The Hanging Tree (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  30,906


 

“STOP!  YOU HAVE TO LISTEN TO ME. MY NAME IS JOE CARTWRIGHT!” shouted the frightened young man as he fought against the hands that were dragging his body to the ground.

Someone’s knee was digging into his shoulder while other hands held his legs pinned down.  Joe winced when two men pulled his arms behind his back and then raised them straight up.

“Ouch!” yelled Joe.

“Shut up, kid; we know what ya was doin’,” growled one of the men.

Joe continued to yank and pull on his arms, trying desperately to free himself, but the three men who had maneuvered his body to the ground and had tied his hands tightly behind his back were too much for the young man.

“Get him on his feet,” ordered the lone man who had remained on his horse.

The men dragged Joe up by his arms and Joe twisted around so that he could see the face of the other man.  He was breathing hard, both from the fruitless battle and from being so scared at what he knew these men were fixing to do to him.  He glanced at the man with the rope in his hands and when the man tossed one end over a large branch and tied it off, Joe gulped and then whirled around to face the man called Zeb Willis.

“YOU HAVE TO LISTEN TO ME…MY FATHER IS BEN CARTWRIGHT,” groaned Joe when one of the men plowed his fist into Joe’s mid-section, causing the boy to double up.

“I didn’t rustle those cattle, mister…honest,” moaned Joe.

“Put him on his horse,” Willis ordered.

“NO!  YOU CAN’T DO THIS…”

Joe fought with every ounce he had in him to prevent the men from placing him in his saddle.  Cochise tried to shy away from the rush of strangers but one man grabbed his bridle and held him while the others shoved Joe onto his horse’s back.  The fourth man, who had flung the rope over the low hanging branch of the old oak tree and who had formed a hangman’s noose, waited while the men held Joe still long enough that he was able to slip the noose over the boy’s head and tighten it.  All the men, except the one holding Cochise, moved back and looked up at Zeb Willis, their boss.

“YOU’RE HANGING AN INNOCENT MAN!” cried Joe, who sat frozen with fear for the last time on his pinto. He felt his eyes cloud with tears, and he felt his body quivering in fear, he was going to die, there was no doubt and there was no one here who cared enough to prevent his dying.  Joe felt a stab of regret, knowing what his family would suffer, once they learned of his fate.

“My father will never let this pass, he’ll come looking for you, all of you and he won’t stop until you’re all dead,” Joe spat at the man who had inched his horse along side of his pinto.

“Zeb…wait a minute!” shouted the man holding on to Cochise.  “The kid said his father was Ben Cartwright…I’ve heard of him…he’s over Virginia City way…the boy might be tellin’ ya the truth.”

“That’s right mister, he owns the Ponderosa…I was here to buy cattle, not to steal them.  John Marsh made the deal with my father and this morning we finished with the business end.  Mr. Marsh, at least that’s what the man said his name was, signed a bill of sale.” Joe quickly said.

“Ya got a bill of sale?” Willis asked.

“In my right front pocket,” Joe answered and then leaned over slightly so that the man called Willis could reach into his pocket.

Willis unfolded the paper and scanned the words.  He glanced up at Joe who watched him nervously and then followed the man with his eyes when Willis turned to the man on the ground.

“Jim, is this John Marsh’s mark?” Willis asked and handed the paper to the one named Jim.

Jim looked down at the mark that had been made on the paper and then slowly raised his head, looking first at Joe and then at Willis.  He shook his head.

“John Marsh didn’t have to make a mark; he knew how to write his name,” Jim told Willis.

Jim returned the paper to Willis and Willis folded it up and put it in his pocket.  He turned to Joe.

“This doesn’t look to good for you, kid.  What did John Marsh look like?” Willis asked.

Joe gulped and then swallowed, the rope fit tight against his throat and being scared half out of his mind, he pinched his eyes tightly shut, trying to remember the man’s face that had sold him the cattle.

“About fortyish — he wasn’t very tall, he had dark hair, blue eyes, and had a scar down the left side of his face,” stammered Joe as he opened his eyes and looked over at Willis.

The men on the ground exchanged knowing looks and waited with baited breath for their boss to speak.

“You’re a liar, kid. John Marsh was nearly sixty years old and practically bald.  This morning, we found him and his old lady, murdered and the only one who was anywhere near their place was you.  You admitted that yourself, and now we know who murdered them and who rustled their cattle.”

Zeb Willis circled his horse around Cochise and pulled his to a stop, looking into the tear filled, frightened eyes of the young man who was about to die.  He removed his hat and clutched it tightly in his right hand.

“Ya got anything to say for yourself?”

Joe could feel his body trembling, he felt the tears slip silently down the sides of his face, but he held his head up high when he looked at Willis.

“You’re hanging an innocent man,” Joe said, his voice quivering with unbridled fear.

“YAH!  GET OUTTA HERE!” shouted Willis as his hand, holding tightly to his hat, slapped the rump of Joe’s horse.

The startled pinto bolted, leaving Joe swinging gently from the high limb.  Joe’s booted toes twitched, his eyes rolled back in his head as the rope jerked tightly about his neck, cutting off all air supply to his lungs.  For several moments, his body twisted slightly as the rope spun him around in small circles.   The men watched, as several times the spasms caused the boy’s body to jerk.  From the mouth, saliva spewed and the last remains dripped slowly from the corners until all life had been expelled.

Zeb Willis signaled for his men to mount up and when they were ready, each rode away from the scene, never looking back at the tree where Joe Cartwright’s remains were left to rot in the hot Nevada sun.

*****

Ben Cartwright shoved his hat back on his head and brushed his brow with the sleeve of his shirt.  He gazed off toward the horizon, shielding his eyes from the sun’s hot rays.

“I wonder what’s keeping that boy?” he grumbled to Adam and Hoss who sat beneath the shade of a large elm tree.

“Beats me,” Hoss said as he peeked from beneath the rim of his hat.

He’d been leaning his head back against the trunk of the tree and dozing.  He pushed his body up from the ground and dusted the dirt particles from the seat of his pants.  Slowly he made his way over to his father until he stood at Ben’s side.

“See anythin’?” he asked.

“Nothing.  You just wait until I catch up with that scamp!  I told him to get right straight back here; we have men waiting to drive those cattle back to the Ponderosa and they’re getting edgy just sitting around.”

Ben arranged his hat properly and nodded toward Adam.

“Wake him up and let’s ride.  I don’t like the thoughts of having to go look for that boy, but he leaves me no other choice.”

“Yessir,” Hoss quickly answered and then hurried to wake his brother.

“Adam, wake up…we’re to go look for Little Joe…Pa’s gettin’ worried about’em,” Hoss said as he nudged his older brother with the toe of his boot.

Adam let out a long sigh and glanced up at Hoss.  “Why am I not surprised?” he fumed.  “And my dream was just getting to the good part,” he half smiled at his middle brother.

“Oh yeah,” grinned Hoss, “what was it about?”

Adam was tightening the cinch on his saddle and gazed over the top of his horse.  His dark eyes twinkled as he smiled at his brother.

“Not what, brother…more like who!”

“Who?  What who…a she who or a he who?” asked Hoss excitedly.

“Never mind what or who,” Ben said as he pulled Buck around and mounted up.  “You two hurry up, we’ve wasted enough time as it is just waiting for your brother.  Come on, let’s ride.”

Ben kicked gently at his horse’s sides and together the three rode down the long dusty path that would ultimately lead them to the hangin’ tree, where at that precise moment Joe Cartwright’s life was about to end in heartache for his family.

Ben and his sons had not ridden more than a couple miles when Ben reined in his horse.  Adam and Hoss each stopped along side their father.  They sat atop a small rise that looked over the valley below them.  Ben scanned the grasses below, searching for any signs of his youngest son.  His disappointment showed in his eyes and the in the anxious expression on his face.

“Pa, lookit…ain’t that Cochise?” Hoss said.

He pointed down the opposite side of the slope, shading his eyes so that the sun would not blind him.

“Yep, sure ‘nough,” he said more to himself than to his father.

“Come on.”

Ben nudged Buck into a run followed closely by his sons and minutes later they were all dismounting.  Adam was first to his brother’s horse and quickly grabbed the reins that dangled down to the ground.

“Whoa boy,” Adam muttered softly.

Ben quickly inspected the horse for signs that might give him some clue as to where its rider might be.

“Ain’t no blood on this side, Pa,” Hoss said.

“Nothing here either,” Ben said in a relieved tone.

He raised his head, glancing in all directions.

“He couldn’t have come far; he isn’t lathered,” Adam speculated after rubbing his opened palm down the front of the horse.

“Pa, there’s tracks over here,” Hoss pointed to the grass at his feet.  He lifted his head and pointed off into the distance.  “This way.”

Adam and Ben mounted up and waited until Hoss took the lead.  They rode slowly, giving Hoss time to inspect the ground carefully as they inched their way along.  Suddenly Hoss stopped.  They had crested another rise and he stood silently, gazing down at the old oak tree in the small clearing.

Ben was the first to find his voice.

“Oh dear God…NO!” muttered Ben as he urged his horse into action.

Eyes wide with fear, the three prodded their horses into a gallop and raced down the slope until they had reached the clearing.  Ben slid from his horse at a full ran to grab at his son’s dangling feet to hold the boy up, hoping to relieve some of the pressure on Joe’s neck.

“JOSEPH!” shrieked Ben as Hoss cut the rope with his knife and allowed Joe’s body to slip into his father’s arms.

Adam helped Ben grab Joe’s lifeless body and together they gently lowered it to the ground.  Adam placed his fingers over the pulse spot on his brother’s neck, trying hard not to let the hot bile he felt boiling in his throat spew out onto the ground.  He glanced at his father and instantly saw the heartbroken expression that had caused the tears to swell in the dark eyes that looked so longingly into his youngest son’s face.

“Anything?” Ben, his words choked and strained as he force them out.  “Is he alive?”

“ADAM!” Hoss was beside himself.  His tears had already spilled over and were running unchecked down his face.

“There it is!” Adam exclaimed.  “I’ve found a pulse, it’s weak, but it’s there!”

Immediately Adam ripped opened the front of his brother’s shirt and standing astride his brother, grabbed the boy’s belt and began lifting Joe’s body up and down, forcing air into his brother’s lungs.

“Breathe, son, breathe!” Ben encouraged as he watched the boy’s face for signs of life.

Joe’s lips moved slightly and then he began to sputter.

“That’s it, short shanks, take a deep breath!” Hoss whispered.

When Joe’s mouth finally popped opened and the boy sucked in a mouthful of air, Hoss dabbed at the dampness on his face.

“He’s breathing!  Joseph!  Joseph!” Ben cried as he gathered his son into his arms and rocked back and forth.

The rope had been removed from around Joe’s neck and the nasty rope-burn that remained was a horrid reminder of what had almost happened.

“Here, Pa.”  Adam had removed the cork from his canteen and handed it to his father.

Ben tried to take hold of the water receptacle but his hands were shaking so badly that he was unable to hold anything other than the precious bundle in his arms.

Adam looked into his father’s face.  Ben was weeping; it was something that Adam had not seen his father do for many years.  Adam momentarily closed his eyes, remembering the last time.

The spirited horse had come racing into the yard; the zealous rider glowing with the thrill of the ride when suddenly the horse stumbled, sending the beautiful Marie catapulting through the air.  Ben’s wife, Joe’s mother, was dead as soon as she had hit the ground.  What happened afterwards had seared its memory into Adam’s mind and heart, for his father had run to his fallen wife and had gathered her lovingly into his arms and wept, great tears of sorrow, much as he was now, with Marie’s son clutched against his breast.

Adam swallowed his own misery and placed a hand onto his father’s shoulder.

“Pa,” he said softly.  “We need to get Joe to town, they have a doctor…and Joe needs one.”  Adam waited; Ben said nothing other than the soft cooing sounds he made to Joe who had opened his eyes and was staring blankly up at his father.

“Pa…Adam’s right…Joe needs a doctor.”

Hoss placed both hands on his father’s shoulders, glanced at Adam and then tried to ease his distraught father to his feet.  Ben refused to budge.  He tightened his hold on his son, crushing Joe to his heart.  When he glanced up, his weary brown eyes met Adam’s and his son could clearly see just how frightened his father had been at coming so near to losing his youngest son.

“Please, Pa…Joe needs tending to,” Adam said in a gentle voice that he hoped did not betray his own inner turmoil.

Cautiously, Adam slipped his hands under his brother’s body and eased himself up.  His father rose at the same time, his hands still clinging to his son.  As Adam turned, he nodded his head at Hoss, who took the hint and began gently guiding Ben toward his horse.  Once he was sure that Ben was mounted, he turned to Adam and took Joe into his own arms and held him while Adam mounted his horse and then handed the semi-conscious boy up to his older brother.

By the time that the foursome had reached the nearest town, Ben had regained control of his emotions and his actions, much to the relief of both Adam and Hoss.

“The doctor’s office?  Where’s it at?” Ben asked of a man in the street.

“That way, around the corner,” the stranger pointed his finger and then stood and watched as the Cartwrights made their way down the street.

Hoss helped Adam carry Joe into the office where a nurse met them the moment they entered.

“Oh my,” she muttered.  “Bring him in here and put him on that bed; I’ll get the doctor,” she said as she opened a door that led to a back room and to the bed that she had pointed to.  “I’ll be right back.”

Joe was placed carefully on the little bed and Ben grabbed a light blanket that was folded at the foot and spread it out over Joe.

“Pa…” Joe murmured in a tiny voice that edged on fear.

“I’m here, son,” Ben said as he brushed back the dark curls.

Carefully he removed his son’s neckerchief.  He was appalled at the burn that circled his son’s neck.  His stomach churned as he fought against the sick feeling that caused it.

“I…didn’t…” Joe’s chin began to quiver and his fearful eyes filled with tears and then spilled over. His words were nearly inaudible.

The tiny droplets ran from the corners of his eyes and dripped into his ears.  Ben wiped them away as he stood with his head bent low over Joe’s.  He forced a smile, and tenderly caressed the boy’s cheek.

“Shh…don’t cry son…it’s all over.  You’re safe…I won’t let anyone hurt you again, I promise,” whispered Ben.

Joe opened his mouth to try to speak, but Ben stopped him.  “No…don’t try to talk.  Whatever it is, it can wait for now.”

Joe shook his head and reached for his father’s hand.  “I…have to…tell you…” he uttered in a hoarse, broken whisper.

His voice was raspy and it took all his dwindling strength just to force the words to the surface so that he might proclaim his innocence to his father.

His words were broken and strained and his voice hardly above a whisper as he pulled Ben to him.

“What is it, son, that you want me to know?” Ben said.

He was forced to turn his head so that his ear was practically on top of Joe’s lips so that he could hear what Joe was trying to tell him.

“Didn’t…do…it…” Joe’s voice trailed off until Ben could no longer understand what Joe was saying.  Joe’s hand had fallen away and now lay motionless on top of the blanket.

When Ben raised his head, Joe had closed his eyes.  Ben looked worriedly at his two older sons.

“What did he say?” questioned Adam.

Ben pinched his lips tightly, “I’m not sure; it was hard to make out what he was trying to tell me, but it sounded like he was saying that he didn’t do it…whatever it might be.”

Adam glanced at Joe and then at his father.  “Maybe he was trying to tell you that he didn’t do whatever it was that he was hanged for.”

Before Ben could make a comment, the door opened, revealing the doctor who hurried to his patient’s bedside.

His eyes fell on the bright red burn mark that circled the youngest Cartwright’s neck.  His fingers gently touched the area and the doctor pinched his lips tightly together in disgust.

“When a man’s hung, which is obviously what’s happened here, the least the hangman could do is to be sure the man’s dead,” the physician said softly.

“Marge, hand me the disinfectant and some bandages, please…and the salve.”

While the doctor waited for the needed items, his fingers carefully felt along Joe’s throat.  He probed gently and then leaned closer for a better look at the burn.

“This boy is lucky his neck wasn’t broken.  I can’t tell for sure about his vocal cords, they could be damaged.  If they are, it’s possible that the boy will never speak again.”

“He was trying to whisper something to me before he passed out,” Ben said as he stepped around to the opposite side of the bed.

The doctor raised his head and looked up at Ben.

“That’s a good sign, but it means that he only spoke to you in a whispered voice.  There could still be some damage that could prevent him from speaking in a normal tone of voice.  Thank you Marge,” he said when the nurse handed him the salve and disinfectant.

It didn’t take the doctor long to finish what he was doing and when he had completed the task, he administered an injection into Joe’s arm.

“He can stay here tonight, Mr. Cartwright.  I’ve given him something to make him sleep; he’ll need all of his strength come morning.  Unfortunately, the sheriff will be by then to speak to your son.  For obvious reasons, he’ll want to talk to your son and gather some facts.  As much as I hate to say this, your son was hung for some reason.  The sheriff will want to know why.”

Ben nodded his head in agreement.  “Yes, I suspect he will; so would I,” Ben said looking at the doctor.  “I appreciate what you’ve done for him, and for letting we keep him here.  Thank you.”  Ben pulled his wallet from his pocket and handed the doctor some bills.  “I hope this will be enough.”

“It’s fine. Mr. Cartwright.  Please, I have a room in back; if your sons would help me move the boy in there, I think he will be more comfortable.  There’s a cot as well, if you would like to stay with him?”

“Yes, I’d rather not leave him,” Ben informed Doctor Hayworth.

“I understand.  Gentlemen, this way.”

Doctor Hayworth opened a door off to the side and allowed Adam and Hoss to carefully carry Joe into the spare room.  Nurse Marge quickly pulled back the blanket and sheet and allowed Adam and Hoss to place Joe in to the bed.  When they were finished settling their brother, she pulled up the blanket and tucked it in around Joe.

She smiled when she turned to Ben.  “Just call if you need anything.  I’ll bring you all some fresh coffee.”

Ben returned the smile, though his was forced, and tipped his head slightly.  “Thank you ma’am, I could use some about now.”

*****

Joe slept the remainder of the day and far into the night before stirring.  Dawn was just breaking through the gray mist of what remained of the night when Joe’s eyes opened slightly, seeing his father sitting near the bed, his head slumped over and his eyes closed in sleep.  Joe opened his mouth to call out, but nothing came forth.  Frantically, Joe’s hands reached around his neck and he began yanking at the soft bandage that the doctor had so carefully wrapped about the rope burn that circled his entire neck.

Joe yelled out for his father, but he could not voice the fear that he believed spewed aloud.  When he glanced at his father and saw that Ben was still sleeping, Joe kicked back the covers from his bed and began crawling off the side.  His legs accidentally kicked his father’s leg, causing Ben to bolt upright.

