Summary: When Joe and Mitch befriend two orphaned boys and try to help them, Ben has no idea where this new friendship will lead his youngest son. It would actually prove to be Ben’s spur-of-the-moment decision that would lead to disaster. All parents have acted in haste and he just prays he has time to set things right again.
Word Count: 60,173
Disclaimer: All publicly recognisable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
I should probably say at the start that I know Roy and Paul weren’t in the early episodes, but for the sake of my story, they are the best fit for the job, being Ben’s friends. Please also keep in mind, I’m not American, so my knowledge of pre-Civil War politics and geography is limited. Much like Joe’s probably was! I have also had a couple of comments that Ben is out of character in this tale – usually from people who didn’t read it to the end. Nevertheless, please keep in mind this a prequel story and not the Ben Cartwright we know and love in Season 14. Remember A Rose For Lotta!!!
Ben found his thoughts wandering once again even as he pushed his horse onwards. He was aware of two of his sons riding along on either side of him, but it had been some time since any of them had spoken much more than a handful of words.
He was a fool and with each mile of dirt that passed under his horse’s hooves, he prayed that the old adage would at least play out in his favour. He had certainly acted in haste and he hoped that he would be granted the time to repent at leisure. That and to beg his son’s forgiveness. The alternative was simply unthinkable. The clipped telegram had sent the three of them racing off towards Riversbend, but it did nothing to answer his multitude of questions.
Almost two months earlier:
“No! Please don’t!”
The defiant pleas were growing weaker as the sobs began to take over. The heavy leather belt slammed down on the back of his legs again and again and he gripped onto the edge of the table as tightly as he could. His chest heaved as the pain radiated up from his lower legs and it was all he could do to keep himself upright.
“That’ll learn ya, ya little runt! You wanna backtalk me again and next time I’ll double it!”
Matthew squeezed himself into the gap between the kitchen dresser and the half open door and prayed that he would not be next. They had been late coming home and Walter wasn’t none too happy about it.
“You was with that Cartwright kid, weren’t ya?”
Derek felt his knuckles were throbbing as he gripped onto the edge of the table and he tried to shake his head. “No, Sir.”
“Don’t you lie ta me, boy!” The sour smell of stale whiskey wafted across towards him and Derek flinched.
Derek tried to stand upright, but his legs almost betrayed him. No matter what it cost him in loss of skin, he would not give the man the satisfaction of sharing the truth with him. He’d only been near Joe because Matthew had followed the older boy after school and Joe had stopped to talk to him and share a bag of sweets. The few moments of joy on his brother’s face were worth keeping his tongue in check for. He would not allow the old drunk to lay a hand on Matthew if he could help it.
Finally Walter grabbed at the back of Derek’s collar and shoved him towards the doorway.
“I saw ya with him. Now don’t you go gettin’ any ideas in that thick skulla yours, boy! The likes o’ them Cartwrights ain’t gonna waste their breath on the likesa you ‘less there’s someit in it for them!” Walter grinned at the boy he was shouting at and laughed outright at the pain on his face. “Now, get outta my sight you little mutt! And git that little brotha of yours outta here too.”
As Derek grabbed his brother’s arm, the two of them ran for the door and barreled out into the darkness outside. They didn’t stop until they reached the outer wall of the derelict barn and hunkered down beneath the rain sluice. It would be another hour or so before it would be safe enough to head back inside. Walter would be sound asleep, slumped over a bottle of whiskey and the two boys would be free to ferret around for whatever scraps of food they could find before crawling into a single bunk together. With any kind of luck, it would be enough of a drinking binge for Walter to sleep through the morning and they would be well on their way to school before he woke up.
Joe leaned against the railing and watched as Derek and Matthew trudged towards the schoolhouse. He’d been afraid they might not show again after two days absence and was about to turn for the door when he spotted them coming. He couldn’t define what it was about the pair that drew his attention and he’d brushed off Mitch’s questions, partly because he couldn’t answer them for himself. There was just something that tugged at his sense of right and wrong that unsettled him when it came to the two new brothers who had shown up a couple of weeks earlier.
Matthew’s face lit up, but Derek couldn’t muster a smile. His movement was stilted and slow and Joe knew from bitter personal experience that the boy had most likely taken a tanning from his father. Derek barely nodded in Joe’s direction until he drew level with the older boy. Joe’s face had twisted into a suspicious frown and it was clear he would have asked a question if Miss Jones hadn’t chosen that moment to step onto the porch and ring the bell for the start of the day. Derek shook his head at Joe and the trio made their way towards the teacher without speaking. Joe didn’t miss the way Matthew licked his lips as he glanced at Joe’s loaded lunch pail. The seven-year-old was small for his age, but the clothes he wore were far too big for him and the cuffs were rolled up. Most of the younger children in the school wore hand-me-downs of some sort with Joe being one of the few exceptions. He knew it was because Hoss’s clothes would never sit the same way on his scrawny frame, but he’d heard whispers from time to time about how spoiled the Cartwright boys were to always have new clothes and never went without anything.
He shrugged off the thought as they entered the classroom and Matthew reluctantly made his way forward to where the younger children sat and Derek settled himself in a middle row. Joe smiled at him as he dropped into a seat next to Mitch and he soon found himself buried under a pile of unsolvable arithmetic questions. He couldn’t wait for the school day to end and it had only just begun.
Derek, on the other hand, lapped up whatever scraps of schooling he could get. It had been several years since he’d sat in a classroom on a daily basis without having to fight for the privilege and he’d missed it. His agile brain enjoyed the challenges that each new subject brought his way and his reading level had been well beyond that of his peers. His father had brought him new books as he could afford to and he’d eagerly devoured each new offering from cover to cover, only to turn back and start it all over again, getting lost in the adventure anew.
He felt the weight of despair begin to settle over his shoulders and he tried to shake it off as if it were not there. His father would never again bring him a new book, or anything else for that matter. His father was lost at sea and would never come back for him as he’d promised.
The morning droned on, but eventually the class was let out into the midday sun. As Joe and Mitch made their way towards a group of older boys, both of them noted Derek and Matthew holding back on the porch. Neither boy had a lunch pail or satchel of any kind and Joe recalled the way Matthew had looked at his when he first arrived at school. He paused for a moment before turning back towards the stairs.
“Hey, you hungry?”
Matthew almost leaped off the stairs, but Derek hauled him back. Joe noted the look of embarrassment on Derek’s face and he hesitated, unsure of what to do next. It was Mitch who saved him by nudging at his elbow.
“You’ll be doin’ Joe a favour if you take some of this off his hands. He gets inta awful trouble with Hop Sing if he takes any of it home and his pa’s always complainin’ that he don’t eat enough. Just look at him! He’s all skin and bones, but even he can’t possibly eat all of what’s in there.”
Matthew looked up at Derek, pleading silently to be allowed to move again. Derek noted the quirk of a smile on Joe’s face as he nodded at Mitch’s ridiculous explanation. It was enough to allow him to save face and he grinned as Matthew began to wolf down a thick slab of bread and ham. Joe held out the other half of the sandwich in his direction and any resolve he had left suddenly evaporated.
Over the following week, the tentative friendship continued to develop, despite the fact that Derek was almost two years younger than both Mitch and Joe. Every day that they showed up to school, the two boys found themselves sharing in whatever had been packed into Joe’s lunch pail. Derek hated taking what he knew to be charity, but he could not ignore the constant ache that gnawed at his belly. He’d seen and heard enough to know that Joe Cartwright had more than enough to share around and unlike others they’d met along the way, he didn’t rub their faces in it while doing so.
There would be days where neither boy would turn up for school and each time they came back, Derek would be moving awkwardly. Any attempt to ask him about it would be met with an instant shutdown.
One lunch break, Joe stood in the yard and waited as Derek tried to evade his questions. The younger boy tried chewing slowly, but Joe would not be put off by that tactic. He knew it only too well and it never seemed to work on his father either.
“Come on, Derek. I thought we were friends!” Joe stood with his hands on his hips and waited for an answer. “My pa has tanned me plenty of times.”
“He’s not our pa!” Matthew blurted out before Derek kicked at his shin.
“Shut up!” he hissed at the smaller boy.
Joe frowned as he watched the two brothers growing more uncomfortable by the minute. His mind was racing with questions, but he noted Derek’s gaze shift to his feet. He knew that look too. It was the one he used when he wished he was a thousand miles away from whoever was interrogating him. He tried a different tack instead.
“Don’t matter. You wanna try some of this blueberry pie?” He held out the slab of pie like a peace offering and Matthew was almost drooling in anticipation. He broke it into pieces and Mitch noted that both he and Joe only got a sliver while both Derek and Matthew got the bulk of it. Derek had noticed it too, but kept quiet as he watched Matthew devouring his share. When the younger boy had finished, he silently handed over his piece and Matthew grinned at him as blueberry dribbled down his chin. The look on the boy’s face was worth the sacrifice.
Joe barreled into the kitchen after school and almost knocked into Hop Sing. He reached for the wooden canister where the cookies were kept and Hop Sing slapped at his hand.
“Aw c’mon, Hop Sing. I’m starving!”
“You always starving, but you no grow. Eat more food than Number Two son!” As Hop Sing relented and allowed Joe to swipe a handful from the canister, he tried to hold back a grin. It was good to see his youngest boy finally developing an appetite. Most nights, Joe would devour whatever was put before him instead of arguing with his father as he used to do. If he had known the truth of the matter, that Joe was going without lunch most days, Hop Sing would have thrown a fit.
“Pa, can I ask you something?”
Ben put down the papers he was reading and looked across the desk at his youngest son. Joe fidgeted in front of him and he groaned inwardly at what possible trouble his boy could be in. It had been several weeks since he’d had a note home from school so he figured he was probably overdue for something.
“Of course you can.”
Joe swallowed hard and tried to look up to meet his father’s eyes as was expected of him. The subject matter had been churning through his mind for weeks and it had set off an uncomfortable train of thought.
“Pa, if something happened to you … is …”
Ben felt a lump form in his throat at the beginning of the question and knew exactly where his son was going. He just didn’t know why. Joe’s insecurities over losing his father were well known in the family, but it had been a long time since it had raised its head and he’d hoped his son had outgrown it. Apparently not.
“Joseph?” Ben waited as his son continued to fidget before finally looking up at him again. “What do you want to know?”
“If something happened, would Adam be old enough to take care of me or …”
“Or what, Son?”
“Or would I have to go to an orphanage. Since I’d be … you know … an orphan?”
Ben stood up and walked around the desk towards his son. Joe was staring at him, almost holding his breath in anticipation of the answer. “Let’s sit down over there.” Ben guided him towards the sofa and settled Joe before him, before seating himself on the table in front of his boy.
“Joe, I can’t guarantee nothing will ever happen to me, but Adam is old enough to take legal custody of you and Hoss. You would not be sent anywhere.”
Joe chewed at his lip, in a giveaway sign that he was troubled. Ben reached for his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. When the boy didn’t respond, he tried again.
“Joe? Do you understand me?”
“But what if Adam didn’t want to?”
It was a question that startled the father and he had never considered that Joe could even think such a thing.
“Why wouldn’t Adam want to take care of you and your brother? He loves you both very much.”
When Joe didn’t answer, Ben reached a finger under his chin and forced him to look up. Unshed tears shone in his eyes and Ben felt his chest constrict. Joe had been through his share of fears at losing his father, but this was new. Something had gotten into his head and Ben was determined to find out what it was.
“Hoss can do everything that Adam needs him to. He could run the ranch with Hoss’s help. I can’t do much of nothin’, ‘cept cause him grief.”
Ben almost smiled at the description, but the look of distress on his son’s face was far too raw. Adam’s words from the night before had come about after an argument between his eldest and youngest. While Adam had overreacted, Joe had made sure to push him to his limit. Both of his sons had needed time to cool off and he thought things were settled between them. Perhaps not.
“Joe, you are capable of a great many things. Your skills with the horses are growing and with time, you will be a great asset to this ranch.”
“Adam don’t think so!”
Ben sighed. It wasn’t so far from the truth. Since Adam had come home, he’d found Joe more of a nuisance than a help. The boy’s eagerness to show his older brother what he could do didn’t always go to plan. If it weren’t for Hoss running like a balm between the two of them, Ben wasn’t sure what would have happened.
“Your brother hasn’t been around to see you growing up and he sometimes forgets that you are not still a little boy.”
“I’m almost fourteen!” Joe’s indignant cry brought a flicker of a smile to his father’s face and he nodded.
Suddenly Joe sobered and looked up at his father again.
“Pa, how old do I havta be to be in charge of myself?”
“You have a ways to go yet, Son.”
“How old, Pa?” The tone was insistent and Ben barely held back a frown.
“The law says you are a man at twenty-one.”
Joe scowled at the revelation. “But that’s years away!”
“And that’s why you have a family who have legal responsibility for you until you get there.”
Ben was still no closer to understanding why this line of questioning had even come up so he prodded gently again.
“Joe, why are you so worried about all of this?”
“What if Adam wasn’t around neither? Could Hoss take care of me instead?”
Ben felt his insides churning at the direction things were going. “Hoss isn’t old enough yet. But you don’t need to worry about these things, Joe. I have a will and Hiram would see to it that you are all taken care of if anything ever happened to me.”
“I wouldn’t get sent to no orphanage?” Joe’s look was almost pleading with him to deny the thought.
“No Joe. Nobody would send you to an orphanage.” Ben shook his head emphatically as he answered. What did his son know of orphanages? There were no orphans in Virginia City as far as he was aware. At least not ones that were under their majority.
Joe heaved a deep sigh as he nodded slowly. From what Derek had told him of orphanages, it wasn’t the kind of place he ever wanted to see inside. Orphanages could send you to live with people who hated you and beat you. And orphans had no rights to argue back.
Ben leaned back in the chair and took a swallow of his coffee. Roy may be a good friend, but his coffee was certainly not the reason anybody ever called on the sheriff. It often sat brewing away on the stove while Roy was out and about and Ben wondered if his old friend ever remembered to actually wash out the pot between brews. As he tried to scrape the grit of coffee beans off his tongue without being too noticeable about it, he noted Roy watching him.
“What’s the boy done this time?”
“Huh?” Ben jolted back to the room and noticed Roy smiling at him.
“Whenever you get that look on your face, it’s a sure bet you’re wonderin’ just how much of his mother that young fella of yours inherited. Leastways that easier than thinkin’ on how much he takes after his pa!”
Ben laughed outright at the smirk on Roy’s face and knew he’d been caught out. It wasn’t the first time he’d wondered aloud if Joe had more of his mother’s Southern sense of things in him than he’d realised. It was the way he chose to explain just why his youngest son was so very different from his brothers and while it was meant affectionately, it still had a grain of truth to it. Of course, the fact Marie could twist him around her little finger was a trait her son seemed to have as well. At least Joseph thought he did.
“Roy, some days I wonder just who is running who in my family!”
“So back ta my question – what’s the boy done this time?”
Ben suddenly sobered and leaned forward in his chair. “I don’t know exactly. Something has changed in that boy in recent weeks and I don’t like it. He’s lying to me, but I can’t prove it.”
“Lyin’? Little Joe? Ben … are you sure ’bout that?” For all his many and varied youthful faults, lying was not one of them.
Ben heaved a deep sigh as he twisted the empty mug in his hands. It felt like a physical blow to admit it aloud as honesty was something he highly valued and demanded from his sons. Joe may not always get to the point immediately, but he would not normally outright lie.
“He’s been evasive with answers until pushed to the point of punishment and even then … Roy, even then I’m still not sure. He’s often late home with no real explanation for where he’s been. He’s shirking chores and twice in the last week he’s come home with torn clothes and refused to tell me what happened. Both times he claimed it was an accident, but I think he’s been fighting.”
“Well let’s lock ‘im up! I got room in there right now for the young criminal. We should be able to save ‘im from a life of crime if we act fast.”
Ben looked up to see Roy trying to smother a laugh.
“Sounds like a pretty normal young lad to me. It’s been warm weather and them boys are like to go fishin’ after school. Climbin’ rocks means clothes get torn. He don’t wanta tell his pa he’s been off playin’ hookey when he shoulda been doing somethin’ else. When you was his age, Ben, what woulda you been doin’?”
Ben scratched at the back of his neck and slowly shook his head. “I know what you’re saying Roy, but it’s more than that. I just know it and I can’t explain it any better than that.”
The conversation continued on for a bit on less meaningful topics as Roy attempted to ease his friend’s concerns. Little Joe was a handful, no question about it, but the sheriff didn’t seem too concerned about his future welfare.
“Now if you really wanta be a father who needs to worry, spare a thought for poor old Frank Johnston. His boy, Kent, escaped from prison this week and the word is that he’ll head back here to Virginia City. He blames his pa for puttin’ him in prison and Frank’s no match for that sorry excuse of a man he calls a son.”
Ben frowned as he recalled the bitter trial that had sentenced Kent to thirteen years of hard labour. “As I recall it, Roy, that “boy” as you call him was very vocal about what he’d do to you as well.”
Roy shrugged at him as he stood up to stretch. “Ain’t worried about his threats. The boy’d have to be pretty stupid to show up in town and get hisself arrested again when he’d haveta know there’s a warrant out for him.”
As Ben placed his hat back on his head and made his way for the door, he shook his head at his friend. “Nobody ever said criminals were known for being smart. And revenge is a pretty strong motive. Just be careful, Roy.” He slapped a hand on his friend’s shoulder as he passed him by.
“Always am. And you quit worryin’ over that young fella of yours. He’s a good boy.”
All the way home to the Ponderosa, Ben mulled over their conversation. He agreed with his friend that Joe was a good boy, but there was no denying that something had changed and he did not and could not agree with Roy that he needn’t worry. He would worry at it until he knew what was going on and found a way to deal with it.
Joe glanced up to see the sun was lower in the sky than he had realised. The first time he’d followed the boys home it had been out of curiosity. Derek had been very hesitant to share any details even as Joe had continued to share food with the two of them. Mitch had soon figured that if he kept Derek occupied, maybe Joe could use his charm to wangle something more out of Matthew. It felt like bribery as Joe dangled sweets in front of the young boy, but he figured it was worth the cost. The pieces of information that the frightened boy had spilled seemed so unlikely that Joe found himself biting back some smart remarks. He knew families that lived in poverty and he was not so naïve that he didn’t know many of his friends had less than he did, but this was something else entirely.
At first, Derek had been furious that Joe had tricked his younger brother until both Joe and Mitch had managed to assure him that they were only trying to help. It bothered both of them to see that Derek sometimes turned up to school looking like he’d gone three rounds with a bear. Walter seemed to enjoy demanding the impossible from the boys and beating Derek when they failed to measure up. For some unknown reason, the old drunk had not yet taken to Matthew, but Derek wasn’t convinced that would last.
