The Hunted (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  13,546


 

His son’s body was as limber as an old rag doll, and Ben had given up hours ago trying to keep the boy awake.  Now, as he lowered Joe’s battered body into the chair, he couldn’t help but smile, his son was home and safe at last and he felt as if he could afford himself the luxury of the smile.  Joe’s head slumped backwards, his arms dropped lifelessly down to his sides as Ben began to remove the crusted shirt, being careful of the many tiny scrapes and scratches from where the briars had snagged his flesh.

“Joe,” Ben muttered softly, “stay awake, son, and help me get these nasty clothes off.”

Joe muttered something that Ben could not understand.  As Ben pulled at the shirt, Joe automatically raised one arm and his father quickly pulled the sleeve free and moved to work on the second arm.

“Joe, raise your arm, son,” Ben instructed while he tugged at the second sleeve.

“Need some help, Pa?” asked Adam who had slipped silently into the family’s washroom with clean towels in his hand.

“I’d appreciate it, he’s out like a light,” Ben said, giving his oldest son a small smile.  Ben moved to Joe’s feet where he pulled first one boot and then the other from his son’s feet.  To say that he was shocked, by the condition of his son’s feet, was to say the least, he was flabbergasted and it showed on his face.

“I can see why, what with all he’s been through,” said Adam taking his brother under the arms and pulling Joe into a standing position.  “Get his pants off while I hold him up.”

Ben worked his arms between Adam and Joe and quickly unfastened Joe’s belt, then his pants and hurried to pull the soiled trousers down to Joe’s ankles.  “Step out of your pants, Joe.  Joseph, please, raise up your feet.”

“Hum…okay, Pa,” muttered Joe who had rested his head on Adam’s shoulder.  Adam smothered a soft laugh.   “This is as bad as when he was a boy.”

“Ain’t no boy,” sputtered Joe.

“Help me get him into the tub,” Ben asked as he slipped an arm around Joe to take the boy’s weight partially from Adam’s arms.

Adam helped his father lead Joe the short distance to the tub, which Hop Sing had filled, with steamy hot water.  “Joe step into the tub, son,” Ben encouraged.

“Hum?’’

“This isn’t working, Pa.  Let me do it.”  Adam swiftly slipped his arms under Joe’s body and easily picked him up and carefully lowered his brother into the tub.

“Joe, better wake up buddy, unless you want Pa and I to do the scrubbing,” smiled Adam, sure that his statement would jar his brother to life.  Adam glanced at his father, smiling, “Guess it’s up to us, if we leave him, he’s liable to drown.”

“Adam, really, the boy can’t help it…”

“Ain’t no boy!”

Ben got down on his knees beside the tub and began lathering the sponge.  Adam moved to the opposite side and picked up the water pitcher.  “Hey, Joe, I’m going to pour water over your head, so I can wash your hair.  Did you hear, little buddy?”

“Yeah…gotta wash hair…”

Adam filled the container and carefully dumped the water on top of the dark curls.  Joe suddenly opened his eyes and began sputtering, spewing water from his mouth.

“Hey, what’s the big idea?” he groaned, but then just as quickly, rested back against the metal tub, his eyes closing once more.

Adam hurried to soap the dripping locks and in a matter of just a moment, rinsed away the soap.  “This really is as bad as when Joe was a little boy,” whispered Adam, catching his father’s eye as Ben cleaned away the dirt that had covered Joe’s left arm.

“I ain’t no boy!”  Joe opened one eye, briefly and turned to his father.

Ben was surprised to see his son’s chin begin to quiver.  “Joe, what’s wrong, son?” Ben asked with compassion.

“I ain’t no boy, am I, Pa.  I’m a man, just like the rest of you, ain’t I?” he said softly.

Ben’s dark eyes found Adam’s over the top of the tub, but quickly returned to the hazel eyes that had suddenly filled with tears.  Ben gently brushed his son’s cheek, the large dark bruise a gruesome reminder of what the boy had been made to endure.

“No sweetheart, you aren’t a boy, but a man, full grown, just like your brothers.”  Ben smiled again as Joe closed his eyes and allowed his weary body to sink back down into the water.

“Then tell him to stop calling me a boy,” he muttered. “He knows how I hate that word.”

“I’m sorry Joe, really,” Adam said sincerely.

Ben finished quickly with giving Joe his bath, knowing how exhausted the boy was, his father was anxious to get him in bed.  “Help me stand him up Adam so I can get him dried off.”

“Come on little buddy, on your feet.  Joe, come on, help us out a little,” groaned Adam trying to pull the sleeping boy to his feet.

“Need some help?” asked Hoss, who had returned from town and who now stood in the doorway with Joe’s nightshirt. Seeing the struggle that Adam was having as he tried to lift their younger brother from the tub, he couldn’t help but to laugh loudly.

“It would be nice, to be so skinny, he feels like he weighs a ton,” snapped Adam.  “Look at this shirt, I’m wetter than the boy…ere…Joe is,” Adam quickly corrected.

“Let me help ya out some.”  Hoss handed the nightshirt to his father, rolled up his shirtsleeves and plunged his long arms into the water, taking Joe under his arms and lifting his brother from the water.  “Hurry up, dry him off.  Golly geeze, what’da he have for supper?  I think ya right, Adam, he is heavy.”

“That’s because he’s dead weight,” laughed Ben hurrying to towel-dry Joe and then slipped his nightshirt over his head.  “Let me get his hair dry first Hoss, can you hold him a mite longer?”

“Sure ‘nough, Pa.”  Hoss started to laugh. “Does the kid know what the two of you just put him through?”

“Ain’t no kid!”

Hoss scrunched up his face and looked at his father and older brother.  “What’s with him?”

“Never mind son, just carry your brother upstairs for me, will you?” smiled Ben.

Hoss slipped his arms under Joe and lifted him into his arms.  Ben led the way upstairs and hurried to turn back the covers so that Hoss could place his brother into the bed.  Joe never knew when Adam and Hoss slipped from the room or when Ben turned the lamp down low, or closed the door silently.

*****

“PA!  HELP ME!”

The plea for help shattered the golden silence of the early morning hours and jarred Ben from his sleep.  As he was hurrying to slip into his robe, the second heart-wrenching cry pierced the darkness.

“HELP!  NO! NO! OH PLEASE NOT AGAIN!  I GOTTA RUN…GOTTA KEEP MOVIN’!”

Ben, stumbling through the dark, made his way into his youngest son’s room, just in time to see Joe struggling to free himself from the tangle of blankets that were wrapped about his body.

“Easy son, Pa’s here now,” Ben said in a soothing voice as he placed his gentle hands on his son’s shoulders in an effort to ease the boy back into the bed.

“No…no…gotta get up…help me…Pa…please…I’m scared,” sobbed Joe.

Ben sat on the side of the bed and with hands still clinging to his son’s shoulders, pulled the weeping boy into his arms.

“Shh…Joseph, you’re safe now son.  You’re home, in your own bed, there’s nothing to be frightened of now.”

Ben’s hand cupped his son’s head against his heart.  His fingers tenderly caressed Joe’s cheek where, even in the dim light, the large bruise that marred his son’s face, could still be seen.  Ben clenched his teeth, fighting his anger at what his youngest son had been forced to suffer.  Ben shut his eyes, recalling the events that had brought him to this point.

*****

“I must say, Ben, you have a beautiful place here.  All this land, this home, and your sons.  You certainly have done well for yourself,” smiled Graham Forrester, Ben’s long time friend from years earlier.

Ben nodded his head in appreciation, “Thank you Graham.  My sons and I have worked hard to make the Ponderosa what it is today.  I couldn’t have done it without their help.”

“Well, as I said, you have accomplished quite a lot since we last met.  Now, tell me Ben, when am I going to get the chance to meet that youngest son I have heard so much about?  Is it true, is he as wild and free spirited as Adam and Hoss here have been leading me to believe?” laughed Ben’s friend.

“Well, I’m not sure what all they have told you about Joseph, but wild…only to a certain degree.  As for free spirited, yes, I would have to agree with that.  Joseph has a zest for life and adventure like no other young person that I have yet to meet.  He is young and strong, braver than I think he should be because he tends to forget the real dangers in life at times, and,” Ben began to laugh softly, “that is why my hair is the color it is.  Joseph often worries me when he casts caution to the wind.”