“Joseph!” Ben called, “what on earth are you doing?” he demanded as he sprung to his feet and grabbed Joe by his shoulders and gently pushed him back down on the bed.

“Get back in bed, son!”

Joe seized his father’s arms and with one hand, pointed to his throat.  He opened his mouth to try to speak, but still his words were silent.  He looked anxiously into his father’s eyes as his own eyes began to brim with unshed tears.

Ben realized that his son was frightened and confused as he hurried to console the boy.

“It’s okay, son…the doctor said it might take you awhile to get your voice back.  Now, please lie down,” encouraged Ben as he helped Joe back to bed and then covered him up with the blankets.

Ben turned to the bedside table and poured a glass of water, then handed it to Joe.

“Here, son, trying drinking this.  Is your throat sore?” he asked as he helped Joe raise his head and then hold the glass up to his lips.

Joe sipped some of the water and then pushed the glass away.  He nodded his head yes allowing his head to drop back against the pillow.  The tears had escaped and dripped slowly down from the corners of his eyes.  When he glanced up at his father, Ben almost winced at the defeated expression he saw in his son’s eyes.

“Joe,” he said with more assurance than he was actually feeling.

Gently he picked up Joe’s hand and held it between his own two hands.  He noted the small red ring around the wrist where the rope had cut into the boy’s flesh while his hands were tied behind his back and he gently caressed the spot with his thumb.  Inside, Ben was livid at what had happened to his youngest son, his pride and joy, the boy who brought such happiness into his life when he had needed it the most.  Silently at first and then vocally, he make Joe a promise, one in which he aimed to fulfill.

“Joe,” he repeated, “everything will be alright, son.  I promise you.  We’ll find the men who did this to you, I swear it; if it takes me the rest of my life, I will make them pay for this…this…barbarous act of injustice!”

Ben wiped the tears from his son’s face and leaned down, placing a kiss on the boy’s brow.  He was surprised when Joe slipped his arms about his father’s neck and held them in place for several moments.  When Ben at last raised his head, the tears were gone and Joe smiled slightly up at his father.

“Close your eyes, son, try to rest.  The sheriff will be here in a couple of hours and he’s going to ask you some questions about what happened,” Ben said as he arranged the blankets again.

Ben saw Joe swallow and look doubtfully up at his father.  He grabbed Ben’s hand and held on to it tightly for several moments as he closed his eyes.  It wasn’t long before Joe had fallen back to sleep, secure in the knowledge that his father had remained close by.

*****

“He’s awake now, sheriff. The doctor said it was alright for you to talk to him for a short while,” Adam explained and then showed the sheriff to Joe’s room.

Joe was propped up in the bed.  Ben stood on one side and Hoss on the other.  At first glance they appeared to be standing guard over the boy, and Adam couldn’t refrain from smiling.  The first impression that the sheriff must surely have gotten when he saw them, eyes wide in surprise, might have been that Ben Cartwright and this young giant of a man, was a force to be reckoned with.

“Mr. Cartwright, this is Sheriff Lloyd Cooper; sheriff, Ben Cartwright, and this is one of his sons, Hoss, and I think you’ve already met his oldest son, Adam.”  The doctor made the introductions.  He then turned to Joe and then back to the sheriff.  “This lucky young man is Joseph Cartwright.”

Sheriff Cooper shook each Cartwright’s hand, beginning with Ben’s and finally Little Joe’s.  “Mind if I sit?” he asked no one in particular as he pulled a chair close to the bed.

He watched Joe for several moments before speaking and then cleared his throat.  “How are you feeling?” he asked the boy.

Joe nodded his head indicating that he was all right.

“The doctor tells me that you are having a hard time talking.  He seems to think it is only temporary, I certainly hope so, young man.  Considering, I’ll try to make all my questions yes and no answers, how’s that?”

Again, Joe nodded his head.

“Good, first off, Joe…do you know who the men were that did this?”

Joe shook his head no.

“No one called anyone by name?” the sheriff asked as he made notes.

Joe glanced nervously over at his father and then quickly at the sheriff.  The sheriff had not seen the silent exchange between father and son.  When the sheriff looked up, Joe shook his head no.

“You sure?”

Again Joe nodded yes.

“Joe, can you show me by holding up your fingers, how many men where there?”

Joe held up eight fingers.

“Eight…that sure didn’t give you very good odds,” Sheriff Cooper said softly.

“Mr. Cartwright,” the sheriff had turned to Ben, addressing him.  “Late last night two men brought in the bodies of a man and woman…they had been shot, both of them.  The man’s name was John Marsh, the woman, Lilly, was his wife.”

Ben gasped, “Did you say John Marsh?”

“Yes, that’s right, why, did you know him?”

“Well…yes.  That’s where Joseph was going to buy cattle,” explained Ben.

The sheriff looked back at Joe and studied the boy’s face.  It was ashen and the boy wore a look of pain and fear embedded in his expression.

“Joe,” the sheriff began.  “Did you see either Mr. Marsh or his wife when you were there?”

Joe had seen a man, he had supposed that the man had been Marsh, but how could he tell the sheriff that?  He held his hands out in a gesture of helplessness.

“Let me rephrase that question so you can answer it with either yes or no.  Did you see and speak to a man?”

Joe nodded his head yes.

“And you spoke with him, about buying his cattle?” the sheriff quizzed.

Joe nodded his head yes and then glanced at his father.  There was so much he wanted to say, but his voice could not produce the words.

“I take it you got a bill of sale, and the money?”

Joe’s head nodded up and down.

“Do you still have it?” the sheriff asked.

A look of fear flooded Joe’s hazel eyes and he shook his head no and then Ben saw his son gulp.

“Joe…did the men who…hung you…take the paper?” Ben leaned down close to Joe and looked him in the eye, hoping to relieve some of the inner fear that he could see staking claim to his son.

Joe took a gulp of air and nodded yes to his father.  He tried speaking, but his throat was so sore he could not form the words.  Ben saw the boy’s eyes fill with water and he quickly took Joe’s hand and squeezed it gently within the folds of his own.

“Shh…it’s alright, son, don’t get upset.”

Ben glanced up at the sheriff.  “Are you about finished Sheriff?  My son needs to rest.”

The sheriff stood up from the chair he had been sitting in and turned to Ben.  “Just one more question and then I’ll be finished.”

He looked down at Joe.  “The man you paid and who signed your bill of sale, did he have a long scar running down the side of his face?”

Joe’s eyes widened in surprise and he glanced quickly at his father.  He opened his mouth and mouthed the word ‘yes’, and nodded his head up and down.

The sheriff pinched his lips tightly together and glanced at the men in the room.  “I was afraid of that,” he muttered.

Ben stood to his feet.  He watched the expression on the sheriff’s face as he spoke.

“What do you mean by that?”

“The man…the man that supposedly sold your son those steers was brought in over the back of his horse early this morning.  He had nearly ten thousand dollars on him and John Marsh’s pocket watch in his own pocket.  He’d been shot in the back.”

Adam moved around the corner of his brother’s bed and stood facing the sheriff.  “What are you saying — that the man was the one who killed Marsh and his wife?”

Sheriff Cooper sighed deeply.  “I reckon so, Mr. Cartwright; the finger of guilt certainly points to him.  Seems that you brother there must have happened along as Jack Marlow — that’s the man my deputy brought in this morning.  Anyway, the boy there must have happened by as Jack was fixing to leave.  Unknown to your brother, Jack had already killed John and Lillie.”

“Then them men what hung Joe…they hung an innocent man,” Hoss growled. His eyes grew dark and his anger began shadowing his naturally docile features. “What’cha gonna do about them?” he demanded.

Cooper faced the Cartwrights and shook his head.  “Can’t do nuthin’ to ’em; all the evidence pointed at your brother and besides, out here in this part of the…”

“They didn’t know he wasn’t guilty…they didn’t take time to find out, from the way I see it.  And how about a trial…they took the law into their own hands, shouldn’t they stand accountable for that?” demanded Ben.

“Yeah…ya gonna try to find out who they are and do somethin’ about it?” growled Hoss.  “Cause if’n ya ain’t gonna, we will!”

The sheriff held his hands up to silence the angry trio.  “Now you hold on just a minute; the three of you will do nothin’…do ya understand that?  This is my job and I don’t need no man ridin’ with me that goes off half-cocked!”

Cooper turned to Ben and pointed a finger at him. “You take your sons home, all three of them and I’ll see to finding the men who hung your boy there, do you understand?”

Ben glared at the other man.  His anger was evident on his face and he was hard pressed to keep it from showing.

“I’ll take them home, all three of them.  But you understand this, I’ll be back.  I want the men who did this,” Ben proclaimed as he pointed toward Joe.  “They should be tried for attempted murder…”

“Pa,” said Adam softly, as he placed his hand on Ben’s shoulder to calm his father.

“Sheriff Cooper, we’ll go home, but as soon as Joe is able, we’ll all be back.”  Adam glanced at his father.  “I assure you, we won’t go off half cocked; all we want is to see that justice is served.”

*****

“What’ll we do now?  That kid dun seen every last one of us,” growled Frank.

“We ain’t going to do a thing…”

“But Boss, the boy knows your name; he knows you’re the one who ordered him hung.  And the fact that he didn’t tell the sheriff who dun it, can only mean that he aims on comin’ after you,” Jim, the man who had questioned Zeb at the hangin’ tree, questioned him for the second time in two days.

Zeb took a puff on his cigarette and blew the smoke over his head.  He was leaning back against the wall in his chair.  Another long drag on the cigarette and Zeb leaned forward, flicking the butt out into the yard.  He glanced at his men who had gathered around him.

“And when he does, I’ll be ready for him.  Hell, he ain’t much more than a boy.  He can’t be a day over eighteen,” Zeb snickered.

“He has family…two brothers and his old man.  And from what I hear tell Cartwright’s got money…and lots of it…he’ll bring more men with him.  I dun a little askin’ round, and Ben Cartwright prizes nothin’ more than his sons, especially that youngest.  I seen the look on his face when he rode out of town, I’m tellin’ ya Zeb, the man’s a force to reckon with,” Smitty stated.

Zeb stood to his feet.  “Well then, I suppose I’d better come up with a plan,” he said.

“Jim, saddle some horses,” ordered Zeb.

Frank and Smitty glanced at one another.  “What’cha got planned, Boss?” Smitty asked with a grin.  He turned his head and spat tobacco juice unto the ground.

“We’re gonna take a little trip,” muttered Zeb.

“Yeah?  Where to?” Frank asked.

Zeb had been staring off into the horizon but now looked down at the two men from the top step where he stood.

“To find that boy.  My guess is them Cartwright’s won’t live to get home.  They might just run into an accident.”  His laugher was loud and menacing.

“Get your things together and be ready to ride in an hour.”  Zeb turned and walked into the house.

Less than an hour later, Zeb and the others, Frank, Smitty, and Jim were mounted up and on their way.

*****

Ben and his sons had been on the trail for only a short time when Joe suddenly pulled back on Cochise’s reins, halting the horse suddenly.  Ben turned in the saddle, seeing Joe stop so quickly and turned his horse around and rode back to Joe.

Joe’s face was drained of all coloring and had turned a pasty shade of white.  Tiny beads of perspiration beaded on the boy’s brow.  Ben noted how his son struggled with his emotions and the fear that had suddenly cloud his eyes.

“Joe, what’s wrong, boy?” Ben said in a gentle voice.  “You feeling poorly?”

Adam and Hoss, who stared at the sudden transformation on their brother’s face, joined Ben.

“What’s wrong?” Hoss whispered.

“I don’t know; he looks as if he’s seen a ghost,” muttered Ben.

He inched Buck closer to Joe’s horse and leaned over, placing a firm hand on Joe’s arm.

“Son?”

Joe’s trance was broken as he turned tear filled eyes on his father.  He swallowed hard and then lowered his head so that his family could not see the swell of tears that clouded his vision.  He felt himself shiver as if he were cold, though the heat was nearly unbearable.

“Adam, Hoss, give me a minute alone with your brother, please,” Ben requested.

“Sure Pa,” Adam replied and then motioned for Hoss to ride along with him.

Ben waited until Adam and Hoss were out of hearing range and then turned again to Joe.

“What is it, Joe?  What has you so frightened?” Ben urged in a compassionate voice.

Joe raised his head slowly and looked at his father.  Ben could see the torment in the younger man’s expression and his heart went out to his son.  Joe swallowed again and pointed off to the east.

Ben followed with his eyes, the direction that Joe had pointed.  He inhaled deeply and then quickly turned to his son.

“Joseph, I’m so sorry…I didn’t realize we would have to come back this way.”

Ben leaned forward and took Cochise’s reins and turned both horses away from the sight of the old oak tree where Joe had come so close to losing his life.

Joe did not put up an argument as Ben took charge of his horse.  Once, he looked back over his shoulder at the tree and the memory that had seared itself in his mind and heart forever.  When he had lost sight of the hangin’ tree, Joe lowered his head.  Two tiny droplets of water slipped from beneath his lowered lashes and dripped onto his green jacket, unseen by his father.

For the remainder of the long, hot day, Joe rode in silence, making no effort to join in the gentle banter between his brothers or in the small talk that his father tried to entice him into.

By the time that dusk had begun to settle in, all four Cartwrights were tired, though none complained as they pulled their horses to a final stop for the night.

“Ya reckon the boys got home all right with the herd?” Hoss asked Ben as he pulled the saddle from Chubb’s broad back.

“I’m sure they did, son,” Ben said, doing the same.

He glanced over at Joe who had already removed his saddle and who had settled himself beneath the shade of an ancient oak.  Joe had his head propped back against the trunk and had closed his eyes.

“What happened back there on the trail this afternoon?” Adam asked as he joined his father and Hoss who had begun to set up camp for the night.

Ben glanced at Joe to be sure he was still dozing and then at both his sons.

“I didn’t realize the direction we were moving and when he stopped, it was near that tree…the one where they…hmm…left Joe,” Ben sputtered.

Saying the words were difficult for him, for the memory alone of what his son had been made to suffer, and the fear that Joe must surely have felt and so obviously still carried with him, caused Ben’s words to become lodged in the deepest depths of his throat.  Ben lowered his head for a long moment.

“I didn’t realize it either, Pa…I’m sorry,” Adam said in a low voice.

“No need, son, I should have been more aware.  But the only thing I had on my mind was getting Joe out of there and home as soon as possible,” explained Ben.

*****

“Joe…wake up, son.” Ben gently nudged Joe’s shoulder to wake him.  “Supper’s ready, Joe.”

Joe slowly opened his eyes, seeing his father’s face before him in the soft glow of the campfire.  Joe returned the smile.

“I must…” Joe began to cough lightly and grabbed his throat.  He glanced up at the dark eyes that watched him with a worried expression.

Joe cleared his throat and then spoke in a whispered voice.  “For a minute I’d forgotten what happened,” he said sadly.

“Try not to think about it right now, son; Hoss has us something to eat.  Come on over to the fire where you can get warm,” suggested Ben, offering Joe a hand up.

Joe clasped his hand into Ben’s and allowed his father to help him stand up.  Almost sluggishly he followed Ben to the fire and accepted a plate of beans from Hoss who smiled up at him.

“Ain’t much little brother, but it beats starving,” Hoss chuckled.

Joe took a seat and looked down at his plate of beans.  “I don’t know, Hoss; starving might be a better option than having to eat your cooking,” Joe said with the first real smile since his ordeal.

Hoss put a mock frown on his face and reached to take Joe’s plate from his hand.  “Fine, I’ll eat…”

Joe grabbed back his plate, giggling, “Oh no you don’t. I saw Pa doctoring these up earlier; they shouldn’t be too bad.”  Quickly Joe began spooning the beans into his mouth.

Ben watched the expression on Joe’s face as Joe winced as the first bite went down.

Joe glanced up to see his family watching him. “Hurts to swallow,” he said unhappily.  “Maybe I’d better stick with just coffee.”  Joe handed the plate to Hoss who looked disappointed.  “Sorry Hoss,” Joe muttered as he poured himself a cup of coffee and then standing walked back to his bedroll.

Hoss followed his brother’s retreating steps with his eyes.  When Joe had settled himself, Hoss turned to Adam and his father. “Poor kid,” he muttered.  “He must’va been scared half outta his mind.”  Hoss took a deep breath and held it for a moment before letting it escape from his lungs.  “So help me, if I get my hands on the man who put that rope around Joe’s neck, I’ll…”

“You’ll do nothing, Hoss, and neither will you Adam, is that understood?” Ben glared.

“But Pa…”

“No!  Understand me…this is a job for the law, and we will let them handle it,” announced Ben.

“I thought you said we were going back?” Adam spoke up to say.

Ben let out a long sigh of his own.

“I know that’s what I said, and I know I promised Joe that I would find the men who did this to him, and I will, but first I want to take Joe home where he can feel safe.  He has had a terrible fright; I can’t imagine what might have been running through his head when he realized that those men were actually going to hang him.”

Ben made a soft groan and stood to his feet, turning his back to his older sons.  The thoughts of what Joe must have suffered weighed heavy on the compassionate father’s heart.

Adam swapped knowing looks with Hoss and then stood up.  He stepped close to his father and placed a loving hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Pa, I know what you’re thinking…and you can’t blame yourself for this.”

Ben turned dark eyes toward Adam; his expression was one of anger, not directed at his son, but at what had been. “I do blame myself.  I sent a boy to do a man’s job and…”

“That’s not so, and you, of all people, should know that.  Joe’s no boy; he’s a young man doing a man’s job, carrying a man’s responsibly to his duty and to his family.  You said as much, you said for us to stop thinking of Little Joe as a boy and give him the credit that’s due a man…you said…”

“I know what I said!” snapped Ben as he moved away.  “He’s a boy…” Ben spun around and faced Adam and Hoss, who had joined Adam.  Ben pointed to Adam and then Hoss.  “You’re a boy, you’re a boy…to me, all three of you will always be my boys.  You’ve grown into manhood, you act like a man, you live like a man, but understand one thing…to me you are my boys!  And no one, no one…has a right to do to one of my boys what was done to your brother, and get away with it!” Ben stomped off and faded into the darkness.  He could be heard moving about in the shadows for several moments and then all fell silent.

Hoss gave Adam a weary look.  “Wonder where he’s headin’?”

“Probably down to the creek.  He needs time alone, Hoss; he’s blaming himself for what happened to Joe,” said Adam as he sat back down on his bedroll.  His eyes ventured in Joe’s direction.  “Wonder where Joe made off to?”