Joe knew that he’d be late home again and he had no wish to take another tanning from his father along with a lecture on his disappointing attitude to responsibility. He urged his horse into a gallop across the open meadow and prayed for some kind of miraculous intervention before he reached the house. The idea that children could be sold by orphanages had shocked him, but Joe had always figured that anybody who adopted an orphan did it because they wanted a child. To think that children were sought after as cheap labour was such a foreign thought that he had balked at the idea for days. He might butt heads with his family from time to time, but there was no doubt that he was loved. He wasn’t always keen to get his own chores done, but what Derek had revealed to him in halting bits and pieces left him thoroughly shocked. He decided he needed to see it for himself and maybe do something to help his friends. Each time Joe or Mitch came by on the way home from school and helped them get a little ahead on their chores was another day that Derek could possibly escape a beating. It was only a stopgap measure, but none of them knew what else to do. Derek’s oft-repeated pleas rung loudly in Joe’s ears as he galloped home.
“You can’t tell anybody, Joe! Walter paid for us. He owns us.”
The first time he had said it, Joe and Mitch had stared at him, open-mouthed and too stunned to speak. Nobody owned other people! When Joe had finally recovered his wits enough to speak, there was only one thought that came to mind.
“You mean like some kinda slave?”
The look on the boy’s face answered his question and Joe determined he needed to talk to his father and do something to help. Surely the sheriff would do something if his pa asked him to. His pa knew the law and his pa would know what to do.
Hop Sing watched from the safety of the kitchen as Joe pushed at the meal on his plate without really eating much of it. It seemed that the boy’s newfound appetite had disappeared again. Perhaps it had something to with a visit to the barn with his father after he galloped into the yard well after Ben had arrived home. Joe had arrived at the supper table with a sullen expression while his father had tried to contain the look of disappointment on his face.
“Joseph, stop playing with that food and eat it. Hop Sing doesn’t waste his time cooking for this family for you to throw out good food.”
It was a variation of a comment that Joe had heard many times and yet this time around it was like a knife in the gut. He’d never really known up close what it looked like for somebody to face daily hunger until he met Derek and Matthew and he knew how much both boys would scramble for the food on his plate. It made him feel sick to his stomach as he stared at the plate and was oblivious to his father’s next words. It wasn’t until Ben’s voice had risen to another level that he reacted.
Joe startled at the anger in his father’s voice and looked up, blinking rapidly. Hoss was trying to indicate something with his eyes while Adam simply watched him without giving away anything.
“If you insist on sleeping at the table then perhaps you need to go to bed.”
“But Pa! It’s not even…”
“Don’t raise your voice to me, young man.”
Joe stared at his lap, trying to figure just how he had gotten himself into his father’s bad graces so quickly again. It seemed that it was becoming a regular occurrence lately.
Any thoughts of asking his father the questions he desperately needed answers to were totally gone as he pushed himself out of his chair and made his way towards the stairs. The remains of his meal sat glued to his plate and Ben sighed as he realised just how little of it Joe had actually eaten.
Ben watched his son leave while Adam was watching his father. He noted the tension lines along his father’s jaw, but said nothing. Hoss looked thoroughly miserable as the tone of the meal had dropped so quickly while Hop Sing made himself scarce back in the kitchen.
“But, Pa! That’s not fair!”
“Fair? Joseph this has gone well beyond fair! You will come straight home from school this afternoon and start on that tack room. With no further arguments!”
Ben’s hands were clamped onto his hips in a desperate attempt to control the well of anger that was boiling up from his insides. He needed to keep himself in check before he said something he knew he’d regret, but his youngest son was walking a dangerous line. At almost fourteen, Joe was leaving childhood behind, but was certainly not half as grown up as he fancied himself.
“Now get out there and finish saddling your horse before you are late to school.” The irate father held up a hand to forestall any further comment. “And don’t speak another word!”
Joe glared at his father and seemed as if he was going to defy the directive when he suddenly deflated and walked towards the front door. From his perch on the landing, Adam could see both his father and brother from behind and he saw the same thing in both of them. Tension had set both of them into a rigid posture and he would have smiled under other circumstances. He’d thought it more than once that Joe was more like his father than either of them would admit. He briefly wondered if his grandfather had ever borne the brunt of his father’s anger when he was a youngster and quickly decided it was a question he would never dare ask. Especially not given Joe’s latest round of trouble. He slowly made his way down the stairs, being sure to make enough noise with his boots to alert his father to his presence. Sneaking up behind Ben Cartwright in his present mood was not a good idea!
“Pa. Everything alright?” He knew very well that it was not, but he wanted to hear his father’s summary of the situation.
“Fine!” It sounded so like Joe that Adam almost laughed.
“Well, okay then. I’m just heading on into town for that contract paperwork.”
Ben had paced across the room and turned back to face his oldest son. “Do you know what’s going on with that boy?”
Adam watched the expression settle on his father’s face and he slowly shook his head. “No idea. But you know Joe, Pa. Whatever this is will blow over by next week and he’ll have forgotten all about it. Assuming he lives that long!”
Ben looked up to see Adam’s wry half-smile. He slumped back against the desk and shook his head. “I know he’s always been … Joseph! But there is something more going on here than normal. He’s hiding something and that worries me. The boy is impetuous and stubborn and a great many other things, but he is not devious. He owns up to his mistakes and usually takes his punishment.”
“With a little righteous indignation thrown in for good measure.”
Ben actually allowed himself a smile at that comment. “Well I’d be worried if he didn’t argue back, at least a little. I’d think he was sick or something.” Suddenly his face turned serious again. “But Adam, something is different this time. I can’t explain it. Just put it down to a father’s intuition.”
Adam clapped a hand on his father’s shoulder. “Your intuition is usually right, Pa. But Joe will snap out of this mood too. Trust me. Older brother intuition!”
Ben smiled at him as he waved towards the door. “Of course he will. Now you need to get on into town and get those papers.”
As Adam climbed up onto his horse and turned towards Virginia City, he glanced back towards the barn. His father’s intuition wasn’t the only one shouting a warning. He considered offering to ride with Joe, but quickly surmised it would be seen in the wrong light by his furious little brother. Something was very wrong with Joe’s attitude and behavior and he decided when he got home again he’d be having a little personal chat with his youngest brother and get to the bottom of whatever was going on.
Joe finally finished dealing with the pile of soiled straw and he stepped back to survey the barn. The physical work had done nothing to shift his mood, but it had given him time to think. He’d felt his eldest brother’s eyes on him that morning as he struggled to hold his temper in check and he’d almost blurted the truth to both his father and Adam. It would have been a disaster and he swallowed down the lump that rose up his throat. Derek and Matthew couldn’t afford for him to let things slip. At least not until he knew exactly where the law stood on his friends’ dilemma. If Walter really did own them, then he could do whatever he pleased with them.
His father’s demand that he come straight home from school and not linger with any of the boys would hopefully only last a day or two. Once his father found something else to focus on, he figured he’d be free to head back over to give Derek a hand. In the meantime, he just hoped the two boys could manage to keep out of Walter’s bad books and he’d still see them each day at school.
Adam led his horse into the barn and headed for his stall, unaware that Joe was sitting up against the wall nearby. He was pleased to see that his brother had at least done as his father had demanded that morning and done a good job of it. It was one less thing that could cause an eruption between the two of them. He reached to place his saddle on the rail behind him when he spotted Joe.
“It looks good in here. You’ve been busy.”
Joe barely nodded at the compliment, too absorbed in his thoughts to really pay it much mind. Derek and Matthew hadn’t shown up for school and he had no option to go looking for them after school without facing his father’s wrath.
Adam continued on with brushing down his sweat-soaked horse and tried to decide how to instigate the conversation he wanted to have without pushing things into an argument. It didn’t feel like he could say much right to Joe lately without the two of them soon butting heads. He sighed as he worked, thinking how much easier it would be to be having the conversation with Hoss. But then again, Hoss wouldn’t be needing this conversation! By the time he’d finished, Joe had barely said two words and his demeanor was beginning to worry Adam.
“Say Joe, wanna come and see if we can’t sweet talk Hop Sing for some of those blueberry muffins he was talking about this morning?”
Joe looked up in surprise. It wasn’t often that Adam instigated anything with just him.
As Adam held out a hand to pull him upright, Joe gripped tightly to his brother’s hand. Adam bit back the comment he wanted to make and watched intently as Joe made his way back towards the house. It was crystal clear that Joe was troubled by something and he hoped he would find the right questions to ask.
By the time the two of them were settled on the porch chairs with a muffin each and a drink, it was Joe who decided it was time to talk. He’d tried asking his father, but it just seemed that he never got the timing right. Every time he got up the nerve, he seemed to be in trouble for something else.
“Adam … how do people get to be slaves?”
It was such an unexpected question that Adam gagged on the muffin crumbs and began to cough. By the time he stopped, Joe was watching him intently.
“Slaves? Well … that’s not a simple question to answer.” Adam was acutely aware that Joe knew next to nothing of abolitionist politics while it was something very dear to him. The idea that one human being could own another made him sick to his stomach. Joe’s heritage lay in the south and he knew that one day it could become a bone of contention between them. He was still thinking how to answer when Joe changed tack.
“Is it legal? Can people really own slaves?”
“Yes, Joe. It’s legal.”
Joe frowned at the answer before he tried another question. “How do you stop being a slave?”
“Well, one day, hopefully the government will make it illegal. Until then, a slave is a slave until they die. Unless their owner sets them free, but that isn’t very likely because slaves are worth money.”
“Until they die?” Joe’s response was barely a whisper and Adam leaned closer, wondering why it was suddenly so important.
“Of course, there’s a rumour that some slaves have escaped and started new lives in states up north where slavery isn’t legal.”
“Slaves can escape?” Joe’s eyes grew wider as he considered the comment.
“Some have, but not many. If they get caught, they get punished.” He didn’t add that they were usually punished by death as he didn’t figure Joe needed to know that detail just yet.
“What happens if somebody helps a slave that escaped?” Joe held his breath as his mind was racing with newfound possibilities.
“It’s against the law to aid an escaped slave. Anyone who finds one is supposed to turn them in to the authorities.”
Joe stared out into the yard as he considered the implications of Adam’s words. Derek and Matthew could escape and start over somewhere else. Maybe they could even find a family that would love them. He wished it could be his family, but that was clearly impossible. He couldn’t bring the law down on his family and force Sheriff Coffee to arrest his father or brothers.
The next couple of days saw things settle back into the normal routine that Joe would usually have chafed against. He kept his head down and tried his hardest not to draw his father’s ire or attention in any way. As he sat at the table and pushed food from one side of the plate to the other, he was unaware that he had actually managed just the opposite. His father was wary of his suddenly compliant and quiet son.
Sally Parkes had tried her very best to convince her mother she was not well enough for school, but since she was prone to exaggerating things most days, her mother had not listened to her. As she dramatically dropped herself into her seat, she glanced at the boy she was forced to sit next to. Matthew didn’t talk much and he smelled funny. She wished she’d been allowed to sit somewhere else, but there were only four children in her grade in the schoolhouse and the twins seated behind her would not accept sitting apart from each other.
Matthew tried smiling shyly at the girl who barely deigned to speak to him. He knew without being told that she didn’t approve of him. It didn’t surprise him since not many other children had approved of him either. He couldn’t remember ever having a mama or a papa and it wasn’t until Derek came into his life that he began to understand what love looked like. He glanced around the room and noted Derek was engrossed in reading something and he almost smiled. Derek liked books and had been the one who had taught him his letters and numbers. He couldn’t remember some of them and he felt embarrassed every time Sally pointed out how dumb he was. Suddenly he became aware of the teacher watching him from her desk and he hastily dropped his eyes back to his slate. He hated being noticed by anybody and especially not if it meant he might get into trouble. His bottom lip quivered as he considered what that could mean. He had no wish for his teacher to ask to see the man who now legally counted as his father.
Walter Maddington pulled his hat down low over his face and turned for the door. It wasn’t the first time he’d found himself awakening draped across the table and he knew it wouldn’t be the last. The sour taste of the previous night’s drinking binge settled in his mouth and he spat a wad of thick spittle onto the ground as he dragged himself across to the barn. He was fairly sure it was a Tuesday and he had a shift at the mine; that was assuming he still had a job at the mine. As he plodded down the road towards The Lucky Ace, he scowled at the brightness of the sunlight and the pounding headache that plagued him.
It hadn’t always been the way he lived, but for the past few years, his days had revolved around a bottle of whiskey. Work had become a sideline rather than the mainstay of his week and the resulting lack of money had soon shown in the state of his land and home. As the money tapered off, he’d been forced to let go of his two hands and things had only gone downhill from there. When he’d stumbled on the deal offered quietly around the saloon by a passing salesman, he couldn’t refuse. The legality of it all meant little to men who were content to trade in misery and the children who found themselves in the care of Somerset Orphanage had no voice to challenge their circumstances. Nobody cared enough to check up on the welfare of those who were invisible and unwanted.
Walter muttered under his breath at the absurdity that he had to send the boys to school at least often enough to keep up appearances. It kept the law from prying into things too closely and while he didn’t care one iota if the boys got an education or not, he did care if neighbours stuck their noses too closely into his business. Like that damned Cartwright kid. He’d seen the boy getting too friendly with his boys when he’d been in town and he didn’t need no self-righteous Ben Cartwright getting into his dealings. He had to do something to get that kid to keep away without arousing suspicions. It would be another few days before the opportunity to do so presented itself.
Joe leaned against the railing and scratched at his pony’s nose. His father had told him to stay put while he finished up his business with the bank and Joe determined he would do nothing to raise his father’s ire again. He’d been on the receiving end of far too many visits to the barn in recent weeks and he was tired of trying to defend himself while keeping his secrets to himself. As Joe waited, he spotted Matthew and Derek trailing along behind a man he figured had to be Walter Maddington. He’d only ever heard the boys describe the man who owned them and didn’t know him for himself. He glowered at the man he considered a monster and found his hands clenching into fists as he stared. He didn’t realise it was possible to hate somebody he’d never met and he had a fair idea what his pa would have to say about that. As he watched, Walter said something to the boys and they both sat down on the edge of the boardwalk while he disappeared into a nearby doorway. Joe glanced around, looking to see if his pa was on his way back yet. He knew he’d been told to stay where he was, but he figured that crossing the street wasn’t really a problem, since he was clearly in sight of his pony still.
As he crossed the street, he tugged at a bag of sweets that Ben had bought for him and Hoss while they were in the mercantile. He decided that Hoss probably wouldn’t mind if he shared some of the bag with two boys who never got sweets. Then again, Hoss loved his lemon drops, but he also wouldn’t know if there were a few less in the bag by the time Joe got home with them.
Matthew looked up and waved as Joe crossed the street, but Derek glanced behind him nervously. The door was still shut, but that didn’t mean Walter couldn’t come back out any time. Joe hunkered down next to Matthew and smiled as the boy’s eyes widened when he saw the bag of sweets.
“You want one?” Joe held the bag towards him and Matthew barely glanced at Derek for approval before he dived in and pulled up a prize. He rolled the black aniseed bullseye in his hand, eyeing it up first before slipping it into his mouth. Joe laughed at the look of pure delight on the boy’s face before waving the bag in Derek’s direction. As the older boy hesitated for a moment, Joe nodded at him.
“The mint ones are pretty good too.”
Before long, the three of them were absorbed in a conversation and none of them noticed as Walter walked up behind them. He smirked to himself as he saw Ben Cartwright walking down the boardwalk and he seized his opportunity to get rid of the man’s brat of a son.
“You just gotta rub my boys’ noses in it, don’tcha?”
Matthew jumped at the voice he’d grown to hate. Instinctively, he shifted closer to Derek. Joe looked up to see the angry face looming over him and he found himself shrinking back a little.
“I work hard up at that there mine,” Walter waved a hand in the general vicinity of The Lucky Ace, “tryin’ to put up the basics for my boys, but you just gotta show off that you’ve got more’n they do!”
“But … I just wanted to ….” Joe stumbled as he faced up to the filthy glare and he swallowed back the rest of his comment. Without further warning, Walter reached out and swiped the bag of sweets into the street and Matthew gulped as they rolled away into the dirt. Tears welled in his eyes and he figured Joe was about to get a walloping, but a shout from across the street stopped Walter in his tracks. He looked up to see the boy’s father striding across the street and he barely smothered a grin. The man was going to play right into his hands.
“What’s the problem here?” Ben stopped in front of the group, looking between his son and the man who was shouting at him.
“This your boy?”
Ben nodded as he moved closer to Joe. “This is my son, Joseph.”
Walter pointed a finger at Joe. “Well you tell that young’un o’ yours to stay away from my boys. I do my best by them, but I can’t compete with no high and mighty Cartwright.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand. What is it exactly that Joseph has done?”
By this time, a small crowd had gathered and Ben was acutely aware that his son had a mighty guilty look about him. Adding that to the fact he was not where he was supposed to be and Ben was struggling to keep his voice even.
“Done? He makes my boys feel like they’s beneath him every time he shows off what he’s got and they ain’t. Rubbin’ their noses in it!”
“But, Pa! I …”
Ben turned to glare at Joe who very quickly shrank back into the boardwalk.
Walter took full advantage of the moment and pressed his point. “It ain’t the first time neither. He’s been out my place on that flash lookin’ pony o’ his, showin’ off just what he’s got and my boys ain’t. I told him not to come around our way, but he don’t listen.”
Ben looked at Joe whose gaze had dropped to the ground. Joe’s hands were clenched into fists which was a dead giveaway that he was barely holding his temper in check. Ben decided he needed to get his son clear of the situation before he said something they’d both regret.
“I’m sorry Mister … ahhh, Mister …”
“Maddington.” Walter glared at him as Ben continued.
“I’m very sorry, Mister Maddington if my son has bothered your boys. I’ll have a word with him and ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
“See that ya do!” Walter reached for Matthew’s elbow and hoisted the terrified boy to his feet. Derek hurried to grasp his brother’s other arm as Walter hustled the two of them through the crowd towards his buckboard.
Ben didn’t need to say a word for Joe to climb to his feet. He frowned at the spilled sweets that were now covered in dirt and his father misread the look.
“I won’t be replacing those. You can explain to your brother why he’s missed out on what he was expecting!” The quiet tone of voice did nothing to disguise the anger behind the words. “Now get over there and get your horse.”
Joe trailed behind his father to the outskirts of town, his anger seething as he struggled to hold himself in check. He’d seen the look that Walter had thrown his way, as if he was some kind of bug to be stepped on.
For his part, Ben was trying to rein in his anger. It seemed that at every turn lately, his youngest son defied the most simple directive.
“Joseph, where did I tell you to wait for me?”
“By my horse.”
“So would you please explain to me why I found you across the street with two boys you had been told to stay away from when I returned?”
“Pa, he ain’t ever said no such thing!”
Ben shifted in the saddle and raised a warning finger. “Don’t you raise your voice at me! Now why would Mister Maddington say that if it wasn’t the case?”
Joe twisted his fingers around his reins, trying desperately to bite his tongue before he said the wrong thing. “I don’t know, but Pa, it ain’t true.”
Ben sighed as he tried another tack. It wasn’t as if his son’s word counted for much recently. “Have you ever been out to his place?”
Joe squeezed his eyes closed, knowing full well that he couldn’t convincingly deny that one. “Yes, Pa.”
