Twenty Years Hard Labor (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:  19,510


 

“NO! NO!  YOU CAN’T TAKE MY PAPA!  PAPA! PAPA!” screamed out the tiny little seven year old. His older brother fought to hold him tightly in his arms while they watched their father being led from the jail and out into the warm afternoon sun.

The heavy chains that had been shackled about his wrists and ankles clattered loudly in the quiet-like doom that had suddenly befallen the town as folks stood silently and watched while Ben Cartwright was ushered into the back of the jailer’s wagon.

“PAPA!  Please…” wailed Little Joe, his arms stretched out as if he were reaching for his father.  “Don’t leave me…”

Adam felt his own tears well in his eyes as he looked down at his middle brother and saw that Hoss’ tears had already spilled over the edges, permitting the tiny beads of water to roll slowly down his chubby cheeks.

Ben paused on the top step of the wagon just before ducking his head and entering the dark interior. He looked over his shoulder at his three sons who stood just feet away from him.  His heart ached to gather them into his arms and hold them one more time, just once more before he had to go, but that had been denied him.  It would be twenty years before he would ever be allowed to embrace his sons, twenty years of hard labor.

Ben forced a smile and nodded his head at Adam, their eyes locking in silent but mutual agreement.  They had had a long talk the night before.  It had been agreed that Adam would care for his brothers, with the help of Ben’s best friend, Charlie Devlin.  The boys were to take up residence at the Devlin’s home under the watchful eye of his friend until Adam turned twenty one and then by law, Adam could file for full custody of his younger brothers and return with them to their own home, the Ponderosa.  In the mean time, Charlie would help Adam run the ranch from his own place.  Several of the most loyal ranch hands had offered to stay on to help the oldest Cartwright son with the ranch work, providing of course they still received their monthly pay.  Ben had been grateful; his true friends had stood by him and his sons, even during the trial and more so afterwards, when he had been found guilty of fraud and manslaughter and sentenced to twenty years of hard labor.  Naturally Ben had been innocent, but somehow his lawyer had not been able to prove his case and now he was about to be separated from his family for more years than Ben cared to count.  His only chance now would be if his lawyer could find grounds for appeal and hopefully find new evidence to help prove his innocence.

Ben’s thoughts were interrupted as the piteous cries of his youngest son jarred him back to the present.  “I love you, Joseph; be a good boy for your brothers.  Adam, Hoss, I love you too; take care of each other,” called Ben. The jailer, tired of waiting, shoved Ben roughly into the back of the wagon, causing him to stumble forward, and then he slammed the door, placing the heavy lock into place.

Ben pulled himself up to his knees, grabbing the bars that covered the small window in the door, and watched as the distance between himself and his sons began to widen the further the wagon moved away.

Joe, his tiny little arms locked around Adam’s neck had buried his face against Adam’s shoulder.  Hoss had turned to hide his own face in the front of Charlie Devlin’s vest. As the wagon rolled out of sight, Ben could still hear his youngest son’s wails of protest as his cries pierced the silent streets of Virginia City.

Ben looked one last time out the window.  His young son was now running down the middle of the street having escaped his brother’s confining arms and was pursuing the wagon that carried his father from him.  Ben’s eyes filled with tears and spilled over as he watched Little Joe crumble to the ground in defeat, only to be gathered into the arms of his brother.  Adam fell to his knees to claim his brother’s limp body as he pulled the weeping boy into a tight embrace.  Even the distance that separated him from his sons was not far enough for Ben to miss the shine of tears that glowed on the handsome face of his oldest.  Ben could stand no more; the scene was breaking his heart. Slowly, he allowed his weary body to slide down to the floor.  Alone in the stuffy wagon, his reserve gone, Ben buried his face in his hands and wept, not for himself but for his sons.  When he at last had used up all his tears, Ben began to pray, the prayers lasting long into the night as the wagon rolled steadily toward its final destination.

*****

“I’m scared for ’im, Adam.  Lookit, he ain’t touched a bite,” said Hoss sitting down next to Adam and watching Little Joe play with the food that kind hearted Mrs. Devlin had placed onto his brother’s plate.

Adam watched also; he didn’t want to admit it to Hoss, but he was just as worried as his brother about their younger sibling.  It had been nearly a month since the jailer’s wagon had carried their father off.  Little Joe had cried night after night since that time, he had refused to eat, and just this morning he had over heard Mrs. Devlin telling her husband that she feared that the youngest Cartwright might wind up grieving himself to death if something wasn’t done to help him soon.

Slowly, as if the weight of the world rested on his shoulders alone, Adam rose to his feet and crossed the room to where Little Joe sat alone at the table.

“Hey Little Buddy,” said Adam, kneeling next to the chair where the smaller boy dangled his feet.  Adam placed one arm around his brother’s shoulder and with his free hand, Adam cupped the cherub like face in the palm of his hand and forced the smaller boy to look at him.  Adam cringed inwardly at the haunted look that appeared in the hazel eyes that stared back at him.

“Won’t you try to eat, just a few bites, for me?” encouraged Adam.

Joe looked sadly into Adam’s eyes and shook his head slowly.  “Ain’t hungry.”

“Please Little Joe; Pa wouldn’t wanna see you go without eating like this.  Can’t you try just a few little bites?  If you won’t do it for me, can you do it for Pa?” pleaded the older boy.

Joe sniffed his nose and turned to look at the food in his plate before returning to look back at Adam.  “Will Papa come home if’n I eat, Adam?”

Adam had to swallow the lump in his throat before he could answer.  “No sweetheart.  Pa can’t come home, not just yet.  But he will someday, and when he does, he’ll want to know that you were a good boy and ate your supper.  Pa wouldn’t want to see you do without just because he wasn’t here.  Why don’t I help you?”  Adam picked up the fork attempting to feed his brother.

Joe turned his head, refusing to accept the forkful of food that Adam offered.  “Ain’t hungry Adam…I just wanna go home.”  Tears began to fill his eyes and before Adam realized what was happening, Joe was in his arms, his tiny face buried deeply into the curve of his older brother’s neck.

“Please Adam, let’s go home…I just wanna go home,” sobbed the distraught little boy.

Adam squeezed the weeping child tightly.  Hoss had jumped to his feet and joined his brothers, Adam and Hoss’ eyes locking as they strived to comfort their brother.

“Joe, we can’t go home, not yet.  We promised Pa that we would stay here with the Devlin’s until the law says we can go home.  I know it seems like forever, but we have to do as Pa asked us to, he’s counting on us,” Adam tried to explain.

“I…know…” sniffed Joe, “but…I…just…wanna…feel…close…to…him,” the sniffing continued.  “I…ain’t…even…got…no…memories…of…him…here.  Please…Adam…take…me…home.”  The continual sniffles had given Joe the hiccups and his slender shoulders jumped each time that he hiccupped.

Adam looked across Hoss’ shoulder into the face of Charlie Devlin who had watched the whole scene in silence.  Seeing Adam’s delirium and the tears that the oldest boy fought to control, Charlie moved to comfort the unhappy family of young men.

“Adam, tomorrow is Friday, I don’t see any reason why you can’t take your brothers home, just for the weekend.  You can bring them back here on Sunday evening.  I think it might do the little one good to be in a familiar setting where he can feel safe and closer to…well, you know what I mean,” smiled Charlie.

Adam smiled, it sounded too good to be true and he mouthed a silent thank you to his father’s trusted friend.

“How would you like that Joe?  Just you and me and Hoss here, we’ll spend the weekend at home.  You can ride your pony and maybe we can go up to the lake and do some fishing.  What do you say, you like that idea?”  Adam had pulled Joe back from his shoulder so that he could see the boy’s face.

Joe nodded his head up and down in reply to Adam’s question.  “It’ll be almost like it was before, heh Adam, ‘ceptin’ Pa won’t be there.”

“Hey ShortShanks, we could pretend that Pa was away on a business trip.  ‘Member how he used to do that sometimes and leave Adam in charge while he was gone?  Well punkin, that’s sorta like what he’s gone and done this time, leavin’ big brother Adam here in charge,” offered Hoss, anxious to bring a smile to his little brother’s face.

“Okay, but can I sit in his chair?  And can I sleep in his bed?  I like doin’ that cause it makes me feel like he’s with me.  I can smell his aftershave on his pillow…Oh Adam…why did they take him away…what did he do that was so bad?”  Little Joe flung him self into Adam’s arms once again burying his face into Adam’s shirt.

Adam rose and moved to sit in the rocker that Mrs. Devlin had placed near the fireplace, Joe cradled in his arms.

“Pa didn’t do anything wrong Joe.  It was all a big misunderstanding, that’s all.”  Slowly, Adam began to rock, rubbing his brother’s back with his free hand.

“Then…why…why did Pa hav’ta go away?” Little Joe asked softly, his whimpering beginning to cease.

“He had to go because the court found him guilty and he…”

“But if’n he didn’t do nuthin’, why’d they take him to prison?”  Joe raised his head and studied his brother’s face.  “I don’t understand Adam.”

“Neither do I, little brother.  But until Pa’s lawyer finds something that will prove to the courts that Pa didn’t do what they said he did, Pa will have to stay in jail and we will have to stay with the Devlins.  I promise you Joe, we will do everything we can to find that evidence and get him out of prison and back home where he belongs.”  Adam had started rocking hard and suddenly realizing what he had done, slowed down the pace of the chair.

Joe returned his head to his brother’s chest, the steady beating of the heart beneath his ear lulling him to sleep.  When Adam was confident that Joe was sound asleep, he gathered the sleeping boy into his arms and carried him into the bedroom that they shared where he tenderly placed Joe onto his bed next to where he slept.  With Hoss’ help, the two brothers stripped the smaller boy of his clothing and without waking him, dressed him in his nightshirt.  Adam placed a kiss on the brow of his father’s youngest son, tucked the covers around his small frail body and turned the wick down on the lamp.  Shedding his own clothes in the dim light given off by the full moon, Adam crawled into bed beside Joe and closed his eyes.  Without meaning to, Adam’s tears coursed their way down the sides of his face and into his ears.

“Please God, help us find a way to bring Pa home.  Little Joe and Hoss need him so badly, but then so do I God, so do I.”  Adam buried his face in his pillow to muffle his cries, lest he wake the small boy next to him.

*****

Ben, weary from a long day of hauling rock, all but fell onto his cot as he stumbled into his cell.  The clang of the cell door echoed down the long hallway as door after door could be heard banging shut.  Ben allowed his aching body to mold into the lumpy mattress as he stretched out his legs.  Giving no thought to the dirt that covered his body, it was only minutes before Ben was fast asleep and it seemed as if he had just lain down when the loud banging of the tin cup against the bars of his cell jarred him awake.

“Up with you, you lazy no accounts; time to rise and shine,” shouted out the guard as he continued down the long line of cells, banging his cup loudly on the bars as he made his way to the other end.

Ben rose from his bed and stretched his long arms high into the air, groaning as the muscles were forced into action.  Rubbing his upper arms with his hands, Ben sighed deeply when he spied his unopened bible lying at the far end of his cot.  He had been so weary the night before he had forgotten to do his nightly reading.  Quickly, Ben snatched the bible from the cot and opened it at random.  His eyes came to rest in the middle of the page and Ben hurriedly read the passage.

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hill, from whence cometh my help.

My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.

He will not suffer thy foot to be moved:

He that keepeth thee will not slumber.

Behold, He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon the right hand.

The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.

