will I tolerate any outward signs of hostility from him concerning you. Go home…repent of your sinful ways.” Hiram stepped aside so that Little Joe could get up. Quickly Joe stood and without so much as a backward glance at his teacher, he fled the building. Hiram chuckled at his student’s departure. “I’ll have that mutinous spirit broken in no time,” he muttered to himself.

When Joe arrived home, two hours late, he hurried into the barn where he unsaddled his horse, took time to curry and feed the animal and immediately began his evening chores. His father and brothers’ horses were gone, thus telling Little Joe that his family was still out working, much to his relief. His hand, still throbbing was wrapped in a white bandage that he had made from some clean rags he’d found in the tack room. It did nothing to alleviate the pain, but at least it kept the wound partially clean while he finished his work. An hour later, as Little Joe was finishing, the sound of horses entering the yard alerted him to the fact that his brothers and father were home. Quickly he jerked the make-shift bandage from his hand. It was still red and appeared to be forming a blister.

“Hi, son!” his father called as he led Buck into the barn. Ben smiled at his youngest son and then glanced around the barn. “Finished already?” he asked.

Little Joe returned the smile. “Yep, finished in record time,” he bragged.

“Looks good in here,” Hoss said, taking note of the barn’s neatness. “You did good, Shortshanks,” Hoss grinned as he pulled his saddle from Chubb’s broad back.

“Thanks, Hoss,” beamed Joe.

Adam was the last to enter the barn. “My…who did all this work?” he questioned, glancing around at the neat barn.

“What do you mean who? I did!” scowled the youngest brother.

Adam laughed at the frown on his kid brother’s face and reached out to ruffle Joe’s curls. “I was just teasing you, squirt. I know you did…and it looks good, really good. What did you do in school today? Get in trouble?” he teased.

The sudden change that crossed Joe’s worried brow did not go undetected by his oldest brother. “Well?” Adam asked.

“Ah Adam, leave the kid alone. He worked hard to do all of this. Why do you always assume he got his self in trouble?” Hoss moaned.

Adam laughed again. “He usually does, but I was just joshing you, Little Joe. The barn looks neat. You did a good job.”

“Hey, I don’t know about you boys, but I’m starved. What say we all clean up and go inside to see what Hop Sing has for supper?” Ben announced.

“Hot diggity-dog…I’m starved!” proclaimed Hoss as he followed his father.

“I’m game,” Adam said as he followed suit. He paused at the door and turned back to Joe who had lingered behind. Adam noted the unhappy expression on his brother’s face. “You coming, Little Joe?”

Joe looked up, the sad expression gone. “Oh…yeah, sure,” he said a bit shyly. He walked slowly towards Adam who had waited at the door.

“Is something wrong kid? You look a bit down.” Adam inquired.

“No,” Joe said a bit too quickly. “I’m fine…race you!” he shouted and then took off at a run. Adam smiled as he raced after his kid brother, catching him just as Little Joe was mid-way of the yard. He slowed, giving Joe time to beat him.

*****

“What’s wrong, son? Are you feeling alright?” Ben questioned as he watched Little Joe play with the food on his breakfast plate.

Joe glanced up at his father and gave him a weak smile. “I’m fine, Pa, really.”

“Ain’t you hungry?” asked Hoss, eyeing the last four flapjacks on the serving plate. He forked them into his plate. “If’n you ain’t gonna eat these, I am.” He smiled at his younger brother.

Little Joe giggled and then turned to his father. “I really am fine, Pa. May I be excused? I need to get going.”

Ben returned the smile. “Alright, son, if you’re sure.”

“I am…see you this afternoon,” Joe called as he rose and gathered his things for his ride into town for school. As he rode along, Joe thought back to breakfast and wondered if should have taken advantage of the fact that his pa had thought he wasn’t feeling well. It might have given him the day off to rest and to let his hand heal a bit. But Joe decided just as quickly that it wouldn’t have been fair to his father if he had faked being sick and thus causing his pa to worry about him. No, he reckoned he’d just have to face ol’ mean Mr. Hiram Shaw on his own. Joe swallowed hard deciding that he’d do everything the teacher asked of him that day and do his best not to anger the man, saving himself more unjustified punishment. Little did the boy know that all his planning would soon be put to the test.

*****

Cody was standing behind the teacher’s desk when Little Joe walked into the classroom. The blond headed youth turned his head around and grinned at Little Joe. Joe’s stomach did a flip flop. Something about the way that his friend smiled gave him a sick feeling of dread.

“I’m gonna fix that mean old teacher good this time,” Cody told Joe.

“No Cody…you can’t do that…he’ll…”

“He won’t know who did it, Little Joe. Don’t be such a scaredy-cat,” Cody taunted.

“That’s easy for you to say. You weren’t the one who got punished for something you didn’t do, I was. Why didn’t you speak up anyway?” growled Little Joe as he eyed the long tacks that Cody had place under the thin pillow that Mr. Shaw used in his chair.

Cody hung his head slightly. “I’m sorry, Little Joe, really. I wanted to, but Shaw didn’t even ask you who did it…and I thought…well…I’m just sorry as can be, Joe. We’re still friends, ain’t we?”

“I reckon, but Cody, please take these tacks out of his chair…I don’t wanna get the blame for this prank either…and he will think it was me,” Joe pleaded. He made a move to take the tacks, unaware that Cody had moved away from the desk. Joe saw the movement out of the corner of his eye and quickly turned, just in time to see the teacher walk through the door. With the one tack in his hand, Joe rushed to his desk, stuffing the tack into his pocket.

Laughing and giggling children followed the teacher into the room and began taking their seats. Mr. Shaw stepped to the front of the class. His eyes scanned the room and came to rest on Little Joe who sat quietly at his desk. “Good morning, class,” greeted Hiram.

“Good morning, Mr. Shaw,” the class said in unison. The teacher’s eyes had not moved from Little Joe’s face. The boy seemed overly nervous this morning, the teacher thought. Best beware, he told himself.

Mr. Shaw instructed the children on their morning work, added some math problems on the board for the older children and then turned to sit down. Little Joe had kept watching from under lowered lashes, dreading the moment when the teacher would be injured.

“YEOWEE…..OH GOD!!!” screamed Mr. Shaw as he erupted from his chair and grabbed at his backside. The class burst forth in loud laughter. Even Little Joe could not contain himself as he watched the teacher hop around in a circle all the while digging tacks out of his rear end.

“THAT WILL BE ENOUGH!” stormed the teacher to the class. Everyone suddenly became silent. Mr. Shaw was madder than a raging bull as he looked at the tacks he held in his hand. The man’s eyes grew dark as he scanned the room, coming to rest on Little Joe. “YOU!” he bellowed as he inched his way down the aisle. He stopped at Joe’s desk and held his hand opened, showing the startled boy the tacks sitting in his palm. “You did this,” accused the man.

“Me…no I didn’t,” Joe proclaimed. He was getting a bit angry himself as he looked over at Cody, who once again refused to look his way.

“Stand up, young man,” ordered Hiram.

Joe did as requested. “You can’t blame me for this. I swear on my mother’s grave that I didn’t do it!”

“And I suppose you think I’m to believe you, after what you did yesterday? I think not. Stand up! Empty your pockets! And do it quickly!” ordered the irate teacher.

Joe felt his heart drop to his toes. He knew what was in his pocket. He gulped as he reached inside and pulled out lint from one pocket and showed it to the teacher.

“Both pockets!”

Slowly Joe reached into the other pocket. He could feel the tack in the very bottom, but his fingers felt for more lint. When he found some, he pulled it out and again showed it to Mr. Shaw. Briefly a look of doubt crossed the man’s face but it lasted only a moment.

“Turn them inside out,” he ordered.

“I didn’t do anything,” Joe said in a near whisper. But he did as instructed. He turned the pockets inside out and cringed when the tack slipped from the material and fell onto the floor. Mr. Shaw leaned down and picked it up, holding it in the palm of his hand. He slowly turned his hand so the entire class could see what he held. When he turned back to Joe, his brow was furrowed with deep lines that showed the anger he held in check.

“Just as I suspected,” Hiram stormed as he grabbed Joe’s arm and haul him to the front of the class. Keeping his grip on the boy, Hiram reached for his ruler. “Open your hand!”

Panic seized Little Joe as he tried to pull away from his captor. “NO…You’re not going to hit me with that thing again,” he stormed at the man who refused to lessen his grip on his arm.

“Oh yes I am, and you’ll not soon be forgetting it either,” bellowed Hiram as he forced Joe’s fingers together in a vise like manner. When Joe’s palm was exposed, Hiram slapped the ruler down hard on the already bruised hand.

Little Joe gritted his teeth as again and again the angered teacher reigned his fury down into the heart of the boy’s hand. Almost immediately a long narrow blister formed and when Hiram made one last slapped of the ruler, the blister burst spitting its watery fluid all over the man’s clean starched shirt.

The screech that poured forth from the man standing before him, sounded like a wounded animal to the ears of the frightened students. Two of the youngest little girls began to cry. The boys sank down deeply into their seats. Tears ran freely down the face of the young man whose hand the teacher still grasped tightly.

“NOW LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE!” stormed the incensed man. Without warning, he used the ruler as his weapon and pounded it half a dozen more times down into the already damaged hand.

“Stop, stop! Oh please…no more,” Joe cried, unable to contain his tears, nor his agony. He pulled and yanked trying hard to free himself from the crazed man until finally Hiram came to himself and took a deep breath to calm his pent up nerves further. He glanced down at the boy’s hand but still held it tightly.

“I trust you have learned your lesson.” That was all he said as he relinquished he grip. “Go clean yourself up; you are a mess,” he instructed Joe in a calm voice. Instantly, Joe grabbed his hand and fled the building.

Inside the little barn where the children stabled their horses during school hours, Little Joe hurried to saddle his own horse. The tears continued to flow down his cheeks and drip from his chin. He glanced at his hand, scrunching up his face at the searing pain. Droplets of blood oozed from the broken flesh. Unaware, drops stained his shirt.

Joe managed to pull himself into the saddle and headed for home. He was in no hurry as it wasn’t time for school to be out. He rode slow, taking the time to decide what he would tell his father about why his hand was in such a poor condition. Maybe he wouldn’t even have to tell his father, at least not at first. He could wear gloves when he did his chores; that would aid in keeping the wound clean. Joe decided that the first thing he needed to do once he got home was to clean his hand and then find Hop Sing’s first aid kit and apply some ointment. If he could keep his family from seeing how messed up his hand was, at least for a few days, perhaps it would heal enough that his father would not even notice. It was a long shot, but Joe figured it was the best he could come up with for now.

Before Joe rode into the yard, he wiped the tears from his eyes. When he glanced at his hand, his heart seemed to melt. The blister had begun to dry, leaving in its wake, dried cracked skin. Moving his fingers was painful and the entire hand throbbed.

Once Joe entered the house, using the kitchen side door, he hurried up to his room via the back stairs; he flung opened the drawers of his dresser. After looking through several, he found the gloves he’d been looking for. That was his plan, to simply wear the gloves. At the top of the stairs, he watched his father working on the books and decided to use the back stairs again to avoid being seen. Cautiously, he made his way back to the kitchen. Hop Sing had gone into town for supplies earlier that morning and had yet to return. Joe took advantage of the opportunity and quickly washed his hands clean, being careful to make sure the damaged hand was cared for properly. Next he found the first aid kit. He slipped it and the homemade bandages that Hop Sing kept handy inside his shirt. He made sure the yard was clear before he made a dash to the barn. As he pushed the door opened he glanced inside to be sure he was alone before he entered. Joe made his way to the tack room and shut the door. Quickly he opened the kit and applied the ointment then bandaged his hand as best he could. Next, he slipped on the gloves. When he was finished, he hid the first aid kit under some unused tack and made his way back behind the barn where he had tied his horse. Mounting up, he rode into the yard as if he was just getting home. “Whew,” he muttered to himself.

At that moment, Ben came out of the house and saw his son. “Well hello, Little Joe,” Ben greeted the boy with a smile. “How was your day?” he asked as he made his way to his son.

Joe forced himself smile. “It was alright,” he answered as he dismounted and laced the reins around the hitching post. He turned to look up at his father. In that instance he wanted nothing more than to throw himself at his father and cry out his woes. His need to be held was heavy on his heart, yet he refused to give in to the urge, lest he bring more trouble to himself.

“Are you alright son? You look a little pale.” Ben questioned as he studied his son’s expression. Something wasn’t as it should be, but Ben held his tongue, waiting for his son to respond.

“No…I mean yes, I’m fine, just a bit tired, I guess. It’s been a long week,” Joe explained, hoping his father would believe him. “Can I start on my chores now…please? I’d really like to get them finish before supper.”

Ben was sure that something was wrong. The boy was never this eager to do his chores, and Joe did look as if he had had a rough day. He could only wonder what the boy had been up to, but he let it slide for now. “Sure son, go ahead, but make sure you do it properly,” chided Ben.”

Joe noted the smile on his father’s face and felt himself relax. At least Ben hadn’t asked why he was wearing gloves. “Don’t I always?” Joe responded with a fake frown.

“No, young man, you do not!” chuckled Ben. He laughed at the drawn expression on his son’s face. “Go on, you little scamp, you’ve got work to do!”

This time, Joe laughed. “Thanks, Pa,” he said as he led his horse into the barn. The smile on his face died quickly the minute he entered the barn. The throbbing in his hand was hard to ignore. It made him want to cry, but he vowed not to allow himself that pleasure, not now at least.