“Well it was pretty clear that you are not welcome there, so why would you have been there?”
When Joe didn’t answer, Ben pulled up his horse and Joe almost ran into him.
“Son, I have no idea what is going on in your head lately, but you need to get this very clear. I will not tolerate you lying to me or disobeying me anymore. Do I make myself understood?”
Joe gulped as he tried to look away from his father’s angry face. He nodded slowly. “Yes, Sir.”
“Then tell me why you were there.”
Joe held his breath as he tried to think of a credible answer.
“You can’t!” Ben’s voice was only just contained. “Or you won’t?”
Tears pricked at his eyes as Joe tried to speak. “Both, I guess.”
It was a long, painfully slow ride back to the Ponderosa as neither one spoke. Joe knew what was coming his way once they reached home and he almost broke his silence. It wasn’t the punishment that clawed at him; rather it was his father’s obvious disappointment in his youngest son. As he rode along, lost deep in thought, it was Adam’s words that kept him from speaking any further.
As much as he longed to tell his father the truth of the matter, Adam had told him that the law punished those who helped slaves against their owners. He couldn’t see his pa dragged into the sheriff’s office. If he said nothing, his pa could truthfully say he knew nothing about any of it when the boys escaped. Because as far as Joe could see, the only thing he could do was to help the boys escape from their tormentor.
Joe sat hunched up against the tree trunk and outlaid his plan to Mitch. Neither Derek nor Matthew had shown up to school for two days and both boys were getting worried about their friends. Joe knew it was his fault since his run in with Walter Maddington two days earlier. His body still carried the bruising his father felt was a necessary deterrent for his lying and disobedient son.
“Adam says that states up north take runaway slaves. They could be free up there and nobody’d stop ’em.”
“But how are they gonna get there, Joe? I don’t think neither of them could hold up to ridin’ that far.”
Joe nodded his head and grinned. “Thought of that. We get them a stagecoach ticket.”
“With what? I ain’t got no more than ten cents! And I’ll bet you ain’t got much more’n that.”
“I know, but we’ll figure something.” Joe decided not to let his best friend in on that part of the plan. That way, if he got caught, Mitch could plead ignorance. “In the meantime, we need to get some things together for them. You know, stuff they’re gonna need along the way.”
As the two boys continued to plan, Joe was formulating another plan of his own.
Roy blew out a sharp breath as he read the telegram he’d been handed. Kent Johnston had been spotted in a stagecoach way station and it was believed that the two dead bodies found there were his victims. He needed to get on out to see Frank and make sure he was kept up to date with the estimated whereabouts of his son. It wasn’t a conversation he was looking forward to as the previous two visits had not gone well.
Sally Parkes was used to getting her way by dropping her bottom lip and pouting and if that didn’t work, then outright tears usually did the trick. Unfortunately for her, her mother had recently decided it was time to take a tougher stance with her seven-year-old daughter and Sally’s whining was not getting the usual response from her mother. Her papa had told her a story about a wolf that cried, but it didn’t make much sense to her. Wolves didn’t cry. They ate people! Everybody knew that and she wondered why her father was talking about crying wolves. Whatever the case, she soon found herself being shooed out the front door and making her way to the schoolhouse. She really didn’t feel well, but her mama was having none of it.
Joe pushed his pony along the length of the main street, both eager and dreading getting to school. He hoped that after three days, the two brothers would return because if they didn’t he was already planning to make a detour out their way after school and check on them. If it earned him another trip out to the barn, he was prepared to take that. He couldn’t bear the thought that his own stupidity had cost Derek any further punishment and the boys’ continued absence was grating on him.
His thoughts were elsewhere as he traveled the well-worn road and it wasn’t until he was almost level with the sheriff’s office that he really looked around. An army officer was sitting astride a horse, whistling a tune that Joe didn’t recognise. He was clearly waiting for somebody as another horse stood next to him without a rider. What really caught his attention though was the proud Indian who sat erect on the horse behind the officer. His hands were tied to the saddle horn and blood streaked his back and down the side of his face. It had dried, but had clearly been running freely.
As Joe made his way past, he couldn’t help but watch. Men walked past and glared while women stepped onto the far side of the boardwalk as if to keep their distance. As he continued on down the road, he glanced back to see the other officer had returned to his horse. The two of them headed back out into the road and Joe frowned as one of them viciously jerked the lead rope of the Indian’s horse, making him roll forward and jerk backwards in the saddle. It was unnecessary, but both men laughed as their prisoner righted himself in the saddle. By the time Joe arrived at school, his mood was turning more sour by the minute.
Mitch elbowed Joe, trying to get him to stop staring at the wall. The teacher had already noted his drifting attention twice and if it happened again, he was surely going to attract trouble. He was a fraction too slow and he winced as the teacher stood up from her chair and walked over to loom over Joe.
“Joseph Cartwright, I don’t know what is so fascinating with that wall, but you can stay in at lunchtime and explain it to me.”
It wasn’t the wall that held his attention so raptly. Rather it was the large map of the states and territories that he was trying to memorise. He needed to figure a route for Derek and Matthew to get them to the north, but he hadn’t figured on just how far the north actually was. When Adam went off to college, he’d been too young to really appreciate the distance from Nevada to Boston and once his brother came home again, he didn’t really care. He knew his general compass directions and had figured that north just meant north. He sighed as he was beginning to realise that maybe his plan wasn’t so simple after all.
By the time he was allowed out to join the others for lunch, Joe was still mulling over an idea. If he couldn’t send the boys north, then maybe he could send them to California instead. He’d heard his pa talk of how big San Francisco was. Big enough for two boys to get lost in and nobody to ask awkward questions. It was also big enough for them to find work. Every livery needed boys to work the horses and keep the feed troughs clean and filled. There were sure to be jobs in San Francisco. He decided to keep his plan under wraps until he’d worked out the details a little more, but as he sat down with Mitch and pulled out his lunchpail to share, he was pleased that both Derek and Matthew had finally made it back to school.
As they ate, Mitch pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. He held it up for Joe to inspect.
“What’s this?” Derek looked over the list and wasn’t sure what he was looking at.
“It’s what we need to get together for you two. So’s you can get out of here.”
Matthew looked at the three older boys, unsure of the comment.
“Get out of here? Where would we go?”
Derek had talked with Joe already about wanting to leave, but saw no possibility of that happening. The last three days of punishment had deepened his resolve however, especially when Walter had turned on Matthew. He’d tried his best to shield the younger boy, but Walter had landed a few good straps before the whiskey had toppled him over and he’d passed out on the floor.
As Joe and Mitch began to outline the plan, Derek and Matthew huddled closer. It was risky and the cost of being caught was unthinkable. By the time Joe rode for home that afternoon, he was once again wavering on whether or not to talk to his father. It was Hoss who unknowingly put paid to that idea.
“Hiya, Shortshanks! Have fun at school?” Hoss brushed at his horse’s coat as he watched Joe lead his pony into the barn. He knew he was teasing as Joe hated school as much as he had. He’d been mighty glad to escape as soon as his father had agreed to it, but Joe still had a couple more years of torture up his sleeve.
Joe just grunted in response and Hoss grinned at him. He knew that feeling only too well.
As Joe began to unsaddle his pony, he noted that neither Adam’s or his father’s horse were anywhere in sight.
Hoss was almost finished his job and he poured a measure of oats for his horse before stepping over towards his brother. He hesitated to tell him the truth of the matter since Joe was still just a kid.
“He and Adam have gone up to meet with some army fella.”
“Army?” Joe’s memory of the two army officers he’d seen earlier rose up like bitter bile. Their unnecessary rough handling of their prisoner still grated on him.
“Yeah, there’s been some Indian raids up near Sweetwater and Pa wanted to find out some more.”
Joe frowned as he kept brushing down his horse. “Raids?”
“Nothin’ to worry ’bout, little brother. Sweetwater’s a long ways from here.”
“Then why’s Pa askin’ questions about it if it ain’t nothin’?”
Hoss realised too late that he’d said more than he’d intended. His father had told him that the raiding parties were moving closer and the men needed to be on the lookout while out in the farthest pastures.
“You know Pa. He’s just bein’ cautious.”
As Joe continued on with his work he considered the fate of the man he’d seen that morning.
“Hoss … what does the army do to Indians that they catch?”
Hoss swallowed hard and tried not to make eye contact with his brother. They’d heard tell of Indians being lynched, but there was no way he’d tell his little brother about that. His pa said it was homesteaders most likely and not regular army fellas, but still. Joe didn’t need to know about that.
Joe was silent for a few more brush strokes. “Then I guess I’ll ask Pa.”
“No!” Hoss realised his mistake immediately that rather than deter Joe, he’d simply aroused his curiosity further. His father had been quite adamant that they not worry Joe with the information unless it was necessary. ” Ya cain’t go botherin’ Pa with questions.”
“Why not?” Joe frowned at his older brother, knowing that Hoss was holding something back.
Hoss tried to figure a way around his brother’s questions without risking more questions. He decided to try a measure of truth in the hope it would be enough.
“Cause Pa’s gone to talk to them army fellas and I don’t want Pa gettin’ into trouble if’n their information gets talked about.”
“Pa could get into trouble?”
Hoss knew he’d slipped up and he tried to backtrack. Unfortunately he’d never been able to lie to save himself and his face gave him away.
“No, he ain’t gonna get in no trouble. It’s just … just them army fellas like to keep their information secret, so’s their plans don’t get spread about. That’s all.”
Joe nodded as he went about finishing up and he walked over to fill a measure of oats. Something in Hoss’s voice gave him pause and he resolved he’d find out what it was.
Supper that night was a subdued affair. Ben and Adam had spent the day out by an army camp and he was concerned at the increase in raids along the northern trails. While he’d heard of the lynchings and vehemently disagreed with them, he could understand the fear that was driving them. As he glanced around the table at his sons, he knew he’d do anything he had to in order to protect them. He was lost in those thoughts when his youngest son chose that moment to ask him a question. When he looked back later at how things had gone so badly, so quickly, he would eventually come back to this moment.
“Pa, how come some people are worth less than others?”
It was such a profound and unexpected question that Ben jolted in his chair and stared at his youngest son.
“Nobody is worth less than anybody else, Son. The Bible says we are all equal and precious in the eyes of God. ” It took a moment for him to gather his composure before he continued. “Why would you ask that?”
Joe pushed at the potato on his plate and tried to work around Hoss’s warning from earlier in the day.
“Well … it seems to me that some people get more say in things than others do.”
Adam looked across the table at his brother. He too had been startled by the question, but Joe’s addition had him thinking. His brother was simply chafing at being the youngest and being told what to do. Hoss was also looking his way, willing his brother not to put his foot in anything.
Ben put down his cutlery and leaned closer to Joe. It was clear his son was grappling with something serious, but he wasn’t entirely sure what.
“Well, often that’s to do with who has more power. For example, around here, you have to do as I tell you because I am your father and you are still a child.” There had been more than enough challenge to that authority in recent days and he took the opportunity to remind his son of his place.
“I know that. It’s not what I meant.”
Ben chewed at his lip as he considered his son’s demeanor. “Then what did you mean?”
It took a moment before Joe looked up again. “How come the law protects some people and not others?”
“The law is the same for everyone.”
“No it’s not, Pa! The Indians don’t got the same law as we do.” He gestured around the table at each of them.
Hoss bit back a groan as he looked at Joe’s animated hands.
Ben nodded slowly as he tried to answer a complicated question in a way his innocent son would accept. Joe knew very little of Indian policies and he wanted to keep it that way a little longer.
“That’s sort of true, Joe. The Indians have lived here for a long time with their own laws, but now they have to live within the government laws as well.”
“But what if the laws are wrong?”
Ben rubbed at the back of his neck as he considered how best to answer.
“We don’t get to make the laws, Joe. We elect men to do that for us and if we don’t like the laws we can agitate for change. Until then, we have to obey them or we have a lawless society that isn’t good for anybody.”
Joe stared at his plate as he considered all that he had learned over recent weeks. Slavery was legal. His family may not like it, but his pa had just said he’d uphold the law. Power was what made all the difference. The law had the power. Right or wrong. And under that law, children had next to no power.
“Pa …” Joe swallowed down the lump that filled his throat. There was simply no way to ask his father for help. “May I be excused? I’m real tired.”
Ben studied his son’s face and wondered why he looked on the verge of tears. Maybe he was sickening for something. He reached a hand across to check Joe’s forehead and was relieved to feel it was cool.
Several hours later, as Adam decided to retire for the night, he found himself outside his brother’s door. Joe’s questions had pricked at something that he couldn’t put his finger on and it was still bothering him. He gently nudged the door open and quietly made his way across the room. He had assumed that Joe would be sound asleep and was startled when he shifted on the bed.
“Pa?” It hadn’t occurred to Joe that anybody else would be in his room.
“No, sorry, Joe. It’s me. Didn’t mean to wake you. I just wanted to check you weren’t getting sick or anything.” Without really knowing why, Adam sat down on the edge of the bed and tousled his brother’s hair. “You okay?’
As he went to stand up again, Adam was surprised when Joe tugged at his arm.
“Would Pa ever break the law … if he felt it was wrong?”
Adam stared at his brother’s face, totally thrown by such a strange question. “Joe …. you know that Pa feels really strongly that the law is the law. He doesn’t always agree with things, but he wouldn’t try to break it. He’d find a way around it if it was important enough.”
Adam squeezed his brother’s arm as he leaned closer. “Joe, what’s this all about?”
Joe rubbed at his eyes as he tried to think of an answer. When he didn’t answer, Adam tried another angle.
“Joe, have you done something wrong? Something you don’t think you can tell Pa?”
Joe’s “no” was a little too quick for his liking. As Joe yawned and rubbed at his eyes again, Adam couldn’t help but smile. He tugged the edge of the blanket up a little and went to stand up again.
“Goodnight, little buddy. Sleep well.”
It would be several hours before Adam finally drifted off to sleep as thoughts chased around his head. Something was wrong and he determined he would find out just what that something was.
Over the next few days, Joe and Mitch put their plans into action. Items were pilfered from both homes, starting with an old saddlebag that could carry everything. The stitching had come loose on one side and it had been put aside for repair. As the boys each brought in the things on their list, they took turns in crawling under the schoolhouse while the other kept watch. Their checklist was slowly getting scratched off and each of them felt a mounting sense of urgency.
The stage went through twice a week and Joe had been to the stage office to inquire about a fare to San Francisco as well as departure times. He’d gotten a strange look from old Henry who ran the ticket office, but he’d managed to smooth it over by saying it was something to do with a school paper. As he’d hurried back to Mitch and filled him in, both boys knew this would be their biggest hurdle. Neither of them had anything close to that kind of money.
Joe sat at the desk near his window and stared out into the warm afternoon sun. He could hear Hop Sing in the kitchen and knew that his family would be back some time after dark. He had stood up three times and each time his knees had almost buckled under him. He had tried and tried to figure an alternative plan, but just couldn’t come up with one. He’d emptied the contents of his own savings and along with what Mitch had it didn’t amount to a whole lot. Matthew had turned up at school the day before with a deep bruise across his upper arm while Derek was struggling to walk without wincing and they all knew it was just a matter of time before the injuries got worse. As he stood up again, Joe sucked in a sharp breath and forced himself to walk towards his brother’s room. He prayed that Hop Sing was too busy to come upstairs and that nobody came home early.
The door to Adam’s room was never locked, but he felt that even that shouted accusations at him. His brother didn’t feel the need to protect his things from his own family. Joe chewed at his lip as he made his way across the room and pulled open Adam’s top dresser drawer. The heavy wooden box was carved with fine, but simple decoration and he knew it was one of his brother’s most treasured possessions. Their father had made it for him on the long trail west. Joe paused as he fingered the dark wood. As Matthew’s face floated in front of him, he held his breath and opened the box. He knew how frugal his brother was and that he kept his hard-earned savings in that box whenever he was saving up for something important. Joe felt his fingers burning and his cheeks flared with the shame of it as he lifted a wad of notes from the box. He shoved them deep in one pocket and then pulled out the note he’d written from the other. He carefully arranged the folded note underneath a couple of banknotes that were still in the box. He prayed he had time to replace the money before Adam ever found out, but knowing how unlikely that was, he at least wanted a chance to explain before his brother lifted the skin from his hide.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t think of any other way,” he whispered to the empty room as he carefully replaced the box where he had lifted it from. He slowly made his way to Hoss’s room, with a deepening sickness rising from the pit of his stomach.
Joe was well aware of his eldest brother’s penchant for poetry even if he didn’t understand most of it and in an ironic twist that would have befitted one of Adam’s favourite poets, the best laid plans do often go astray. The stage was due in to Virginia City in two days’ time and the last of the travel provisions were set to go. The saddlebags were stuffed with clothing, food, money and other sundry items and Derek was getting nervous with the anticipation of it all. Matthew had not been told all the details, in case the boy accidentally gave something away. It had been agreed that the two boys would sneak out the night before and hide in the back of the livery until the stage arrived. That way, both Mitch and Joe would be in school and have a credible story when or if Walter reported the boys missing. By then, they would be well on their way to a new life with no trace left behind.
That was the plan.
Paul Martin sat back in the chair and nodded at the worried mother in front of him. “You’re right, Annie, it certainly is measles.”
Sally sat on her mother’s lap, looking tired and listless. The red spots that marked her exposed skin were itching and she tried to scratch at them. Her mother pulled at her hands and tried to stop the action, knowing it was probably pointless.
The doctor kept a hand against the child’s forehead, gauging the temperature and knowing full well that it would rise some more. After issuing a list of instructions for his patient’s care, he opened the door for the young mother and escorted her out into the street. He helped lift the child into her waiting buggy and extended a hand to help Annie climb up into the driver’s seat.
“It’ll just have to run its course, I’m afraid. Let me know if her fever develops too much higher. I’ll alert the school to quarantine, but we’re really too late to do much else.”
“Thank you, Doctor.” Annie waved a hand as she lifted the reins with the other.
Paul watched as the young woman drove out into the street and sighed. Measles symptoms appeared after the bearer was already contagious and he knew it was just the first of many cases he’d be seeing in the coming days.
Joe knew that he should be getting straight home from school. He’d had far too many run-ins with his father in recent weeks and wanted it to stop, but he knew that in less than two days, he’d probably never see his friends again. He and Mitch decided a few cents wasn’t going to make or break the venture, but one last bag of sweets would be a kind of parting gift. The four of them were waiting in the mercantile while the Widow Roberts insisted on telling Mr Cass all about her latest bout of lumbago.
As she prattled on, Matthew got bored and began wandering around the displays. Derek lost track of him and figured he should find out where his little brother was. He was growing more and more nervous about the plan as each day passed, but the last drunken attack from Walter had been aimed at Matthew and he knew they couldn’t stay. As he edged around a barrel of apples, expecting to find Matthew hiding somewhere, he came face to face with a display of hunting knives. The handles were a variety of materials, but one with a deep brown haft caught his attention. It was encased in a hand-tooled leather sheath and he slowly reached towards it. He had no idea how to fire a gun, but it didn’t take any kind of skill to thrust a knife at an attacker. He was lost in the feel of the weapon in his hand and made a split-second decision. He was leaving Virginia City anyway and nobody would ever be able to trace it back to him.
