Word Count: 8990
“Joe! Hey, Joe!”
Turning, mildly puzzled about who would be calling to him, Joe Cartwright immediately recognized the man hailing him. It was Joel Hannings, who owned a small hotel in Carson City. The Cartwrights often stayed with him if they were breaking a journey or had an overnight stop in the other town.
“Hi, Joel,” Joe replied, smiling. “What brings you to town?” He tucked his hands down the back of his gun belt as he spoke.
“You Cartwrights,” Hannings replied, sounding annoyed.
“I don’t follow,” Joe admitted. “What does it have to do with us?”
Snorting, Hannings replied, “It’s your cousin, Frank, really. He still hasn’t paid his bill and it’s beginning to mount up.”
“What are you talking about?” Joe asked, patiently. “I don’t have a cousin Frank. The only cousin I know about is cousin Will and nobody’s seen him since he was a little boy. Are you sure you have the right Cartwrights?”
“Of course I’m sure!” Hannings snapped. “He came in and said his uncle Ben Cartwright had told him that my hotel was the place to stay in Carson City and that Ben would guarantee the bill, since he was looking for work.” Hannings peered at Joe more closely, and saw that the younger man looked genuinely puzzled. “You really don’t know anything about this, do you, Joe?” he asked abruptly, and Joe shook his head.
“No, I don’t,” Joe agreed. “But why did you believe him? Didn’t you ask for proof he was related to us?”
“Of course I did,” Hannings replied. “He showed me a picture of you all. Quite a recent one, too.” Hannings snatched off his hat and ran his fingers through his thinning grey hair. “Oh man! I bet I never see him again, and there’s a whole lot of money I won’t see either.”
“Do you have time to go over to the saloon and tell Pa?” Joe asked. “I’m meeting him there in about half an hour and I think he might want to hear this.”
“Yeah, why not?” Hannings grumbled. He looked keenly at Joe. “Who do you think this person is?”
“I don’t know,” Joe replied. “But I aim to find out,” he added firmly.
By the time Joe had completed his errands and joined his father, Ben Cartwright, in the Silver Dollar saloon, he could see that Joel Hannings had been in and delivered the bad news. Joe went over to the bar and bought himself a beer before joining his father at a table. Ben’s dark brows were drawn together in an even darker scowl.
“You saw Joel then,” Joe commented as he sat down. He didn’t phrase it as a question.
“I saw him,” Ben replied, gruffly. “If I get my hands on this ‘Frank Cartwright’, I’ll give him what-for!” The clenching and unclenching of Ben’s large hands left Joe in no doubt about his father’s ire.
“What are you going to do about it?” Joe asked, sipping his beer.
“I suppose I’ll have to go over to Carson City and see if I can find this person,” Ben replied. He sighed deeply. “Goodness knows what other bills he might have run up.”
“I’m coming with you,” Joe declared.
“Joe…” Ben began, but Joe took the risk of interrupting his father.
“Pa, Carson City isn’t that big a place, but with two of us, we can search it a lot faster than we could alone.” Joe smiled winningly. “Besides, he might be bigger than you.”
“In that case,” Ben shot back, “he’ll definitely be bigger than you!”
“But not bigger than both of us put together,” Joe quipped back and Ben actually laughed.
“All right, you can come with me. We’ll set off in the morning.” He glanced at the now-empty glass in Joe’s hand. “Let’s go home.”
Rising with Ben, Joe asked, “What did you do about Joel?”
Meeting Joe’s eyes Ben replied, “I paid him, what do you think?”
“Just checking,” Joe murmured. He’d have been astounded if Ben had done anything different.
“No way!” Adam exclaimed and crossed his arms over his chest. “If anyone goes to Carson City with you, it should be me!”
“And just why is that, big brother?” Joe asked, furiously. “What do you have that I don’t?”
“A cool head,” Adam retorted and saw Joe’s temper crank up another notch.
Sighing loudly, for his sons knew exactly which buttons to press to wind each other up, Ben intervened. “I’ve already told Joseph that he is coming with me,” he declared. “And that is final. Adam, I need you here to keep working on that timber contract. It has to be submitted in a few days. Hoss, I want you to make sure branding keeps on schedule as far as possible. I know it’s difficult when you’re three people down, but do the best you can.”
“Sure thing, Pa,” Hoss muttered agreeably. As ever, Hoss was the Cartwright who could be replied upon to keep his head while all around were losing theirs, and he didn’t mind staying at home. “Adam ‘n’ me’ll keep things runnin’ smooth here.”
For a moment, it looked as though Adam was going to argue about that, but he subsided at another look from Ben. “All right,” he agreed, ungraciously. He followed Joe upstairs and into his bedroom. “How come you’re getting to go?” Adam asked, leaning against the doorjamb. “Shirking your fair share of the work again?”
Biting his lip for a moment to control his temper, Joe drew a deep breath before he turned around. “No, perhaps it was just that I was the first person to hear about this impostor. Joel stopped me first and I sent him to Pa. All right, I suggested I go with him, but only because I had planned to go anyway.” He grinned, his good humor restored by the thought.
Grinning back, Adam guessed, “Hit first and ask questions after?”
“Only if necessary,” Joe agreed and the brothers laughed together.
Passing the door, Ben heard the laughter and shook his head. One minute they were fighting, the next they were laughing together. Ben thought that he would never figure out the relationship between his oldest and youngest sons. But whatever worked, as long as they weren’t at each other’s throats all the time, he would just leave them to get on with it. He knew the struggle Adam was having to see Joe as a grown up. It was a struggle that Ben had gone through three times and it didn’t get any easier with practice. He smiled as he went into his room to pack.