“So, he is fearless, is he?” questioned Graham.

Neither Ben nor his sons noted the sudden gleam that entered into their guest’s dark eyes.

“He has certain fears, things that stem from his childhood, things that as he matures, will cease to be.  But there isn’t much in everyday life that Joseph fears.  Like I said, he often times throws caution to the wind and never stops to think before he acts.  He is rather impetuous and at seventeen, usually ends up finding out the hard way that he should have thought first and acted later,” laughed Ben, mentally recalling several times that Joe had done just has he had said.

“Sounds like a very interesting young man.  I am most anxious to meet him,” Graham stated.

The front door banged opened just as Graham completed his sentence and all heads turned to see who had caused the ruckus.  Ben grinned from ear to ear at seeing his youngest son standing in the doorway.

“Graham, I think you may get your wish,” laughed Ben as he rose to his feet and moved to welcome home his son.

“Joe, it’s about time you got back.  We have company son, come on over and meet my old friend,” smiled Ben, placing his arm around Joe’s shoulder.

“Sorry I’m late Pa, but we had a little trouble finding the last of those strays,” explained Joe as he allowed his father to gently guide him over to the settee.

Graham stood to his feet, smiling in a friendly manner.  His eyes racked over the young man standing before him, taking in every physical feature of Joe’s work hardened body.  ‘Yes,’ smiled Graham to himself, ‘he will be perfect’.

“Joseph, I would like for you to meet, Graham Forrester, an old friend of mine.”  Ben’s arm was still resting on Joe’s shoulders as he made his introductions.  “Graham, this is my youngest son, Joseph.”

Joe extended his hand to Ben’s guest.  “Mr. Forrester, it’s nice to meet you, sir.  My father has told us a lot about you,” greeted Joe.

Graham took the outstretched hand into his own and shook it vigorously.  He could feel the strength in the fingers and again he smiled.  ‘Strong, hmm…good’, his thoughts registered.

“It’s my pleasure young man.  Your family was just telling me all about you,” beamed the older man.

Joe cast wary eyes about the room, taking in the facial expressions of his family.  Hoss snickered softly and Adam dropped his head.  When Joe glanced at his father, he could see the light shining in the dark chocolate eyes and he smiled at Ben.

“I hope it was all good,” laughed Joe.

“Oh, it was.  Your family is very proud of you, son.  They spoke very highly of you,” offered Graham, at last releasing his grip on Joe’s hand and sitting back down.

“That’s nice to know,” laughed Joe, smiling.  “If you will excuse me, I think I need to clean up some before supper.”  Joe excused himself and hurried toward the stairs.

As he reached the top, he stopped and glanced back at the scene in the great room.  His father and brothers were deep into conversation with their company.  Graham was talking non-stop and his family seemed to be mesmerized by whatever it was that the man was telling them.  Suddenly, Joe felt his body begin to tremble, something about the way that the man had looked at him had caused the fine hairs on the back of his neck to stand up.

Graham caught the movement at the top of the stairs and looking up at Joe, gave the boy a tiny smile and a nod of his head.  Joe’s body shuddered again and he turned, hurrying on to his room.  He didn’t like his father’s friend, the man made him feel uncomfortable with the way that Graham had smiled at him and looked at him with those dark, probing eyes of his.  The man bore watching, of that, Joe was sure.  Carelessly, he wiped the palm of his hand down the leg of his pants, removing the other man’s sweat from his own hand that had collected there when they had shook hands.

Joe was relatively silent during supper.  He listened to the stories that Graham Forrester shared with them, all of his big game hunting adventures and of his travels to all parts of the world.  They intrigued him, they were fascinating to listen to, but still, Joe was wary of the man.  There was just something about the man’s persona that Joe did not like.  Graham would cast his dark glowing eyes in his direction more often than Joe thought necessary and when he did, Joe felt as if his skin was crawling.  Joe simply did not like the man.  The stories, however, Joe did enjoy and had it been any other person but this man telling them, Joe would have sat for hours listening to the adventures that the man was now sharing with them.

“Sounds as if you have led a very intriguing life, Mr. Graham,” commented Adam, who had been hanging on every word that his father’s friend had said.  “You are most fortunate to have been able to travel the world so much.  I would like to be able to do that myself, someday,” he added, glancing over at his father.

“It has been a most adventurous life, I admit to that.  But it would also be most welcoming to have a place to call home, such as this marvelous Ponderosa that your father is so proud of,” Graham said and then glanced at Joe, who was busy toying with the food in his plate.

“What about you, Joseph?” said Graham, catching the youngest Cartwright by surprise.

Joe raised his head, glancing at the man sitting across from him and then casting his eyes around the table at the others before returning his attention to their guest.

“What do you mean?” he asked softly.

“You…what do you want to do with your life, travel, like your brother or stay rooted to this beautiful country?” Graham asked, watching the boy intently, a smidgen of a smile playing across his sun bronzed face.  The boy didn’t like him, Graham sensed.  But that was good, he reasoned; it would make the boy more cautious.  Graham smothered a laugh; the boy would be the perfect sacrifice.  And that’s what he would do, sacrifice himself for his family, Graham sensed the nobility in the boy.  The boy had begun speaking and Graham turned his attentions back to the conversation.

“I’ve traveled some, though not very far.  San Francisco is about as far from home as I’ve been.  I like it here, on the Ponderosa.  I know just about every nook and cranny there is around here and to be perfectly honest with you, Mr. Forrester, I’d just as soon spend the rest of life here.  I want to be buried up at the lake, where my mother is buried,” Joe laughed lightly, “someday, not anytime soon, you understand.”

The small gathering of men joined in the boy’s laughter.  “Naturally, I understand,” returned Graham, studying the boy intensely.  ‘But sooner than you realize,’ his thoughts whispered.

Joe rose from his chair and nodded at the men, “if you will excuse me, I have chores to do.”

Ben’s eyes sought his son’s face, puzzled by the expression he saw in the boy’s eyes.  Silently he followed his son’s gaze and was surprised to see that Joe and Graham were exchanging strange looks.  Something was silently being transmitted from one to the other and Ben was confused by the look of fear that showed on his son’s face.  No one else around the table had picked up on Joe’s unease, but Ben knew his son well and was more than accustomed to reading Joe’s expressions.

“Joseph, is something wrong, son?” Ben surprised even himself for speaking aloud, his own unsettled thoughts.

Joe’s eyes shot around to his father’s face, realizing that he had failed to mask his expression from his father’s ever-observant eyes.

“No,” he fibbed.  “I just left some things unfinished in the barn and thought that I would do them before turning in,” he explained, making sure that his expression had turned to one that his father could not read so easily.

“All right son, you go ahead.  We’ll visit with you later,” agreed Ben, relaxing some when he saw that Joe’s mood had lightened somewhat.

“Mr. Graham,” Joe said in a near whisper as he nodded his head at their houseguest and rounded the table out of sight.

“Such a nice boy, Ben, you should be very proud of him,” commented Graham, his eyes following Joe until the boy had stepped from his view.

“Thank you Graham, I am proud of him, we all are.  In fact, I am proud of all of my sons.”  Ben smiled at Adam and Hoss who still remained with him at the table.

“Why don’t we retire to the living room and enjoy a brandy?” asked Adam, rising to his feet.

“That’s a good idea,” added Ben as he too rose and pushed back his chair.

Hoss stood to his feet and gave Graham and his father a smile.  “I think I’ll give Little Joe a hand in the barn.  I thought for sure he finished his chores earlier,” he mumbled in a questioning tone of voice.

Ben led his guest to the great room where Adam was already pouring them a brandy.  Hoss slipped silently out the door and quickly made his way to the barn where he found Joe grooming his horse.

“Hey Short Shanks,” called Hoss as soon as he pulled the barn door shut.  “Ya already dun that, why ya doin’ it again?” he questioned as he rested against the side of the stall and watched Joe running the currycomb over Cochise.