The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall perverse thy soul.

The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.     Psalm 121

Ben closed his bible and placed it on the cot.  Just as the prison guards opened his cell door, Ben silently thanked God for His promise that he would be watching over him.  With that thought on his mind and instilled in his heart, Ben stepped forward as was the custom and allowed the guard to place the heavy iron shackles around his wrists and ankles.  The guard, unaccustomed to his charges being so accommodating, stared in awe at the near peaceful look that graced the face of his prisoner.

*****

Little Joe slipped his hand into Hoss’ larger hand as the three brothers stood on the wide boarded porch of their home.  Not one of them said a word; they just stood looking at the door not sure now whether or not they really wanted to be there without their father.

Adam gulped and glanced at his two brothers, “Well, you ready?” he asked softly.

Hoss nodded his head and Joe followed suit.  “Okay, let’s do it,” Adam said as he reached for the door.  Just as his hand touched the latch, the door was pulled opened, startling all three boys and causing them to jump backward as one.

“What the…” shouted Adam.

“Hop Sing?” all three shouted in unison surprised to see the family cook standing in the doorway.

“Hop Sing hear horses, knew boys come home for weekend,” smiled the little servant as he stepped aside and allowed the boys to enter.

The boys hurried inside and Adam quickly removed his gun belt and laid it on the credenza.  Hoss hung his hat along with Little Joe’s on the pegs behind the door.

“Somethin’ sure smells good Hop Sing, what’ca cookin’?” inquired Hoss as he followed his nose to the kitchen.  Hop Sing trailed along behind muttering in his native language.

Adam had crossed the room to his father’s office and had begun going through some papers that had been left on the desk.  After several minutes, Adam became aware of the silence that had suddenly caught his attention.  Looking up, he spied his youngest brother curled into a ball in Ben’s favorite red leather chair.  The sight of the unhappy boy brought him quickly to his feet and to his brother’s side.  Adam knelt down in front of the chair and gently rested his hand on his brother’s back.

“Joe, what’s wrong buddy?” he asked quietly.

Joe, his face buried in his arms only shook his head.  Adam pulled Joe into a sitting position and quickly noted the tears that had filled his little brother’s eyes.  “Why are you crying Little Joe?”  Adam gathered the weeping boy into his arms as Joe slipped his own arms tightly about his brother’s neck.

“I miss him Adam…so bad that it makes my tummy hurted.”  Joe looked into his brother’s eyes for reassurance and then laid his head on Adam’s shoulder.  “Do ya reckon it’ll ever stop hurtin’ Adam?”

Adam rubbed his hand up and down Joe’s back in a soothing motion.  “I hope so Little Buddy.  Joe,” Adam sat his brother down on the edge of Ben’s chair.  “Listen pal, I know you miss him, so do I and so does Hoss.  But Joe, we have to make the best of it until Pa comes home.  You can’t continue to not eat, not play, not sleep and you have to try to stop crying all the time.  You’re going to make yourself sick Joe, and if you get sick, Pa will find out and he’ll just worry that much more about you.  Do you understand?” Adam tried to explain.

“I know Adam; honest, I try, but sometimes I get lonely and then I start missing him and wanting him to hold me like he use’ta.  I can’t help it then, ’cause I get unhappy and start crying.  I want him to come home…I don’t like living at Mitch’s, I wanna live here, just me and you and Hoss until Papa can come home.  Please Adam, please, can we?” begged Joe placing a tiny hand on either side of Adam’s face and making the older brother to look him square in the eyes.  “Please…” Little Joe whispered as if it were a secret question he was asking his older brother.

“Joe…we can’t…not yet little buddy…”started Adam when Joe unexpectedly jumped from the chair and starting running up the stairs, stopping at the landing mid way and turning to scream at Adam.

“I ain’t goin’ back there Adam, never and I ain’t goin’ ta school on Monday either.  I heard ya talkin’ to Mr. Devlin about me goin’ back but I ain’t gonna do it and you can’t make me.”  Joe ran the rest of the way up the stairs and before Adam could pull himself up from the floor the door upstairs slammed shut, rattling the windows in the entire house.

“What was that all about?” asked Hoss coming from the kitchen, the remainder of a chicken leg in his hand.

Adam’s face showed his sorrow as he faced his middle brother, “Little Joe.  He’s really taking this hard Hoss.  I’m worried about him; he was crying again, says he’s not going back to school on Monday, and said I couldn’t make him.”  Adam dropped into the blue chair and covered his face with his hands, his head moving back and forth in frustration.

“I’m at a loss; I don’t know how to help him, I’m afraid for him Hoss, really afraid.”  Adam pinched the bridge of his nose and leaned back into the chair.  “I wish that lawyer would hurry up and find something that could help Pa.”

Supper was served; Little Joe had finally relented and joined his brothers at the table.  Adam smiled at the little fellow as he climbed into his chair, his head hung low.

“I’m glad you decided to join us, Little Joe,” smiled Adam as he began to place small amounts of food on his brother’s plate.  “I was hoping that you would, Hoss and I didn’t want to eat without you.”

“Adam’s right Joe, I was fixing to come and get you.  I’m glad I didn’t have to haul your ornery hide down here across my shoulders,” smiled Hoss as he ruffled Joe’s curls.

Joe couldn’t stop the giggles that threatened to spill forth.  He looked up into Hoss’ crystal blue eyes and laughed.  “I bet ya would’ve too, heh?”

“Ya dang tootin’ I would; now get to eatin’ afore I take ya outside and dump ya in the horse trough,” teased Hoss.

Joe giggled again and began eating, pleasing both of his older brothers and bringing a smile to both young faces.

That night Adam tucked Joe into bed.  Joe had been insistent that he be allowed to sleep in his father’s bed and seeing how Little Joe had appeared in a much better mood since supper, Adam decided that it might be in everyone’s best interest as well as his brother’s, to permit Joe to do as he had asked.

“Thanks Adam,” whispered Little Joe as he snuggled down into the comforts of Ben’s bed.

Adam smiled down at his brother and brushed at a wayward lock of hair that had fallen down onto Joe’s brow.  “You’re welcomed Joe.  If you need me, just call okay?  I’ll be in my room just down the hall.”

“I will Adam.”  Joe pulled Adam’s upper body down to his, slipped his arms about Adam’s neck and hugged his brother.

Adam kissed the top of Joe’s head, and swallowed the lump that had suddenly seemed to have grown in his throat.  “Good night little buddy, God bless.”  Adam turned the wick down on the lamp and pulled the door closed behind him.  Just before he closed it completely, he stopped and watched as Joe jumped from their father’s bed and kneeled at the side.  Not wanting his brother to know that he was ease dropping, Adam stood in the shadows and listened as Joe sent his petitions heavenward.

“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the lord, my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take. God bless, Adam, Hoss, Hop Sing, and Pa. Amen.”  Joe started to rise but stopped and knelt back down and folded his hands.

“Please God, take care of my Papa.  I know he’s lonesome and I know he’d rather be home with us than locked away in that ole prison.  I’m lonesome too God, I miss him really, really bad, but at least I gots my brothers and Hop Sing.  Papa ain’t got no one, ‘ceptin’ you, God.  Please keep’em safe and please, please God, let Pa’s lawyer find some new stuff so’s Pa can come home real soon.  I promise God, I’ll be a good boy, I’ll eat all my supper from now on and I’ll even go back to school Monday, just bring my Papa home.  And God, please tell Pa that I love him.  Thanks, God.  Amen.”

Joe hurried to climb into bed, pulling the covers up to his neck.  “Good night, Pa, where ever you are.”

Adam fought to control the tears that had welled in his eyes as he quietly pulled the door shut and moved down the hall to his own room.  He had some praying of his own to do and as soon as he closed his own bedroom door, Adam was on his knees, sending his own petitions up to the God in whom their father had taught all of them to put their trust.

*****

Ben fell to the floor; the guard raised his arm high in the air, the whip coming down hard across Ben’s back again and again.  Ben groaned; the pain almost unbearable.  He had been forced from the line of prisoners that had been accused of sitting down on the job earlier that afternoon.  The warden had demanded of the group the one responsible and all fingers had pointed to Ben Cartwright.  Now Ben was paying the price for instigating a sit-down, and though he had not been the leader, the others had singled him out as the one.  Many of the men had heard of Ben Cartwright and of those that had, several were determined to bring the wealthy landowner down to their levels.

Ben cringed as once again the whip tore at the flesh of his back.  “That’s enough,” demanded the warden as he moved to stand over Ben.  “You ain’t so high and mighty now, are you Cartwright?  Now you know how we treat women killers around here.”

The warden kicked Ben in the ribs, forcing the wounded man to curl his body into a tight ball.  Laughing at Ben’s pain, the warden nodded his head at the guard and twice more Ben felt the sting of the whip across his back before the warden finally ended his undeserved punishment and had Ben carried off to the solitary confinement cell where he was dropped onto the hard cold ground and left to deal with his agony alone.

Ben’s mind, muddled and confused, struggled to gather together the thoughts and visions that came and went.  Pictures of his sons, screams that sounded in the long nights reminding him of his youngest son, faces distorted from crying, eyes, blue, brown, hazel, all filled with tears, out stretched arms that reached for him but was never able to touch him.  Then the little boy first running toward him, as he was carried further and further away and then the tiny figure, crumbled in the middle of the street, weeping.

Ben heard himself scream as his nightmares jarred him back to reality.  Groaning, he pulled himself into a sitting position and rubbed his eyes.  Once his eyes became adjusted to the dark, Ben looked about him but was unable to make out anything.  Instead, he used his hands and felt along the walls of the tiny enclosure that had become his dungeon.  Ben drew a deep breath; the air was stale and hot in the confining space and it took several attempts before he felt that his lungs had at last been filled to capacity.  The weary and battered man pulled his knees up to his chest and rested his head on his folded arms that lay atop his knees. Memories poured into his heart and mind and try though he might, Ben could not stop the tears that welled in his eyes.  His heart yearned to return to his home and ached with the pain of not being allowed to see and hold his precious sons.

“Please God, help me.  You know I didn’t do what they said I did; you know I’m innocent.  Please God, be with my boys, help them to be brave and please see that they come to no harm while I’m gone.  And God, you know how Little Joe is, please send your angels to watch over him and comfort him.  I know Adam and Hoss will do their very best, but Joseph needs extra care, he’s so young and so little; I worry most for him because he doesn’t understand what has happened.  Thank you, God, thank you.”

Ben closed his eyes and before long, God’s caring hands touched him and Ben slept at last.  It was late afternoon when Ben woke and in spite of the beating he had received, Ben felt better.  Though his cramped muscles ached from inactivity, his body weak from lack of food and water, Ben’s spirits was up and two days later when the guard finally opened the door to his dark cell, Ben was able to crawl from the tight confined space by himself.  As the guard hauled him to his feet, Ben covered his eyes to shield them from the bright sun that glared overhead.

“Well, Cartwright, you look as if you managed fairly well,” chanted the warden.  Giving Ben the once over with his eyes, his nose slightly snarled in disgust at the body odor that emitted from his prisoner, the warden stepped back and faced the guard.

“Get this man something to eat and see that he is cleaned up.  After that, put him back to work.”  The warden gave Ben one last look; shook is head and returned to the comforts of his office.

“Get going.”  The guard roughly shoved Ben toward the building almost causing him to trip over the shackles that bound his ankles closely together and disallowing him to take anything but small stumbling steps as he staggered forward.