The journey to Carson City passed pleasantly for both Joe and Ben, despite their urgency to get there and find out what was going on. Joe always cherished time alone with his father and this time was no exception.
When they arrived in Carson City, they dismounted in front of Joel’s hotel. “I’ll get us booked in, and you tend to the horses,” Ben suggested. “I’ll meet you back here and we can freshen up before we go and get something to eat.” It was really too late for them to do much detective work that day.
“Good enough,” Joe agreed and led the two horses down to the next block, where the livery stable was located. “Hi there,” he greeted the stableman. “I’ve a couple of horses I’d like to stable for a day or two.”
“Sure thing, mister,” agreed the wizened little man who seemed to be in charge. “What name is that?”
“Cartwright,” Joe replied, hunting in his pocket for some money. “Joe Cartwright.”
“Cartwright?” the man echoed and his friendly demeanor vanished. “Any relation ta that Frank Cartwright?”
Sighing, Joe shook his head. So the fellow had been here, too. “Not in the way you mean,” Joe replied, wearily. “He’s claiming to be my cousin, but he’s not. How much does he owe you?”
“Four dollars!” the old man replied, angrily. “Kept his horse here for four days, and then sneaks it out through the night!” He spat in the straw to indicate his disgust. “If’n I git ma hands on him…” He didn’t elaborate the threat.
“What did he look like?” Joe asked, excitedly. “When did he take his horse?”
“Oh, bit taller than you,” the man replied. “Real fair hair, but dark eyes. Good-lookin’, I suppose. Nice manners, too. Took the horse last night.”
“Thanks,” Joe replied. They at last had something to go on. “Here.” He handed the man the four dollars owed by ‘Frank’ and another two for boarding his horses.
“Gee, thanks, young fella,” he cackled, fingering the money delightedly. “Ya didn’t have ta do that.”
“Yes, I did,” Joe replied. “I don’t want our good name ruined.”
“How much?” Ben asked, resignedly as Joe appeared in their room.
“Four dollars,” Joe replied, dropping his saddlebags on the bed and stripping his jacket off. “He also told me the guy sneaked his horse out of the livery last night. It looks like we’ve missed him.” Joe filled Ben in on the description he’d been given, which matched the one Joel had given them. “Let me guess,” he added, stripping off his shirt to plunge his hands into the warm water in the basin. “He’d got his stuff while Joel was in Virginia City?”
“That’s right,” Ben replied. His tied his neckerchief around his neck and watched as Joe finished his ablutions, marveling, as always, at how muscular Joe was. His clothing tended to hide his impressive physique, encouraging the impression that Joe was simply slim.
Surfacing from the towel, Joe grinned at his father. “Still find it strange that I don’t have any fur?” he enquired, cheekily, for both Adam and Hoss had abundant body hair, and Joe’s chest was smoothly muscled and tanned to a golden hue.
“Yes,” Ben admitted, for Joe had thick, curly hair on his head, and both his older brothers had a tendency to be thin on top. Joe had once suggested to his brothers that they were growing hair in the wrong place and had been lucky to escape with his life! Since then, it had become something of a family joke. “Come on, let’s go and eat.”
Next morning, they set off for the sheriff’s office to find out if he had had any complaints. Ben knew it was unlikely that there were none, for it seemed the hotel and the livery weren’t the only places where ‘Cousin Frank’ had made his presence felt. The saloon and the mercantile had had large outstanding bills, too. As they walked down the street, Joe’s eye fell on the brothel and he fervently hoped there wouldn’t be an outstanding bill there as well! As it was, Ben had paid out almost $100 dollars.
“Yeah, I got some complaints,” the sheriff replied, in answer to Ben’s question. “If you’ve paid the bills off, then that’s the end of it.”
“Have you heard of someone who does this sort of thing?” Ben asked. He knew he was clutching at straws, but he was desperately trying to find a reason for this man’s behavior.
“Sure, it happens,” the sheriff agreed. “But there ain’t nobody I’ve had a warnin’ about, and none o’ them tend to fit the description. They’re usually older men, not young ones.” He shrugged. “Sorry I can’t help you fellas any more. But I didn’t see him leave town.”
“Thanks for your help, sheriff,” Ben replied, shaking hands with him.
Outside the office, Ben paused. Joe tucked his hands down the back of his gun belt. He allowed his father some thinking time before asking, “What now?”
“We’d better ask around and see if we can find anyone who saw him leave town,” Ben replied. “And I’m hungry. Let’s get breakfast now the café is open.”
“I’m hungry, too,” Joe agreed. His appetite could frequently rival that of his middle brother, Hoss, especially when he was working hard. “But is it wise to go somewhere else? It’s the only café in town.”
“I know,” Ben replied, in a martyred tone. “But we’ve got to eat, especially as we’re going to be moving on.”
“All right,” Joe agreed and they walked in silence to the café.
The frustration in finding that they’d missed their quarry by only a few hours was beginning to show as Joe and Ben later made their separate ways back to the hotel. So far, nobody seemed to have seen ‘Cousin Frank’ leaving town, but since he had done it in the middle of the night, as far as they could figure, this wasn’t really surprising.
“What now?” Joe asked, flopping down on his bed. “Which way do you think he went?”
“I really don’t know,” Ben admitted. He sat down heavily on the edge of his bed and began to tug off his boots. Joe thought that was a good idea and copied his father, stripping off his socks and massaging his toes.