“What are you doing?” A voice breathed in his ear.
Derek looked up to see Joe looming over him. He was half way through sliding the sheathed knife into his shirtfront. He moved back and away from the display at the same moment that Roy Coffee chose to enter the store. When he looked back at it later, Joe knew he had panicked. He could not let their plans be derailed when they were so close to the end and he grasped at the knife. It was crystal clear that it was under Derek’s thin shirt and he would not let the boy get caught in such a stupid act.
“I need something … you know … to protect us if … if …”
“Get outta here!” Joe hissed at the younger boy and he shoved Matthew towards his brother. “Both of you!”
Joe quickly sized up the space around him and figured he had no chance of getting the knife back to the display without being detected. He also caught the fear behind Derek’s comment and understood it only too well.
As the two younger boys scarpered from the store, Will Cass looked up to see Joe skulking out the door behind them. It didn’t take a genius to see the boy had something and he shouted at Roy.
“Stop him! Joe Cartwright, what in tarnation are you doing?”
Roy grasped at Joe’s collar and spun him towards him. Mitch was behind him and had no escape route. Roy glared at Joe and held out his hand expectantly.
“Gimme whatever it is you got in there.” The look on the sheriff’s face was almost Joe’s undoing and he held his breath as he pulled the knife from inside his shirt. “You are coming with me, young man.”
Roy held onto the knife and waved it in the air. “Will, you mind if I take this with me for a spell? I need to show this ta Ben.”
“Not a problem, Roy.” The store owner looked furious. “Your father’s gonna tan your hide right off, young fella!”
Joe swallowed hard as he stared at his boots. The man was right. And then probably lock him in his room until he was twenty-one!
Roy leaned against the doorway and watched as his lone prisoner sank into the mattress on the bunk. He knew that Ben was having issues with his youngest, given several conversations recently had revolved around the boy, but he’d never expected this. After Joe repeatedly insisting that Mitch had nothing to do with it, Roy had finally dismissed the lad and warned him to get on home. What he couldn’t fathom was what had possessed the boy to try stealing from right under Will Cass’s nose. He wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t seen it for himself.
“Now you just get yourself comfortable in there, young fella while I try and get word to your pa.”
Joe’s only response was to drop his head into his hands. As Roy turned the lock and pocketed the key, he thought he noted the boy’s shoulders shaking. He frowned as he headed for the front door. He’d be doing a lot more than shaking when Ben Cartwright got his hands on him.
It was almost two hours later by the time Roy caught up with him and filled him in. As he’d expected, Ben was fit to explode, given his son’s recent record. It took nearly another half hour before the lawman had him calmed sufficiently to make a suggestion to him.
Joe heard the front door of the sheriff’s office swing open and a pair of boots thudded across the floor. He was expecting a second pair and was surprised when he didn’t hear one. It took a few minutes before the boots appeared in front of the cell door and he hesitantly looked up into Roy’s stony face.
“I sent a hand for your pa. Should be here soon I reckon. Now, before he gets here, don’t s’pose you wanna tell me what you was thinkin’?”
“Not really.” Joe’s voice sounded small in the open cell and he felt his breath hitch in his chest. He knew he wouldn’t have the same option once his father got there, but for the moment he had no wish to incriminate himself any further.
Joe had no idea that Roy had suggested a plan to his father that was about to play out in front of him. He expected his father to arrive and march him out of the cell, drop him on a horse and take him home to be dealt with accordingly. What he didn’t expect was for his father to be so angry that he’d refuse to take him home at all. When Ben Cartwright finally thundered through the front door, Joe was still tucked away in the cell and could not see anything. He did however, hear more than enough.
“Roy! Is it true?”
“Now hold up there, Ben. Ain’t no need to go shoutin’ at me.”
“No need? No need! What I need is to strip the hide off my son if what I’ve been told is true!”
Joe could hear his father’s boots pacing the length of the sheriff’s office and pacing back again. He shrank back against the wall, visualizing his father’s face as he paced.
“Well Ben, it’s true alright. Now let me get the young fella for you and you can take him on home.”
“No Roy. You can keep him right where he is.”
Joe held his breath as he waited to hear what was coming next.
“What? Ben, he ain’t been charged with nothin’ yet so I don’t need to keep him here.”
“Roy, you might not have charged him, but that doesn’t change the fact that my son … my son is a thief. ” Joe could hear the contempt in his father’s voice and he felt his stomach flipping itself into a knot. “I’m ashamed to say it, but there it is. No, Roy … you can keep him right here as you would with anyone else you’d caught red-handed. I don’t want to take him home.”
Joe heard the door open and then abruptly slam closed. His father had just walked out of the jail without him!
Out on the boardwalk, Ben leaned against the hitching rail and tried to compose himself. Adam and Hoss had both waited without saying a word before Adam finally gestured towards the saloon.
“Can I buy you a beer, Pa?”
“I think a whiskey would be more suitable for this occasion.” Ben’s hardened face did not soften as he marched across the road to wait out Roy’s plan.
Roy deliberately waited in his office for another few minutes before heading in to speak to the condemned. Joe was slumped on the bunk, his face as white as chalk.
“Pa left me here?” It was barely a whisper.
Roy gripped at the cell door and nodded slowly. “Yeah, son. I reckon he did. Guess he figured you could learn your lesson with a night in a cell.”
It wasn’t the thought of the accommodation that bothered him so much as his father’s words. His pa was ashamed of him and didn’t even want to see him. It was almost enough to break his resolve and he chewed at his lip to keep himself from speaking. He was so close to seeing the boys set free that he would just have to last a little longer. His father would forgive him eventually.
Adam leaned against the bar and watched as neither his father or his brother spoke a word or drank a drop. It would be a long two hours before they made their way back over to the jail and released his recalcitrant little brother from his cell.
“Pa, did Roy say anything about why Joe might have tried stealing that knife?”
“No. I can’t think what got into that boy’s head! I’ll have to go and see Will Cass in the morning and smooth this over.”
It was clear by the grimace on his face that he wasn’t looking forward to that visit.
“Maybe it was a dare. You know how Joe gets when he’s showin’ off to his friends.” Hoss tried tossing in the only idea he could come up with to explain his brother’s sudden loss of good sense.
“Roy did say that Mitch was there. It’s certainly possible, Pa.” Adam too was clutching at straws trying to come up with answers. His conversation with Joe was running through his mind and he wished he’d pushed harder for an answer. Joe had clearly been up to something he didn’t want his father to know about and maybe if he’d acted on his gut feeling, he could have saved his brother a bitter lesson in a jail cell. And his father a bitter experience in public shame.
“When I’m done with that boy, he’ll be …” Ben’s hands clenched into fists as he choked down the anger that threatened to spill over. “He goes without nothing that he needs! Whatever could have possessed him to try stealing something?”
Joe hadn’t moved from the bunk. His hands clenched into each other in a desperate effort to stop them shaking. He’d seen his pa angry before, but never like this.
Roy finally took pity on the boy and sauntered into the cells. He twisted the key in the lock and swung the door open before shoving a small table into the cell and plonking himself down on the end of the bunk. While Roy spread out a checkers board, he silently placed the pieces on it. It was all he could do to keep a straight face as he watched the boy’s misery.
“You ready to tell me the truth yet?”
Joe stared at his boots as his thoughts raced around in convoluted circles. The truth. Oh, there was no way the truth was coming out just yet. He needed to hold out for another two days and then he could tell the truth. Until then, he needed to keep his mouth shut, no matter the cost.
“Joe Cartwright, I’ve known ya since ya was but a few days old and up until this afternoon I’da sworn blind you was a honest young fella. Now I might be a bit long in the tooth and not know much about some things, but I know this ain’t you.”
Joe swallowed hard and tried to keep a check on the tears that pricked at his eyes.
“Now from what I seen over there in Cass’s store, that young fella that was with you might justa been tryin’ to get away with that knife before you ended up with it. Way I see it, that makes a whole lot more sense to me.”
Roy kept laying out checkers pieces as he talked while watching the boy’s face contort with what looked like fear.
“That’s not how it was. It was my fault.”
“Hmmm … coulda sworn I seen otherwise. Must be gettin’ old, I guess. Now, you wanna be red or black?”
Joe glared at him as if he had gone mad.
“Checkers? You want me to play checkers?” His tone was incredulous and Joe shoved himself up onto his feet and stomped towards the window. He gripped at the bars and leaned his head up against the wall. He wanted to be home playing checkers with Hoss, but that wasn’t going to happen any time soon.
“Maybe you could do with some supper then.”
Roy stood up and pushed the table away from him. Joe didn’t respond as Roy made his way out of the cell and locked the door again. As Joe heard the front door slam shut once more, he groaned aloud as he gripped at the bars like they were some kind of lifeline.
Joe almost fell backwards when he looked up and saw a face staring back at him through the bars. It took a moment to see the face was Derek and he almost smiled, until he recalled the sheriff’s accusation.
“You need to get outta here before he comes back!”
“I’m sorry, Joe. I never meant to get you into trouble.”
“I know that, but it’s all gonna be for nothing if you get caught here before you can get on that stage. You gotta get outta here, now!”
“We will, but I just hadta make sure you were okay, Joe. I saw your pa and brothers ride in and I figured you’d be outta here by now.”
“What?” Joe knew his father was in town, but he hadn’t seen or heard from either of his brothers. If his father was so ashamed of him that he couldn’t bear to see his son, what would his brothers think of him? The weight of condemnation settled over him and he almost slid back down the wall.
Before Derek could answer, they both heard the door open and Roy’s boots echoed across the outer room. Derek slithered back down the outside of the jail and hunkered down with Matthew in the shadows.
“Got you some leftover pie from the hotel kitchen. Smells mighty good ta me.”
Joe ignored him as the sheriff unlocked the cell and sat down with two plates of food. Roy pushed one across the bunk towards Joe and began to dig into his. Minutes later, Joe heard the outer door open again and his heart raced into his mouth. His pa had changed his mind.
Roy kept chewing at his mouthful, trying to hold back a smile. Ben hadn’t lasted anywhere near as long as they’d agreed. He watched Joe’s face as he flicked from hope to fear and back again in the space of seconds.
“You run outta real criminals to lock up and you goin’ for them before they even start shavin’ now?”
Roy felt the hackles on the back of his neck rise as the voice carried across from the door. It wasn’t Ben Cartwright or one of his boys standing in the doorway. It was a voice he hadn’t heard in over four years, but one he would never forget. Roy’s hand slipped down towards his holster as he sized up the situation.
“Don’t even think about it, old man!”
Roy watched as Kent Johnston slowly sauntered across the room with his pistol aimed straight at his head. As far as he could tell, Joe hadn’t yet moved from below the window.
“I’ve waited four years for this day. I told you I was coming back for you.”
Roy slowly raised his hands into the air. “You got me where you want me, Kent, but far as I know you ain’t no kid-killer.”
“Can’t blame me when it’s you who’s got the kid locked up!”
“We’s just playin’ a friendly game of checkers here. Now why don’t you let the boy go before you make good on that promise?”
“Sure! So he can go screaming for help and bring in witnesses. You think I’m stupid, old man? I didn’t spare my pa, so what makes you think I’m gonna spare anyone else?”
Kent waved the pistol in Joe’s direction and laughed as Roy lunged towards the boy. He wasn’t as agile as he needed to be and he barreled into Joe as Kent took aim and fired at him. The shot went a fraction wide and Joe barely had a chance to shout as he slammed face first into the wall. Blood sprayed across the whitewash as his nose and cheek took the brunt of the impact. Pain exploded across his head as he slumped onto the floor. Another shot echoed around the small cell and Joe’s head was spinning as he tried to sit up. For a moment the world went black and all sound ceased.
It could have been five minutes or it could have been five hours. Joe had no way of knowing as he felt a hand slapping at his face.
“Joe! Joe! You gotta wake up! Joe!”
The frantic voices calling at him finally resolved into a coherent sentence and he looked up to see Derek and Matthew leaning over him. Tears dripped down Matthew’s face and he tried valiantly to scrub them away and stop himself from hiccuping.
“Joe? You okay?”
“Yeah, I think so.” As Derek helped him sit upright, Joe felt congealing blood sliding down his face. He swiped at it with his hand and almost yelped as he made contact with his nose. If it wasn’t broken it was some kind of miracle. He tried to stand up until he spotted the body lying on the floor. Roy Coffee was face down with a spreading pool of blood oozing out from underneath his shoulder.
“He’s dead.” Derek almost whispered the news as Joe stared back at him.
“We gotta get you outta here, Joe. That man … he could come back. We gotta get you outta here before he comes back.”
As Joe stumbled to his feet, he felt his heart sink into his boots. Roy Coffee was dead. He’d figured he could make his pa understand what he’d done once he got the boys away safely. He knew he’d take a licking for it and who knew what kind of ongoing punishment, but the whole game plan had just dramatically shifted. The sheriff was dead because of his stupid plan. If his pa refused to see him over a knife, what would he do over the loss of one of his closest friends?
Joe allowed Derek to pull him out into the darkness and was only vaguely aware as the younger boy dragged him towards the schoolhouse.
“We can’t wait for the stage, Joe. We gotta go tonight. Now!”
Ben had been staring at the door for the better part of half an hour and his sons knew where his mind was. The same place theirs were. When Alfie Benton came barreling through the saloon door shouting something about the jail having been shot up, the three of them were on their feet and out the door in seconds. The sight that greeted them was like something out of a nightmare. Roy had dragged himself across the room and was semi-conscious when Ben dropped down beside him. A gunshot wound was still bleeding sluggishly and Roy barely contained a groan as somebody pushed a bandage over it.
“Roy, where’s Joe?”
Roy tried to wave towards the cell. “He was in there.”
Ben looked up again as Adam walked back out of the open cell. “Pa … there’s blood all over the wall and floor.”
Ben reached down again and gripped frantically at his friend’s arm. “Roy! Where’s my son?”
The schoolhouse looked vastly different in the darkness than it did during the day. The full moon cast eerie shadows against the building and it took a few minutes for the panicked trio to find the piece of boarding they had pried loose to get underneath it. Derek led the way in since Joe was in no fit shape to take his usual place directing things. It frightened the boy to see his older friend and protector so badly shaken and he tried desperately to think what to do. He flicked through a couple of ideas before finally settling on the one that seemed the most like what Joe would do. As he felt Matthew trembling against him, he wrapped an arm tightly around the younger boy and tried to reassure him.
“It’s gonna be okay. We can still get out of here. We’ve got the bag here with everything we need.”
Joe seemed to shake himself out of whatever had seized hold of him and he groped around in the dark. As his fingers laid hold of the leather strap, he pulled it towards him and wrapped his hands around it. It was the one part of the plan that was still intact.
“We can’t get you on the stagecoach now. We can’t wait two days. There’s gonna be a posse riding out after … after …” The words dried up in his throat as he once again pictured the man who had so callously taken aim at him and gunned down the town’s sheriff before leaving them both for dead. His breathing was hitching as he talked and he found himself wanting to cry.
His father’s friend was dead.
His father would hate him for it.
He slumped back against the wooden pole that underpinned the schoolhouse floor and tried to clear his head. His face was throbbing painfully and he wanted nothing more than to curl up and go to sleep. And not ever wake up again. The nightmares usually stalked his sleep, but this one was clearly not going to go away with the new dawn.
Joe heard Matthew beginning to cry again in the darkness and Derek trying his best to calm his brother.
“We can still get you on the stage if we can get you to Reno.”
“Reno? How are we gonna get to Reno, Joe? We were s’posed to get the stage from Virginia City!”
Joe’s head was pounding and he closed his eyes against the dizziness. “Horses. We need a couple of horses. There’ll be plenty in the livery.”
“You mean we’re gonna steal some horses?”
The incredulous tone of Derek’s question would have made Joe laugh on any other day. He was already in so much trouble that he couldn’t possibly envisage it getting any worse. He was fairly certain he was too young to be hung as a horse thief, but if he took the horses to Reno and then brought them back, it wasn’t really theft. He was just borrowing them.
“No, we’re gonna borrow some. Just for a coupla days.”
The blood had finally stopped oozing from his nose and Joe felt the encrusted mess across his face beginning to itch. He wanted to crawl out and find the nearest water trough, but they could all hear the sounds of men gathering for a posse. He couldn’t risk it just yet and he didn’t think he had the energy anyway.
“Hey Joe, wouldn’t your horse still be out the front of the mercantile?”
Joe shifted against the pole and almost smiled. “He could be. Unless Pa picked him up already.” The smile quickly slid away as he considered his father taking his horse home for the night while leaving him sitting in the jail.
“How’s about I go and check and you rest up a bit with Matthew?”
As much as Joe wanted to object, he also wanted to sit and let his face stop throbbing for a while. As Derek wriggled back out through the opening, Matthew scooted closer to Joe and leaned against his leg. As Joe felt the small boy’s hand reaching up to grasp hold of his, he desperately wished he had one or both of his older brothers to grab hold of too. He closed his eyes to hold back the tears that threatened. His brothers wouldn’t be so eager to hold onto him when they knew how much trouble he’d caused.
Ben stood in the doorway to the cell and felt his stomach churning. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. He was so angry at his son that a couple of hours to cool his heels in a jail cell had seemed like a worthwhile lesson. The knife that Joe had tried to steal still lay on Roy’s desk and he glared at it. It was only worth a few lousy dollars. He still had no idea what had possessed his son, but whatever his reasoning, his life was worth more than a few dollars or a stolen knife.
Ben’s knees almost buckled as he surveyed the blood-spattered wall and floor again. Roy had managed to tell them that Kent fired two shots. One of those slugs was in the sheriff’s shoulder and one was embedded in the far wall. It had apparently passed through his son on its way there. A blood trail across the floor showed him that Joe was still on his feet, but once he reached the dirt street outside, there was no way to track him any further.
“I’m sorry, Ben.” Roy’s weakened voice carried across the room and Ben turned back towards him. Paul was busy trying to slow the bleeding while his friend waited to help support the injured man across to the doctor’s office. Roy’s deputies had already headed out to pull together a posse to search for the fugitive while Adam and Hoss had gone back to the Silver Dollar to string together a search party to look for Joe around the town. Ben had been torn between chasing after his two eldest sons and trying to stem the profuse bleeding from his friend while waiting for the doctor to arrive. He stared down at his blood-streaked hands and felt sick again.
Ben crouched down and patted at Roy’s arm. “Not your fault, Roy. I’m the one who made the decision to leave Joe here.”
A short time later Roy was settled in Paul’s office, being prepared to have the slug removed from his shoulder. Ben was satisfied he was in good hands and was about to head out to join the search when Adam and Hoss burst in through the door. Roy was quickly growing drowsy from the effects of the blood loss, but he was still determined to get an answer to his questions and he pushed himself upright.
“Have they found him yet? Is the boy alright?”
Paul knew from many years of friendship that the town’s sheriff would hold himself responsible for Joe’s welfare, no matter what the outcome was.