Hoss followed Adam’s line of vision and then scratched his head.  “Probably had to relieve himself.”  Hoss lowered his massive frame down onto his bedroll and picked up his plate of beans and resumed eating his supper.

Adam snuggled down into his blanket and covered his face with his hat.  Within minutes he was asleep.

Hoss finished his supper and made quick work of cleaning up before he settled in for the night.  He slipped into his bedroll, giving one last glance in Joe’s direction to see that Joe had not yet returned.  Ben stepped into the edge of firelight just as Hoss pulled the blanket up around his chin.

“Where’s Joe?” Ben asked, leaning down and whispering so as not to awaken Adam.

“Not sure, Pa; guess he had to take a little trip to the woods.  Don’t worry, I heard him moving about a coupl’a minutes ago,” offered Hoss as he scrunched up his face and rubbed his nose.  Yawning, the big man closed his eyes and was soon sleeping.

Ben poured himself another cup of coffee and leaned back against his saddle.  His eyes kept roaming toward the empty bedroll where Joe had spread his gear.  He wondered what was keeping the boy, though he figured that having caught a nap, Joe might have done as he had done, and being unable to sleep, had ventured down to the creek to be alone.

Ben tossed the remnants of coffee from his tin cup and set the cup on a stone near the fire. He scooted down into his bedroll and with one last quick glance at Joe’s gear Ben closed his eyes and fell into a deep slumber.

*****

“What are we going to do with ’em, now that we got ’em?” Smitty dared to ask.

“Tie him across your horse.  Make sure he doesn’t wake up; if he does, hit him on the head again.  We’re going to go back to the ranch…”

“Back to the ranch?  Why for God’s sake?” Frank questioned.

Zeb Willis was stooped over the unconscious boy and jabbed at the still form with the toe of his boot.

“ ‘Cause, it’ll be the last place that anyone would ever think to look for him.  And besides,” said Zeb as he moved to his horse, “the deputy said that the kid didn’t tell the sheriff who hung him, and it isn’t likely that he’s had a chance to tell his old man.  Seems logical that his family won’t have a clue as to where to start looking for him.  Now hurry it up; sling him across that horse.”

Smitty and Frank gathered Joe’s body into their arms and without much ado or concern for how they handed the body, they slung Joe, face down, across the saddle of a horse.  Frank tied Joe’s hands tightly together while Smitty make sure Joe’s ankles were tight and then slipped the rope under the horse’s belly.  Frank took the loose end and pulling the rope snug, tied it to Joe’s wrists, being sure that Joe’s body would not be bounced off the horse.  The rope was then tossed over Joe’s back, criss-crossed and secured.

“What are you goin’ do with the boy once ya got him back to your place?” Jim, the oldest man of the group asked.

Zeb had mounted up and he glanced through the darkness at the motionless form and shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t rightly know; might hang him again…but this time, I’ll make sure he’s good and dead…or I might take him to the high country and let Ma Farrow have him,” Zeb snickered at the joke he had made.

Jim looked back at Joe and made a disgusted face that he kept hidden from his boss.  His mind was racing at the image Zeb’s words had conjured up of Ma Farrow and what she had been know to do to other non-suspecting young men.

Jim knew all about Ma Farrow; she was a nasty, foul smelling, snaggled-tooth old lady who ruled the mountain.  Her man, Seth Farrow had been killed nearly ten years ago.  Seth had been accused of murdering a rich cattle baron’s son, which Ma swore on her own son’s grave that her man had not committed the murder, but no one believed her.  Since that time, Ma had moved herself to the highest peak of the mountain and had built herself a nasty reputation.  She hated all men, young and old, especially the young men.  It had been a young man who had placed the hangman’s noose bout her husband’s neck and then left him swinging from the high branch right before the woman’s eyes.

It was whispered among the local gossips that Ma was touched in the head and they had raised up their sons with the knowledge that they stay far away from Ma Farrow’s section of the mountain.  Over the years, several young men had disappeared, never to be seen or hear from again.  The only fact that the local law could collect was that each young man had ventured too far into Ma’s territory.  No proof that Ma may have had anything to do with the disappearances had ever been proven, so Ma had remained on her mountain undisturbed.

Jim looked back at the boy bouncing around across the saddle, and felt a well of fear rise for the unsuspecting lad.

*****

Joe woke sometime later to an excruciating pounding in his head.  He tried to focus his eyes, but the ground around him seemed to be moving beneath him and his body was restricted in some manner that disallowed any free movement.  He pinched his eyes tightly, trying to still the nausea that caused his vision to blur and his stomach to churn.

“Oh…” he moaned softly and allowed himself the comfort of receding into the darkened world of oblivion once again.

When Joe woke the second time, he found himself alone in a darkened room.  Above him he could hear the sounds of voices, men arguing.  He tried moving, but found that his hands were tightly bound behind him and his legs pulled tightly together with ropes that refused to let him move more than a twitch of a muscle.  The fact that he had been blindfolded added to the eerie blackness and when he tried to open his mouth, he found it stuffed with a rag and then a cloth bound snugly about his face to prevent him muttering a sound.

Joe fought to stay calm, but fear was welding itself to the inner portions of his heart and suddenly recent events began to play themselves out with the inky recess of his discolored world.  Joe found breathing hard and he labored to draw in enough air through his nose in which to fill his heaving lungs.  His hands fought the ropes that held them pinned behind him. As Joe began to panic, he thrashed about, falling over, onto his side where he commenced groaning from the stab of pain that he felt piercing his sides and legs and running up the middle of his back, across his shoulders and down his arms.  His world spun out of control, his lungs burned from lack of air and in an instant Joe lost sense with what was real and what was not real.  In his mind, he heard himself scream and then his body swayed gently, suspended from the limb of an old oak tree.

****

Ben woke an hour before dawn and sat up rubbing his eyes.  He glanced over at Hoss who was snoring softly and then at his oldest son who appeared not to have moved all night.  He grinned, recalling the nights that he and Adam had spent on the trail, traveling west, and the times that Adam had snuggled against him for warmth.  Adam had learned at an early age to lie still to keep the blankets from being tossed off their bodies.  Ben blinked the fogginess from his eyes.  So unlike his youngest son, who never remained under the covers, regardless of how cold it might become.  Thoughts of the boy forced Ben’s attention to turn to Joe’s sleeping place.  He was surprised that Joe was already up, for he figured that Joe would have slept much later.

Ben pulled himself up and walked slowly over to Joe’s bedroll where he stooped down, taking in the appearance of Joe’s belongings.  He pressed his hand down on the blanket spread out on the ground.  It was cold to the touch, indicating that Joe had been up for some time.

“Joe!” Ben called, rising and glancing off into the trees.

The concerned father walked a few paces into the undergrowth and paused, listening for any sounds that might indicate that Joe was close by.

“Joseph!” Ben shouted, louder.

A rustling behind caught Ben’s attention and he turned just in time to see Adam running toward him.

“Something wrong, Pa?” Adam asked with concern.  He was buttoning his shirt and paused long enough to tuck it into the band of his trousers.

“Joe…he’s not here,” Ben said fearfully.  He looked worried.  “I don’t think he’s been here all night, son.”

“That’s impossible,” declared Adam glancing at the horses.  “His horse is still here; besides, were on earth would he go?”

Ben looked once more into the trees and then started back to the camp. “I don’t know, but I have an uneasy feeling.  Wake up Hoss and let’s search for him.  With the mood he’s been in the last couple of days, he might have decided to…”

“To what?  He wanted to go home, remember?  He didn’t want to hang around…I’m sorry, Pa,” Adam said when he saw the look of horror cross his father’s face.  “That was a poor choice of words…I just meant that Joe didn’t want to waste time here, he wanted to get home.”

“I know that, but still, he hasn’t been quite himself and he might have become confused and just wandered off.”  Ben was at a loss but a deep embedded fear urged him to search for his missing son.

The three searched for the better part of an hour before Hoss called out to them.  Ben and Adam hurried to Hoss’ side and found him bent down on one knee, his fingers gently playing through the loose gravel along the water’s edge.

“Did you find something?” Ben said anxiously.

Ben saw Hoss swallow as the big man stood to his feet.  “Just this,” he said as he held out his hand.

In the center of his palm, Hoss held a clump of soft dirt that was stained red. “It’s blood, Pa…and lookit over here,” he said as he led the way down the creek. “Horses, about three of them, maybe four, it’s hard to tell ’cause they’re all grouped together.  And here,” he pointed, “they entered the water.  I dun checked the other side, and they didn’t come out straight across, which only means that they’ve moved down stream to hide their tracks. What do ya make of it, Pa…reckon Joe’s with’em?”

“I can’t say Hoss.  But if so, why…and who are they?” Ben stammered.

Adam and Hoss swapped worried looks and then turned to their father.

“Pa…you don’t think that those men might have found out that Joe was still alive and followed us do you…and…took Joe?” Adam hinted.

Ben’s head darted up and the worry he felt was radiating from his deep brown eyes.

“But why?” asked Hoss.

“To keep Joe from saying who it was that hanged him,” Ben stated matter-of-factly.

“Pa, that don’t make no sense; Joe dun told the sheriff that he didn’t know the men.  Are ya saying Joe lied?” Hoss suggested.

“Not lied, just avoided the truth, perhaps,” Ben said, his head low as he pondered the idea.

“Let’s saddle up and see if we can pick up this trail.  I have an idea that your brother might just have known more than what he was telling,” Ben said as he started back to camp.

Adam and Hoss fell into step behind Ben.

“Ya think Joe meant to go after those men?” Hoss whispered to Adam.

“It’s possible, but somehow, someone got the drop on us last night.  Hey, Pa, hold up a minute,” Adam called, stopping Ben and motioning for him to come back.

“Look,” pointed Adam, “Joe did come into the woods last night,” explained Adam as he handed Ben a dirtied scrap of material.

Ben held it in his hands and then looked with dread at his two sons.  “It’s a piece of Joe’s shirt!” proclaimed Ben, stuffing the scrap into his shirt pocket.

“Pa, take a look at these branches; there sure ‘nough been something dragged through here.  And look, dried blood,” declared Hoss.

“Looks like they caught Joe with his pants down,” Adam said, “and hit him with something before dragging him out of here.”

“Let’s get out of here ourselves,” Ben ordered, “and see if we can pick up a trail, time’s wasting.”

*****

Joe knew that the man or men, who stood over him, held a light over their heads because his own darkness had soften somewhat and he could smell the kerosene and smoke from the flame.  He lay perfectly still, not sure what the persons might do to him if they knew he was awake.  He willed his body into submission and refused to let his trembling be noticed.

“Cain’t tell if’n he’s awake or not,” Smitty said as he jabbed the toe of his boot into Joe’s stomach.  “Hey, kid!” he said and jabbed Joe a second time.

This time Smitty kicked a little harder and Joe could not stop the soft moan from escaping from behind the gag.  Frank leaned down and pulled the blindfold off Joe’s face and then laughed.  He looked up at Zeb with a twisted smile.

“He’s been playin’ possum with ya, Zeb,” Frank snickered, standing to his feet.

Joe turned his head so that he could see into the faces of the three men standing over him and instantly his heart sank as he recognized the trio.  He groaned inwardly, causing the three men to snicker.

Zeb bent down and shoved Joe over on to his back.  “What’s the matter, kid? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost,” laughed Zed as he pulled the gag from around Joe’s mouth.

At once, Joe spit out the rag that had been stuffed into his mouth.  He fixed his eyes on Zeb Willis’ face. “What do you want with me?” he said in a raspy voice.  “The sheriff found the man who killed that man and woman…he has nothing on me.”

Zeb nodded his head and smile down at Joe.  “No…but you have something on us…something that could send us to jail for a very long time.  And I don’t like jail; neither do my friends here, so…I have made other arrangements for you.”

Zeb stood to his feet and turned his back to Joe.  “Get him ready.  I want to leave in an hour.  It’s a long ride up that mountain and I don’t want to be gone more than a day or two,” he ordered.

The boss turned to leave, but stopped when Joe called out to him. “Wait…where are you taking me?  My father and my brothers will come looking for me, and when they find…ohhhh,” groaned Joe as Frank drove his boot into Joe’s side.

“Shut up kid, and you might live a little longer.  Ya heard the boss; he has plans for ya and I have an idey, ya ain’t gonna like’em,” laughed Frank as he began untying Joe’s restraints.

Joe looked with pain filled eyes at his tormentor.  “What do you mean…where’s he taking me?”

Smitty helped Frank drag Joe to his feet and then retied Joe’s hands in front of him.  He held onto Joe’s arm and jerked Joe along behind him, up the stairs and out of the dark cellar.

“He’s gonna take ya up to the mountain and turn ya over to Ma Farrow, ever hear tell of her?” chuckled Smitty.

“No,” muttered Joe as he allowed himself to be pulled along.

“Well kid, ya in for a big surprise,” laughed Smitty as Frank joined in the laughter.

Joe studied the two men’s faces and felt a sick feeling of dread building in the pit of his stomach.  He allowed the men to place him on the horse and then tie his hands to the saddle horn.

*****

Joe recognized the route that Zeb was taking.  The man was leading his men back toward the hangin’ tree and the nearer they came to the spot where Joe had nearly lost his life, the more the young man’s insides began to churn.  It wasn’t that the youngest Cartwright was a coward, but he had come about as close to dying, hanging there from that branch than he’d ever care to remember.  But the fact was, Joe couldn’t forget, it haunted his every thought, even his sleep.  Just the idea of knowing that had his father and brothers not happened along when they had, he would be dead now.  His sore throat and raspy voice and the hideous rope burn about his neck were gruesome reminders, least his thoughts failed to do their job.

Joe swallowed hard and kept his eyes focused on the man leading his horse.  He tried to squelch his rising panic, but his fear was boiling from deep within, making his breathing to come in rapid little gasps.  Joe was forced to breathe through his mouth to furnish his lungs with enough air to keep them inflated.

The four men and their captive moved steadily along the path, drawing nearer and nearer to the tree.  Smitty, who was leading Joe’s mount, glanced back at his prisoner and grinned when he saw the look on Joe’s face.  He followed Joe’s line of vision until he spied the tree.  It dawned on the man then just what it was that had caused the strange look on Joe’s face.  Smitty spun around, calling out to Zeb.

“Hey Zeb, what’ll ya say we stop for a bit and give these horses a rest.”

Zeb glanced over his shoulder at Smitty.  Smitty grinned wickedly and nodded his head slightly toward the hanging tree.  Zeb took in the sight of the tree where they had thought they had ended a young man’s life and then back at the young man in question.  He snickered, for he had seen the frightened look on Joe’s face as well.

“Good idea, let’s get in the shade,” Zeb stated as he guided his horse to the shade that the mighty oak provided.  Smitty followed with Joe and his mount in tow.  Jim and Frank did the same.

Smitty slid down from his horse and grabbed his canteen, taking a long drink of the cool water.  His eyes sought Joe’s face and he stared for several long moments.

Joe was deadly silent as he sat directly beneath the limb where he had been lynched.  All color had drained from his face, his eyes were wide and his breathing was practically non-existent.

The four men exchanged knowing looks and began to laugh.

“What’s wrong, kid? Don’t you like it here?” Frank snickered.

He tapped the rump of the horse that Joe was tied to, startling the animal.  The horse jerked forward slightly.  Joe pinched his eyes tightly shut, the panic rising into his throat as he waited for the horse beneath him to leave him swinging from the tight rope he felt squeezing off his air supply.

The sound of the boisterous laughter awakened Joe from the terrifying image and without thinking of the consequences he kicked sharply at the horse’s side.  The horse bolted into a run, ripping the lead rope from Smitty’s hand and leaving in its wake, a nasty burn.

Smitty screamed out in pain, grabbed for his pistol and took aim at the back of the fleeing boy.  All laughter ceased to be as Zeb, who was still mounted, raised his foot and kicked out at Smitty’s hand.

“Don’t shoot him, you fool!” Zeb turned to Frank and Jim.  “Go get him; he can’t get far with his hands tied, and bring the little fool back here, I’ll make him pay for trying to run.”

Joe turned in the saddle and saw the two men in pursuit of him.  He knew that he had little chance to get away, but he determined at that moment that he would give them a run for their money.

Joe leaned his body forward, low over the horse’s neck and kicked again.  The horse stretched its long lanky body out as he raced into the wind.  For several minutes Joe thought that he might be lucky enough to escape the two, but just then, Joe saw another rider off to his left.  There was no way, with his hands tied tightly to the pommel that he could turn his horse to the opposite direction.  Within a short time, Frank rode along side of him and leaned down, grabbing the reins that dangled loosely.

“Whoa!” Frank shouted as he pulled both Joe’s and his own horse to a stop.

Instantly Frank moved his horse along side Joe’s and when Joe turned his way, Frank reached out and backslapped Joe across the face.  Joe’s head snapped back and he groaned, tasting the blood where he had bitten the inside of his cheek.

“I’ll teach you,” growled the angry man as he reached across and untied the ropes holding Joe’s hands to the pommel.

Frank was on the ground, hauling Joe from his horse.  Joe’s hands were still tied in front of him as Frank jerked him around and plowed his fist into Joe’s face.  Joe staggered backward, twisted and fell to the ground, face down.

Jim had caught up to his partner and pulled his horse to a standstill.  He watched as Frank hauled Joe to his feet and then punched him again in the stomach.  Joe doubled over from the abuse and as Frank move to pull Joe’s head upward, Joe, using both hands jerked his fists upward, catching the other man under the chin.

Frank faltered momentarily and grabbed his chin, staring at Joe in shock.  Joe took advantage of the pause and charged into Frank.  He knocked the man to the ground by driving his head into Frank’s mid-section.  Both men rolled around in the dirt until Joe felt his body hauled roughly from the other man.

Jim jerked Joe around and with the back of his hand, slapped Joe back.  Jim grabbed Frank’s hand and helped him to his feet.

“Damn kid,” he growled as he wiped the blood from his lip.  “Get me a rope!”

“What are ya goin’ to do?” Jim demanded.  “Boss said to bring the kid to him.”

“I’d like to kill him, that’s what!” Frank ranted as he took the rope that Jim offered him.

Frank moved to where Joe was just forcing himself to his feet.  He grabbed Joe’s arm and pulled Joe around until the weary boy was facing him.  Frank quickly tied the new rope around Joe’s hands and walked back to his horse and mounted up. “Now let’s see just how fast you can run.”

Frank headed his horse back toward the hangin’ tree, forcing Joe to run behind him at a steady pace.  Jim gathered Joe’s mount and followed behind.