“Well, if he wants to continue to use our name,” Joe replied, “he’ll have to stay around this area, won’t he? If he goes further a field, he won’t find so many people willing to give him credit solely on the strength of the Cartwright name.” Joe ran a hand through his hair, mussing his unruly curls. “I’d really like to know where he got the photograph of us all from.”
“So would I,” Ben agreed, darkly. “We should’ve looked to see if any of ours were missing from home.”
“I never thought of it until now,” Joe replied. “Do you think its someone we know, Pa?”
Ben shrugged. “It’s possible. It could be someone that we’ve had working for us.”
Frowning thoughtfully, Joe replied, “I don’t remember any brown-eyed blonds working for us.”
Sighing, Ben agreed. “But I bet you would if it had been a brown-eyed blonde girl,” he joked and they both laughed.
“Mr…Cartwright?” asked Len Davidson, offering his hand to the tall blond stranger in his office.
“That’s right,” agreed the other man, shaking hands firmly. “Frank Cartwright.”
“Sit down,” Davidson invited and sat behind his desk, appraising the young man in the other chair. “I believe you said you’re a cousin of Ben Cartwright of the Ponderosa?”
“That’s right,” the young man repeated, then smiled. He had a very charming smile, Davidson admitted, knowing that the young man had set out to charm him. “Actually, Ben is my uncle,” he explained, grinning in a deprecating manner. “Adam, Hoss and Joe are my cousins.”
“I see,” Davidson replied. “And you’re here to do business on his behalf?”
“Yes, Uncle Ben is interested in buying stock in your mine, Mr. Davidson and since I have had a little experience with mines, he asked me to look at it for him.” Frank leaned over the table, his face a lesson in earnestness. “I’m going to be staying on the Ponderosa, you see and Uncle Ben is trying to find something for me to supervise, so I can be like my cousins.”
“Oh, I see,” Davidson nodded, smiling. He already knew this young man was lying; Ben Cartwright already owned stock in the mine and Davidson had seen him in town just a week ago and he had not mentioned a nephew at all, and given the length of the friendship between them, Davidson was sure he would have done. “Well, I don’t see that being a problem at all if you can wait for just a few minutes. I have to go over a couple of things in the other office.”
“That’s no trouble at all,” Frank replied, smiling charmingly again. He relaxed in his seat as Davidson left the office, but his eyes quartered the room, checking out the location of the safe and other likely valuables. He would be back to collect them that night after it was dark. Nobody would suspect him, he was quite sure of that. Why, he was a Cartwright, and everyone knew the Cartwrights were above suspicion!
Ah, what it was to be a Cartwright! he thought expansively. He had had a high old time in Carson City and left there leaving a trail of debts that would start to dent Ben Cartwright’s precious name. Satisfaction flared through the young man’s heart. It had been so good to do that, and that was just the start. “You wait, Ben Cartwright,” he whispered. “Just you wait!”
The office door opened again, and Davidson came in, smiling blandly. “All ready, Mr. Cartwright?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” Frank replied, jumping to his feet. “And please call me Frank. When someone says Mr. Cartwright, I look round for Uncle Ben!” They laughed together, and Davidson led his visitor out to look at the mine.
“Which way?” Joe asked, standing leaning against Cochise’s back. He was loath to go back home, but the trail seemed to be dead.
“Why don’t we toss a coin?” Ben asked. “Heads we go home, tails we look that-a-way.” He gestured to the west.
“Why not?” Joe agreed. It was the best they had to go on.
The coin had been tossed, spun into the air and was diving back to the ground when there was a shout from down the street. Both Joe and Ben looked up, and saw the telegraph agent running towards them, flapping a flimsy piece of paper. “Mr. Cartwright! Mr. Cartwright!”
“What is it?” Ben asked, sudden fear catching his heart. Had something happened at home?
“This just came for you, marked ‘urgent’,” the man puffed. He handed over the telegram and Ben absently handed him a coin.
“What does it say?” Joe asked, seeing the fear draining out of Ben’s face, replaced with a kind of glee.
“Read it,” Ben replied, thrusting the paper into Joe’s hand. He stooped to pick up the coin he had tossed and dropped it into his pocket.
The telegram was from Len Davidson, sent to Ben in Virginia City and forwarded on to Carson City, marked ‘urgent’ by Sheriff Roy Coffee. It read
MAN CLAIMING TO BE FRANK CARTWRIGHT HERE AT MINE STOP
COME AT ONCE STOP
LEN DAVIDSON FULL STOP
“It was sent this morning,” Joe breathed. “Less than an hour ago!”
“Yes!” Ben agreed. “I think we might have him. Come on, let’s ride!” He swung into the saddle, and Joe stuffed the telegram into his jacket pocket and mounted in one smooth, easy leap.
Together, the Cartwrights galloped out of town.
With the hope that Ben Cartwright might arrive at the mine quite soon, Len Davidson gave Frank more than just the 50-cent tour. He showed the young man all the ins and outs of the gold mine and still there was no sign of Ben. Davidson was as wily as they came and when Frank suggested that it was time he was going, Davidson didn’t demur.
Hurrying back into his office, he asked his assistant, “Did you get that wire off?”
“Yes sir,” the other man replied. “Sheriff Coffee replied and told me he was sending for Mr. Cartwright at once.”
“All right,” Davidson nodded. “Something’s slowed him up. We’ll worry about that later. Meantime, we’ve got to get all the gold out of the safe and hidden away. If I’m not mistaken, that young fellow is going to pay us another visit – and not in daylight!”
