Word Count: 24,122
“Hey Pa!” Little Joe shouted excitedly, as he galloped his horse into the yard.
Ben was half way across the yard and turned toward his son, never slowing his pace as he responded to the greeting.
“Joseph, how many times have I warned you about entering the yard at a full gallop; now slow that horse down, or start walking!” finished Ben as he entered the barn and disappeared from his son’s sight.
Joe had already reined Cochise to a stop in front of the hitching post and was already in the process of dismounting. He paused, mid-way to the ground, his eyes fixed on the barn door that his father had just entered. “Yes sir,” he mumbled to himself. “Not, ‘hi son, how was your day’, not even a ‘hello, Joseph’,” grumbled Joe, disappointed at his father’s lack of warmth in his greeting.
Joe turned toward the house, nearly colliding with Hoss who seemed to be in as big a hurry to get past him as his father had been.
“Hey Hoss, guess what…”
“Not now Short Shanks, I got things to do,” Hoss said with a passing smile.
“But…” stammered Joe.
Joe watched as Hoss entered the barn. With a disgusted grunt and a frown on his angelic face, Joe shrugged his shoulders and marched into the house. He paused long enough at the credenza to remove his hat and hang it on the peg and then to take off his jacket tossing it carelessly on the table behind the settee.
A steady thumping on the staircase caused Joe to turn. When he saw his oldest brother, Adam, descending the steps, Joe’s face brightened as he met his sibling mid way of the room.
“Hi, Adam,” Joe smiled.
“Hey Sport,” Adam said, walking passed Joe and continuing on to the door where he stopped to strap on his gun and holster. He glanced up at Joe as he tied the leg string about his thigh.
“You’re home early…you didn’t get into trouble again, did you?” Adam said, glancing up into his younger brother’s face.
Joe’s smile died. “No…why do you always think the worst of me?”
Adam hesitated momentarily, noting the flash of anger that had so quickly sprung into Joe’s eyes.
“I’m sorry, Joe; I was only teasing you…I didn’t mean anything by what I said,” Adam apologized.
He stood before Joe, placing his black hat on his head, studying the young face.
“You have something on your mind?” Adam asked.
“There is something, but I need to talk to…”
The front door burst opened, interrupting the conversation. Hoss stuck his head around the door and looked up at Adam, unintentionally ignoring the youngster.
“Hurry it up, Adam; the men are ready to leave and Pa’s gotta get to town,” Hoss said in a rush of words. “He’s afraid he’s gonna miss the stage; ya know that old friend of his’n is comin’ today.”
“I’m coming,” Adam said, grabbing his coat. He turned back to Joe. “Sorry kid, but duty calls. I’ll see you later, try to stay out of trouble,” chuckled Adam has he tossled Joe’s thick curls.
Joe jerked his head back, angered once more by the rude interruption.
“Forget it,” he growled as Adam shut the door behind him.
Joe stood alone in the room for several minutes, allowing his anger and disappointment to get the better of him. He turned and walked across the room, stopping at the fireplace and withdrawing a slip of paper from his pocket. Joe unfolded the paper and allowed his eyes to scan over the neatly written words, reading the invitation silently to himself.
Tears stung his eyes, but he willed himself not to cry as he wadded the note into a ball and tossed it into the lingering embers. For a brief moment, the fire flicker with new life as the flames gobbled up the paper and slowly began to dwindle down.
Joe heard the turning of the latch on the front door and quickly wiped dry his eyes. He turned and dashed up the stairs, distancing himself from whomever it was that had just entered the house.
By the time that Joe had reached his bedroom, he heard the door downstairs close and then heard his father’s footsteps as Ben walked to the foot of the stairs.
“JOE!” Ben called loudly.
Joe stood with his back pressed against the closed door. He was angry, hurt and, though he was unaware of what he was doing, he was wallowing in self-pity. It had been like this for nearly a week now, his father coming and going, never having time for him anymore, or so it seemed to the fifteen-year old. Things were no better where his brothers were concerned either, they seemed to never be home and when they were, they paid him little or no mind at all. And Joe was tired of being ignored; yet he could not force himself to answer the call.
“JOE!” Ben called a second time.
The disheartened youth pressed his back tighter, if possible, against the door. He fought against the tears that threatened to spill forth from his eyes that had suddenly flooded over. Joe sighed deeply and moved to his bed where he threw himself, face down, onto the soft mattress. He had tried for the last three days to give his father the handwritten invitation, inviting Ben to be his guest at a special dinner given in honor of all the local boys who attended the Virginia City School and their fathers. It was a father and son banquet and there was to be an awards presentation afterwards for some of the boys who had made the honors roll. It was the first time ever that Joe had had his name placed at the top of the list and Joe had planned on surprising his father with the news on the night of the dinner. But now it looked to Joe as if he’d never get the chance, for his father had seemed to be most evasive and as of yet, Joe had failed to deliver the invitation.
“I’M LEAVING NOW, JOE…I HAVE TO GO INTO TOWN TO MEET THE STAGE!”
“What all the shouting about?” chirped Hop Sing as he padded softly into the room.
Ben spun around, not realizing that Hop Sing stood so close behind him. He chuckled.
“I’m sorry Hop Sing, but I thought for sure Little Joe came into the house. Oh well,” Ben said, moving toward the door. “If you don’t mind, tell Joe that I’ll be back late; I have to meet the stage,” smiled Ben as his hand pulled on the latch and the door opened.
“Make sure you remind him that we have a guest coming for dinner and that I expect him cleaned up and presentable,” Ben ordered. It was obvious that the patriarch was in a good mood.
Hop Sing shuffled along behind Ben, following him to the door. “Boss no worry; Hop Sing make sure number three son wash behind ears and under finger nails,” smiled Hop Sing, bowing his head low. “You go now; not want to miss stage and keep old friend waiting.”
“Thank you Hop Sing, I’ll do just that,” laughed Ben going out and closing the door behind him.
Hop Sing checked to be sure that the door was closed tightly and turned, stopping suddenly. “Why you not answer father’s call?” he said, seeing Joe standing at the top of the stairs. He waited for a response but Joe only turned and made his way back to his room. Hop Sing shrugged his shoulders, muttering something that only he understood, and returned to his kitchen.
“Benjamin Cartwright, you old son-of-a-gun!” shouted William Harding as he emerged from the coach.
“Will!” exclaimed Ben, grabbing the man’s outstretched hand and pumping it up and down.
William Harding grabbed Ben into a bear hug and squeezed tightly, lifting Ben’s feet from the ground and laughing.
“You sure are a sight for sore eyes,” Will announced when he had placed Ben back on the ground. Will held his hands on his friend’s shoulders and looked into Ben’s face, smiling broadly. “You look just like I remember you looking, Ben,” laughed the man.
Ben snickered along with his old friend, “You haven’t changed much yourself! Why look at you, you’re as fit as a fiddle.”
Will patted his belly and chuckled. “Put on a few pounds,” he laughed.
Both men snickered as Ben grabbed for Will’s satchel and guided him toward the waiting buggy.
“Come on Will, I’m most anxious for you to meet my sons,” Ben said while tossing the bag into the back of the buggy. “You wouldn’t believe how much Adam has grown, or Hoss for that matter. And Little Joe, he’s the image of his mother.”
“Ben, I still find it amazing that the beautiful Marie d’Olivier chose you, when she could have had a much more refined, sophisticated man like myself,” laughed William Harding with a slight undertone that Ben failed to recognize.
Ben slapped the reins down against the team’s rumps and clicked to them. He turned slightly toward his old friend and smiled. “I suppose she could have, but Marie was not a woman who sought after certain things, such as notoriety and wealth that you so obviously could have provided for her. She preferred the simpler things in life, such as peace from prying eyes and a place where she didn’t have to always feel as if she needed to prove herself, and family…all of which I was able to provide,” Ben explained. “She loved it here Will…she loved my boys, and she adorned her son. Here, on the Ponderosa, Marie was most free of the bigotry, and narrow-mindedness that surrounded her in New Orleans; here she was able to put aside her past and learn to really live. She was…” Ben snickered softly. “There’s no need for me to explain to you, Will, what Marie was like. You knew her almost as well as I did; I’m sorry for rattling on so.”
“No need to apologize, Ben; it’s quite obvious that you are still very much in love with her. Tell me, how long has it been now, five or six years?” questioned Will.
“More like ten, almost eleven years, Will.”
“Yes, Little Joe was only five when his mother died, and he’s nearly sixteen now,” Ben said. “Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that it’s been that long; it seems like only yesterday. And then I see Joseph come bursting into the house, nearly a man now, and I find myself wondering where the years have gone.”
“I am most anxious to meet this young man,” smiled Will. He glanced at Ben with his dark eyes and continued to smile. “You do realize, don’t you, Benjamin, that the boy might have well been my son, rather than yours…”
Ben’s own dark eyes flashed, as he turned, stunned by the remark, to face the man sitting on his right.
Will saw the look and was quick to continue. “I only meant, had Marie chosen me instead of you, the boy might very well have been my offspring…that’s all, Ben,” laughed Will. “Don’t look so worried!” Will laughed louder, louder than what Ben thought necessary, but after Will slipped his arm around his shoulder, Ben let the comment drop and thought nothing more of the strange remark….until much, much later when he finally realized that he should have paid more attention to the man…and to his son.
The conversation around the table was continuous with everyone trying to talk at the same time. Will told wonderful stories of his days at sea with Ben and of the times he traveled to remote islands, long after Ben had given up the sea for a more docile lifestyle, as Will jokingly explained to Ben’s three sons.
Adam was most interested in the stories that his father’s friend told of the islands and the people who occupied them. Hoss listened with interest in the tale of Will’s trip to Africa and all the wild, strange animals that he had hunted.
It was only when Will mentioned the fact that he was originally from New Orleans and had spent most of his younger years there that Joe’s interest was sparked. The boy, who had been listening with only half an ear tuned into the chatter, suddenly raised his head. He listened for several moments before making a sound. “My mother was from New Orleans,” he said casually.
A hush fell over the room as all eyes turned to Joe. Joe couldn’t help but squirm a bit in his seat when he looked up and saw four pairs of eyes, of various hues starring at him.
Joe glanced quickly around the table, pausing momentarily at his father before returning his attention to their guest. “Her name was Marie d’Olivier and she lived in the…”
“Joseph!” Ben called in a voice that Joe recognized all too well. Joe turned to his father, somewhat taken back by the harshness of his voice. “Mr. Harding did indeed know your mother. In fact, that’s how your mother and I became acquainted,” Ben said, softening his tone as he always did when speaking of his beloved wife.
Joe looked across the table at the man who had been friends, not only with his father, but with his mother as well. “Did you really?” Joe asked Will. “Can you tell me something about her…something that only you knew, that my Pa didn’t. I mean, you knew her before my Pa, didn’t you?” Joe asked.
Will cast his eyes in Ben’s direction and noted how Ben had lowered his head and was watching him from beneath downcast lashes.
“Yes Joseph, I knew your mother well. We were children together so I had known her for several years, before your father met her. She was a fine lady, very lovely and most charming,” Will explained to Joe. “She was every man’s dream…in fact,” he dared to speak, “had your father not come along when he did, she might have agreed to become my wife instead of your father’s.”
Adam, who had been concentrating on the food in his plate, quickly glanced up at his father’s expression. He then glanced at Hoss who was listening intently, as was Little Joe.
Hoss snickered, watching the expression on his little brother’s face.
“Good thing for you, Short Shanks, that ya mama married Pa, or ya might not have been my kid brother,” heehawed Hoss.
Joe’s face turned white at the thought that had his mother decided to marry this man sitting across from him, he might not have been, or…he might have been William Harding’s son instead of Ben Cartwright’s. Something about the idea of being the other man’s son repulsed him. The thought stuck in his craw and he lowered his head, letting the subject die.
Ben quickly changed the subject to other things and for the rest of the evening Joe sat in silence, paying only minimal attention to what was being said.
Adam and Hoss had excused themselves to the barn to begin the evening chores. Joe lagged behind, wanting a word with his father, but there never seemed to be a lull enough in the conversation that would give Joe a chance to interrupt.
Ben and Will sat comfortably in the great room, sipping brandy and smoking their pipes. Though Joe knew it wasn’t polite to interrupt his father, he realized that time was running out if he planned on inviting his father to the dinner for the boys and their father’s. Joe sighed deeply, waiting for one of the men to stop talking long enough to take a breath.
“Pa?” Joe called softly a second time, beginning to become impatient.
Laughing at something Will had said Ben finally glanced up at his son. “Did you want something, son?” he asked.
“Yes sir, I…” began Joe.
“Hold on just a minute, will you, Joseph, and let Will finish telling me about what happened to him while he was in Spain?” Ben said, turning back to Will. “Sorry for the interruption, please, do go on,” Ben said to Will.
Will glanced up at the boy, noting the disappointed look on Joe’s young face. He smiled kindly at the boy, who only scowled at him and then turned and walked out of the house.
Joe joined Hoss and Adam in the barn. His brothers had been busy with their chores and were just finishing up when Joe pushed opened the door and entered.
Hoss turned to see who had come into the barn. He glanced at Adam and winked.
“Well, lookit there, Adam, here comes slowpoke,” he snickered.
Adam turned and glanced at his youngest brother and smiled, seeing the disgusted look on Joe’s face.
“Don’t pay him any mind, kid; he’s just funning with you,” Adam said as he set aside the saddle soap he had been using. “I’m finished here; guess I’ll head on in and call it a night. We have to ride over to the north pasture first thing in the morning, Hoss, and make a head count of those steers the boys rounded up this afternoon.”
“Oh Lordy, don’t remind me,” Hoss said, running his beefy fingers through his blond hair. “Hey Adam, wait up,” Hoss called after his older brother. He turned to Joe, “See ya, pumkin; ya hurry up and finish in here and be sure to close the barn door.”
“Hoss! Wait a minute…” began Joe, but hushed when Hoss failed to hear him call out to him.