Joe glanced over his shoulder at Hoss.  “I don’t know.”

Hoss scratched his head.  “Ya don’t know?  Come on now, punkin, ya can do better’n that.  What’s wrong?”

Joe stopped the combing action and turned to face Hoss.  For a moment he seemed lost in thought; finally he looked into his brother’s blue eyes.  “I don’t like Pa’s friend.  He gives me the creeps.”

“Aw…Joe, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with Mr. Forrester.  Besides, Pa’s known him for years and Pa seems to like him.  Hey, he has some wonderful stories, all those big huntin’ trips to Asia and Africa and them other faraway places.  What’s not to like about him?” Hoss wanted to know.

Joe turned his back to Hoss and resumed grooming his horse.  “I can’t say for sure, Hoss.  I guess I just don’t like the way he looks at me, it makes me nervous.”

Hoss tossed his head back and laughed loudly.  “Come on Short Shanks, ya gotta have a better reason than that, that ain’t no excuse for bein’ rude to the man.”

Joe’s body jerked back around and he glared at his brother.  “I wasn’t rude to him!  And I can’t help it if I don’t like him.”

“Okay, Joe, calm down.  But the way ya all but ran out of the house, ya’d athought ya was one of those wild animals he was ahuntin’ or sumthin’,” laughed Hoss.

“It’s his eyes, the way they dart around at everyone, then it seems like they always find their way back to me.  You watch, Hoss, I’m tellin’ ya, the man can’t be trusted.  He’s up to no good!” Joe stated in a solemn tone of voice.  “He just gives me the creeps.”

Joe tossed the currycomb down on the wooden shelf and stomped from the barn, leaving Hoss to ponder his words.  When he reached the front door, he changed his mind about going in and turned back to the kitchen door and entered the house that way.  Quietly he made his way up the back stairs and down the hall to his room.  As his hand touched the knob so that he could push open the door, a hand gripped his shoulder, halting his steps.

The powerful fingers dug deeply into his flesh, taking Joe by surprise.  He spun around, his eyes wide, as he stared into the gray eyes of his father’s friend.  “I thought you were going to visit with me some more, Joseph,” Graham stated almost menacingly.

Joe was startled by the strength in the man’s fingers and hand and the fact that the man had slipped up on him, unnerved him even more.

“I…I thought you were still downstairs…talking with my father and brother,” stammered Joe, more than slightly irritated at himself for getting caught unaware by the man’s presence.

“You don’t like me much, do you…boy?” Graham asked unexpectedly.

Joe was sure that the shock registered on his face, for Graham started laughing.  “It doesn’t matter…boy…I’m not overly fond of you either.  You see I don’t like over confident people.  And I knew the minute that your father started telling me all about you, that you were one of those…shall we say…self-imposed young men who think they are everything to everybody.  It sickens me, the ways that your father holds you in such high esteem; you are nothing more than a wild, unruly, disrespectful young bear cub. Though some of the things that Ben has said about you interest me…if you were a wild animal.”  Graham snickered softly, and hung his head for a fraction of a second and then glanced again into the hazel eyes that stared in shock at him.

He could see the deep embedded fear behind the mask that the young boy had attempted to put into place.  He could smell the same fear seeping from every pore of the boy’s body and in that instant, he wondered if his plan would work.  Perhaps the boy would not be a worthy prey for him to hunt.

“Joseph, do not look so frightened…boy…it doesn’t become you.  You are right to dislike me; perhaps you are wiser than I give you credit.  We should talk in private about that some time.”  Graham spun around sharply on his heels and entered the room across the hall from Joe’s room.

Joe stood silently outside the doorway of his bedroom.  He felt his body tremble and then scolded himself for allowing the man to unnerve him as he had done.  Joe glanced down the hallway toward his father’s room, but Ben had yet to come up from downstairs.  He thought about returning to the great room to speak to his father about his company, but decided against it.  Convincing himself that he should not bother his father with his silly fears, which is what he believed them to be, he entered his room and shut the door, never guessing what would happen between that exact moment and the early hours of the morning.

*****

Joe was only vaguely aware of the noise outside of his room in the hallway.  He was worn to a frazzle and though he tried to open his eyes, he just could not force them to do as he commanded.  Joe was almost sure that he heard voices on more than one occasion.  The first time his sleep was disturbed, he could have sworn that his father was talking to someone.  Probably Adam, Joe reasoned, seeing as how his older brother often stayed up later than the rest of the family to read one of his books, but Joe could not be sure.  He covered his head with his blankets and turned over on the opposite side in hopes of drowning out the racket.

Not sure when the second commotion awakened him, but Joe groaned loudly.  ‘Doesn’t anyone ever sleep around here?’ he muttered to himself as he pulled his pillow over his head to squelch the noise.  It seemed to Joe as if he had just fallen back to sleep when the loud pounding on his bedroom door startled him back to life.

“Hold on, hold on,” he grumbled as he crawled from his warm bed and staggered toward the door.  He had forgotten that he had locked the door after his encounter with Graham Forrester the night before.  Something in the back of his head warned him to do it, though Joe rarely used the lock anymore.  His father had not liked for his sons to lock their doors at night, just in case of an emergency he had told them.  ‘What if something bad were to happen and I needed to get to you, I wouldn’t be able to with the door locked,’ Pa had hinted.  So Joe had stopped locking his door, until last night and that was just because of the strange man across the hall.

The pounding continued, “I’m coming, give me a minute, will ya?” shouted Joe as he forced his leg into his pants that he had grabbed from the floor where he had carelessly tossed them the night before.

Joe quickly ran his fingers through his thick curls and took a deep breath before unlocking the door.  When he pulled it open, he was shocked to see Graham standing in his doorway.  The smile that the man wore on his face seemed to spread from cheek to cheek and when the gentleman took a step to enter Joe’s room, Joe instinctively stepped back a step.

Graham allowed his eyes to roam about the room and finally came to rest on his young host’s face.  “Nice, a bit boyish for my liking, but considering it’s your room, I suppose it would do,” he said, his smile fading slightly.

“What do you want?” barked Joe, irritated at the intrusion.

“Oh…nothing really.  Your father asked me to tell you that he would like to see you immediately, down stairs in the living room,” Graham explained.

“I’ll be right down,” said Joe and started to close the door but stopped when Graham placed his hand on the door and halted Joe’s movements.

“Now…not in a few minutes, he said right this minute,” snapped Graham, his eyes growing dark with something that Joe could not identify.

Joe hesitated briefly and then shrugged his shoulders.  “Do you mind if I grab my shirt, and my boots?” he said in a not so friendly voice.

Joe turned his back on the man and snatched his shirt from the chair and then grabbed his boots.  He was unaware that Graham had followed him into the room.  When he heard the door close softly, and the lock turn, he spun around on his heels.

“What the…”

Joe never finished the sentence for Graham’s massive fist plowed directly into Joe’s face, causing Joe’s body to stagger backwards and when he stumbled, he fell across his bed.  Instantly he was on his feet but Graham was too fast and again Joe’s cheeks were pelted with backhanded slaps.  Graham was lightening fast, using both hands one right after the other until Joe thought his neck was going to break from the force of the blows.

Graham suddenly stopped and with his opened hand pressed into Joe’s chest, he pushed Joe down on the bed.  Joe’s face stung, he could feel the welts rising, his head spun and when Graham straddled his body, pinning him down on the bed, Joe’s temper exploded.  He grabbed Graham by the front of the shirt and delivered a powerful punch of his own to the older man’s face.  Graham groaned, his head snapped backward but the punch had little affect on the more muscular man.

Joe heard Graham laugh and then felt the pain in his jaw when Graham began punching him unmercifully.  When Joe was nearly unconscious, the man stood to his feet, bringing Joe up with him by the hair of his head.  Joe moaned loudly at the pain that yanking on his hair caused him.

Once on his feet, Joe’s knees nearly buckled under him, but Graham held the weakened boy upright.  He glared angrily into Joe’s bloody face, his eyes dark with hate.  Graham laughed at the fear he read in the dazed eyes that refused to look at him.

“There just might be more to you than what I first thought.  You are a fighter; you have a powerful fist, young man.”