Working quickly, the gold and paper money was removed from the safe and transferred to the other safe, which was buried deep under the office shack. It wasn’t the first time Davidson had used this second safe and he didn’t suppose it would be the last. Working in such a potentially dangerous job had given Davidson sound instincts and he wasn’t embarrassed to follow them. He’d sooner look foolish than be robbed.
Perhaps another hour passed before Ben and Joe rode into the mine. Their horses were lathered and both men were covered in dust. They dismounted wearily and hitched their horses to the rail. Davidson opened the office door to greet them.
“Took your time, didn’t ya, Ben?” he asked sarcastically. “It isn’t more than an hour’s ride from the ranch to here usually.”
“We didn’t come from the ranch,” Ben replied, still panting. “We were in Carson.” He glanced all around. “I don’t suppose my ‘nephew’ is still here?”
“Nope,” Davidson replied, in a matter of fact tone and Joe’s heart sank. He hadn’t really expected to find Frank as easily as that, but he had hoped. “But I think he’ll be back after dark. Come on in and I’ll tell you all about him.”
The coffee that Davidson supplied them with was much appreciated, even if Joe did wonder privately if it had been on the stove for more than just that day. “I was suspicious straight off,” Davidson told them. “Not with standing the fact that you’re already a share-holder, I’ve only met one Cartwright that wasn’t dark haired, and that was Joe’s mama. Now, I know that ain’t much to go on, but I’ve learned to trust my instincts. And then he told me how you were looking to give him something to supervise, just like your other boys have. He was just too smooth, Ben.”
“I don’t suppose he showed you a photograph of us, did he?” Joe asked.
“No,” Davidson replied. “And of course, when I was talking to you last week, Ben, you hadn’t mentioned a nephew at all and if you had a relative coming to stay I thought you’d have said.”
Nodding his agreement to Davidson’s power of deduction Ben asked, “Why do you think he’ll be back tonight?”
“When I stepped out to send that wire to you, I was pretty sure he would have a good look round the office. I watched him through the little peephole I have over there. He didn’t move about any, but he sure had a good, long, look round, if you know what I mean.” Davidson smiled. “He was really charming, Ben.”
“So I gather,” Ben replied, stiffly. He explained how Frank had left behind a trail of bills all over Carson City. “I’ve settled them all, of course,” he concluded.
“Of course,” Davidson agreed. “Listen, Ben, this is what I was thinking. I’m pretty sure your ‘nephew’ will make his attempt to rob this place either tonight or tomorrow. I gave him the full tour and told him when the guards change and all that sort of thing. Why don’t you and Joe ride off just now, then circle round and hide where you can see what’s going on? I’ll make sure the men are all alert. If he doesn’t come tonight, then we can set this all up again for tomorrow.”
“Good idea,” Ben replied. “Where can we go?”
“Ride along the Virginia City road for about a mile and you’ll see a turn off to the left. Follow it and you’ll circle right around to the back of here, where my house is. It’s just over the hill there.” Davidson pointed out the hill. “Leave your horses there and there’s plenty of cover for you to get quite close.” He smiled. “Get yourself something to eat while you’re there.”
“Sounds good to me, Len,” Ben replied. “Thank you so much for this.”
“No problem to me, Ben,” Davidson demurred. “You’ve been a good friend to me on more than one occasion.”
Going outside, Joe and Ben mounted their horses again and rode in a leisurely fashion towards Virginia City. They found the turn off and followed the road. The house was exactly where Davidson had told them and they quickly put up the horses before making something simple to eat.
Then, it was just a matter of waiting.
Dusk was cloaking the land in soft colors as the tall, blond man made his way cautiously towards the mine. His horse was tethered a short way off, ready for a quick getaway. He grinned to himself. Being a Cartwright was a lot easier and more rewarding than he had anticipated. He had lived the life of Riley in Carson City over the last week or so and even though he had moved on, he was still finding that being a Cartwright had plenty of rewards. Take the tour of the mine that day. He had learned everything he needed to know from that fool of a manager. The gold he would get out of the safe that night would keep him in luxury for the rest of his life.
The change over of the guards went exactly to plan, with the blond man slipping through the undergrowth as the guards had a short conversation. He grinned again, savoring his triumph for a moment before making his way to the office shack.
There was a lot less cover by the office and Frank decided to be bold and act as though he belonged there. It was a ploy that had worked for him in the past and it didn’t let him down this time either. No one so much as glanced in his direction as he strolled to the office and spent a moment picking the lock before easing inside.
Or so he thought. Ben, Joe and Davidson all began to creep closer.
It was dim inside the building, but Frank didn’t bother with a light. He went straight over to the safe and began to turn the tumblers, ear pressed to the safe. But the tumblers didn’t make any distinct clicking noises, and Frank decided that a more direct approach was called for. All right, it would attract attention, but in the confusion, he would be able to grab the gold and get clean away. He had done that before, too. He pulled a couple of sticks of dynamite from under his shirt. Quickly, he set to work, and lit the fuse, backing out of the inner office, watching to make sure the fuse would stay lit. Satisfied, he turned around – and ran straight into Joe.
Of course, he recognized his erstwhile cousin immediately. Not only was he carrying the photograph of the Cartwrights around with him, but he had spent time on the Ponderosa the previous year, helping out when there had been a flood. He swung a punch at Joe.
Since he had known that Frank was in the building, Joe wasn’t surprised to find him there and he was prepared to block the punch. But Frank knew something that Joe didn’t and he wasn’t going to hang around the office fighting with Joe when there was dynamite about to go off a few feet away! Desperation leant him extra strength and he punched Joe hard on the side of the head, following up with a dirty trip. Joe clattered to the floor, dazed, crashing into the desk on the way down and winding himself. Frank raced outside.