Joe folded his arms across his chest and sighed deeply. Using the tip of his toe, he kicked at a currycomb that had fallen from the shelf. “Dadburnit,” he fumed, using one of Hoss’ favorite by-words. “No one gives me the time of day around here. It’s like I don’t exist anymore,” he mumbled.
Joe had been working for sometime, currying Cochise, and cleaning some on that tack room. His father had not assigned the task to him, but Joe had no hankering to return to the house too soon. He was sure that his father and Mr. Harding would reminisce far into the night, and Joe had already resigned himself to the fact that if he were to get a chance to invite his father to the father and son dinner, it would have to be in the morning, before he left for school. Joe planned on getting up early and speaking to his father before breakfast.
“My, you certainly are an industrious young man,” said a deep voice from behind him.
Startled, Joe spun around, nearly dropping the leather goods he held in his hands.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you,” Will Harding said with a smile.
“You didn’t frighten me; you just snuck up on me. Don’t you know better’n to do someone like that? If I had been Adam, or even Hoss, you might have gotten shot,” Joe said with a touch of sarcasm in his voice.
He turned to his work, putting his back to this man that Joe had suddenly decided that he did not like.
“Spirited too,” said Will, mocking the tone of Joe’s voice.
Joe cast a glance over his shoulder and watched as the man made himself comfortable on an old wooden crate and watched him from the opposite side of the tack room.
“Just like her, you are. You even look like your mother,” Will spoke in a low thick voice.
Joe turned to stare at the man. Something about the man made Joe feel uneasy and he set the leather bridles on the shelf and faced the man. “Just how well did you know my mother?” Joe dared to ask. He stood before the man who was ample in waist and of good height. Joe noted his hands. They were big hands, baring ten strong fingers and for a brief moment Joe wondered if this stranger were as strong as Hoss, for Joe and every other man on the ranch knew the strength that Hoss possessed.
While Joe studied the man and his features, the stranger was doing the same with Joe. He watched as the boy moved around the small room. Will smiled to himself; he liked the boy. Joe was spirited, as he had mentioned beforehand. Plus the boy was smart; just watching him work and the things that he saw Joe doing told him that the boy had been quick to learn the things that his father and older brothers had taught him. The one thing that spiked Will’s attention in the boy was the smoldering fire that burned beneath the calm exterior of the boy’s guise.
The boy was sullen, a mixture of hurt and anger simmered deep within. Will had watched the interaction between the boy and his father, and knew that whatever was bothering the boy had to do with something his father had either done, or not done. Will wondered if Ben and his son had such a relationship, or if this was just a fleeting matter. Whichever the case, the youngster was most certainly displeased at his father.
“What has your father done, or not done, that has you so upset?” Will asked unexpectedly, surprising himself as well as the boy, who spun around in shock.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Joe said, eyeing the man.
“You’re upset with your father, and he doesn’t seem to have noticed, but I have. I watched you this afternoon when I arrived, the way you stood off to yourself, out of the way. And then again during supper, you were very quiet, hardly speaking to anyone at all. And you kept glancing at your father, as if you wanted to say something to him. But Ben was far to busy seeing that everything was just right for his guest, and too busy issuing orders to your brothers for the morrow. He hardly gave you the time a day, and that makes you mad…doesn’t it?”
Joe was shaken by the man’s keen-sightedness and he turned his back to the gentleman, not wanting to let the stranger see how his words had affected him. Joe lowered his head and swallowed several times to wash away the thickness in his throat.
Will rose softly from his perch and moved to stand behind the boy. Almost tenderly, he placed both hands on Joe’s shoulders and turned Joe so that he could look down into his face. “I knew your mother well enough that you might well have been my son, instead of Ben Cartwright’s son,” Will said in a gentle whisper.
“I don’t understand…how?” Joe said. He remembered the statement had been made earlier, at supper and he had wondered about it then as well as now.
“Your mother and I had known one another for several years. I had always loved her, from the very first moment that I met her…even after she married her first husband, I continued to love her. When her husband went away, I was the one who remained steadfast; I was the one who helped your mother through all the days and nights of torment that her husband’s family put her through. I even asked Marie to divorce her husband and marry me, so that I could take care of her.”
Will removed his hands from Joe’s shoulders and walked further into the room, his back to Joe. Joe turned and followed the man’s movements with his eyes. He could hardly believe his ears; he could never imagine his mother even considering the idea of divorce, let alone actually doing it, regardless of how bad her situation might have become.
“She would have too, but then your father arrived in New Orleans with the news that her husband had been killed. As horrible as it sounds, Joseph, I was happy that the man had died. I thought that now, Marie and I could be married and she’d avoid more nasty gossip by not having to go through with a divorce. But your father stayed…and stayed, for months in New Orleans. He refused to leave her side; he crowded into our lives, filling her head with wild dreams and enticing her with promises that only confused her and of which I’m sure were never fulfilled.”
Will spun around, looking at Joe with such hatred that it forced Joe to take a step backwards. “She married him. She just up and married him without telling a soul, without giving me warning. Do you know what that did to me? I thought she loved me; I believed your father to be a friend…but…”
Will suddenly stopped speaking. For a moment he had lost himself as to the real reason why he was here. He smiled, softening his features, for he had seen the uncertainty that had clouded Joe’s eyes. “And he is my friend, your father, I mean. I got over what happened, years ago.”
The big man approached Joe, placing his hand gently under Joe’s chin and raising his head slightly. “I wish you had been my son. I would never snub you; you would always have my full attention. I’d never be so busy that I could not spare time for you, nor would I ever fail to listen to what you had to say. Why, I bet even your brothers mock you and rarely ever take you seriously, am I right?”
Joe nodded his head up and down. “Sometimes,” he said in a small voice. “But Pa’s not always so busy…”
“Ah, but he is boy…I’ve only been here one day and I can already see that my dear friend devotes more time to running this ranch than in what his son has to say. You were trying to tell him something, were you not?”
Joe swallowed; he felt uncomfortable with the man’s questions, but what he had said, had been the truth. There would be no lying, for the man had already seen through him.
“Yes sir…” stammered Joe.
Will smiled. “And for how many days now have you been trying to get your father’s attention and tell your father this…something?”
Again, Joe swallowed. “All week…but it’s been round up time and Pa’s been…”
“Shh…no need to explain to me. You don’t have to defend your father; I probably know Ben Cartwright better than anyone…I know his strengths…and his weaknesses,” Will said as he gently pulled Joe into a hug and held him tightly.
Joe tried to pull free of the restraining arms, but the gentleman held him securely.
“Don’t try to hide your feelings from me, son…I know how deeply your father’s lack of interest in you has hurt you.”
Will entwined his long fingers amid the chestnut curls and pressed Joe’s head to his breast. “I’ll be here for you…always. You just come to me when you have a problem and I’ll help you anyway I can…just like I did for your mother.”
Will released his fingers from Joe’s curls and held the boy at arm’s length. “Your father is a busy man, he has responsibilities, commitments, and your brothers have their duties to fulfill as well, not to mention the fact that they are grown men and have a life of their own. They don’t always want to be bothered with a boy, but I do, Joseph; I’d like to be your friend. I’d like it if you came to me with your troubles and I hope that you will learn to confide in me…and not worry your father with meaningless matters.”
Placing his hand across the back of Joe’s shoulder, Will guided Joe toward the door. “You think about what I’ve said Joseph, I’m here for you, any time of the day, or night.”
Joe opened the front door softly and let himself in. The room was quiet and empty of any habitants. Joe slipped into the kitchen to check, thinking perhaps Ben had gone to pour himself a cup of coffee, but Ben was not there.
Disgusted by what Will Harding had called, his father’s lack of interest, Joe turned to the stairs and slowly began to make his way upward. At the sound of the door opening, Joe turned, only to see his father and Will Harding entering the house together. Their arms were locked about the other’s shoulders and they were laughing.
Ben happened to glance up, spying Joe on the landing. He smiled broadly at his son. “You best get to bed, son; tomorrow’s a school day.”
Joe stood where he was, looking a bit forlorn. He stared at the pair below him, wanting to speak up and say to his father what he was feeling, but before he could find his voice, Ben broke into his thoughts. “Joseph, get moving, son…go on to bed,” Ben said, his smile gone now from his face.
Sighing deeply, Joe could only mutter. “Yes sir. Good night, Mr. Harding,” Joe called, giving his father’s guest a friendly smile.
“Good night, son,” said Will, nodding his head slightly and returning the smile. He stood and watched until Joe had disappeared around the corner of the hallway. “Fine boy, that one,” said Will, placing himself down into the blue chair. “I think Marie would have been very proud of young Joseph,” Will stated.
Ben was pouring them a brandy, but he paused and glanced over his shoulder at his guest and then cut his eyes upward as if seeing Joe standing before him. “Yes, I know she would have been proud of her son. I’m very proud of him myself,” smiled Ben, handing Will his brandy.
“You should be; he’s a fine boy, Ben, a mighty fine boy.”
Will leaned back into the chair and sipped his drink. He watched Ben making himself comfortable in the red chair across from him and wondered what Ben would think when his son turned away from him. It was hard, but Will suppressed the smile that threatened to give him away. He had taken some time to formulate a plan on how to retaliate against his old friend for whom he blamed for losing the love of his life. Up until this afternoon, Will Harding had only thought about what he might do, but now, after meeting Marie’s son and seeing the hidden resentment deep down inside that the boy was harboring against his own father, Will had decided instantly to use the boy to hurt Ben Cartwright as he, himself had been hurt. What better way to crush a man’s dreams than to use his own son to do it?
Will chuckled softly. Ben’s eyes sought the man’s face and he smiled.
“Something funny?” Ben asked, expectantly.
Will sobered instantly and shook his head. “No…not really. This is excellent brandy Ben, but then, I shouldn’t be surprised, everything around you…including your sons…is excellent.”
Joe hurried to dress and ran from the room. As he dashed down the stairs, he looked toward the table, expecting to see his father sitting in his usual place, but the chair was vacant. Disheartened, Joe slowed his steps, allowing time to compose himself, for the only one seated around the breakfast table was his father’s old friend, William Harding.
As Joe slipped into his seat, he took a quick survey of the table, noting the crumbs of food left on each place. It was a sure sign that his father and brothers had already eaten and taken their leave. Joe scrunched up his face and glanced at the other man.
“He’s gone…and he didn’t even tell me good-bye,” Little Joe said with a touch of remorse.
“Yes, son…he was called to Carson City by the sheriff. Something to do with a trial, I believe your father said. And your brothers left early as well; I remember them saying something about having to go to the north pasture to make a head count on some cows,” Will explained.
Joe smiled slightly and corrected the man. “Steers…they’re called steers around these parts.”
Will laughed, louder than necessary, thought Joe, as he watched the man’s face twisting up into a grin.
“I stand corrected, Joseph. I hope you don’t mind, but your father asked that I stay and take care of you while he’s away…”
“Take care of me? What does he think I am, a little boy?” Joe said disgustedly. “I don’t need anyone to take care of me…I’ve been doing that myself, half my life,” he explained to the man with a touch of sorrow.
Will was gloating inwardly so that the boy could not see. “Well, I’m sure your father had your best interest at heart. Nonetheless, I shall be more than happy to…lets say, keep you company, how is that?”
Joe, who had begun to eat his breakfast, eyed the man. “How long was Pa planning on being gone? The father-son dinner is tomorrow night!” exclaimed Joe, tossing his napkin into his plate. He pushed back his chair and started to rise. The burning sting of tears filled his eyes and he turned his head so that Will would not see them.
“He won’t be back for a couple of days, Joseph. I’m sorry, but your father didn’t mention anything about a father-son dinner,” Will said as he tried to camouflage his excitement.
Joe jerked his head around to face the man. He was angry and the well of tears had dried suddenly as his anger overcame his disappointment.
“Of course he didn’t…he’s been so damn busy, he hasn’t even given me the chance to tell him about it!” Joe snapped with a snarl. “Great!” he shouted as he started toward the door. “That’s just great…I’ll be the only boy there with no father…but hey…who cares…I don’t have a mother either…not that my father would even care how I feel about that! To hell with the dinner; I won’t even go, and to hell with my…” Joe stopped, the tears had formulated once more and he turned and ran from the house, slamming the door behind him.
William sat at the table, taking another sip of his coffee. He chuckled softly to himself. “Oh Benjamin, my friend…look at what you have gone and done this time!” the man muttered to himself.
Will placed his cup in the saucer and picking up his napkin, wiped his mouth. Carefully, so as not to scrape the floor, the big man pushed back his chair, rubbing his large beefy hands together in anticipation. Stopping at the door to gather his gun belt and his hat, Will took only a moment to fasten the bucket around his waist before placing the Stetson on his head.
The sunlight was almost blinding as the gentleman made his way to the barn. He was sure that was where the boy had taken off too, and he was correct in his assumption. Joe was just finishing saddling his horse when Will entered the semi-dark interior.
“Are you about ready to leave for school, Joseph, because if you are, I thought I might ride along with you…to keep you company,” Will said as he moved to stand behind the boy.
It was obvious to him that Joe was still upset and hurt by what was happening. Now was his time, thought Will, to step in between the father and son and create a riff so wide, that Ben would never be able to win his son’s respect back.
“I ain’t goin’ to school…why should I?” Joe snapped, turning to look up into the man’s face. “He doesn’t care what I do…he won’t even know I played hooky ‘cause he doesn’t care enough about me to find out,” growled Joe, returning his attention to Cochise.
Carefully Joe backed his horse from the stall, stopping and giving a glance at Will. “You won’t tell him, will you?” Joe asked. “I mean…”
Will smiled and moved to stand directly in front of the troubled youth. He placed his hands gently on Joe’s shoulders, feeling the trembling beneath his fingers. With the tenderness of a loving father, Will pulled Joe into the folds of his muscular arms and held him.
“Not if you don’t want me to. But where will you go?” Will asked in a concerned voice.