“What the hell do you want?  Where’s my father, and my brothers?” demanded Joe.  “My father will kill you for this!” he threatened

He did wonder where his family was, it wasn’t like his father not to stick his head in each morning and call for him to get up.  Joe sighed, remembering the locked door, of course not he reasoned, he had locked the door, no wonder his father had not called for him this morning.

Graham tossed his head back and laughed loudly as he shoved Joe into a sitting position on the bed.  “Your father and brothers are…tied up for the moment.”  Graham leaned down, his face nearly touching Joe’s.  Joe fought the urge to back up.  His pride refused to allow this man to see his fear, and when he felt the sting of tears to his eyes, he quickly swiped his hand across the front of his face in an effort to keep them from spilling over.

“Now you listen well…boy…I will explain a few things to you.  Your family is downstairs, waiting for you.  As I said, they are tied up…literally.  And I will kill them, one at a time, should you fail to obey me.  Do I make myself clear…boy?” growled the despicable man as he straightened up and watched the boy’s expressions.

“I understand, but what have you done with them?  If you’ve hurt them, I’ll….”

“You’ll what?  You’ll do nothing but what I tell you to do.  Put your boots on and get going,” ordered Graham, stepping back to give Joe time to slip his bare feet into his boots.

Joe hesitated only briefly, but it was long enough to anger the man in front of him.  Graham lashed out, striking Joe on the side of the face with the back of his hand.  Joe nearly fell backward but caught himself, not wanting the man to climb onto the bed with him a second time.  Quickly his hand moved to his face.  The heat that penetrated from where he had been struck warmed the palm of his hand.  He glanced sideways at his tormentor and then hurried to slip his boots on before the man had a chance to strike him again.

When he had finished, Graham grabbed Joe by the arm and hauled him to his feet.  “Let’s go, and remember, if you try anything…anything at all, your old man dies.”

Joe nodded his head in agreement and allowed himself to be led to the door.  Graham unlocked the bedroom door with one hand, while maintaining a tight hold on the boy’s upper arm.  Once in the hall, Joe felt himself being dragged along with Graham.  When they reached the steps, Graham released his hold and shoved Joe forward, causing the boy to stumble and nearly fall.  Quickly, Joe regained his balance and made his way downward.

Joe stopped at the landing; his eyes opened wide in disbelief at the sight before him.  The room was filled with strange men, five to be exact.  One each was standing next to each member of his family, who had been gagged and had their hands tied tightly behind their backs.  His father along with his brothers was all sitting in a row on the stone hearth.  Ben turned at the sound of footsteps on the stairs.  He inhaled deeply through his nose, he could not believe the battered face with the frightened eyes that sought his, actually belonged to his youngest son.

Ben stood to his feet, glaring at Graham.

“Sit down, Cartwright,” shouted Graham.  When Ben refused to obey him, Graham nodded his head at the man who stood closest to Ben.  Suddenly and without warning, the stranger jabbed the butt of his rifle deeply into Ben’s side, causing him to double up with the pain.

“Now sit down!” Graham ordered a second time.  This time, Ben obeyed the command, though he still glared at his one time friend.

Joe frowned, facing his father’s so-called friend.  “You must be insane!” snapped Joe his pain and fear momentarily forgotten.

Without warning, Graham lashed out at Joe, striking the boy with a brutal opened-handed slap across his already bruised and enflamed face.  Joe tasted the blood that instantly filled his mouth from where his teeth had been forced into the inside of his cheek, biting down on the tender flesh and ripping it opened.

From across the room, Adam could be heard trying to form words from behind his gag.  The man next to him clubbed him on the back of the head with his balled up fist.  Adam’s dark angry eyes turned to the man standing before him.  The hate that shone from those same eyes caused the intruder to take a step backwards.

“Ya better just shut up and sit still,” the intruder ordered, his voice quivering slightly.  He would never let his boss see his face, for the man was positive that his fear of this dark stranger would be showing, and if it was, Graham Forrester would not even think twice about killing him as well as these three men who sat on the hearth.

Joe’s eyes stayed glued to his father’s face as he struggled to control his anger and his fear.  Graham shoved him forward, making him to stand directly in front of the settee facing his three family members who were sitting together in front of the massive stone fireplace.

Joe cast anxious eyes up at his tormentor wondering just what it was that the man expected him to do.  “What is it that you want from me?” he asked Graham, whose eyes were fixed on him.

The man reached out to touch Joe’s face but the boy took a step back from the extended hand.  Graham froze, his hand held in mid air and laughed at the fear that he had seen enter the hazel eyes of his captive.  Seconds later, his arm fell to his side, his eyes seeking Ben’s face.

“Your boy is afraid of me Ben, as well he should be,” snickered Graham as he moved around the coffee table and sat down, facing Ben and his two older sons.  “Let me explain, you see, Ben, I have spent most of my life hunting wild animals all over the world.  Most have given me great satisfaction; some have been less than worthy opponents and have been a disappointment.  I have hunted nearly every kind of animal that you could ever imagine, except one,” Graham paused and glanced over his shoulder at Joe, who stood silently, surrounded by two of Graham’s cohorts. “That’s why I came here, Ben.  The most elusive animal of all roams this beautiful land of yours.  He is native to his surroundings, thus that gives him the advantage over me, for I know nothing of this country.”

Graham stood and moved around the corner of the table where he now stood next to Joe.  He slipped his arm across the back of Joe’s shoulders and suddenly glanced at the boy.  He smiled and glanced back at Ben, whose dark eyes had grown even darker when he witnessed Graham embrace his son.

Graham could feel the tremors that caused Joe’s body to begin to tremble and he had to refrain from laughing.  “You see Cartwright, the wildest animal of all, is still not as intelligent as man, therefore, my ultimate goal is to hunt…you guessed it…man.”

Graham could no longer hold back his amusement; the looks of shock and total disbelief on the three faces of the Cartwrights were worth a million dollars.  Graham laughed out loud.

“Shocks you, doesn’t it old friend?” Graham sneered as he moved again to stand in front of Ben.  “And the animal I intend to hunt is none other than your precious son, Joseph.  You and these two,” he nodded his head in Adam and Hoss’ direction, “painted such a colorful picture of the boy over there, that I just could not refuse the idea.  He’s young and agile, he knows this country like the back of his hand, he said as much; he’ll make the perfect quarry.”

“You’re out of your mind,” shouted Joe.  “You’ll never get away with something so hideous!”

Angered, Graham surprised Joe by jumping up and turning to face him.  His face was inches from Joe’s but this time, Joe, angry himself, refused to back up from the man.

“Don’t be so sure of yourself…boy.  Like I said, you’ll do as I say, or your family over there dies, and you beloved father will be the first one to go!”

Joe looked over Graham’s shoulder into his father’s dark eyes, wishing he could read the expression that they held.  He glanced back at Graham.  “I don’t believe you,” he dared to say.

Graham spun around on his heels, jerked his pistol from his holster and shocked the entire roomful of men by firing at Ben.  The bullet grazed the patriarch’s left shoulder, instantly drawing blood.

Joe’s eyes widened in terror and he reacted instantly by flinging his body at Graham.  He caught the man unaware as Graham stumbled backward and fell across the wide boarded table.  Adam and Hoss were instantly on their feet but were restrained by the two men who had been standing watch.

Joe drove his fist into the face of the man beneath him.  “Get him off, you idiots!” screamed Graham between blows.  His cohorts sprang to life, each one grabbing Joe by the arms and hauling him upright.

Graham rubbed his chin where Joe had repeatedly struck him as he pulled his body from the table.  Anger had turned his eyes black and Joe could sense the hate that stemmed from the fiery glow deep within.  Graham doubled up his fist and as his men held on to Joe’s arms, rendering the boy defenseless as he drove his fist deeply into Joe’s middle.  The boy doubled up in pain, groaning as his knees began to give way.

“Hold him up!” shouted the insane man.

Again and again, Graham welded his fist into Joe’s stomach, until at last the battered boy was allowed to slump to the floor in a heap.  Graham glanced over in Ben’s direction, his eyes glaring.