*****

Adam held Joe tightly about his waist as the smaller boy fought against his older brother’s arms.  “I ain’t going Adam, I ain’t,” cried Little Joe as Adam struggled to keep Joe from falling out of the saddle.

“Yes you are Joe.  You’re going and you’re going to stay there if I have to sit beside of you all day long.  Now just settle down before I have to wallop you.”  Adam adjusted the squirming boy upright in the saddle for the hundredth time since leaving the Devlin’s that morning.

It had been a fight since returning from the Ponderosa on Sunday evening and Adam was tired of having to repeat himself.  Joe was just as determined that he was not going to go to school the next morning as Adam was determined that Joe was going.

“Joe, you know that Pa wants you to go to school.  Now hush up about not going and just try to think about how badly Pa would feel if he knew you refused to go,” Adam told his younger brother.  “You don’t see Hoss causing trouble and acting like a baby about it, do you?”

“I ain’t no baby,” pouted Little Joe folding his arms across his chest in protest of the implication as he rode along.

Adam’s smile was unseen by his younger brother who had given up his struggle to be free and who was now leaning his body back against the body of his older brother, a pout on his otherwise angelic face.

“No, you are not a baby, but you are acting like one.  Joe, please, won’t you at least try?  I know it’s hard, this has been hard for all of us, and I know it’s especially hard on you Little Buddy but at least the three of us have each other, Pa’s all alone up there in that prison and if he thought that we were always fussing and arguing between ourselves like this, he would be ashamed and disappointed in us.  So couldn’t….” Adam was interrupted.

“I’m sorry Adam.  I don’t wanna make Papa ashamed of us.  I promise, I’ll be a good boy from now on.  I promised God anyway that I would if’n he’d just let Pa come home.”  Joe turned his head upward and gazed into Adam’s eyes.  Adam could see the making of tears beginning to form in the hazel eyes that watched his face.

“That’s a good boy, Joe.  Pa would be proud of you.”  Adam leaned down and kissed his brother’s brow.  “Here we are,” Adam helped Joe slide from the saddle and handed him his sack lunch that Mrs. Devlin had supplied for both Hoss and Little Joe.

“You help Hoss stable his horse and then hurry on in, don’t dilly dally around Hoss and make the two of you late.  I’ll be back to get you this afternoon, I have to ride out to the ranch and take care of a few things.  I’ll see you then,” Adam called, turning his horse around and tossing his hand in the air in goodbye to his two brothers.

“See ya, Adam,” called out Hoss as he led his horse into the small stable that was provided for the children who rode their own horses to school each day.

Joe hurried to catch up to Hoss and the Devlin children who had rode along with them and who were now leading their ponies to the stable as well.  Joe’s path was blocked by a group of boys who had not yet gone inside.  The boys circled the lone child, giving Joe reason to become slightly alarmed by their unexpected actions.  As the boys closed in the circle, Joe turned all around looking for a means of escape.

Before he could gather his thoughts, Joe felt the end of a fist connect with his jaw.  The force of the blow sent his head reeling backward and as he staggered he felt the pressure of hands grabbing at his upper body breaking his fall.  He was suddenly shoved forward where he was caught again by outstretched hands and arms as he felt himself spun around and around in a circle before the hands released him and allowed his body to crumble in a heap to the ground.

Instantly the sound of Hoss’ loud voice could be heard booming above the shouts and laughter of the other boys.  Hoss shoved his way through the circle of boys making his way to the crumpled form lying still on the ground.  When the boys saw that is was their victim’s larger brother that shoved them aside, most of the boys ran into the school building, the angry glare on Hoss’ face telling them that they had over stepped themselves in their assault of his smaller brother.

“Joe, Joe, are ya all right, punkin?”   Hoss dropped to his knees and pulled Joe into his lap.  Joe, crying, buried his face in the front of Hoss’ shirt and clung tightly.

“Shh…you’re all right Joe.  Here let me look at ya.”  Hoss quickly surveyed the damage that had been done.  Other than a small bruise to his jaw, Joe was more frightened and dirtied than hurt.

“See, you’re fine.  Now stop crying Little Joe,” encouraged Hoss as he dusted the dirt from Joe’s clothing.  “What’ca say to’em to make’em jump ya like that?” he asked.

Joe sniffed his nose, “I didn’t do nuthin’, honest Hoss.  I was just following’ ya into the stable when they jumped on me.  They said I was no good, just like my Pa and they said Pa would never get out of prison ’cause he killed a woman.”  Joe began to cry and Hoss dropped to his knees and gathered the distraught boy into his arms to comfort him.

“Did…Pa…really kill…a woman…Hoss?” wept Little Joe.

“Aw Joe, you know better’n that, of course not, our Pa would never do a thing like that.  Those boys don’t know what they was atalkin’ about,” Hoss’ own anger was beginning to rise as he thought about the way that his baby brother had just been treated and of the things that his so-called friends were now saying about the father that he admired and respected more than any other person.

“Then why’d they say it, if it weren’t so?” asked Joe, giving his brother a puzzled look.

“Cause Joe, the judge found him guilty.  Adam called it manslaughter, I ain’t quite sure what that has ta do with a woman getting’ kilt, but the judge said Pa had’ta go to prison cause she died and that it was Pa’s fault, ‘cepting’ we know that Pa really didn’t do it.  Now come on Joe, we’re late already.  You can get Adam to explain it to ya later,” Hoss took Joe’s hand and led him to the door but stopped before going in.

“Look Joe,” said Hoss, dropping his voice to a whisper, “just try to stay clear of them boys for the rest of the day, okay?  I don’t want’em jumpin’ on ya again,” Hoss smiled down at Joe seeing the worried look on his brother’s tiny face.

“Just stay close to me little buddy, durin’ lunch and recess, ya’ll be fine.”  Hoss opened the door and led the way in, Joe slowly following.

All eyes turned in their direction as they entered.  The boys who had taunted Joe gave him threatening looks as the brothers slowly made their way to their assigned seats on opposite sides of the rooms.

Miss Jones had stopped in mid sentence as the brothers quickly seated themselves and seeing the haggard appearance on Joe’s face and noting the way his clothes were mussed, Abigail Jones smiled at both boys.  She had seen the ruckus that had taken place in the schoolyard but before she had been able to react, she had seen the older Cartwright boy come to the younger boy’s rescue.  The boys involved had been warned immediately as they entered the building and had been instructed as to what would be the end result should another incident take place.

“Hoss, Joseph, I’m glad to have you back.  Now, please, let’s get started,” smiled the teacher and returned to the blackboard where she was putting up the assignments for the day.

Joe looked in Hoss’ direction and saw that his brother was already busy with paper and pencil.  Reaching forward for his own paper and pencil, he was stopped short by a strong hand clinging tightly to his dark curly hair.  As he felt his head yanked backwards, words of caution were whispered into his ear.

“Better watch your step Cartwright; we don’t take too kindly to kids whose old man goes around stealing our pa’s money and then killing poor innocent ladies.”

The hand shoved Joe’s head forward.  Joe bit his lip to keep from crying and forced himself not to turn around; he knew who sat behind him, Lucas Tatum, his mortal enemy.

For the rest of the day, Little Joe managed to avoid his tormentors, though he knew it was just a matter of time before they caught him without the watchful eye of his older brother keeping him safe. By late that afternoon when recess was just beginning, Little Joe’s nerves had worn thin, his stomach ached and when the class was dismissed, Joe lingered behind allowing the rest of the class to exit the building before he did.

Joe stood in the opened doorway and watched as the children darted about the playground.  Anxiously his eyes sought Hoss, but his brother was busy with his friends so having no other recourse, Joe made his way quickly to the outhouse behind the school.

Just as Joe opened the narrow door, voices behind him alerted him to the fact that he was about to become the object of ridicule once again.  Strong hands grabbed his shoulders and spun him about.  In front of him stood Lucas Tatum, a conceded looking smirk on his face.  Without speaking, Lucas who stood a whole head taller than Little Joe and out weighed him by ten or more pounds doubled up his fist and delivered a punch to Little Joe’s mid section.  The smaller boy doubled up in agony, his stomach all ready upset, quickly reacted to the intense pain spilling its contents onto the ground.  Roughly Joe was shoved inside of the privy, the door slammed shut and held until another boy quickly ran circles around the outhouse using a rope to hold the door in place.

Joe struggled to catch his breath as he pounded on the door and screamed for release.  On the other side of the door, the boys could be heard laughing and cracking jokes about Ben Cartwright and his murdering ways, all meant to add to the misery of the little boy who was being held captive in the old outhouse.

Hoss quickly became aware of the loud boisterous noise and just as quickly scanned with his worried eyes, the playground but could not find what he was searching for.  His eyes suddenly fell on the privy, the ropes that held the door tightly shut and his ears picked up the distressed cries that sounded within.  Running, Hoss made his way toward the tiny building but was stopped just within inches of reaching the door by a group of larger boys.  Hoss quickly took the defense and readied himself for the attack that he knew was coming; it came quicker than he had anticipated and before Hoss knew what had happened, he was jarred to the ground and buried beneath the pile of boys who struck him with their fists from head to foot.  Hoss struggled, managed to get his hands on one boy and tossed him into the air.  Before he could repeat the action, fists pounded him about his head, jabbed into his face, his stomach and his sides.  Hoss fought to free himself from the fury of blows but the weight of the boys piled onto his body was more than even the overgrown middle Cartwright boy could pull out from under.

Suddenly Hoss could see daylight as boy after boy was grabbed from behind and tossed through the air. When the wall of boys had at last been cleared, Hoss, beaten and bruised, stared into the face of his oldest brother.  With hand outstretched, Adam grabbed a hold of Hoss’ extended hand and hauled the boy to his feet.

Hoss staggered slightly as Adam held his arm to keep him from falling.  “Boy, I sure am glad ta see ya,” smiled Hoss, grimacing at the slight pain he felt when doing so.

“You looked like you could use some help.  What the hell is going on here anyway, and where’s Little Joe?” demanded Adam searching the schoolyard for his youngest brother.

“Joe?” Hoss remembered the purpose of his journey to the outhouse and pointed at it.  “I think he’s in there.”

Quickly Adam ran the short distance to the privy from where the schoolyard brawl had ended and having to use his knife, cut the rope that held the door closed.  With a jerk, Adam pulled the door opened; inside, Joe sat huddled in the floor, his face hidden from his brother’s view.  Adam allowed himself to fall to his knees and placing a hand on the slender trembling shoulders, spoke softly.

“Hey buddy,” he began, “let’s get you out of here.”

Joe recognizing his oldest brother’s voice turned his tear stained face upward.  Adam’s anger began to surface the minute he spied the bruise on his little brother’s face and the sadness that appeared in the tear filled eyes that stared at him.

“I couldn’t get out Adam, I gots sick and puked.  I’m sorry,” sobbed Joe as Adam lifted his little brother into his arms.

Joe slipped his arms about Adam’s neck and laid his head on his brother’s shoulder.

“It’s okay little fella, don’t worry about it, I’ll take you home now,” Adam patted Joe’s back and Joe snuggled against Adam and closed his eyes.  Remembering Hoss, Joe raised his head and looked around for his other brother.

“Hoss, is he okay?  I heard’em hollering and then I heard’em say let’s get’em.  I couldn’t get out to help him,” sobbed Little Joe as Hoss joined them with the horses.