Determined not to let Frank get away, Joe dragged himself to his feet, shaking his head to clear it. He was still gasping for breath as he staggered outside and paused for a second to get his bearings. Frank was running across the open ground towards the mine. Ben and Davidson were after him and it looked as though Frank was going to be caught.
As Joe ran after Frank, there was a large explosion. A blast of hot air hit Joe and lifted him clean off his feet. The last thing he remembered was flying through the air before he hit the ground hard and everything went black.
The blast caught everyone by surprise as bits of debris rained down on them from above. Whirling, Ben stared in horror at the body of his youngest son lying sprawled on the ground. “Joe!” he cried, barely aware of the fire that was now consuming the office. He hurried towards his son.
Falling on his knees, Ben anxiously looked at Joe, who was unconscious. There was a large graze down one cheek, his palms were skinned and the knees of Joe’s pants had gone, the flesh there grazed and covered in dirt. Ben couldn’t tell if there were broken bones or not. “Joe?” he asked, smoothing the hair back from his son’s head. “Joe, can you hear me?”
“Ugh,” Joe groaned as he regained consciousness. He could hear his father’s voice, but for the moment, his head seemed to be ringing loudly. He struggled to open his eyes. “Pa?”
“I’m right here,” Ben soothed. “Lie still, Joe, until we make sure you’re all right.”
“I’m all right,” Joe assured his father, moving to try and find a comfortable position. He rapidly discovered that there wasn’t one to be had. Every bit of him hurt, although Joe decided that it was mostly bruising, as he managed to sit up with Ben’s help. “Where’s Frank?” he asked, looking around.
“In the confusion, he got clean away,” Davidson replied. “We all ducked when the office shack went up, but he was expecting it, of course.”
Between them, Ben and Davidson helped Joe to his feet and he limped back to Davidson’s house, where Ben treated the myriad grazes and cuts that Joe bore. They all knew that Frank wouldn’t be back again that night, and so they didn’t go back out to stand watch.
“I think I’ve seen Frank somewhere before,” Joe mused, as he lay on the couch in front of the fire. His grazed knees and hands stung like mad, thanks to the thorough cleaning Ben had given them and the skin felt tight. He knew that, come morning, his knees would be incredibly stiff. Why hadn’t it seemed as bad when he had grazed his knees as a child, he wondered.
“Did you get a good look at him?” Ben asked.
“Not really,” Joe replied, thoughtfully, thinking back to his brief encounter with the man. “But he seemed familiar, somehow.”
“Like a long lost relative?” Davidson cracked and the other two smiled.
“No,” Joe grinned. “But then, I’ve never met a long lost relative, have I, Pa?”
“Not that I know of, son,” Ben replied. “The only lost relative we have is your cousin Will, my brother John’s son. I haven’t seen him since he was about five years old. When John died, Will just vanished.”
Made drowsy by the heat of the fire, Joe drifted away into a place where his mind wasn’t really following the conversation, but he wasn’t actually asleep. Ben was telling Davidson about his brother’s death and the search Ben had embarked on to try and find his nephew. And as often was the case, when the mind was thinking of something else, the elusive answer came to the surface. Suddenly, Joe knew where he had seen Frank before.
He didn’t know if he’d made a noise of some kind or not, but as Joe sat up straighter, he realized that both Ben and Davidson were looking at him. “I know who he is!” Joe declared.
“Last year, after the flood, lots of the neighbors came round to help us remove the debris from the river,” Joe began. He could picture the scene in his mind quite clearly. The Truckee River had been completely blocked, creating a huge new lake on some of the best grazing on the Ponderosa. The river below the blockage was still big, but not as big as it had been and many people were struggling to carry on with their businesses and their lives. It was going to benefit everyone to help remove the blockage.
“He was there?” Ben asked. He, too, remembered the flood and the hoards of people who had turned out to help. “How do you know? There were so many people there.”
“I know,” Joe replied. “But remember when the rope snapped and there were a crowd of us thrown into the water?” Joe spoke quite calmly, but it had been a nasty incident and a couple of men had almost drowned in the muddy, murky water, Joe being one of them.
“How could I forget?” Ben murmured, his eyes shadowed with the memories. Joe had been the first person to fall into the water, and a number of men had fallen on top of him.
“You sent Clem and me back to the house to recover and dry out,” Joe reminded Ben, even though his father didn’t need reminded. “And a couple of guys were sent with us to make sure we got back okay.” Ben nodded. Clem Foster was the deputy sheriff and he had inhaled a lot of water that day. The way Joe was talking, it was easy to picture he and Clem riding back to the ranch, joking about their dip in the water. It hadn’t been that way at all. They had both been taken back by wagon and the doctor had come out to attend to them. Ben shuddered at the memories.
“Go on,” he encouraged, anxious to get past those memories.
“I remember one of the men who carried me to my room, Pa. It was Frank. I had forgotten until now, but I remember opening my eyes and seeing him there, wondering who he was. But I was too far gone to care, really. I don’t remember seeing him again after that, but by the time I was aware of what was going on, you were home again.” Joe looked somberly at Ben. “He could easily have taken a photograph then, Pa. We had had a batch of them made up, remember? You wanted to send them to various relatives.”
“And we thought there was something about the number that had been sent to us,” Ben remembered, his eyes widening as he recalled the maddening hunt for the elusive photograph. “I’m sure you’re right, Joe. But why wait until now to use it?”
“Perhaps he’s lost his job?” Joe suggested.