Once he was finished, Joe managed to get to his room without being seen. As he carefully removed the glove from his injured hand, he spotted small droplets of blood. He knew his hand was bleeding. Immediately he decided the best thing to do was to get the wound cleaned. That done, the only thing he could do to hide it from his family was to try to keep it hidden. He knew that wearing a bandage or the glove would call undo attention to his hand. And that he wanted to avoid at all cost.

“Thank goodness it’s Friday,” he muttered to his image in the mirror. “With any luck, this thing will be healed by Monday.” Joe hoped that his wish would not be for naught.

*****

“Nooo…Nooo…Stop…Please Stop! PA! PA! HELP ME!” screamed Little Joe. “Make him stop….”

Ben burst through the bedroom door. Little Joe was fighting with the blankets, trying to escape from their folds. Tears screamed down his face. Quickly Ben grasped the boy’s shoulders. “Joseph, wake up son. Joe…” he cooed. “That’s it, open your eyes son.”

Joe’s eyes fluttered opened. “Pa?” he whispered.

“I’m here, son. You were having a bad dream,” Ben said as he gently pulled his son into his arms. “Care to talk about it?”

Joe wiped his eyes and grasped the blankets with his right hand in an effort to conceal the wound from his father. “No…I…I mean I can’t remember what the dream was about,” he stammered.

“Well, it sounded to me as if someone was trying to hurt you.” Ben allowed Joe to lie back down and watched as the boy slipped his hand beneath the blankets. He pulled the covers up around Joe’s chin and smiled.

“I don’t reckon…I can’t remember, Pa. I’m sorry I woke you,” Joe apologized.

Ben rose slowly from the bed. “That’s alright, son. I hadn’t been asleep long. Will you be alright now or do you want me to sit with you for a while?” he asked as he turned the lamp down to a soft glow.

“I’m fine now. Thanks, Pa…but you can go,” Little Joe said as he snuggled down and closed his eyes. He hoped that his father had not seen his injured hand. Surely he would have asked about it had he seen it surmised Joe.

Ben paused at the door, his eyes lingering on his son. Something was bothering the boy for sure. It had been months and months since Little Joe had had a nightmare. But he’d wait before quizzing the boy, let Little Joe come to him when the boy was ready to talk. Ben eased the door closed. As he turned, he nearly bumped into Adam.

“Is he alright?” Adam asked his father.

“He says he is,” explained Ben in a whisper. “But something is definitely bothering the boy.”

“He didn’t tell you what?”

Ben slipped his arm about Adam’s shoulder and gently led him down the hall. “No, you know your brother, he can’t be pressured into tell you much. You just have to wait until he’s ready to talk. Has he said anything to you?”

The pair paused outside of Ben’s bedroom. “No Pa, he hasn’t, but I can talk to him if you want me to,” he offered.

“No, let’s allow him time to come to me on his own. By Monday if he’s still acting this way and hasn’t said anything, then you can talk to him.”

“Alright, Pa. Good night, sir.”

“Good night son.”

*****

Joe was late getting to the breakfast table. When he finally arose from bed, the first thing he did was look at his hand. It looked horrible and hurt as bad as it looked. Red puss was beginning to form in spots and when Joe tried to move his fingers, one puss bubble popped. The thick yellow goo oozed slowly across his hand. Little Joe knew he was in trouble now; the hand obviously was getting infected and he’d have no other recourse than to tell his father. The boy had heard stories — horror stories really — about what happens to a person when they get an infection. Slowly Joe gulped as he carefully washed the impaired hand.

Ben watched as his youngest son slipped slowly into his chair. “Good morning, son.”

“Morning Pa,” Joe muttered in a soft voice, unable to meet his father’s dark, probing eyes.

“Is something the matter Little Joe?” Ben questioned. He noted the well of tears that had suddenly gathered in the boy’s eyes that Joe tried so hard to conceal. Ben glanced around the table at Hoss and then Adam, both who were watching their brother. “Joseph?”

The tears slipped slowly down the young boy’s cheeks. Ben heard Joe sniffle. “What is it boy?” he asked again with such compassion that Little Joe looked into his father’s eyes and knew in that instant, he would have to admit what had transpired between the teacher and himself.

Little Joe swallowed, glanced at his brothers and then turned to his father. “Pa,” he stated softly. “Before I tell you, will you promise not to yell at me?”

It was Ben’s turn to swallow. He always knew he was going to hear bad news when his youngest son began a conversation with those words. “That depends, Joseph, on what you have to tell me,” Ben explained. “I will try not to yell, but I won’t promise. Now out with it. What has had you so troubled?”

Joe took a deep breath. “I didn’t do nothing….”

“Anything…” Adam said, earning himself a scowl from both his father and his youngest brother.

“Well I didn’t,” he spat at Adam. Joe twisted his head back around to look at his father. “But he said I did, but… honest Pa, I didn’t anything!”

Ben stood up, pulling Joe up with him. They faced each other with Ben tenderly cupping the boy’s chin. “Little Joe, I don’t understand…who said you did and what was it you were supposed to have done?”

Little Joe tried to move his head, but his father had a gentle but firm grip on his chin. “Mr. Shaw, he accused me of doing those things, but honest…honest, Pa…I didn’t do them.”

Sighing, Ben released Joe’s chin. “What things, son? You aren’t making much sense.”

Frustrated, Joe turned from his father. “The book…and the tacks. Mr. Shaw said I ruined his book and I put the tacks in his chair…but…” Joe paused. His hand hurt when he moved it. His action did not go unnoticed by his father.

Ben spun Joe around to face him again. “What happened to your hand?” Ben said as he grasped the wounded hand and heard Joe wince. “Joseph?” Ben carefully unfolded this son’s fingers and gasped when he saw the damage. “What on earth?” he stammered. Adam and Hoss both rose from their seats and moved around the table in order to be able to see what had upset their father to such a degree.

“Pumpkin…who done this to you?” Hoss cried, alarm at the condition of his little brother’s hand.

Ben studied the hand with care, waiting for an explanation. “Joseph? It’s alright, son, you can tell me. How did this happen?”

Little Joe took a deep breath. “He did, like I was trying to tell.”

“He… Who is he?” Ben demanded about to lose patience with the boy.

Adam laid his hand on Little Joe’s shoulder. “Mr. Shaw…is that what you’re trying to tell us?”

“Yes,” groaned Little Joe.

Adam grasped the damaged hand and held it up to his father. “This hand is badly infection! Give me one good reason as to why the teacher would do something like this!” Adam was adamant.

Ben led Little Joe over to the settee. “Let’s sit down, son, and you start from the beginning. And afterwards, you and I are going to ride into town and see the doctor. This hand needs attention.”

Little Joe sat down. Adam and Hoss gathered around while Ben sat on the wooden coffee-table facing the youngest Cartwright. “Now, tell me exactly what’s happened son,” the worried father encouraged.

Hop Sing slipped in quietly with a basin of warm water and soap. “Hop Sing no find first aid kit or clean bandages,” he told his boss.

“It’s in the tack room,” Joe confessed, “under that unused pile of bridles and harnesses.”

“Hop Sing fetch. Be right back.” The little Chinaman pattered out the door in search of the medical supplies.

“Alright now, young man, out with it. Did the teacher do this to your hand as Adam suggested?” Ben asked.

Lowering his head, Joe answered. “Yes sir…” He glanced up at his father and then scanned the faces of his brothers. “But I didn’t do anything…”

“So you’ve said. What I want to know is why he felt compelled to use such drastic measures. He must have felt you did something wrong.”

Joe sighed deeply. “That’s just it, Pa…I didn’t. Why don’t you believe me?” he pleaded.

“Joseph, I can’t say I believe you just yet because I don’t have a clue as to what he accused you of doing and trying to get you to tell me is like trying to pull teeth from a raging bull!” stormed Ben.

Joe couldn’t help the giggle that escaped.

“So you find that funny do you?” Ben dared.

“No sir.”

“It’s a good thing. Now once again, young man, start from the beginning.”

At the moment, Hop Sing returned with needed supplies, and while Ben listened to Joe telling about his week, Hoss carefully cleaned and dressed the wound.

“Well, it started this past week. When I got to school, I caught…my friend…putting pieces of chocolate into one of Mr. Shaw’s favorite books. I tried to stop him but he slammed the book shut before I could do anything about it. Then…he…ran back to his desk. I picked up the book to see how badly it was damaged and that’s when…”

“Mr. Shaw walked in and caught you with it…right, little buddy?” asked Adam.

“Yep…that’s exactly what happened. I tried to explain to him that I didn’t do it…but he called me a liar and a sinner! Boy, that made me mad…”

“Go on, son.”

“He wouldn’t listen to anything I was trying to tell him. He was furious. Before I knew what happened, he grabbed his wooden ruler and my hand and mashed my fingers together and began beating the palm of my hand.” Little Joe lowered his hand. Tears gathered in his eyes. “It hurt, Pa,” he said, looking into his father’s face.

“I’m sure it did. What happened next? You said something about tacks?”

“Yes sir, the next day, I told myself that I was not going to do anything wrong. I didn’t want to make Mr. Shaw mad at me again. But when I got to school…my friend…was already putting the tacks under the teacher’s pillow he sits on. He ain’t got no padding in his rear end, you know…”

Hoss burst out laughing. Ben gave him a look that instantly silenced the bigger man. Adam had covered his mouth with his hand, but his father shot him a look as well. Adam dared not utter a sound.

“Anyway, I pleaded with…my friend…not to do it, but he wouldn’t stop. That’s when I tried to make a grab for the tacks. I only got one and then heard the teacher coming into the room. I didn’t know what to do with it so I stuffed it in my pocket.”

Adam groaned softly. “I have a feeling that wasn’t the smartest thing for you to do,” he told his brother.

Little Joe shook his head. “Nope, but I did make it to my desk before Mr. Shaw saw me standing behind his desk. I couldn’t say anything so I just kept my mouth shut.” Joe took a deep breath. “I was shaking all over waiting for that man to sit down. When he did…” Joe gave his father a sheepish grin. “It was about the funniest thing I’ve seen.”

“JOSEPH!” scolded Ben in a loud voice.

“I’m sorry, Pa…but you should have heard him…and seen how he was jumping around in a circle trying to pull those tacks out of his butt…ere…bottom,” Joe giggled.

“Good Lord,” Ben muttered softly, though in his mind he could see the tall thin man hopping around…but he would never let his wayward son know that deep inside of him, a robust bout of laughter was trying to bubble its way outward. “Go on,” he stated.

“Needless to say, Pa, he was hopping mad.” Joe giggled again. “Sorry…guess that wasn’t the right term, considering how really, really mad he was. Naturally he came straight to me and accused me of doing it.”

“Naturally,” whispered Adam.

Joe shot his brother a dark glare. “I tried to explain again that it wasn’t me but he wouldn’t even listen. He just kept screaming at me to stand up and empty my pockets. I knew I’d be in trouble when he found the tack that I’d pulled off the pillow…and I was right.” Little Joe paused looking down at the clean white bandage that Hoss had applied to his hand.

With tears that had suddenly pooled in his eyes, Joe turned to his family. “I ain’t never had anything hurt so bad. He hit me so hard that I even…begged…him to stop. But Pa, it was as if he was a crazy man…and it got worse when the blister popped and spewed all over his clean shirt.

“I tried to pull my hand away but he had a death grip on it. He didn’t stop hitting me until he heard a couple of the little girls start to cry. Then he told me to get out. That’s when I left and came home.”

Ben’s eyes were dark. He was silent for so long that it made Joe nervous. “You ain’t mad at me, are you, Pa?”

“No,” Ben said in a very low voice. The three brothers swapped looks. Ben sat stone still, staring off into space.

Joe watched his father face, wondering what was going through Ben’s head. “Pa?” he said meekly.

Ben turned to look at Little Joe and smiled. “I have only one question for you, son.”

“Yes sir?”

“I want you to continue to be truthful. I want to know. Who was your friend?” Ben quizzed.

Instantly, Little Joe hung his head. “Please Pa, don’t make me tell you. I promised him I wouldn’t.”

Ben reached out a cupped the boy’s chin. “You may have promised him…but Joseph, he has done you a severe disservice by sitting back and letting you take the blame for something you didn’t do. He needs to answer for his part in all of this. He was wrong for doing what he did to the teacher, but son, he was wrong to do what he did to you. Now, I want to know who he is.”

Joe’s brow furrowed deeply. He knew he was going to have to confess his friend’s part in the situation, but he really didn’t want to. A promise was a promise.

“I’m waiting.”

“Cody…”

“Cody? Cody who?” growled Ben.

“Anderson,” he whispered.

“ANDERSON!” stormed Ben. “Matthew Anderson’s son…the banker?”

Joe nodded his head. “Yes sir.”

“Dear God,” muttered Adam as he glanced at Hoss. “This could get ugly.

Again, Ben was quiet for several moments. Blowing out the air from his lungs, he rose. “Joe, let’s go.” He moved aside to give his son time to rise and lead the way out.

“Where are we going, Pa?”

“We’re going to pay a visit to Mr. Shaw and to see Doc Martin about your hand. And Adam, you and Hoss might as well come along. I have an idea that Mr. Anderson is not going to like what I have to tell him.”

Joe stopped dead in his tracks. He swirled around, facing Ben. “Pa! You…can tell on Cody. Please Pa, don’t do that,” pleaded the worried boy.