Adam grasped at his father’s arm as he tried to slow his breathing. It was clear that both brothers had been running.
“Pa … we might have a lead.”
“Yeah, Pa. Joe’s horse is gone. We’re guessin’ he’s run for home.”
“His horse?’ Ben found his mind scrambling to catch up. He snapped his fingers as he realised what they were saying. “Of course! Joe’s horse was outside the mercantile. If it’s gone, then we should be able to catch up with him soon.”
Ben turned back to see Roy smiling at him. “Get outta here, Ben. Go find that boy o’ yours and make sure he’s okay.”
“I’ll be on my way just as soon as I’m done here.” Paul waved a hand towards the door.
Ben nodded as he followed his boys back out into the street. The ride home to the Ponderosa had never seemed longer as they galloped through the darkness. By rights, they should have caught up with Joe along the way. When they arrived at the house and found there was no sign of him, Ben dragged every last hand out of the bunkhouse before saddling fresh horses and charging straight back to Virginia City. If Joe hadn’t made it home, then where on earth had he gone instead?
It was almost an hour after Derek had left that Joe heard the boarding being shifted aside and he could make out the silhouette of someone moving towards him. He knew it was Derek, but that didn’t stop him from feeling a momentary fear that he’d been found. He’d been sitting and going over the events in the jail and one thing kept tracking around and around in his thoughts. The man who’d killed the sheriff had said he hadn’t spared his own father. Joe knew enough of life in the territories to have seen that human life could be considered cheap, but he couldn’t conceive of anybody killing their own father.
“Good news. I got your horse out the back of the schoolhouse. I had to go the long way round so nobody saw me.”
Derek slid down next to Joe and immediately Matthew grasped hold of his arm.
“I got another idea, Joe.”
“Well, I was thinkin’ on the way back here, that instead of … well … instead of borrowing a horse from the livery, me and Matthew just borrow your horse. We can leave him in the livery in Reno and your pa could get him back again.”
Joe shook his head, aware that Derek couldn’t see his face clearly in the gloom.
“And do you know how to get to Reno on your own?”
“Well … no … but it can’t be too hard.”
“The last thing I need is you two riding my horse off into the desert and gettin’ lost!” Joe choked back the comment he wanted to add. It wasn’t the last thing he needed, but given how much his plan had gone to pieces, he needed to ensure that at least something good came from it. He needed to see his friends on the way to their new life and freedom. It wasn’t anywhere near a fair trade, but Roy Coffee’s life had to count for something. “Besides, I made a promise to you and I’m gonna keep it.”
The morning sunrise over Virginia City brought both good and bad news. Paul had put the word out that their sheriff would be back on his feet in a few days, assuming he could keep the man down that long. The posse had sent riders out to the Johnston ranch and Roy’s fears were confirmed when they found Frank sprawled face down in the dirt as if he’d been shot down opening his front door. They had set off in the direction of Kent Johnston’s next potential victims based on the list of people he’d threatened at his trial. The circuit judge and Kent’s own lawyer were at the top of the list, along with anybody who had served on the jury. That left a local list of seven men while the rest were scattered between Carson City and Sacramento. Wires had already been sent out when he’d escaped from prison, but Roy insisted that new ones be sent again, giving updated information and renewed warnings.
The hands who rode out from the Ponderosa in various directions had all come up empty-handed and with the volume of riders in and out of the town, there was no way to even attempt tracking one horse.
Ben stood on the verandah of the doctor’s office, twisting his hat in his hands. After a fruitless night of searching, he had returned to speak to Roy and see if he could offer up any further ideas of where Joe might have gone. Anything, such as some scrap of their conversation or an intuitive guess. Anything that could put paid to the dread that was spreading through his body. With each hour that rolled by with no sign of his son, his thoughts grew darker and more introspective.
“Pa?” Hoss had called his father three times, but it wasn’t until he edged in front of him that he responded. “Pa, did Roy have anything he remembered?”
“No. He said Joe wasn’t talking much at all, but Roy was certain that it was the Maddington boy who had that knife first. For some reason, Joe tried to cover for him and got caught.”
“That same boy he was with the other day? The one whose pa got mad at Joe?”
Hoss rubbed at the back of his neck as he considered that. He knew something sounded off about the whole thing and Roy’s comment certainly sounded more plausible than Joe just deciding to steal something.
“Pa, why don’t we take a ride out to their place and ask that boy if’n he knows anything about where Joe might be? I mean, he mighta figured they was both in trouble or he might know where Joe’d run off to.”
Ben seemed to be staring out into the street and it seemed as if he wouldn’t answer. The confrontation with the boy’s father had left a sour taste, especially given Joe’s blasé attitude to ignoring the man’s wishes. Now he wondered if there wasn’t more to it.
“It’s worth a try, Pa.” Adam moved closer to his father’s shoulder.
An hour later, Hoss’s hunch had answered one question while producing several more. Walter Maddington was just pulling himself out of a drunken stupor when the trio rode into his yard and the foul-mouthed barrage that was flung at them would not be forgotten any time soon. It soon became clear that neither of the boys were around and it was also clear that it was the first that Walter had realised that. There was no telling how long they had been gone, but he eventually pulled a rifle from behind the door and threatened to put holes in all of them and their horses if they didn’t leave. On the ride back into town, Ben decided his next stop was the schoolhouse to talk to any of Joe’s friends who may know anything useful.
“Mister Cartwright … has there been any news of Joe?” The school teacher was standing on the porch of the schoolhouse when they rode up and Ben was surprised to see her there. It was well past time for school to commence, but there was an eerie quiet to the place. It wasn’t until he glanced around that he realised why. Many of the children rode horses to school, but there were none tethered anywhere nearby. He frowned as he looked around.
“Where are all the children?”
“Oh, Doctor Martin says we have two confirmed cases of measles and he’s declared a quarantine. We both know it’s most likely too late to stop an outbreak, but it’s the best we can do.”
Ben nodded at the comment, remembering only too well how sick and irritable all three of his boys had been as measles had rampaged through the town over nine years earlier.
Miss Jones looked at the three men in front of her and saw the exhaustion settling over all three of them. “Mister Cartwright … I heard what happened last night. Please tell me you’ve found Little Joe already.”
Ben almost dropped his head, but somehow he held her gaze. “I’m afraid not. That’s why I called in here, to speak with the Maddington boys. I have reason to believe they may know something about where Joseph may be.”
“Derek and Matthew? They haven’t shown up today. I assumed they may have been informed already, but then again … it isn’t unusual for them to miss school days.”
“Well we’ve just been out to their home and they aren’t there. Do you have any idea where they may have gone instead?”
The young teacher shook her head as she worried at her lip. She knew the boys were living in less than ideal circumstances, but would have been horrified if she’d known the full truth of it. It wouldn’t surprise her if the two of them played hookey on the warm summer days instead of gracing her with their presence. She’d seen that Derek had the makings of a good pupil, but he’d clearly missed whole chunks of his education. Every time she had tried to prompt him to open up, he had done the opposite and clammed up completely.
“Mitch Devlin may know something. The four of them have been as thick as thieves for the last couple of months.”
Ben winced at her choice of words, but he nodded in agreement. Roy said Mitch had been there at the mercantile too. If anybody knew anything, his son’s best friend and usual partner in crime would be the place to start.
“Good idea. Has Mitch been to school this morning?”
“He’s been and gone, I’m afraid. I sent all the children home that have been here this morning.”
“Thank you anyway. I guess we’ll take a ride out to the Devlin’s.” Ben tipped his hat as he pulled at his horse’s reins. Hoss and Adam followed suit and without needing to confer, the three of them were soon galloping out on the road that led to the Devlin’s home.
On any other day, Mitch would have reveled in the idea of a closed school and time to fish and swim in the summer heat. He and Joe would have bounded out of the classroom and made a bid for freedom. But it wasn’t any other day. Joe was probably half dead from the flogging his father would have given him and he figured it would be a month of Sundays before his friend was ever allowed out anywhere again.
As Mitch moped along the edge of the creek, he couldn’t find any spark of interest in dropping in a fishing line. Instead he figured he’d take his horse for a ride since there wasn’t much else to do. When his stomach finally got the better of him and he turned for home, he was stunned to find his mother shouting his name from the front porch. He groaned as he wondered if he’d been tied together with Joe for something and decided it was the most likely cause for his mother yelling at him.
As he pulled his horse into the yard, his mother reached for his bridle and grasped at his leg. “Mitch, the Cartwrights were here, looking for Little Joe. Have you seen him today?”
“No, Ma! Not since yesterday.”
He guessed that Joe’s pa would have been furious at him and he hated to think what level of a tanning had been handed out, but had it been so bad that Joe had run off? His mother tightened her grip on his knee and he couldn’t understand why she looked so scared.
“Mitch, this is important. Do you have any idea where Joe would go if he needed to hide?”
“Hide? Why would Joe be hidin’?”
Fear welled up from his gut at the look that passed over his mother’s face. She licked at her lips as she considered how to answer.
“There was some trouble at the jail last night. Joe … well Joe could be hurt … and his pa is trying to find him.”
The words weren’t fully registering, but one idea came to mind. If Joe was in trouble and needed somewhere to hide out, where better than where they had stashed supplies?
“I know where he might be, Ma. I gotta go check.”
As Mitch pushed his horse towards town, his mother was on her way to the Ponderosa in the hopes of delivering some much-needed good news.
Miss Jones was almost done gathering the last of her books and supplies. She had stayed for several hours and spoken to concerned parents who had arrived at the school after children had returned home unexpectedly. She had done her best to reassure them and give them the information the doctor had given her, but most of them knew the likelihood that any child who hadn’t yet had measles, soon would. Word had already gotten around about another two possible cases. There were adults in the community who had somehow escaped the illness in their childhood and Doctor Martin was even more concerned for them as the illness could be very mild in children while it could make some adults extremely sick. There was simply no telling how a patient would react until they did.
As the teacher continued filling her satchel, she heard a strange noise from underneath the floorboards. Assuming it was perhaps a raccoon or some other animal, she ignored it until it happened again. Suddenly the sound of muffled words floated up through the floorboards. She left the satchel on the desk and made her way outside. As she leaned down under the wooden stairs, she couldn’t see a thing. Using her best teacher voice, she challenged whoever it was.
“I would have thought a day off school would have meant you would actually leave school! Not hang around playing under there. Now come out, at once!”
She could barely contain a smile as she waited for whoever it was. Moments later she was stunned to see Mitch Devlin crawl out from the side of the building. He pushed a piece of boarding back into place before clambering up onto his feet. The look on his face caught her by surprise and she rushed over to see what had him so distressed.
“Mitch! Whatever are you doing under there?”
Mitch looked almost sick as he tried to evade her hands.
“Mitch? What’s gone?”
“I thought Joe would be here, but he’s gone.”
“Child, you are not making one lick of sense.” The knot in her stomach was growing and she pointed to the nearby step. “Now come and sit down there and tell me what is going on. Starting from the beginning!”
The boy had barely begun to explain when they both heard horses galloping into the schoolyard. Before Mitch could decide what to do or say, Joe’s father had flung himself from his horse almost before it stopped and had grabbed him by the shoulders. Adam almost thought he was going to have to intervene as his father shook the boy.
“I don’t know.” Tears began to well in his eyes as he could sense fear all around him without really knowing why. “Is … is Joe really hurt like Ma said?”
Ben dropped his eyes for a moment as he tried to calm himself. “We believe he is. Now I know you’re expecting to get into trouble, but I have to know the truth. All of it. When did you last see Joe?”
“Yesterday. When Sheriff Coffee put Joe in jail.”
Ben’s hands shook as he let go of the frightened boy and straightened up.
“Joe told him I didn’t have nothin’ to do with it … but that’s not totally true.”
Hoss looked across at his brother and frowned at the comment. He’d known Joe had been showing off and waited impatiently to hear the rest of it.
“I think you need to start talking, young man.” The stern glare on Ben’s face was enough to dissolve any last vestige of resistance.
“It was supposed to be simple. We just needed another two days, but Matthew blew it. We just wanted to give them a bag of sweets. Like a way to say goodbye.”
Mitch glanced around the group of faces and saw blank looks and vague frowns all around.
“They were supposed to sneak out and hide in the livery and then get the stage when it came through. Joe and me was gonna be in school and nobody woulda known nothin’.”
“What are you talking about? Who was going on the stage? To where?” Ben’s irritation was rising by the minute as he tried to make sense of things.
“Derek and Matthew. We were gonna send them up north … where Adam said that slaves can live free. But it was a whole lot further than we figured and then them Indian raids started and Joe said maybe San Francisco was a better way to go. They could disappear there and nobody’d bother them.”
Ben was scratching at the back of his neck as he still wasn’t understanding and he turned to look at his eldest son.
Adam was trying desperately to recall his conversation with his little brother where Joe had asked some very unexpected questions.
“Joe asked me if owning slaves was legal and I told him it was. Then … then I recall he asked how a slave got to stop being a slave. I said they didn’t, unless an owner turned them loose, but that was unlikely since slaves are worth money.” He rubbed at the bridge of his nose as he tried to remember the details, knowing they were somehow important. “We talked a little about how the north doesn’t have slaves and some slaves have escaped there and are living free. But I have no clue why that’s relevant to where Joe is now or what it has to do with the Maddington boys either!”
“’cause they’re slaves.” The hushed comment drew them all back to where Mitch sat slumped against the step.
“What?” Simultaneous expressions echoed around him as Mitch just stared at his boots.
“Mister Maddington … he’s not their pa even though he says he is. He bought them … paid money for them so he owns them … and he hurts them!” Mitch looked up and tried to stop himself from shaking. “He hurts them and he said nobody’d care ’cause they’re just orphans and nobody cares what happens to orphans. But me and Joe cared!”
Ben felt his insides churning as he recalled his son’s distressed questions over his own welfare should anything happen to his father. It was more than just Joe’s long-held fears surfacing. He was realising far too late that it was the distress of someone who felt helpless in the face of a serious injustice. He reached out a hand to latch onto Mitch’s shoulder once again.
“I’m beginning to see that. I’m just sorry I didn’t see it sooner. Now we need you to help us so we can help Joe and those two boys. Are you telling me that you think they are on their way to San Francisco?” It seemed like such a ludicrous question and yet he knew his son well enough to know it wasn’t impossible.
“Pa? How could Joe get a stage ticket to San Francisco?” Adam was shaking his head, knowing his brother’s entire savings amounted to maybe a dollar.
“He got the money.” Mitch felt sick as he dropped his friend into more trouble, but it was well past time to stay quiet. “I dunno where from,” he hastened to add, “but he had money in the saddlebag we hid under the schoolhouse.”
“It seems to me like you were planning this for a while. What else was in that bag?” Adam recalled a saddlebag going missing after he’d put it aside for repair.
“Clothes, food … stuff they’d need. That was why Derek tried taking that knife from the mercantile.”
“I knew it!” Ben had almost forgotten Hoss was standing behind him until he jumped to his brother’s defense. ” I just knew it weren’t like Little Joe!”
Ben almost hung his head in shame. If only he’d been less quick to jump to judgement, his son would never have been in that jail and a whole lot of things would be different.
“Mister Cartwright … I’m real sorry for all the trouble we caused … but you gotta understand … we had to help Derek and Matthew and Joe said …” His voice trailed away as once again his gaze dropped to the ground.
“Joe said what?”
“Joe said … he said he didn’t want you gettin’ into any trouble with the law.”
Ben couldn’t keep track of the logic in the conversation and he shook his head at the boy. “Why would I be in trouble with the law?”
“Joe said that Adam told him it was against the law to help runaway slaves. He didn’t want Sheriff Coffee to haveta arrest you so he figured if you didn’t know nothin’ about things then you couldn’t get arrested.”
Ben was almost speechless as Adam silently turned and walked away towards his horse. “Son, nobody is going to arrest me. Or anyone else for that matter.”
He crouched down in front of his son’s friend and tapped at his knee. The boy’s face was a picture of misery.
“Help us find Joe. He needs us to find him, quickly.” He didn’t add that his boy could be running out of time, but he felt a sense of urgency chewing at his thoughts.
“I dunno where he is. Honest! All I know is the bag’s gone and I’m guessing he’d still try to get Derek and Matthew on the stage somehow. I really don’t know nothin’ else, Mister Cartwright.”
Adam was already climbing onto his horse as his father turned towards him. “Where are you going?”
“Pa, if Mitch is right then Joe could still be planning to get the boys onto the stage tomorrow. That could be from here or he could be heading for a way station.” He didn’t add the fear that his brother could be trying to find his way any further than that. “If they’ve gone anywhere, he’d need another horse. If there’s three of them, he’d need at least one more horse so I’m going to see if anyone knows of any horses that have gone missing. Besides, if I’m really lucky, Joe might have just stuck to the plan and hidden those boys in the livery.”
Ben nodded at him, even as Adam was heading for the road. “Good thinking.” He didn’t really expect it to be as simple as Joe sitting in the livery waiting for them as surely somebody would have seen three boys by now. Half the town had been out searching the night before.
Hoss moved up hesitantly, looking between his father and the boy his brother called his best friend. Mitch was sinking under the weight and he knew it. The teacher had looped an arm through his and she squeezed his hand encouragingly.
“Pa? What if Little Joe’s not there? What if he’s just runnin’ scared?”
“Then we keep searching for him until we find him. Until we find all of them.”
Mitch almost smiled at the resolute comment. It was the first ray of hope he’d seen in a very dark day.
“You want me to head to the mercantile for supplies?” Hoss was already moving towards his horse as he spoke. On any other day, Ben would have smiled at how easily his sons read his thoughts. This was not a day for smiling.
“Yes, Son. If Adam turns up empty-handed, we’ll need at least three days’ travel rations and bedrolls. I’ll meet you there shortly and then if we need to, we’ll go and speak to Roy. We’ve got men out looking in all directions, but none of them would have expected this. We also need to find out if anybody has bought stage tickets. If so, Joe could be holed up anywhere to wait for the stage to come through.”
“Can I do anything to help, Mister Cartwright?”
Ben leaned down once more to pat Mitch’s shoulder. “You’ve already done enough. You’ve given us renewed hope.”
The anxious father almost managed a smile as he turned to the teacher. “Could you ensure he gets home safely and explain all this to his parents? I expect his ma could be here sometime soon looking for him. Please apologise for me and tell them we’ll talk when we get back.” He didn’t bother explaining he had left the woman to ride into town at a more sedate pace than the three of them after racing her poor horse to get the news to them in the first place.
Miss Jones nodded solemnly, wondering just what kind of conversation that would be. “Godspeed.” As Ben mounted up, she called out one last time. “Bring them all back safely.”
“I intend to.”
For all that he considered himself almost a man, Mitch was profoundly grateful for the woman standing beside him as he pulled himself up off the steps. She wrapped her arms around him and allowed him to let the tears finally fall.
“They’ll all be back before you know it.”
She just prayed that was true.