“Could be,” Ben allowed. “But why us?”
“Perhaps it’s taken this fellow that long to pluck up the courage to do it,” suggested Davidson. He glanced from face to face. “Or else if he has just lost his job, it’s only just occurred to him.”
Shrugging, Joe replied, philosophically, “We aren’t going to know for sure until we catch him.”
“And how are we going to do that?” Ben asked. “He got thoroughly scared off tonight.”
“Rumor,” Davidson replied, cryptically.
“Rumor?” Joe echoed, sounding confused. “How is that going to help?” He glanced at Ben, who shrugged, equally confused.
Grinning, Davidson replied, “It’s easy. I just get the guys to start a rumor that we salvaged the gold from the remains of the safe and since we’re sure that nobody will try anything like that again, we’ve got it stored in the supply shack. It’s so flimsy a good wind could knock it over. Then we keep watch.”
“Sneaky,” Joe murmured admiringly. “I really like the way you think, Len.”
“Thanks, Joe,” Davidson grinned. “Does sound rather like something you’d come up with.”
“Why does everyone think this about me?” Joe wondered aloud.
“Perhaps because it’s true,” Ben replied. “Come on, son, I’ll give you a hand getting to bed.”
“I can manage, thanks, Pa,” Joe replied, getting stiffly to his feet. “But I am sleepy,” he admitted. “See you both tomorrow.” He limped his way upstairs, stripped off his clothes and slid between the cool, inviting sheets. He was asleep in moments.
The little roadside tavern was as good a place to hide as any, Frank thought as he sipped a cold beer. He was furious that his plan had been foiled, thanks to Joe Cartwright. He wasn’t sure quite what to do next. He knew there was enough gold in that safe to make him a rich man for the rest of his life and he deeply resented Joe’s interference.
In fact, Frank had deeply resented Joe for over a year. He had been working at the small Bar H ranch, about 15 or 20 miles downstream from the Ponderosa when the flood had occurred and he had been one of the men sent to help with the clearing up. The accident that almost claimed Joe and Clem had shown Frank just what kind of life he could have if he had the money. The opportunity to look around the Ponderosa ranch house had been a stepping-stone towards his plan. If he pretended to be a Cartwright, he could leave behind a load of bills without worrying about them. It wasn’t fair that the Cartwrights had so much and Frank resented having to help Joe when he nearly drowned. Spoiled little rich boy playing at being a man, Frank thought, scornfully. He hadn’t seen Joe working harder than most of the men and putting himself in the most dangerous positions simply because he couldn’t bring himself to ask another man to do it.
Seeing the pile of photographs, Frank had pocketed one, jealous because that was something else he couldn’t really afford and he had no pictures of his parents to remember them by. And as the months went past, and the stories of Joe’s bravery at the flood were still being told to pass the long winter nights, Frank’s resentment grew. He began to plot how he could pretend to be a Cartwright. Through gossip, he knew quite a bit about the family and when the Bar H got into financial trouble and the hands were sacked, he decided to put his knowledge to good use.
A voice at the next table caught his attention. “Sure, the boss says nobody’ll try to rob the mine again after last night. He’s put the gold into the supply shack until they can get a new safe and rebuild the office.”
“Isn’t that askin’ fer trouble?” asked the barman curiously.
“Boss says not, and he ought to know,” replied the other, who was dressed like a miner.
“Why don’t you fellas try an’ steal it?” joked the barman.
Laughing, the miner replied, “We’d be the first people they’d look at! Besides, we get good wages and there’s a lot of ore still in that mine. We’re hardly having to dig for it at all – we can pick it up with our hands.” He winked broadly at the barman. “The odd little nugget goes home with us, know what I mean?”
“I know,” smiled the barman, winking back.
Smiling into his beer, Frank knew exactly how he was going to the gold this time.
The day passed quietly for Ben and Joe. Joe had been allowed to sleep late that morning and he had been horribly stiff in the knees to begin with. However, after a warm bath, his muscles loosened up and by mid-afternoon, only an ache remained. Shortly before dusk, they made their way back to the mine and took up the positions that Davidson had told them to take.
Sitting waiting had never been one of Joe’s favorite occupations. He could sit for hours engrossed in a book, but he seldom sat very still. Even reading, he changed position regularly, tucking up one foot or the other, or putting his feet on the table, to Ben’s annoyance. Stillness had never been one of Joe’s natural qualities. Sighing softly, he resigned himself to sitting as still as he could.
On the other side of the supply shack, nearer the burned ruins of the office, Ben worried about what might happen. Would Frank take the bait and come? Or had he decided to cut his losses and leave? Would they ever catch up to him? Peering through the undergrowth, Ben tried to catch a glimpse of Joe, but failed. All they could do now was wait.
Light rain set in with the darkness and Joe turned up his jacket collar, hunching his shoulders against the cold. He wondered how long they would stay there, waiting for someone who might not turn up at all. He was already bored and stiff, his slender store of patience wearing thin. He felt like he had been sitting there for days, not just a couple of hours.
Something moving in the corner of his eye brought Joe to full alertness. He peered into the uncertain light, wondering if he had seen a rabbit or a bird. Right now, he couldn’t see anything and he blinked hard. Seconds later, he was rewarded by another furtive moment, and this time he could see that it was a man in dark clothes, almost invisible against the darkness. Joe’s breathing quickened. Their quarry had come!
If it had been difficult for Joe to sit still before, it was almost impossible now. He itched to get into action and Adam’s words floated back to him; “hit first and ask questions after?” Joe grinned tightly. That seemed all right to him.