“I’m fine Punkin, no need ta worry ya self about me, ‘sides, I had older brother Adam here to help me out.”  Hoss ruffled the top of Joe’s head making the younger boy to smile back at him.

“Oh Adam, Adam,” called Miss Jones.  Having been witness to the fight and knowing that with so many of the larger boys involved, Abigail had rushed to the sheriff’s office for help and had just returned with Roy Coffee in tow.

“Are your bothers okay, I was so scared.  I yelled at the others to break it up but they didn’t pay me no mind, so I went for the sheriff.  I am so sorry about this Adam, I should have been more mindful to them after the little ruckus this morning.”  Abigail dabbed at her brow, the last thing she wanted now was to have Adam Cartwright think her incapable of taking charge of her class.

Adam smiled slightly, wanting to leave.  “They’re just bruised up some, nothing that we can’t take care of,” he assured her.  “Roy, I’d like to have a word with you later, after I make sure that Hoss and Joe are safe at home.”  He had turned to the sheriff, a faithful friend of his father’s in whom Adam knew Ben put his trust.

Roy bobbed his head up and down in compliance.  “Sure, sure Adam.  Why don’t I just ride out with ya, just to be sure nothing else like this happens again?”  Roy held Joe in his arms until Adam mounted his horse and handed the small lad up to his brother.  “I’ll get my horse and meet you in front of my office.”

Adam agreed, waited for Hoss to get on his pony and nodded his head at the teacher.

“I’m not sure my brothers will be back, Miss Jones; that is until I can be assured that something like this will not happen again.  I will be in touch with you later, after I have spoken to the sheriff.  Good day.”  Adam turned Sport toward town and went to meet Roy at his office, Hoss by his side, Joe sitting in front of him and tucked safely into the folds of his arms.

*****

Ben sat alone in his cell, his body aching from the hard labor he had been forced to do, not that he had never worked hard, it was just that this type of labor, digging and hauling stones, was harder by far than any work he had ever done thus far.  Ben stretched hoping to work the tightness from his muscles and then lay back onto his cot and closed his eyes.  Sleep did not come; just memories and they made him smile.  In his mind’s eye he could see his sons, Adam tall and handsome, Hoss loving and gentle, Little Joe crawling up into his lap and wrapping his arms about his father’s neck.  Ben sighed deeply, God how he missed them and he wanted more than anything to go home.  How long had it been now, a month, two maybe?

Ben reflected back to all that had happened, he knew that he was innocent of the charges that had been brought against him, but how had the finger of guilt suddenly come to point in his direction?

He had been trying for months to make a deal with Mrs. Hickman in regard to her timber that he needed to finish the contract with the lumber company in San Francisco.  Mrs. Hickman was reluctant to sell, she had been holding out for the highest offer and that night when she had sent word to him via messenger asking that he meet with her at her home, west of the Ponderosa, Ben felt confident that she had chosen his bid on her lumber.

Mildred Hickman had seemed out of sorts at their meeting; Ben had not pushed her for an explanation but quickly signed the required papers needed to finish their transaction.  Both Ben and Mildred had seemed pleased with the final arrangements with the timber contract and when Ben turned to leave, Mildred had bid him a warm thank you with a promise to be in touch soon.

It had been well after dark as Ben rode along toward home, his mind seemingly to wander considering the timber contract he carried in his vest pocket, and not really paying much mind as to what was taking place around him.

Suddenly Ben felt a stabbing pain to the back of his head as he slowly pulled himself up from the ground, not having an inkling as to how he came to be there in the first place nor of how long he had lain in the dirt unconscious.  As he staggered to his feet, Ben felt the back of his head where the pounding seemed most intense; there appeared to be a good sized goose egg and Ben rubbed at it trying to ease some of the pain.  Dazed and unaware of the blood that covered his hand and fingers, Ben reached to replace his .45 that apparently had slipped from his holster during his fall.  Once secured in place, Ben looked around for his horse.  Buck had wandered just a few yards from where he had fallen and was nibbling at the short grass around him.  Ben spoke softly, taking care not to spook his mount in the dark Ben carefully reached for the reins that hung loosely to the ground.  Buck nickered softly as Ben gently patted the horse’s neck and eased his aching body into the saddle.

It was nearly ten o’clock when Adam heard the sound of the horse in the yard.  Worried that his father was so late in returning, Adam rushed to the door and opening it was just in time to see Ben fall from his horse, his body crumbling in a heap to the ground.

“Pa!” shouted Adam rushing to his father’s side.  “Pa, what happened?”  Adam eased his father over onto his back seeing the deep lines etched onto his face that told him that his father was in pain.  “Pa, are you hurt?” he questioned as Ben moaned and tried to rise to a sitting position.

“Oh…”moaned Ben again, this time closing his eyes as a wave of nausea washed over him.  “My head…I’m not sure what happened son.  I think I must have fallen from my horse, I think I hit my head on a rock or something.”  Ben leaned against Adam as Adam helped his father to his feet.  “Help me to the house.”

Once Adam had his father carefully situated on the settee, he was better able to examine the large knot on the back of Ben’s head.  Hop Sing had appeared out of nowhere with a basin of cool water to wash away the blood that had begun to congeal in Ben’s hair.

“Pa, are you sure you’re all right, you don’t look to well?” asked Adam concerned that Ben might have a slight concussion.

Ben shut his eyes tightly and attempted to rub once more at the spot on the back of his head.  “I feel kinda funny, son.  Get me to my bed, please,” whispered Ben.

“Hop Sing, please see if Jake is still up and if not, wake him and send him into town for Doc Martin.  Please, tell him to hurry,” ordered Adam, grasping Ben’s arm to balance the wobbly man as together they staggered to the stairs.

Hop Sing immediately did as requested and within minutes the sounds of hooves pounding against the hard ground outside could be heard leaving the yard.  Several minutes later, Ben rested in his bed, propped against his pillows while Adam remained by his side.

*****

The old grandfather clock, which had stood for years in the same place next to the main entrance of the massive ranch house, chimed the mid-night hour.  Adam rushed down the stairs in response to the loud banging on the door.

“Doc, come in,” offered Adam, stepping aside to permit Paul Martin to enter.  “Roy, I wasn’t expecting to see you, come in.”

“Hi’ya, Adam.  I was having a talk with Doc here when Jake came in.  Thought I had better ride out with’em to see how Ben was.”  Roy’s voice was solemn when he spoke but Adam had no time to question the sheriff’s seriousness.

“Pa’s upstairs, Paul, in his room.”  Adam led the way followed by both Roy and Paul.

Quickly Paul was at Ben’s side and just as quickly began examining Ben’s head injury.  Adam stood to the side and waited while the doctor finished.  Roy stood to the far corner of the room, quietly waiting to question his friend, dreading what he knew he must do, for in no way did he ever think that his friend, Ben Cartwright, had done what it appeared that he had.

“I think you’ll live Ben.  You have a slight concussion but I don’t believe that it is too serious.  I want you to stay in bed for the next few days, I’ll be back out to check on you in a couple days, until then, do as I say, stay in bed,” Paul ordered his patient.

“Thanks, Paul.  The way my head hurts right now, I don’t even want to think about trying to get up,” Ben gave the doctor a weak smile.

Roy moved closer to the bed, his fingers together tapping lightly.  “Ben, do ya feel up to answering a couple of questions?” he asked hesitantly.

Ben, his face drawn, looked up, surprised to see the sheriff at his bedside.  Paul cleared his throat, gave both Ben and Roy quick glances then moved aside, making room for Roy.  Their actions did not go unnoticed by the ailing man in his bed.

“What’s this about Roy?  What’s wrong?” asked Ben, Adam moving nearer so that he could catch every word, for he too had noticed the exchange between the doctor and the sheriff.

“Ben,” began Roy, “do ya mind tellin’ me where ya been tonight?”

“I went over to see Mildred Hickman.  She and I made a deal about some of her timber I needed to finish a contract.  We signed the papers, why?” Ben asked, wondering what all of this was leading up to.

“What time was that Ben?” asked Roy, giving Paul another look.

“Hmm…must have been about 8:30-9:00 o’clock, why?  What are you digging for Roy?” Ben questioned, confused as to why Roy would be so interested in him.

“Paul and I found Mildred seriously injured about 9:30, Ben…” started Roy but was interrupted by Ben’s sudden outburst.

“What?” Ben demanded, “What are you saying?  She was fine when I left.  What happened?”

“I was ahopin’ you could tell us, Ben?” stammered Roy, hating himself for the thoughts that were rolling around in his head.

“How should I know? I just told you she was fine when I left.  We shook hands, nothing else happened, Roy,” Ben explained, casting worried glances at his oldest son.

“Ben, Mildred had a large gapping hole in her head.  She was barely alive when we found her.  She died minutes later Ben.  I asked her who hit her and the only thing she said was ‘Ben, Ben’,” Roy hung his head.

“What?” shouted Adam, “You don’t think Pa hit her do you?  Well do you?” demanded Adam when Roy hesitated in answering.

Ben held his hand up to silence his son.  “Well, Roy?  Is that what you think?  You think I killed that woman?”

“Of course not, Ben.  But everything points to that fact.  What am I suppose to think?” Roy asked.

“Ben, it looks bad for you.  We go in, find Mildred barely alive, I ask her who did it, she tells me Ben, she dies.  Her dying words were Ben…now you tell me, why would a dying woman lie about who tried to kill her?” Roy was trying to be reasonable, not wanting to believe what he himself along with the doctor both heard.

Ben was speechless, giving both Roy and Paul troubled looks.  “I swear Roy, Paul, I never so much as touched the woman.”

“I want to believe that Ben, you know I do, but I heard her with my own ears.  Roy plainly asked her who hit her and she gave us your name.”  Paul was just as upset about the incident as both Roy and Ben.  He knew if it came to trial he would have to testify against his long time friend and the idea of doing so turned his stomach.

“Ben, as soon as you’re on your feet, I have no other choice but to take you in…” began Roy.

“For what?  Pa just told you, he didn’t do anything!” demanded Adam, moving closer to his father and standing protectively between his father and the sheriff.

Ben reached up and took Adam’s hand in his.  “Its okay, son; Roy is just doing his job.  I’m sure we can get this straightened out.  Right now though, my head is pounding, I’d like to rest, if that’s okay with everyone.”

“Sure Ben, and I’m sorry about all of this, but you understand?” asked Roy, reaching for his hat and starting to the door.

Ben nodded his head, leaned back into the pillows and closed his eyes.  Roy glanced at Paul who had moved to Ben’s side and checked his vital signs.

“One more thing Ben,” said Roy.  Ben opened his eyes, looking directly into the sheriff’s.

“What?” he asked.

“We found blood on your pistol, and on your hands, I have no other recourse at this time Ben, than to think that your pistol was the murder weapon.”

Adam’s rage at Roy’s suggestions was mounting but before he could speak, Ben tightened his grip on his son’s arm, silencing the boy from speaking out.

“You do what you must Roy, I understand, but I’m telling you, I didn’t kill her.”  Ben closed his eyes once again and drifted off to sleep, the medication that Paul had given him taking affect.

“Let’s let him rest Roy, you can talk to him again tomorrow when he’s up to it.”  Paul gave Adam a slight nod of his head and stood to his feet.  “We’ll see ourselves out Adam.  I’m sorry about all of this.  Send word if you need me tonight, but I think Ben will sleep it through.”