Joe, feeling the need for comfort, allowed himself the pleasure of the man’s warmth by lingering in the embrace. “To the lake…my mother is buried up there and I go up there sometimes, when I want to be alone.” Joe turned to look up at Will. “You don’t mind…do you? I mean…I’d rather be by myself.”
Giving Joe a smile, Will nodded his head. “Of course son, I understand…and I won’t say a word to your father, if he should happen to get back home tonight, nor will I say a word to your brothers…that is what you want, isn’t it? You are planning on making them worry about you, aren’t you?”
“How did you know?” said Joe, surprised that this total stranger understood him far better than what Joe believed his family did.
“Because I was a boy once…and because I think your father and your brothers are wrong, very wrong in the way that they treat you…”
“You do?” Joe interrupted.
“Certainly I do…and to prove my point, I would be most happy to help you get the message across to them.”
Will moved away slightly and sat down on a bale of hay. He studied the boy, pleased to see that he had Joe’s full attention. “I have a plan Joseph, a way to make your father pay more attention to you. Sort of, teach him a lesson…are you interested?” smiled Will.
“Well…I don’t know…I mean…” stammered Joe.
“Oh…it isn’t anything bad, and no one will be hurt…your father’s pride might suffer a might, but nothing that can’t be repaired, once he realizes that he’s the cause of…you leaving home…”
“Now, calm down and hear me out. This is what we can do…”
“What do you think?” questioned Will.
“It doesn’t sound so bad…are you sure it will work?” Joe asked.
“Of course…once Ben comes home and sees that you are gone, he’ll come looking for you…that’s when we’ll let him find you. Don’t you see, he’ll be so worry about you that he won’t think about being mad at you for taking off…it’s bound to work,” gleamed Will.
Joe sighed; he liked the idea, somewhat. He was hungry for his father’s attention, starved to be a more active participant in the running of the ranch, and had an inner longing for his father’s arms to embrace him and tell him how much that he was loved. Joe thirsted for the same assurance from Ben as he was receiving from this man who claimed to be his friend.
“Alright…I’ll do it. I’ll ride up to the line shack and stay there until you, ‘find’ me. You won’t let Pa worry too much or take too long in looking for me…will you?” Joe asked, beginning to feel the excitement building within himself. In his young mind, he pictured his father’s face when Ben found his hiding place, and closing his eyes tightly, Joe imagined his father’s arms embracing him.
Will watched the boy’s expressions, pleased with himself for the false sense of security that he had created in the boy’s mind. “I promise…only a few hours, just long enough for your father and brothers to come to the realization that your running away was their fault, not yours. After a few hours of searching with no results, I’ll make up some excuse for having to go back to the ranch, and then I’ll find the note and give it to your father. You did finish writing it, didn’t you?”
“Yes sir, here it is,” Joe said, handing the scribbled note to Will. “I wrote just what you said to write…that I was leaving, and not to bother looking for me ’cause I wasn’t coming home…ever.”
“Good, good, now…you best get going. I’ll stay here until your brothers come home and then I’ll tell them that you never made it home from school. I’m sure they will want to ride into town and talk to the teacher; I’ll even suggest it…and then when they find out that you never even showed up today, they will most likely send a telegram to your father, requesting his return.” Will squeezed Joe’s shoulder. “It will all work out nicely, I promise,” he said, smiling down at Joe. “You’d better be going, just in case your brothers come back early.”
“Alright, I’ll see you in a couple of days,” Joe said as he swung himself into the saddle. “Oblivion, that’s the furthermost point from here…I’ll be waiting there,” Joe told Will as he placed in the man’s hand, the paper on which he had quickly drawn a map, showing Will how to get to the line shack.
“Fine; you be careful now, Joseph…anything could happen along the way.”
“I will, I promise…and Mr. Harding…thanks,” Joe said as he nudged Cochise into a trot and left the man standing in the doorway of the barn.
Will tossed up his hand, waving good-bye to the boy. He waited until Joe had disappeared around the corner of the barn before he began to laugh. Looking down at the paper in his hand, he laughed louder and wadded the note into a ball. When he entered the house, he went straight to the fireplace and tossed the crumbled note to Ben, into the lingering flames. “Little fool,” he muttered to himself, laughing once more. “Stupid little fool…when I get finished with you…you’re going to be begging for that worthless, no account, woman-stealing father of yours!”
“What do you mean, he’s not home from school?” shouted Adam, giving Hoss a swift look.
“Well Adam,” Will tried to explain again. “I went for a ride this afternoon, just like I said this morning that I was going to do, and I arrived back here in plenty of time to be present when young Joseph got home from school, just like your father asked me to do. Trouble was, Joseph never came home. I waited, hoping that you two might arrive earlier than expected…” Will paused, checking the reactions of both young men who stood before him with concerned expressions on their faces. “I would have gone looking for him, but being unfamiliar with the country…”
Adam held his hand up to silence the man. “No…you did right Mr. Harding, by waiting here. I’m sorry I shouted at you, but in times like these, when Little Joe disobeys our father like this, I tend to forget myself and lose my patience,” Adam apologized.
“Think nothing of it, Adam. Perhaps the boy is just dawdling away his time and will be home shortly,” Will suggested, knowing otherwise.
The burly man smiled to himself in satisfaction. Here were Ben Cartwright’s two oldest sons, plainly concerned for their younger brother’s welfare, and angry to boot. William Harding pushed on, deepening their concern. “Perhaps the boy stopped by the fishing hole…or…dear God, Adam, you don’t think something could have happened to him, do you? Why, I’d never forgive myself if something awful happened to Marie’s child!” Will stammered, looking full of worry himself.
“Naw…Little Joe can take care of himself…cain’t he Adam?” Hoss stated, giving an anxious glance at his older brother.
Adam sighed deeply and motioned the others to join him at the table. “The little scamp had better have an awfully good explanation as to why he’s late. Come on, supper’s getting cold and I’m hungry, not to mention tired.”
Adam waited until Hoss and their guest was seated at the table and then began passing the platters of food around to each one.
“If Joe’s not home by the time that I finish eating, I’ll ride into town and talk to Miss Jones…as badly as I hate the thoughts of that,” groaned Adam. “It’s possible that the boy’s been held over because he just doesn’t seem to know how to behave.”
“Aw Adam…Joe’s just a growin’ boy. He’s only fifteen…golly, why I remember when I was that age…”
“Yes…but Hoss, you were always the perfect little boy…you never got into trouble,” Adam snickered.
“Perhaps your younger brother is making up for all of Hoss’ goodness…” Will laughed.
“Yeah, I can see Little Joe doing that. I bet’cha right this minute, Joe’s down at the fishin’ hole havin’ himself a grand ole time. It’d be just like’em too, what with Pa all the way over to Carson City, ain’t that right, Adam?” Hoss proclaimed as he stuffed his mouth with a big bite of mashed potatoes and gravy.
Hoss’ declaration was about as far from the truth as Joe was from home. Joe was struggling with the ropes that had been tied around his ankles and his wrists, pulling his arms over his head and attached to the iron bedposts behind him. The ropes were pulled so tightly about his flesh that he could feel his fingers tingling from lack of circulation.
He tried to raise his head enough to look down at his ankles where they were held in place with ropes just as tightly bound. His legs were pulled wide and the ropes held them taunt to the posts at the foot of the bed. His boots had been removed as well as his socks, and Joe could feel the numbness in his toes as well.
Joe struggled, but his head throbbed from where he had been struck from behind and when he opened his eyes and looked around him, his vision was blurred. Joe tried several times to squeeze his eyes tightly shut and then reopen them, hoping to bring his vision into focus, but it was too no avail. As it was, the last rays of daylight had faded, making the small cabin interior dark and spooky, for when Will had knocked him out and brought him here, the obnoxious man had chosen to leave him in the dark.
When Joe felt a cool draft, he shivered from the chilly night air that seeped in from the cracks in the walls. His stomach churned, though Joe decided that he really wasn’t hungry and assumed that because of the intense pounding in his head, his stomach was reacting to the sharp pains. Joe tried to wiggle his body into a more comfortable position but was forced to draw in a deep breath as the spasms in his gut reacted to the sudden movement.
For several long minutes Joe lay in muted silence, sucking in mouthfuls of air. He could feel his heart pounding within his chest and he silently cursed himself for having been so gullible as to allow himself to be led into such a stupid plan.
“Fool…”muttered Joe, “I’m nothing but a stupid little fool. Ain’t no wonder Pa and Adam and Hoss never give me the time of day.”
Joe gave in to his despair, closing his eyes to the gloominess that surrounded him. A sharp pain seemed to shoot through his temple and Joe turned his head to the side, groaning softly. The blackened world around him swirled, the ceiling overhead spun and just seconds before everything went blank, Joe felt sure that the bed in which he was confined, lolled from side to side as a ship lost at sea.
Adam mounted back up and turned his horse toward the café down the street. Adam had been surprised to learn, from Miss Jones’ own mother, of the father-son dinner that was taking place at this very moment. He wondered why Joe had not mentioned to their father about the upcoming event. Had the boy done so, Adam felt sure that their father would have made other arrangements about the trial where he was called to testify, and attended the function with Joe instead.
Adam reined in his horse and dismounted, looping the reins over the hitching post. The street was crowded with horses and buggies and Adam felt a moment of awkwardness as he stepped into the crowded café. He stood, looking about the room for Miss Jones. Several of his father’s friends called out greetings to him, for which he graciously responded. A shrill, high-pitched voice captured his attention.
“Adam Cartwright!” the voice squealed.
Adam fought the urge to cringe as the schoolteacher approached. He forced his lips into a smile, removing his hat and clutching it tightly in his hand.
“Good evening, Adam,” Miss Jones cooed. “Are you standing in for your father tonight?” she asked, glancing around behind Adam as if looking for someone. “Dear me, where is Joseph? Please don’t tell me he isn’t feeling well…I thought perhaps since he was not at school today, that he would feel well enough to come tonight.”
“He was out? Do you mean that Little Joe wasn’t in school today?” Adam said, taken off guard by the new information.
“Well, no…he wasn’t. I assumed that he wasn’t feeling well. I was so hoping that he and Mr. Cartwright could have made it tonight…you know…Joseph was to receive an award. He worked extra hard this last quarter on his math and won the top honor. He told me he wasn’t going to tell his father. He wanted it to be a surprise for Mr. Cartwright tonight at the awards ceremony, after supper. It’s such a shame that they have to miss it.”
Adam was at a loss for words. He could only nod his head. After a moment, Adam cleared his throat, finding his voice at last. “Let me get this straight, if you don’t mind. Joe wasn’t in school today, and this…dinner was for fathers and sons…and you say Joe was to receive an award?”
“Yes, that’s correct Adam. Why, is something wrong?” Miss Jones asked with concern.
“I’m not sure, ma’am. My father didn’t mention anything to me about this evening…and since he went to Carson City on business, I feel sure that he would not have missed this…I mean…” Adam paused, puzzled by the turn of events. “I wonder why Joe didn’t tell any of us?”
“Excuse me?” Miss Jones’ muttered.
Adam’s thoughts returned to the present and he tipped his head, “Nothing…ere…thank you, Miss Jones.” Before the schoolmarm could say a word, Adam topped his head with his hat and left.
Adam made one quick stop, at the telegraph office where he sent a wire to Carson City, requesting his father’s return.
Minutes later, he was racing back to the ranch, hoping that by the time he reached the house, Joe would have wandered home and cooked up a good excuse for being late and for not mentioning the special awards dinner. Whether or not Joe had returned, Adam felt sure that his father would want to be informed of the situation.
Hoss yanked opened the door and hurried across the yard toward Adam. Will moved at a slow pace onto the porch, watching with interest how the brothers huddled together and conversed in a secretive manner.
“He’s not home?” Adam asked as soon as Hoss joined him.
“Naw, he ain’t here…Adam, I’m gettin’ worried ‘bout the boy; it ain’t like Joe to stay gone this long. It’s plum dark out here, and we both know Joe don’t like to be out alone much after dark.”
Adam let the air blow from his lungs as he placed a strong hand down on Hoss’ shoulder. He glanced around the yard, noting their guest standing on the porch watching them.
Hoss moved his head slightly, following Adam’s gaze and then looked back at Adam.
“Sumthin’ wrong?” he questioned.
“I’m not sure, Hoss…maybe it’s just me. I’m worried about the boy, but there’s something about that man that bothers me,” Adam explained.
Hoss glanced again toward Will. “Yeah, he sorta gives me the willies too. But he sure has been worried about Joe; he blames himself…”
“Listen Hoss, Joe makes his own trouble, most of the time…it wasn’t Mr. Harding’s fault that Joe decided to pick now to come up missing. Come on, let’s get some things together so we can ride out at first light if the little imp isn’t home by then.”
“Alright Adam, whatever ya say, I suppose it’s too dark to do any trackin’ tonight anyways.”
“Unfortunately, I agree with you.”
The two brothers walked slowly toward the house. They had just reached the porch when Adam remembered to tell Hoss about sending the telegraph to their father in Carson City.
“He sure ain’t gonna be happy when he hears what Joe’s been up to,” surmised Hoss.
“I suppose not. If Joe’s just out goofing off, there’s going to be hell to pay when Pa gets home,” Adam said with a hint of laughter in his voice. He became serious and continued. “I’d sure hate to be in that boy’s boots if he is.”
“So would I Adam, but I’d much rather Joe be goofing off than laying out yonder hurt or…or…worse,” muttered Hoss, glancing back over his shoulder into the darkness.
Joe’s eyes opened slowly. His mind seemed to be working in slow motion as he tried to gather his befuddled thoughts into something solid. For several long moments he lay motionless, just listening to the strange night sounds around him. When he could focus, everything looked different in the darkness, especially when one was unfamiliar with the objects around him. Joe craned his neck, trying to peer through the dense blackness, but there was nothing to perceive but ominous darkness beyond his own surrounding gloominess.