He looked across to where Derek was trying his best to keep Joe’s pony in line. He had decided his friend was better off on a tried and trusted pony than he was trying to control a bigger, unknown horse. It had been a short argument when Joe had insisted that he take Matthew behind him on the bigger horse. Since Derek was far less experienced, he would be distracted enough without having to worry about his brother as well.
“You feeling okay?”
He almost nodded, but managed to catch himself in time. He had no idea what his face looked like, but he guessed it was a mess. His nose was still throbbing and each time he touched it, his eyes watered profusely. His lips were swollen and the split on his lower lip was just beginning to glue itself back together. Every time he talked, it threatened to come unstuck and start bleeding again, so he tried to limit how much he talked. They had stopped at the water trough outside the livery and washed off as much dried blood as he could, given they couldn’t see it in the dark. The inside of his nose itched with encrusted blood. It was swollen on the inside as well as the outside and he was having trouble breathing through it. His left shoulder ached where it had made contact with the cell wall and he absently rubbed at it.
“I’m fine. I’m just looking for somewhere to make camp for the night.”
As if the thought of sleep suddenly made him feel drowsy, Joe yawned. He knew how little sleep they’d all had the night before and it was catching up with him. Matthew had almost fallen asleep in the saddle and would have fallen right off the back of the horse if his brother hadn’t noticed. Joe had ended up switching the younger boy to riding in front of him and he wrapped his arms around him to take hold of the reins. The sudden memory of Hoss taking him riding in the same way caught him unawares and he felt his chest tighten. What he wouldn’t give to have his brother holding onto him at that moment. He brushed aside the thought and focused on what he needed to look for. They needed somewhere secure that could block them from view from the road. He had no way of knowing if Walter had reported the boys missing yet, but there would definitely be posse riders out looking for the sheriff’s killer. As much as guilt chewed at his insides, he didn’t have time to answer to any of them until they reached Reno.
By the time they found a rocky outcrop that seemed like a good place to stop, Matthew was almost sliding out the saddle. Neither boy thought much of it that he was so tired as they were equally as exhausted. Supper that night was a very quiet affair as the three of them sat around a very small fire. It was only enough to shed a little light as they didn’t need it for warmth. Derek soon had his brother laid out on the saddle blanket and he wriggled down beside the boy before wrapping his arm around him. He was surprised at how warm he was, but his eyes soon slid closed as sheer exhaustion claimed him.
Joe lay staring up into the night sky. His body ached to sleep, but his mind refused to. He’d been to Reno before, but he hadn’t told Derek the whole plan. If anybody was coming after them, it would only be because Mitch had been forced to talk. He could envisage his father looming over his friend and using that determined tone that left no room for argument. Mitch wouldn’t stand a chance.
As sleep finally overwhelmed him, Joe found little rest as his dreams dragged him from the jail cell to the open road. No matter where he tried to run to, his father’s angry voice carried through the darkness. He heard the disappointment and anger in the tone, but could not make out the words. Faces loomed at him out of the darkness and he found himself being dragged out into the street and a noose dropped down in front of his face. As he tried to pull back from it, he was stunned to see his brothers appear on either side of him and grab at his arms. He was pinned between them as they dragged him forward.
“They hung Pa and now we’re going to hang you!” The venom in Adam’s voice felt like a physical blow and he fought desperately to escape.
As he jolted awake, Joe felt like a fish that had just been hauled out of the water. He was gasping for breath and his heart was racing wildly.
“Pa!” The strangled cry sounded like a shout in the quiet of the night. Joe forced himself to his feet and he stumbled into the nearby bushes. The supper he had eaten came back up as his stomach churned wildly.
“Joe!” Derek pushed his way through the bushes until he found Joe slumped up against a fallen log. “Joe, what’s wrong?”
There was enough moonlight that he could see tears dribbling down his friend’s cheeks. Joe wiped at them carefully, trying to avoid touching his nose. His face ached, but it was nothing in comparison to the ache that pushed at him from the pit of his stomach.
As Joe’s first inclination was to lie and tell the younger boy he was fine, he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was enough to undo his resolve.
“I dreamed about my pa.” He swallowed hard as he tried to blot out the images. “I dreamed he was dead.”
Derek nodded at the breathless comment. He knew how that felt. After a few minutes where neither of them could find anything further to say, Derek finally tugged at his arm.
“Let’s get back to sleep. Like you said, it’s a long ride to Reno and we don’t wanna miss the stage.”
“It’s even longer the way we are going.”
“We need to get off the road and head overland. I dunno how fast Walter’ll report you two as runaways, but we gotta get off the road.”
Derek knew that he had no idea how to get to Reno and he trusted Joe to get them there. “Okay, but for now, we gotta get some sleep.”
By the time the three of them awoke in the morning, none of them were rested. Joe’s dreams had carried right on where he’d left off and Derek had tossed uncomfortably as sleep had evaded him for most of the night. When Matthew awoke with a sore throat and a warm face, Derek figured he was sickening with a cold. It was a miserable start to the day all round.
Adam knew he’d been overreaching, but a small part of him had hoped beyond hope that Joe would simply have hidden his friends in the livery as they’d planned and he would walk in and find his brother alive, safe and in one piece. He was still chewing over just what he’d say when he saw him, but in the end it didn’t matter anyway. The bitter taste of disappointment got shoved aside as he focused on what he needed to do next.
Hank had confirmed what he already instinctively knew. An older mare was missing and he knew it was just the kind of horse he would have chosen for the job. Not a spirited animal that would be harder to control. As much as Joe thrived on the challenge of handling horses and was already showing an aptitude for working horses, this wasn’t the time to show his skill. His brother would have been scared, panicked even and needing the calmest, reliable horse he could find that he could remove quietly and quickly without drawing attention.
After scouting around the outside of the livery and not finding any further clues, Adam wasn’t surprised to see his brother coming his way.
“I got Mister Cass puttin’ together some supplies for us. Pa’s gone up to see Roy and fill him in.”
Adam nodded at his younger brother, noting that he looked calmer than he had for hours. Having something constructive to do was always helpful when Hoss was agitated. Adam wished it was that simple for him as his gut was churning with recrimination. He was so quick to think he knew what his brothers were thinking. He’d known there was more to Joe’s odd questions and he was kicking himself that he hadn’t pushed harder and dug deeper. He should have known that Joe’s mind worked like a kid and not like his granite-headed eldest brother. It was Joe’s insult of choice to throw at him whenever the two were at loggerheads and he knew he’d pay good money to hear it hurled at him once more.
As Adam pulled himself back up into the saddle and followed Hoss back to the doc’s office, he decided they needed to start thinking more like Joe and less like an adult. As Mitch’s tale had come out in pieces like some kind of puzzle to be reconstructed, he realised that far from being ridiculous, Joe’s logic was actually … well not quite logical … but it certainly made sense. He pushed aside his mounting thoughts and focused on just finding him.
Roy was propped up against the bedhead and he was listening intently as Ben filled him in on all they had discovered. Paul hovered behind them, his thoughts going off on another tangent. As Ben relayed their plans, he finally stepped forward.
“Ben, there’s something else you need to consider. You may not have heard probably, but there’s been two cases of measles at the school. I know Little Joe’s had it, but I don’t know if either of those boys have. They’ve certainly been exposed to it and with the incubation period, they’d be getting sick right about now.”
Ben knew only too well what his friend was telling him. He’d seen measles turn deadly. Joe would have no idea what he was dealing with or how to help. It just added to the sense of urgency to get out on the road and find them.
“Roy, I need you to send out those wires. We’ll be heading along the stage route, as far as we need to go.”
Roy nodded as he considered his friend’s face. That would be all the way to San Francisco if need be.
Joe had no idea why Matthew was suddenly being so irritable, but he figured it could be because the boy wanted to be with his brother instead of in front of Joe. The sun was riding high in the sky and he decided it was time to call a stop for a rest. That way, Matthew could have some time with Derek and maybe stop grizzling at him. As he scouted around for any sign of water, he finally found a small tributary running down a steep gully. It was too tight to get the horses down so he pulled up and pointed at it.
“I’m gonna go down and fill up the canteens. You two get some food ready and I’ll be back in a minute.”
After he slid down from the horse, he reached up a hand to help Matthew down.
“C’mon, little buddy.” The words slipped out before he even thought about it and his breath caught in his throat. Would either of his brothers ever want to call him that again?
He brushed it aside and focused on the job of filling the canteens, but by the time he came back he was surprised to see the two boys seated on the grass with no food ready. Derek looked up and frowned at his approach.
Without speaking, Derek lifted the edge of Matthew’s shirt and pointed. Angry red spots were clear to see across his chest and stomach. The younger boy scratched at his chest while Joe dropped the canteens and slipped down beside them. He reached out a tentative hand to touch the inflamed skin and was surprised at the heat. He had just figured it was a warm day and it was uncomfortable having Matthew leaning up against him.
“What is that?”
Derek squinted against the sun as he looked up at Joe’s face. “You ain’t seen that before?”
Joe shook his head as he shifted back on his haunches. “Don’t think so. Why?”
“I reckon it’s measles. I had it a few years back in the orphanage. Lotsa kids got it and got …” He barely stopped himself from finishing that thought as Matthew looked up at him.
“Yeah, I think you might be.” He reached across and hugged the younger boy against him. “But you’re gonna be just fine, right Joe?”
“Uh, sure you are. I had measles when I was real little and I was just fine. And Derek just said he had them and he’s fine too!”
Both boys looked at each other across the top of Matthew’s head and tried to force a smile at each other. Each read the fear in the other, but neither would say anything to frighten the younger boy as he looked scared enough already. The trio forced down a hasty meal before remounting the horses. It was a very quiet trek on towards the next valley as Joe kept his focus on the far ridgeline. He knew the road was only a mile or so off to their right, but he would not risk being seen travelling on it. He’d been that way often enough to know the horizon ahead of them looked right, but he wasn’t so sure of the last part to Reno. He decided they might have to chance the road at some point, but only so he could get his bearings again.
By the time they found a place to stop for the night, both boys were growing more concerned. Matthew had fallen asleep in the saddle which wasn’t so unusual as Joe knew he’d done the same on a long ride with his pa or brothers. The problem was that once they stopped, Matthew seemed reluctant to wake up and grizzled loudly when forced to. The rash had spread and was creeping up onto his face. Derek pulled his brother onto his lap and tried his best to coax him to eat something while Joe watched as he barely took in enough to feed a bird. Hop Sing’s angry voice floated through his thoughts as he recalled how often he had skirted danger by not eating enough of the man’s cooking.
“You no grow! You stay Little Joe forever!”
It was almost enough to make him smile, but the overwhelming rush of emotion behind it almost knocked him off his feet. He staggered away, trying desperately to control himself. By the time he returned, Derek had settled Matthew on the outstretched saddle blanket and the younger boy was sound asleep.
Joe edged closer and was shocked to see tears dribbling down Derek’s cheeks.
“He’s all I’ve got. He’s been my brother for two years now and he’s all I’ve got.”
Joe hunkered down beside him. “What do ya mean, two years? He’s seven!”
Derek looked up and nodded. “He ain’t my blood brother, Joe, but he’s still my brother, same as if he was. We found each other in the orphanage.” Derek swallowed back the breath that threatened to choke him and a sob escaped instead. “He can’t die, Joe! He just can’t!”
“He ain’t gonna die. He’s just got the measles!”
“Kids die from the measles.” The tone was flat and most unlike Derek’s usual resolve.
“You didn’t and I didn’t … and neither did my brothers.”
“I bet your pa got you a doctor, Joe. And took real good care of you.”
Joe frowned as he tried to recall the days he had been confined to bed. He remembered being hot and sleepy and his eyes hurt in the light. Everything itched like crazy, but most of all, he remembered his ma singing to him and stroking his head. Hoss was huddled up with him in the same bed and he guessed it would have been easier to care for two sick boys if they were in the same room. He knew that Adam had been sick too, but he couldn’t remember seeing him for some reason. It never occurred to him that at sixteen, Adam had been so sick, he hadn’t wanted his brothers anywhere near him.
“My ma was there.” The comment was barely a whisper and Derek lifted his head to hear better.
“Joe …at the orphanage …. kids died. Some got better … but some got real sick and they just went to sleep and didn’t wake up again.”
Joe scooted closer to where Derek was holding onto his brother as he slept. “He’s not gonna die! We won’t let him!”
Ben would have called it Joe’s obstinate face and Adam referred to it as Joe’s mule-headed face. Hoss just usually laughed when he saw it because it always meant that Little Joe wouldn’t quit until he got what he wanted. At least until he ran into something he couldn’t budge or climb over.
“Joe, he’s gonna get much sicker than this. If we take him to a doctor, they’re gonna lock us up. If we don’t ….” Once again the tears spilled down Derek’s face.
“We’ll think of something. Don’t worry, we’ll think of something.”
Joe found sleep eluded him for many hours as he tossed and turned, looking for a solution. Matthew’s restless sleep kept Derek from sleeping too and by the time the sun rose, all three were exhausted.
Kent Johnston stood and watched as another body fell, face first into the dusty ground. The former juror twisted in pain for a few minutes before his body stopped moving altogether. It brought no satisfaction to the escapee to see his vows fulfilled. Rather it was just another day of the emptiness that had taken over his soul and his very existence since that judge had pronounced sentence on him. He’d declared that he wouldn’t stop until every last one of them was dead. The count was rising, but there was still a few who had evaded him so far. They had up and moved out of Virginia City since he’d been incarcerated and threats and beatings were not always producing the information he needed. At least this one had tried to bargain for his life with information and Kent had taken the information and then shot the snivelling coward in the gut anyway.
As he walked towards his horse, he did a mental tally and knew he was down to only four left on his list before he turned and headed for his new life at sea. San Francisco sounded like the kind of place he could disappear without a trace.
“You need another day of resting!”
“Ain’t got time for that just now. I’ll keep it in mind for later though.”
Paul shook his head in exasperation. His patient seemed intent on dressing and dragging himself across the road to his office as if he hadn’t had a bullet dug out of him far too recently. The fact Roy was struggling with one of his boots almost made the doctor laugh at his friend, but he knew it would just encourage him.
“You do know you lost a whole lot of blood before I put a plug in you?”
“Yep. But you done a right good job with that plug and I don’t leak no more.” Roy smirked at his friend as he pulled his second boot on and stood up. He strapped on an empty holster as he continued on. “And I thank you for it. Now … I still got a job ta do.”
“You let me know if any of those telegrams get an answer.” Paul resigned himself to watching the sheriff head back to his duty.
“Course I will. The minute I know somethin’, I’ll let you know. And I really do thank you.”
Roy patted the doctor’s shoulder as he passed on his way out into the street. Instead of heading for his office, he made straight for the telegraph office. He knew his deputies would have brought in anything straight away, but he couldn’t resist asking the telegrapher directly anyway.
“Nothin’ comin’ through, Roy. Ain’t had any o’ them sheriffs send word back about the boys.”
Roy nodded solemnly and turned for the door without answering.
“But I’m guessin’ the deputy told you ‘ bout them raids?’
“The Indians have been moving again. Yeah, he told me. Thanks.”
The telegrapher watched as the sheriff made his way out the door once again. The whole town had heard the saga behind his injury and the blood-spattered cell that had held Ben Cartwright’s youngest only hours before. Many of them had assumed the boys would turn up somewhere quickly, but the hours were turning into days and nobody had heard a thing.
As Roy continued across the street, he felt the odd weight of his holster against his leg. He couldn’t be sure about it, but he hoped that Little Joe had picked up his gun from the floor before he’d run off. He knew the boy could shoot because despite his father’s misgivings on the subject, he’d taught his boy to handle a gun. Roy knew it was a decision he’d made to pre-empt his son’s curiosity and impetuous decision-making. He just prayed the boy would have no reason to draw it on anybody. Or worse still, that it would be used against him.
Sergeant Jackson knew his men were just as tired as he was. Bone weary didn’t even begin to describe it. He’d lost count of how many days they’d been in the saddle and he’d pay a month’s wages for something to eat other than trail tack. As he pulled his horse towards a copse of trees, he hoped he’d read the landscape right and there would be water flowing beneath them. He smelt the smoke before he saw any sign of a fire and he raised a hand to warn the men behind him. Each of them had weapons drawn as they rode down the hillside towards the creek.
Joe quickly filled the pot with water from the creek. He placed it on the ground beside him and reached into the sluggish stream to splash water across his face. He rubbed at his eyes and tried to wash away the feeling of grit that seemed permanently lodged there before he slowly stood up and turned back towards the camp. He yelped in surprise and dropped the coffee pot as three soldiers approached him from the treeline with their guns all pointed his way.
The memory of the soldiers and their Indian prisoner back in Virginia City did not ease his racing thoughts and he slowly raised his hands in the air.
“I’m just boilin’ some water. I ain’t done nothin’ wrong.”
The apparent leader of the trio nodded at him while simultaneously dropping his aim.
“What the hell happened to you, kid?”
The soldier edged closer while the other two made a cursory sweep of the area. He pointed towards Joe’s face and frowned at him.
Joe chewed at his lip and tried to buy some time by stooping to pick up the coffee pot. He had no idea what soldiers were doing there and why they were so jumpy, but he’d heard Hoss talk of the Indian raids and it was making him jumpy.
“I’m on my way home…. fell off my horse and I think I broke my nose.”
Jackson stepped closer and winced at the extent of the bruising across the kid’s face. “I reckon you’d be right. Now, which way is home?”
“Simple question, kid. Which way are you headin’? ’cause there’s Indians in the area and you’ll have worse than a broke nose if you run into them!”
Joe swallowed down the sense of panic that was rising and was trying to find an answer when he heard his name being called.
“Joe! Joe, where are you?”
The soldiers all turned in unison as another boy climbed over the embankment and stopped dead at the sight of them.
“Who’s that?” Jackson thumbed towards the younger boy.
“My brother!” Joe had no idea why he answered that way, but he somehow figured it would be less suspicious than saying they were friends. “And we live just over that ridgeline. We’re on our way home now.”
Derek clambered down the embankment, unsure of what Joe was saying and why, but trusting the older boy anyway.
Sergeant Jackson pointed towards the hills. “Then I suggest you both forget boilin’ that water and get on home as fast as you can. It ain’t safe out here for travellers at the moment.”
Joe nodded while silently pleading with Derek to keep quiet. “Sure thing. We’ll get on our way real soon.” He began to edge his way towards the younger boy as he spoke.
As the soldiers appeared to be leaving, Joe realised too late that they were signalling others to come and before long, a dozen horses and riders were making their way down to the water. He took advantage of their urgent need for water and he grabbed at Derek’s collar and hauled him up the slope and out of sight.
“Joe, they can help Matthew.” Derek was puffing as he ran to try to keep up with Joe, but he wanted to run back towards the men they’d just left behind.
“No, they can’t! The army is like … well they’re just like a sheriff. They gotta hold up the law the same way. We can’t trust them.”
“Can’t trust them with what?”
The voice behind them startled both boys and they spun around to see one of the soldiers had followed them. Before either of them could think of anything to say, he had moved closer.
“You boys don’t live over that ridgeline do you? What … you ran away from home?”
“No!” Joe positioned himself in front of Derek and the soldier almost smiled at the action. He would have done the same thing if it were his brother.