But still he waited, anxious for the pre-arranged signal that would put them all into action. Nearer and nearer came the figure and Joe’s breath shortened in anticipation. But still there was no signal. Joe began to wonder if nobody else had seen the intruder.
When the figure was no more than a few feet from the shack, there was a sudden sharp burst of coughing from one of the men in concealment. At once, the figure turned to flee, and Joe realized that he couldn’t afford to wait for the signal any longer. He was probably the closet person and he dived from his hiding place to confront the fleeing figure.
It was definitely Frank, Joe noted as he crashed into the man and bore him to the ground. He caught Frank by surprise, but the advantage didn’t last long. Frank was taller than Joe and determined that he wasn’t going to be caught. The scuffle started to turn nasty.
Suddenly, Frank threw a punch that got through Joe’s defenses, striking him hard on the side of his head near his eye. Joe lost his grip and fell off Frank, who scrambled to his feet and began to run. Joe shook his head and pushed himself up, racing after Frank. His blood was thoroughly up and he wasn’t going to let him get away again!
Leaving his feet, Joe dived at Frank’s legs, bringing them both crashing to the rocky ground. Frank kicked desperately to get rid of Joe, but Joe managed to avoid the worst of the kicks and they were soon slugging it out again.
From below them, they could hear the sounds of people running, and Frank realized that Joe wasn’t alone. He had known that, subconsciously, but hadn’t allowed himself to think about it. Now, he figured that perhaps his only way out was to take a hostage with him, and Joe was his only chance. Galvanized, Frank scrabbled frantically with one hand and found a large rock. In one smooth movement, he crashed it off Joe’s head and Joe went limp.
Scrambling to his feet, Frank bent and grabbed Joe’s jacket, hauling the other man to his feet, snagging his gun and putting it to Joe’s head. Joe was semi-conscious, having partially avoided the blow. He struggled, but Frank had one arm twisted up behind his back and a cocked gun at his head.
“Don’t come any closer!” Frank shouted at Davidson, Ben and the others who were converging on them. “Come any nearer and I’ll kill him!” He jerked Joe’s arm up higher to make his point. Joe groaned.
Skidding to a halt, Ben froze, gazing in horror at his son. “What do you want?” he asked.
Although his only thought had been escape up until that point, Frank suddenly realized he had a great bargaining tool. “I want the gold, and I want to get out of here,” he replied. “Get the gold, and when I’m away from here, I’ll let Joe go.”
“What do you want to do, Ben?” Davidson asked.
“Get him the gold,” Ben replied. His gaze was still fixed on Joe.
Following Ben’s gaze, Davidson nodded. “All right,” he called. “I’ll get the gold.”
“Drop your guns first,” Frank ordered. “And don’t try anything.”
They did as they were told. Reluctantly, Davidson turned away, heading to get the gold. Suddenly, he realized that one of his best men was nowhere to be seen. A tendril of hope crept into his heart. He glanced from side to side as he picked his way carefully down the rocky slope and spotted his missing man just before he went inside the supply hut. He hoped that Ben was concentrating on Joe, for the look on Ben’s face would likely have given away the fact that Davidson was not going to hand over any gold. He lifted the saddlebags full of rocks that had been planted in the shack and went back out.
Nothing had changed. Joe still stood rigid in Frank’s grip. Davidson made his way back up the slope, carefully not glancing to left or right. He didn’t want to give away his man’s position. Glancing briefly at Ben, Davidson stopped, holding out the bags. “Here.”
As he had expected, this created a dilemma for Frank. He didn’t want Davidson to throw the bags at him, but he certainly didn’t want Davidson to come any nearer. After a pause, Frank ordered, “Throw them carefully to the ground, over here.”
Davidson did as he was told. The bags didn’t land that close to Frank, who was forced to move Joe forward a few steps. “Now, nice and easy,” Frank told Joe. “You lean down and get those bags. I’ll still have the gun aimed at you and I’m not letting go of you. Don’t try anything.”
Gritting his teeth, Joe did as he was asked. Slowly, because he was still dizzy from the blow to the head, he bent down, feeling the pull on the back of his shoulder from the grip Frank had on his arm. He closed his hand around the bags and there was a shot from the darkness. His arm was hauled backwards and up in a direction nature had never intended and there was a horrific crack and pain consumed Joe’s arm and shoulder with such intensity that the world went dark around him.
The shot startled everyone, and they watched as Frank arched backwards, a red flower blossoming on his chest as he arched backwards before toppling to the ground. Joe let out an animal sound of pain before crashing to the ground. The crack as his arm broke and his shoulder popped out of its socket was audible to all the men.
“Joe!” Ben cried and raced to his fallen son as Davidson scooped up his gun and raced to cover Frank.
He saw at once that he didn’t have to worry about the younger man. Frank was not long for this world. “Ben?” he called. “I don’t think he’s got long.”
Covering Joe with his coat, Ben turned to look at his ‘nephew’. “Why?” he demanded bitterly. “Why did you pretend to be a Cartwright?”
“Why…not?” panted the other. “It… got… me…what… I… wanted. And… your… reputation… isn’t… so… good… now… is… it?” He laughed, but it ended in a cough and bright blood splattered his lips. His breathing grew even more labored.
“No damage has been done to my reputation,” Ben told him. “No one has suffered because of you. Someone told us about you, precisely to stop our reputation being damaged. A good name isn’t really that easy to sully.”
“I… hate… you,” Frank wheezed. His eyes dipped shut and after a moment, the labored breathing stopped.