“You should have taught that boy some manners, Benjamin.”  Graham wiped the spittle from his mouth and smiled at the threesome.

He turned his attention back to Joe who was slowly getting to his feet.  “Listen well…boy…I could have easily killed your old man.  That was just a warning shot; the next one goes straight to his heart.  Do you believe me, now?”

Joe, his arm crossed over his mid-section, in an effort to subdue the pain inflicted on his body, nodded.  “All right…I’ll do anything that you say…just don’t hurt him.”

Graham pushed back the locks of curls that had fallen onto Joe’s brow and smiled.  Joe flinched slightly at the man’s touch but never permitted his eyes to stray from the other man’s.

“That’s much better.  Now, sit down Joseph, while I explain the game to you,” ordered Graham as he stepped aside and pointed to the settee, waiting for Joe to take a seat.

“This is the way it’s going to be….”

*****

Joe had run for what seemed hours to his weary body.  He stopped, his back pressed against the trunk of an old oak tree as he sucked in large gulps of air into his lungs.  His chest hurt from the heavy breathing that he had been doing.  His lungs felt as if they were on fire, the beating he had taken earlier had hampered his get away efforts and put him at a disadvantage.  Joe allowed his head to slump all the way back, his lips partially opened as he fought to bring his huffing and puffing under control.  It was useless, he was winded and his body was in such pain that the exhausted boy felt as if he could not run another yard, let alone escape the deranged man that was intent on hunting him down like an animal.  Joe had no doubts that his life was in grave danger, though Graham Forrester had sworn that if he lasted until nightfall, his life and those of his family’s would be spared, Joe did not believe the man’s promise.  Graham’s dark eyes had sparkled with an uncommon glow when he stood in the yard and ordered him to run for his life.  Joe had hesitated only for a few seconds and when Graham had once again pointed his firearm at his father, Joe had taken off.

“I’ll be all right Pa,” Joe had called over his shoulder in hopes of reassuring his father that he would indeed last until nightfall.

Now, totally exhausted, hungry, thirsty and in pain, Joe wasn’t so sure anymore.  He calculated that he had managed to put at least five or six miles between himself and the man who hunted him.  Joe glanced up at the sun, it was already nearly noon and he figured that he had at least forty-five minutes left of his two-hour time limit before Graham started tracking him.

Joe had used what experience he had accumulated over his short seventeen years. He tried to recall the lessons that his older brothers and his father had taught him of how to cover his trail, should he ever find himself in a position where he did not want an enemy to find him.

His clothes were wet where he had run through the creeks.  The water sloshed in his boots, making his feet damp and Joe could already feel the blisters that were developing on the heels of his feet.  Joe swiped his hand across his face, wiping away the droplets of sweat that rolled from his brow.  The salty drops stung his cheeks where the flesh had been abused by Graham and burned his eyes, causing his vision to momentarily blur.  Joe pulled the tail of his shirt from the waist of his pants and leaning over, tried to dry the dampness from his face.

A twig snapped and Joe spun around, his eyes searching for any movement that might alert him to danger.  A squirrel dashed across his path and scurried for the nearest tree.  Joe let out a long sigh and halfway smiled.

“Better get a move on,” he said aloud to himself.

Joe gave one last cautious glance over his shoulder and took off once again.  His legs ached, the muscles in his calves and upper portion of his legs had seemed to tighten up on him and it was all he could do to force one foot in front of the other.  Determined to out think the demon that surely was by now, in hot pursuit, Joe pushed on for another half-hour before being forced to stop once more.

He leaned over, resting his hands on his knees as he attempted to fill his lungs.  Suddenly, a shot rang out, nearly nipping him on his left arm.  Joe quickly glanced behind him, but saw nothing as he dropped to the ground and rolled to cover.  Once hidden safely behind a large boulder, Joe inspected his arm.  His bullet had ripped his shirt and tiny drops of blood appeared on his forearm, but other than that, the shot had done little damage.  Joe let out a long sigh and was just about to take off when the sound of Graham’s voice stopped him in his tracks.

“Hey boy…surely you can do better than that!”

Joe heard the man laugh, the sound sickening to his ears.  “I’ll count to twenty.  You have until then before I shoot again.  This time…boy…I promise I won’t miss.  One, two…”

Joe sprung to his feet and began making his way through the thick under growth of the forest.  He kept as low to the ground as possible, often times having to crawl his way through the thickets in order to keep out of Graham’s sight.

He could feel the briars snagging at his clothes and oft as not, felt the pricks of the thorns as they tore at the flesh of his body.  Joe paid no attention to the uncomfortable pain; he was more intent on putting as much distance between himself and his pursuer as possible.

Joe heard the thrashing of hooves as Graham pushed his horse into the forest, followed by his two companions.  He felt the drops of blood seep down his arms, yet never took the time to look.  Fear, not only for himself, but fear for the lives of his family forced him to push ahead.  His main goal was to, at all cost, survive until nightfall.  After that, Graham had promised to call off the hunt and allow his family to go free, unharmed.  Joe, young in years, and lacking the experience and wisdom of his older family members, had no clue of the fact that Graham Forrester was anything other than a man of his word.

*****

Ben watched his guards’ movements as they rummaged about his house.  The men had ransacked his desk, tossing his paper work all about the floor.  They had pried open the locked drawer at the side of the desk, taking the pistol he kept hidden there and sticking it into the waistband of one man’s pants.

Adam glanced at his father and silently nodded his head toward the kitchen door.  Hop Sing, who had been gone for several days and having just returned, found his home and his family in danger.  Ben, whose gag had finally been removed, gave his servant a tiny smile.  Hop Sing slipped back into the kitchen, unseen by the three men who were busy digging through the family’s personal items.

“Hey, how about letting us eat something?” Ben said to the man nearest him, “It’s been hours since we’ve had a bite and there’s plenty of food in the kitchen.”

The man, younger than the other two, scratched his head.  “Hey Homer, how about it?  These men are hungry and to be truthful, so am I.  What say one of you keep your eyes on these three whilst I fix us something; I ain’t too bad a cook,” he called out.

“Suit yourself, but make it quick,” responded Homer as he returned to the hearth and glared down at the three Cartwrights.

Chet hurried off to the kitchen to hunt for something to eat.  Adam’s eyes sought his father’s and then Hoss’.  Hoss had been made to move from the hearth and was now sitting in the blue chair.  His and Adam’s gags had been discarded when Ben’s had been removed.

“Reckon how Joe is farin’?” Hoss whispered to his father who was keeping an eye on the kitchen door.

“With any luck, Joe might just lose them, he knows the lay of the land like the back of his hand,” muttered Adam.

Ben turned his head to face his sons.  “That’s true, but I’m not sure he can out smart Graham, the man’s an expert tracker and hunter,” Ben said with some doubt in his voice.

“Ain’t no body any better’n Mr. Forrester at trackin’ wild game.  That kid of yours is as good as dead.  I’m bettin’ Mr. Forrester has him bagged already,” laughed Homer as he watched the expressions on the Cartwright’s faces.

“I thought Forrester said if’n Joe lasted til dark, he’d let us all go,” Hoss said aloud as he reflected back on Graham’s words.

Homer and Petey snickered and swapped glances with one another.  “Ya really don’t think Mr. Forrester actually intended to let the boy live did ya?  He came here to hunt a man just like he does his wild animals, and there ain’t been a one that survived yet.  Nope, the boy will be just another animal to him,” Petey declared.

Just then a loud clamor rang forth from the kitchen followed by an earsplitting moan.  Both Petey and Homer stared at one another in surprise.  “Hey Chet, what the hell’s goin’ on in there?” shouted Homer, backing up slightly toward the kitchen.

He glanced over his shoulder as if he expected Chet to appear.  “CHET!” he called out a second time.  “Dadgumit Petey, go see what that idiot is doin’, I’ll stay here and keep my eyes on these three, but make it fast, I don’t trust them,” ordered Homer.