Ben, his anger beginning to rise, glared down at Joe. “Don’t tell me what I can and cannot do! I am absolutely going to have a nice long talk with Matthew Anderson. Because of his son’s mischief, MY son has been accused of wrongdoing that he has had nothing whatsoever to do with, other than trying to keep a friend from getting himself in trouble. Now go,” ordered Ben, pointing to the front door.

*****

When Doc Martin had finished with his patient, he turned to Ben. “He has a slight fever. And there is a mild infection setting up. Hopefully with the medicine I’ve given him, the infection will not get any worse. I want him to keep his arm in a sling until I say otherwise. Ben, it’s going to take a while for that hand to heal properly. I don’t want him to use it any more than he absolutely has too. And I’m going to give you some pills for the pain. I know he hasn’t let on to you about how much it hurts.” Paul smiled to himself. “He’s scared to death about what you might do to the teacher. And to be honest Ben, I think Little Joe is afraid of Hiram Shaw.”

Ben agreed, as did Adam and Hoss. “It’s a shame that a man can be so callus as to destroy a young boy’s ideal of what a teacher should and should not be.” Everyone nodded their heads in agreement. “I plan on having a word with Shaw. I do not take kindly to someone — regardless of who it might be — abusing one of my sons, especially that boy in there.” Ben used his thumb to point to the closed door where Little Joe waited in the examination room. “He’s too young to defend his self against a full grown man…and besides, I’ve taught him to respect his elders, especially those in authority. And I do believe that Mr. Shaw has over-stepped his boundaries this time.”

“I fully agree with you, friend. Let me know how it goes and I’ll be out to visit Little Joe in a couple of days,” smiled Paul. “Good luck,” he laughed.

“Adam, why don’t you and Hoss get Joe and take him down to Daisy’s Café for supper? I’ve got a couple of stops to make first and then I’ll join you,” Ben suggested.

“Sure Pa…but please, remember to hold your temper,” advised Adam with a slight smirk on his handsome face.

Ben crunched up his lips. “I intend to, thank you! However, I will make myself perfectly clear to that man that he had better never lay another hand on my son again, or next time, I might not be so polite!” With nothing more to say, Ben nodded his head at the doctor and went in search of the teacher, Mr. Hiram Shaw.

Adam and Hoss entered the back room where Joe had been waiting for them. He looked up and gave his brothers a small smile. “Come on, kid; the boss said we were to feed you,” Adam laughed.

Little Joe giggled as he hopped down from the examination table. “Good; I’m hungry, but you’ll have to cut my steak for me.”

“Steak? Who said I was buying you a steak?” teased Adam as he slung his arm about Joe’s shoulders and led him down the street. All three boys were laughing.

*****

When Ben entered the school house, there was no one there other than the old man who was paid to clean the building. The gentleman turned when he heard Ben clear his throat. “Howdy Mr. Cartwright. You looking for that school teacher?” he asked setting aside his broom.

“Hello Charlie. Yes, I am looking for Mr. Shaw. Is he around?”

Charlie shook his head. “No sir. He took off on horseback about an hour ago. Didn’t say when he’d be back, but he had ‘im a carpetbag with ‘im, so I just guessed he was going away for the weekend. He did say something about going to Silver City. Ain’t got no ideay why he’d go there. Well, ain’t none of my business what the teacher does. Whatcha want ‘im for?”

Ben held back his smile. Charlie sure was a nosy fella. “I just needed to speak with him on a certain matter.”

Charlie shook his head back and forth as if he knew something. “That youngest boy of yours in trouble again?” The old man snickered.

Ben was caught off-guard at the question and instantly wondered if the old man actually did know something he wasn’t willing to tell. “What makes you say that, Charlie?”

Charlie noted the look of concern on the other man’s face. “No reason, Mr. Ben. Just thought he might be. He sure is a caution, that young buck. But I like your boy…always uses his manners, yes sir, no sir, thank you sir. You sure have done a fine job raising that boy, if I do say so.”

Relieved, Ben smiled. “Thank you Charlie. Young Joseph is a handful at times, but mostly he’s a good boy. Do you mind if I leave Mr. Shaw a note?”

“Naw, you go right ahead. Paper and pen’s on the desk. Just leave it there and he’ll be sure to find it when he gets back. If’n you need an envelope, there should be one in the drawer.” Charlie went back to his sweeping while Ben found what he needed and sat down to compose his note to Hiram.

 

Mr. Shaw,

I came by to speak with you in regards to Joseph and the punishment that was administered. I f you should get this note before Monday, I would appreciate it very much if you would come to see me. It is of the utmost importance. I will be keeping Joseph home from school per Doctor Martin’s orders. I am most anxious to speak to you and to clear this matter up. I will be expecting word from you as soon as possible.

With regards,

Ben Cartwright

 

Ben folded the letter, looked in the drawer for an envelope and then placed the note inside, sealing the message from prying eyes. He glanced at Charlie, who was now straightening the books on the shelf. Ben placed the note in the center of the teacher’s desk and put Hiram’s paper weight on the corner of the envelope. It was time he joined his sons for supper and he wanted to get Joe home as soon after supper as he could. Doc Martin said the boy was to rest for the next couple of days. That ruled out church in the morning, Ben thought. Well, maybe missing one Sunday wouldn’t doom them all to….down under. He smiled to himself, but as his thoughts turned to Hiram Shaw and the harsh way he had disciplined his son, Ben’s anger was refreshed.

Ben had one more stop to make before joining his sons for supper. He intended to have a conversation with Matthew Anderson and his son Cody. Ben hurried down the street to the Anderson home. He and Matthew were long-time friends, and Ben hoped that together they could get this problem worked out. He almost dreaded informing his friend of what the man’s son had been up to, but figured had it truly been his son’s doing, he would certainly want to know. He stepped up onto the front porch and knocked. It was several moments before someone came to the door.

“Why Ben Cartwright, what a pleasure,” greeted Matthew’s wife, Sarah. She opened the door to admit her company into the house. “Come in, Ben,” she said, stepping aside.

“Thank you, Sarah,” Ben said cordially. “Is Matthew in?” he asked. He wanted this done with as quickly as possible.

“Well yes. Why don’t you have a seat in the parlor and I’ll get him for you,” Sarah offered. She showed her guest to the parlor. “The wine decanter is over there; just help yourself Ben. I’ll not be long.”

Ben glanced around the room spying the wine decanter. “Thank you, Sarah.” What he really needed he decided was something stronger, much stronger…like a good stiff whiskey, he thought to himself. He was still standing, staring at the wine when Matthew entered the parlor.

“Ben Cartwright.” Matthew smiled as Ben turned around.

Ben smiled in return. “Matthew.”

“It’s good to see you, Ben. What brings you here? Surely not banking business,” Matthew laughed.

Ben shook his head. “No…I wish it were.”

Matthew noted the scowl on his friend’s face. “What’s wrong, Ben. This sounds serious?”

“It is…and I’m not sure where to start,” Ben stammered, suddenly at a loss for words.

Matthew pointed to the chairs in the room. “Let’s have a seat and you can just spit it out. We’ve been friends for a long time, Ben. Does this have anything to do with what happened to Little Joe at school?”

Ben was caught off-guard with the fact that Matthew had any knowledge of what had been going on with their sons. He scooted to the edge of his seat. “Well yes…but how did you know?”

“Cody told me. He said he sure felt bad about what happened to Little Joe. But Ben, I have to admit, when Cody told me what your boy had done, I was surprised to say the least. I’ve never known of your boy causing so much trouble.”

“My boy?” Ben stammered. He was taken aback by what he was hearing. “Just what did Cody tell you, Matthew?”

Matthew seemed just as surprised by his friend’s statement as Ben had been about his. “Why, just that young Joseph had ruined a book belonging to the teacher and when he got punished for it. He put tacks in the teacher’s chair the next day to get even with the man. Isn’t that what this is all about?”

Ben lowered his head, blowing out his breath in a puff before he looked up into the inquiring eyes of his long-time friend. “It is and it isn’t,” he answered.

“I don’t understand, Ben…how can it be and not be?”

“Joseph swears that it was…Cody…who ruined the book and who put the tacks in Mr. Shaw’s chair. He was only trying to stop Cody when he unfortunately got caught and it made him look like he was the guilty party,” Ben said quickly.

Matthew Anderson straightened his back and stared at Ben. Ben saw that dark look that crossed Matthew’s face and worried that he had angered his friend. “Obviously one of our boys is lying. And the problem seems to be which one is lying and which one is the guilty person. I happen to believe my son.”

“And I believe mine,” declared Ben in response.

Matthew smiled warmly at Ben. “Then we certainly have a problem, don’t we? Neither one of us actually want to admit that their son is capable of doing what has been done. I tell you what, Ben,” Matthew said, rising and slowly moving toward the parlor door. “Let me get Cody in here and we will just ask him. Hopefully, he will be honest.”

Ben stood as Matthew went in search of his son. He wasn’t sure how this was going to solve anything. For sure one of their sons was telling a really tall tale! Though he believed Little Joe with all of his heart, a smidgeon of doubt coursed its way to his heart. Ben quickly shook the feeling off. Little Joe was telling him the truth; he had to cling to that belief and not betray his son’s trust in him.

Moments later, Matthew returned with Cody. “Cody, you know Mr. Cartwright?” he asked the boy.

“Yes sir. Hello Mr. Cartwright,” boy said. His voice quivered in a nervous way.

“Hello Cody,” Ben smiled, trying to put the boy at ease.

“Sit down, son,” Matthew ordered and waited until the boy complied. “Mr. Cartwright and I want to ask you a couple of questions. And son, I will accept nothing but the truth. You need to remember that if you lie, you will be in twice as much trouble than if you just simply tell the truth. Do you understand?” the boy’s father asked.

Ben watched Cody gulp and then swallow hard. “Yes sir,” the boy quietly answered.

“Son, Little Joe has told his father that it was you that ruined your teacher’s book and it was you that put the tacks in his chair. He has also told his father that the reason he got in trouble was because he was trying to stop you from getting in trouble but he was the one who got caught. Cody…Little Joe took a punishment that might have been directed at you. And…he did not rat you out. All that is bad enough, but the worst thing about this is…if your friend is truly innocent, the punish he took has caused a very bad infection in his hand that the doctor says will take a long time to heal.”

Both fathers watched the younger man as Cody began to squirm in his seat. Tears began to form in his sky blue eyes and slowly, when he blinked, roll down his cheeks. Matthew and Ben looked at each other. Ben noted the disappointed look in his friend’s dark eyes when he looked back at his son.

Matthew looked again at his son. Rising, he moved to sit next to the boy on the settee. Tenderly, he slipped his arm about the boy’s trembling shoulders. Cody hung his head in shame. “Why son?” Cody shrugged his shoulders. “You must have had a reason to do such things. You can tell me son, I’ll try to understand.” He glanced at Ben.

“I don’t like him,” Cody stammered and then looked over at Ben. “Not Little Joe, Mr. Cartwright. I don’t like Mr. Shaw…and neither does anyone else. You can ask Little Joe.”

“I have, son. And he’s told me the same thing. What your father and I would like to know is why?” Ben said.

“He’s mean, Mr. Cartwright…especially to me, Little Joe, Sammy Wood — his father is the lawyer.”

“Yes I know…hmm.”

“What is it, Ben?” Matthew asked. He wondered at the strange look that crossed the other man’s face.

Ben turned his attention back to Cody. “Anyone else that you think he’s mean too?” he asked the boy.

“Martha Hodges, the mayor’s daughter, and Toby Wright — his pa owns the International House.”

“Yes, I know,” Ben said. “Matthew…think about it. What do you and I have in common with Hodges and Wright?”

Matthew stood and began pacing the room. Turning back to his son he said, “You may be excused. You and I will continue this conversation later. Mr. Cartwright and I have some things to discuss.”

“Yes sir,” Cody answered as he started to leave. He stopped in front of Ben, who had stood up as well. “I’m…sorry, sir…very sorry…about all of this. It was wrong for me to do those things and it was…worse…to let Little Joe take the blame and the punishment. Will you tell him I’m sorry? Please?” The boy’s voice squeaked when he spoke.

Offering the boy an understanding smile, Ben agreed. “Yes, I’ll tell him. And…thank you Cody for being honest about all of this.”

“Yes sir,” the boy said with a humbled look at the man before him. Quietly, he slipped from the room.

When Cody was gone, Matthew walked over to the door and closed it. Turning back to Ben he answered. “We are all — to some extent — men of substance. But why would the teacher single out our children just because of that?”

Ben shook his head as he strolled about the room, pausing in front of Matthew. “Maybe the man is jealous?’

“Oh Ben, really. Surely you can’t believe that a grown man would be jealous of men who might have a bit more than he has?”

“Our boys are good boys, Matt. You know that. So what other reason would the man have to single out those particular four children?”

“I don’t know. Did the school board check out his references before hiring him?” Matthew asked.

Again, Ben shook his head. “Unfortunately no. There simply was not time. School was starting and Miss Jones had to leave immediately, so we just took the man at his word.”

“Perhaps it’s not too late to do so.”

“I agree. Since both Adam and I are on the board, we’ll check into it and I’ll get back with you as soon as we hear something.” Ben picked up his hat to leave and began making his way toward the door.

“Ben, thank you for stopping by. And I am very ashamed of my son for what he has done. I plan on having him confess to the teacher, and have him make his apologies to Little Joe. If there’s anything else you can think of that he can do to help Little Joe –chores…homework…anything — let me know. He needs to be punished for his mischief and needs to repay your boy in some way,” the saddened father explained.