Before Joe could stop him, Derek pushed himself forward. “My brother … he’s real sick!”
The soldier looked at the two boys, not immediately understanding. Before he could answer, he heard a cough from further in the trees and without waiting to be asked, he made for the sound. What he found was certainly not what he’d expected.
The child lying bundled in a saddle blanket was coughing weakly. His skin was splotchy with a red rash and as Jackson reached out a hand, he felt the heat before his fingers made contact.
“Measles! How long’s the kid been sick?” He looked up to see both brothers watching him intently. He couldn’t fathom why they hadn’t asked for help in the first place, but he’d deal with that question later.
Joe sidled closer while Derek crouched down beside his brother.
“I got a medic back there, but I don’t expect there’s much he can do.”
Derek gulped like a dying fish and the soldier hastily backtracked. “Easy there, kid! I meant, measles just hasta run its course. He can’t do much about it.”
Neither Joe, nor Derek could stop the army sergeant from making abrupt decisions and ensuring his orders were carried out promptly. Matthew was barely aware as the medic checked him over and confirmed the diagnosis.
“Sarge, it’s measles alright and the kid’s real sick.”
Joe and Derek waited as the two soldiers walked away from them, while glancing back towards them every so often. It was clear they were almost arguing and Joe felt Derek inch closer to him. Without really thinking about it, he stretched out his hand and grasped hold of the younger boy’s hand. As he squeezed it, he looked down at tear-filled eyes.
“He’s gonna be okay. I know it!” The words came out with the confident air of an older brother and Joe suddenly startled to realise his older brothers had reassured him plenty of times and maybe didn’t feel quite so confident as they sounded. It was a sudden realisation that shook him badly as his brothers’ words were something he counted on. Even when he was as mad as a cut snake, as Hoss would say, he counted on them both to tell him the truth. Joe swallowed a sob as he considered his brothers would never again trust his word. He had repaid them both so poorly and it felt like a physical kick to his stomach. As Derek clenched hold of his hand, he silently vowed to himself that at least the two younger boys could count on him to keep his word. “He’s gonna be fine.”
Eventually, Sergeant Jackson turned back to the boys and tried to find the words for what he was about to do. As an older brother, he could no sooner think of leaving his siblings to fend for themselves than fly. As an army sergeant, he had orders and those orders were urgent.
He pointed at Joe since he was clearly the eldest of the three. “I wish I didn’t have to do this, kid, but we got orders and … well in the army, we don’t get to question them or ignore them. I gotta get my men to the fort by tomorrow and we’re already half a day behind. Now …,” he reached out to clamp a hand on Joe’s shoulder and steered him away from the others. “I dunno what your story is, kid and I really am sorry, but I don’t got the time to wait around and find out. Your little brother there is real sick. Which you already know. You need to get to the nearest town, which is Riversbend and get him to a doc. I dunno what you’re runnin’ from, but you gotta hear me on this, kid. My medic says it six o’ one and half a dozen o’ the other which way this thing is gonna go. You need to get that kid brother of yours to a doctor and right quick. You hear me?”
Joe nodded solemnly; acutely aware that the man’s stare seemed to look right inside him.
“And while you’re there, you can get the doc to check that your nose is okay. It looks straight enough, but we can’t have your future romance potential ruined by it, now can we?” He tried to smile and saw the faintest flicker of a smile in response. “There you go! Now, there’s one more thing. We’ve been chasing Indians half way across this territory. You need to keep your wits about you, boy. Keep a sharp eye. I wish we could be takin’ you there ourselves, but it ain’t possible. So we’re gonna get you all on your horses and make sure you’re headed in the right direction and then we’ve gotta get going.”
Less than twenty minutes later, with military efficiency, the small camp was packed and the fire was doused. Matthew had barely grizzled through the whole deal and hardly stirred as Sergeant Jackson lifted him up to place him in front of Joe once again.
Joe waved as the riders kicked their horses into a gallop and took off towards the west. He felt his stomach clenching violently as he once again faced the trail north. He’d promised Derek that Matthew would be taken care of and older brothers didn’t break promises.
Ben pulled his horse into the hitching rail and slid down from his horse. He felt numbed by so many hours in the saddle and he gripped onto his horse’s saddle to steady himself.
“You alright, Pa?” Hoss looked across at his father as he seemed to waver on his feet.
Ben straightened up and nodded at his middle son. He knew they were just as tired as he was, but nothing would stop them until they found three young boys who had no business being out on the road alone. Paul’s warning rang in his thoughts and he knew that if either of the boys had contracted the measles, they would all be in trouble.
“Hoss, you get our horses settled at the livery. Adam, you get us a room.”
Neither of them needed to ask what their father would be doing. As he strode down the boardwalk to the sheriff’s office, both brothers prayed this would be the one that had an answer for them.
Ben pushed open the sheriff’s door and looked at the man who was propped up against the wall with his feet on the desk and his hat pulled low over his face. It was clear by the sound of snoring that he was deeply asleep and any other time he would have left the man to it and come back later. After all, he knew how often Roy Coffee would be out until all hours and an afternoon siesta was required to catch up. This was not any other time.
The man jolted upright and almost spilled from the chair.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you, but I need to speak with you.”
The sheriff pushed his hat back onto his head and nodded at the stranger in front of him. “Sorry, Mister. Been out chasin’ cattle rustlers the last three nights and I guess it’s caught up with me.”
Ben smiled and nodded at the explanation. “I know how that feels. My name is Ben Cartwright and I just wanted to check if you’ve had any wires for me.”
The sheriff jumped to his feet and looked faintly surprised. “Ben Cartwright? Well I never expected you’d actually turn up here! Ain’t that one for the books? Not much o’ nothin’ reaches our little town.”
The man suddenly realised he was rambling and he reached for a ledger on the desk. Underneath it was a folded piece of paper and he held it out to the man standing in front of him.
“If you’re Ben Cartwright, then this is for you.”
As he scanned the brief text from Roy Coffee, a slow smile began to spread across his face, followed quickly by a frown. Roy had been true to his word and wired every town between Virginia City and Sacramento. He had no idea how or why, but his boy was in Riversbend, which was well off the stagecoach route. Without the wire they could have ridden right past them and never known. Ben stuck out a hand to thank the sheriff before hastily making his way to the door.
“Thank you! This is the news I’ve been waiting for!”
The sheriff nodded at him as the man almost ran from his office. Whoever Joe was, Cartwright sure seemed eager to see him.
Hoss and Adam had barely begun their first taste of a beer when their father burst into the saloon, waving a piece of paper at them.
“We’re not staying! Joe and the boys are in Riversbend.”
For the first time in days both Adam and Hoss saw their father’s face light up.
“You sure, Pa?’ It wasn’t that Hoss didn’t trust his father, rather he’d been riding on fear for far too many miles.
“It seems somebody from Fort Churchill crossed paths with them who put two and two together. Roy said he’d wire every place he could think of and put out the alert for them. I guess he really did if he wired army posts as well.”
“Makes sense since the army’s been out in force up that way for weeks.” The instant he opened his mouth, Adam wished he could swallow that last comment. None of them needed to be reminded that the boys had unwittingly ridden into dangerous territory.
Ben pointed to the door as his sons abandoned their drinks.
“Let’s go get your brother, boys!”
As Joe pushed the two horses in the direction he’d been told, his mind was racing with worries. The law would be looking for two runaway slaves. Two brothers who would be dragged back to Virginia City and dumped right back into the nightmare they had escaped. If he was caught and proven to be aiding them, he’d be locked up again and would be no use to help them escape again. If the medic hadn’t scared him so badly, they wouldn’t be riding the way they were at all. Eventually he decided he’d figured out the best plan he could come up with to protect them all.
“I got an idea.”
Derek was too tired to do much more than hold onto the reins and he was grateful that Joe’s pony just followed his lead without much effort. He waited expectantly for Joe to continue.
It had been at least two hours since either boy had spoken. Both had been lost in a combination of weariness, worry and doubts. The miles slipped away behind them under the gloomy moonlight until the first rays of dawn found them on the outskirts of a small town. It wasn’t until they sighted the first buildings of Riversbend that Derek found the courage to speak his thoughts.
“Joe … I don’t want to leave Matthew.”
Joe shifted in the saddle and knew he’d have to fight this battle a little harder. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the best plan he could come up with.
“I know you don’t … and you won’t be, not really. We just gotta be smart about this. If anybody from Virginia City wired anywhere they woulda said there was three of us, right?”
Derek nodded in agreement.
“Okay, so the law’ll be looking for three of us won’t they? That’s why we agreed that we’ve gotta get Matthew to a doctor, but if we keep you outta the way, there’s only two of us. Maybe nobody’ll put things together and notice. Then when Matthew’s better, we can all head for Reno together and still get you on that stage.”
“But Joe … why can’t I just go with Matthew and you stay outta sight?”
Joe could hear the hitch in Derek’s voice as he struggled to hold his emotions in check.
“You know why. You ain’t a good enough rider to hold onto Matthew and keep the horse going where you want her to. And Matthew can’t sit a horse by himself no more.”
It was the justification he’d given the younger boy for his decision, but it wasn’t the whole reason. Joe felt responsible for the way his plan had played out and the last thing he wanted to do was cause any more grief for either of the boys. He also figured he was the better liar and while he wasn’t proud of that thought, he knew he needed to be if they were going to make it to Reno. Derek’s silence was enough to show he’d won the round and he pulled his horse to a stop.
“We need to find you a safe place to wait for us. Somewhere with water nearby, that’s outta sight.”
It was over an hour later that Joe plodded into town and searched the signs along the main street, desperately hoping for a doctor’s shingle. Matthew was slumped back against his chest and if it wasn’t for his hand wrapped over the boy’s chest, Joe would have questioned if he were still breathing. By the time he found the doctor’s name nailed beside a door that was well past needing a new coat of paint, he found himself with an unexpected dilemma. Without Derek to help him, he could not get down from the saddle without dropping Matthew into the dirt. He looked around for anyone to help, but the streets were quiet in the early hours of the morning. He eventually simply resorted to calling out loudly.
“Doc! Is there anybody in there? I need your help!”
Matthew fidgeted against him and Joe patted at his face. “It’s okay. The doc’s gonna help you.”
“What’s the matter, boy?”
The voice from behind him startled him and Joe swung around to see who it was. The glint of a sheriff’s star almost made him drive his heels into the horse’s flanks, but he barely managed to keep his head.
“I … uh, my brother needs the doctor. He’s real sick.”
The sheriff noted the blotches on the child’s face and he knew immediately what he was looking at. Measles was nothing to trifle with and he needed to get the two boys into the doctor’s office and away from any of the townsfolk as quickly as possible.
“Let me help you, son.” Without waiting for approval, he reached up and easily pulled Matthew from the saddle. He held the child in his arms and waited for the older boy to climb down and hitch his horse before heading for the doctor’s door. “The doc isn’t here right now, but I’ll send someone for him. You get on in here and we’ll get your brother comfortable.”
Joe followed as he was directed, trying to keep his wits about him and not give anything away. He watched as the sheriff whistled to a passing rider and issued instructions for the rider to head over to the Murphys’ home and bring the doctor back as quickly as possible. The sheriff continued on into the doctor’s outer office and simply strode into an examination room and laid Matthew out on the bed. He pointed to a bowl and nodded towards the door.
“Get me some cold water from the pump out the side of the building. We need to cool this kid down.”
Joe bolted for the door with the bowl and when he returned, trying not to slosh water everywhere, he was shocked to see Matthew stripped to his drawers. Without discussion, the sheriff began to wipe him down with a cooling cloth and the child moaned in response. Joe shifted closer, unable to take his eyes off the angry red rash that covered the boy from head to toe. He reached for the child’s hand and squeezed it, but got no response.
“How long’s your brother been sick?”
“A few days.”
“A few days? This rash would have been showing. Why didn’t you or your folks bring him in sooner?”
Joe licked at his upper lip as he considered the question. “We thought … I thought he’d get better. I didn’t figure on him getting so sick.”
As the sheriff continued his ministrations, he studied the boy standing beside him. His face was a mottled mask of bruising and his eyes watered with ready-to-spill tears.
“Are you sick, boy? You got any of these spots?”
Joe shook his head without speaking.
“What happened to your face?”
Joe decided to stick with his earlier story. “Fell off my horse. I think I broke my nose.”
‘Well that was clumsy of you.”
Joe looked up to see the man smiling at him, but he could not muster a smile in return. Matthew groaned again and tried to shift away from the chill of the washcloth. Joe stared at his face as it contorted into a grimace and he found the tears he had kept so long at bay, finally escaped.
“Is he going to die?”
The sheriff looked down at the boy under his hand and debated how to answer. There was no doubting the child was extremely ill. He was saved from having to answer by the sound of footsteps in the entry and he grinned as the doctor appeared in the doorway.
“Cavalry’s here, kid!”
Joe had seen Doc Martin in doctoring mode too many times and he saw something familiar in the stocky older man who immediately went to work. He found himself being pushed back out into the outer foyer and as much as he wanted to object, he didn’t want to give the sheriff any cause to bother with him either.
“Why don’t you sit down over there while the doc does his thing and I’ll see if I can’t rustle up something for you to eat.”
Joe slowly nodded as he tried to recall the last decent meal he’d eaten. As the sheriff made his way out the door, his body betrayed him. Exhaustion crept up on him like a wolf and his eyes slowly slid closed of their own accord.
Ben spotted the sheriff walking along the boardwalk as they rode into the small town and he pulled his horse across the street. Adam and Hoss quickly followed suit as their father dropped down from his horse and called out to the man.
“Can I help you?”
“I sure hope so, Sheriff. My name’s Ben Cartwright and I’m looking for my son. It’s a long story, but I got a wire saying that he and two young brothers were on their way to Riversbend. One of the brothers has the measles so I’m hoping you have a doctor in town.”
“Yes, one of the two boys is apparently sick. My son has already been exposed when he was young so he won’t be sick. Have you seen them anywhere?”
The sheriff scratched at his chin as he considered the three men in front of him.
“Well, there’s two brothers down at the doc’s office and one of them has the measles alright.”
Ben felt his gut lurch. “Just two of them? You sure there aren’t three boys?”
“Sorry. There’s just two of them, far as I know. They rode in only a while ago.”
Ben tried to swallow down his fear as he spoke. “Could you please show me where the boys are? They might know where my son is.”
“Pa … you don’t s’pose that Little Joe …” Hoss couldn’t bring himself to finish the thought. It was clear by his father’s face just exactly what he thought. If Joe really had been shot as they suspected, he could have succumbed to his injury anywhere between Virginia City and Riversbend.
The sheriff looked between the men and couldn’t decide what had them all so alarmed, but he pointed back down the way he’d come.
“Doc’s office is just down that way.”
Adam moved in alongside his father, only too aware of the man’s fear as they walked the interminable length of the boardwalk. Hoss was worrying at his neckerchief as they walked, trying to keep his own fears in check.
When the sheriff finally ushered them through the door of the doctor’s office, Ben thought his heart may just beat its way out of his chest. Curled up on a bench seat, sound asleep, was the son he’d been so desperately searching for. He stepped forward quickly as he noted the deep bruising that he could see across his son’s cheek and nose. A man that he presumed was the doctor walked through the internal door as they crossed the room.
Most nights along the trail, Joe had dreamed of his father and brothers. The dreams shifted between condemnation and outright disaster. The nights he woke up in a cold sweat were the worst ones. The image of a noose tightening around his father’s neck haunted his days as well as his nights and he could not shake the fear that dogged him. As his father called to him in his dream, something was different. The condemnation was gone and he heard the love that he had relied on his whole life.
Ben shifted closer and the sheriff moved in behind him, suddenly very curious to hear the full story behind the strange travelers.
“Joseph, wake up, Son.”
As Joe blinked his eyes open, the sight that greeted him was straight out his nightmare. The sheriff leaned over his father and he knew the law had caught up with them at last.
Ben was startled as Joe bolted upright on the chair before pushing himself to his feet. Raw fear drove him forward and before his father could speak, Joe was literally grasping at the sheriff’s vest.
“Don’t arrest him! He didn’t know anything about any of it! Honest. It’s my fault, not his!”
The sheriff gripped at Joe’s hand as he pulled back. “I’m not here to arrest anybody, kid.”
“Joe!” Ben pushed his way forward, frowning at the fear on his son’s face.
Joe floundered as he stared at the faces in front of him, completely misreading his father’s sharp tone and frown as the memory of his father’s last words arose to taunt him.
My son is a thief.
I don’t want to take him home.
“Pa … don’t hate me … I’m sorry … Pa, I’m sorry!” The words tumbled out in a wild rush and Ben gripped at his son’s shoulders to steady him.
“Son, I could never hate you!”
“But … but he’s dead and he wouldn’t be if I … if I hadn’t …” Joe’s knees buckled beneath him and Ben grasped at him to hold him upright. The memory of Roy Coffee being gunned down while babysitting his youngest ever prisoner choked the breath out of his lungs. His father’s condemnation was written all over his face and suddenly nothing else mattered as the walls seemed to cave in around him.
“I think you need to bring that boy through here so I can take a look at him too.” The doctor’s voice cut across the room as Ben scooped his son up into his arms. The boy was babbling into his shirtfront as he moved and he could feel his son shaking against him. He had no idea who was dead, but guessed it must be one of the brothers Joe had run away with. As they walked into the doctor’s examination area, he noted the smaller of the two boys laid out with a sheet draped across his chest and a cooling cloth across his forehead. Ben sucked in a sharp breath as he guessed the older boy must have already succumbed to the measles. If his son had been forced to deal with the death of a friend, while on the trail somewhere, there was no telling how it had affected him. Had his son been forced to bury a child somewhere? As he considered that awful thought, he realised that perhaps Joe’s bizarre outburst made some sense after all.
As he tried to lay Joe on the bed, his son turned his face to the wall and shrugged his father’s hand off his shoulder. As he went to try again, Ben’s hand hovered over Joe’s arm without making contact. His son thought he hated him! As he stared at the back of Joe’s head, taking in the dirty state of his hair, he felt like a knife was driving into his chest. Given that he had left his son locked up in a jail cell when a murderous escaped convict had attacked that same jail, it was no wonder his son didn’t want to even look at him. Ben reluctantly allowed himself to be moved aside as the doctor began his examination. He walked across the room to where his two other sons waited with the sheriff and he tried to make eye contact with them.
“He thinks I hate him. Can’t say I really blame him when I left him in that jail!”
The sheriff’s face was remarkably impassive as he looked at the trio. The story was growing stranger by the minute.
Ever the one to try to bring peace into a conflict, Hoss reached for his father’s shoulder. “Pa, you was just tryin’ to knock some sense into Little Joe’s head. You had no way o’ knowin’ that Johnston fella would show up in Virginia City that night and start shooting up the jail.”
“Johnston? You mean the con that escaped from the Territorial Prison?”
“Yes, Sheriff. I left my son in harm’s way.” The self-recrimination was obvious to all of them.