Something scurried across the floor, sending slivers of fear racing along Joe’s spine. Outside, the wind howled as if it were crying out, calling from some far distant realm beyond the world where Joe laid prisoner to the iron bed. Joe clenched his jaw tightly shut and willed away his rising panic.
A sound, much like that of a man’s voice whistled through the trees, seemingly calling out his name. JOSEPH! JOSEPH!
“Pa?” Joe muttered in a timid voice.
Joe strained his neck turning his head toward the only window he could see where splinters of moonlight filtered through the tiny rips in the burlap sacking curtains that had been strung across the dirty panes of glass.
“PA…PA!” screamed Joe, sobbing out his father’s name. The tears he’d fought so long to keep at bay rolled slowly down the sides of his face and dripped onto the yellowed pillowcase beneath his head. “Please Pa…I didn’t mean it…I didn’t mean all those nasty things I said about you…I was hurt, that’s all…disappointed. I was feeling sorry…for myself…Pa…please…help me!” cried Joe, allowing himself the time to cry out his repentance.
“I’m sorry…so, so sorry.”
“Ya ready to ride?” Hoss asked, turning to look back at Will.
“I’m ready when you are, son,” Will announced as he squeezed his knees into the horse’s sides, making the animal move forward and to fall into line behind Hoss who trailed after his older brother.
It was late into the second day when Joe woke. He tried to move, but his body was sore and stiff and the slightest of movements sent spasms of pain shooting through his head. His stomach churned as much now from hunger than from the head injury that Joe was sure he had suffered.
The boy moaned softy, and when he felt the wetness beneath him from where his bladder had betrayed him sometime while he was blacked out, he felt the tears flood his eyes and spill over. He shivered from the dampness, his sense of pride in himself shattered and for the first time in several years, Joe cried in earnest. “Pa…please…” he wept as he tugged at the ties that bound his wrists. “Adam, Hoss…anyone…please help me!”
Joe allowed himself the time to weep and after several long moments, he drew a deep breath and brought his tears under control. He sniffed his nose several times and then glanced over his head at the knots that bound his wrists to the corner posts of the bed. Joe tugged hard on his left arm, and then glancing over his right shoulder, tugged at that arm. It appeared that the knots were tied securely, and it occurred to the weary boy, that it was just possible that he might be lying in his deathbed.
The thought stuck in Joe’s troubled, confused mind and the seed of doubt took root and began to grow. What if William Harding did not come back? What if his father and brothers did not find him? They had no idea where he was…and why had he been so foolish as to let an old friend of his father’s, who had once been in love with his mother, and who had since made him aware of how much he hated Ben Cartwright, talk him into such a dim-witted plot to get back at his father. And for what, Joe surmised. Ben had been busy, sure, but it was a busy time of the year. So what that he had not gotten the time to invite his father to a father-son dinner…right now that did not seem important at all. What was important, thought Joe, was staying alive and getting home…and explaining to his father how this mess had gotten started.
Joe glanced at the window; already the sun was setting. He tried to add the hours in his head, but with the dull ache that befuddled his thoughts, all the frightened boy could come up with was two full days and one long lonesome night he had already been held prison to the iron bed.
“Oblivion…a good name for this God forsaken place,” Joe muttered to himself. “Please God…help me get outta here and I promise…never to get mad at Pa again when he doesn’t have the time of day for me. I know he doesn’t mean to forget about me…honest…I was just feeling sorry for myself. Please God…I wanna go home!”
Late that afternoon, Adam, Hoss and Will Harding returned to the ranch. They were surprised when moments after their arrival, Ben rode into the yard. He jumped from his horse and ran the short distance from the hitching rail to the house and burst through the door. Startled, Hoss, who was coming from the kitchen, nearly dropped the tray of sandwiches that Hop Sing had fixed for the three hungry men.
“Pa!” Hoss called, quickly placing the tray on the wide boarded table in front of the fireplace.
Adam, who had just sat down in the red chair, stood to his feet and walked with Hoss to greet their father as Ben tossed his hat onto the credenza.
“I came as soon as I got your message,” Ben said in a tired voice. “Is he back…did you find the boy? Where is he? Is he in his room?”
“Take it easy, Pa,” Adam said, trying to calm his father. “First…no, Joe isn’t back. We’ve looked in every place we could think of where Joe likes to hide out. We’ve found nothing, Pa…not even his horse…”
“Well he’s got to be somewhere!” declared Ben. “Did you check up at the lake…or over at the Devlin’s…what about…”
“Pa…we’ve already covered all of that. I even went into town and talked to Miss Jones,” explained Adam.
“And what did she say? Did Joe leave school with anyone…who?”
“He t’weren’t in school yesterday, Pa…” began Hoss.
“What! What do you mean he wasn’t in school? Where in blazes did he go?” Ben stomped over to the fireplace and sat down on the hearth. “Oh…hello, Will. I’m sorry…I was so busy with…”
“Don’t apologize Ben…I know how worried you must be. I’m terribly sorry about all of this. When Joseph left yesterday morning, I only assumed he was on his way to school, and then in the afternoon, when the boy failed to come home at the appropriate time, I was beside myself with worry. I didn’t know what to do, so I just waited until Adam and Hoss arrived home and then I went with them to help search for the boy.”
“Will…this is not your fault…please, don’t blame yourself,” Ben assured his friend, gently laying a hand on the man’s knee.
Ben stood to his feet and turned to Adam. “Did you talk to any of his friends, Mitch perhaps? He might have had some idea about…”
Adam held his hand up to silence his father. “Pa…there is something. When I talked to Miss Jones, she told me that there was a father-son dinner for the boys in Joe’s class. It was last night…”
Ben looked puzzled. “That’s strange, I wasn’t aware of it. I wonder why on earth Joe didn’t say anything to me about it?”
Ben glanced at Hoss and then again at Adam. “Did either one of you know anything about this?”
“No sir, not until Adam told me,” Hoss replied.
“I only found out when I went to see the teacher. There’s more, Pa…”
“More?” Ben said, moving to pour himself a brandy. “What, Adam…tell me,” he ordered, downing the drink in one swallow.
“Joe was to get an award at the ceremony…he won the highest honor in math…but Miss Jones said that Joe told her he wasn’t going to tell you. He wanted it to be a surprise…when the two of you went to the dinner,” Adam said, moving to place a hand on his father’s arm. “Pa…I think Joe’s…run away…”
“WHAT! Why on earth would the boy run away? Adam, that doesn’t make any sense!” shouted Ben.
“That’s what we thought too, at first Pa…but then, Mr. Harding explained to us, why it might be possible,” stammered Hoss.
Ben spun around, facing the other gentleman, who had remained seated and who had been watching with silent pleasure the worry and concern written all over his former friend’s face. Ben looked as if he had aged ten years, just since yesterday morning.
“Why do YOU think that my son might have run away? Has he said anything to you? Did YOU know about this father-son dinner?” Ben ranted.
“Ben, calm down, please. I only suggested to Adam and Hoss that perhaps the reason Joseph might have run away was because he was hurt from the lack of attention he was getting and…”
“LACK OF ATTENTION!”
“Pa, please…there’s no need to get angry with Mr. Harding; he’s been very helpful and…” started Adam.
Ben took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Of course…I’m sorry, Will. It’s just that I’m so worried; please forgive me.”
“Ben…it’s alright…now, as I was saying. Ever since I first arrived, I’ve had the distinct feeling that your youngest son has been harboring some ill feelings toward you. Now hold on, Ben, please,” William said, holding his hand up to silence any forthcoming remarks from the distraught father.
“Joseph has said very little to me; in fact, I don’t think the boy likes me very well at all, for whatever reasons. But that’s not the point. I have been carefully observing him, and I do believe Benjamin, that the boy has some deep seeded anger, perhaps hurt…maybe even some animosity towards you and his brothers. I don’t think the boy is happy, not in the least,” Will explained, masking his face with a look of concern for the family.
“I did ask him the other morning, if he had something troubling him, but he told me…in not so many words, to mind my own business. I tried to get him to open up to me, but he just jumped on his horse and started to leave…he did stop and turn back around. When he came back, he leaned down and told me to tell you not to bother come looking for him. Ben, I hate to repeat everything he said…”
“No, you have to tell me…I had no idea that Joe was…unhappy,” Ben said, faltering slightly as he glanced from Adam to Hoss.
“He said that he was…leaving…going away. I asked him where he would go, but he said he couldn’t tell me. I guess he knew I’d come straight to you…”
“Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?” Adam said in a gruff voice.
“Well, Adam, I suppose, deep down, I didn’t think the boy was serious. I mean, after all, the boy has everything he could possibly want or need. I have no idea what would make him so unhappy…” Will rushed to explain. “I didn’t take the lad serious…if I’d known he was so prone to such irrational behavior, I would have mentioned it when he first told me.”
“No…you wouldn’t have any way of knowing,” Ben consoled his friend. “I didn’t even know…Will…what else did Joe tell you, please?”
“Well, he started to ride off again, but I grabbed the reins, and practically pleaded with the boy to give me some clue…I begged him not to leave you in the dark with worry…and all he said was, ‘tell my father and my brothers…that they need not bother themselves with me anymore’.”
Will watched as the color drained from Ben’s face, and he pushed the knife in a little deeper. “He told me that he knew you had always…cared more for Adam, because his older brother was so much smarter, and more for Hoss because he never gave you a day’s worry…I’m sorry, Ben; I see how much this is hurting you, all three of you. I shouldn’t have said anything…”
“Go on,” stammered Ben, “is there more?”
“Only that he felt as if he had always been a millstone about your neck and a thorn in his brothers sides…and that he knew deep down that you…you…”
“That I what?” Ben growled.
“That you didn’t love him.”
William Harding struggled to suppress the urge to laugh aloud. Ben’s eyes darkened and his silver brows shot upward. His whole expression was one of total disbelief and shock. William wasn’t sure if his old comrade was going to burst wide open from anger or break down and cry at the news he’d just received. Nonetheless, the untruth he’d just told Ben Cartwright had the affect on the distraught father that he had hoped it would. Will was sure that he had just widened the riff between the father and his youngest son…a son that William felt should had been his son.
“WHAT? THAT’S THE MOST PREPOSTEROUS THING I’VE EVER HEARD!” shouted Ben.
Ben moved to his red chair and lowered his body into the soft folds of the leather. The wind had left his lungs and he struggled to breathe. He looked up at his two sons who stood before him. His eyes were clouded and Ben felt that had he been alone, he might would have broken down and cried.
Adam sat down on the table across from his father and leaned over, placing a hand on his father’s knee. “Pa…you’ve got to calm down…’
Ben jumped to his feet and began pacing the floor. He whirled around, facing the three men. He focused on Adam. “Don’t tell me to calm down. I go away thinking that everything is fine with my family, only to come home to find that my youngest son has run away just because of some fool headed idea that he isn’t loved!” Ben marched back and forth behind the settee and stopped once more.
Adam and Hoss swapped anxious glances. Will remained seated, secretly enjoying the chaos that he had created. Ben pointed a finger at Adam, taking his frustrations out on his eldest son. “You may rest assured that if Joseph is just hiding out somewhere, thinking to worry me…he will not be able to sit for a very, very long time, when he comes home,” declared Ben.
Ben took a deep breath to steady himself and turned toward the kitchen. He paused at the door and turned back to the others. “I’m going to have Hop Sing prepare us some supplies. Get your things together; we’re leaving at first light. Whatever Joe’s done, and why he’s done it, is beside the point for now. I will deal with his reasons later; right now I want my son safely home.”
Ben started to leave the three alone but was halted when William called out to him. “Ben,” he said, rising at last and casually strolling around the furniture to stand with Ben. “I hate to run out on you, but I’ve been called away, I must leave first thing in the morning. I’m terribly sorry, but duty demands that I go on to San Francisco…”
Ben nodded his head. His expression still bore the worry he felt. “Will…I understand; please don’t trouble yourself with our problems. I have plenty of men working for me that can help us look for Joe. You do what you must; I understand…and I do thank you for what you’ve done so far,” Ben said in an appreciative tone.
“Thank you, Ben; I think I shall retire now. I thank you for your hospitality, and I wish you God’s speed in finding your son. Good night.” Will turned and nodded his head at Adam and Hoss. “Good night Adam, Hoss; I’ll see you in the morning,” Will said, making his way quickly to the stairs.
“Good night sir,” chorused both brothers.
Joe’s eyes opened slowly. He struggled to focus and see through the darkness that surrounded him, for the sun had set hours ago and left him in total blackness for the second night in a row.
His stomach churned with hunger and the steady pounding in his head, Joe attributed to the lack of food and water. It had been over two days since he’d had anything to eat or drink and the result had left him in a weakened state. He could barely raise his head and he’d given up fighting against his restraints, hours ago, for there was no need. Joe knew he would die soon, if William Harding did not return. The knowledge that he was dying and would never get the chance to tell his father how sorry he was, left Joe with little hope that his father and brothers would find him in time to say the things that weighed heavy on his young heart.
Already the lack of water had left his mouth dry and his throat so thick that he could barely speak above a whisper. The constant gnawing in his stomach and the sharp spasms that caused excruciating pain to his midsection left him withering in agony.
The opening and closing of the door caused Joe to force his head around so that he might be able to see who had entered the shack. The darkness shrouded the lone figure in a ghost like silhouette, shielding the person’s face from Joe’s eyes.
“Pa?” Joe said in a weakened voice.
The figure moved about the room, ignoring the boy who lay upon his deathbed. Once or twice, the man made his way to the bedside and gazed down at the figure of the boy who was too weak to keep his eyes opened.
William Harding laughed. “Your father is a fool…a stupid fool, just as you are,” he said to the boy. “He must have no faith in you Joseph, for he believed every word of the lie that I told him. You should have seen the look on his face when I told him that you wanted to go away, with me.”
At the sound of the voice, Joe opened his eyes. He could barely make out Will Harding’s features in the dim light. His heart sank, for Joe had been praying that his father would have come for him before now.
“Pa?” Joe’s voice was laden with pain and weakness.