“He’s gone,” Davidson announced, unnecessarily.
Silently, Ben turned his attention back to Joe. He knew that Joe’s arm was broken and that his son would need to see a doctor as soon as possible. “Len, can we borrow a buckboard?” he asked.
“I’ll get it hitched right away,” Davidson agreed and sent men off to do that and get the Cartwright’s horses.
Meantime, Ben gently moved Joe’s arm from the awkward position up his back. The pain brought Joe screaming back to consciousness and he began to struggle.
“Easy, Joe, easy,” Ben soothed. “It’s all over, son.”
The familiar voice penetrated the fog of pain and Joe drew in a deep breath. It hurt, but he felt a bit calmer. He opened his eyes and saw Ben leaning over him. “Pa, are you all right?” Joe asked.
“I’m fine,” Ben replied. “You’re the one who’s in trouble again, young man.”
Smiling faintly, Joe closed his eyes to better bear the pain. “Frank?” he asked.
“Frank’s dead, Joe,” Ben replied. He told Joe what had happened, smiling at the sharp shooter who had saved his son’s life. Joe grunted to indicate he understood, but he didn’t air his opinion about what had happened. He needed to concentrate on not letting the pain take over.
Before long, the buckboard was brought over and Joe was gently lifted into it. The movement caused rivers of agony to pour outwards from his shoulder and Joe drifted in a mindless delirium for most of the journey into Virginia City. He was aware of Ben’s constant murmurings of comfort and he clutched his father’s hand to show he was listening, but speech was beyond him.
When the wagon eventually jolted to a halt outside the doctor’s office in town, it was the blessed absence of movement that tipped Joe over the edge into unconsciousness. He let his body relax and the pain took over, consuming his mind and he welcomed the darkness. He was therefore unaware of being transferred to the surgery, but he opened his eyes again a short time later.
“How do you do it, Joe?” Doc Martin asked, in a friendly tone when he saw his patient opening his eyes. “This is going to sting,” he added as he wiped Joe’s face with an antiseptic solution.
“Ow!” Joe whimpered pitifully, as the stinging on the side of his face increased.
Grinning at Ben, Paul scolded, “Stop being such softie.” He was pleased to see Joe’s eyes were quite clear and Joe seemed to be aware of his surroundings. Certainly, the scornful grunt Joe gave in reply seemed to indicate that he wasn’t badly injured apart from his arm.
Normally, Paul Martin preferred to set a dislocated shoulder while the patient was conscious, since any anesthetic was dangerous. However, since Joe’s arm was also broken, he had no choice but to anaesthetize Joe. But first, he checked him out, asking questions and shining a light into Joe’s eyes. Satisfied that there was no concussion, he sat back. “All right, Joe, now comes your favorite part. Please don’t fight this off, huh?” He produced the chloroform.
Almost at once, Joe started to try to back away. He knew how sick he would feel when he woke up, and despite what Paul had said, he resisted with all his might and main. But eventually, Joe had to breathe in the fumes and he was soon asleep. Ben looked both nauseated and relieved.
Soon, Paul had set Joe’s arm and reduced the dislocation. He splinted Joe’s arm and wrapped it in layers of bandages before securing it tightly across his chest. Satisfied with his handiwork, Paul leant back with a sigh. “His arm should heal with no complications, Ben,” he told his friend. “Until Joe’s awake, I won’t know for sure that his shoulder is correctly in place. It’s always more difficult to be sure when its been out of the socket for quite a while. However,” he added, seeing the look on Ben’s face, “I don’t anticipate problems and I’m not criticizing your decision. You did the right thing in bringing him here.” He patted Ben’s arm. “Coffee?”
“Thank you, Paul,” Ben replied. He sat down beside Joe and took his son’s uninjured hand. He knew he would be giving Joe quite a bit of help in the coming weeks, as it was Joe’s left arm that had been broken and his son was fiercely left-handed. “When can I take him home?”
“In the morning,” Paul replied, handing Ben a cup of steaming coffee. “When you’ve both had a little sleep.”
It never ceased to amaze Ben how fast news traveled in the country. Adam and Hoss arrived at the doctor’s office the next morning. However, just for once, it wasn’t the power of gossip that had sped their footsteps, but word from Len Davidson, who had sent them a message. Adam and Hoss had brought the Ponderosa buckboard and sent the mine buckboard back with a ranch hand. They plied Ben and Joe with questions as Joe was assisted into the buckboard, where he leant wearily against Ben on the journey home.
It was difficult to talk over the jolting of the buckboard, especially when Adam was on horseback, so the older two sons had to wait until they were home before they heard the story. Joe was settled on the settee in front of the fire, with Hop Sing clucking attendance around him and between them, Ben and Joe told the story.
“Davidson’s a good man,” Adam said, after the story was finished.
“The best,” Ben agreed.
“I jist cain’t figger that Frank fellar,” Hoss murmured. “What good would it a done him ta ruin our reputation?”
“I don’t know,” Ben sighed. “I really don’t know.”
“He was jealous,” Joe replied. “And jealousy often wants to destroy what it really covets.”
“That’s profound,” Adam admired.
“Don’t you agree?” Joe asked.
“I completely agree,” Adam told him, smiling.
“An historic day,” Ben commented, smiling, too. “Joe and Adam are agreeing.”
“I suspect we both agree on something else, too, Pa,” Adam replied. “I think we both agree that we appreciate what it is to be a Cartwright.”
“Sure do,” Joe nodded and Hoss chimed in his agreement, too.
Smiling, Ben knew that for him and his sons, there was nothing better than to be a Cartwright.