“Thank you, Matt. Everything will work out. Just don’t be too hard on the boy. He did, after all, admit it was his doings. Little Joe will be happy to know that and I’m sure they will still be friends.” Ben placed his hat on his head and then shook hands with Matthew. “I’ll be in touch.”

*****

Hiram read the letter for the second time before crumbling it into a tight ball and throwing it in the trash. “How dare him!” he muttered angrily to himself. “To demand that I ‘go’ to him. Why that pompous ass!” The irate man stomped across the room and stood staring out the window. “Just who does that rich son-of-a-gun think he is, ordering me to meet with him and explain my actions when it was his own unruly little offspring and his side-kick that had forced me to do what needed to be done!” Hiram was beyond being mad but decided that he best do as requested if he wanted to keep his job. After all, it had taken him months to find a new position after having been relieved of his duties from his former job. “I abhor working for the rich,” he grumbled. “They always think they are so much better than the rest of us…as do their children, whom I also loathe” He thought about Matthew Anderson and his boy, Cody, who had come to him just that morning and explained that it had in fact been the rich banker’s son who had done the misdeeds and not the fault of the rich rancher’s brat. Either way, Hiram felt himself justified in administering the due punishment. It mattered little to him which of the offensive imps took the chastisement, only that one did. In his thinking, both boys were equally at fault, and if need be, he would willing enlighten Mr. Ben Cartwright to the fact.

Mr. Shaw saddled his horse, and with trepidation in his heart, made his way to the Ponderosa to meet with Mr. Ben Cartwright. The name left a bad taste in his mouth. But Hiram decided to play the remorseful teacher with a humbled heart. He’d already told the young Joseph Cartwright what he would do to him should his father find out and cause him any grief. It would be old man Cartwright who would be suffering the grief, right along with his malicious young brat.

*****

Ben heard the horse enter the yard and rose from his desk to look out the window. He was surprised to see the teacher. Quickly he hurried to the door, taking a deep breath to calm himself before facing the man who had been so cruel to his son. He appeared calm when he stepped from the house though his insides quivered.

“Mr. Cartwright, I assume?” Hiram asked as he moved forward, his hand outstretched in greeting.

“That’s correct. I’m Ben Cartwright, Joseph’s father. But we have met before, if you recall,” Ben stated as he shook hands. He sure wasn’t looking forward to having this discussion with this obnoxious man.

“Oh yes…when the school board met –the day I was hired,” Hiram said as if he’d just remembered.

“That’s correct. Would you like to come in?” offered Ben.

Hiram glanced toward the house and decided he’d feel more freedom to speak his mind here in the open rather than inside where this wealthy snobbish man reigned.

“What I have to say can be said out here,” Hiram answered.

Ben’s brows slightly in response to the other man’s statement. “And just what is it that you have to say…for yourself? I’m sure you are aware of the damage you caused to my son’s hand?” Ben said, his lips drawn tightly.

“I am, but he deserved the punishment Mr. Cartwright. After all, he did play a part in destroying my book and he did get caught with it in his own hand, plus he did have tacks in his pocket…which made him the prime suspect, more so than his cohort in crime, Cody Anderson,” Hiram stated firmly.

“I won’t take the time to proclaim my son’s innocence to you because it’s obvious that you believe otherwise, so instead, I will warn you against any future action directed at my son for any infraction you might feel punishment is deserved. Whatever you think he might be guilty of, I will insist that you discuss it with me before you take action against him. Do I make myself perfectly clear on that?” Ben was furious but he held his temper in check.

Mr. Shaw puffed up like a Thanksgiving turkey. Ben could see the fury in the man’s eyes. They were as dark as coal and the man’s features became distorted. No wonder his poor son feared the man, he thought.

“I understand perfectly, Mr. Cartwright, that you seem to take it upon yourself to tie my hands, so to speak, against my right to discipline MY students is due fashion!” Hiram Shaw snorted.

Ben’s hands rested on his hips. “Not so, sir. I am making it my right to know firsthand what it is that you find my son guilty of…and so to speak, tying your hands against laying them on my son ever again. Understand this,” Ben shook his finger under the man’s nose. “If you ever, for any reason, lay one finger on my boy, hurt him in any way, you will live to regret the fact that you ever found your way to Virginia City!” Ben took a deep breath. “I’m sure that you will wish to apologize to Joseph when he returns to school. Good day, sir.”

Hiram had the good sense to know when he’d been dismissed. He was outraged indeed. The audacity of the man sent his temper to new heights. He wanted nothing more than strike the man, but held back. There were other ways to make the bastard pay — and pay Mr. Rich Ben Cartwright would, with what the man loved the most…his son.

On the ride back into town, Hiram Shaw was planning on just how he would go about getting his revenge of Ben Cartwright. That little weasel of a son, Little Joe, was the fault of all his problems. He had no doubt that his father would demand the board to track his work records, and once they became known, his job for sure would be in jeopardy. He’d play along for a while, earn the boy’s respect or forgiveness and then move in for the kill. If the kid thought a smack on the hand hurt, just wait until he got through with the boy and then Little Joe Cartwright would know the meaning of pain. Hiram laughed softly. If the boy hurt, his father would hurt. He laughed again. “Say good-bye to your annoying little twerp,” he muttered aloud.

*****

Little Joe led his mount into the small barn used to house the children’s horses while they attended school. Quickly he removed his saddle and flung is across the rail. “Well, here goes nothing,” he muttered to himself as he turned to go. He had arrived early, at his father’s request so that he might have time to speak with Mr. Shaw, something that the worried boy dreaded. Joe inhaled deeply before entering the schoolhouse. Mr. Shaw had his back to him, putting some math problems on the blackboard. He waited, trying not to fidget. When the teacher did not turn around, Little Joe cleared his throat.

Slowly, as if he knew who was behind him, Hiram Shaw turned. Without speaking, he glared at his wayward student. “Good morning, Joseph. I figured you would come early,” Mr. Shaw said as he moved from behind his desk and came to stand in front of Little Joe. He sensed the boy’s fear of him. Hiram almost laughed out loud. “Little fool,” he thought silently, “you should fear me.”

“Yes sir,” Joe said shyly. “My pa suggested…”

“Oh yes, your father,” Hiram grunted with disgust.

Little Joe looked up at the man for the first time. He didn’t like the tone of the man’s voice when he spoke of his father. “He only thought that you might have something to say to me,” he answered with a bit more force.

“Oh I’d like to tell you plenty, young man. First however, I think you should know that I still believe you to be just as guilty as your little friend and that nothing your father has said to me has managed to change my mind about you. You are nothing short of a spawn of the devil as far as I am concerned. Yet, I am a man of my word…never forget that, Joseph. I did tell your father that I would apologize to you. I do not apologize for the punishment, because I believe it was due you, but to the extent of the punishment, I do apologize. There, I have had my say and done my duty. Please see fit to let your father know.” With that, Hiram turned his back on his student and returned to the chalk board and resumed putting more math problems on the board.

Little Joe stood speechless. He wanted to ask the man just what he meant by calling him the spawn of the devil but he had promised his father that he’d do nothing to irritate his teacher. Joe suddenly realized that this would be a promise he would have to work hard to keep.

*****

Life seemed to take on a new routine, or so it seemed to Little Joe. Things at school improved, much to his pleasure and relief. Mr. Shaw became a new man, so to speak, thought Joe. He was much friendlier, though he did set high standards for his students. Homework was to be finished and turned in on time, rules were expected to be followed all, of which Little Joe complied with. He was no longer always singled out when something did go wrong, which pleased the boy and his father. Joe almost enjoyed being at school and learning, almost, so he was surprised when Mr. Shaw stopped him from leaving after school on this Friday afternoon.

“Joseph, will you wait just a minute please? I’d like a word with you,” Hiram asked.

Joe cast worried eyes at his friend Cody.

“Want me to wait for you?” Cody wanted to know.

With a slightly worried expression, Joe shook his head. “Naw…I’m alright.”

Mr. Shaw laughed in a friendly manner. “Don’t worry, Little Joe,” he said as he rested his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You are not in trouble.” He heard the boy’s sigh of relief.

“See you, Joe…bye Mr. Shaw,” Cody called as he hurried down the path to catch up with his other friends.

Both the teacher and Little Joe waved bye, and with his hand still resting on Little Joe’s shoulder, Hiram gently turned Joe around and guided him back into the classroom. “Let’s go back inside.”

“Is there something wrong, sir?” inquired Joe. “I’m not in trouble, am I?”

Hiram chuckled. “No, I already told you that you were not. I just wanted to ask a favor of you.”

Joe’s brow rose slightly. “Really? What is it?”

Mr. Shaw had sat down on the corner of his desk. He smiled at the boy. “First, let me say that after looking over your work, I am happy to tell you how impressed I am with all the improvement you have made the last few weeks.”

Joe couldn’t stop the smile that spread across his face. He was pleased because he had worked hard at trying to keep up his grades and to stay out of trouble. “Thank you, sir,” he beamed. “Um…what was the favor you wanted to ask me?”

“Oh yes,” chuckled Hiram, “I’d almost forgotten about that. I was wondering if you would be kind enough to help me out. You see, I have some items in my study that really needs to be moved down into my cellar. My sister is coming for an extended visit and I need the room to turn into a spare bedroom for her. If you recall, I sprained my shoulder the other day trying to move some of the items on my own, and now I find myself unable to do too much. I would be happy to pay you for your time…”

“You won’t need to pay me. When do you need me to help you?” Joe asked. He figured that even though he was still somewhat unsure of this man, it would be the right thing to do, helping him. He’d do about anything to stay within the good graces of his teacher.

“I was thinking if your hand is well enough…”

“It’s fine, really, see?” Joe opened his palm to show Hiram that most of the damage was now healed.

“Wonderful. Do you think your father would mind if you came home with me now…just for an hour or so? I would be happy to send a note home with you explaining to him why you were late getting home this afternoon…or, I could send a messenger now, letting Mr. Cartwright know where and what you were doing,” offered the devious man. Inside his chest, Hiram’s heart was beating rapidly in anticipation.

Little Joe looked thoughtful. “I still have to do my evening chores, but if it’s only going to be for about an hour, I reckon if you send a note home with me, Pa wouldn’t mind my helping you out some.”

“Little Joe, that’s wonderful. Let’s get your things and be on our way. Once you’re finished helping me, I’ll write the note for you,” Hiram said sounding grateful as he stood up.

Little Joe was surprised that his teacher had called him by his nickname. It was the first time that Mr. Shaw had done that. He looked up at the man and smiled. “Alright, I’m ready. I’ll just get my horse.”

Hiram harnessed his own horse to his buggy, and together the man and boy made their way to the teacher’s house. Hiram lived in a small but comfortable house about a mile from the school. The property boasted a small barn, a smoke house and a well house. Flowers bloomed along the porch, giving the place a homey look that Little Joe liked. He dismounted and walked with his teacher to the barn. “Let’s get the horses settled first and then we’ll tackle the items to be moved.” They made quick work of stabling the pair of horses, and when they finished, Joe followed his teacher into the house.

Inside, Joe was just as amazed at the neatness of the interior as he had been of both the yard and barn. Everything was spotless and in perfect condition. “You really have a nice place, Mr. Shaw,” he told his teacher.

Hiram beamed with pleasure. “I’m not a rich man like your father, but do try to maintain a comfortable home for myself. Thank you for your compliments.”

“I meant them,” Little Joe said shyly.

“I’m sure you did, son. Why don’t we go into the study and I’ll show you the items we need to move?” suggested Hiram. Things were going exactly as he had planned and hoped they would. Soon, rich Mr. Ben Cartwright’s pain would begin. The loss of his youngest son would all but kill the man, gloated the teacher.

“Sure,” Little Joe answered. He followed his teacher into the room Hiram called his study. It wasn’t a big room, but it was full of books, papers, small pieces of furniture and several boxes. A large trunk with a heavy padlock rested in one corner. Hiram saw the boy looking at the trunk and smothered the laughter building within his chest.

“We need to move that trunk, Joseph. Want to start with it?” Hiram said.

“Sure Mr. Shaw. Can you take one side and I’ll get the other.”

“It has strong handles so it shouldn’t be too hard for both of us. It’s made to hold more than a hundred pounds of stuff,” Hiram explained.

Little Joe snickered as he picked up his end of the trunk. “It’s big enough to hold a body,” he laughed at last.

Hiram could no longer contain his amusement. It burst forth causing Little Joe to look up at him with a strange look on his young face. The boy had hit the nail on the head and didn’t even know it the devious man thought. Once they had the trunk settled in the cellar, Little Joe carried several of the boxes down the narrow, dark stairs.

“Let’s take a break, Joseph. I have some lemonade and cookies set out for us. Would you like to join me?” offered Mr. Shaw.

Joe hesitated only briefly. “Yes sir, if we have time.”

Hiram looked at his pocket watch. “Certainly, there’s time for us to enjoy our snack, I’ll compose the note for you to take to your father while we do.”

“Sure. All that dust made me thirsty,” Joe snickered. “And I can always eat cookies. What kind did you say they were?”

“Sugar cookies,” the teacher said as he poured a glass of lemonade and then turned, smiling at the boy and handed it to Little Joe.

Joe took the glass and drank down the entire amount. “Boy, that sure is good. Mind if I have another?” he asked.

“Certainly.” Hiram turned back to pour a second glass for his guest. When he handed Joe the glass, he noted that the boy had a glazed look in his eyes. He sat the glass on the table in front of the boy. Joe ignored the glass. He glanced up at the teacher as if not seeing him.

“Are you feeling alright, Joseph?”