They had run a good distance before Joe stumbled and fell the first time.  For several moments, Frank kept moving, dragging Joe along the ground behind him.  When he stopped, he twisted in the saddle and laughed. “Get up,” he barked at Joe who was struggling to catch his breath.  Joe had gotten to his knees, breathing hard as he watched Jim ride along side of him.

“Best do as he says, kid, or he’ll drag ya all the way back.  Zeb’s waiting for us; get on your feet,” Jim instructed.

He hated to see how the kid’s face was covered in dirt and blood, but worse, he hated the disheartened look in the hazel eyes that glared at him.  The boy had spunk, Jim admitted that to himself, but spunk wasn’t enough when it came to dealing with a man like Zeb Willis.  He’d seen other young men defy the boss, and he knew just how cruel a man like the boss could be, when pushed too far.  And this boy had exceeded his limit.

Joe managed to get to his feet just as Frank kicked his horse into a steady trot.  Again Joe was forced to run to keep up.  He stumbled again but managed to right himself without falling.  He could see the hangin’ tree coming into view and forcing one foot in front of the other, Joe, gasping for air, forced himself onward.  A hundred yards from where he could see Zeb Willis and Smitty waiting beneath the tree, Joe’s toe stubbed into a rock and he lost his footing.  Painfully, Joe fell to the ground and was dragged the remainder of the way.

The moving ground beneath him tore at his clothing, slicing his shirt nearly off his body.  The stones slashed at his flesh, as Joe was rolled over and over.  His arms ached from being pulled taunted and it was all Joe could manage to keep his face from falling victim of the flesh-eating earth that threatened to leave his body mangled.

Suddenly the earth stopped moving and Joe allowed his head to fall into the dirt.  He lay exhausted and drained, breathing deeply to fill his heaving lungs.  He tried to swallow, but the dust that had gathered in his mouth, prevented him doing so.  Joe spat into the dirt, trying desperately to spit the particles free.

Joe felt hands on his arms and suddenly his body was hoisted upright.  He felt his body sway and had it not had been for the hands that prevented him from falling, Joe might have found himself back down in the dirt.

Fingers twisted themselves in his hair and Joe felt his head yanked upward.  His eyes barely focused on the man before him, but he recognized the voice, for it was one that he would never be able to forget.  It was the voice of the man who had ordered him hung.

“That wasn’t a very wise move, boy,” spat Zeb. “Looks like I’m going to have to teach you a lesson before I let Ma Farrow have you.”

Zeb turned to his cronies.  “Tie him to that tree,” he issued, releasing his fingers from the dirty curls.

Frank and Smitty dragged Joe to the oak tree and Smitty, taking the rope that had been tied to Joe’s bound wrists, swung it across the very limb where Joe had been hung just two days prior.

He pulled the rope taunt, forcing Joe’s arms high over his head and pulling up, until only Joe’s toes touched the ground.  Smitty then tied the other end off, around the tree and then stepped back, laughing at the painful expression on Joe’s face.

“Hurts like hell, doesn’t it?” the man laughed as he stepped away, giving Zeb space to stand before his prisoner.

“We’re gonna be staying right here for a while longer.  We’re gonna be eating us a bite or two.  You’ll hang there until I say it’s time to go, and if I hear one sound coming from your mouth, I might just change my mind about giving you to Ma and kill you myself.  Got that?” Zeb said, gritting his teeth.

Zeb turned to walk away, but not before he hurled his fist into Joe’s stomach, causing the boy to cry out painfully.  His toes came up from the ground and Joe’s suspended body twisted in half circles before coming to a stand still.  Joe’s eyes roll back in his head and he slipped from this world into a much darker world.

*****

Three hours later, Smitty cut the rope that held Joe prisoner of the hangin’ tree.  He made no effort to support the weight of Joe’s body as Joe crumbled to the ground at his feet.  Joe, unable to stand on his own, his body battered and bruised from the unkind treatment, and with arms that ached beyond his belief, turned his head slightly and looked up through glazed eyes, at his tormentors.

Smitty kicked out at Joe, his booted toe pressing into Joe’s already wounded side, and laughed. “Time to go, kid; Ma’s place is a good ways up that mountain yet,” he jeered.

Smitty reached down to grab Joe’s arm and as he did so, Joe, unable to defend himself, recoiled as if he had been struck.

Frank had joined his partner at his side and the two men towered over Joe and laughed.

“Don’t worry, kid, I ain’t gonna hit ya, lessen ya give me cause,” Smitty laughed as he reached again for Joe’s arm.

Frank grabbed Joe’s other arm and together, they hauled Joe to his feet and dragged him roughly over to where they had the horses saddled.  Once again, Joe was placed on his horse and his hands tied tightly to the pommel.  This time, a rope was attached to one leg, tied to the stirrup and stretched underneath the horse’s belly and secured to Joe’s other ankle.  This make it impossible for Joe to move either his hands or his feet and barred him from having any control over his mount’s movements, other that with his knees.  His arms and legs aching, Joe put up little resistance to being strapped down to the saddle and moving as one with the horse.

The small group of men moved away from the hangin’ tree.  Joe cast one look over his shoulder as the tree grew smaller and smaller.  He let out a long sigh, for whatever these men had planned next for him, Joe could only imagine.  His relief at being as far away from the tree that had become to him, a living nightmare in his mind, overshadowed his fear of what lay ahead.

*****

Ben motioned for his sons to stop.  He sat silent upon the back of his buckskin stallion and stared at the tree.  He felt his stomach begin to churn at the memory of finding his youngest son dangling from the low hanging limb.  Ben felt Hoss’ eyes on him, and he turned toward his middle son and answered the unspoken question before Hoss had time to voice his concern.

“I’m alright, son.  It’s just that I can’t seem to wipe the image of your brother hanging here, from my mind,” Ben said.

“I cain’t either, Pa…it plum near scared me to death seeing Little Joe like that.”

“Hey Pa,” Adam called as he inched his mount closer to his father and brother.  “Take a look at this,” he said as he held out a section of rope to his father that he had found dangling from the tree limb.

Ben took the rope from his son’s hand and held it up.  “That’s strange,” he muttered more to himself than to his sons.  “It’s hand-made,” he said, glancing at Adam and Hoss.

Hoss held out his hand for the rope and Ben passed it to him.  Hoss inspected the braided rope, turning it over and around in his hand several times before handing it back to his father.

“Onliest folks I’ve seen braid a rope like that, was the Piautes,” Hoss stated matter-of-factly.  “Reckon what this here rope is doin’ here?”

“Seems odd to me, that another rope, similar to the first rope we found, would be left dangling from the same tree where Joe was hung just two days ago,” Adam added.  “What do you make of it, Pa?”

Ben shook his head; his expression showed his worry by the frown he made and the furrows that creased his forehead.

“I don’t know.  Let’s ride into town and show this to the sheriff.  He might have an idea who made it and if so, why it would be found hanging from this particular tree.”

Ben wrapped the length of rope around his saddle horn and nudged his mount ahead. “If we ride hard, we can get to town before nightfall.”

*****

Ben and his sons rode into town an hour before dark.  Tired, weary and hungry, they dismounted in front of the sheriff’s office.  Ben uncoiled the braided rope and led the way into the office.

Sheriff Cooper looked up as the door opened and Ben and his sons entered.  He stood to his feet, offering Ben his hand. “Mr. Cartwright, what brings you back this way?” Cooper questioned.

Ben tossed the rope onto the sheriff’s desk and pointed at it.  “That…and my missing son.”

Sheriff Cooper picked up the rope and looked at it.  His friendly smile faded as he fingered the twisted pieces.  At last he looked up at Ben, glancing quickly at Adam and Hoss. “You say your son is missing?  How can that be…I thought you were taking him home.”

“We were, and we stopped for the night.  Something during the night, Joseph disappeared.  The next morning, we found traces of a struggle, this,” Ben pulled out the soiled scrap of material and handed it to the sheriff and continued.  “We found tracks leading into the creek, but not out.  We rode along each side of the bank for several miles and still found no place where the tracks left the water.  So, we decided to back track.  My sons and I ended up at the…hangin’ tree…and we found that.”  Ben pointed at the rope that the sheriff still held in his hand.

“We were hoping that you might be able to tell us, who around here makes his own rope,” Adam said in a voice that belied his inner turmoil.

“You found this at the same tree where you found your son, you say?” the sheriff asked as he moved around to his chair and sat down.

“That’s right, and we find it rather odd,” Ben stated.

Cooper eyed all three men.  “Odd?”

Hoss stepped up to the desk and placing both or his large hands on the desk leaned down, into the sheriff’s face. “Don’t ya find it odd that just two days after my baby brother was hung, we find yet another rope danglin’ from the same tree, not to mention, the very limb where someone tried to lynch Joe?” growled Hoss.  “Now if’n ya got any indey who makes that kinda rope, we’d sure like to know, ’cause we aim on askin’ a few questions.”

Sheriff Cooper straightened himself in his chair and eyed Ben.  “Mr. Cartwright, it is odd…I have to admit, and like you, I’d like to ask some questions myself.  Just why is it that you think this here piece of rope has anything to do with your son missing?”

Ben took a deep breath to control his impatience.  “I don’t know…I don’t know if one thing has to do with the other.  All I know is that my son was taken or forced to go along with someone…against his will.  Now I want to know the man’s name who makes this rope only because I find it most unusual that this piece of rope is identical to the piece of rope that was used to hang my son!”

“Do you have a name for us or not?” Adam quizzed in a deep voice.

The sheriff stood up, holding his hands out in front of the three men, to silence them. “Look here, Mr. Cartwright, I’m just as anxious to find out who hung your son and now…who might have taken him, as you are.  So all of you need to just calm down,” he ordered. “I know of only one man around these parts that makes ropes like this one.  His name is Smitty, he’s a half-breed…”

“Where can we find’em?” Hoss insisted.

“I’ll take you there myself.  He works for Mr. Willis, Zeb Willis,” the sheriff informed the trio.

“Who’s he?” Adam inquired.

“Oh…just about the biggest, wealthiest man around these parts,” Cooper informed the Cartwrights.

“Then answer something, Sheriff,” Ben said, his eyes narrowing in anger.  “We gave you a piece of the rope used to hang my son, why didn’t you speak up then and tell us about this Smitty fellow?”

The sheriff walked to his gun cabinet and withdrew a shotgun, checking to see if it were loaded or not.  He turned to face the trio. “Because two days ago, there was a look of hate in your eyes, and in the eyes of your sons here.  I couldn’t take a chance on one of them, or all of you, going off half cocked and maybe going after the wrong man.  You have to understand something, Mr. Cartwright, just because Smitty makes these here special ropes, don’t mean that the man’s guilty of hangin’ ya boy, nor does it mean that he had any part in, as to why the boy is missin’ now.”

Ben lowered his head and then raising it slightly glanced at Adam and Hoss.  He spoke directly to the sheriff. “You’re right, of course.  We apologize.  Now, what are we going to do about this?”

*****

It was almost dark before Zeb Willis allowed his men to stop for the night.  They had traveled high into the mountains and the air had turned cooler with the setting of the sun.  Joe sat slumped over, dead tired and bone weary, barely able to hold his head up.  The night air chilled his bones and he felt himself shiver.

Jim slid down from his saddle and laced the reins to a nearby limb.  We watched as Smitty and Frank did the same with their mounts and tied Joe’s horse off to the same limb.  They walked away, leaving Joe tied to his saddle and unable to dismount.  Jim saw the haunting look on the young man’s face as Joe watched his captors begin to make camp.  Zeb had dismounted as well, and had wandered off into the edge of the woods.

Jim sighed deeply and moved over to Joe.  “Give me a minute, mister, and I’ll have ya down from there where ya can stretch ya legs some.”

Joe turned to the man, studying the old wrinkled expression on Jim’s face.  “Thanks,” Joe said in a weak voice.  “I need to do a little more than stretch my legs, if you know what I mean,” Joe hinted.

“Yeah, I know.  Here comes the boss now; guess he had the same need.  I’ll be back; don’t go anywhere,” he said casually as he glanced up at Joe with a slight grin.

“I don’t think ya have to worry about that; besides, I learned my lesson,” replied Joe.

Joe followed the man with his eyes and watched while Jim exchanged words with the boss.  In a minute he was back and untying Joe’s legs and then his hands.  The old man helped Joe down and held on to him until Joe could steady himself before retying his captive’s hands in front of him.  Joe watched the knots being formed and then glanced at the man as he realized that Jim had not tied his hands as tightly as Smitty had tied them.

“That should be a bit more comfortable,” Jim said in a low voice so that the others could not hear.

“Thanks,” muttered Joe as he followed Jim into the edge of the woods so that they could relieve themselves.  When they had finished and started back, Joe paused momentarily. “Tell me something, mister,” he began.

Jim stopped as well, waiting for Joe to finish speaking.

“You seem different than the others, not so…so…anyway, what’s a man like you doing getting himself mixed up with the likes of them?” Joe dared to ask.

“It’s a long story, son; one that I don’t have time to go into.  But the short of it is, Zeb Willis’ father was my kid brother…my half brother really, but when we were kids, that didn’t mean anything. Gus, that’s Zeb’s father, we were about as close as any full blooded brothers could ever be.  When Gus and his wife was kilt by Injuns, Zeb was just a boy.  I promised them I would always look out after the boy; guess I didn’t do such a good job raising’em.  That didn’t stop me from lovin’em though; he was blood, my only brother’s son, I couldn’t turn my back on’em, still can’t.  I don’t approve of how he handles business, but…he’s kin, what more need I say?  But then, I don’t guess you’d understand all that, would ya?” Jim said.

Joe made a funny noise deep within his throat and smiled at the old man. “I understand…the part about half brothers and being kin.  I understand about you feeling as if you owe it to your brother, taking care of his son, but…Zeb Willis is a grown man.  He’s not much older than my brother Adam is.  But unlike my brother, your nephew is mean and nasty, he’s cruel and unjust…he’s nothing more than white trash.”

Instantly Joe’s head snapped back as Jim’s fist clipped the end of his chin.  Joe tumbled backward, falling on his back in the dirt.  Immediately, Zeb, Frank and Smitty were by Jim’s side.

“What the hell’s going on?” Zeb demanded as he grabbed Joe by the front of the shirt and hauled him to his feet.

“Nothing,” Jim glared at Joe and spun around walking off to the edge of the campfire that had been built.

Zeb glared angrily at Joe and shoved him toward Frank and Smitty.  “I don’t know what you said, boy, but I’d advise you not to make the old man mad.  I guess ya didn’t learn your lesson this afternoon.” The self-proclaimed boss turned to his two cronies.  “Tie him up; make sure it’s tight and use that tree.  I want him stretched out good, make him hurt; we have to be sure Ma can handle him when we run into her.”

Zeb looked at Joe and snarled.  “You’re in for a surprise kid.  I’d love to hang around and see what Ma does to you, but I have more pressing business.”

Zeb started to walk away, but stopped when Joe called out to him.

“Tell me something, mister.  Why do want to kill me?  I didn’t steal those cattle and I didn’t kill that man and woman.  The sheriff knows that; he found the man responsible for those crimes,” Joe insisted.

“Maybe so…but then we tried to kill you.  You don’t think the sheriff wants to just up and forget about that, do ya?” the boss man snarled.  “I was a damn fool for not making sure you were dead the first time; my mistake.  You see, kid, no one but my men know that I ordered you hung, and they won’t rat on me.  The way I see it, I can turn you over to the old woman on the mountain, and she can do the killing for me,” Zeb laughed. “She’s good at it too, from what I’ve been told.  All I want to do to you. boy, is to hurt you good; Ma is old and she can’t handle you young fellas like she once could, so we have to soften’em up a bit for her.”

Zeb looked at his two men, “Get to it; I ain’t got all night to stand around jawing.”

Joe tried to pull away from the hands that held his arms, but Frank and Smitty together were too much for the boy and they made easy work of dragging Joe to the nearest tree.  Joe tried digging his feet into the dirt but his action only resulted in earning him a solid punch to the kidneys.  Joe’s knees buckled from under him as Frank and Smitty slammed Joe’s back against the trunk of the tree.

Frank slung a rope over the branch and tied it to the shorter rope that bound Joe’s wrists.  Smitty caught the other end as it dropped from the branch and pulled down on the rope, hauling Joe’s arms high over his head.  Laughing at the painful expression that showed on Joe’s face, the man pulled tighter and higher until Joe’s toes were barely touching the ground and a soft moan passed from his lips.

Smitty wrapped his end of the rope around the trunk of the tree, leaving just enough left over to bind Joe’s ankles together.  Joe fought against the hands that tried to tie his legs, by allowing his wrists to take the weight of this body as he kicked out at Smitty.

Frank stood back snickering at his companion until the other man gave him an angry glare.  Frank acted as if he were turning to leave, but swung back around, delivering a sound punch to Joe’s mid-section.  Immediately, the battle withered into nothing more than a few groans as Joe gave into his predicament.  Minutes later, Joe’s ankles were bound as tightly as were his wrists.  His body hung suspended by the rope over the limb and tied to his wrists, his feet bound tightly together and tied to the tree trunk with his toes barely scraping the ground beneath him.  Joe closed his eyes and tightened his lips in an effort to ward off the immense pain that the suspension put on his upper arms and shoulders.  He could feel the thick, chunky bark from the tree digging into his back with every slight movement he tried to make.

When he opened his eyes, Frank and Smitty had walked away.  Jim stood before him, watching.

“They can’t leave me like this all night,” Joe muttered.

“They can, and they will boy…it’s to bad too, cause come morning, ya ain’t gonna have no use of them arms or hands of yours.  Your gonna be as helpless as a newborn baby, and that’s the way Zeb wants ya to be, for Ma.”

Jim lowered his head, shaking it from side to side.  He glanced up at the boy with the painful expression on his battered face and something from deep within stirred his emotions.  Jim walked away; no longer able to meet the hazel eyes.

*****

By first light, the Cartwrights had already gathered their things and leaving the hotel met the sheriff at his office.  Adam and Hoss remained mounted as Ben went to tell the sheriff that they were ready to ride.

“Morning. Mr. Cartwright,” greeted Sheriff Cooper as Ben came through the door.  “I’ll be right with you.”

“Take your time sheriff, my boys and I are a little early,” Ben said agreeably.

The sheriff downed the last dredges of his coffee and set the cup aside.  He reached for his hat and plunked it down on his head.  Cooper smiled at Ben. “I’m ready,” he said as he led the way out the door.