Adam responded with a nod and as the doctor and the sheriff exited his father’s bedroom, Adam gave in to his despair as he lowered himself into the chair beside of Ben’s bed and allowed his thoughts to rehash everything that had happened in the last hour.

*****

Ben opened his eyes, it had grown dark within his cell and Ben studied the ceiling overhead trying to put all of the pieces together. The puzzle seemed to be missing something and try though he might, Ben could not find the connecting piece.

The trial had been a nightmare for him.  As he sat and listened to the prosecuting attorney, Ben knew it looked bad for him.  Harry Teague, his lawyer had no need to tell him so, for Ben could see it in the attorney’s eyes, he was worried.  The more the prosecution pushed, the worse it became until Ben even began to doubt himself, for the evidence seemed to point in no other direction but his.

First Roy Coffee was called to the stand, the sheriff gave his testimony stating that he had been summoned to Mildred Hickman’s home by one of her hired men who had found the front door of her home opened and worried, had stepped inside and found Mrs. Hickman clinging to life.  When questioned further, Roy also stated under oath of questioning the dying woman before witnesses as to who had attempted to kill her and her dying words had been, ‘Ben’.

Ben remembered the haunted look that his friend had given to him and Ben recalled having felt sorrow for his friend at having to be the number one witness at his murder trial.

Doctor Paul Martin had taken the stand next and had restated his side of the story confirming everything that the sheriff had sworn to.  When Mrs. Hickman’s hired man told his side, all doubt to Ben’s innocence had crumbled with the man’s testimony.

At last Harry Teague called Ben to the stand and for the next couple of hours, Ben was drilled over and over by both the defense and prosecution.  Ben explained how he and Mildred had at last come to terms with the deal in question; he explained in detail the terms of the agreement, and told the court about the night he had met with Mildred to finalize and sign the contract.  Ben explained that when he left, Mildred was fine, happy to at last finish their business and had even promised Ben that she would come to dinner soon, should he extend the invitation to her, which he did.

Ben went on to tell of his excitement in at last being able to provide the needed timber to finish his own contract with the lumber company in Sacramento.  He told of falling from his horse and hitting his head, though could not provide an explanation as to why that should have happened.  From that point on he explained that things became somewhat confusing, as the next thing he could remember was Adam helping him into the house and sending for the doctor.

The next question that the prosecution asked was the one that brought disorder to the courtroom and sealed his fate.

“Mr. Cartwright, do you have proof that you indeed signed the papers on the night in question?  I mean, do you have the papers?” asked the prosecuting attorney, leaning on the half walled in front of Ben.

“Yes sir, I do; my lawyer has them,” responded Ben.

The prosecution then accepted the papers that were handed to him and asked Ben if those were the papers in question.  After answering yes to the request, the papers were then shown to the jury before being presented to the judge.  The lawyer then asked Ben to name the date on which the papers were signed; Ben complied.  The lawyer smiled wickedly at the jury and announced that that one fact proved that Ben Cartwright had indeed been at Mildred Hickman’s home.  But before he could continue, a loud shout erupted from the courtroom and all eyes, including Ben’s watched as Burl Morgan stood to his feet.

“That can’t be right.  I met with Mildred Hickman two days before that and she gave me the contract, I have it signed and dated right here in my pocket!” the enraged man shouted as he pulled folded papers from the inside pocket of his coat.

The judge banged his gavel down several times before order could be restored to his courtroom.  When silence had been gained, the judge asked that Morgan step up to the stand.  Both the prosecution and defense attorneys approached the bench as well.  Ben sat, stunned and silent in the witness chair and waited to find out what was happening.

Ben was shocked, not knowing how Burl Morgan could be in possession of such papers for the contract had been his, legal and binding according to law, or so he had thought.

The judge scanned the papers, shaking his head from side to side as he did so.  At last, Judge Witter looked at Ben.  “Can you explain to me why there are two contracts for the same timber, this one dated two days before the contract that you claim Mildred Hickman signed on the night in question?”

Ben shook his head, “No sir, I have no idea where Morgan got his contract.”  Ben shook his head again, “One of them must be a forgery.”

“That’s right Cartwright,” shouted Burl Morgan moving to stand in front of Ben.  “Yours!  I met with Mildred two days before she was killed by you and finalized this contract,” Burl pointed to the papers now in the judge’s hand.  “You went there and tried to force her into signing your contract and then killed her to keep her mouth shut, you murdered that poor woman!”

The courtroom erupted into utter chaos as men began shouting at the top of their lungs both in favor and against the man on trial.  Ben tried to deny Morgan’s charges but the noise was so loud that his pleas of innocence could not be heard above the racket.

The judge pounded and pounded several times trying in vain to regain control of his courtroom but only after the sheriff fired his pistol into the air did silence fall upon the spectators once again.

“Everyone take a seat, NOW!” shouted the judge angrily and shot a warning glare at Ben who had stood to his feet in the witness stand.  “Sit down Mr. Cartwright,” demanded the judge.  Ben did as ordered and watched as everyone else found his or her own seats.

“This new evidence sheds new light on this case.  It seems to me that Mr. Morgan is holding the proper papers, according to the date.  Mr. Cartwright’s papers on the other hand seem to me to be the forged documents,” accused the prosecution.

Ben was shocked, shook his head no.  “No, they aren’t forged, Mildred and I signed them that night, I swear,” Ben sat on the edge of his seat.

“Did you kill that poor woman, did you become enraged when she told you that night that she had given the contract to Mr. Morgan, did you Ben Cartwright honestly think that you could get away with murder?” shouted out the angry attorney.

Ben’s lawyer jumped to his feet screaming his protests to the line of questioning but to no avail, the judge allowed the other man to proceed.

“Did you kill her?” he asked, looking into the faces of the jurors and watching their reactions.

“No, I did not.”

“You went there with the intentions of forcing her to sign your papers, am I right?”

“No, you are not.”

“You were angry, enraged really, weren’t you?  You thought you could make her sign them; did you know about Morgan’s papers?  How were you going to work that angle? Kill him as well?”

Ben took a deep breath, “No to all accounts.  I was not angry, I did not make Mildred do anything, I didn’t know about any papers other than mine and I did not kill anyone.”

The day drummed on and by the time the afternoon was nearly ended, the jurors had heard enough.  They had been sent out to review the case and within twenty minutes, returned with the verdict, which surprised everyone, including the judge.

The jurors returned, not one single man could look Ben in the face as they filed in and took their seats. Ben watched, his heart in his throat as the foreman stood to his feet and cleared his throat.

“Has the jury reached a verdict?” asked the judge.

“We have your Honor.  On the charge of fraud, we find Ben Cartwright, guilty.  On the charge of manslaughter, we find Ben Cartwright, guilty.”

Ben felt his knees go weak and he nearly collapsed into his chair had it not been for Harry Teague and Roy Coffee holding him upright.

The judge turned to face the accused.  “Do you understand the charges, Mr. Cartwright?”

“I do,” Ben barely whispered as he forced himself to stand tall.

“Do you have anything to say before I sentence you?” the judge asked.

Ben hesitated and tried to collect his jumbled thoughts.  What was he to say?  He knew he hadn’t killed the Hickman lady, he had no knowledge of Morgan having had papers in his possession that had been signed earlier, but it was impossible to prove his innocence at this point.  Ben looked up at the judge and slowly shook his head.

“No, sir.”

The courtroom was filled with mixed emotions, those who knew Ben where shocked that the jury could find him guilty and those who wanted to believe him guilty of such a hideous crime did just that.

The judge banged his gavel several times bringing the crowd to silence at last.  Turning to face Ben, the judge then passed sentence.

“Ben Cartwright, you have been found guilty of fraud and manslaughter as charged.  If it were left up to me, you would be hung by the neck until dead, however, I am obligated by law to follow the guidelines of the territory which requires that when there is some doubt as to the actual order of the facts being entered into the case, but all other evidence points to the facts of the crime or crimes in your case, and those facts leave no reasonable doubt, you must be sentenced accordingly.  In this case the law requires that you must be sentenced to a prison term of hard labor with no chance of parole.”  The judge banged his gavel one more time.

“Ben Cartwright, I hereby sentence you to ten years of hard labor on the charge of fraud and ten years of hard labor on the charge of manslaughter, both of which are to begin immediately.  You will be transported first thing tomorrow afternoon to the state penitentiary.”  The gavel rang loudly in the silence that followed and the spectators watched in awe as Ben Cartwright was handcuffed by his best friend, the sheriff of Virginia City and led from the courthouse.

Outside in the streets, people milled around, some speaking in soft voices, others shouting out, “Guilty, guilty!” Others ranting almost gleefully, “Twenty years hard labor; Ben Cartwright got twenty years hard labor!”

Off to the side, no one noticed the three young boys standing huddled together in the shadow of the courthouse, each clinging to the other and not one person saw the tears that pooled in the three pairs of frightened eyes nor cared when they spilled over and rolled down each cheek of Ben Cartwright’s sons.  The brothers pushed themselves deeper into the shadows and clinging desperately to one another, allowed their tears to flow freely.  When they at last had cried themselves out, Adam, holding his youngest brother in his arms, took the hand of his middle brother and together they walked bravely down the street and into the jail where their father was being held.

It was far into the night before Ben was finally able to close his eyes for the last time that night.  Sleep had been long in coming for the weary man and once asleep, dreams of home and his boys played havoc with his tired mind and by the time that the prison guard banged the old tin cup against the bars of his cell early the next morning, Ben was already awake and facing the new day with dread.

*****

Adam gathered Little Joe into his arms, his own heart heavy with the events of the day.  Joe worn completely out had fallen to sleep while Adam held him and rocked him.  Several times that evening, the youngest Cartwright family member had cried out for his father and Adam knew that the night would be a long one.  Careful so as not wake the sleeping boy, Adam carried him up the narrow steps to the room that he shared with his brothers and placed his bundle carefully on the bed.  Adam had slipped Joe’s boots from his feet earlier and not wanting to take the chance of waking him Adam decided to leave Joe’s clothing on and covered him with the blankets.

Joe stirred slightly.  “Pa…Papa…” whined Joe in his sleep.

Adam watched as Joe’s face twitched and scrunched up as he continued to mumble in his mindless world of sleep.  Joe moved restlessly about on the bed, tears rolling slowly down his face.  The sight ripped at Adam’s heart and he felt some of the same lonely feelings that he was sure his younger brother must be experiencing.

Adam lowered his body into the depths of the old chair in the corner, leaned back closing his eyes and shutting out everything around him except for the darkness.  God, how he missed his father; Adam sighed, he was so tired of having to put up a front just for the sake of his younger brothers, he wished he could do as they had done and give in to his despair and just let it all out by crying.  But he couldn’t, he had to remain strong, his father was depending on him, he was duty bound to care for his brothers; but sometimes, like now, Adam wished he could be the child, just once.

Joe cried out louder and this time Adam moved to the side of the bed.  Joe’s forehead was damp with sweat; his tears had dampened his cheeks as well.  Adam poured a small amount of water into the washbasin and soaked the washcloth in the cool water.  After wringing it out, Adam placed the cloth onto Joe’s brow.  The sudden coolness to his face awakened the sleeping boy and when he opened his eyes, he found his brother’s smiling face before him.

“Hey Little Buddy,” smiled Adam, forcing his face to appear something more than what he felt in his heart.

“Hi’ya Adam,” Joe replied, looking sad.  “I was dreamin’ ‘bout Papa.  I miss him Adam, when’s he gonna come home?”