Joe propped his elbows on the table and lowered his head into the palms of his hands. “I’m not sure, sir. My head is spinning and all of a sudden, I feel…strange,” he said, trying to raise his head enough to see his teacher. When he tried to focus on the man’s face everything was blurry. He could not make out the man’s features.

“I…I…” stammered Little Joe. He took a deep breath and laid his head on the table. Hiram stood over the boy smiling wickedly.

Leaning over the boy, Hiram lifted the boy’s head. Joe was unconscious; his eyes were closed tightly. Gently, the man shook the boy. “Joseph…Joseph,” he said a little louder. There was no response. The drug he had slipped into the boy’s glass had worked its magic. Hiram moved to the front door. Almost immediately, two men appeared. They were rough and dirty looking. Both sported mustaches and wore dark clothing that was badly in need of washing.

“The trunk is down in the cellar, bring it up,” Hiram ordered. Instantly the pair did as instructed, and within minutes the trunk was sitting opened in the middle of the teacher’s kitchen.

“I want him tied and don’t forget to gag him. I don’t want him waking up too soon and alerting someone,” ordered Hiram.

Again the two men did as instructed. They lowered Little Joe to the floor, tied his hands behind his back and folding the boy’s legs behind him, attached the rope from Joe’s wrists down to his ankles. Hiram handed one man a clean rag that was wadded up to form a soft ball which he stuffed into the boy’s mouth. Then he wrapped a long strip of material several times around Little Joe’s mouth, making it impossible for the boy to open his mouth and unable to make a sound. Together, the pair of thugs lifted the lifeless body and placed him carefully into the trunk. Hiram fingered the thick pad lock in his hands before putting it into place and snapping it shut. Little Joe’s fate was thus sealed.

“Make sure no one sees you. I’ll be along later to take care of things. Don’t forget to take the boy’s horse far enough off that it will take hours for his family to find it.”

“Sure Boss, but…what about our money?” one man questioned.

“Once you have the boy far enough away, you’ll get your money. I am a man of my word, sir…do not question me!” he growled at the pair. “Simon Thorpe will meet you at Devil’s Gate and take care of your cargo. I’ll join you in a week in Silver City. You will get your money then.”

“Alright, boss…we’ll do as you say. But mind you, if you’re thinking of double-crossing us, we’ll find you and when we do, what you’re planning to do to the kid is nothing compared to what we’ll do to you!” the larger of the two men grunted. They picked up the trunk and walked out the door.

Hiram Shaw swallowed hard. He had no doubt that the man would make good his threat. But Hiram wasn’t worried; he planned to pay the pair. He planned to keep his promise to the boy — one he’d made weeks ago about what he’d do if Ben Cartwright ever learned about how Joe’s hand had been injured so badly. And Ben Cartwright, well…he just wanted the man to suffer a loss that all the money or land the man claimed as his could not buy back for him what he loved most. Hiram laughed again. God, he hated rich people but most of all, he hated Ben Cartwright. Feeling smug with himself, Hiram thought about the last time he’d met the mighty Ben Cartwright. A time so long ago that Cartwright had no clue to his true identity or to the manner in which he had changed the course of a young boy’s life. But Cartwright would soon be recalling his actions, once he realized who he actually was and why he’d chosen to destroy the most precious thing in the older man’s life. Hiram gathered his hat and coat. He was going back to the school. Sooner or later, Ben Cartwright or one of his other sons would make an appearance at the school in search of young Joseph. “Time to try my acting abilities,” he snickered to himself.

*****

It was almost dark. Hiram was sitting at his desk working on papers when Ben Cartwright walked into the building. Behind him, Adam and Hoss followed their father. When Hiram looked up, the concern was plainly written all over the face of Joseph’s father. He stood to greet his visitors.

“Mr. Cartwright…how do you do?” Hiram said. He extended his hand in greeting.

Ben shook the teacher’s hand. “I’m doing well, thank you.”

“Well sir, what brings you out this evening?” the teacher asked innocently.

“We, that is, my sons, Adam and Hoss, and I are looking for Little Joe,” explained Ben

“Looking for Joseph? I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

Hoss stepped forward. “He didn’t come home from school this afternoon.”

“We thought he might have been made to stay after school for some reason,” added Adam.

Hiram was shaking his head back and forth. “No…there would have been no reason for him to stay late. I did stop him before he left to tell him how pleased I am with the improvement he’s made the last couple of weeks. He left right after that,” lied Hiram, hoping that the Cartwright men would believe him.

Ben looked over at Adam and Hoss and then turned his attention back to the teacher. “Did you see him leave with anyone?”

“No, I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright. Most of his friends had already gone by the time Joseph and I finished our conversation. The children are always in a hurry to get home, especially on a Friday.”

“Do you recall which direction he took?” inquired Adam.

Again Hiram shook his head. “I’m afraid I don’t, Adam. He took off toward the stable and I came back inside. I’ve been here ever since; I have a ton of paperwork, it seems, and I don’t like carrying them home to do over the weekend. I’d just as soon do them on Friday evenings and be done with them.”

Ben took a deep breath and nodded his head. “I understand. You’re sure Little Joe didn’t mention anything about going anywhere other than home?”

“I’m positive. He did say something about having to get home to do his evening chores, but not that he was planning on making any stops,” explained the devious man.

Hoss scrunched up his face as worry lines deepened his brow. He looked at his father. “We could back-track; his horse might have thrown a shoe or picked up a rock. Joe might be on foot.”

“Maybe he stopped off at the lake. He said something yesterday about wanting to catch some fish for supper,” offered Adam. He was well aware how worried his father was becoming. He didn’t actually believe that his youngest brother would go fishing before coming home first to get his fishing line. He knew it was long shot but he had to think of something to keep Ben from becoming overwhelmed with worry.

Ben looked doubtful to the suggestion. “Let’s do as Hoss suggested and back-track our way home.” He turned to the teacher. “Thank you, Hiram. If you happen to hear anything or see the boy, would you please send him home or let me know?”

“Most assuredly, sir. Good luck in finding him. I’m sure he hasn’t just taken off. He was in a hurry to get away from here.” He laughed. “If you need me to, I’d be happy to saddle a horse and help you search.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Ben answered. “I’m sure he’s just dawdling along, or as his brother suggested, he might be on foot. Thank you again.”

All the way back to the Ponderosa, the three Cartwrights carefully searched the area for any signs of the missing lad. Fear was beginning to squeeze out Ben’s worry and place itself within Ben’s heart. He felt sick to his stomach. Joseph, his beloved son, was missing.

“Maybe he’s already home,” suggested Adam.

“Yeah Pa, he might have taken a short cut and we simply missed him,” added Hoss.

Ben shook his head. “No, it’s Friday; Joe always heads straight home on Friday nights. Something isn’t right; it’s wrong…all wrong.”

Hoss glanced at Adam and saw that he was as worried as their father. “I feel it like you, Pa. I don’t know how I know, but I just know. Joe’s in trouble.”

*****

His family had no idea just how much trouble the youngest member of their family actually was in. In the trunk, Little Joe stirred slightly, still sleepy from the sedative that his teacher had slipped into his drink. The boy tried to move but couldn’t. He tried opening his eyes but the effort took more than he was ready to give. Sighing softly, the young captive allowed his body to relax and return to the world of nothingness.

*****

“What do you want to do now, Pa?” Adam asked his worried father. “His horse isn’t in the barn. No one that we’ve spoken with has seen him and it’s going to be dark in half an hour.”

Ben removed his hat and ran his fingers through his silver hair. His eyes showed his concern. “It’s going to be too dark to see anything, and if we light torches, we might disturb some evidence without ever knowing it. I suppose the best thing to do is get a good night’s rest, and if the little scamp isn’t home by dawn, we can ride out then.” Ben didn’t like the idea of calling off the search for his son, but he had no other choice at the moment.

“Alright, Pa,” Adam agreed as he took the reins to his father’s horse. “Hoss and I will tend the horses.”

“Thank you, son.” Ben smiled weakly. “I think I’ll fix myself a brandy.”

Ben turned to enter the house when the sound of pounding hooves stopped him in his tracks. With a thundering heart, he turned to see who might be riding so hard. Hope that it was his missing son died in his heart before it had even given birth. Instead of Little Joe, Roy Coffee, the sheriff, and Matthew Anderson, his banker friend, pulled their mounts to a stop. Quickly both men dismounted.

“Roy, Matt…what brings you out this time of evening?” He greeted the men.

“I’ve got news, Ben,” Roy explained, waving a paper under Ben’s nose.

“Something you ought to know…something important,” add Matthew.

“Let’s go inside,” suggested Ben. “I was planning on pouring myself a brandy. Care to join me?” offered Ben as he showed his guest inside.

“Sounds refreshing to me,” Matthew laughed.

Roy and Matthew removed their hats and sat down on the settee as Ben poured them all a brandy. Adam and Hoss came in and helped themselves to a brandy as well.

Roy took a swig of his drink. “Good stuff Ben. Say, where’s Little Joe?”

Ben cast worried eyes about the room before turning back to the sheriff. “We don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?” Roy worried.

“He didn’t come home after school,” explained Adam. “We’ve just ridden back from town; seems as if no one has seen him since school let out.”

Both the sheriff and the banker swapped anxious looks. Roy turned to Ben and handed him the paper he’d been carrying. “You best read this, Ben.” Adam and Hoss moved over to stand behind their father so that they might read over his shoulders. Quickly Ben scanned the paper, glanced at the two friends and then reread the paper with more intent.

“Dear God,” he muttered softly to himself. “You can’t be serious…”

Matthew stood up and began to pace the room. “Ben…I was just as surprised as you were.” He said, stopping in front of his friend. Ben nodded his head in agreement. “Roy, are you positive about this? Could there be some mistake?”

“No…it’s all correct, Ben. Hiram Shaw is really Harry Youngblood’s son, sure as you’re Ben Cartwright,” Roy said.

“What’s this all about Pa?” Adam asked, moving closer to his father. “Does it have anything to do with Joe not coming home?”

“Speaking of Little Joe, Ben. I’d almost forgotten. Cody said that Shaw asked Joe to stay after school. Seems he wanted to ask the boy a favor,” Matthew informed them.

Hoss had his face scrunched up. “Favor? What kind of favor would the teacher want from Little Joe?”

Before the banker could respond to Hoss’ question, Ben muttered, “Hiram didn’t mention that he asked a favor of Joe.” He looked up at the small group of men. “He told us that he just wanted to tell Little Joe how pleased he was with the improvements the boy had made. Then he said Little Joe left and started home.”

Matthew scratched his head. “That can’t be right, Ben. Cody said he hung around waiting for Little Joe but that he saw Little Joe and Hiram ride off together. He figured Joe was going to help the teacher out with something so he didn’t bother them, just came on home.”

“What!” stormed Adam. He turned quickly to his father. “Then he lied! Pa…tell me, does this paper have anything to do with Little Joe?”

“I’m not sure, son. But it very well could have.”

“Why?” Hoss asked. “And who’s this Harry Youngblood? How is Hiram Shaw connected with the guy?”

Ben held up his hand to silence everyone. “Sit down all of you, please, and let me think and then I’ll try to explain it to you. Roy, maybe you can help me out.

“Sure thing Ben. Adam, Harry Youngblood was the local drunk many years ago — about 25 years if’n I ain’t mistaken. He had a wife who had died and a little boy at the time –that was Hiram; he was about 4 or 5, I think. Use to follow old Harry around everywhere the man went excepting the saloon. When Harry went into the bar to drink, little Wade — Wade Youngblood, that was his name back then — would sit outside on the sidewalk and wait for his pappy to come out. If’n Harry was drunk, the kid always made sure his pa got home at night.”

“So then, what happened to this here Harry fella?” Hoss asked.

Before Roy could answer the question, Ben spoke up. “I killed him.”

“What?” roared Adam.

“It was a fair fight,” Matthew said. “I was witness to it. Your father did everything he could to keep from having to kill that man. Harry just would not back down. Said he hated rich people and hated Ben worse than anyone, so he pulled a gun on your father and started taking potshots at him. Ben was able to avoid being hit, until he tripped and fell. That’s when Harry moved in for the kill. He pointed the gun down at your father’s head and cocked the trigger. He fired it just as Ben rolled away and fired his own gun. Your pa’s bullet hit Youngblood in the chest. He died instantly.”

“What happened to Hiram?” Hoss muttered as he watched the look of agony consume his father’s face.

“That’s the sad part. The little boy saw it all. Naturally, he loved his father. He ran over to me, grabbed my shirt and started screaming at me — how much he hated me for killing his father and how someday when he became a man, he’d…find some way…to…get…even with…me. Dear God…” Ben said in broken words while trying to swallow the lump that formed in his throat.

“What is it, Pa?” Adam asked as he gripped his father’s arm.

“Little Joe…don’t you see?” Ben said, his voice beginning to tremble. “Hiram has Little Joe; he has to have him. He’s using your brother to get back at me for killing his father!”

“And Cody did say he watched Little Joe and the teacher ride off together,” added the banker.

Ben reached out his arm to Adam, using his son to steady himself. “Saddle our horses; we’re going to pay the teacher another call. Hurry, time is of the essence!”

“Sure thing, Pa; come on Hoss.”

“We’ll ride along with you, Ben; this could be a job for me,” Roy cautioned.

“Fine, but let’s hurry,” Ben said as he strapped on his gun and picked up his hat.

Adam and Hoss had the horses ready by the time that their father, the sheriff and the banker came out of the house. Quickly, the three older men mounted up. “Let’s ride,” shouted Ben as he spurred his mount into action.