Both men mounted their horses as Cooper turned to Ben.  “It’s a long ride to the Willis place, Mr. Cartwright.  I just hope it isn’t a waste of time.”

Ben took a quick glance at Adam and Hoss and noted that they wore the same expression as he did.  Not one of them considered the forthcoming visit with Zeb Willis or the half-breed, Smitty, a waste of time.  There were several questions that Ben had on his mind that he wanted to ask the gentleman.  And the first question was going to be directed at the man called Smitty, as to where he was the day that Joe Cartwright was haphazardly hung and left to die a slow, torturous death.

It was just after noon by the time that the four men rode up to the main house of the Rocking W ranch.  They pulled their horses to a stand still and dismounted.

“You boys wait here,” Ben said to Adam and Hoss.  “The sheriff and I will see if there’s anyone home.”

“Sure Pa,” Hoss said, glancing at Adam.

Ben walked toward the house with the sheriff as Adam and Hoss stood together.

“I’d sure ‘nough like to get my hands on that Smitty fella,” Hoss said in a low voice.

“So would I Hoss, but we don’t know for sure that there is any connection between what has happened to Little Joe and this Smitty,” Adam answered.

“Maybe not, but I got a feelin’ in my gut, Adam, that Joe’s in some sorta trouble,” Hoss responded by rubbing his stomach.

Adam chuckled softly.  “Hoss, our little brother is always in some sort of trouble.”

“Aw…dadburnit Adam, I know that.  But this is different, he needs me, I can always tell when the boy needs me,” sighed Hoss with a worried frown creasing his brow.

*****

With the morning came the blessed relief from the taut ropes that bound Joe to the tree.  The long hours and agonizing position had taken its toll on the boy’s body.  Smitty cut his rope.  Joe sagged to the ground in a heap, moaning in a low pathetic manner.

“Hurts, heh kid?” the man chuckled as he left Joe lying on the hard, cold ground and returned to the warmth of the fire.

“He ain’t goin’ nowhere,” the man laughingly told his comrades.

The other three glanced over to where Joe lay motionless and nodded their heads in agreement.

“He won’t be able to use his arms for days, or his legs for that matter.  By tonight, he will be Ma Farrow’s worry, not ours,” Zeb laughed. “What’s ailin’ you?” he turned suddenly to his uncle and asked Jim.

Jim turned worried eyes from the sight of the boy who struggled to sit up but could not, to his nephew.  “Nothin, I just don’t see no reason to torture the kid, that’s all,” grumbled Jim.

Jim knew that everything his nephew was telling Joe about the old woman was lies.  Zeb had never seen the woman, but once, many years ago, and Jim knew that all the horrible things that had been told about the old woman had been rumors that his nephew had made up just to keep people from prowling around in the high country.  Those mountains held secrets, secrets that Zeb Willis had no desire for others to find out about, and using the old woman as a scapegoat, was Zeb’s way of keeping the people away.  It had worked too, for several years, but Jim had a gut feeling that time was running out for his nephew, his past was about to encounter his future.

He stooped down and grabbed a cup, filling it with hot coffee.  Jim glanced at the others, silently daring them to say a word.  When they ignored him, Jim walked over to Joe and set the cup down.  He knelt down beside Joe and gently pulled the boy into a sitting position.  Joe groaned as the discomfort in his shoulders sent spasms of pain shooting down his arms.  His head fell back, resting against the man’s heart, which beat rapidly.

“Pa?” Joe sobbed as he tried to focus his eyes on the man’s face.

“I ain’t ya pa, boy,” Jim said, taken back by Joe’s tender plea to his father.  “Here, drink this,” he ordered while placing the rim of the cup to Joe’s lips.

Joe opened his mouth and sipped the hot brew.

“Careful, it’s mighty hot,” Jim warned.

“Good…” Joe muttered weakly.  “Please…my arms…and shoulders,” sobbed Joe.

Jim swallowed the sudden rush of emotion that overcame him and leaned down so that he could whisper something in Joe’s ear. “I can’t help you son.  Just try to bear it until we get where we’re goin’.”

Joe turned his head just enough that he was finally able to see into Jim’s face. “Why…she’s gonna kill me anyway.  Why not…just kill me now…and be done…with it?”

“I don’t wanna kill ya…I didn’t want’em to hang ya either.  I told Zeb ya was tellin’ the truth, but he never listens to me,” Jim whispered.

“Then why stay with him…why not leave?” Joe whispered.

“HEY JIM!  Leave the kid alone and get back over here!” shouted Frank.

“I gotta go, Joe…isn’t it?” Jim asked.

“Joe…Cartwright,” answered Joe, moaning softly as Jim propped him against the tree.

“Thanks…and about what I said yesterday…I was out of place,” whispered Joe.

“Forget it…what you said was the truth…I just don’t like to admit it.  Now listen, Joe, try not to move around too much.  We’ll be ready to ride out soon and you’re going to need all your strength for traveling.  With them shoulders out of place like they are, ya sure ‘nough goin’ to be hurtin’ fore the day’s over.  I wish I could do…”

“It’s alright…you’ve done enough,” Joe said, giving the man a weak smile.  “Thanks.”

*****

“Don’t seem to be anyone home,” the sheriff said, looking at Ben.

“That’s odd,” muttered Ben as he and the sheriff made their way back to the horses. Ben scanned the yard and surrounding buildings for a sign of anyone.

“How so?” the sheriff questioned.

Ben paused, looking strangely at Sheriff Cooper.  “This is a big spread; just seems odd that there’s not one person around.  It’s not time for round up, nor branding time, it’s too early for haying…so tell me…where is everyone?”

Adam and Hoss were also checking out the buildings, having gone so far as to look inside.  They returned quickly and confirmed their father’s suspicion.

“Not a man on the place, Pa, but I did find this,” Adam said, holding up a half-braided rope.

Ben took the rope from his son’s hand and held it up to inspect.  He looked at the sheriff and handed him the handiwork.  Ben let out a long sigh as he watched Hoss walking across the yard toward him.

“Find anything?” Ben asked Hoss.

“I didn’t find anyone, but I found several tracks leading yonder way.  Looks like someone left in a hurry too, Pa. I found this lying in the dirt in the barn.  I  tweren’t sure what it was until I picked it up and took a good look at it,” Hoss said, placing the tiny object into his father’s opened hand.

Ben looked at the tiny article and then glanced at Adam and Hoss.  “It’s a button,” he murmured softly.  “One of those fancy buttons that Joe likes on his shirts. Where did you say you found this, son?”

“In the barn.  That ain’t all I found either; come on, I wanna to show ya somethin’,” Hoss said, signaling for the others to follow him.

They crossed the yard and entered into the barn.  It was dimly lit inside. The only light provided, without lighting a lantern were the tiny slivers of sunshine glowing between the cracks in the boards.  The four men made their way deeper into the big barn until Hoss stopped suddenly and turned to face the others.

“Lucky for me that the sunlight hit right on that button.  That’s how come for me to see it, it was shinin’.  So’s I came over here and picked it up, that’s when I seen this here door,” Hoss said as he bent down and pulled the near invisible door opened from the floor in the barn. “Couldn’t figure out why part of the floor was boarded and the rest dirt.  But seein’ how that Mr. Willis must’va wanted a secret room, it made sense to me.  So I grabbed a lantern and went down to have myself a look,” Hoss pointed to the hidden cellar. “There’s signs that someone’s been there recently, Pa.  And from the looks of things, who ever that someone was, he was there against his will; I found pieces of rope, just like what the sheriff’s got in his hand.”

Ben turned to the sheriff as a look of fright momentarily flickered in his eyes.  His thoughts turned to his youngest son. “There’s something mighty strange going on here, sheriff,” he commented.

“I’m beginning to agree with you, Mr. Cartwright.  I’ve always thought that Smitty fella kinda strange anyway.  But I figured Zeb Willis was an all right kind of man.  I never could figure out why he hired Smitty in the first place, or Frank for that matter.  He and Smitty are two of a kind,” the sheriff explained.

“Findin’ that button proves that my brother was here, don’t it sheriff?” Hoss asked.

“It proves only that someone else has a shirt with the same kind of buttons as your brother,” Sheriff Cooper warned.  “But I have to admit, it isn’t likely…Mr. Cartwright, I think we’d be wise to follow those tracks that your son here found.”

“I agree…and…I agree with Hoss, I believe that Little Joe was here, in this barn, and I believe he was held in that cellar as well.  Come on, time’s wasting,” said Ben, as he stomped from the barn. He was driven by an inner need to find his son, fueled by a burning desire to save his son from pending danger and haunted by the memory of Joe hanging from the branch of the hangin’ tree.

*****

Joe could not stop the constant moaning sounds he was making.  The severity of the pain in his shoulders had intensified.  He had been forced across the saddle and tied down as if he had been a sack of potatoes and the constant jarring of the horse’s movements did nothing to ease the nagging pain that stabbed at his body each time the animal took a step.  Joe tried closing his eyes, hoping to ward off the agony, but his thoughts would wander and seemed to always end up at the foot of the hangin’ tree.

Once the horse stumbled and almost fell.  The sudden jolt to Joe’s body sent spasms of grief surging through his shoulders and arms, down his spine into his lower back and legs.  He hadn’t meant to let the men hear his muffled cry, but when Smitty and Frank began to laugh, Joe realized he had been more vocal than he had intended to be.  He raised his head slightly, catching a glimpse of the two and lowered his head.  “Please Pa…hurry,” he muttered softly to himself.

The air had grown chillier with the higher altitude and Joe felt himself shiver.  His body ached and his throat, still sore from the rope, began to burn as well.  Several times Joe was forced to clear his throat, which only added to his misery.  Joe felt sick to his stomach, his head reeled and though he hadn’t meant to, Joe lost what little was in his belly.  Being turned across the saddle as he was, the vomit that spewed onto the moving ground beneath him went unnoticed by his captors.  Joe longed for a drink of water to rinse the sour taste from his mouth; he longed for his father and for Ben’s tender hands to soothe his tormented body.  But most of all, he longed for his father’s soft words that had always in the past brought comfort to his wounded soul.

“STOP RIGHT THERE!” a hoarse, crackled voice shouted out from the forest.

The horses stopped without warning, jarring the young man unexpectedly.  Joe cried out in pain and tried to gather his muddled thoughts.  He raised his head, but could not see who had spoken aloud in such a strained voice.

“Who might ya be?” the unseen voice shouted.

“Zeb…Zeb Willis,” he said, dismounting slowly for Ma Farrow had a double barrel shotgun pointed straight at his middle. “Take a look, Ma…he’s young, like ya like’em,” Zeb said as he moved cautiously over to where Joe was tied across the saddle.

Zeb grabbed a handful of the chestnut curls and yanked Joe’s head up so that the old woman could see his face.  Joe moaned, for Zeb held his head high, causing more pain to slither down the back of his neck and across his already throbbing shoulders.

“Ya been sorta hard on’em ain’t ya?” Ma said crossly.  “Looks to me liken ya near beat the boy to death,” she continued to grumble.

Zeb removed his hand from Joe’s head, allowing Joe’s head to plop down against the leather stirrup. “Had to Ma, had to soften him up some for ya.  He’s got spirit and well…”

“Ya didn’t break that spirit, I hope…that’s my job,” she snapped, giving Zeb a toothless grin.

She moved closer to Joe and helped herself to a handful of curls.  She fingered the thick mass almost tenderly with her dirty fingers.  “Soft,” she muttered to herself, but Joe heard the softly spoken word and he tried to lift his head to see into her face.

As he moved, Joe felt the old woman’s fingers tighten around his thick masses of hair and winced at the unexpected yank on his head.  His head was forced upward once again and this time he could see the old woman’s face.  He inwardly cringed, for Ma was nothing like he had expected her to be.  She was tall and thick, with hair that looked as if it had never been combed.  The dirt was caked on her clothes and smeared on her face.  Her eyes were dark and menacing and when she smiled, Joe could see the gaps in her mouth where once teeth had been but were now missing. On her head was a ragged old hat with a long feather stuck in the band and which had seen better days.

Joe’s eyes met Ma’s and as they did so, he felt his stomach begin to churn, for he believed the old mountain woman capable of everything his captors had said about her.  For several long moments, Ma stared at him.  Joe wanted to look away; her dark eyes were piercing and sent fear surging through his veins.  She spat, spewing tobacco juice onto the ground beneath his head. “I’ll take ’em,” she said, her eyes never leaving his face.  “How much?”

Zeb glanced at the others and tried to hide his smile when he turned back to Ma, who had moved away from Joe and stood poised with one hand on her hip, the other clinging tightly to her shotgun. “No charge, Ma.  Just have your fun with’em and make sure when ya finished, he’s gotten rid of.  I don’t want nobody comin’ around askin’ questions about this here kid.  His old man is someone important and could cause trouble for both of us, ya understand?” Zeb explained as he moved to his horse and made as if to mount.

“The kid’s papa is a big man, ya say?” Ma Farrow asked, scratching her head.  “How big?”

“Big enough to buy his son out of trouble,” Zeb told her.

“What’s he dun?” Ma said, glancing at Joe who had begun to moan.

“Killed a man and his wife, so be careful; he’s a bad seed.”  Zeb mounted his horse and turned to his men.  “Let’s get out here,” he ordered. “See ya around, Ma,” he called over his shoulder.

Joe raised his head slightly and watched as the four men rode out of sight.  He tried to see where the old woman had moved to, but in his present condition and the way he had been left on the horse he could not see where she had gone.  All was silent for several long, agonizing minutes.  Without any warning, the horse began to move.  From under the horse’s belly, Joe could see the old woman’s feet as she led the horse into an old shed.  The horse was tied to a ring in the wall and Ma moved about the tiny shed, getting oats and grains for the animal.

Joe cleared his throat, and attempted to speak.  “Ma’am,” he began.  “Would you mind, untying…”

Joe screamed out in pain as the butt of Ma’s shotgun buried itself into his left shoulder.  The unexpected outburst startled the horse and the animal lurched sideways, slamming Joe’s legs into the wall and causing him to scream out again. “SHUT UP YA IDIOT!” shouted Ma.  “YA’S ASCARNIN’ THE FOOL BEAST TO DEATH!” she ranted and hit Joe on the back of the head.

The light faded from Joe’s eyes as his present world spiraled downward into the darkened realm of oblivion.

*****

The Cartwrights had been on the trail for most of the day before finally calling a halt to their journey.  The sheriff pulled back sharply on his reins, bring the animal to a standstill. “I think we should make camp here for the night.  It’s getting to dark to follow those tracks, we can start out at first light, Mr. Cartwright, if’n that’s alright with you,” the sheriff said.

Ben sighed deeply; he was fearful for his missing son, and worried that something horrible had happened to the boy by now.  He wasn’t even sure that they were on the right track, Joe’s track, and that perhaps they had missed something along the way. “We’ve still got an hour’s worth of daylight, I’d rather press on,” Ben said after a length of time.

The sheriff looked at Adam and saw that he was dismounting.

“Pa, Sheriff Cooper’s right.  These horses need to rest, and so do we.  We can start again in the morning…” Adam began.

“But…”

“Pa, we ain’t gonna do Joe no good, if’n we’re plum tuckered out when we find’em.  We ain’t got no idey what we’re facin’ and we need to have our wits about us when we find’em,” Hoss added.

Ben sighed again and slowly removed himself from his saddle.  “I suppose you’re right, but I don’t like it.”  Ben turned; his eyes grew dark and a frown furrowed deeply into his brow.  “I want my son back…I promised him that no one would hurt him again and the minute my back was turned, looked what happened!”

“Pa, you can’t blame yourself for that.  None of us knew he’d been taken, it wasn’t your fault!” Adam was quick to assure his father.

“I don’t blame myself for Joe being missing; I blame whomever it was that took the boy.  But you don’t understand, neither of you do,” shouted Ben as he turned and walked a short distance away.  He paused and looked back at his two sons.  “I made a promise to your brother, and I broke it…”

*****

The immense chill of the room caused Joe to shiver violently.  His heavy eyelids fluttered briefly and opened.  His whole body throbbed with pain and he cried out when he tried to move.  Joe’s shoulders rendered his arms useless as he forced himself into a sitting position.  The cries he made echoed off the walls and once seated more comfortably, his back pressing against the wall, Joe was better able to look around at his surrounding.

Joe’s eyes scanned the tiny room, if that is what it could be called.  One wall, where his back pressed against, was solid rock; the wall to his right was another barrier of stone.  In front of him and to his left were wide, flat thick iron bars that crossed and criss-crossed over one another. A small, iron opening was the only exit from the iron and stone cage where he had been placed.  There were no windows, no light other than the lamp that burned softly on a small rickety table on the other side of the iron bars.  Joe gulped and swallowed again as the fear and dread began creeping over him.  He shivered and tried to draw his legs up to his chest for added warmth.

He glanced around again at his prison.  There would be no way that anyone would find him.  No way that his father and brothers would ever know to search for him here in…in where wondered Joe.  He had no idea where he was, where Ma Farrow had placed him after knocking him out and rendering him senseless.  Panic began to seize hold of the heart of the man who tried to call out for help, but found that his voice was too weak to make an utterance. “Pa…” he mouthed as the panic claimed him and forced the wounded boy into trying to rise.

A sharp stab of pain shot up his arms and into his shoulders as he tried to use his hands for balance, caused the boy to scream in agony.  Joe fell over unto his side, rolling his body into a rigidified ball; his world swirled around him.  His thoughts all compressed and totally without reason, his eyes, unfocused, saw only the high branch with the hand-braided rope that swung from the limb of the hangin’ tree and looped around his neck.  Joe felt the wind being withheld from him; he felt the pressurizing of the rope about his throat, and then abruptly, his world went black.

*****

Joe had no idea how long he had lain as such, only that every inch of his body ached and that his head pounded.  His stomach growled, reminding him that he had not eaten for hours upon hours.  He refused to move for the slightest of movement caused more pain and Joe was nearing his limit.  He chose instead to remain where he was and could only hope that the old woman would come to him soon and offer him a morsel of food and a cool drink of water.

His prayers were answered within minutes of his silent request, when he heard the muted footsteps as the old woman approached his prison cell.  Joe made no attempt to move, or to look up as the footsteps drew nearer.

Ma Farrow set aside the plate she held in her hand and pulled a long key from her skirt pocket.  Joe heard the key turn in the lock and eased his head up enough so that he could see the dirty hem of Ma’s dress. The door creaked as she pulled it open and stood looking down at him.  Ma turned to pick up the tin plate, holding her shotgun in the other hand and keeping it pointed down at the ground where Joe lay.