“I don’t know Joe, I wish I did.  Now close your eyes and go back to sleep,” Adam leaned down and placed a kiss on his brother’s brow, watching as Joe wiped the tears from his face, gathered Scruffy into his arms and made himself comfortable.

Adam moved to the chair leaning back against the cushion and closed his eyes.  It was just three weeks until Joe’s birthday and Adam began racking his brain for ideas that could make the occasion a happy one for the little fellow.  Adam knew that nothing short of his father being home could make his unhappy little brother feel anything other than grief or sorrow despite the fact that it would be his birthday.  Adam knew what Ben had planned on getting Joe for the special event and Adam decided right then that he would follow through with his father’s little secret and surprise his brother with a gift from Pa.

With a smile on his face, Adam pulled himself to his feet and began preparing for bed.  Come morning, he would ride out to the ranch, get the required amount of cash from the safe where his father kept the petty cash and ride into town to make his purchase.  Adam counted on the fact that Joe could be made to smile once he realized that the surprise was a gift from their father.  Content at last, Adam crawled into bed next to Little Joe, gave once last glance at his brother to assure himself that Joe slept peacefully and shut his eyes.  Within minutes sleep claimed the weary minded young man.

*****

Ben woke with a start.  Suddenly Ben jumped to his feet; “that’s it,” he nearly shouted aloud and quickly dropped his voice.  Ben began pacing his cell, five strides forward, and turn, five strides in the opposite direction.  Thoughts buzzed about in his head and Ben felt himself smiling for the first time in many weeks.  Why had he not thought of it before now?  How could he have forgotten, he questioned himself as he sought paper and pencil.  He had to get a letter out immediately, but to whom? Roy? Charlie perhaps, or maybe Adam?  No, he thought; best not to involve Adam until he was sure.  If he was right in his assumption, things might get ugly.  Charlie, he would be the perfect one and if he was right, Charlie could confide in Roy.  Both were trusted friends and would be more than willing to help him.

Quickly Ben jotted his message onto the paper, folded it and sealed it in the envelope.  The man in charge of the mail would pass by his cell just before dawn to gather any out going mail and Ben would be sure to place the quickly scribbled message into the man’s own hands himself.  Ben laid back down on his cot, thankful to have a few more minutes to rest before starting another long hard day of hauling rock.

*****

The morning sun felt good as Adam rode along.  His thoughts centered on the gift he was going to buy for Joe, one his father had told him about just days before their lives had plummeted downward.  Adam had almost forgotten the conversation that he and his father had had until last night and now Adam was more than determined to put a smile on his youngest brother’s face.  Joe had always been such a happy child, rarely was he prone to crying but lately it seemed just the opposite, for Joe never wore a smile.  Tears seemed to spring from nowhere and without just cause.  Even speaking to the boy in anything but a soft tender manner was enough cause for the small boy to burst into a crying fit.  His brother’s unhappiness worried Adam and he strived to think of ways to ease his brother’s pain, for Adam knew what the cause of Joe’s misery stemmed from for it was the same for Hoss and himself.  They all missed their father and more than anything wanted Ben home with them where he belonged.  Adam had the notion that once he went to town he would make a point to stop by Harry Teague’s office and inquire as to whether or not the lawyer had found anything that might help their father with an appeal.

Adam looped his horse’s reins around the post and slowly made his way to the house.  Everything was quiet and still in the yard.  Adam listened to the silence unnerved by the fact that it seemed as if the birds had even left for friendlier surroundings.

Memories of happier times suddenly filled Adam’s thoughts and those memories brought tears to his eyes.  Not wanting to give in to the sudden onslaught of emotions that he had learned to live with, Adam hurried into the house.  The house seemed even more forlorn and his footsteps seemed to echo as he crossed the room to his father’s office.

Adam had a brief moment of feeling sorry for him self but pushed those emotions aside as he quickly opened the safe and reached for the cash box.  When Adam withdrew the box, his eyes fell on a small but neatly addressed envelope.  Picking it up, Adam saw his father’s name carefully written across the center. Adam hesitated momentarily then placed the envelope back into the safe.

Opening the moneybox, Adam counted out what he thought to be enough money to purchase Joe’s surprise and returned the box to its proper place in the safe.  His hand accidentally brushed against the note and knocked it to the floor, unknown to Adam.  He closed the door to the safe, giving the dial a twirl before standing to his feet.  Adam pulled the chair out from the desk and sat down.  As he opened the top drawer to withdraw the black ledger, his eyes spotted the paper in the floor.  Adam snatched the envelope and giving in to his curiosity, opened and removed the folded paper.

As he read the neatly written message to his father, Adam’s eyes widened in shock.  What on earth could this mean?  Again he read the note; by the time he had read the disturbing message for the third time, Adam knew he had to talk to the sheriff.  Adam quickly folded the paper and returned it to the envelope, placed it into his shirt pocket and rushed out the door.  Adam sprang onto his horse, kicking the animal hard in the flanks, surprising his mount and jarring the animal into action.

*****

“Got a letter here for you Charlie,” Clara said as she handed Charles Devlin the mail that had just arrived for him.  “Hmm…”smiled the woman, teasingly withholding one envelope.  The robust lady laughed, causing Charlie to give her a puzzling look.

“What’s so funny?” he questioned, a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth.  Miss Clara Smithfield was a middle-aged widow woman who made it her business to know everyone else’s business who lived in Virginia City.  Though noisy by natured, she was harmless for gossip was a sin in her eyes and not one person in town had ever admitted to having heard Miss Clara speak a word of it, not even when bribed.

“Seems you have a letter from Ben Cartwright,” smiled Clara and handed the last letter out the window to Charlie. “I’d like to think it was something good, that poor man.  Why I never, not for one second thought he killed Miss Mildred.  No one, not any one mind you, will ever make me believe he did, Ben Cartwright’s too much of a gentleman.  Oh, dear, I’m sorry, I do tend to run on so.”

Charlie took the envelope and thanked Miss Smithfield and hurried down the street to where his wagon and team stood waiting for him.  When Charlie was seated comfortably in the driver’s seat, he hastily tore open the envelope and pulled out the contents.  Charlie quickly scanned the letter with his eyes, seeing nothing that might alarm him. Charlie started from the beginning and carefully read the words that Ben had written.  When he was finished, Charlie cast anxious eyes all about him as if checking to see if he were being watched.  After stuffing the papers into his pocket, Charlie jumped from his wagon and forcing himself not to run, hurried to find Roy Coffee.

*****

Ben had made a habit of pacing.  Worry had embedded its self into his mind and had become a permanent thought.  He wondered if Charlie had received his letter, he wondered if Roy now knew the contents and if so what was being done.  Ben worried that Adam might somehow get wind of the secret message he had sent to Charlie and if so, could his life be in danger, and what about this youngest sons?  Ben worried constantly about them, how were they faring, was Joseph eating or sleeping, was the boy suffering from nightmares, were his sons well, and what was Roy doing about helping him?

Ben was plagued with doubt, worry caused his stomach to react and even sleep had seemed to evade him lately.  The hard work, poor diet and lack of proper rest had begun to show on the troubled man and Ben often wondered of late if he would live long enough to be reunited with his sons.  Exhausted, Ben lowered him self onto the cot and closed his eyes.  When sleep refused to come, Ben began to pray and far into the night the prayers continued to be sent upward into heaven.

*****

“Adam, calm down son,” Roy attempted to quiet the excited young man.

“But sheriff, you read it, what do you think it means?” questioned Adam who had at last found the sheriff.

He had ridden straight into town after finding the note written to his father and had stopped first at the sheriff’s office but had found it empty.  After checking at the saloon and then with Paul Martin still with no luck, he had returned to the sheriff’s office where he found Roy sitting behind his desk looking over the current wanted posters.

“I don’t rightly know Adam, but I promise you I’ll find out.  I will go right now and have a word with that man.  I want you to go home and wait for…..” began Roy.

“No, I want to go with you Roy; I want to hear what that bastard has to say and if…”

“Absolutely not, young man.  Either you go home or I’ll lock you in one of those cells.  Do you understand?  Your father would not like it one bit if I let you get mixed up in this.  Now do as I say, please,” added Roy when he saw the look of anger come into the dark eyes of his best friend’s son.  “Adam, you know I can’t let you go with me.”

Adam sighed and then conceded to the sheriff’s wishes.  “All right Roy.  But promise me you’ll ride out later and let me know what’s happening.”

Roy placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder and squeezed gently, “I promise you Adam, as soon as I get this worked out, I’ll come tell you all about it.  Now go, please.”

“Thanks Roy, I knew I could count on you.”  Adam shook hands with the sheriff and with a nod of his head, went out.  Taking just a minute to scan the streets, Adam walked slowly to his horse and mounted up.

Roy reread the note that Adam had brought to him and shook his head.  Something wasn’t right, why would Mildred Hickman make such accusations and why had Ben not mentioned the note before the trial?  And if he were right in his thinking, why had Ben’s name been Mildred’s dying words?  Had the woman been trying to tell them something else about Ben rather than naming him as her assailant?  Refolding the paper and stuffing it into his pocket, Roy determined to find out what was meant by Mildred’s words, left the office and made his way toward the office of Burl Morgan.

Just before reaching the office building where Morgan maintained his business, Roy spotted the gentleman and his aide, Chet Davidson, entering the saloon.  Roy crossed the street and followed the two men inside.

*****

The door burst open, “Roy, Roy,” shouted Charlie.  Clem, Roy’s deputy came from the back room to see what the ruckus was about.

“Hi Charlie, what’s all the shouting about?” asked Clem as he propped the broom that he had been using in the corner.

“Clem, is Roy around?  I need to talk to him, it’s kinda important,” explained Charlie, pulling Ben’s letter from his pocket.

Clem straightened some papers on the desk and sat down in his chair, leaning back and watching the anxious way that Charlie moved about the office.

“What’s wrong Charlie, you seem upset about something?” quizzed Clem, rising now from his seat.

“I got this here letter from Ben today.  I wanted Roy to see it, it’s important to Ben’s case, where is he?”  Charlie handed the letter to Clem and waited as Clem quickly read the message.  When he was finished, Clem glanced up at Charlie, their eyes locking.

“Do you know what this could mean?” asked Clem.

“Yes, that’s why Roy needs to see it.  Where in thunder is he?”  Charlie was getting worried, he felt the adrenalin that pumped through his veins and knew that he had to do everything possible to make sure that Ben’s letter reached the proper persons.

“I think he went down to the saloon; come on, let’s go see.”  Clem reached for a rifle that was kept in the case on the wall as he handed the letter back to Charlie.  Charlie gave the deputy a puzzled look as Clem checked the rifle for bullets.

“You never know,” Clem answered the unspoken question and turned to the door, pausing, “You coming?”

“You bet I am,” replied Charlie following Clem through the door and down the street.

*****

Adam led his horse into the Devlin’s barn, unaware of the sad eyes that watched him as he unsaddled his mount and led his horse into the stall provided.  Busy with giving his horse a rubdown, Adam never noticed when Little Joe slipped up behind him.

The sound of shuffling feet drew Adam from his thoughts as he worked and to the quiet sound behind him.  Surprised to find his youngest brother standing quietly, Adam smiled and knelt down to be eye level with the smaller boy.

“Hey ShortShanks, what’ca doing in here all by yourself?  And who’s your friend?” asked Adam, noticing for the first time the tiny yellow kitten Joe held in his arms.