When the five men rode into Hiram Shaw’s yard, they noted that the house was dark. Either the teacher had already retired for the night or he was out for the evening. Ben stepped up onto the porch and attempted to knock on the door. When he touched it, the door slowly opened. Using caution, Ben drew his gun from his holster. “The door’s opened,” he whispered to the others. Immediately, the other men dismounted and scattered around the house and porch. Ben eased into the house, Adam on heels. Roy followed with Hoss and Matthew brought up the rear.

“Hello!” Ben called out and then waited for an answer. “Hiram, its Ben Cartwright and the sheriff!” Still the house remained silent. “Find a lamp and light it,” he called over his shoulder.

Hoss felt along a table until his fingers found what he was looking for. From his own pocket, he drew a match. Striking it on the heel of his boot, Hoss lit the lamp. The light spread its soft golden glow about the room. The men stood in the center of the living room and cast eyes all around. The room looked as if it had been ransacked.

“Someone must have either broken in here or someone left in a hurry,” Roy stated. “You men check the other rooms; I’ll check in the barn.”

Each man went in a different direction. It didn’t take long before they made their search and returned to the main room to compare notes. “There’s clothes scattered everywhere in the bedroom,” Hoss informed his father. “And papers in his study — some ripped and some wadded. He must have been looking for something,” Adam said.

“Food’s been taken from the kitchen. Looks as if he took only what was needed,” related Matthew.

“The horse and wagon are gone from the barn, Ben,” Roy explained. “The milk cow’s been put in the corral and fresh food’s been spread out. It looks like someone wasn’t planning on coming back.”

Ben agreed.

“There’s more Ben,” stated Roy. He had the attention of all the men in the room. “While I was nosing around in the barn, I found a saddle behind a pile of boxes. Judging from the size of the saddle, I knew it twern’t the teacher’s; it was too small. This was tied to the saddle-horn with a leather strap.” He handed the book to Ben, who opened it.

Ben’s face paled as he stared at his son’s reader. Swallowing was almost impossible and trying to talk was out of the question. He looked at Adam and held the book out to his son. Adam took the book, his eyes never leaving his father’s ashen face as he opened the reader. Only then did his eyes roam over the inside cover of the schoolbook. “It’s Little Joe’s,” he muttered in a tone laced with venom.

“Then that lying varmint does have Little Joe!” growled the gentle giant. “So help me, if he’s hurt that boy in any way, I’ll tear him limb from limb with my very own hands!”

“Shh…stop that talk right now. True it appears that Joe is with Hiram but that doesn’t mean the man has hurt him…yet,” Ben cautioned. “My guess he’s hidden Little Joe away someplace.”

“Who are you kidding, Pa?” grumbled Adam. “Didn’t you just say a minute ago that Shaw swore to get even with you? Well, what better way than to take your son from you and do away with him?”

Hoss was getting agitated. “Adam’s right Pa, Joe’s in danger and we gotta find him, fast.”

“Of course we do, but how…where? We have no idea where Hiram might have taken Joe,” Ben tried to reason. He cast anxious eyes around the room then looked at the men. “Any ideas?”

*****

Little Joe, still locked away in his trunk was awake. His head was pounding; his body ached from being curled in a cramped position for so long. He had tried to free himself from his bounds but had made little progress in doing so. The cloth was making his mouth dry and he fought to keep from swallowing the wad. A cool glass of water was what the frightened boy craved most, besides his father. Joe wondered where he was and why his teacher had drugged him and placed him in the confining trunk. His mind raced. “Pa…please, get me outta here!” his mind screamed.

Little Joe gave in to his fears as the tears rolled gently down his face. He was hot and the sweat beaded on his brow. His stomach ached from not having eaten since lunch. Joe wondered if it were night or day and decided that it was probably getting close to dark. “I want out of here,” he told himself. Suddenly the swaying motion of the wagon ceased and Joe realized that it had stopped. Hope sprung within his heart that perhaps Mr. Shaw would now open the box he was being held in. An hour later, his hope died.

“Shaw’s got the brat in that trunk,” Joe heard a man say. He wondered who the man was because he knew that the voice was not that of his teacher. Who was the stranger and to whom was the man speaking with. “Let’s get him inside,” another stranger said.

Joe felt himself being lifted up and knew that the men were carrying his prison. With a loud thump, the trunk was practically dropped to the ground. He’d had about all he could stand. His nerves were shattered; he wanted out.

“Ummm…ah…” Joe tried to form words. The sounds were barely distinguishable even to himself. Joe tried kicking with his feet on the side of the trunk, but even that effort was in vain; his ankles were tied together were tight, and with his wrists attached to the rope that bound his ankles, any amount of movement was next to impossible.

“Sounds like the kid’s wanting out,” snarled one of the men.

The second man shook his head. “Nope. Can’t. We have to wait until Thorpe gets here. If he wants to let the kid out, let him do it, but I’m not about to open that thing. Besides, I ain’t got no key for that there lock.”

Inside the trunk, Joe listened to the mutterings of the two men. He could hear them talking but he couldn’t seem to understand what they were saying. If only they would open the top so that he could at least get some fresh air. It was hot and he fit tightly inside the small space. His head still hurt and the lack of air was making him sleepy. “Don’t close your eyes,” he warned himself. Joe was afraid that if he went to sleep, he might not wake up — and that scared him. “Please God, let my pa and brothers find me, and if you don’t mind my asking, tell them to hurry,” prayed Joe. Though he fought against it, his eyes closed and very soon the young captive was asleep.

*****

Adam had been rummaging around in Hiram’s study, going through the scattered papers in hopes of finding some clue as to where the man might have taken his brother. Nothing caught his eye that he considered important. Tossing papers he’d already looked over, onto the chair, he happened to pick up a photo. He stared long and hard at the two men who had posed for the photograph. The younger of the two was most definitely Hiram Shaw, but Adam had no clue who the older of the two men might be.

“Hey Pa,” Adam called as he joined his father in the front room. “Look at this photo,” he said as he handed the picture to his father. Roy moved closer so that he could look at it also. “Wouldn’t happen to know who the older man is would you? The younger is Hiram, I believe.”

Ben had been studying the photo and agreed with Adam. “Yes, that Hiram, a few years younger, but it’s him. I don’t recognize the other man. Do you Roy?”

The sheriff shook his head. “Can’t say that I do, Ben. Here Matt, you have a look.”

Roy passed the picture to the banker who took several moments to study the image. “You know, Roy, I do think I’ve seen that man before. He flipped the photograph over. “Silver City, Nevada it says here on the back.”

“Silver City…that ain’t far, Pa. Might be a good place to start looking. If’n we could find that man, maybe he could tell us where to find Shaw,” offered Hoss, who was looking over the banker’s shoulder at the image.

“Hoss, that picture is several years old. Just because it has Silver City written on the back doesn’t mean that man is even there,” Ben explained.

“Doesn’t mean he ain’t, though,” Hoss said with a touch of anger. He was worried to death about his baby brother and was ready to start looking again.

“Ben, you know, I was filling in for Robert Wilson over at the bank in Silver City about two months ago, and if memory serves me correctly, this gentleman came into talk to Wilson about a loan. He got pretty agitated when he learned Wilson was out for a few days and wanted me to make him a loan. I told him I couldn’t do it; he would just have to wait for Wilson to return and then come back to talk to him. The man was angry when he left.”

“Did he give you his name?” Roy asked.

Matthew had a look of concentration on his face. “I’m thinking…give me a minute.” He handed the photo back to Ben and turned toward the door as if to go out. “Sam Thorne…no, that’s not it.” He was muttering to himself. His hand was on the latch. “Saul…Stephen…no…Si…Simon…that’s it! Simon…Simon…T…Th. Think, think…Tho…Thorpe. Thorpe. By golly Ben, that’s his name, Simon Thorpe!” he grinned at his friend. “And as of two months ago, he was in Silver City!”

“Hotdiggitydog!” shouted Hoss. “Let’s go Pa!”

“Hold on, hold on. Matt, are you positive that Simon Thorpe is the man’s name?”

“Yes, I’m sure. Why do you know that name?”

Ben pursed his lips tightly.

“Well, out with it, Ben,” ordered Roy. “Are you familiar with that name?”

Ben nodded his head. “Yes and so are you, Roy. Don’t you remember the man who came to claim Harry Youngblood’s body and the boy?”

Roy’s eyes widened as he recalled the tall, lanky man who had ridden into Virginia City the day after Ben had killed Youngblood. “Good golly, Ben –Thorpe. Sure as I’m standing here, it was Simon Thorpe, Harry’s half- brother!”

“I’d say we best be heading for Silver City, Pa,” Adam stated as he started toward the door.

“Hold up a minute, Adam,” Roy asked. “Silver City is out of my jurisdiction. I’ll ride into town and send a wire to the sheriff over there. Pete Williams, he’s a good guy. I’ll tell him you are headed that way. He’ll help you find Thorpe,” explained the sheriff.

“And Ben, I’d love to ride along with you, but I have to open the bank in the morning,” Matthew Anderson stated.

“That’s fine, Roy, Matthew. We appreciate all your help. The boys and I will stay here tonight and leave at daybreak. No sense on riding all the way back to the Ponderosa,” Ben said as he glanced at Adam and Hoss who nodded in agreement.

“Alright Ben. Good luck…and keep me posted?” Roy nodded at the others and he and the banker left.

Ben turned to his sons. “I say let’s try to get some rest and in the morning we’ll go get Little Joe.”

*****

Little Joe didn’t know how long he’d been sleeping when the sounds of voices woke him. He tried to listen to what was being said, but the ache in all his muscles consumed his concentration. A soft moan escaped his lips. He wanted to cry but fought the urge to do so. Heavy footsteps seemed to be coming closer. The sound of the lock clicking forced Joe to turn his head upward to see who was lifting the lid of the trunk. His heart sank.

“Well, look at what we have here,” sneered Hiram Shaw. “Uncle, this is Little Joe Cartwright, isn’t that correct, kid?” He laughed at the haunted look on the young boy’s face. Joe glanced at the other man but didn’t recognize him as being anyone he had ever seen before. He briefly wondered why his teacher had referred to the man as Uncle.

“He doesn’t look to happy to see you, Hiram,” snickered the older man.

“He shouldn’t be,” snarled Joe’s teacher. “Help me get him out of this trunk,” he asked his uncle. Together they grabbed Joe’s arms and hoisted the boy from his prison. With little concern for the boy’s comfort, they lowered him none to easily onto the cold floor. Hiram jerked the gag from around the boy’s face. Immediately, Little Joe spit out the wadded cloth and took several large gulps of air to fill his lungs. Tears burned his eyes as he looked up at his captors.

“My pa’s gonna kill you!” Joe cried in a scratchy voice.

The statement must have been funny because both men laughed. “I’m not afraid of your pa,” snarled Hiram as he kicked Little Joe in the mid-section. Joe groaned. It only made Hiram laugh that much more. “Hurts, doesn’t it, you little brat,” he said between gritted teeth and kicked the boy again. Joe tried to turn away from the offending booted foot but bound as he was it was useless.

At last Hiram turned from his prisoner. “Let him lay there. I’m hungry, Uncle. What’s here to eat?” asked the teacher.

“I got a stew on, boy,” Thorpe answered. “Did you get rid of those two men you hired to bring the kid here?” The teacher’s eyes turned dark and a leer appeared across his face. “Let’s just say that I’ve taken care of the two of them!” They turned to go.

“Mr. Shaw…wait…please,” cried Joe. Both men stopped and turned around.

“What it is?” growled Hiram.

“I…” Joe gulped. “I have to…go. Bad…real bad.” Joe hated that he had to beg but knew if they didn’t allow him a minute to relieve himself, there would be no reason to even ask.

Hiram laughed, turned to his uncle and said. “Did you hear that, Uncle? The kid has to take a leak.” Thorpe joined in the laughter. Hiram squatted down so that he could see his captive’s face. “I just might allow that privilege if you ask me very nicely. Can you do that, Little Joe,” sneered the teacher.

Joe hated the way the man used his name; Hiram made it sound dirty. He hated himself too for what he was about to do. He gulped. “Pl…please, I need to go…” his chin trembled.

Hiram stood up, laughing. “Sorry kid, not good enough.” He swung his foot back, and when it came forward, it landed again in Joe’s mid-section. Joe cried out in pain and drew if possible his bound up body into a tighter knot. “Try again, brat!”

Tears rolled down the boy’s face. What he wanted to say to his former teacher was that he hated him. Hated him for being so mean, hated him because of what the man was doing. But Little Joe held his tongue. He swallowed hard. “Please sir,” he paused breathing hard. “May I please go to the outhouse, please, Mr. Shaw?”

Again Hiram squatted down. “That’s much better, Joseph.” Hiram leaned over and loosened the ropes that bound Little Joe’s ankles. Joe stretched out his legs to work the stiffness out. Then he turned so that he could work his way to a standing position. Once he was on his feet, he chanced looking up at Hiram. “I will need you to untie my hands…please,” he added as an afterthought.

With no warning, Hiram doubled his fist and belted Little Joe in the stomach.

“Ohhh…” cried Joe. He doubled over from the pain in his stomach.

“I think not, brat. Stand up, boy, and stop that infernal whimpering. Act like a man! And I might just let you go pee!” shouted the teacher. “Turn around!”

Joe did as requested. Hiram untied Joe’s wrists and then quickly retied them in front. With the rope, he led the boy to the door. “You walk to the end of the porch, not an inch further. You have two minutes to do your thing. Make it fast or you’ll pay. If you think your stomach hurts, the rest of you will know the true meaning of the word of pain. Now get going,” Hiram instructed as he open the door and all but shoved the weary boy out the door.