“I’m not your father, Joseph…but I might have been.” Will sat down on the side of the bed and gently caressed the side of Joe’s face. “If your father had not come along when he had, Marie would have married me…and the child she bore for your father would have been mine instead.”
Will removed his hand. His eyes had taken on a glazed look that Joe could barely make out. The man’s breathing had become more rapid and when Will leaned his face down, close to Joe’s, Joe tried to recoil deeper into his pillow.
“Do you know just how much I hate your father for taking Marie away from me? I wanted to kill him, with my bare hands. But my love for your mother prevented me from doing it, so I made up a plan that would have resulted in an accident, and your father’s death…but the damnable Ben Cartwright took my darling away before I could constitute my scheme. I was on my way here to find him and kill him, but then I heard that Marie had bore a child…you, Joseph…MY SON…” Will took a deep breath and laughed. His eyes glowed brightly, his brow had beaded with tiny droplets of perspiration and his smile was evil and twisted.
Joe felt his body tremble in fright. He was confused by what this man was telling him. “Your son?” he muttered.
“YES! My son…don’t you see, Joseph, the reasons why your father and brothers never take time for you, why they ignore you and why they stick to themselves, making you to feel less than one of them? It’s because you are my son…and they know that…that’s why when I told your father that you wanted to come away with me, he agreed,” laughed Will. “He wanted rid of you!” the vile man snickered.
“NO!” Joe cried, forcing the words from the back of his parched throat. “NO! I didn’t say that…”
“Ah…you and I know that, but being the fool that Ben Cartwright is…he believed it. I told him how unhappy you were, and how you resented him for the way he never gave you the time of day…and he said that if you felt so strongly about going, then you were free to go!” Will moved from the bed and towered over Joe.
“He doesn’t even care enough about you to ask you himself! So you see, Joseph, you are now mine to do with as I see fit…and I have plans for you, plans I’m sure you will not like…” sneered Will.
“By tomorrow, you will be like putty in my hands. You will be so weak from lack of food and water that you will be no trouble to handle.” Will moved to the table and pulled out a chair, sitting down. He stared at the boy, who was already so weak that he could barely shake his head from side to side. “I’m taking you to New Orleans, Joseph,” he said after awhile.
The man’s smile had vanished and was replaced with a sneer. His voice was deep and thick with emotion when he spoke.
“You see…I care nothing about you…nothing. You are a horrible reminder of what might have been, had your father not ever come to New Orleans, all those years ago. The fact that you are her son…only makes me hate you that much more. I loved her and your mother once loved me…until…until…”
Will stood and inched his way back to the bed. He leaned down, an evil smile lurking on his face. He grabbed Joe’s cheeks with his strong fingers and pinched the flesh tightly, sending slivers of fear racing up Joe’s spine. Joe closed his eyes to avoid looking into the eyes of the wicked man, but the action only served to earn himself a backhanded slap across his already bruising cheeks. Harding grabbed Joe’s face once more and held it tightly between his fingers, squeezing until Joe cried out in pain.
“Keep your eyes opened when I speak you!” bellowed the enraged man. “And listen closely to what I have planned for you…hahahaha!” jeered William.
“There are places in certain parts of the city where young boys, much like yourself, are used as…well…there’s no need to go into details about those things right now,” Will snickered. “Many people remember your mother…and what she was. I will tell them that you are her son…the men there will love a chance to…shall I say…use you, as they yearned to ‘use’ your mother…hahahahhahaa!”
Joe felt his throat constrict and forced himself to keep his eyes fixed on the deranged man’s face. Will slapped both sides of Joe’s face roughly and then backed away from the bed.
“You can sleep now, come morning, I’m taking you out of here,” Will informed the frightened youth. “And say goodbye to these mountains of yours, for you’ll never see them again…ever!”
“He must have left awfully early, Pa,” Hoss informed his father as Ben joined both boys at the breakfast table. “I’ve been up since before dawn, and he was gone when I went out to saddle the horses,” he concluded.
“Strange that he didn’t say good-bye,” Ben said as he poured himself a cup of coffee.
“Guess he wanted to get any early start,” Adam said.
Ben paused with his cup halfway to his mouth. He felt as tired as he looked, for he had slept little. Every word that his old friend had said to him in regards to Little Joe had weighed heavy on his heart and he had spent the major part of the night pacing his room trying to figure out what had inspired his youngest son’s questionable behavior.
“The stage doesn’t leave until nearly noon. William would have had plenty of time for breakfast or at least a cup of coffee. It isn’t even daylight yet,” Ben said, sipping his hot brew.
“Do you have everything ready?” Ben asked, turning to Adam.
“Yessir, enough to last us about three days…if it takes that long to find…Joe,” he explained in a soft voice.
He glanced up from his plate to look at his father. Adam could see the sadness hidden deep within the dark brown eyes.
“When we find him…and we will Pa,” he added.
Ben gave both sons a nod of his head. “Yes we will, and when we do, I’ll find out exactly what all of this is about.”
He sat down his cup and pushed away his plate. He wasn’t hungry, he was sick with worry and the thoughts of the fried bacon and eggs turned his stomach.
“If you two are finished, let’s get a move on. I want that boy home by sundown,” he said, trying to make light of the situation.
“Come on, on your feet,” snapped Will as he grabbed Joe by the arm and hauled him upright. “Whew, you stink kid…but nothing I can do about that right now. You’ll have to wait until the sun is up before you take a bath. Get moving!”
Joe’s body swayed and he would have fallen if William had not been holding him in an upright position. With legs that wobbled and fought to hold the weight of his body, Joe allowed himself to be dragged toward the door. The ropes holding his wrists to the bedposts had been cut and in his weakened condition, Will saw no point in tying the boy’s hands. Joe could barely stand; attempting to run was out of the question, thus the older man felt confident that his prisoner would not attempt a get-away.
Once out into the early morning light, Joe was told to stay put while Will led the horses around from the lean-to. Joe leaned against a sagging post that propped up the corner of the old, line shack and tried to focus on his surroundings. It was the first time in nearly three days that he had been outside and he wanted to be sure of where he was. There was no doubt after a quick survey that he was at Oblivion, the furthermost and least used line shack that bordered on the outskirts of the Ponderosa boundary lines.
Will returned within minutes, pleased to see that the boy had not ventured from the porch. He snickered, seeing Joe practically having to sit on the step, too weak to remain upright for any period of time.
Will reached for the canteen that hung from his saddle and pulled the cork from the spout.
“Here, take a drink,” he said, holding the container out for Joe to take.
Greedily, Joe grabbed for the canteen of water, nearly dropping it as his hands encircled the object. He struggled with the weight of the container as he used both hands to bring the water to his lips. Joe took several large gulps of the cool sweet water before Will jerked the canteen from his hands.
Joe looked up pleadingly into the man’s face. Tears stung his eyes as he held up both hands. “Please…more,” he begged.
Will’s lips twisted into a mock smile as he taunted the boy. “More…here,” he said, holding with canteen within inches of Joe’s outstretched hands.
Joe attempted to take the canteen from his tormentor, but William backed away several paces.
“Here it is, if you want it, come and get it,” he dared Joe as he tipped the water receptacle upward and allowed the water to drain slowly from the canteen’s lip.
Joe struggled to pull himself upright. Clutching the post for support, he took a deep breath and tried to step away from his prop, but staggered and fell face down into the dirt.
The obnoxious man’s laughter ran in the boy’s ears. Joe had to grit his teeth to keep from speaking out, for he rightly feared the man. Several hours after the man had returned the night before to the old cabin, Joe had been afraid to sleep, for he sensed that the man’s intense hate might lead him into murdering him in his sleep. He had struggled until just before dawn when he heard the man leave, before allowing himself to close his eyes. It was only when William jarred him rudely from his nap that Joe realized that he had fallen into a deep, sound slumber and was relieved to find that the troubled man had not killed him as suspected. It was then that Joe vowed to stay alive. The man might try starving him, and denying him water, but the man, so sure of himself, had not anticipated the strong Cartwright determination that burned deep down inside of him. That determination and desire to be reunited with his father and brothers would be what it took to keep him going, surmised Joe.
His father, thought Joe as he laid face down in the dirt. Had his beloved father really said those things about him? Was Ben actually allowing him to leave on his own, with this stranger? Did his father care so little about him? Joe felt a catch in his throat…surely it was all lies, for Will had lied to his father about what had been said between the two of them, but did Ben suspect his old crony of lying, or did his father believe the man to be a man of honor and good standing?
Joe raised his head off the ground just enough to see what William was doing. Will was popping the cork back into the canteen and then, as Joe watched he slipped the strap around the saddle horn. As Will started toward him, Joe lowered his head back down onto the ground. Seconds later, he felt the strong hands on his body and felt himself lifted from the ground and half carried, half dragged over to his horse.
“Up you go, Joseph,” Will said in a near normal voice.
The big man settled Joe into the saddle and decided to tie his hands to the pommel. Joe was too weak to object and sat in silence while the man made quick work of the task. Will looked up at Joe and smiled.
“That’s so you won’t fall off. I’m not worried about you trying to escape, where would you go?” laughed Will. “Your father cares nothing of you, your two brothers are happy that you are no longer under foot.” Will placed his hand on Joe’s leg and at first, gently squeezed.
“We have a long trip ahead of us son, so you might as well make the most of it. When we stop later, if you’re a good boy, I might give you something to eat, just to keep you from fainting from hunger. I promise I won’t let you starve, but I’ll not feed you well enough to regain your strength, until you prove your loyalty to me. Do you understand, Joseph…it’s either me, one hundred per cent, or I leave you tied to some tree, deep in the woods, where no man would dare to go, to starve to death. “
Will pressed his strong fingers deeply into the flesh of Joe’s leg, causing Joe to feel the strength in his massive hands. Fear surged through the boy’s veins, and his earlier proclamation of bravery, faded as the fingers, without mercy, pinched into his leg, just above the knee. Joe flinched at the pain and leaned low over his horse’s neck, muttering.
“I understand,” said Joe in a quivering voice as he glanced down at William’s hand.
“Good, just so we understand one another. From this day on Joseph, you will obey my every command, or pay the price for disobedience.”
With eyes wide with fright, Joe watched as the man turned and mounted his horse. He felt defeated, as he lowered his head. Joe turned his head away to hide the tears that swelled within his eyes. As Will led his horse through the forest, Joe turned one last time to see the cabin fading from view behind the curtain of tall pines and evergreens, oaks, elms and mountain laurel. Deep in his heart, Joe knew it would be the last time that he ever laid eyes on the cabin again. A sob caught in his throat.
“So long, Pa…” he whispered, resigning himself to his fate.
It was nearing the noonday hour when Ben finally held his hand up and motioned for his sons to stop. The weary man stretched his aching body and then turned in the saddle, a disheartened look in his eyes.
“We might as well hold up here for a spell and have a bite to eat. Besides,” groaned Ben as he slipped from the saddle, “these horses need a rest…and so do I,” he added as an after thought.
Adam and Hoss dismounted and led their horses down to the stream so that they could be watered. Hoss dug in his saddlebag for a jerky strip, watching his father as Ben seated himself on a fallen log.
“Pa sure does look beat, Adam,” he said in a low voice.
Adam glanced in his father’s direction and then to Hoss.
“Yeah, I’ve been keeping my eye on him,” Adam said, pausing to take a bite of his jerky strip that Hoss had handed to him. He chewed the tough meat for a long moment before speaking.
“Tell me something, Hoss.”
“Sure…what’cha wanna know?” Hoss replied.
“What do you think Joe’s up to? It isn’t like him to run away, I mean, as Mr. Harding put it. Joe hasn’t done that since he was ten years old,” Adam informed his brother.
“I don’t get ya meanin’, big brother. If’n Joe ain’t run away…then what’s happened to’em?”
Hoss studied his older brother’s face for signs of a prompt answer. He had just assumed that Little Joe had gotten a burr under his saddle and for whatever reason, had decided to make them worry a little about him, for the attention the boy must have felt he was denied. Hoss shook his head thinking, that doesn’t really sound like Joe.
“I don’t know, Hoss. But something about this whole mess isn’t right.” Adam glanced again at his brother. “None of it makes any sense, none at all.”
“You boys ready to ride? I want to keep looking,” Ben called as he mounted up.
“Come on Hoss…let’s go, that scamp has got to be around here somewhere,” Adam said as he led Sport around and mounted up.
William had called a halt as well. He freed Joe’s hands from the binding that held them to the saddle horn and pulled Joe from the horse’s back. Joe, weak from hunger and thirst, dropped to ground in a heap at Will’s feet. The boy clutched his belly as the hunger spasms gnawed at his insides and though he tried not too, the pitiful moans slipped passed his lips.
William towered over the lad, smirking. “Get up and get down to that water, boy. I want you cleaned up, you stink,” demanded the man, giving a nudge with his foot. “Move!” he shouted, kicking out at Joe as the boy scrambled on hands and knees toward the creek.
Will led the horses to a small clearing, constantly keeping his eye on the boy. Joe lay face down in the water, cupping his hands and bringing the cool liquid to his parched and dry lips. He took several large gulps, instantly regretting hurrying to quench his thirst. His stomach abruptly knotted as the water gurgled deep inside and suddenly Joe turned his head, spewing the liquid onto the ground at his feet. Several times Joe retched, until all the liquid was gone, leaving him with nothing but the dry heaves.
Behind him, Joe could hear his captor laughing at him. He turned his head slightly, wiping the moisture from his mouth, to see the man watching him. Joe quickly turned away, not wanting the man to see the hate that had begun to grow and fester deep within himself. He knew that if the wicked, deranged man saw what Joe knew must surely show on his face, William Harding would not hesitate to rain his fury down upon him.
Joe staggered out into the water, letting the coolness wash over him. He ached from head to toe, but he forced himself to make good use of his time as he scrubbed as much of the filth from his clothing and body as he could. Occasionally he would cup his hands and take tiny sips of the clear water, being careful not to overload his empty stomach and have a reoccurrence of what had just happened. As he washed himself, Joe’s eyes were constantly looking around him. His mind buzzed trying to formulate a plan that would get him out of there. He was lost in thought when the deep bellowing voice broke through to the present.