The aged old woman stepped closer, keeping a safe distance back in case Joe tried to make a grab at her.  She nudged his shoulder with the barrel of her rifle. “Here ya go, sonny; it ain’t much,” she snarled as she held the plate out to him.

Joe looked up, into the faded blue eyes that stared back at him.  He could do nothing to take the plate from her hands.  His shoulders pained him to the point that neared unbearable and though he hungered for the meager tidbits that she offered, he could not force his arms to follow his brain’s command to accept the offering.

“Well if’n ya ain’t hungry,” she said and started to turn.

“I’m hungry,” Joe called after her in a crackled voice.

Ma Farrow paused and turned back around, taking a few steps closer.  “Then how’s come ya ain’t takin’ the plate?”

“I can’t,” Joe said in a small voice.

“Why not? What’s ailin’ ya other than that knot I put on ya head?” growled Ma.

“My arms…or I should say my shoulders, those men…”Joe was interrupted by a coughing spell that nearly took his breath away.

Ma set the plate of stew down and squatted down next to Joe, studying his face, which was slowly turning red.  With a disgusted look, she put aside her rifle and eased Joe into a sitting position.   “Don’t ya move, or I’ll blow ya head off’n them thar shoulders, ya hear?” Ma ordered.

Rising quickly, and taking the rifle with her, Ma disappeared behind the only other door that Joe could see.  From beyond that door, another light shown bright and Joe could catch glimpses of Ma moving around in what appeared to be a room.

Moments later she returned with a cup filled with water.  Joe was still coughing and gasping for breath.  Ma squatted down once again in front of Joe. “Take a drink.” She pressed the rim of the cup to Joe’s lips, allowing Joe to drink of the cool water.  Her hand gently held Joe’s head.  Ma watched her captive’s face, noting the bruises from where Zeb and his men had beaten the boy.  She noted the hazel coloring of the young man’s eyes, and the black ring around his left one that was the result of someone’s fist smashing into his handsome face. “Looks like them thar men, beat ya up purty bad.  Ya must’va given’em a hard time,” she said as she removed the cup.

“No, ma’am, I didn’t do anything…”

“Sure ya didn’t, that’s what all ya young men say,” she snapped, rising to her feet.  In a condescending voice, she mocked Joe’s words.  “I didn’t do anything…I didn’t do anything…”  She glared down at Joe.  “Liar,” she snapped.  “Ya had to do sumthin’ pretty bad, or Zeb Willis wouldn’t have brought ya up the mountain to die; he’d a kilt ya his self,” she said, easing the plate of cold stew over to Joe with the toe of her worn out boot.

“He tried that too, but it didn’t work,” Joe said.  He was watching his supper being scooted across the hard ground.

“I don’t believe that lie either, now eat ya supper,” she said as she turned to go.

Joe felt the panic begin to rise as the old woman made to lock the door.

“Wait!” he pleaded.  “Please…I can’t move my arms…I mean, my shoulders have been pulled…” Joe stopped talking; he could see that his pleading was getting him nowhere.  Ma turned the lock and slipped the key into her pocket.  Without so much as a word, she turned, going through the door and shutting it behind her.

Joe felt the fight leave him as he glanced down at the stew.  How would he manage?  He was so hungry that his insides churned with the need for nourishment, yet with his arms immobile, the only thing he could do was to lay down on his stomach and lap the stew from the plate like an animal.

Joe felt the hot stinging of tears fill his eyes, but he willed himself not to cry.  Swallowing the dread that washed over him, Joe wiggled his body around until he was lying face down on the cold ground.  The plate was only an inch of so from his chin.  Joe scooted closer and taking a deep breath began lapping the stew into his mouth with his tongue.  Joe ate every bite that he could get into his mouth and then, swallowing the humiliation he felt, licked his plate clean.

Forcing himself into a sitting position was harder than he expected, but he managed after several attempts.  With his head resting against the stone wall, and his hunger curbed, Joe closed his eyes and soon dozed off, only to be awakened a short time later by the sound of the key turning in the locked door.

The light on the old table had burned its self out, making the shadowy figure that approached him, difficult to see.

“Joseph?”

“PA!” Joe called out.

He struggled to get to his feet, wondering why his father could not see that he was unable to use his arms.  His back scraped against the hard rock wall as he used the stones as a lever to push against so that he might stand.

“Pa…help me!” cried Joe when his knees gave way beneath him.  Joe crumbled to the floor, screaming out in agony as his separated shoulders made contact with the hard packed earth.

“Please…help me!” sobbed Joe, closing his eyes to the pain.

He had begun to shiver; his body shook with the tremors that over took him.

“Cold…so cold,” Joe muttered.

Joe forced his eyes opened and looked up at the shadowy figure that stood over him.  It was then that he saw the rope in his father’s hand.  His father lowered one end of the rope, dangling it before his eyes, taunting and teasing him with the noose. Joe heard his father laugh and felt the tightening of the hangman’s noose as Ben slipped it over his head and pulled on the knot.

“Ya gonna hang, Joseph.  For all the bad things you’ve done, you’re going to pay!”  Ben laughed loudly and jerked on the rope.

Joe heard himself scream.  “PA! NO!”

Joe’s feet left the ground, the wind expelled from his lungs, his throat constricted…

**********

“Pa?”

The weak utterance caught Ma’s attention and she hurried to the small cot where she had placed the boy.  She stood over the cot, watching the boy tossing about on the bed, crying out in his delirium. Joe’s brow was dotted with drops of perspiration from the fever that sought a claim to his body.  Joe’s moaning grew in volume, causing the old woman’s hatred of all men to second-guess her reasoning.

“Galldarnit,” she muttered as she poured cool water into a chipped old basin.

Ma Farrow grabbed the cleanest rag she could find and dipped it up and down in the water.  She kept her eyes on Joe’s face as she rung the water from the rag and then stepped over to the bed.  Ma knelt down and placed the rag against Joe’s brow, carefully dabbing at the moisture.  Again and then a third time, she pressed the cool cloth to the boy’s brow.

Leaving that rag in place, Ma found a second rag and dipped it into the water, returning to the bed.  Carefully she pulled opened Joe’s shirt and removed his neckerchief.  Ma gasped suddenly and drew back, recognizing the rope burn around Joe’s neck for what it was.

“Lordy, oh Lordy, boy…what’s happened to ya?” Ma muttered to herself.  Her crooked old fingers tenderly touched the burn.  She withdrew her hand quickly as if she had been burned by the redness that lingered.

With hands as loving as any mother’s, Ma Farrow cleaned the burn with the cool cloth, moved downward to clean away the dirt and build-up of perspiration that had accumulated on Joe’s chest.  Her tired old eyes darted back to the rope burn around Joe’s neck, making her to scrunch up her already wrinkled old face in disgust. “Someone’s dun a poor job of hangin’ ya sonny,” Ma whispered to Joe.

Joe had begun to settle down after several moments of enduring the cool cloths.  Ma moved to her stove and dipped some broth from her stew pot, into a cup and returned to the bed. “Ya gotta eat, boy,” she instructed Joe.  “Come on now, wake up,” she gently ordered as she placed her hand behind Joe’s head and lifted him up.  “Drink some of this.”  Ma placed the cup to Joe’s lips and forced a drop into his mouth.

Joe tried to turn his head away, almost causing Ma to spill the warm liquid on the bed.  Ma let Joe’s head down onto the pillow and set the cup aside. “Wake up,” she muttered, gently patting Joe’s cheek.

After several attempts, Joe’s eyelids began fluttering and then opened wide.  His vision was blurred and he was unable to make out the face of the person before him.  “Pa?”

“No, I ain’t ya pa, ain’t ya ma neither!” Ma growled.  She took the cup in one hand and raised Joe’s head with the other.  “Now drink this,” she ordered, placing the cup to Joe’s lips again.

This time Joe drank readily of the warm brew.  “Good,” he whispered.

When he had finished, Ma lowered his head and put aside the cup.  “How ya feelin’?” she asked, pressing her hand to Joe’s brow to check for fever.  “Fever’s down a bit.”

“Better,” he said as he tried to focus on the old woman’s face.  “My shoulders don’t…seem to…hurt as much.”

Ma stood to her feet looking down at Joe.  “That’s cause I set’em back like they a’pose to be,” she explained.  “Ya still cain’t use ya hands, ’cause I bound ya arms to ya chest.  Just so’s that ya wouldn’t hurt ya self again.”

Ma moved away from the bed, crossing the room to the stove.  She took another cup and dipped broth into it and then grabbing a spoon, returned to the bedside where she pulled a chair close.

Joe watched her movements, squinting his eyes into focus in hopes of seeing her better.  He waited until she was seated before speaking up. “How come you brought me in here?  I was under the impression that you planned on killing me, at least, that’s what Willis and his gang told me,” Joe said in a strained voice.

“Zeb Willis said that?” she asked, looking at Joe curiously.

“Not in those exact words, but those other two men, Smitty and Frank, they said as much,” Joe told her.

Ma was silent for a long time.  She surprised Joe by laughing and then by leaning over and with one hand, pulling the blanket back enough to expose Joe’s upper body.  With a crooked finger she pointed at the rope burn. “What’d ya hang fur?”

“For something I didn’t do…and it was proven after the fact.  The sheriff found the man who did, what I was accused of doing and hung for,” Joe said with a touch of venom in his voice.

“What was ya accused of doin?” Ma asked.

Joe eyed the old woman suspiciously, not sure why he was being interrogated. “They said I killed a man and his wife and then stole their cattle,” Joe explained.

“Did ya?”

“Of course not; I got a bill of sale, except that the men who did this took it and kept it.”

Ma sighed deeply and took several more mouthfuls of her broth. “Who dun it?”

“Some man by the name of Jack Marlow.  The sheriff found him later, he’d been shot in the back,” Joe told Ma.

“I meant, who hung ya?”  Ma sipped the last drops from her cup, making a slurping sound as she did so.

“You mean, you don’t know?” Joe asked, surprised, for he had just assumed that Ma Farrow was in cahoots with Zeb Willis and his gang.

“Now how would I know who went and strung ya up?  I ain’t one of them thar fortune tellers,” she snapped.

Regardless of the discomfort that he still felt in his body, Joe couldn’t help but snicker.  He caught himself, and quickly glanced up into the old woman’s face to check her reaction.  Joe relaxed when he saw the smile that had begun to grow across her face. “No ma’am,” he muttered.  “You’re not.  It was Zeb Willis and those men.”  The smile died suddenly at the memory that the mere mention of the man’s name caused.

Ma Farrow sat back down in her chair and scooted it as close as possible to the bed. “Don’t ya lie to me, sonny.  Ya sayin’ that Zeb Willis strung ya up…and then left ya hangin’, not knowin’ fur sure that ya was dead or not?” Ma questioned.

Joe’s hand made a move for his throat, but being trapped beneath the layer of bandages that Ma had applied, it could only remain were it was.  Joe swallowed, feeling in his mind, the rope beginning to tighten about his throat.  Slowly he nodded his head. “I’m not lying; he and his men hung me and left me there to die.  If it hadn’t been for my Pa and my brothers finding me in the nick of time…” he swallowed again, harder this time and fought the rising panic that he was beginning to feel.

Ma held her hand up in front of Joe’s face to silence any further words.  “Ya say ya pa and brothers found ya?  Must’va been a shock to ya pa…seein’ his son like that?”  Ma lowered her head.

Joe heard the woman sniff and looked up just in time to see the old woman swipe her arm beneath her nose. “I imagine so,” he said in a small voice, remembering the relief he felt when he opened his eyes the first time after being hung and seeing his father’s face before him.

“I…seen the burn mark on ya neck…I knew what it was, what caused it,” Ma said in a grating voice.  “I…seen it afore…burns like that I mean.  I seen what happens to a man when he’s hung and left to die…I know…cause my man was hung, ‘ceptin’ he tweren’t lucky like ya was; cause he’s dead.”

For a moment, while she was explaining to Joe about her man, Ma’s face softened and her eyes took on a far away expression.  And then Ma turned her head away so that Joe could not see her tears and swiped her hand under her nose for the second time.  When she turned back to Joe, the traces of her tears were gone, her eyes danced once more with what Joe recognized now as hatred. “He was innocent, just like ya, but didn’t do no good for him to beg, them men kilt him any how,” she said standing to her feet.

“Is that why…you brought me in here…’cause you saw the rope burn?” Joe asked, almost timidly.

Ma narrowed her eyes as she looked down at the boy and then surprised Joe by smiling slightly. “I brung ya in here cause I’m nosy, that’s why.  I wanted to know why ya was hung, and I wanted to know who hung ya,” she practically yelled.  “’Sides, ya was runnin’ a fever and talkin’ all crazy like and I knew if’n I didn’t tend to ya, ya’d die and I’d never know why and who…and I don’t like not knowin’ details.  Not stop ya jawin’ and get some rest.”

Ma was finished with him; she turned and yanked the old blanket across the cord that served as a makeshift divider in the small room.  She was hidden from Joe’s view, but he could hear her moving about in the small cabin. “Ma’am?” he called out to her.

Joe could hear her walking back his way and waited until she peeked around the divider.

“I thought I told ya to rest? And stop calling me ma’am…just call me…Ma,” she growled, but Joe could easily see that the old woman was not mad.

“Sure…Ma.  Just one question, please?” he dared to ask.

“One…”

“Did you ever find out who hung your husband?”

Ma moved back into Joe’s sleeping quarters and plopped down in the chair.  Joe heard her sigh deeply.  When she looked at him, there was a deep sadness in her blue eyes that had not been there before now. “No…never did.  Never did prove my man innocent either.  They wore masks, all of them.  There were five or six as I recall, but only one was the leader. He sounded more like a younger man, about like ya, but he sure ‘nough was the boss.  Tweren’t no doubt about it, he’s the one what ordered the others to take my Seth away.”  Ma fell silent for a long moment, and then glanced at Joe with a sad smile.

“They hung ’em right out front, from that old oak tree.  They just left him swingin’ and rode off, never once looked back.  I tried to hold’em up cause he kept jerkin’ round and round, but tweren’t no good, I had’ta let go to get a knife, but when I came back…my Seth was dun dead.  So’s I cut’em down and buried’em over yonder. I reckon when I sawed that rope burn around ya neck, I figured I couldn’t let ya die, locked away in some cage and beat nearly to death, not if’n the good Lord dun went and spare ya life from the hangman’s noose.  So’s I brung inside and took care of ya.”

Ma rose, turning her back on her patient.  She pause at the blanket wall and without turning to face Joe, muttered, “I must be gettin’ soft in my old age.”  She turned then to look over her shoulder, but Joe had fallen to sleep.  Ma smiled and went back, arranging the covers under Joe’s chin.  Tenderly she brushed back a lock of hair.  “’Sides, sonny, ya got the face of an angel.  I just couldn’t believe ya was so rotten that ya had to be hung.”

*****

“These tracks lead up into the mountains, Pa,” Hoss said from where he stood studying the tracks that they had followed for several long hours.  Hoss rose to his feet, and looked up at Ben, who still sat on his horse. “They could’va taken Joe anywhere up there,” Hoss informed this father.

“I know that,” Ben said in a sharp voice. His patience at not finding his son worried him more than he tried to let on to his other two sons.  Ben faced the sheriff.  “Any place in these mountains that you know of where they might have taken my son?”

“Just about a hundred places up here that a man could hide, Mr. Cartwright,” the sheriff explained.

“No…they aren’t trying to hide,” Adam spoke up.  “They’re taking Joe somewhere, somewhere specific, otherwise, whoever wanted him dead, would have already killed him. Why go to all the trouble of going up into the mountains just to kill a boy and leave his body there, when the job could have just as easily been done back at that man’s ranch and then the body disposed of?  It doesn’t make any sense,” Adam objected.

“Adam’s right, sheriff.  It doesn’t make any sense…where are they going with Joe?” Ben injected.

The sheriff looked thoughtful and then glanced around at the three men.  “You know, Mr. Cartwright, there’s an old woman that lives somewhere up in these mountains, way up, in the high country.  I’ve never seen her, only heard things about her.  Even at that, I can’t swear that the stories are true or not, but legend has it that she hates men, especially young men.  Some old timers claim that her husband was hung for something he didn’t do and that it was a young man who ordered him hung — guess that’s why she hates’em so.  Anyway, over the years, several young men have ventured up to the high country, either out of curiosity or just for huntin’ and trappin’, most ain’t never been seen nor heard of since.  Some say that the old woman lays in wait for’em and then either kills’em or makes them her prisoner.  It’s told that she keeps’em locked up in cages until she tires of’em and then she kills’em.  Could be your boy was taken up to the high country and left for the old woman.”

“Taken?” questioned Ben.  “But why?”

“My guess would be that whoever hung ya boy knows that he knows who they are, and are afraid that he would tell.  They could hang for what they did to your son, or spend a very, very long time in prison.  Might be they’re figuring if they turn the boy over to the old woman of the mountain, and she kills him, they can’t be held responsible for his death.  And,” he added, “they could be hopin’ that like all the others, your son would never been seen again.  He’d just disappear.”

Ben made a scowl and glanced at Adam and Hoss.  “Sheriff, do you know where this old woman lives?”

“No…like I said, I’ve only heard things…I haven’t been in this part of the country very long, so I’m not familiar with these things,” the sheriff explained.

Ben mounted his horse and motioned for Hoss to do the same.  “Then we’ll just have to find this old woman,” he said.  “Hoss, you take the lead and keep an eye out for any more tracks.”

“Yessir,” Hoss said. He glanced up at Adam and smiled.  Neither had been ready to call off the search for their missing brother.

*****

“NO!  I’M INNOCENT,” shouted Joe in as the nightmare danced in a lively manner before his eyes.  “PA! PA!”

Ma crawled from her cot and lit the lantern.  She had been listening to the soft murmurs growing louder and louder until now, the boy’s cries had turned to wailing.

“NO…NO…YOU CAN’T DO THIS!”

Ma pushed back the curtain and set the lamp on the table.  Quickly she grabbed a cloth and dunking it into the cool water, she approached the bed.  Joe was moaning loudly and making gasping sounds deep in his throat as if he were choking.  He tossed his head from side to side and it took all the old woman’s strength to hold Joe still long enough that she could wipe the sweat from his beaded brow. “Shh…take it easy sonny, ain’t no body here gonna do ya harm,” Ma cooed in her crackled voice.  “Shh…”

“Pa?  Please, the rope…get it…off…my neck…please…please,” wept Joe.

Ma ran her fingers through the dampened curls, muttering.  “Wake up, sonny; ya just havin’ a nightmare…come on now, wake up,” she urged.