Limping and gripping his stomach, Joe did as directed. While he relieved himself, he glanced around at his surroundings, trying to see all he could before being taken back inside. Off in the distance he thought he saw a road, but couldn’t be sure. Woods grew all about, which would give him good cover should he be fortunate enough to make an escape. As he refastened his britches, Hiram tugged on the rope. “Time’s up,” called Hiram as he jerked on the rope.

Joe allowed himself to be pulled back into the small, one room cabin. He had his back to the teacher. Hiram grabbed Joe’s arm and spun the boy around until they faced one another.

“Well?” growled Hiram.

Joe was confused by what Hiram expected of him. “Well…what?” he asked the man. His question earned him a hard smack across his face. Joe’s head snapped back from the force of the blow. His cheek burned and instantly turned red.

“I told you I expect you to use your manners. Or didn’t that rich old man of yours bother to teach you any?” snarled Hiram.

Joe knew that to disagree with the man would only serve to be hit in some manner again. “Yes sir. He taught me. Thank you, sir, for allowing me to go outside.”

“That’s much better, Joseph. You know, boy, you might have made an excellent student if you had put some effort into it. As it is, you’ll never amount to anything. With your attitude, you’ll end up being nothing but a low-life gunslinger most likely.”

Joe said nothing. He just stood there with his head lower so he would not have to look into the face of this man that he despised. “Uncle!” shouted Hiram. The sudden sound startled Joe and he attempted to run. Hiram jerked back on the rope, stopping Joe from getting away. “Whoa…where do you think you’re going, brat?” he leered. He reined Joe in like a wild horse. “Don’t ever try that again, brat. Do you understand me?”

Joe nodded his head but kept silent.

“What do you want?” Thorpe called as he crossed the room.

“I need you to toss this rope over those rafters. The boy needs to have the kinks stretched out of his body,” laughed Hiram. “Isn’t that right, brat?” he taunted at Joe. “First though, take off your boots, boy. I have something special for you to wear and they don’t call for having boots on.” Hiram winked at his prisoner, taunting him further.

 Joe’s heart was in his throat as he sat down in a chair and tugged off his boots. Uncle, as the teacher referred to the other man, had already tossed the other end of the rope over the rafter in the ceiling and once the man saw that Joe’s boots were off, he pulled the rope tight until he’d force Joe to a standing position with his arms raised high over his head. Joe was standing on his tiptoes before Uncle ceased pulling and then tied his end of the rope to a beam on the other side of the room.

Joe heard Hiram digging through some crates that he’d brought with him. He tried turning to see what it was his teacher was searching for but once he heard the clanking of chains, he knew. Not only was he to be strung up like a slab of meat, he was going to be chained as well. When Hiram saw the frightened look in his former pupil’s eyes, he laughed in the boy’s face. Holding up the foot irons, the man shook the chains. “Scare’s you doesn’t it, brat? Serves you right for all the foul things you and your father did to me!”

“My father?” Joe asked meekly. “What did my father ever do to you?” he asked in a demanding tone that caused Hiram’s eyes to flash with fury.

“I’ll tell you what that man did. He killed my father…shot him down in cold blood. That’s what he did!” stormed Hiram.

“That’s a lie!” shouted Joe.

Hiram stood nose to nose with his captive. His eyes were dark as night and Joe knew the man was furious. “Are you calling me a liar?” he demanded.

Joe gulped. He was afraid of this man and what he might do to him but he tried not to show it. “I just meant that I didn’t believe you.”

Hiram was putting the irons around Joe’s ankles. When he finished he saw that now Joe’s toes were not touching the floor. The boy hung just inches above the floor. He saw the boy clinch his teeth to keep from crying out from the pain in his arms and shoulders from the weight of his own body. Some of the anger left him. His eyes no longer were black with rage.

“I really don’t care if you believe me or not, Joseph. But it’s fact. I was there, I saw Ben Cartwright shoot my father dead. I was just five years old, but I’ll never forget it. My father was just standing there trying to talk to your father, and just because my pa had a gun in his hand, your old man decided to kill him. And he did. I swore right then that someday somehow, I would repay your father for ruining my life and killing my father. And then what do you think happened?” He didn’t give Little Joe time to answer. “I saw Ben Cartwright’s name in an advertisement stating that a teacher was needed in Virginia City…so, I became an over-night teacher and…wal-la…here I am!”

Hiram said nothing more, but turned away from the boy. “Is that stew hot, Uncle?”

*****

Ben, Adam and Hoss stood in the sheriff’s office waiting for an answer to Ben’s question. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright. I can understand how you feel, sort of, but Simon Thorpe hasn’t been seen around here in…oh, I’d say six weeks or more,” the sheriff told them.

Ben made a moaning sound deep in his throat. The worry over his missing son was beginning to get to him. “Do you have any idea where he might have taken off to?”

“No. I’m sorry, sir. All I can do is send a couple of wires, maybe to Carson City, Reno…see if he’s been spotted around there,” he offered.

Sheriff Williams’ deputy had been sitting at his desk listening to the conversation. He hadn’t added anything to the discussion either way, just listening. He rose, walking around his desk to stand slightly behind the sheriff who still held the picture of a young Simon Thorpe and a younger Hiram Shaw. “Do you mind if I have a look at that,” the deputy asked, using his head to nod at the picture.

“Not at all.” Williams handed the picture to the young deputy. Jessie, the deputy, studied the photograph while the other men stood silently watching him.

At last Ben broke the silence. “Do you know him?”

Jessie raised his eyes and looked at Ben. “I not only know him, I know that kid as well.”

Adam, Hoss and Ben swapped hopeful looks. “How do you know him?” Adam asked.

“The boy is Wade Youngblood and the man is his uncle, Simon Thorpe. The man raised Wade after Wade’s father was killed in a gunfight with some slick gunslinger…”

Ben almost laughed. Hoss giggled and Adam snorted.

“Something about that funny?” asked the deputy.

Grinning, the sheriff explained. “Jessie, Mr. Cartwright is the gunslinger, as you called him, who shot and killed Harry Youngblood.”

Jessie stared hard at Ben. “You sure don’t look like a gunslinger.”

All the men laughed at the comment. “It was kill or be killed, son,” Ben explained. “I tried to get him to put his gun down, but he was determined to kill me. Guess you might say I was the lucky one. But tell me more about Thorpe, please.”

Jessie looked up at the sheriff who nodded his head in approval. “Well, like I said, Thorpe was Wade’s uncle and he took Wade in when his father was mur….killed. I’ve known them both all my life. Wade and I grew up together. Thorpe worked for my father on our ranch over in Dayton, and he and Wade lived in a cabin there.”

“When did this Wade change his name? Better yet, why?” Hoss asked.

“Wade was always a restless soul. He stayed mad most of the time. His uncle indulged him. Wade hated working on the ranch, seemed to hate rich people. Not that my father was rich, not like you, sir,” he said to Ben, who only smiled. “But Wade seemed to think that my pa was. We weren’t poor for sure, but we got by. Wade had this notion that all wealthy or well-to-do men were out to get him for some reason. He hated my father and sometimes I got the feeling that though we were friends, he hated me simply because he believed my father was rich.”

“You are probably correct about that,” Ben said. “Hiram — that’s the name he goes by now — made it plain to several of us men in Virginia City that he had no use for us or our sons. That’s why we believe that he has kidnapped my youngest son — because he’s using the boy to get back at me for killing his father.”

“Have you seen Thorpe around?” Adam inquired.

“Yes sir…not more than three weeks ago, I happened into the mercantile and he was there. I stopped to speak with him, and as I was leaving, Wade, or Hiram, walked in as well. Wade seemed surprised to see me and I saw a look sort of like shock when he saw this badge, but he tried not to let on. I asked him what he was doing in town and he told me he was visiting his uncle. I didn’t say anything, but as far as I know, his uncle hasn’t lived around in months.”

“Hmm…” Ben muttered.

“Look Jessie,” the sheriff began. “Did you happen to ask them where they were staying?”

Jessie beamed at his boss. “I sure enough did! And Thorpe said they were staying at some cabin up by Devil’s Gate. I thought that sounded strange to me, and more so when I saw the look Wade gave his uncle — you know, sort of like he thought his uncle had talked too much.”

“Devil’s Gate? Lordy, Pa, that place ain’t nuthin’ but a varmint’s hideout. I didn’t even know there was a cabin up there,” Hoss stated. He pushed back his big Stetson and scratched his head. “But if’n there is a cabin up there, I reckon I can find it.” He smiled at the others.

“It’s certainly a good place to start,” Adam said. “How about it, Pa? You willing?”

Ben agreed instantly. “I most certainly am. With any luck, we might even find your brother! Sheriff, Jessie, thanks for all your help. We appreciate it.”

“Whoa, hold on, Mr. Cartwright. If what you’re saying is so, about Shaw and Thorpe kidnapping your boy, then that’s my job — Jessie over here — and I will be riding with you.”

“That’s fine by me. All I want is my son safely home with me. When can you leave?” Ben told the pair of officers.

“Give me half an hour to get some things together and then we’ll be ready,” Williams offered. “How about we meet you down at the stables?”

“Sounds good. That will give my sons and me time to grab something to eat. We’ll see you then. Come on boys, let’s go,” Ben instructed as he headed for the door.

*****

Joe felt as if he were dying; and he almost wished that he actually would die. The pain in his body, especially his arms and shoulders, was unbearable. Never in his entire life had he suffered such agony as he was being forced to endure now. He knew his shoulders had separated — he’d felt them slip apart earlier — and the anguish had caused him to pass out. That in itself was a form of relief. His thoughts — what thoughts he could collect — turned to his father, and Joe in his tortured mind wondered what was taking Ben so long in finding him. Joe fought hard not to cry, but it seemed as if his tears had a mind of their own. They collected in his eyes, and when he blinked, the floodgate was opened and they rolled gently down the sides of his face. “Please Pa, hurry,” he said in a whispered voice laced with misery.

“Did you say something, brat?”

Joe had been unaware that Hiram had been standing behind him. His head was laid all the way back and his captor had been watching the play of emotions that had been fluttering across the boy’s face. Hiram grabbed a handful of chestnut curls and yank Joe’s head sideways causing Joe to whimper loudly. “I asked you a question, brat. I want an answer! Now,” he shouted in Joe’s ears.

“Pa…” Little Joe mumbled.

The teacher laughed. “Pa!” he bellowed. “Does the baby want his dada?” taunted Joe’s tormentor as he shook the boy’s head viciously from side to side. “Well I have news for you, Brat. I plan on killing you…slowly…and there is nothing your old man can do to stop me. And then, when he comes gunning for me — and he will — I plan on killing him. You can’t begin to imagine just how much I hate Ben Cartwright.” While Hiram had his finger gripping Joe’s hair, he yanked again, and as he did so, slammed his balled up fist into the lower side of Joe’s back. Joe screamed in pain. Hiram punched him again before Joe gave in to his misery and passed out. Only then did his devil release the hold he’d had on Joe’s curls.

Hiram rubbed his hands together. He had no doubts that Ben Cartwright was searching right this minute for his precious boy. It was only a matter of time before Ben found them, but Hiram wasn’t worried; he was ready. He would stop Ben Cartwright right in his tracks once he saw the shape that his brat was in. And the pain he’d been inflicting on the boy was plain for all eyes that saw the kid. Joe was showing bruises from head to toe. He hadn’t spared the rod, so to speak, when he’d hit or kicked at the boy. No, Hiram had put forth his best effort and treated the kid like a man. Little Joe Cartwright, age fifteen, had taken a man-sized beating. Hiram laughed out loud, “God I hate you Ben, Cartwright…and that goes double for your bastard!”

*****

“There’s the cabin,” whispered Hoss. The small group of men had ridden hard from Silver City, reaching the edge of Devil’s Gate in record time. Now they hunkered down in the bushes to stay out of sight. “And that looks like Hiram’s wagon there by that shed,” Hoss added, pointing in the direction where the wagon was partially hidden from view.

Adam crept carefully over to his father. “I’m going to make my way down there to see if I can find any sign of Little Joe,” he whispered to his father.

“No! I’ll go. You stay here with the others. If I find anything, I’ll signal you to come ahead,” Ben ordered. He needed to be the one to find Little Joe. Something deep within him whispered to him, a voice, sounding much like that of his youngest son. The voice was full of pain and pleaded with him to hurry. Ben knew it was Joe calling out to him.

Ben pulled his pistol from its holster and quietly began to make his way through the bushes and along the side of the tall thick rocks. Minutes later, Adam and the others could see Ben standing at the corner of the cabin. They waited with bated breath as Ben stepped up onto the tiny porch and peered through the dirty window. What he saw turned his stomach. Inside, hanging by his wrists and with shackles chained to the boy’s ankles was his son. Ben felt his stomach lurch and he feared he might retch. It was obvious from the glow of the lamp inside that Joe was unconscious. His young body was battered and bruised and Ben feared that the boy he loved with all his heart might not even be alive. Though he tried, hatred for the man who had beaten his son to such a degree began to take root in the basement of his heart and traveled to the first floor and then spewed from his mouth. “Dam you, Shaw…I’ll kill you for this,” he muttered to himself. Ben quietly turned and tip-toed off the porch; he waved his hand in the air to signal for the others to join him.

Quickly, his sons, the sheriff and his deputy joined him behind the bushes. Ben cautioned them to remain quiet. “He’s in there,” he told them. “They’ve beaten him badly and hung him by his arms from the rafters,” Ben said in a quivering voice.