Petey took off around the furniture and seconds later, another loud clang echoed from the kitchen.  Hoss waited with bated breath and when Homer, who was becoming nervous, turned to glance toward the kitchen, Hoss sprang to his feet and using his massive body, plowed into the unsuspecting man.  Homer hit the floor with a loud thud, stunned by the unexpected attack.  Ben and Adam were quickly on their feet; Hoss was sitting on top of Homer as Ben rushed into the kitchen.  He was met part way by Hop Sing who was muttering in his native tongue and waving an iron skillet around over his head.

“Hop Sing use skillet to bop strange men on head.  They have very bad headache when they wake up,” smiled the faithful servant.

“Good work Hop Sing; now please, untie my hands,” smiled Ben, turning his back to the cook so that his hands could be freed from the tight restraints.

Once freed, Ben rubbed his wrist where the ropes had chafed his skin and then hurried to release Adam who in turn untied Hoss.  “Let’s get these varmints tied up and locked in the cellar,” ordered Ben.  “We need to hurry, Joe’s gonna need us.”

*****

Ben was right in his assumption of his youngest son’s need for help.  Graham’s horse was gaining quickly on the exhausted boy as Joe forced himself to keep running.  The beads of sweat that dripped from his brow ran into his eyes, causing his vision to blur once again.  Joe was constantly using the arm of his shirt to wipe away the moisture, but was having little luck in keeping the droplets from running into his eyes.

Joe pushed on, weaving around trees and in and out of bushes, heading deeper and deeper into the forest.  He was near the lake and knew of a small cave where he hoped he could hide and have a short rest.  His breathing was labored, his lungs burned and his feet, which bore no socks, were stinging from the blisters made by his boots.

A shot shattered his thoughts as the bullet whizzed past his head.  Joe glanced back over his left shoulder, his foot became tangled in the undergrowth and he tripped, falling with a thud to the hard ground.  He lay dazed, the wind knocked from his burning lungs as he attempted to collect his senses.  He lay for several seconds, sucking in much needed air to fill his deflated lungs.  As he started to rise, the pain from his ribcage sent daggers of agony throughout his upper body.  Joe heard himself moan and though he tried not to allow his eyes to fill with tears, they did and then slipped unannounced from his eyes.

“Please God, help…me, my family needs me to be able to do this.”  Joe prayed softly as he hauled his body up from the ground.  He stood to his feet and quickly surveyed his surroundings and off to one side, he spied a small creek. He forced himself toward the creek and once there, began running upstream.  The creek was shallow but the water was cold and though Joe wore his boots, the cold seemed to seep right through the leather, making his feet ache more than what they were already hurting.  From behind him, he could hear the horses as they entered the water and he quickly changed directions, leaving the water and heading for the creek bank.  The thick mud on the water’s edge caused Joe’s feet to slip out from under him and he rolled back down the bank.  Tears mixed with the sweat from his brow and the cold water that had splashed onto his face stung his eyes.

In anguish, Joe cried out, and crawled up the bank on his hands and knees, making it into the thick brush and out of sight just as Graham and his two hunting companions passed him by.

Joe, his body heaving, gasped for air as he watched the men continue on their search downstream.  Suddenly he heard Graham’s deep voice shout to his men to stop.  Joe peeked from between the thick branches of his hiding place and watched as the three men gathered in a small circle in the middle of the stream and conversed.  Graham was pointing back the way they had just come and the two men with him nodded their heads.  When Joe saw them turn their horses back in his direction, he pushed himself up on his feet and took off running again, this time, back in the direction of the ranch house.  It seemed to the weary boy that he had been running for hours.  He had tripped several more times, tearing the knees in his trousers and bloodying the palms of his hands.  He was exhausted, drained of all his energies, and on the verge of collapsing.

Joe fell again, this time he was unable to force his body to get up.  He lay face down in the dirt; his face blackened by the bruises he had suffered at the mercy of Graham Forrester was now coated with the brown dust of the earth.  Behind him, he heard his tormentor’s evil laughter and Joe raised his head slightly.  What he saw caused his heart to skip a beat, for he was staring directly up and into the long barrel of Graham’s hunting rifle.

“I must say, boy, you have given me an excellent hunt.  At first, I didn’t believe you would prove to be much of a challenge, but you have surprised me. You have managed to elude me all day; it’s just too bad that you made that wrong turn, back there, at the creek.  You made entirely too much noise, it was a dead give-away, and I might add, has proved to be your undoing.  Now, I must end the hunt…by killing my prey.”

Graham watched the frightened expression that crossed Joe’s face as he raised his rifle and took aim.

Joe, unable to voice his fear, pushed himself backward in the dirt, trying to escape from the man who mocked him with his repulsive laughter. Graham peeked over the barrel of his rifle with one eye and stared at the boy whose eyes had now filled with tears but refused to give in to them and permit them to run freely down his face.

“You’re out of your mind,” Joe managed to say after what had seemed like an eternity.  “You’ll never get away with this, if you kill me, my father and brothers will hunt you down like the animal you are and kill you.  There won’t be anyplace where you can hide,” he said as he continued to scoot further away, dragging his body along in the dirt.

“I’m not the least bit worried about your father, or your brothers for that matter.  It is you I am interested in…now stand up, I can’t shoot an animal while it’s down,” growled Graham.

Joe paused momentarily, “no, if you’re going to kill me, you’ll have to do it like this.  I’m not getting up.”  Joe realized that he might have found a flaw in the man’s plan and hoped to use it to his advantage.

“I said get on your feet…boy… don’t lay there in the dirt and grovel like a wounded animal. I want you on your feet, how else can I bring down my prey?  GET UP!” screamed Graham.

Joe studied the man’s eyes, they suddenly appeared dazed, and though the man was looking at him, Joe wasn’t sure if his antagonist was actually seeing him.  Graham moved quickly to Joe’s side and kicked out his foot at the boy, making the toe of his boot bury itself deeply into Joe’s side.  Joe opened his mouth to cry out his discomfort but his cry was muffled when Graham quickly placed the barrel of his rifle between Joe’s parted lips.

Joe froze, suddenly terrified at the change in events.  The tears and the fear that he had fought so hard to keep from surfacing suddenly emerged.  His body trembled in horror, Graham cocked the rifle and the scared boy’s tears slipped silently from his eyes and crept slowly down his cheeks.

Graham laughed.  “You aren’t nearly as brave now as you were minutes ago, are you boy?”

Joe’s eyes sought the man’s face, the haunted look in the gray eyes that mocked him, became seared in Joe’s memory for all time as his unspoken pleas, begged for his father to save him.  ‘I love you Pa, I love you…please, I don’t wanna die,’ his heart screamed.

From the sidelines, Graham’s two associates where staring in shock at what they were witnessing, each man stunned that the ever-pretentious Graham Forrester’s behavior had suddenly become quite inscrutable.  As Graham’s wicked laughter rose in volume, the pair joined in, not really sure what their leader had found so humorous.  Jack glanced at Morgan and shrugged his shoulders.

Graham suddenly ceased laughing, glaring down at Joe, who remained motionless on the ground, the end of the rifle barrel still welded between his trembling lips.

“Now you die,” muttered Graham.  He watched as Joe pinched his eyes tightly together and the last droplets of tears seeped from beneath his long lashes.

The last thing that passed through the boy’s mind was a mental picture of the family he loved more than anything in the entire world.  The sound of the trigger clicked, Joe’s head slumped backwards and at the same exact moment, Graham jerked the rifle from Joe’s mouth and began roaring loudly.  Joe lay unmoving, sucking in large gulps of air, his stomach churned and when he at last opened his eyes and spied his tormentor, Joe’s reserve broke and he turned, burying his face against the hard earth and wept bitter tears.

His actions only served to give Graham more reason to laugh.  The two men, who stood off to the side and had been witness to his strange behavior, swapped confused looks with one another.

“I think the man has lost his mind,” muttered Morgan.

It was the last words that the man ever spoke.  Graham pivoted around on his heels, the weeping boy on the ground, all but forgotten and faced both men, anger carved deeply into his weathered features.

He quickly slipped several bullets into the rifle’s chamber and pointed it at Morgan. “Who you calling crazy?” he bellowed.

Morgan took several paces back, distancing himself from the crazed man.  “No one…honest…Graham…ere…Mr. Forrester…no one,” he sputtered.

