Summary: Little Joe has a feeling someone has been watching and following him Then chilling words from Hop Sing give him some idea who it is but he has to wait to find out the reason why.
Word Count: 1680
Having lunch with his brothers in the shade of a thick willow tree, Joe Cartwright felt safe. It was a feeling he enjoyed because he hadn’t felt it much recently. Much of the time recently, he felt ill-at-ease when he was alone thinking he was being watched or followed, but he could never find a reason to believe it was true. It seemed that someone was following him whenever he went anywhere, but if he looked, he never saw anything, not even a shadow. Sometimes he thought he heard something behind him, but if he looked or went to check, nothing and no one was there. He didn’t tell his brothers about these things, but Adam asked repeatedly why he was so on edge. Hoss wanted to know why he was so ‘jumpy’, and after rebuffing all efforts to find out why, he finally told them. Munching on their lunches, neither made any teasing remarks but were serious. Finally, Adam looked at him and told him what he thought he ought to do.
“I think it might be best if you don’t ride anywhere alone.”
“You believe me?”
“Is there a reason we shouldn’t?”
“Yeah, little brother, is your gut feelings not to be trusted?”
Before he could answer, Adam explained his reasoning. “Listen, Joe, we’ve all been there. Plenty of people have reason to be upset with a Cartwright or two. So, we watch each other’s backs. If you’ve had that many episodes of feeling someone is watching you or following you, someone probably is. It’s best to be safe.”
Later as they rode home, Chubb stumbled hard in a hole, and Hoss had to dismount. Adam said he’d stay with him and Joe could send a hand with a fresh horse for Hoss to ride. The three could see the ranchhouse from where they were so none of them thought there was a reason to worry.
When Joe rode into the yard at home though and saw one hand wounded and two others tending him, he rushed into the house. Hop Sing was being cared for by Ben who had a nasty gash on his head. Ben had pressed a large bandage against his friend’s wound, but the cotton cloth was soaked with blood.
“Somebody hit me from behind, but Hop Sing was knifed.”
“I’ll get Doc Martin and Kam Lee too.”
Hop Sing struggled to sit up and was vehement in his statements to Joe. “No, danger. Watch for dragon tattoo. Girl. Danger. Knife.” Hop Sing had to struggle to say the words but his fear for Joe was clear.
Joe knelt down beside the settee. “Who has a dragon tattoo? What girl? What’s the danger?”
But Hop Sing fell back and passed out. He could offer no more information.
“Joe, wait for your brothers or take some hands with you.”
“Hop Sing can’t wait, and the hands here are helping one of the other men who needs it. Adam and Hoss are waiting for a horse and won’t be back for a while. Hop Sing can’t wait.”
Unwilling to delay any longer, Joe rushed from the house and rode hard for town. His first stop was Doctor Martin’s office. He first had to wait for him to finish with a patient and then had to help Doctor Martin hitch up his carriage. With all that time, it was dark before he was able to get Cochise, water him, and head to Chinatown to locate Doctor Kam Lee. When he got to that area, he didn’t see anyone. All the businesses were closed and no one was in the street. It was odd. A few lanterns were burning but otherwises there was no sign of occupation. He shouted to try to get some attention and some information because he didn’t know where Kam Lee lived.
“Hey, where is everybody?”
A young woman came out from the shadows and demurely pointed that he should go to the right. Smiling at her, he thanked her ad turned to walk that way and had taken only a few steps when a shot rang out and the girl fell to the ground behind him. He drew and spun around expecting danger only to see that the girl was down on the ground and a long knife lay beside her. Adam emerged from the shadows. When he got to her, he pulled back her wide sleeves uncovering a dragon tattoo on her arm.
“I got here earlier and saw her waiting. She didn’t see me in my black clothes. When I got home, Hop Sing told me what to look for and told me to be extremely careful. Apparently General Mu Tsung’s family sent some retribution for what happened over Su Ling. He wanted you killed.”
“Why didn’t you yell or something? Did you have to kill her?”
“She’s a highly trained assassin according to Hop Sing. That’s why there was no one out here. They were afraid. You saw what she did at the house.” Looking down at the slight build of the woman, Adam knew that many would find it hard to believe. “We have witnesses to what she could do. Lucky for Pa and the others, she was looking for you at the ranch so she had no interest in killing anyone else. If she did, we’d be burying our father and Hop Sing. Now, there may be someone else whose job is to kill you so watch out for anyone approaching us. She might have had some people helping her. We need to get out of here and get back home.”
“Do we have to worry forever that they’re going to try to kill me?”
“According to Hop Sing, no. But no one here will help us right now because they don’t want word to get back to General Mu Tsung’s family that they helped the white devils. The odds are that they won’t try again. They tried and did their best to avenge him. Honor should hopefully be restored by the effort. We’ll have to see if it’s enough.”
“I guess we know who’s been watching me and following me these last couple of weeks.” Joe shivered a bit knowing that he could have been killed with that blade and left out on the road or on the Ponderosa range to bleed out. “Hey, thanks for saving my life. Where did you leave Sport?”
“I didn’t ride Sport. I took a fresh horse after what Hop Sing said. I wanted to get here as fast as I could. He’s tied up not far away.”
After retrieving Cochise, Joe walked with Adam to where he had left his horse. By then, there were a few men who had come to see what the shot had been. Adam shrugged when they asked so Joe did the same. All he said was it seemed to come from over in Chinatown. No one wanted to go look there so most turned around to head back to whatever business they had been conducting when they heard the shot.
“Why didn’t you tell them what happened?”
“They’ll handle it in their own way over there. Besides, would you want the sheriff asking why you shot a little slip of a girl like that? I don’t.”
“No, I could about see the look on Roy’s face when you told him the story.”
It would never have matched the looks on their faces though when they got to where Adam had left his horse. The horse was gone and had been for some time. There were no droppings or tracks. The saddle and tack were all neatly stacked as if waiting for someone to bring a horse. On top of the stack was a small dagger with a dragon handle. Apparently, they had let Adam take care of the assassin, but a message was being sent. Adam assumed that he and Joe were being warned off from doing anything more. Someone there didn’t like that the assassin had come either. It suited their purposes to have the Cartwrights eliminate her, but they had been watching and probably still were. Despite his irritation at the act of stealing his horse, Adam nodded and put up his hand in acknowledgement.
“Adam, you can’t let them get away with this.”
“Joe, you’re safe. That’s all that matters. They clearly didn’t mind that I killed her. I’ll take care of this and get another horse. We’ll ride home.”
“They could have helped us.”
“No, they wanted us to take care of her so they wouldn’t have a hand in it.”
“So they let us take care of their little problem. We could have been killed.”
“Yes, and again, they wouldn’t have had a hand in it. If they had, there would have been more retaliation. So what do you say? Do we ride home now and see how Pa and Hop Sing are doing?”
There were so many things Joe wanted to say, but he noted Adam’s demeanor and the grave expression he had. Joe did his best to think and not act on his emotions. When he thought he had the right answer, he looked at his oldest brother.
“I’ll ride with you and watch your back. It’s over.”
In the shadows, men watched the Cartwrights ride out of town and agreed that a favor was owed. It would be repaid when it was needed. They went to bury the girl with the dragon tattoo. By now, her handler would know she had not killed young Cartwright and he would be returning to give that notice. It would likely mean his death, but that was the nature of his business and the price of failure. Most likely the family would consider the whole matter cursed and never speak of it again.