Joe tried to raise his upper body from the mattress, but Ma’s hands gently pushed him back down.  “Wake up now, ya hear me?” she said in a louder voice.  “Wake up!”  Ma gently shook Joe by the shoulders.

“PA!” screamed Joe as his eyes popped opened.  His breathing was coming in rapid little gulps as he tried to focus on the woman’s face. “Oh,” he said in a soft voice, “it’s you.”

Ma made a face and folded her arms across her bosom.  “Well that’s a fine how do ya do!”

Joe took a deep breath to steady his breathing and let it out slowly.  “I’m sorry…really,” he said, resting his head back down on his pillow.  “I was just hoping that you were my…”

“I understand, sonny; ya ain’t got’ta say it.”  Ma smiled and brushed back a wayward lock of curls.  “Ya must love’em a bunch, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Joe said, offering the woman a small smile. He was surprised by the tenderness he had found in the woman.  For sure Zeb and the others had drawn a very hostile picture of the old woman than what he was seeing.  Joe could not help but wonder at the differences.

“He must be worried about ya, too,” Ma added.

“Yes ma’am.  We were on our way home when Zeb caught me off guard and he and his men took me.  I really need to get word to my family; they’re probably looking for me.”

“Ain’t no way to get’em word, not up here.  And ya ain’t in no condition to travel, so for now, ya stuck.”  Ma grinned.  “Could be worse, ya know.”

Joe returned the smile and nestled back down under the covers, “I know…trust me, I know….Ma,” Joe whispered in a soft voice.

“Ya sure do talk a lot, sonny,” Ma grumbled, but Joe could see that she wasn’t really upset.

“I don’t mean any disrespect, but…those men…they told me things, things about you that…”

“That I killed young men…and tossed their bodies off in ravines…that I was crazy in the head…and that I was Satan trapped in an old lady’s body?  Well it ain’t so, sonny.  I ain’t never kilt no one…and I sure as hell ain’t Satan…it’s all lies, all of it,” Ma said flatly.

Joe watched the old woman’s face with a confused expression on his.  “Then why did you act like you were…Satan,” he grinned slightly. “The other day when we ran into you, why did you hit me over the head and lock me in that cage?”

Ma rolled her eyes as she wiped her hands down the front of her dirt-smeared blouse.  “Well I had to…that’s why! Don’t ya see?”

“No, I don’t see, it hurt…and…I don’t like being locked in cages!” Joe growled.

“Well for Pete’s sake lad, if’n I’d a welcomed ya with open arms, them thar hooligans would’ve kilt both ya and me.  I had to act like a she-devil.  I could see by the way them thar fellas were actin’ that they meant ya harm, hell ya purty face was every color in the rainbow ‘ceptin’ white.  I’m sorry sonny, for puttin’ ya in that thar cage, but I couldn’t take no chances.  I was afeared them ole boys might come sneaking back and if’n they found us socializin’, we’d abeen done fur. ’Sides, how’d I aknow’d ya didn’t really do what they said ya dun?  A lady cain’t be too careful ya know…I had to be sure of ya afore I let ya outta that cage.  When ya started talkin’ crazy like and callin’ out for ya Pa…I reckon, I just couldn’t help myself.  Ya needed tendin’ to, so I dun the tendin’, that’s all.”

Joe grinned and nodded his head.  “I’m not sure about half of what you said, but I think I owe you a thanks,” Joe said softly.  “Thanks, Ma…for helping me out…”

“Aw…ain’t no need to thank me, boy…I just wish…well…aw hell, go to sleep!” she snorted, waving her hand out in front of her.  She turned then, leaving Joe alone with his thoughts.

He leaned his head back against the pillow and smiled.  Slowly his eyes closed and within minutes, Joe was asleep.

*****

Ben, Adam, Hoss and the sheriff were halfway up the mountain when they spied Zeb Willis and his men riding in the opposite direction, down the mountain.  Ben sat mounted on Buck’s back and watched the small group as they descended down the narrow trail.

“Wonder what them yahoos been up to?” Hoss said.

“Why don’t we ask them?” Ben said as he nudged his horse forward and led his group a short ways back down the trail.

Zeb motioned his men to a halt as soon as he spied the sheriff and the strangers approaching.  He glanced over his shoulders at his men. “Keep ya mouths shut, I’ll do the talkin’,” he ordered.

“Well howdy, sheriff,” Willis greeted Cooper.  “Ain’t ya way out of your jurisdiction?” he laughed lightly.

The sheriff nodded his head in agreement.  “A might, we’re looking for someone.  A boy, about eighteen or nineteen, seen anyone like that up here?”

Zeb looked thoughtful for a moment and then turned to his men. “I ain’t seen no one. What about you fellas?”

Frank and Smitty began shaking their heads immediately.  Ben noted that the third man, Jim, hesitated slightly before shaking his.

Zeb turned back the sheriff.  “Ain’t seen a livin’ soul, ‘cepting’ ya,” Zeb confirmed.  “What’s a kid that young doin’ alone up here in these mountains?”

Hoss had sided his horse up along Smitty’s and was keeping a close eye on the man.  He spied the man’s rope coiled and tied to the little rawhide strip on the saddle. “Nice lookin’ rope,” Hoss said to Smitty.  “You make it ya self?”

Smitty glanced down at the rope and then suspiciously eyed Hoss.  “Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t,” he snarled at Hoss.

Hoss just raised his brows and inched his horse back around to wait beside Adam.  He gave Adam a nod of his head, motioning for his brother to take a look at the rope.  The rope was the same as the first one found around Joe’s neck and the second one on the hangin’ tree.

“Zeb, the boy was hung…lynched, but he managed to survive.  And then when he and his family here was on their way home, the boy was kidnapped,” explained the sheriff. “We followed the tracks to your place and…”

“My place?” Zeb said, expressing his surprise.  “What are you suggesting?” Zeb demanded.

Adam and Hoss were waiting slightly behind Zeb and his men, keeping their eyes on the movements each made.  They were ready, hands resting lightly on their sidearms, should any man make a move for their guns.  Ben remained silent, allowing the sheriff to conduct the questioning, for he had no doubt in his mind that these four men were responsible for Joe’s adduction and for the lynching.

“I’m not suggesting anything, Zeb.  I’m askin’ ya, as a friend, if’n ya or ya men had anything to do with what’s happened to Mr. Cartwright’s son,” the sheriff questioned. “The boy was hung with a special rope, like Smitty makes, and then later, another piece of rope was found dangling from the same tree, and Zeb, we found evidence that the boy was held prisoner in your barn…”

The sheriff pulled his pistol from his holster and pointed it at Zeb, “I have to arrest ya, Zeb; I gotta take ya and ya men in for questioning.  Now, hand ya guns over, slowly,” Sheriff Cooper demanded.

Frank made a move to withdraw his gun from his holster.  Adam’s first thought was that the man was going to drop the gun onto the ground, but as Adam started to dismount to collect the guns, Frank drew his hand upward and fired.

The response set off a chain reaction of men scrambling for cover, shots being fired in all directions and horses trying to bolt and run.  When the dust had settled, Ben, Hoss and the sheriff had found refuge behind rocks that protruded out of the earth.  Adam lay sprawled in the dirt, several yards away, unmoving.

Zeb and his men had managed to find cover behind some fallen trees where the bushes grew wild and thick.  The undergrowth made it hard for Ben and the others to see just where the gang was located.  Ben’s eyes kept shifting to his son, Adam, who had yet to move.

“ADAM!” called Ben with in a worried voice.  The concerned father glanced at Hoss, “I have to get to him, keep me covered,” he ordered.

“Pa…wait!  Look!” Hoss called in reply.

Ben’s attention went back to Adam who was lying on the ground facing them.  His dark eyes were opened and he gave his father a wink to let him know that he was all right.  Ben wanted to smile, but not being sure where Zeb and his men were, he refused to give in to the urge.  Instead, he waited until he saw a movement in the bushes and together with Hoss and the sheriff, they opened fire.

For several moments the silence of the forest was shattered by bullet blasts.  One man stood and took aim at the Cartwrights as Adam rolled over and fired his gun. The man screamed out as the bullet pierced his chest and he toppled forward, dead before he hit the ground.  Momentarily stunned by the loss of one of his men, the shooting ceased, giving Adam just enough time to dash to safety behind the rocks.

Ben clamped his hand down on his son’s shoulder and smiled.  “You gave me quite a scare, son.”

“Sorry Pa,” smiled Adam in return.

“Give it up, Zeb, ya don’t stand a chance,” the sheriff called out from behind his hiding place.

“Not on your life, Cooper,” Zeb Willis shouted.  “You’ll have to kill me first!”

Sheriff Cooper raised his rifle and took aim.  Ben grabbed his arm, stopping him before he had a chance to fire.  “Hold on a minute,” Ben said. “Willis…we know that you’re the man who ordered my son hung…for something he didn’t do, I might add.  And we know you held him prisoner at your ranch, we found pieces of your man’s rope, and a button off my son’s shirt.  Don’t make things worse for you and your men; give yourselves up.  I’ll make sure you get a fair trial…just tell me where my son is,” Ben called.

“It’s too late Cartwright, ya kid’s dun dead…I made sure of it this time,” Willis laughed.

Ben’s face became a mixture of anger and pain for his loss.  He turned to Hoss and Adam, seeing the horrified looks on their faces as well.

“No, Pa…”stammered Hoss.  “Joe ain’t dead, he can’t be…he isn’t, or I’d know.  I’m tellin’ ya Pa, that man’s alying!”

“Hoss is right, Pa.  If Joe were dead, those men wouldn’t have let us ride right up to them like we did.  Joe’s somewhere up in those hills, and I for one plan on finding him,” Adam said with a vengeance in his voice.

“Keep them busy,” Adam whispered as he turned to creep away through the rocks and into the thick woods.

“Adam…wait!” Ben called out.

Adam refused to stop, forcing Ben to turn his attention back to Zeb and his remaining men and join Hoss and Cooper in blasting at the culprits.

Ben glanced over his shoulder, but Adam had disappeared from sight.  Ben tried to locate his son, but the forest was too thick and it was with great worry that Ben feared for his son.  His thoughts turned temporarily to his youngest son.  He wondered where Joe was, and if Zeb Willis had really been lying about Joe’s death.  Ben felt a lump, swell his throat and he pushed the unpleasant thought to the back of his mind.  Right now, Adam needed his attention, but Ben silently vowed that once this gun battle was over, he would comb these mountains for Little Joe if it took him the rest of his life.

“Don’t move!” Adam said in a low voice as he stepped from behind a tree.  He jabbed his pistol into the back of the old man, taking Jim by surprise. Adam reached around in front of the man and grabbed the pistol from Jim’s hand.

Immediately Jim raised both of his hands into the air. “I ain’t gonna give ya no trouble, mister,” Jim said as he glanced over his shoulder at Adam.  “I dun had me ‘nough of lyin’ and stealin’ and killin’,” he said in a voice that rang with defeat.

“Then move forward, quietly and don’t make any sudden moves, stay in front of me,” Adam ordered as he placed one hand on the old man’s shoulder and guided him forwards.

Zeb and Smitty were busy exchanging gunfire with Ben, Hoss and the sheriff and were unaware that Adam had overtaken Zeb’s uncle.  When he had the old man positioned where he wanted, Adam called out, “Drop your guns!”

Startled, Zeb and Smitty both turned and began firing.  Adam shoved Jim roughly to the ground, dropping down to the ground himself and quickly fired his pistol.  Smitty was the first to be hit with a bullet and pitched forward, landing in a heap close to the old man.

Adam rolled out of the line of fire and shot off another round of bullets into the brush.

“AWW…” screamed Zeb Willis.  “DON’T SHOOT! I’M HIT!” he shouted from his hiding place.  “I GIVE UP!”

Off in the distance, Adam heard his name being called.  Minutes later, Hoss and his father, followed by the sheriff came barreling through the thick growth of trees.  All three men still had their guns in their hands and pointed at Zeb, who had appeared from his hiding place and Jim, who was slowly getting to his feet.  Zeb walked into the clearing and tossed his gun down at Adam’s feet.  One hand held his shoulder where bright red blood seeped from the wound where he had been shot.

“Are you alright, son?” Ben clamored in a worried voice.

“I’m fine, Pa; he just nicked me, really,” Adam assured his family.

Ben glanced quickly at Adam’s arm to be sure and then gave his son a relieved smile.  He then turned his attention to the two men, Zeb and Jim.  Jim had gotten to his feet and had both hands held high over his head.  He cast a worried look at his nephew and then at Adam.

“He’s bleeding,” Jim said.

“He’ll live,” Hoss answered as he examined the wound.  He took his neckerchief off and stuffed it into Zeb’s shirt to cover the wound and slow the bleeding.

“This one’s dead, Mr. Cartwright,” Sheriff Cooper said after turning Smitty over and checking for any signs of life.

“Well, now,” Ben said, standing in front of Zeb and Jim.  He wore a dark frown on his face and his brown eyes had turned deep ebony as he eyed the two men. “I want to know what you’ve done with my son,” he demanded.

“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, mister…I dun told ya…”

“Zeb…it’s over,” Jim interrupted to say.  “There ain’t no more use in ya lyin’.”  Jim turned to the Cartwrights and began explaining.

“SHUT UP OLD MAN!” screeched Zeb.

“You hush up, ya hear?” demanded Hoss as he glared at the man.

“It’s like this Mister Cartwright, we’re guilty of what ya said we dun, all of it, and lots more.  We hung ya boy.  Zeb here made us believe that the boy was guilty of killing old man Marsh and his woman, but that don’t excuse what we dun.  I know that.  I’m sorry about my part in it.  I know’d ya boy was tellin’ the truth; he just didn’t look like no killer, and ‘sides, he was scared to death, and no man who’d just killed a man and his wife and robbed’em would’va been so scared.”

Jim took a deep breath and continued.  “It was later that night, after we hung ya boy, that we found out we hung an innocent man but that the kid didn’t die.  We knew the boy could identify us, and Zeb got worried we’d all go to prison, or worse, be strung up ourselves, so he come up with the idea of kidnapping the boy and takin’ him up into these here mountains.  He was aplannin’ on killin’ him and tossin’ him off into one of these ravines so’s that no body’d ever find his body. Just like he dun to those other young men.”

Hoss made a deep growling sound that ripped from the back of his throat.  He turned to Zeb, attempting to grab the wounded man by the front of his shirt.  Adam immediately stepped between both men, preventing his brother from doing something that he might regret later.  Adam gently pushed Hoss back a couple of spaces and stood before him. “Take it easy, big guy; let Pa and the sheriff handle this,” he muttered in a low voice.

Hoss’ eyes were huge and the anger seeped from every pore of his body.  He looked down at Adam. “So help me…if he’s hurt the boy again, I’ll rip him apart with my bare hands,” snarled the usually amiable giant.

“Others…what others?” the sheriff demanded. “You mean he’s done this before?”

“Yep…”

“I told ya to shut up!” Zeb said in a warning tone.

“SIT DOWN!” yelled Hoss as he shoved the man to the ground.  “Don’t move, or I’ll pound ya good!”

The sheriff glanced at Ben and then back at their prisoner.  “What others?”

“Two, maybe three more…ya know them boys what’s been missin’ for years?” Jim asked.

“I remember,” the sheriff said.

“Zeb…kilt’em and then we brung their bodies up here and throwed’em in one of those ravines I was tellin’ ya about.  And Zeb, he kilt that old woman’s husband…had’em hung for somethin’ he didn’t do, just like ya boy.  And when the old woman moved up here in the mountains…well, that’s when he got the idey to start them rumors about the old woman being a man-hater and how she’d kill any young man she’d find on her mountain. It was ‘nough to keep people from wandering around up here and possibly stumblin’ onto one of those bodies, Zeb tried so hard to hide.”

Jim hung his head in shame.  “Frank and Smitty, they was mean, Mr. Cartwright.  They told ya boy how mean ole Ma Farrow was and the things she’d do to a boy before killin’ him.  It weren’t pretty, the things they had’em believin’.  Why, they had the poor boy scared to death. Then when we ran into her up there and she took the boy away…Zeb laughed and said he’s hands were clean, if’n the boy dies, ain’t no blame could be placed on us…”

“That old crazy woman has Mr. Cartwright’s son?” Sheriff Cooper asked in a stunned voice.  Cooper turned to Ben, a look of horror on his face.  “I’ve heard those rumors, Mr. Cartwright, but I never knew if what was said was the truth or not.  I don’t think I’d waste any more time before finding ya boy.  I’ll take these two back down the mountain and lock them up.  If ya boys will help me load the two dead one’s on their horses, first?”

“We’ll help,” Adam said as he took Hoss’ arm and led him away to gather the dead.

Ben aided the sheriff in getting Zeb and his uncle ready to ride out.  He paused before helping the wounded Zeb to mount up.

“If anything has happened to my son, I’ll make you pay, mark my words.”  Ben wiggled his finger under the man’s nose and then grabbed him, roughly pushing him into his saddle.

It was only a short time before the three Cartwrights were ready to continue on with their search.  Jim had given them the general directions from where they had ran into the old woman and where she had taken Joe away but he could not tell them exactly where her cabin was located.  And if Zeb Willis knew anything, he wasn’t saying a word.

*****

For the remainder of the night, Joe slept soundly.  It was the banging and clanging of pots that finally woke Joe from his sleep.  He moaned softly and stretched, trying to wiggle himself into a sitting position.  With his arms still bound tightly to his chest, he was left in a near helpless state.

“Ma!” Joe called and listened for the footsteps that would tell him that the old woman was coming to his aid.

Momentarily, Ma stuck her head around the partition.  “What ya bellowin’ about now?  I ain’t deef,” she scolded.

Joe grinned; he’d never let on to the old woman, but he had grown fond of her, despite her unkempt appearance and her bad attitude. “Sorry,” he said.  “But I could use a little help here,” Joe said, nodding with his eyes, downward at his arms. “I need to take a walk,” he explained when she looked as if she didn’t understand his meaning.

“Well, land sakes, sonny, why didn’t ya just say ya had to go pee?” barked the old woman as she stepped behind the divider and helped Joe into a sitting position.  “Come on, I’ll help ya,” she said as Joe allowed himself to be helped from the bed.

He paused, his eyes wide.  “You’ll what?” he stammered.

Ma had turned her head the other way and Joe could not see the tiny smile that creased her face.  “Are ye deef?  I said, I’d help ya go pee.”

“I…I…um…Ma, if you’ll just unbind my arms a little, I think I can…um manage by myself,” Joe said as he swallowed hard.