“LIAR!” screamed Graham and fired his rifle.  The bullet struck the other man in the heart, killing him instantly.

Jack, stunned at the way that Graham had turned on them so quickly, turned and bolted into the woods.  Graham took only two steps and raised his rifle and aim.  When he fired, the man dropped to the ground, the hole in the middle of his back, spurting blood.

Joe cringed; he had become paralyzed with fear.  He still lay where Graham had left him. His breathing came in struggled gulps and when Graham approached him, Joe knew that this time, there was nothing to prevent the man from doing what he had come there to do.

Graham raised the rifle for the third and final time, “Get ready to die…boy,” he declared.

“DROP THE GUN, GRAHAM!” a deep voice that could only belong to Ben Cartwright, issued his order from somewhere within the dark corners of the forest.

Graham spun around, his eyes hunting for the direction from which the order was given.  The butt of his rifle was still pressed against his shoulder, the side of the weapon resting against his cheek.

“Show yourself, Cartwright. Now!” shouted Graham, his eyes blazing red with anger at having been discovered before finishing what he had hoped to accomplish.

From the far side of the forest, Adam sprinted from bush to bush, quietly making his way closer to his younger brother who had begun to inch along the ground in hopes of making it to the edge of the woods.

Suddenly, Ben appeared from the thick growth that served as the forest walls.  He stood, pistol in hand, cocked and ready to aim and kill if need be, the man who had hunted and tormented his youngest son.  Ben glanced briefly at Joe, who by now was nearing the edge of the woods.  Adam appeared out of no where and quickly wrapped his arms about the frightened boy.  Joe, totally unaware that his brother was near, let go with a frightened yelp as he felt his brother’s arm encircle his body and begin to drag him from harm’s way.

Graham, hearing the noise behind him, twirled around and haphazardly fired his rifle at the pair of brothers who crouched on the ground.  The bullet whizzed by the brothers’ heads; Adam had thrown his body over Joe’s in a protective manner, and was ready to take the bullet that he knew was meant for his younger brother.

In that instance, Hoss charged Graham, whose attention was focused on Joe and Adam.  With the weight of his own body, Hoss plowed into Graham, knocking the man to the ground and sending his rifle flying into the air.

A short struggle erupted between the two that only lasted for a few minutes.  Graham tried to reach out and make a grab for his weapon, but Ben was quick to kick the gun far enough out of Graham’s reach to prevent the man from picking it up.

Hoss stood to his feet, grabbing Graham by the front of the shirt and hauling the man up with him.  He drew back his massive fist, ready to break the man’s jaw, but was stopped by his father.

“Hoss, that’s enough, son,” ordered Ben.  “We’ll let the law deal with him. Tie him up and get him into town to the sheriff, I’ll look after your brother.”

From the edge of the woods, Adam had managed to pull his youngest brother into the folds of his arms.  Joe, still frightened by all that had transpired, had buried his face deeply into his brother’s chest.  Adam could feel the tremors that surged through his brother’s body and when Ben at last knelt beside his son and placed his gentle hands on the boy’s shoulders so that he could turn Joe over, Joe responded by grabbing onto his father’s vest.  The tears erupted unexpectedly as the traumatized youth wept.

“Pa…Pa…”cried Joe, his face now buried in his father’s chest.

“Shh…don’t cry son, it’s over…it’s all over,” Ben tried to soothe.

“He…he…was going to kill me…” Joe’s words were broken, his voice quivered as he fought to control his hysteria.  “He…put the gun…in…my mouth!”  Joe squeezed his eyes tightly together in a vain effort to purge the memory from his mind.

Ben glanced at Adam, his face an array of mixed emotions.  “I know son, I saw what he did, but try to put it out of your mind for now,” encouraged the anxious father.  “Right now we need to get you home.  Can you stand, son?”

Adam was quick to his feet and offered his hand to Joe.  “Come on little buddy, let me help you.”

Joe took hold of his brother’s hand and let Adam help him to his feet.  He staggered slightly and Adam quickly wrapped his arm about the trembling shoulders to give Joe aid in walking.  Joe’s body leaned heavily against his brother’s as Adam held Joe upright and waited for their father to bring the horses.

“He can ride double with me,” Ben stated and mounted Buck.  He helped get Joe into the saddle in front of him and when Adam had mounted up, they turned toward home.

Hoss had tied the two bodies across their horses and once Graham had been tied to his saddle, Hoss had headed into town to deliver the one time friend of his father’s to the sheriff.  He was anxious to make his delivery and get home.  His thoughts remained with his brother and the more that the gentle spirited man thought of the pain and misery that Graham Forrester had caused, not only to his baby brother, but his entire family as well, the more that Hoss began to wish that he had been able to stamp out the unsavory man’s life.  Never before had Hoss hated any man as he now hated the man who trailed behind him.

*****

“He kept calling me…boy, Pa,” muttered Joe, whose head had slumped backward and was resting against his father’s body.  “I hated the way he said it…he made it sound as if it were something…dirty,” he whispered.

Ben, whose arms were around his son, holding the reins, moved one hand and gently brushed the dark curls out from under his nose where they had begun to tickle him.  “I know, Joseph.  But don’t let that bother you, I promise you, son, you are anything but a boy.  I’m proud of you Joseph, I hope you know that.”

“Thanks, Pa.  Pa, I’m tired…I’m so tired,” the lad muttered as his head slumped forward.

“Then just lean back against me son, and close your eyes.  We’ll be home soon,” whispered Ben, glad to have his son so close to him.  He had feared that when he saw Graham force the end of his rifle into Joe’s mouth, that he would lose his son altogether.  Now, to feel the boy’s warm body pressing into his own gave Ben the much-needed comfort that his wounded soul had needed.

He knew that Joe’s physical wounds would heal quickly, but the boy’s emotional wounds would take far more time and no doubt would leave scars that the boy would have to carry with him for many years.  For that reason alone, Ben, who was a just and fair man by nature, allowed himself a small measure of hate for the man responsible for his son’s trauma and for betraying the friendship that the two older men had once shared.

It was late by the time that he and Adam arrived home with Joe.  The boy had fallen to sleep shortly after Ben telling him that they would be home soon.  Now, there was no waking the boy, he was exhausted and drained, not only physically but emotionally as well.  With Adam’s help, they carried Joe inside.  Hop Sing met them at the door wearing a bright smile on his face to welcome home his beloved youngest family member.

“Bath ready, Hop Sing keep hot for number three son.”  Hop Sing picked at the few places on Joe’s clothing where the blood from the briars and thrones had broken the skin and seeped through the tattered clothing. He scrunched up his face in disgust at the accumulated dirt and grime that threatened to infect the various areas that he could see.

“You take Lil’ Joe to washroom, Hop Sing bring medicines to bedroom to make well the places that cause the blood to seep.”

Adam tossed his father a knowing smile; they both knew how much the faithful servant loved the youngest Cartwright and how time after time they had witnessed his mothering when Joe was in need of the little Oriental’s doctoring.

“Best do as he says,” laughed Ben lightly, leading the way.

Ben propped Joe upright in a chair while Adam hurried from the room in search of clean towels.  Ben smiled down at his sleeping son and with the tenderness of any loving parent, gently caressed his son’s battered face.  He felt the sting of tears as he brushed back a stray lock of dirt-laden hair.

“I love you Joseph,” he muttered softly.  “No matter how old you live to be, you will always be my baby,” Ben whispered in a voice heavy with unsurpassed devotion.

Ben sighed, his son’s body was as limber as an old rag doll…………

*****

Several days later as Joe and his father sat on the side porch, enjoying the warm afternoon sun and each other’s company, Roy Coffee rode into the yard.  Joe looked questioningly up at his father as Ben rose to greet his friend.

“Don’t worry son, it’s probably just a friendly visit,” Ben said in hopes of reassuring his son’s unspoken fears.

Ever since they had gotten home and Joe had learned that Graham Forrester had been taken to the Virginia City jail, Joe had been afraid that the man might somehow escape and come back to finish what he had started.  It had taken a lot of persuasion on his part as well as with Adam and Hoss to convince Joe that what he feared would not happen.

“Howdy Ben,” greeted the sheriff.  “Joe, how ya feeling?”