“It’s my kitty.  Mr. Devlin said I could have it if you didn’t mind.  He even said that I could take it home with me when Pa comes back.  Is it okay? Heh Adam, heh?  Pretty please?” begged Joe, holding the kitten out for his brother to inspect.

Adam took the tiny kitty from his brother and held it up to get a better look at it.  “Well, Joe, this is a fine kitten.  What are you going to name him?”  Adam cradled the purring kitten to his chest where the baby worked his paws opened and shut on Adam’s arm all the while purring loudly.

“I think I will call him Sunshine ’cause he’s yellow like the sun.  Ya like it Adam, the name I mean?” Little Joe asked expectantly, smiling at this older brother.

Adam noticed the smile, glad to see it appear on the angelic little face.  “I sure do Joe, it’s a perfect name, and Sun Shine is a perfect little kitty for you.  Why, I bet he will be a good mouser.  You know, we could use one around the barn at home.”  Adam handed the tiny cat back to his brother whose arms were outstretched waiting to take possession.

“Do ya think Pa would care?  I mean when he gets home, you don’t think he’ll make me bring Sun Shine back here do ya?” Joe’s eyes showed his worry but Adam smiled in spite of his brother’s turmoil, the way things stood, the cat would have used up his nine lives before twenty years was up.

“Oh, I don’t think you have to worry about that little buddy.  Pa won’t mind, I’m almost sure.”  Adam ruffled Joe’s mop of curly hair and grabbed both the boy and the kitten up into his arms.  “Let’s me and you see if Mrs. Devlin can spare a little extra milk for Sun Shine.  Come on pal.”

“Okay Adam, that’s a fine idea,” laughed Little Joe and surprised Adam by giving him a kiss on the cheek.  “I love ya, Adam,” whispered Little Joe into Adam’s ear.

Adam felt the water gather in his eyes and willed him self not to cry, for the sentiment had touched his heart.  “I love you to, Joe,” he smiled in reply.

*****

Clem pushed aside the barroom doors and entered the dimly lit building, Charlie followed closely on his heels.  The deputy glanced around at the group of men until his eyes found what he was searching for.  Pressed against the wall on the opposite side of the room stood Burl Morgan, a gun in his hand and pressed deeply into Roy’s chest.  Quickly, Clem moved in behind Morgan and without saying a word, pressed the barrel of his shotgun into the center of the man’s back.

Morgan stiffened as the gun barrel dug deeper into his flesh.  “Hold it right there, Morgan,” ordered Clem.

Roy moved away from the wall and grabbed Morgan’s .45 from his hand.  “Glad to see ya Clem.  I was getting’ a little worried.  Morgan, you’re under arrest,” Roy spun the larger man around and cuffed his hands behind his back.

Clem moved to the man’s right and nearly stumbled over the body that laid sprawled in the floor.  “What happened here?” asked Clem, bending down to help Charlie turn the man over.  It was then that both men spied the knife that had been shoved deeply into Chet Davidson’s stomach.

Both Clem and Charlie stared open-mouthed at Roy asking with their eyes.  “It’s a long story, but one worth repeatin’.  Let’s get Morgan over to the jail, someone get this man over to Doc Martin’s.  Come on you varmint,” Roy shoved Morgan in the back and headed him out the door, down the street toward the jail.

Once locked safely into a cell, Roy turned and smiled at his deputy and Charlie.  “I’ll tell ya all about it in a minute, first I need to get Harry Teague over here.”

“I’ll get him for you Roy,” offered Charlie turning to do Roy’s bidding.

“Charlie, make sure you bring Walter Cummings with you as well, I think he might want to hear this as well,” smiled Roy, tapping all ten fingers together in his normal fashion.

“The prosecutor?” asked Charlie, stunned at Roy’s unexpected request.

Roy nodded his head.  Charlie gave Clem a puzzling glance as he went out the door but did not stop to take the time to question the sheriff further; he figured that Roy must have his reasons.

Charlie found both attorneys leaving the café together.  “Harry, Walt,” called out Charlie, stopping both men.  “Roy needs ya both down at his office.  Ya better come quick; he’s rather excited about something, said to tell ya to hurry.”

Walt exchanged questioning looks with his competitor and without asking, all three men rushed down the street to the sheriff’s office.

Roy was sitting with feet propped on his desk; Clem rested on the corner, one long leg dangling.  Both men smiled when the pair of attorneys and Charlie entered.  Roy removed his feet from the furniture and stood, facing both lawyers as the corners of his mouth twitched and began the making of a smile.

“Well, gentlemen, I have some news that might interest you,” Roy began slowly.  “Why don’t the two of you sit down, you might need a seat by the time I am finished with my little story.”

“What’s this about Roy?” puzzled Harry Teague.

“Your client, Ben Cartwright,” smiled Roy with a gleam in his eye.

“Ben Cartwright?” questioned the surprised prosecuting attorney.  “How?”

“Well, it’s like this boys, first off, young Adam Cartwright comes barreling into my office with a note he found in his daddy’s safe. Here, you might like to read it.”  Roy pulled the slip of paper from his pocket and handed it to Harry who read it and passed it on to Walter, smiling.

Walter read the note, studied the words a mite longer than it took Harry and then handed it back to Roy.  “So?”

“So,” chimed Roy, “I sent the boy home, I didn’t want him to get his hopes up.  Then whilst I was down at the saloon havin’ it out with Morgan, Charlie here comes in like a whirlwind and gives Clem this here letter he just got from Ben.  I will let you read it later.  But to make a short story of it, Ben had forgotten all about the note he had received from Mildred Hickman asking him to hurry to her house so that they might finalize their deal.  Ben said he had completely forgotten all about it after hitting his head, but something happened at the prison to jar his memory and so he sent this letter to Charlie asking him to get the note and give it to me.”

“What’s all this leading up to Roy?  Can’t you cut through the bulk of it and just get to the point?” complained Walter who squirmed in his seat.

“Sure, to make it short, I took the note from Mildred Hickman to show it to Morgan and question him about the contents when Chet Davidson got scared and started spilling the beans on Morgan.  Seems like Morgan schemed with Davidson to frame Ben for killing the Hickman woman.  Davidson said that Morgan and he had slipped into Mildred’s house right after Ben left, hit her on the head thinking she was dead and made it look as if Ben did the killing.  Davidson took the short cut over the ridge and waylaid Ben in the dark.  He banged him on the head, smeared blood on the butt of his pistol and on his hand, left him for dead, wanted to make it look like someone was out to kill both the Hickman woman and Ben Cartwright, leaving no one to question Morgan when he produced the papers that he claimed were signed two days before Ben’s.  Unfortunately, neither Morgan nor Davidson planned on Ben not dying, so they had to come up with another way to get rid of Ben, which is why Morgan suddenly produced his own papers the day of the trial.”  Roy stopped to take a breath. “And the one thing that Morgan and Davidson didn’t figure on was the note that Mildred sent to Ben.  They had no knowledge of it, which has proved to be their downfall.”

Walter jumped to his feet, “Can you prove that Morgan’s papers were forged?” demanded the irate attorney.  Walter refused to believe that he had been suckered by the likes of a man such as Morgan was proving to be.  Walter, an upstanding citizen of Virginia City for more than thirty years, cringed at the thoughts that he might have been responsible for sending an innocent man to prison, especially one with the status of Ben Cartwright.

“Sure, all you have to do is compare the two signatures, don’t rightly know why no one thought to do that the day of the trial.  Here’s the note that Mildred wrote to Ben and here’s the papers that Morgan claims was signed by her.  Just to satisfy your mind completely, here is a document I got at the courthouse just before going to the saloon to see Morgan.  It’s a copy of her signature where she signed some legal papers last week.  The signature on these and the one on the note to Ben and his contract match completely. The signature on Morgan’s paper doesn’t even come close to matching the other two.  Does that answer your question?”

“Well I’ll be damned,” cursed Walter handing the documents back to Roy.  “Guess you and I better go pay a visit to the judge,” Walter told Harry, taking the lead and heading toward the door.  “Maybe with any luck we can have Cartwright home before the end of the month.”

The lawyers walked together with Roy to the judge’s office.  Once seated around the desk, Roy explained the situation to the judge, he told of the letter that Charlie had received and of the note that Adam had found in his father’s safe. When the judge asked to see the note, Roy readily handed over the folded paper.  The judge read the words that Mildred Hickman had penned to Ben.

 

Ben, 

Please come at once, we need to finalize our contract.  Mr. Burl Morgan and his associate, Chet Davidson, have been pestering me and making threats trying to force me to give in to their demands of allowing them the rights to my timber.  I will not rest until your signature is placed on our contract.  Please hurry.  I wait anxiously for your arrival. 

Sincerely,

Mildred Hickman

 

The judge folded the paper and returned it to Roy.  After reading the letter from Ben, explaining to his friend Charlie that he had remembered the note and asking that he have Adam open his safe so that Charlie could take the note to Roy, and after hearing Davidson’s confession as to what had actually happened, including his part in waylaying Ben, the judge smiled.  “Let’s see what can be done to get this man home to his family.”

Roy had ridden out to the Devlin’s and talked with Adam.  He, the judge, the two attorneys and Charlie had all agreed not to give Adam any false home.  It would be weeks, maybe even a month or two before they would know for sure as to whether or not the newfound information was enough to grant Ben a release and clear his name.  Until that fact could be established, they thought it best to explain to the older Cartwright son that all was being done to see that due process was being followed.  Adam, disappointed kept the new information from his brothers, not daring to have their hopes dashed at a later date.

*****

Adam made his purchase, pleased that he could find the new saddle for Joe’s pony that his father had told him he had wanted to buy for Joe.  Joe had picked it out months ago and, unbeknown to either of them, the store owner had put the saddle in the back room and saved it just for Ben to give to Joe for his birthday.  Hoss helped Adam hide the saddle under a tarp along with the few supplies that they had purchased as well and when Joe climbed up into the wagon along side of his brothers, Joe had no idea of the birthday surprise hidden behind him in the back of the wagon.

Adam and Hoss, with the help of Mrs. Devlin and her older daughter had planned Joe’s little birthday party, down to the creamy chocolate cake, baked and decorated by Hop Sing who had insisted that he be allowed to do the baking.  Hop Sing had stayed on at the Ponderosa, living in his private quarters off the kitchen and cooking now for the ranch hands that had also remained on the payroll rather than for the family that had once lived within the walls of the Ponderosa ranch house.

“What’s ya gonna wish for, short shanks?” asked Hoss as he and Joe sat alone on the Devlin’s front porch and waited for Adam to finish the last of his chores.

Joe turned sad eyes up to face his brother.  “Ain’t got but one wish, Hoss.  It ain’t gonna come true, so don’t reckon I’ll be wishin’ for nuthin’,” cried Joe, the tears beginning to form in his hazel eyes.

Hoss watched the clear pools spill over and run down his little brother’s once rosy cheeks.

“Aw Little Joe, you cain’t have a birthday party without makin’ a wish.  Why don’t ya just wish for it anyway…I still believe in miracles, Pa said never to give up hope.  Cain’t never tell, it might just come true,” Hoss tried to encourage the weeping boy, but in his own heart he feared that he might never get to see his father again.  It had been close to four months since their father had been taken away in the back of the jailer’s wagon.  Hoss had never forgotten the sight and thinking on it now brought tears to his own eyes.