“Why those low-down dirty varmints,” stormed Hoss. “I’ll kill ’em with my own hands.”

“Not without my help,” Adam growled.

The sheriff held up his hand. “You boys hold on one minute. This is a job for the law. Ain’t nobody gonna be killing anybody unless in self-defense. You understand?” Sheriff Williams asked.

“As much as I know you’d like to kill Shaw, I’d like nothing more than to do it myself. But the sheriff’s right, we have to follow the rules.” Ben didn’t seem very pleased with the idea but he knew that if he took the law in his own hands, his older sons would follow his lead and he didn’t dare lead them off down the wrong road.

“How many men are in there?” asked the sheriff.

“I didn’t see anyone other than my son. The men must be in the barn tending to their horses.”

“Or…it could be a trap. Shaw’s smart enough to know you’d come looking for Joe,” Adam cautioned.

“He’s right, Pa. Sheriff, how’s about I sneak over to the barn and see if’n them varmints are inside?” offered Hoss.

“Alright, but be careful, son,” Ben agreed. “Sheriff, why don’t you and I take the front, Adam and Jessie can take the rear of the cabin?”

“Alright, but you men remember, I want those men alive if possible. I have an idea that one or both of them are responsible for murdering those two men we found on the trail,” the sheriff ordered. “Okay, let’s go.”

Carefully, the men made their approach to their designated places. Hoss had slipped over to the barn and had seen one man. He had waited until the man was leaving the barn then Hoss overtook him, pulling him back inside. One solid punch to the man’s chin rendered the tall stranger unconscious. Hoss found some rope and tied and gagged the man who appeared to be Hiram’s uncle, Simon Thorpe. Once that was finished, he joined his father and the sheriff who were ready to tear into the cabin. “I got Thorpe tied and gagged in the barn. No sign of Shaw,” he told his father and the sheriff in a whisper.

“Let’s go,” Ben ordered as he pushed opened the wooden door.

Swiftly, Ben scanned the room for Shaw, and when the man was nowhere to be found, he rushed to his son. Adam and Jessie burst through the back. “Grab him Hoss,” shouted Ben as he pulled his knife from his pocket. Hoss grabbed Little Joe’s legs with his mighty arms and raised the boy just enough to relieve the pressure on his brother’s arms. Ben cut through the rope and Little Joe slid limply into his brother’s arms. “Lay him on the floor,” Ben said as he leaned down to check for a pulse. “He’s alive,” he smiled up into the faces of his other sons.

“Jessie and I will look around outside for Shaw. And we’ll see about Thorpe while you take care of your son, Mr. Cartwright,” the sheriff stated. “Come on, Jess,” he said as they left the cabin.

“Get some water, Hoss, please.” The anxious father cradled his young son in his arms. “Joseph, Little Joe…wake up, son,” he pleaded with the unconscious boy.

Hoss held the dipper of water up to his brother’s lips but the boy was unable to drink. Ben jerked off his neckerchief and dampened it in the water and then gently wiped away the dirt and blood that had accumulated on the young face. Joe’s nose had been bleeding and his eyes were swollen from the abuse he had to endure. “Joe, please son…”

“He can’t hear you, Pa. He’s out cold,” Adam said. “Let’s move him over on that cot.” Hoss had already untied the boy’s bound wrists but could do nothing with the chains about his brother’s ankles. “Wish I had that dadburn key,” Hoss grumbled as he carefully lifted Little Joe’s limp body from the floor and placed him on the cot.

Suddenly, shots ripped through the quietness of the afternoon. Adam ran to the door and peeked out. “I can’t see anything or anyone,” he told Hoss who had come to stand behind him. “We’re going out, Pa. The sheriff and his deputy must have found Shaw,” he told his father and then he and Hoss slipped out the door, unseen. Ben continued to tend to Little Joe who had begun to moan softly.

“Pa?” he whimpered.

“I’m here, son, shh…don’t try to move,” cooed Ben. Relief flowed through his body.

Joe’s whimpers grew in volume as he tried to use his arms. Tears formed in his hazel eyes and dripped slowly down the sides of his face. “My shoulders…hurt…Pa,” he groaned.

Ben felt helpless as to relieve the pain his son was suffering. “I know, son, and as soon as I can, I’ll get you out of here and to the doctor, but for right now, I want you to…”

Without warning, the back door was slung opened and Shaw stepped inside, gun drawn and pointed at Ben Cartwright. His laugh was devilish and made the fine hairs on Ben’s body stand on end. Shaw’s eyes were dark and appeared glazed. There was no doubt in Ben’s mind that the man was crazed with hatred.

“Don’t move, Cartwright,” Shaw ordered as he pointed his gun toward the cot where Little Joe was laying, “or I’ll have to kill the brat. Now toss that pistol on the floor…slowly. Over here!” he shouted. “Good, now back away.”

Ben did as directed but never took his eyes off the other man. Hiram inched his way toward Joe, stopping only when he’d reached the side of the cot. He looked down at the boy and snickered.

 “You look like hell, brat,” Hiram told the boy. “I was sure you up and died on me, but I see you still have a little life left in you…for the present, but not for long,” he jeered. Hiram looked over at Ben, “your other sons are busy with my friends. Too bad Uncle Simon got himself caught,” he said with a touch of disappointment, “but it won’t be for long,” he explained. “See, I left him to watch over the brat here while I went to get some men, which I did. I didn’t realize so many men hated you, Mr. Cartwright. You know you are not very well liked. But, as it stands, you or your three sons won’t be around much longer. I aim to make sure of that.” He seemed to perk up at the sound of all the gun play outside. He laughed. “Two against many,” he chanted.

“Two?” questioned Ben.

“Yes. You see some of my men and I caught the Sheriff and his deputy unaware. They’re dead, sir!” Hiram laughed out loud at the worried expression that crossed Ben face. “And your two older sons will be next,” he threatened. “The shooting should stop soon,” he said as he moved closer to where Ben was standing.

“See…the shooting has already stopped. Some of my men will be in soon. And then, it will be your turn. I plan on making you watch while the brat over there dies. I have to be honest with you, sir; I plan on taking my time. I want you to feel every painful ache in his body, I want you to hear him plead with me to stop, I want you to hear him beg you to help him and then know just before his last breath that you didn’t do a thing to help him!”

“You bastard!” shouted Ben as he made a lunge for the man’s gun. Briefly the two men fought over the pistol. Ben wrenched Shaw’s arm downward, between them. Both struggled for possession of the pistol. Seconds later, a loud blast ripped through the air.

The sound gave Joe reason to raise his head to see why the gun had been fired. “PA!” he screamed as he watched his father crumble to the floor. Little Joe tried to rise from the cot. He managed only to swing his shackled ankles to the side and then struggled to raise his upper body.

Hiram wiped the blood from his mouth with the back of his hand as he stepped across the body of Ben Cartwright. He saw the boy trying to get up, and using the back of his hand, he belted Joe hard across his face. “You aren’t’ going anywhere, brat,” he snapped.

Joe was knocked backwards across the cot. Tears stained his face. “I hate you!” he screamed at his former teacher. The statement only served to make Hiram Shaw throw back his head and bellow with laughter.

“Oh, brat…I’ve said those very same words myself! Now you know how I must have felt when your father killed mine!” The crazed man continued to laugh loudly. His hysterical laughter was so loud that the Hiram failed to see the movement on the floor. But Little Joe saw. His heart screamed in relief as he turned his blackened and swollen eyes back to his tormentor.

“You’re crazy,” Joe told the man. He was trying to keep Hiram distracted so that his father could get the drop on the teacher. Ben’s gun lay only inches from where he had fallen. Spying it, he moved ever so slowly toward it. Blood dripped down his arm and onto the floor. The burning pain surged down into his fingers, and for only a split second Ben wondered if he’d even be able to use the gun once he got to it. He grasped it in his hand and began get up. Once up, he pointed the pistol at Shaw.

“Crazy!” screamed Hiram whose laughter died instantly. “I’ll show you crazy,” he stormed as he leaned down and grabbed Little Joe by the front of his shirt and pulled him upward. Little Joe had no time to cry out in pain before Hiram started back handing him across one cheek and then the other. The boy’s head snapped back and forth until all sense was knocked from him.

“Leave the boy alone!” Ben shouted at his son’s tormentor. Hiram stopped. He was still holding Joe by the front of his shirt. “Back away,” ordered Ben as he moved closer. Joe wasn’t making a sound and the silence worried Ben.

Slowly Hiram did as told. He laughed again, sounding more evil than before. His last mistake he made that night ended the man’s life. Hiram went for his gun, pulled it from its holster and pointed it at Ben.

“Drop that gun,” ordered a tall, dark man who had quietly entered through the back. Hiram whirled around, pointing the gun at Adam Cartwright. But Adam had the drop on the other man and quickly fired his gun. The bullet hit the teacher in his chest. Hiram crumbled to the floor.

 “No…no…no…not…this way,” Hiram uttered. Adam crossed the room and leaned down, taking the gun from the teacher’s hand. Carefully, Adam lifted the man’s head. Ben stood behind him. Hiram’s eyes found Ben face. “You…you…were…supposed…to…die…not…me,” he whispered as he took his last breath.

“Pa?”

Ben spun around to see Joe trying to get up. He leaned down. “No, son, it’s alright, stay down.”

“He…shot…you,” cried Little Joe.

“Yes, but I’m fine. It’s only a flesh wound, son.”

Little Joe sighed in relief and then closed his eyes. “I wanna go home,” he muttered in low voice.

“We will, son. Soon, I promise,” Ben said. Joe had given himself over to his fears and pain had succumbed to the world of darkness. “He’s passed out,” Ben told Adam. “Where’s Hoss, is he alright?”

“I’m fine, Pa,” Hoss called as he entered the front. “How about you…uh oh…I see you got Shaw. Say, Pa…you’ve been shot,” Hoss said worriedly as he grabbed his father’s arm to see how badly he’d been hit.

“It’s nothing, son, no need to worry. I’ll wrap it up, and when we get Joe home, I’ll have the doc take a look at both of us,” he smiled at the worried man. “Why don’t you help Adam to get Shaw and the others ready to take into town?”

“Sure thing, Pa,” Hoss agreed. He glanced down at Little Joe. Ben was already wrapping up his arm with a bandage. He saw Hoss kneel down beside the boy and tenderly caress his brother’s battered face. “He sure enough took a beatin’.”

Ben placed his hand down on Hoss’ big shoulder. “Yes, but I think in time he’ll be okay.”

“Sheriff!” Ben called when he saw movement at the door. “I thought you were a goner!”

“Naw…I’m fine. Jessie took a bullet to the leg, but we got ’em all. Thorpe and another we got tied up. The other two men…well, let’s just say they won’t be giving anyone any more trouble. Everyone in here alright? What about the boy?” he said, pointing to Little Joe.

“Shaw’s dead, Pa has a flesh wound, Hoss and I are alright and as for Little Joe…he’s out cold again,” Adam explained.

“When you have Shaw’s body ready, I’ll take all of them into town and send the doctor back out here to see after your son, Mr. Cartwright,” Sheriff Williams said. “Jessie will need to see him as well, so if you don’t mind, I’ll leave him here with you. That way Doc Myers need only make one trip tonight,” he smiled.

“Hoss and I will help you tie the bodies to their horses,” Adam offered as Hoss picked up Shaw’s body who Adam had wrapped in a blanket. He started toward the door.

“I’ll ride back with the Sheriff, Pa; never know, he might need me.” Hoss gave his father a grin. “You take care of Short Shanks.”

*****

It took Adam and Ben to get Little Joe cleaned up, dried and doctored the best they could until the real doctor got there. Adam had found the key to the shackles in the pocket of the former teacher.

Joe opened his eyes briefly. He gave his father and brother a small smile. “What happened to Mr. Shaw?” he asked in a weak voice.

Ben glanced at Adam. “He’s…dead, Little Joe,” Adam explained. “He drew down on me as I came in the door. There was nothing I could do. He won’t be bothering you anymore, kid,” he told his brother.

“When is the doctor supposed to be here?” Joe muttered. “My shoulders hurt; in fact, all my body hurts.”

Ben scooted the old cane back chair closer to the bed and picked up his son’s bruised hand. “Little Joe, I’m sorry, son…”

“Sorry? You don’t have anything to be sorry for, Pa,” Little Joe said. His eyes mirrored his pain and the sight of his son’s suffering broke Ben’s heart.

“I do, son. I should have listened to you. You told me he’d do something like this and I didn’t take you seriously. And you ended up being hurt. He would have killed you, son, if your brothers and I hadn’t found you in time. For your pain and suffering, I’m sorry.” Ben squeezed Joe’s hand. Though he tried, tears pooled in his eyes. Ben turned his head, blinking several times to keep them from falling.

“It’s alright, honest, Pa. Please…don’t blame yourself. Mr. Shaw was determined to hurt both of us. I’m glad he didn’t, Pa. I wouldn’t have wanted to…live…if he’d killed you.”

Ben bent over to stroke the boy’s face. “Joseph…it is I who would not want to carry on with you! I love you, son…more than life.”

Little Joe smiled. It touched Ben’s heart as Joe, though the pain in his shoulders was insurmountable, reached up to hug his father. “I love you, too, Pa. And we’ll all be alright when we get home. You just wait and see.”

*****

And with days of confinement to his bed, Little Joe’s body healed, and he, his father and his two brothers were fine, just as the boy had predicted.

***End***

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