“I said, that’s enough, now get out of there!”
Joe looked up, surprised to see William standing at the water’s edge, hands placed firmly on his hips. His face was shrouded in a dark, angry glare. Joe hurried as best he could, to the edge of the water. He paused briefly to look up at the man and then moved beyond, to the warmth of the small fire that Will had started.
Joe stood over the blaze, rubbing his hands together as the water dripped from his clothing. He shivered as the gentle breezed whipped about him.
Will leaned over the pot he had placed on the fire and stirred the contents, smiling when he looked up at the boy. “Smells good, heh?” he questioned.
Joe nodded his head. Whatever Will had stewing, did smell good and the aroma set his stomach rumbling for food.
Will saw the hunger in the hazel eyes and the way that Joe strained to see what was cooking. He motioned for Joe to sit down and waited until the boy was seated before dipping some of the soup from the kettle and handing it to his guest. “Eat it slowly, or you’ll only waste it,” he cautioned the lad who grabbed the plate and spoon that Will offered him.
Joe glanced up cautiously to look at the man. “Thanks,” he muttered in a low whisper.
Joe tried to keep from gobbling up the soup, but it was almost impossible. He was driven by his intense hunger and need to squelch the nagging pain that was a constant to his belly. When he was finished, he held the plate out, toward his keeper.
“More…please,” Joe begged, expectantly.
Will looked up from his own plate and eyed the boy. He laughed, taking the plate from Joe’s outstretched hand. His answer was plain and simple and left no room for doubt to the starving boy.
Joe felt the tears sting his eyes, but he willed himself not to cry. It was the last thing that he wanted this despicable man to see. Instead, Joe lay back on the ground and curled himself up into a ball, trying to get warm. His clothes were still wet, though not dripping, but with the breeze that blew, he was finding it hard to get warm.
Will moved about the camp, keeping a watchful eye on the boy, who seemed to have fallen asleep. He moved along side Joe, towering over the lad and staring down at his sleeping form. Will squatted down, studying Joe’s features and gently, Will brushed back a lock of Joe’s hair that had fallen across his brow. He smiled and left Joe’s side long enough to get a blanket from his bedroll, returning to cover the boy and gently tuck the sides in around Joe’s shivering body. That completed, Will gathered more sticks for the fire and tossed them into the flame, setting the fire to blaze with warmth. He glanced once more at the boy, determining in his mind to transform Ben Cartwright’s son into his own son. It would take some doing, he contemplated, but he would break the boy, one way or the other, but one day soon, Marie’s son would call him Pa, and speak with distain of his former friend. Will laughed softly, calling to mind the horrified expression on Ben’s face when he told him that the boy no longer wanted to remain on the Ponderosa. Turning from the sleeping boy, Will dipped himself another bowl of the hot soup and leaned back against a tree to enjoy his meal.
“Time to wake up, kid.”
The words and the sudden jab of his tormentor’s toe to his rib jarred Joe from his nap. He raised his head, expecting to see his father’s face, for he had been dreaming that he was home, warm and safe, and sleeping in his own bed. Joe was sure his disappointment showed on his face, for William Harding laughed as he jerked the blanket away and rolled it up into a ball.
“I said get up; we’ve got to move on,” William said, moving over to where the horses were tethered. He gathered the reins and turned, leading the horses back to where Joe was standing, dusting the dirt from his clothing.
Will held out his hand, offering the reins to Joe. “Hold on to these; I forgot my hat,” Will said without thinking.
He carelessly turned his back to Joe, leaving Joe standing with both horses. Suddenly a thought flashed through Joe’s head and he quickly turned and swung himself onto the back of the nearest horse.
“YAH!” he shouted, releasing his own horse and watching as Cochise bolted through the woods.
Joe kicked at his mount’s side. The horse sprang into action and moved through the clearing.
William, whirled around, startled by the shouting and the loud thundering hooves. He saw Joe’s pinto breaking away, weaving in and out among the trees. The man broke into a run, racing with a speed that surprised the shocked boy. Joe dug his heels deeper into the horse’s sides, but his reflex was off due to his weakened condition and the last thing Joe saw before he felt his body being crushed against the ground, was his captor leaping through the air at him.
Joe cried out as the weight of the man’s body ground him into the earth. The wind knocked from his lungs, Joe felt himself hauled from the ground and then groaned as the man’s fist drove itself deeply into his stomach. Joe doubled over, trying to fold his arms across his middle before William could punch him again. Joe’s head was jerked upward by fingers that tangled amid his chestnut curls and Joe felt the stab of pain and felt the warmth of his own blood as the other man’s fist connected with his face. The world swirled about him as the light faded and Joe’s world became black. Will drew back his fist to strike again, but Joe slumped to the ground, unconscious, giving himself a reprieve from the fierce beating that he had earned for himself.
Will stood staring down at the crumbled ball of flesh and bones. His breathing was labored and in his eyes a dark fire burned. He cursed softly, looking back over his shoulder for the horses. There was only one, the pinto had bolted and was nowhere to be seen.
“Fool…you stupid little imbecile,” ranted William, giving Joe a swift kick to the back as he turned and walked away.
Will pulled the rope from his saddle and tied Joe’s hands behind his back, snaking the rope downward and pulling Joe’s legs up behind him, he tied the opposite end around the boy’s ankles, leaving Joe bound and unable to move freely.
Will mounted the horse turning to be sure Joe could not escape and then rode off, through the woods in search of the other horse. He rode for a good ways before calling off his search and returning to the clearing where he had left the boy. When he dismounted he hurried to Joe’s side, turning the boy over so that he could see Joe’s face. Joe had returned to the present world from his darkened world of obscurity, but it was plain to the older man, that Joe was dazed. The hazel eyes that looked up at him were glazed and unfocused and only appeared to be looking at him. Joe’s nose had stopped bleeding; the blood had dried on the boy’s face, having been smeared across one cheek. The lower lip had split when Will had jabbed his fist into the handsome face. It was now swollen and the left eye had started to blacken. Will shook his head in disgust.
“You look like hell, Joseph,” he muttered, untying the rope from around Joe’s ankles. He cut a section of the rope with his knife and after untying Joe’s hands he retied them in front of the boy.
Will hauled Joe to his feet, clinging to the boy as if he were a rag doll, Will led Joe to the horse and placed him into the saddle and then climbed on behind.
“Guess we ride double, for now,” the man growled. “But just as soon as you’re able, you’re going to be doing a lot of walking. And without your boots, that’s not going to be very pleasurable,” Will informed the dazed boy.
Will kicked the horse’s sides and within minutes the duo had disappeared into the thick forest, slowly making their way around fallen logs, boulders and the dense undergrowth.
When Ben and his sons broke through to the clearing, each yanked back on the reins and sat in stunned silence at the black and white pinto that had raised his head and looked their way. Ben cast anxious eyes around at both Adam and Hoss and quickly dismounted. He moved slowly so as not to spook the pinto.
“Easy there fella,” Ben murmured in a low voice.
He grabbed for the reins. As soon as he had the horse secured, Adam and Hoss joined their father, inspecting Cochise for any signs that might give them a clue as to the whereabouts of his rider.
“Nothin’ on this side,” Hoss said, his voice ringing with disappointment.
“Nothing here either, Pa,” Adam added. He brushed his hand down the front of the horse. “He’s been running, look at his lather,” he said, holding his dampened hand up for this father and Hoss to see.
Adam looked over his shoulder. “Couldn’t have been here long.”
Hoss began searching the ground for clues and quickly picked up the horse’s tracks.
“He came in this way,” he told his family as he started following the indentures made in the soft earth.
“Let’s mount up and back track,” Ben told Adam, passing Cochise’s reins to his son. “Hoss, do you think you can follow those tracks through this forest, it’s pretty dense.”
“Yessir, I’ll find’em, don’t ya worry none,” Hoss assured his father.
Hoss walked steadily, keeping a close eye on the tracks he was following. When they reached opened ground, he turned and mounted.
“This way,” he said, taking the lead as he picked up the pace.
He was as anxious to find his missing brother as his father and Adam was. It had been nearly three days, and finding Joe’s horse in the clearing had been the first piece of evidence that they had stumbled upon. The fact that the horse had been coated in sweat only served to increase their fear that something terrible must be wrong. Hoss feared for his brother’s safety and for Joe’s well being. He worried that the boy might be hurt, and unable to get to help. What concerned the big man the most was why Joe had left home without a word to any of them. He just could not help but wonder at his brother’s motives.
Will pulled his horse to a stop. He climbed from the saddle, gazing up at Joe who had slumped over the horse’s neck, nearly unconscious. Untying the ropes that held Joe’s hands to the pommel, Will dragged Joe’s limp body to the ground.
Joe suddenly came alive as he shoved his body into that of the man who held him. Taken by surprise, Will staggered backward, his hands automatically releasing their grip on Joe’s body in a vain attempt to break his fall. The heavy man hit the ground with a thud, but it was the advantage that Joe needed. The boy turned and fled, making his way across the open ground. Joe ran as fast as his weary legs could carry him. Beneath his bare feet he could feel the hard ground ripping at his soles, the rocks and pebbles bruising his tender flesh as he raced for freedom. Twice he stumbled and nearly fell. Joe glanced behind him, seeing Will chasing after him. The look on the man’s face warned Joe that he must hurry to avoid capture, for Joe knew that William Harding would show him no mercy should he be captured again.
Lungs burning, gasping for air, Joe raced on, always looking over his shoulders. He was quickly beginning to tire, and could easily see that his pursuer was rapidly gaining on him.
“I gotta run…I gotta run,” Joe repeated.
Joe was becoming light headed. He was forced to pause just long enough to catch his breath and fill his heaving lungs.
“I’ve got you now!” screamed Will as he dove at Joe.
Joe spun around, just in time to see the man’s body flying through the air at him. Joe bolted into a run, avoiding being knocked to the ground by the weight of the sailing body. Behind him, the terrified lad heard the enraged man screaming out his obscenities at him.
Joe turned from the rocks that lay just ahead. He darted passed several large boulders, ignoring the pain in his soles as the jagged rocks sliced his feet. Once he looked down and saw the trail of blood that followed him. When he looked around in front of him, he opened his mouth to scream, but his cry was drowned out as he plummeted downward from the ledge that had suddenly sprung up before him.
Joe cried out as his body bounced against the hard rocks, finally coming to an abrupt stop on a ledge, mid-way down of the deep ravine. His senses dulled, his world swimming before him, Joe tried to rise, but screamed out as the burning pain cut through his ribcage. Unable to move, he looked to the top of the ledge, groaning when he saw the evil man standing on the rim, looking down at him. William’s laughter drifted faintly down from above. He watched as William began descending the ledge, dreading what lay ahead for him, once the man reached his side. Joe closed his eyes against the sight, refusing to watch as the demented man carefully picked his way around the rock formations until he was within yards of where the boy lay.
The unnerving sound of a man’s scream forced open Joe’s eyes. He was stunned to see William Harding’s body roll head over foot passed him. With eyes wide with fear, Joe raised his head slightly, watching as the big man rolled for several yards beyond where he, himself lay. Will’s body stopped its downward plunge only to land, bent and broken on the sharp rocks not more than a hundred yards below Joe.
For several long minutes, Joe stared at the silent form, watching for any movements that might indicate whether Will was still alive or not. When he could no longer hold his head up, Joe gave in to the pain that cursed his body. Slowly his eyelids closed and everything around him went spiraling into total darkness.
The three pulled their horses to a stop. Ben and Hoss quickly dismounted to inspect the horse that stood alone. Adam waited anxiously while remaining on his mount. His dark eyes scanned the surrounding area in search of the horse’s rider.
“Lookit here, Pa,” Hoss said, pulling the cut strands of ropes free from the saddle horn. Looks like someone’s been tied to the pommel,” he said, handing the remannets to his father.
Adam dismounted, taking the ropes from Ben’s hands, seeing for himself how the ropes had been cut. Ben stared at the ropes; dread filled his soul as he glanced around at the area where they stood.
“There’s been a scuffle…and lookit over here,” Hoss said, pointing to the ground. “Looks like one of those someone’s, lost his boots.” Hoss squatted down to get a better look at the footprint.
“Pa…” he hesitated before rising and turning to face Ben. “There’s blood embedded in these here smaller footprints,” Hoss explained.
“That ain’t all, Pa…see how this little toe turns under just a bit?”
“I see it…” Ben said, his heart sinking. “It’s Little Joe’s footprint,” he stammered.
Ben twisted his head all about, his eyes digging into the thickness of rocks, scanning each formation hungrily for his son. The hot sun beat down on their heads, sweat dotted Ben’s brow and he brushed if off with the sleeve of his shirt. He cupped his hand around his mouth and yelled out his son’s name.
“JOE!” Ben shouted. He turned to Adam and Hoss. “Spread out…check the entire area, he’s got be here somewhere,” Ben ordered.
“JOSEPH!” Ben called, moving cautiously toward the edge of the ravine, unaware that down below his youngest son lay in dire need of his comforting embrace.
Adam moved off in the opposite direction, working his way to the rim as well. Hoss inched closer to the huge boulders where a short time before, William Harding, his father’s supposedly trusted friend had charged Joe, causing both the boy and himself to plummet over the side of the ravine.
“PA! DOWN THERE!” shouted Adam, pointing over the side of the cliff.
Adam dashed back to his father’s side and pointed out the lone figure of a man lying motionless across a decayed tree trunk.
“It’s a man!”
“Hoss, get some rope, I’m going down,” ordered Ben. “It’s possible he’s still alive.”
Hoss made quick work of fixing the rope and soon had it placed securely around Ben’s waist. Together, Adam and Hoss began lowering their father over the side of the ravine. Ben moved carefully downward toward the prone figure of the man until he stood over the body.