“Hehehehehe,” laughed Ma, giving Joe a sideways glance.  “I was only funnin’ ya, sonny!” she snickered.

“Whew,” sighed Joe, grinning, “You had me worried there for a minute,” he said, relief showing on his bruised face.

“Lordy boy, I seen ‘nough naked men in my days to last me a lifetime, not that I made a habit of it, ya see,” she added as an after thought.

“Of course not,” Joe smiled.

Ma had begun to unwrap the bandages that she had bound Joe’s arms with.

“Ya might not believe this, sonny…say, what is ya name?”

“Joe.”

“Well Joe…as I was sayin’, ya might not believe this, but when I was young…which wasn’t all that long ago, mind ya…I was a what some men might call ‘a looker.’  Lest ways, that’s what my Seth use to tell me.”

Ma stepped back and watched as Joe carefully tried moving his arms.  He fought to keep the pain from showing in his expression, but Ma saw it in his eyes.  She gently placed her hand under Joe’s chin and tilted his head upward.  When she smiled and looked into Joe’s hazel eyes, the young man heard her sigh deeply. “It’s times like this here, that I wished I was a young girl again,” she said softly, using her other hand to brush back his hair from his forehead.

She surprised Joe by leaning down and placing a kiss on his brow.

“Ya hurry up now, ya hear? It’s cold outside sonny, and ya still got yaself a nasty cough.  I’ll redo these here bandages when ya dun and then ya can eat at bite,” she ordered.  “And if’n ya good boy, I’ll see what I can do about getting’ ya back down this here mountain.  I reckon that papa of yours must be about worried sick wonderin’ ‘bout ya.  God knows if’n ya was my boy, I’d a-be.”

Ma moved her hand and helped Joe to his feet.  “Now git!”

Joe took a step or two toward the door and then paused.  He turned back to the old woman and surprised her by leaning down and kissing her cheek.  Joe didn’t say anything, only watched as Ma placed her hand to the spot where Joe had brushed his lips against her flesh. “Lord have mercy, Joe…ya made an old woman blush!” stammered Ma.  “Ya best git to ya business afore I forget that I’m a lady!”

Joe giggled and then left the cabin, leaving the old mountain woman mumbling under her breath.

*****

Ben and his sons found the place where Jim had told them that they had encountered the mountain woman.  Ben stood on the ground, looking around for signs as to what direction they might have taken.  He stretched his back, the cold night had made his bones stiff and he was near sick with worry about his youngest son. “Looks like they went this way,” he said after a long silence.  “One set of footprints, and a horse, following behind,” Ben told Adam and Hoss as he mounted up.

“Must mean that Joe’s ridin’,” Hoss spoke up.

“Could be,” Ben said, more to himself than to Hoss.

“Let’s ride,” instructed the older Cartwright as he led the way.

*****

“When we get down off this mountain, I promise you, Ma, I’ll help you find the man who murdered your husband,” Joe told the old woman as she led his horse carefully around trees and brushes.

“I dun know who hung my Seth, boy…I just cain’t prove it,” Ma said, glancing back over her shoulder at the young man who sat astride the horse.

It was hard for Joe to keep his balance, what with his arms bound to his chest again.  He had not wanted the old woman to restrict them again, but she would not hear another word about it and had even gone as far as threatening to lock him away in her hidden cage once more.  Joe had given in to her persistence, feeling sure that in his present condition, she might overpower him and do exactly as she had threatened.  Later, as they had worked themselves through the dense forest, Joe had decided that her way had been best, for with the undergrowth and mountains stones, he never would have been able to keep from falling.  And the last thing that Joe wanted was more constricting injuries.  His body still ached from the abuse that Zeb and his cronies had inflected upon him, he still bore the bruises and cuts rendered to all areas of his flesh and he had no desire to add more because of his on vanity.

“You know?” Joe exclaimed from his perch, atop the horse.  “I thought you said they wore hoods to hide their faces?”

Ma pulled the horse to a stop and turned to look up at Joe. “Course I do…them thar hoods hide their faces, but not their voices, sonny.  I’d never forget that voice, not in a million years.  It was Zeb Willis what dun and kilt my man.  Oh, Zeb wasn’t more than a young’n back then, but it was Zeb no less, the murderin’ skunk.  And it tweren’t the last time he kilt a man either.  I seed him and that no good uncle of his’n and those other two men come up here and dump more’n one body over the side of a cliff,” she proclaimed.

“Then why didn’t you tell the sheriff down in the town?” Joe asked, steadying himself as Ma started walking again.

“Me?  Why, that thar sheriff…he’s like all the rest of them folks, they all think that old Ma Farrow ain’t nuthin’ but a lunatic…dun gone all crazy in the head.  If’n I’d showed my face in that thar town, they’d a sent me off to one of them thar insane asylums.”

Ma paused again and looked back at Joe. “Zeb Willis tried to steal my man’s farm from him.  He thought there was gold in them thar criks, but tweren’t any, leastways, not so much that would make him rich.  My man and me found a little dust, but that’s all.  Zeb dun went all crazy like when we wouldn’t sell out to him, that’s why he lied and claimed that my man kilt that cattleman’s son.  He dun it himself, but he managed to make it look like my Seth dun it, so he had him lynched.”

“Sounds like he’s still using the same plan.  Wonder what it was that he wanted from Marsh?” Joe said, thinking out loud.  They had begun to move again.

“John Marsh?  He was sitting on a gold mine and Zeb Willis knew it.  Trouble was, old man Marsh didn’t have an idey that not more than half a mile or so from his place, there’s an old abandoned mine shaft.  Rumor is…and it’s just a rumor, many years ago, when I was just a girl…some bandits robbed the bank and stole half a million dollars in gold and dun hid it in that thar mine.  Over the years, people have hunted for it, but no body ever found anythin’, so the local judge at the time, ordered the mine sealed off, so’s no body could get in thar.  The place was put up for sale, and Marsh and his wife bought the place.  They tweren’t from around here, so’s they didn’t know nuthin’ about the hidden treasure.  That’s why Zeb wanted the place; he believed them thar rumors and was hell-bent to find the gold.”

Ma stopped again and sat down on a fallen log to remove her boot.  She pulled the boot from her foot and shook it upside down, letting a tiny pebble fall from the inside before putting her foot back into it.  She smiled up at Joe. “Thar, that feels a might better,” she said, standing and stretching.

“Why don’ t you ride for awhile?  If you take this binding off my arms, I’ll walk and you…”

“No ya don’t sonny, ya just stay put…” growled Ma, grabbing the reins and beginning to walk again so that Joe could not get down from the horse.

Ma continued with her story.  “Years later, I heard that one of the men what stole that gold from the bank, was Zeb’s own father.  He was caught and made to stand trial and was later hung.  One of the tellers pointed him out as the man what dun shot the banker.  Old man Willis swore up and down that he didn’t do it…they all say that,” Ma injected into her story.  “But no one believed him, ‘ceptin’ his boy, Zeb…who was about ten at the time.  When they hung Willis, the boy swore to get even with everyone in the town for killin’ his pa.  Reckon that’s why he favors hangin’ everyone…if’n ya ask me, which ya didn’t,” Ma said, glancing back at Joe who wore a smile, “I’d say Zeb Willis was the one what was touched in the head, not me!” laughed Ma.

“I think I’d have to agree with you,” giggled Joe.  “But they never proved he was the one?”

“Never,” replied Ma.  Ma stopped suddenly and grabbed her shotgun.  She motioned for Joe to be still.  “Someone’s comin’, boy; don’t make a sound!” she said as she led the horse behind some thick bushes and laced the reins around the branches.

With one last look at Joe, she slipped into the thick growth and disappeared from his sight.  Joe could hear the horsemen riding through the ticket, surprised that they were making so much noise.  A second later, Ma’s crackled voice broke the silence of the forest.

“Hold it right thar!” Joe heard ma shout.  “Don’t ya move a muscle, or I’ll blow ya dang heads off!”

Joe smiled to himself in spite of the situation.  Ma was a feisty old woman, he surmised.

The three men stopped suddenly, jerking back on their horse’s reins and nearly causing the three animals to run into each other.  Ben and his sons all wore startled expressions on their faces.

Ben immediately raised both of his hands into the air, showing the old woman that he meant her no harm.

“Take it easy, ma’am,” Ben said, quickly recovering from his shock.  “We don’t mean you any harm,” he assured the woman who pointed her shotgun at his chest.

A rustle from the bushes behind, caught the old woman off guard and forgetting the three horsemen, she spun around, not expecting to see her young charge forging through the woods.

“Ma…wait…” Joe called as he burst into the opening.

“I thought I told ya to stay put?  Land-a-mighty, sonny, don’t ya ever do what ya told to do?” Ma grumbled.

“Sometimes,” Joe said with a cheeky grin.

“Sometimes, my foot,” Hoss said aloud.

“Rarely,” Adam added.

Ben sat perched on his horse, a good-natured frown across his face that broke into a wide smile when his eyes met his son’s.  He started to dismount but stopped midway when Ma turned her wrath back on him.

“I didn’t tell ya to get off’n that thar horse, mister!” she growled at Joe’s father.

Little Joe snickered and gently nudged Ma with his shoulder.  “That’s my family, Ma…the distinguished looking fella there half on and half off his horse is my father,” Joe said, grinning at the look on Ma’s face.

“Well galldangit, mister,” she said to Ben, “why on earth didn’t ya speak up and say ya was the boy’s pappy?”  Ma lowered her rifle and met Ben halfway to shake his hand.

Hoss and Adam snickered at the funny look on their father’s face as the old woman grabbed his hand and shook his arm forcefully. “Mighty glad to meet ya, Mister Cartwright, mighty glad.  Now perhaps ya can take this boy of your’ns, off my hands.  He does tend to rattle on at times and ask too many questions.  He’s beginnin’ to get on my nerves and I’d be mighty proud if’n ya’d just take him with ya!”

Ben felt like a fool with his hand still locked in the old woman’s grip and his arm practically being shaken off his shoulder.  He tried to respond to the woman’s request, but she wouldn’t stop talking. “I found him tied across some man’s saddle like’n he was a sack of spuds, and he looked purty much like he was in need of a helpin’ hand, so’s I decided to haul his ass….ere…hide back to my cabin and see if’n I could help him out.  He’s been sorta sickly, what them thar shoulders pulled out liken they was, but I took care of that for’em and then there was that cough and the fever…oh yeah, ya know this boy of your’n has nightmares don’t ya?  Not that I don’t blame’em or nuthin’, why, if’n I’d been strung up by a passel of varmints, I’d not be havin’ sweet dreams myself,” Ma chuckled.

“Ma…” Joe said, smiling a rather sickly smile at both the old woman and his father.

“You can let go of his hand now,” Joe suggested.

“What?” Ma said, realizing for the first time that she still held Ben’s hand in hers. “Oh,” she sighed, releasing Ben’s hand. She stepped back, giving Ben time, after rubbing the feeling back into his fingers, to embrace Joe within the folds of his arms.

“Are you all right, son, I was so worried about you,” Ben whispered, stepping back to check Joe over.

“I’m fine now, Pa,” Joe said as his deep emotions slowly surfaced.  He swallowed and smiled up at his father.  “Ma…oh…by the way Pa, this is Ma Farrow; she saved my life,” Joe said, passing his smile on to the old woman who beamed happily at the men.

“Aw…shucks sonny, I only did what any honest, upright woman would do when she’s found a good lookin’ young’n like yaself, in need of motherin’,” Ma said.

“Well, ma’am, whatever your reasons, my sons and I thank you from the bottom of our hearts for what you’ve done for Little Joe,” Ben said with a look of graditude.

“Little Joe?” snickered Ma.  She started laughing loudly.  “Land’s sakes sonny, ya never got around to tellin’ me ya full name!”

Joe scrunched up his nose and gave his father a warning look.  “It isn’t my full name, it’s a nickname.”

“His full name is Joseph Francis Cartwright,” Hoss blurted out.

Ma started laughing loudly.  “Francis!” she hee-hawed slapping her hand down on her knee.

*****

“So, that’s about it Mrs. Farrow,” Ben finished.

He and his boys had spent the next few days with Ma Farrow up at her cabin, giving Joe time for his wounds to heal properly.

“I’ll be reporting all that you’ve told me to the sheriff. I think that along with what Zeb Willis’ uncle, Jim, told us before, should be enough to prove your husband innocent of any crimes that Zeb accused him of,” Ben explained.

They sat around the table finishing up their meager breakfast.  Adam and Hoss had long excused themselves, finding odd little chores that needed doing about the place while Joe sat with his father and Ma.  The two older Cartwright sons had taken it upon themselves to help the elderly woman out, sort of as a pay-back for helping their brother when he needed it the most.

“We’ll be sure that Zeb and his uncle pay for all the things they’ve done over the years, and I’m sure the sheriff will ride back up this way when he needs you to testify at the trial, Ma,” Joe added.  “With what you’ve told us, I’m sure Zeb will hang…not that I’d wish that on my worst enemy,” Joe said in a low voice. Unconsciously, his hand moved to his throat and he swallowed deeply.

Ben, seeing the expression flash in his son’s eyes, leaned over, placing a calming hand on his son.  “In time, Joseph, the memory of what happened to you will fade,” Ben promised.

“I know that, Pa,” Joe said in a thick voice, “but I’ll never forget how I felt that day, seconds before they spooked my horse out from under me.”

“Nor I shall ever forget the gut wrenching feeling in my stomach when I saw you hanging there, but somehow, we have to put it all behind us and move ahead, son,” Ben  encouraged.  “Somehow we have to find a lesson in what happened to you, a reason for it happening.  Maybe it’s a lesson in tolerance, or a lesson in not making snap judgments of our fellowmen.”

“Ya pappy’s right, sonny.  If’n ya hadn’t been strung up, and lived, and then kidnapped and brought up here on my mountain, I’d a never know’d about ya.  It’s what happened to ya that I was able to clear my man’s name, and cause of ya, I’m able to put the past behind me…I ain’t never been able to do that, not once in five years, ‘til now.  And I gots ya and ya family to thank for that,” beamed Ma.

She had been standing at the stove, listening to Ben explain to his youngest son, when she turned.  As she spoke, she moved closer to Joe, placing a hand on each of his shoulders.  Joe turned his head enough to be able to look into Ma Farrow’s wrinkled old face and for the first time, he noticed that beneath the crust of dirt and behind the weather worn expression, the old lady of the mountain had indeed once been a beautiful young lady.  Joe felt the sting of tears burning his eyes and he had to swallow several times to will himself not to cry.

Ma leaned down and gently kissed Joe’s cheek.  “Ya a good boy, sonny…don’t let what happened to ya, turn ya into a cranky ole man.  Hate has a way of eatin’ away at ya heart and soul and it can destroy a man if ya let.  Don’t let it, Little Joe; ya too sweet a boy.”

It was the first time that Ma had actually referred to him by his real name, and Joe couldn’t help but to smile up at Ma.  He pushed back his chair and gathered the old lady into his arms.  Joe lowered his head and whispered into her ear.

“If I was twenty years older and you were twenty years younger, I’d just have to come calling on you, you old fraud,” giggled Joe.

*****

“It’s good to be home, Pa,” Joe said as he walked through the front door.

“It sure is, son,” Ben replied, turning to smile at his youngest son.  Ben placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder and gentle guided him over to his desk.  “Why don’t we have a brandy?” offered Ben as he reached for the decanter and poured two glasses.

Joe waited until his father had handed him the tiny goblet before raising his eyes and looking into his father’s. “I’m glad the trial went well,” Joe said before taking a sip.  “Ma looked good, didn’t she…all gussied up in her new dress.”  Joe laughed lightly, “I almost didn’t know her when she walked into that courtroom and sat down.”

“She did look nice, and I’m glad that she’s planning on moving back down into town rather than to stay up in those mountains,” Ben said.

“So am I…I just wish that…”

“That what son?” Ben asked when Joe hesitated.

Joe pinched his lips together tightly.  “I wish she had taken you up on your offer to come live with us.  I know she’s sort of crude and different, but…I liked her Pa…and I felt sorry for her…”

Ben moved around the desk and placed a caring hand on Joe’s arm.  “Joe, she wouldn’t want you to feel sorry for her, and…if she had wanted to come live with us, I’m sure she would have.  But you have to understand that for the first time in nearly five years, Constance Farrow is, in her own way, a free woman.  She’s hidden herself away from everything and everybody for the last several years.  She is just now beginning to learn how to live again and how to enjoy life.  Give her time, Joseph, and perhaps some day, you’ll see her again.  Remember, she said she might come calling on us one day, when we least expect her to,” smiled Ben as he dipped his head just enough that he could see into Joe’s eyes.

Joe raised his head and gave his father a small smile.  “I suppose you’re right Pa…you usually are,” snickered Joe, smiling for real this time.

Joe downed his brandy and set the goblet on the desk.  “I think I’ll turn in, I’m bushed.  Night Pa,” Joe said as he headed for the steps.

“Good night, Joseph, sleep well,” Ben called, leaning back against his desk and watching Joe climb the steps.  “God bless you, my son,” Ben mumbled softly to himself.

The front door opened and closed, admitting Hoss and Adam.  They crossed over to where Ben stood and seeing his face, followed their father’s line of vision.  Joe had reached the top step and had paused and turned to them, giving his father a warm smile before moving on down the hall.

Adam leaned on the desk beside his father, his eyes fixed on the head of the stairs.  “You think he’ll ever be able to put all of this behind him?”

“I certainly hope so, son.  My guess is that your brother will suffer many more sleepless nights, and nightmares before he’s able to come to terms with what happened to him.  Only time can heal certain wounds, Adam, only time.”

And in time, Joe did come to terms with what had happened to him.  But there were instances, when caught off guard that his thoughts would dredge from memory the horrific ordeal of his hanging, and suddenly Joe would relive the nightmarish experience.

 Like a month later, when Joe had been selected to serve on a jury and the man had been accused of stealing cattle.  The jury wanted the man hung.  Joe had argued for hours and hours with the eleven other jurors, trying to convince them that the man should be made to serve a lesser term, rather than to face death by hanging.  The man had only stolen ten steer, hardly worth dying for, Joe explained to his fellow jurors.  After many hours of arguing, the jurors had withdrew their death sentence and had suggested to the court that the man be made to pay restitution and given a lighter sentence of five years with early release pending good behavior.

Joe had walked from the courtroom, a brother on each side of him, as a happier and much wiser man.  The only thing left now for him to do, was to conquer his nightmares.  That would take years…but in the end…even those would be laid to rest.

***End***

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