Glancing down at Little Joe, Hoss knew exactly how the younger boy felt, but for the lad’s sake, Hoss could not let his brother see his tears.  Hoss scooped Joe into his arms and forced a happy smile.

“Let’s go find Sunshine and get him ready for your party.  I bet he will like riding over to our house and maybe if no one is watching, you can slip him a wee tiny piece of your birthday cake, what’ca think ‘bout that?”  Hoss hugged his brother tightly.

Joe giggled, “I didn’t know kitties liked cake, Hoss.”

“Well punkin I ain’t for sure if they do or not, but we’ll find out.  Let’s get you ready, Adam will be finished with his chores directly and we don’t want him to use the bath water afore us, now do we?” laughed Hoss.

Joe giggled again and slipped his arms around Hoss’ neck.  “I wouldn’t care if’n I thought Pa could come home.  I miss him Hoss, I wish Papa could be here to see me turn eight, stead of being locked up in that ole prison like an animal.  How much more years till he comes home?” cried Joe burying his face in the curve of Hoss’ neck.

Hoss chocked on the lump that had suddenly sprouted in his throat, years, he thought, Pa’s only been gone months and already it seemed like years to his youngest brother who had no concept of time.  Hoss had to admit to him self though that it seemed like years to him as well and thinking on such forced himself to admit that not only would he be a grown man by the time their father was freed, but Joe as well.

Hoss hid his face in his brother’s curls and whispered,  “I wish I knew, little buddy; I wish I knew.”

*****

The party guest had been carefully chosen this year.  Most of the families who had children Joe’s age were reluctant to allow their children to attend the party.  Because of the threats and the fights that had taken place at school, Adam had refused to allow his brothers to return, fearing for their welfare, had chosen instead to teach them his self with the aid of Mrs. Devlin.  Miss Jones had proved willing to help in anyway, supplying the needed materials for both boys and helping Adam to plan correctly the work suited for both Hoss and Joseph, as she fondly referred to the youngest Cartwright.

Among the invited guess were the Devlins and their children, Hop Sing, who tended all the cooking, Roy Coffee, Clem, Doc Martin and his wife, Harry Teague and his family of five children, even Walter Cummings brought his wife and two grandsons who were classmates of young Joe’s as well, Charlie and Hank, their long time trusted ranch hands and naturally Adam and Hoss completed this year’s guest list.

Adam had been asked to bring his brothers to the Ponderosa after giving each guest time to arrive.  Mrs. Devlin suggested to Adam that it might be more relaxing for Joe to arrive to a house full of company rather than to arrive early and find the house empty.  She worried that the empty house might have a negative affect on the youngster and take away from the party festivities.  Adam had considered her advice and agreed.

As Adam lowered Joe to the ground from the saddle where the smaller boy had been riding in front of him, he watched as Joe’s eyes brightened at the sight.  Hop Sing had strung the Chinese lanterns across the porch and round about the yard filling the yard with soft light from the candles hidden deep inside the lanterns.  Joe smiled and looked up at Adam then at Hoss when the sound of laughter reached his ears.

“Ya ready, buddy?” asked Hoss as they made their way to the door.

“I suppose,” Joe answered softly, slipping his smaller hand into Hoss’ larger one, making sure that Sun Shine was safely tucked into his coat.  Hoss caught the look in Adam’s eye as together the three brothers pushed opened the front door to their home.

Everyone turned at the sound and someone shouted Happy Birthday.  Happy Birthday the small crowd yelled, causing Joe’s face to burst into a wide grin, showing for the first time in over four months just how handsome the little boy could be.  The sudden burst of noise surprised the kitten hidden within Joe’s jacket and the kitty crawled from its hiding place and scampered through the crowd and into the safety of the kitchen.

Hoss and Adam joined in with their guests and everyone closed in around the small boy giving him hugs and loving pats to his back.  When the group cleared, making way for Hop Sing, Joe was surprised to see his cake glowing with eight candles and watched in fascination at the tiny flames that flickered atop the two layer caked that had been baked in his honor.

“Make a wish,” Adam whispered to Joe.

Joe looked up at his brother, puzzled, “I thought ya were suppose to have fun first, you know play games, open gifts, things like that fore ya blowed out candles.”

“Chinese custom, make wish first, blow out candles before party, wish granted before party over,” supplied Hop Sing smiling at his favorite son.

“Go ahead Joe, close your eyes and make a wish,” prompted Hoss as he nudged his brother’s shoulder.

Joe suddenly became quiet as he scanned all the smiling faces that watched him. One face, the one face with the dark loving eyes he wanted to see the most smiling at him, was missing from among the group of party goers.  Joe sniffed his nose and looked up at Adam and Hoss.

“Will you wish with me?  It will mean more if’n the two of you make the same wish with me, please?” begged Joe.

Adam, seeing that his little brother was on the verge of tears, nodded his head.  “Sure we will, won’t we Hoss?”

“Sure Punkin, whatever you want,” said Hoss taking Joe’s hand in his.

Adam reached for Joe’s free hand and together the brothers closed their eyes tightly.  The group of well wishers parted, the man stepped into the circle of light and smiled at the sight, his heart rapidly pounding within his chest as he watched.  The circle closed around the man and the boys, the group growing quiet, almost revenant and watched with expectation the upcoming scene that was fixing to unfold before them.

“Okay,” said Joe and opened his eyes and blew hard, the flames from the eight tiny candles going out at the same time.  Joe clapped his hands and smiled up at his brothers but stopped when he spied the look on each face.  Tears streamed from Hoss’ eyes, Adam’s chin quivered and Joe sensed that his older brother was on the verge of tears himself.  Neither of his older brothers gave him a thought as they stared in shock at the man, and Joe, sensing the unnatural quiet that had befallen the room, jerked his head around to see what everyone was looking at.

Time stopped; Joe stood frozen to the spot, unable to believe what his eyes were telling him about what he was seeing.  The young boy felt his knees begin to wobble, the tears strained to be free from his eyes as he stood motionless, barely breathing and unable to react. His brothers were forgotten, as were the guests, the cake and even the gifts.

“Happy Birthday son,” gleamed his father.

“Papa?” it was more of a question whispered in silent wonder.  “PAPA!” screamed out Joe when Ben stepped forward to embrace his tiny son.  “Papa, papa, you came home!”  Joe flew into his father’s waiting arms, nearly unbalancing the man who embraced him.

Ben’s face was covered with wet kisses and his son’s tears mixed with his own as he stood to his feet, the overjoyed boy held tightly in his embrace.  Ben returned the kisses and when Adam and Hoss stepped up to him, he somehow found a way to embrace the two older boys while holding on to Joe.

“Hello Adam, hello Hoss,” greeted Ben, in a happy but chocked voice as he gave in to his passion, not caring that his friends saw his tears of joy and happiness.

“Pa,” cried Hoss, “Our wish came true; ya really home.”

“Yes, son.  And I promise, I’m never leaving again,” Ben said and joined the others when they started laughing.

Adam stepped away; he wanted to look at his father.  Ben looked tired, older somehow than before he had been sent away and Adam knew that what his father had been made to endure had taken its toll on this man he loved with all of his heart.  Thoughts started to dart into his head immediately about ways in which he could help his father regain his health, and vitality, ways that he could make his father’s life easier, for a while anyway until the older man was back to feeling like his old self once more.

“Pa, how?” questioned Adam.  “What happened that they let you out?” Adam was curious to find out. “Was it the note?  What?”

“It’s a long story son; I’ll explain it to all of you later.  Right now, I want some birthday cake.  How about you Joseph, think we should cut that thing?” Ben pointed to the beautiful cake that Hop Sing had placed on the dining room table.  “I haven’t had chocolate cake in months.”

Joe refused to relinquish his hold on his father.  He still had his face buried deeply into his father’s neck and it was only after Ben had carried him in his arms to the table and sat down, did Joe at last raise his head and look into his father’s eyes.

With his tiny hands, Joe cupped his father’s face and gently rubbed at the day old growth of hair that remained on Ben’s cheeks and chin area.  The look on Joe’s face was enough to bring tears to his father’s eyes but Ben could not force him self from watching the expressions that manifested themselves on Joe’s young face.  Joe devoured Ben with his eyes, taking in everything about his father’s features, running his hands over Ben’s brows, his sideburns, down until the wee little thumbs caressed his lips, then again his cheeks and when he had satisfied himself, Joe returned his head to his father’s shoulder, the party no longer holding an interest for the small happy child.

“I love you Papa; I missed you too, but I’m glad you’re home now.  I have a new kitty, his name is Sunshine.  You don’t mind do you Papa?  He’s really a good kitty; he likes to catch mice and I promise, I’ll take care of him.  I love you, Papa.”  Joe kissed his father’s cheek and then again for good measure.

Ben laughed and squeezed his son, “Slow down Joe, let’s take care of one thing at a time.  First, I want to say, I love you as well, you too Adam and you too Hoss.  Then I want all my friends here to know how much I appreciate everything that you have done for my sons and I.  I will never be able to repay you for your kindness, but I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Ben held Joe at arms length so he could better see Joe’s face.  “As for the kitty young man,” began Ben and smiled, “I think we could use a good mouser…in the barn.”

“Oh Papa, thank you, you’ll like Sunshine, honest you will,” beamed Little Joe.

Ben’s laughter rang clear as he hugged Joe to him, “I’m sure I will, little boy, but right now, I would love a piece of your birthday cake.”

*****

The party lasted way into the night and by the time that the last guest had left Joe had fallen to sleep, securely embraced in his father’s loving arms as they sat together in Ben’s favorite chair.  At his feet, Hoss sat dozing with his head resting on his father’s legs while Adam, unable to leave his father’s side for more than a few minutes, sat on the opposite arm of the chair, his arm draped across the back just above his father’s shoulders.  With his free hand Adam stroked the new kitten that had joined the family of happy men.

Hop Sing closed the door as the last guest bid them good night and slipped the bolt lock into place and turning, smiled at that happy picture that his family made.

“Good night Mis’tr Cartlite.  Good that you are home.  Lit’le boy miss you much.”  Hop Sing bowed in respect of his boss and slipped quietly into the kitchen.

“He’s not the only one that missed you Pa.  Hoss and I did too,” confessed Adam.

“Well, I missed the three of you as well.  Thank you, Adam for everything; taking care of your brothers, the ranch and thank you for your prayers.  It means a lot to me, knowing that I have you to depend on.  I’m proud of you son, more than you could ever know, I’m proud of you.”  Ben rose from his seat, Joe still sleeping in his arms; the movement forced opened Hoss’ eyes and he rubbed them while managing to pull himself up as well.

“Thanks Pa.  I only did what I had to do.  Taking care of this little fellow was the hardest part. He’s been so unhappy and weepy, not to mention stubborn.”  Adam brushed at Joe’s long curls and smiled at his father.  “I’m glad you’re home, now you can have him back,” Adam said seriously.

Ben studied his son’s face, saw the laugh lines that had begun to form at the corners of Adam’s mouth, the twinkle in his dark eyes and began laughing.  “You don’t think you’re up to being a father just yet I take it?”

“No way Pa, not for a hundred years at least.”  Adam laid his arm about his father’s shoulders and together they followed Hoss up the stairs, laughing and joking as they went.

“Adam, about that cat you told Joe he could have…”

“Aw Pa, don’t be mad…he wanted the skunk he caught in a snare first and then he found a baby porcupine and hid it in my bed, I had a hell of a time trying to talk him out of those!”

***End***

Return to Debbie B.’s home page

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.