Being as careful as he could, he turned the man enough that he could see William’s face. Shocked, Ben gasped in disbelief at his friend. He glanced up at his two sons and called to them.
“IT’S WILL HARDING!” he shouted.
Adam and Hoss swapped surprised looks. “I thought he went on to San Francisco?” Hoss muttered.
“Apparently not. What I’d like to know is how did he become mixed up with our brother?”
“HE”S BARELY ALIVE!” yelled Ben.
“Will…Will, can you hear me?” Ben questioned, holding the man’s broken body in his arms. He knew that his friend was near death and that there was nothing he could do at this point to ease the man’s suffering.
Will slowly forced his eyes opened. He could barely make out the face before him. His hand moved slightly, gripping Ben’s arm. Ben watched as his friend struggled to form words.
“The…boy…” he stammered.
“Will, don’t try to talk…”
“No…Ben…” Will’s back arched as the pain engulfed him. “I never…meant…to kill…him…”
Ben swallowed the knot that had formed in the back of his throat. He pulled the man closer so that he could make out the muffled words.
“Will, my son, Joseph…where is he?” Ben urged as the panic began to rise to the surface. “What have you done with my son?” There was urgency in the frightened father’s voice.
“Lies…all…lies,” muttered the dying man. William strained to focus his eyes on Ben’s face. “She…never…loved…me…you…always…you,” William struggled with his words.
Ben was beginning to feel sick as he leaned even closer. Will was fighting for every breath now and Ben knew that death laid just a heartbeat away. He was frantic to know where his youngest son was.
“Will…please,” Ben said in a false calm. “What have you done with…Marie’s baby boy? Where is he Will…please, for Marie…tell me what’s become of Joseph,” pleaded Ben.
Will’s eyes had closed, his body was limp in Ben’s arm, but the man opened his eyes just enough to see Ben’s face. He raised his arm in the air, “dead,” he muttered in a dying voice. The arm, once so strong dropped beside his body as William Harding drew his last breath.
“NO!” screamed Ben at the top of his lungs. His friend was dead and he was no nearer to finding his missing son than he had been three days before.
“MY SON! MY SON…WHERE’S MY SON!” Ben beseeched the heavens.
Adam had Hoss hold the rope as he quickly descended the ravine. He slipped a time or two but did not allow the rolling pebbles and stones to hinder his downward movements. His father was beside himself with grief. The urgency in the pleading voice, alerted Adam to his father’s present need, as he hurried to join Ben. Within minutes, Adam had Ben clutched in his strong arms and turned away from the grotesque sight of the man’s broken body.
“PA!” Adam said in a loud voice. “Get a hold of yourself!”
“Dead…he said Joe was dead!” Ben moaned. “Dear God…no…he can’t be…dead…not Joe, not my baby!”
Adam’s fingers dug deeply into his father’s strong arms as he gave Ben a shake. “You don’t know that for sure…Pa…listen to me…the man was a liar…a fraud…”
Ben took a deep breath to calm himself. He turned from his son for a fraction of a second to steady his trembling. When he turned again to Adam, his son could see the fire of hate that burned deeply in the chocolate colored eyes.
“The lies…what lies, Adam? He just said that they were all lies, but what was he talking about? And how does Joseph fit into all of this?”
“I don’t know, Pa…but…”
“PA! ADAM! LOOK…OVER THERE…” Hoss bellowed from the top of the ravine.
Both turned to look at Hoss and followed the direction that he was pointing. Ben shielded his eyes from the bright sun. His troubled eyes scanned the rocks for whatever it was that had caught his middle son’s attention.
Adam saw the slight movement first, and reacted by grabbing Ben’s arm. He pointed his finger to a small ledge, about halfway up the side of the ravine and to the far left from where they stood.
“Pa…look, its Joe!”
Moving as one, Ben and Adam quickly scrambled up and across the rocks, being careful not to slip and fall, fearing the same fate as Ben’s one time friend. Ben reached his son first, dropping to his knees and leaning over Joe, shielding the twisted body from the hot rays of sun that had already burned the battered flesh of Joe’s face.
“Joseph, sweetheart…” Ben murmured in a tender voice full of concern. He glanced up at Adam, sensing the same fear in his oldest son that he, himself was feeling.
Adam felt his brother’s neck for a pulse. It took several agonizing moments, but Adam raised his head, giving his father an encouraging smile.
“He’s alive,” Adam said, forcing his words from the back of his throat.
Tenderly, Ben eased his hands beneath Joe’s battered body and turned his son over, allowing the boy to rest in the cradle his of his father’s arms. Ben gasped at the bruised flesh, the dried blood that had caked to Joe’s cheeks, and the busted lip and the swelling around the eye that had turned black and blue.
“Dear God,” Ben muttered. He felt tears sting his eyes, but willed them away, least they be seen. “Joseph…son, your Pa’s here now…can you hear me boy?” cooed Ben, brushing the tiny rock particles and dirt from the discolored flesh.
“Get the canteen Adam, he needs water,” Ben ordered, holding Joe carefully in his arms. He watched as Adam made his way back up the ravine.
“Joe…I’m here son,” Ben whispered.
Joe moved his head slightly, his eyes searching for his father’s face. One hand extended upward, reaching out. Ben clasped the boy’s hand in his own and squeezed it gently, assuring his son of his presence.
“He…made…me…go…with…him,” Joe muttered in a strained voice. The hazel eyes clouded with tears as he looked into his father’s dark eyes.
The tiny beads slipped from the corner of one eye and rolled down the side of the dirt-smeared face, leaving a narrow white path through the dust.
“Shh…don’t cry son, don’t try to talk. We can sort it all out later, once you’re home,” Ben said.
Adam returned with the canteen and pulled the cork from the spout. Ben held it in his hand and gently pressed the opening to Joe’s lips.
“Easy son, just sip it,” he said, glancing at Adam’s worried face.
“We need to get him out of this ravine, Pa…it’s getting late,” Adam informed his father. “Hoss is making a stretcher; we can tie Joe onto it and haul him out of here. It shouldn’t be too hard.”
“No, thank God he landed on this ledge, if he’d fallen any further…”
Ben pulled his neckerchief off and dampened it with the water and began cleaning the dried blood and dirt from Joe’s face.
“What is it Joe…what are you trying to tell me?” Ben asked.
“I know son…we found him,” Ben answered, returning to dab at the swollen lip.
“He said…he said…” Joe’s eyes brimmed with tears as he clung to his father’s arm. “Pa…please…hold me,” sobbed Joe.
Ben drew Joe closer, if possible, to his chest and held the sobbing boy. His hand gently caressed the dirty locks of hair. Ben leaned his head down, kissing the top of Joe’s head.
“Joe…everything is going to be alright, I promise son…please, don’t cry,” Ben muttered.
Joe turned his head to look up at his father. “You…don’t understand…he said…you didn’t care…about me.”
Ben saw Joe swallow back the grief he was feeling and try to continue. “He…said…you didn’t…want me…or…or…love me.” A sob caught in the back of Joe’s throat.
Ben drew Joe to him, cradling the boy’s head against his heart.
“Lies, Joseph…all lies, son.” Ben gently rocked back and forth with his bundle. “None of it is true, Little Joe…I love you son…more than life itself,” Ben said in a choked voice laden with emotion.
He could only guess at the things that his so-called friend had told his son. Ben glanced down, seeing Joe looking up at him. He smiled and gently patted Joe’s bruised cheek.
“When we get you home, we’ll get it all worked out, son. Right now, it looks like Hoss has the stretcher ready. You ready to go home?” Ben asked, hoping to defray the fright he saw on Joe’s face.
“Yessir,” Joe muttered.
Adam helped Ben set the stretcher in place and then as carefully as they could, Adam and Ben picked Joe up, placing him securely onto the make shift stretcher. Joe cried out as the pain washed over him. He clenched his jaw tightly, trying to ward off more outbursts, but the movement and jarring was more than he could endure.
“AHHH!” he cried and then fainted.
Ben made quick work of tying the ropes that Hoss had sent down to them, around Joe’s body. Once positive that there was no way his son could slip out of the stretcher, he turned to Adam.
“Let’s move before he wakes up. The less pain he feels, the better.”
Looking up, Adam motioned for Hoss to begin pulling up on the rope. Ben positioned himself on one side of the slow moving bundle, guiding it carefully along the rocks, while Adam did the same on the opposite side. Several times they were forced to stop. The painful whimpering from beneath the blanket that shielded Joe’s face and eyes from the dust and dirt and the hot rays of the sun, were cause enough for the anxious father to pause until the pitiful sounds subsided.
“Let’s go,” Ben called up to Hoss.
Once again the stretcher scraped along the rocks, moving at a snail’s pace. At one point, Ben and Adam had to lift the injured boy and the stretcher and carry it along with them. It took longer than Adam had first anticipated, but at last they reached the top. Hoss dropped the rope and grabbed the end of the wooden support and pulled Joe to the top, quickly placing the object flat on the ground. He pulled back the blanket, anxious to see his brother’s face.
“Lordamighty!” exclaimed Hoss as he stared in shock at the battered and bruised face.
The gentle giant tenderly ran his beefy fingers along Joe’s cheek, turning with worry etched into every line on his face, to look at his father.
“The boy’s been through…well, ya know what I mean.” Hoss muttered, turning once more to the boy. “Hey punkin…can ya hear me…it’s me…ole Hoss.”
Joe opened his eyes and tried to make a smile. “Hey…ya big…galoot. Ya sure…are a sight…for…sore…eyes,” Joe said in a weakened voice as his eyes closed.
Hoss smiled at his father and Adam. “Least the kid ain’t lost his sense of humor,” he snickered.
Ben was able to smile for real this time. He patted his middle son’s arm in affection.
“Everything is going to be alright now. All we need is to get Joe home and have Doc Martin take a look at him. I’m sure he has a couple of broken ribs,” Ben said, glancing down at Joe and seeing that the boy had fixed his eyes on his face.
“How are you feeling Joe?” his father asked.
Hoss heehawed. “Sure ya are kid…sure ya are. And ya look fine, too!”
Ben and Adam joined in the light laughter. Even Joe made an attempt to laugh.
“Oh…hurts,” Joe grinned. “Don’t make…me laugh,” He begged.
“Alright boys, let’s see what we can do about getting this little scamp home. Adam, if you’re feeling up to it, why don’t you head on into town and fetch the doctor out to the ranch. Hoss and I will fix a travois to carry Joe and we’ll meet you back at the house. With any luck, we should be there about dark,” ordered Ben.
“Sure thing,” Adam answered. He squatted down to speak with his brother. His face bore a similance of a grin. “Take it easy little buddy, and do me a favor, will you?”
Joe nodded his head. “What?”
Adam glanced over his shoulder. Ben and Hoss had moved away slightly. Hoss was rolling up the ropes. “Next time you have something on your mind…come to me if Pa is busy. We don’t mean to snub you Joe, but there are times…and there will be more…when we get so busy that we sometimes forget that you’re still a kid, and need us. We don’t mean too, honest buddy, but occasionally it happens, but it doesn’t mean we’ve stopped caring about you. That will never happen, ever…understand?” Adam said in all sincerity.
Joe’s eyes brimmed with unshed tears. His throat was thick with emotion and he could only respond by nodding his head.
“Good…I’m glad you understand, Joe. We…love you…all three of us, especially our father, and if anything had happened to you…I mean, if you had been killed, our lives would have never been the same, without you.”
Adam smiled down at his brother, glad that they had found the boy in time. He gently ran the back of his hand down the side of Joe’s battered face.
“You rest easy, Joe; I’ll have the doctor waiting for you by the time you get home. And once you’re better…we’ll go fishing…just you and I…how about that?” Adam promised.
“Promise?” Joe muttered.
Adam stood to feet, grinning down at the boy. Joe’s eyes closed slowly. Adam moved to his horse and started to mount up. He turned to his father.
“I’ll be waiting for you at home. Be careful Pa, Joe’s in more pain than what he’s letting on,” cautioned Adam.
“I know son. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of him,” Ben smiled.
Hoss set about making a travois from small saplings he chopped down while Ben built a fire and fixed them something to eat. For Joe, he made a broth out of the leftover fried chicken that Hop Sing had packed for them. Joe, feeling the pain that consumed his body, spent his time trying to muffle the moans that threatened to alert his worried father of his battered condition; not that Ben didn’t already know, for he had been keeping a sharp eye on his young son. Several times he had gone to the boy’s side and offered Joe small amounts of water. Ben had seen the signs before, dehydration was nothing to take lightly and Ben already suspected his son of being such.
“The broth will be ready soon, Joe,” Ben told his son. “It isn’t as good as Hop Sing makes, but it’ll suffice until we get home, and then Hop Sing can make you some of his miracle-cure soup,” smiled Ben.
“Don’t worry, Pa,” Joe said weakly, “I’m so hungry…I could eat a…polecat.” Joe grimaced when he smiled.
Ben laughed lightly. “I don’t think it will come down to that, Joseph. I’ll be right back,” said Ben as he started to move away.
“Pa!” Joe called out.
Ben turned around and went back, sitting on the rock next to where Joe lay, his body still strapped to the stretcher to prevent any movement that might cause further injury.
“I’m sorry…I shouldn’t have let that man…talk me into something…so stupid,” Joe said.
A tiny frown formed on his face. He turned his head slightly, ashamed to look into his father’s eyes.
Ben took a deep breath; he still did not have a clue as to what had led up to where they were at present. He wanted to know exactly what had happened and why, but knew that now was not the time to confront his injured son about the circumstances.
“Joe, look at me…please,” asked Ben. He waited until Joe turned to look at him. “I don’t understand any of this. All I know is what Adam and Hoss told me when I got home. They sent me a wire explaining that you were missing. I came straight home. When I got here, they told me about the father and son dinner and about you winning an award. Joe…I’m sorry son, if I had known, I’d never have gone to Carson City, but I didn’t. As to why I wasn’t informed, I suppose only you can explain that to me.”