“I’m fine Roy, thanks,” answered Joe coming to stand beside of his father and the sheriff.

“Roy, what brings you this far from town?” Ben asked, smiling.

“Well Ben, I got some news fer ya,” started Roy and then he glanced at Joe.

The look did not go unnoticed by Ben or Joe.  Ben cast a glance at his son and noticed how his son’s body had stiffened and Ben moved closer to his son.  “I hope it’s not bad news, Roy,” Ben said with a slight hesitation in his voice.

“That depends on how ya look at it,” the sheriff stated matter-of-factly.  “Joe, I don’t want ya to get upset about what I’m gonna tell ya.  It’s over, I can promise ya that much…”

“Roy, what’s happened?” Ben asked.

“Is it Graham Forrester?  He escaped, didn’t he?” demanded Joe, the fear that he had fought so hard to keep from his family, rising now to new levels.  Joe grabbed his father’s arm, clinging to him tightly.

“I told you it would happen, Pa.  I knew that lunatic would break jail and come looking to finish his so-called hunt…” Joe ranted, unshed tears instantly filling his frightened eyes.

Ben seized both of his son’s arms and forced Joe to face him.  He gave the boy a gentle shake.  “Stop it Joseph, right now.  Get a hold of yourself,” ordered Ben.

“But Pa…” Joe’s chin had begun to quiver, “you don’t understand…I…I’m…” Joe was gasping for air.

“Joe, hold on son,” Roy interrupted, “Forrester did break jail…two days ago, but we found him Joe…that is…what was left of him.”

Ben studied first his son’s face and then the sheriff’s.  “What do you mean, Roy?  Why didn’t you let us know that Graham had escaped, don’t you realize what danger Joe might have been in?  Why…”

“Ben, calm down…Graham’s dead,” Roy explained.  “He broke jail, but when he realized we were on his trail, he headed for the high country.  That was, no doubt, the biggest mistake the man ever made.  Ya see, he didn’t have any weapon with him, other than a knife, so he wasn’t really armed with anything that could offer him any kind of protection.  As it were, he kept climbin’ higher and higher into the mountains.  We heard the cat, long before we saw him, and then when we did see the cat, it was too late.  He’d already gotten Graham.”

“What?” Ben almost yelled.  He felt Joe’s body go slack and quickly turned to watch as the color drained from his son’s face.  “Joe?”

Joe swallowed audibly, “I’m all right, Pa.  Roy, ya sure the man’s dead?”

“Positive Joe, the hunter became the hunted this time.  Graham won’t be hangin’ no more trophies on his walls, rest assured,” answered Roy.

“I just find that so bizarre, that Graham died that way.  The man was the most distinguished hunter that I have ever known; his name was known world wide for his expertise.  It’s hard to imagine, his dying in the same manner that he lived his life,” pondered Ben aloud.

“Well, I gotta get back to town, I jist wanted to let ya know, it’s over.  Those other two men are headed for the territorial prison, ya won’t likely ever hear from them rascals again, so no need to worry yourself any about them.”  Roy turned to mount his horse.  “Joe, ya take care now.  See ya Ben.”

“Thanks Roy, for stopping by, we appreciate what you’ve done for us,” called Ben, glancing back at Joe.

“Yeah, thanks Roy,” muttered Joe as he turned and retraced his steps to the side porch and took his seat.

Ben waved to Roy and once the sheriff was out of sight, joined his son.  He sat for several moments, watching Joe’s reactions.  “Are you all right son?” he questioned.

Joe met his father’s gaze.  “I’m fine, Pa…really.  I mean…I’m glad that I never have to worry about that man coming back here, but…I feel bad for you.”

“Feel bad for me?  What do you mean son?”

“He was your friend, you knew him most of his life and I’m sure you must be disappointed that he…well, I’m just sorry that you found out like this, that he wasn’t the man you thought he was, that’s all,” explained Joe.

“Joe, Graham wasn’t always the way that he was here.  When we were very young, he was the best friend I had.  We grew up together; we traveled the world together for several years, working aboard the same ship.  Over time, circumstances changed him into what he had become. I’m not sure what caused those changes, but I do know that whatever they were, they must have been serious enough to have a crushing affect on the man.  He was sick Joe, his mind was warped and for what he did to you, I can never forgive him.  I came very close to losing my son because of his sickness, I trusted him and he betrayed not only my trust in him as my friend, but also our friendship.  Joe, I want to forget what he had become and try to remember him the way he used to be.  Can you understand that?”

Joe nodded his head, “I suppose, but if it’s all the same to you, I’d just like to forget him altogether,” Joe gave his father a small smile.

Ben leaned over and placed his hand on his son’s arm.  “Joe, to be perfectly honest with you, I think we’d both be better off forgetting him. But I’d like for be able to one day say that I forgive him for what’s happened.”

Joe’s eyes grew wide and he lowered his head slightly.  When he looked up, Ben saw the tears that had filled his son’s eyes.  “What’s wrong son?” Ben asked softly.

Joe swallowed the knot that had tightened his throat.  “I know it’s the right thing to do, Pa…to forgive him, I mean.  But I don’t know if I can or not.  You have no idea the things that went through my mind when he stuck the end of that rifle barrel into my mouth.  And then when he pulled the trigger…I was…scared…Pa.  More frightened than I have ever been in my entire life.  I was forced into admitting something about myself that I didn’t like, and for that, I’m not sure I can forgive him.”

“Would you like to tell me what that something was?” Ben questioned softly.

Joe shook his head.  “No…at least not now.  Maybe someday I will, but I just can’t do it right yet,” he said in a near whispered voice.  “Do you mind?”

Ben smiled and patted Joe’s arm.  “Of course not, son.  Whenever you’re ready, I’ll be right here.”

“Thanks Pa, I was hoping that you’d understand.  It’s just too fresh in my mind right now, that’s all,” Joe responded.

“I think I understand, Joe, and it’s okay.”  Ben rose to his feet when Joe stood up and slipped his arm about his son’s shoulders.

“Something else on your mind, son?” he asked after seeing the peculiar look that crossed Joe’s face.

“Just wanted to ask you something, that’s all,” he said.

“Well?  Ask away,” smiled Ben.

“Pa…I ain’t really a boy anymore…am I?  I mean, he was always calling me that, and as scared as I really was, and as much as I cried, I got to thinking, maybe I was still more of a boy than I’d care to admit.”  Joe stopped and waited for his father’s response to his question.

Ben saw the expectancy on his son’s face and knew that whatever he said in answer to his son’s question would remain with the lad for years to come.  He paused, giving serious thought to his words before answering the question.  He smiled and the light in his dark passionate eyes began shining.

“Joseph, I have no doubt that you are a man, in every sense of the word.  You are a man of honor, truth, faith and compassion; you are a man worthy of the title; but son, to me, your father, you will always be my baby, my Little Joe…my little boy.” Ben smiled and hugged his son.  “Please don’t hold it against me,” he laughed.

Joe laughed and returned the hug by embracing his father.  “Thanks Pa, I was hoping you would say those very words.  Just don’t tell Adam or Hoss, but…I like being your little boy.”

Ben had to swipe his hand across the front of his face to keep the tears from spilling over and from Joe seeing the way that they had collected in his eyes.  He sniffed his nose and gave Joe a squeeze.

“Well come on then, little boy, I think Hop Sing just might have some cookies and milk for us!” he declared.

Joe instantly pulled away from his father, “Race ya,” he shouted as he broke into a run, heading for the kitchen door with Ben racing to catch up.

They had been unaware that Adam and Hoss had chosen that exact moment to ride into the yard.  Both pulled their horses to a stop, staring in disbelief at the antics of their father and younger brother.

Hoss pushed back his tall hat and scratched his head.  “Wonder what that was all about?” he questioned Adam.

“Beats me brother, but all of a sudden I’ve deja vu,” laughed Adam.  “Sometime or another, I’ve seen our father and brother act just like they were right then, like boys.  Pa was younger back then, and Joe was just a boy…hmm…” reflected Adam, “Joe is still…just a boy….”

***End***

Thanks to Pigpuppie for the story idea.

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