Ben pressed his fingers gently against Joe’s lips to stop him from trying to speak.
“Not now…later, after we are home, and you are feeling better, then you can tell me. As for right now, Joe, I want you to understand, if I’m to blame for any of this…I’m sorry, son. I never meant to chide you…you and what you do is more important to me than anything else, I want you to remember that.”
Ben stood to his feet. “And about that award…I’m proud of you Joe…I’d have given anything to have been at that dinner with you and seen you accept the honor.”
Ben’s smile was tight, as was his throat. He moved back to the fire to dip some of the chicken and broth into a tin plate and returned to his son’s side.
“Are you ready to eat?” asked Ben, the previous conversation laid to rest, for the present.
“I was ready two days ago,” Joe said, forcing a smile for his father.
He watched as Ben made himself comfortable on the rock. How could he have been so stupid as to think this man he called Pa, had ever stopped loving him? Tears burned his eyes. One lone, tiny droplet of water seeped from the corner of his swollen eyes, but Ben, spooning the broth from the plate, noticed nothing.
“That’s enough for now, Joe. Your stomach has shrunk so, that eating too much right away, might make you sick, and I don’t want you giving up what you’ve already eaten. We’re about ready to move out, but we’ll stop again in a few hours and I’ll let you have some more,” Ben explained as he dumped the remainder of broth out of Joe’s plate.
Ben was true to his word. He allowed several short breaks during the trek home. Joe was tossing his head from side to side, crying out from the constant discomfort caused by the movement of the travois being dragged along the ground. Ben could only watch as his son suffered, offering words of encouragement and small amounts of food and water to sustain the boy until Joe could be cared for properly, by the family doctor.
Ben rearranged the blankets around his son’s body. Along with the setting sun, came the cool night breeze and once Ben had seen Joe shivering, he had stopped to add another blanket. He tenderly brushed his lips against Joe’s forehead and whispered into his ear.
“Hang on sweetheart, we’re almost home.”
The sight of Joe’s twisted and bruised features tore at Ben’s heart. He would have gone to hell and back for the boy, if only to prevent his suffering.
A short time after nightfall, Ben, Hoss and the unconscious Joe, entered the yard of their home. The front door burst opened and Adam rushed forward to greet his family. Paul Martin and Hop Sing followed quickly behind the eldest Cartwright son in their own attempt to see the boy for themselves.
“Number three son no look so good,” Hop Sing babbled. “Bring into house, Hop Sing have mighty fine broth stewing on stove,” the gentle little servant announced.
Paul was already bent over Joe, making a visual examination. He glanced up at Ben and smiled.
“Guess he must have forgotten I am the doctor,” Paul said in a kindly manner, glancing around at Hop Sing who was already heading back into the house.
“Let’s get this boy upstairs and into his own bed, and then I can take a better look at him. Be careful, he’s in quite a lot of pain,” advised Paul, stepping back so that Adam and Hoss could carry the stretcher into the house.
Minutes later, four men, Adam, Ben, Hoss and Doc Martin, were easing Joe off the stretcher and onto the soft bed. Joe cried out, his eyes opened briefly, not fully seeing those that gathered around his bed caring for his needs.
Paul moved to the head of the bed, pressed the back of his hand to Joe’s forehead and sighed in relief.
“No fever,” he muttered, moving on to check Joe’s pulse and heartbeat. When he straightened his back he began dishing out instructions.
“Hop Sing, I will need hot water for both tending to and for bathing. Bring plenty of towels, and while you’re heating water, how about something for the boy to eat when he wakes up. Lord, you can plainly see he’s practically starving; look at his ribcage,” sighed the physician as he opened Joe’s dirty shirt and pointed to the protruding bones.
“Easy enough to see which ribs are broken,” he muttered to himself.
“Adam, you and Hoss go to bed.” Paul glanced up at the brothers. “You are both about ready to drop…and I don’t need two more patients. Now scat, we’ll call you if we need you…or if there is any change that you need to know about.”
Paul turned to Ben, seeing the worry and concern in the dark eyes as the father stayed focus on the son’s face. He reached out, placing his hand on Ben’s arm.
“Normally I’d tell you the same thing, go to bed, but I can see I’d be wasting my breath. You can help me get these dirty clothes off the boy and then we can bathe him and make him more comfortable,” Paul explained with a compassionate look. “After that, I’ll make a thorough examination and when I finish, I will then order you to bed as well…agreed?”
Ben smiled and shook his head. “Paul, you know me all too well. But you’ve forgotten one important thing…I have no intentions of leaving my son, tonight, today…whatever time it might be when you are finished. Understand?”
Paul laughed lightly, “I understand, now, let’s get these rags off the lad.”
Doc Martin frowned when he looked at the bottom of Joe’s feet. The doctor glanced up at the boy’s father who was standing over him and saw the same look of anger that he felt, reflecting back at him.
“It’s going to be awhile Ben, before this boy is going to be able to place his feet on the floor, and longer than that before he’ll wear his boots again,” Paul Martin explained.
“This is all my fault!” Ben voiced aloud his thoughts.
Paul stood to his feet, shaking his head.
“Ben, you had no way of knowing that your old friend was anything other than what you believed him to be. Don’t blame yourself…these feet will heal, I promise,” Paul assured himself as he went to work cleaning the cuts that had slashed the bottoms of Joe’s feet.
“These stone bruises are going to be painful, I’m afraid,” the doctor informed Ben.
An hour later, Joe was resting, with the help of the laudanum that Paul slipped in between spoonfuls of the miracle-cure broth that Hop Sing had brought up for Joe. He’d been stripped, bathed, his ribs bandaged tightly, dressed in a clean nightshirt and settled comfortably into bed.
“I’ll ride out in the morning, Ben, to check on him. I think he’ll sleep most of the night, but if he should wake up, feed him some more broth and give him another dose of laudanum. I’ve left it with Hop Sing. I want him to remain as quite as possible for the next couple of days, just to give his body a head start in the healing process.”
Ben walked to the door with the doctor and handed Paul his hat and coat. “Thanks, Paul, for coming out.”
“No need for thanks, Ben. I was happy to be of assistance, you know that. I’ll tell you this Ben,” said Paul, slipping his arms into the coat that Ben held open for him. “That youngest bear cup of yours must have had the good Lord watching out for him. Considering the fall he had, and the beating, and the fact that he was being starved to death, he’s one lucky boy, Ben. Most kids would have given up by now, but not Little Joe…but then, he’s not exactly like ‘most kids,’” smiled the doctor as he put on his hat.
“Try to get some rest Papa, you look beat.”
“I will Paul…and thanks again,” Ben said closing the door behind the good doctor.
As soon as the doctor had gone, Ben returned to his son’s bedside. Joe was deep into a drug-induced sleep and appeared to be resting comfortably, much to Ben’s relief. Ben pulled up a chair as close as he could to the bedside and settled himself in for the night. He had promised his son that he would remain close by and the loving father had every intentions of keeping that promise. A sense that he had somehow failed his younger son haunted Ben’s thoughts as he watched Joe sleep. He felt a heaviness come over him and silently, Ben vowed to somehow make it up to the boy. Sighing deeply, Ben leaned his head against the back of the chair, and soon was sound asleep.
Joe’s eyes opened slowly. He stared at the ceiling for a moment, blinking, trying to remember what had happened to him and where he was. To his left, he could the soft sounds of someone snoring, and for just a second, he feared that William Harding had returned to induce more suffering. Joe glanced sideways surprised to see his father, slumped over in the chair, fast asleep. Joe smiled; relief flooded his heart and soul as he reached out his hand and tried to touch his father. He wanted to be sure he wasn’t dreaming and that in fact, he was safe and in his own bed with Ben actually there keeping watch over him.
“Pa?” Joe called softly.
“Pa!” he repeated when Ben failed to respond.
Ben’s eyelids fluttered and then his eyes popped opened. He looked directly at Joe, seeing the smile that had always brought such joy to his heart. Instantly, Ben smiled and moved to sit on the edge of the bed. His hand caressed the side of Joe’s battered face.
“Good morning, sleepy head,” Ben said with a wide smile.
“Who ya calling sleepy head?” Joe said with a giggle.
Ben laughed, nodding his head. “I suppose I did nod off. How are you feeling son? Are you hurting any where, cause if you are, the doc…”
“I’m fine, Pa…I ache some, but not to badly,” Joe said, his smile fading. He lowered his head slightly, suddenly unable to look his father in the eye.
Ben gently raised the boy’s chin, watching the unhappy expression that had replaced the smile from moments ago.
“What’s wrong, son?” Ben said with compassion.
“I’m sorry, Pa…for everything…for Mr. Harding’s death…for leaving with him…for being angry at you, for no reason,” Joe said softly.
His eyes looked deeply into his father’s and saw only the love he had felt he’d been denied. Joe sniffed his nose.
“I knew you were busy, I guess I was being selfish, wanting all your attention.”
Ben saw his son swallow and watched as the frown on Joe’s face deepened.
“Joseph, I’m the one who should be telling you that I’m sorry. I suppose I got so wrapped up in everything, the new cattle that were brought in, William’s visit, and the trial over in Carson City…that I pushed you aside. You seemed busy with your own matters, or so I thought, and I ignored the fact that you needed me. I should have been paying more attention to the needs of my family instead of my own concerns.”
Ben gave Joe a gently smile. “I guess we were both wrong, wouldn’t you agree?”
Joe nodded his head as he brushed his sleeve over his face to dry the dampness that threatened to fall from his eyes.
“I never should have listened to him, let alone go off with him.” Joe looked up, anger, hurt and remorse all shone in his expressive eyes.
“He said it was good plan…just to make you worry about me, so that you’d pay more attention to me. Pa…it was so stupid, I can’t believe that I let myself be talked into something so…so…” Joe paused and brushed at his eyes a second time.
“He said things about you…and about my mother. Mr. Harding hated you Pa; did you know that? And he was using me…to hurt you, for taking Mama away from him. He blamed you for his own failure and he thought by causing us…me and you…to…to…”
Joe could not go on. His throat became thick with emotion and when his father gently pulled him into his arms, Joe’s reserve shattered as he slipped his own arms about his father and wept.
“Shh…it’s over now, son, it’s over,” murmured Ben.
“I’m sorry…so sorry, Pa. I can’t believe that I was so childish to think that you had ever stopped caring about me!”
Joe turned his face into his father’s chest and clung tightly, listening to the sound of his father’s heartbeat beneath his ear.
“Joseph, we both learned something from his. I learned that nothing is more important to me than my sons. That you, Joe…you…are my very heartbeat and that without you, life would not be worth living. And I’ve learned that old friends are not always what they seem.”
Joe pulled back and looked into the chocolate eyes. “And I’ve learned that no matter how busy you are, how much time of day you give, or don’t give, you still love me…and that nothing, not man or deed, can ever come between us,” Joe said in a low voice. He returned the smile his father was giving to him.
“I learned something else, too,” Joe added.
“Oh…and what might that be, young man,” Ben grinned.
“I learned to appreciate good cooking and to appreciate…my family,” smiled Joe.
Ben opened his mouth to speak, but Joe wasn’t quite finished.
“And I’ve learned that with a little effort, I’m pretty good in arithmetic…ya should of seen my award plaque, Pa…it was pretty neat!”
Ben let his laughter roll freely and the happy sound filled the room.
“Do you mean this?” Adam said from the doorway where he stood with Hoss. In his hand he held up the plaque so that Joe and his father could see it.
“Miss Jones just stopped by and asked that I give it to you. She said to tell you congratulations on all the hard work you did earning this, and she wanted you to know that she’s very proud of you,” smiled Adam as he placed the award down in Joe’s lap.
Joe slowly picked up the award and held it in his hand, reading the wording. When he finished, he lowered it and looked up at his father and then at Adam and Hoss. “I wish I had an award for each of you,” he said softly. “All three of you deserve something special for putting up with me, especially you Pa,” Joe said softly.
“Oh Joseph…I have my award, right here,” Ben responded, taking Joe into his arms and holding his tightly. “God must have surely been smiling down on me the night you were born.”
“Laughing would be more like it,” Hoss said with a giggle.
“Doubled over with laughter, in fact, He was probably thinking, here you go, Benjamin, here’s something to keep you on your toes…a tiny bundle packed full of energy and trouble that is guaranteed to turn your hair white!” snickered Adam.
“Hey…that ain’t funny!” Joe called with a forlorn look on his face.
“Sure it is, Short Shanks, lookit Pa, even he’s laughin’!” taunted Hoss, with a wide grin.
“Pa!” Joe said, giving his father one of his famous sad puppy-dog looks.
“Alright you two…I think your brother has had about all the funning he needs for one day,” Ben warned his older two sons.
Adam and Hoss came closer to the bed and smiled down at their brother.
“Joe…how about if I hang that plaque of yours on the wall over here so it can be seen?” Adam asked, reaching for the award.
Joe clung to the plaque and shook his head. “No…” he turned to his father. “Here Pa…it’s for you…you can hang it in your room. I earned it for you anyways…so you would be proud of me,” smiled Joe, offering the award to his father.
Ben took the award from Joe’s hand and looked down at it. When he raised his head, he smiled slightly at his son. “Thank you Joe, but I think you deserve to hang this in your room. I don’t need an award, or plaque, or any such thing to remind me how proud I am of you. All I have to do is to look at you, and I’m reminded daily of the love, the joy and the happiness that you have brought into this house and into my heart.”
Ben handed the plaque back to Joe and surprised him by leaning over and placing a kiss on the boy’s brow. Joe’s arms slipped about his father’s neck, assured that his father’s love would never again be questioned.
Hoss dabbed at his eyes, Adam, arms folded across his chest, smiled at the scene, confidant that things had returned to a sense of normality. For a brief instance, a thought of what normal meant, flashed through Adam’s mind. Ordinary…that’s the word…just another ordinary day in the life of his little brother, Joe Cartwright…that’s what this was all about, laughed Adam.