Adam knew that his youngest brother rode on his emotions and he had had far too much time in the saddle to contemplate his brother’s thoughts on their father’s actions. Joe’s belief that his father hated him wasn’t entirely irrational when he used the kind of logic that Joe usually applied to situations. He just wished that his brother would start using some actual logic. He barely contained a sigh as he considered how much damage had been done already. On both sides of the equation.
“Pa, somewhere in there, Joe knows that you love him. He’s angry and he’s scared and he’s just a kid. Once we get through to him that he’s safe and you aren’t really angry at him, he’ll come around. He always does. He blows like a firecracker, but he fizzles out just as fast too.”
Ben nodded in agreement, but held up a hand to forestall anything further when the doctor made his way across the room.
“I think we need to speak outside, gentlemen.”
All three of them were reluctant to leave Joe behind, but the doctor left no room to argue as he ushered them all through the door.
“Am I right in thinking you are the two boys’ father?”
“The older one you just examined is my son, Joseph. The other boy is a friend of his. His name is Matthew. Doctor have you seen a third boy, in between them in age? His name is Derek and he should be with them.”
“Nope, sorry. Can’t say that I have. Nick? You know anything about another boy?”
The sheriff shook his head. “Sorry, but I’ve only seen these two so far. Your boy, Joe, he rode in with the younger boy and the kid was barely conscious. We waited for the doc and tried to cool him down. That boy’s clearly been sick for days.”
Ben huffed out a sharp breath as he considered the facts. “I hate to say it, but I think Derek could be dead. If he had the measles too and he got as sick as his brother, it’s certainly possible he died on the trail.”
“I don’t mean to pry into a family’s business, but just why on earth would three young’uns be on the trail at all?”
“It’s a long story, Sheriff. But before I fill you in, Doctor, how are the boys?”
“Well your son is exhausted. He needs to rest. I don’t know what happened to his face, but his nose seems to have set straight and should be fine given time to heal. The younger boy … well let’s just say he’s a very sick little boy. I examined him and he’s malnourished which doesn’t help him fight off an infection this aggressive.”
“Is he gonna die?”
The words floated across the room from the open doorway and all of them turned to see a dirty child staring at them.
“Derek!” Ben rushed towards the boy and suddenly pulled himself up as he realised he was scaring the child. “I thought … never mind what I thought.”
“Mister Cartwright … is my brother gonna die?”
“Not if I can help it, young man.” The doctor was already appraising his next potential patient from across the room and he crouched down to check things closer. “Have you been sick at all? Any spots? Itching?”
“No. I had the measles already.”
“Well that’s a good thing. But you look like you could use a meal to me.”
“I want to see my brother! And Joe.” The boy cast anxious looks around the room at the group of adults that could decide their fates. He pointed towards the sheriff.
“You can’t blame Joe for any of this. He was just tryin’ to help us! You can’t lock him up again!”
The sheriff raised his hands in surrender. “What is it with everybody assuming I’m going to arrest people this morning? I don’t generally put kids in my jail!”
Ben winced at the comment before straightening his face. He deserved whatever came his way on that front. He reached out a hand towards the frightened boy and grasped his shoulder.
“Nobody is in trouble. You can trust me on that, Derek. Now, Doc, is it alright if this young man gets to see his brother?”
As Ben and the doctor took Derek through to see Matthew, Adam and Hoss headed for their little brother. The sight of him, curled on his side, reminded Adam of all the times Joe used to crawl into his bed during the night. He would wake up to find his brother curled up with his thumb in his mouth, sound asleep. There was nothing of that baby left as he looked down at the young man who had fought so hard to save two friends. He reached out a tentative hand to stroke at his brother’s dirty curls and noted again the intense bruising across his face.
“I’m sorry, Joe. I should have listened better.”
Roy pushed open the door to Paul’s office and noted his inner door was closed. The doctor’s standard practice was to leave that door open unless he had a patient with him so Roy growled under his breath and settled down to wait. He wanted to stand and bang on the door, but he managed to restrain himself. A good fifteen minutes later, he was still seated and he found his usual patience was wearing thin. By the time the door swung open and Maggie Wallis waddled out through the door, he was almost ready to burst. Instead, he made his way to the door and opened it for the young woman who looked like she could burst at any moment. Roy swallowed down the cheeky thought and tipped his hat her way as she smiled her thanks.
“Mrs Wallis, good day, Ma’am.”
“Your shoulder giving you trouble?” Paul’s voice from behind him was serious and yet as he turned around, his friend was trying not to laugh. “Not that you’d tell me if it was!”
Without realising he was doing it, Roy began rubbing at the wounded shoulder and when Paul laughed at him, he slowly began to chuckle at himself.
“A couple of inches over and we wouldn’t be standing here talking, you know.” Paul suddenly sobered as he commented on how different it could have been. His first sight of his friend lying in a pool of blood had not boded well.
“Well it’s a good thing that Kent didn’t stick around to check. Course with the amount of blood everywhere, I’m not surprised.”
Paul nodded without speaking. The grim discovery had left them speculating about how badly hurt Joe could be and the lack of response to the sheriff’s wires was grating on them all.
“But that don’t matter. I promised you I’d tell you just as soon I got wind of anything.” He waved the paper towards his friend triumphantly. “Well, this here wire just came in from the sheriff at Riversbend. Seems our little band of runaways have turned up and Ben and the boys have caught up with them.”
Paul slapped a hand on Roy’s uninjured shoulder and grinned at him. He suddenly sobered again and the grin slid off his face. “Why would the sheriff be sending that news and not Ben?”
“Hadn’t rightly thought of that. Guess I was in too much of a rush to let you know the news. I gotta ride out and let Hop Sing know or he’ll skin me alive for keepin’ him in the dark.”
Paul smiled again as Roy hurried for the door. Hop Sing had ridden into town every day waiting for news as impatiently as the rest of them and he would not forgive any delay in being told about the wire. As Roy left his office, Paul felt the worry sliding back into place. It was his nature to be a cautious man who noted details and there was too much that hadn’t been said for him to stop worrying just yet.
Adam handed his father a mug of coffee before settling down on the floor beside him. The room was cramped, but nobody seemed to care. The doctor had been reluctant to allow them to move across to the hotel, but it was apparent that the boys needed sleep more than anything else and Matthew’s condition would not change any by being moved to a hotel room. So long as they kept a quarantine in place and limited who came in, he was satisfied with the decision.
Derek had refused to leave him until he had been assured and reassured several times that his brother would be brought over just as soon as the doctor was done with him. The boy looked around the room and marveled at the fine furnishings, although Adam considered it to be barely adequate. It was the only hotel in town and he was past caring about the trappings. A member of the hotel staff hauled up a bathtub and Derek tried arguing that he was waiting for Matthew. Adam wasn’t taking no for an answer and Derek reluctantly stripped down and dropped himself into the hot soapy water. He could not remember the last time he’d had the luxury of a hot bath and he closed his eyes with a contented sigh. Hoss smiled gently at the sight of the boy’s face and he headed over to offer to soap his hair. Derek almost objected until he remembered how Joe talked of his older brother and he slowly nodded.
A short time later, there was a knock on the door. Adam smiled at the young lady standing there as she eyed him up and down. She looked a little confused as she held up a bundle of clothing.
“I’m not sure I have the right room. The sheriff sent me up with some boys clothes, but you aren’t old enough to have sons this size.”
Adam smiled at her confusion and nodded. “No, but I am old enough to have younger brothers. Please tell the sheriff we appreciate this very much. The boys’ clothes are filthy.”
Before he could head back into the room, he caught sight of his father on the stairs. He was carrying Joe, who was still soundly asleep. He’d often remarked that his brother could sleep through an earthquake, but the exhaustion on the kid’s face was no laughing matter. He stepped back to hold the door open and tipped his hat at the young woman as she sidestepped his father.
“Pa… is he alright?”
“The doctor seems to think he will be. Did you get that bath organised?”
“Yes, Derek should be done by now.”
Waking his brother and getting him undressed proved more difficult than he expected as Joe seemed intent on fighting them. He seemed almost dazed as he stared at his family members, but in a most uncharacteristic fashion, he said nothing. Once again, Hoss offered to soap his hair and Joe sat hunched in the tub as he did so. The ache of so many hours in the saddle had settled into his bones and by the time he was done, it was all he could do to climb back out of the tub.
Ben had reluctantly left his sons to take care of the two boys as Joe refused to even look his way. Instead he went back to the doctor’s office to get Matthew. The boy felt like a sparrow weight in his arms and he frowned at the bones he felt poking through the boy’s back. Joe had always been small for his age, but he moved with a level of energy that belied his size. He knew that Matthew was seven, but he felt more like a five-year-old in his arms. As he made his way across the street with the child wrapped in a sheet, he looked down into the boy’s face. He could not fathom how anybody could not see a child as precious and he vowed he would do whatever it took to find the boys a home. A real home.
By the time he made it into the room again, Joe was stretched out on the farthest bed, apparently soundly asleep once again. Adam sat on the bed beside him while Hoss had taken charge of Derek. The boy could barely keep his eyes open, but he looked up as Ben eased his brother down on the bed beside him. He’d considered renting two rooms, but soon realised it was pointless as none of them would accept being separated.
Hoss already had a bowl of cool water and a washcloth ready and he wrung it out and placed it over Matthew’s brow. The boy barely stirred as he did so. The doctor’s words rung in his ears and he patted the boy on the shoulder before he stood up. He winked at Derek as Ben pulled a blanket over them both.
“Sweet dreams, fellas.”
Ben straightened up and slowly edged across the room to the other bed. Adam moved out of his way and his father nodded at him as he took his place. For the longest time he simply stared at Joe’s back; his face a jumble of emotions. Finally he leaned down and kissed the top of Joe’s damp head. He inhaled the smell of the hotel soap and he slowly sat back up again.
“Sleep well, Son.”
By the time Adam handed him the coffee he was emotionally spent. The days of not knowing had taken their toll. He could not take his eyes off his son as his mind went around and around in circles trying to work out how to fix things between them. He could not put into words the profound relief he’d experienced in finding his boy in one piece, without a bullet wound in him. His mind had worked overtime to torment him on that front and even as he slept on the trail, he’d been tormented with images of his son bleeding to death on the floor of the jail.
“You’re an old fool!” He had cursed himself with the same words many times in recent days and nothing would convince him otherwise. Adam said nothing as he’d found it pointless to argue this particular argument. He sat and sipped at his mug of coffee until he heard the door swing open again. The aroma of bacon wafted into the room and Hoss appeared with a loaded tray and the sheriff trailing behind him.
“I sent the wire you requested to Virginia City. Roy Coffee just replied.”
Nick handed the slip of paper across and Ben smiled at the comment.
“What’s it say, Pa?” Hoss was busy laying out food and piling up plates while Adam was intently watching Joe. He had his suspicions that the boy was feigning sleep as he’d done a thousand times before. His suspicion was confirmed when his father answered the question.
“Roy says to hurry up and bring them all home!”
Joe’s shoulders heaved and he slowly turned onto his back. It took a moment for him to push himself upright, but the look on his face was unreadable. He stared across the room towards his father. His breathing was growing more wild by the second and Adam shifted up onto the bed and grasped hold of him.
“Joe? What’s wrong?”
“Who’s dead?” It was the same comment he had made the last time, just before he had almost collapsed onto the floor and Adam could feel the tremors under his arms.
“Sheriff Coffee.” It was barely a whisper and Adam leaned in closer.
“No, Joe. He was shot, but he’ll be fine. He was really worried about you though.”
“He threw me out of the way. Against the wall. That man tried to shoot me and … Sher …”
Joe stared at his father as he made his way across the room. Ben sat down beside him and cupped his son’s face under the chin. “You thought Roy was dead?”
Joe’s voice stuck in his throat as tears trickled down his face. The nightmare he’d lived with for far too many days was dissolving in front of his eyes.
“Joseph? That’s why you think I hate you?”
As Joe slowly nodded, the pieces began to fall into place. Ben knew he’d left his son with the impression he was ashamed of him and furious at his behaviour, because if truth be told, he was. If Joe truly thought his oldest friend was dead, he could see how the boy would connect the dots and come up with such a preposterous conclusion. He slipped his hands up to grasp either side of his son’s face and thumbed away the tears.
“Oh, Son.” He could barely breathe as he watched his son’s distress play out across his face. “Forgive me for ever thinking I was doing the right thing by locking you up.”
It was no more than a whisper, but it was the first acknowledgment Joe had given his father since they had found him.
“I know you aren’t a thief and I had no right to do what I did to you.”
Joe’s face contorted as if he was in pain. He shrank back from his father and tried to push himself away again. His father’s forgiveness was based on a lie.
“But I am.”
“You are what?”
Joe swallowed a gulp of air, knowing he was about to condemn himself.
“A thief. I took the money we needed … to …”
“To get the boys on the stagecoach?” Adam ‘s voice sounded too close and Joe tried to scoot away from him too.
Joe couldn’t speak and he simply nodded.
“We figured as much when Mitch told us you had the money. I’m assuming you took it out of my drawer?”
There was no condemnation in the tone and Joe looked miserable as he tried to look up at his brother.
“And Hoss’s. But we’ve still got most of it and I’ll work until I’ve earned the rest of it back. I promise!”
“Joe,” Adam wrapped his hand around the back of his brother’s head. “I don’t need you to do anything of the sort. I know what you were trying to do and I’m proud of you, little brother.”
Joe stared at him as if Adam had just said he could fly. He felt the warmth of his brother’s hand on his neck and the familiar squeeze.
“I’m serious, Joe. I think your planning and execution needs a little work, but the idea behind it was admirable, even if your facts were a bit off the mark.”
“Same here, little brother. I’m right proud of you too.” Hoss could barely hold back the emotion as he considered all his brother had done and why.
“Son, we have a lot to talk about still, but for now, I think you need to sleep. Unless of course you are hungry.”
Joe’s hands reached for his father’s vest and he pulled closer. He would normally have buried his face in his father’s chest and Ben was afraid he was about to do just that. At the last moment, Joe twisted sideways and laid his head against his father’s shoulder. Ben wrapped his arms around his son and held on with a determination to never let him go again. He wasn’t surprised when he eventually felt his son’s body go slack against him.
“I guess that answers that question.” He smiled as he eased the boy back down onto the bed and once again kissed the top of his head. “Sleep well, my boy.”
“Alright, I think I’ve been more than patient with you all so far. I need some answers to this crazy story of yours. Just what in tarnation is going on?”
Ben stood up and pointed towards the tray of food. “It may be a little cold, but Sheriff, you are welcome to join us for breakfast and I will try to explain everything. At least the parts of the story that I know. I think these three boys might have to fill in some of the blanks when they wake up.”
Roy paused at the edge of the road and considered the conversation he needed to have. He’d ridden out to see Hop Sing and the little Chinese man had actually embraced him as he went off on a rant that would have sounded angry if Roy hadn’t known how relieved the man was. Number Three Son held a special place in the man’s heart and Roy had seen Little Joe use that to his advantage on more than one occasion. He smiled again as he thought about it before quickly sobering again. His next stop would not be so pleasant and he hated what he was about to do. As he pushed his horse into Walter Maddington’s yard, he knew there were some days he wished he wasn’t the law in the town.
Walter sat in a broken down wicker chair on the front porch and his bleary eyes betrayed him before he even opened his mouth.
“You find them two ungrateful brats yet?”
Roy dismounted and tied his horse to the porch post before he answered. The contrast between Hop Sing’s reaction and Walter’s was like night and day.
“Matthew and Derek have been found. They are in Riversbend.”
“They with that Cartwright brat?”
Roy managed to hold his tongue in check as he nodded. “Joe is with them. Ben is there too and he’s bringing all of them home, just as soon as Matthew is well enough to travel.”
Roy found his anger mounting at the man’s callous lack of response. Any other parent would have asked immediately what that meant, but Walter just took another slug of whiskey. Roy coughed as he nudged closer.
“I said, young Matthew’s sick. Real sick.”
Walter glared at him, his mind calculating as he stared at the sheriff. The boy wasn’t much use for physical labour anyway so he wasn’t much concerned if he came back or not. The older boy? Now that was a different story. He had a sturdy back and without his whining little brother underfoot, the boy just might prove useful after all.
“What about Derek? He okay?”
“S’far as I know. Matthew’s got the measles. I find it hard to figure that one boy in a family would have had it and t’other ain’t. Not how it usually goes.”
“They ain’t brothers.” Walter muttered the comment and was too drunk to realise what he’d let slip.
Roy frowned at the man in confusion. It wasn’t the story that Walter had told him about the boys being his sister’s boys and she had passed on with no other kin. He’d already thought they didn’t much resemble each other, but then again, none of Ben’s boys looked much like each other.
“That so?” He scratched as his chin as he made his way to his horse. Walter hadn’t asked for any more details and he decided he wasn’t going to divulge any. His gut told him to dig deeper and speak later.
It was a long ride back towards town as he considered what little he really knew of the two boys. He figured the best source of information so far had been young Mitch so he swung his horse towards the Devlin ranch in the search for answers.
Nick leaned up against the doorframe and listened as the three men in the room painted a picture for him that he could not have made up if he’d tried. He twisted his hat between his fingers as he listened to the tale that slowly unfolded. It had taken the better part of an hour in the telling, between mouthfuls of food and slurps of lukewarm coffee. He quickly gathered the men had been on the trail for some days and he wasn’t sure when they’d last eaten. Eventually it came out that it had been the noon meal the day before and that was only trail rations.
“That is the most unbelievable tale I’ve ever heard. If I hadn’t seen it playing out right in front of me, I woulda said you were making it up!”
“Believe me, I wish I was.” Ben drained the last of his coffee and stood up to place the cup on the tray. He looked across to where Joe was still soundly sleeping and he half smiled. “My son has many qualities that have caused me a measure of grief or frustration over the years, but I cannot deny that his sense of justice is finely honed. He doesn’t always stop to think everything through, but if I had just taken more time to really listen to him, this could have all been avoided.”
“Pa, you know as well as we do that Joe don’t always give you a whole story.” Hoss felt as guilt-ridden as the rest of his family, but he would not allow his father to shoulder the entire blame. “And that’s maybe my fault as much as anythin’.”
“How do you mean, Son?”
“Well, Little Joe told me he wanted ta talk to you and I told him not to.” Hoss hung his head as he recalled only too well the day he’d wished he could gag his youngest brother before he put his foot in anything.
“Why ever not?” Ben frowned across the room at the comment. It was so unlike his usually open and trusting son. Of all of them, Hoss was the easiest to read and the most open to conversation. He didn’t hide things and his comment made no sense.”
Hoss scuffed a boot across the worn carpet as he remembered the day in the barn. “You and Adam was out with them army fellas checkin’ out them Indian raids. You told me not ta worry Little Joe and I accident’ly let it slip that’s where you were. I tried ta stop him from worryin’ and I guess I just messed it up more. I told him not ta ask you ’bout it and I know that he was keen to ask you ’bout somethin’ that day. I guess I just stopped him from askin’ you anythin’ at all!”
Adam stood up and tracked across to the coffee pot for a refill. The lack of sleep was catching up with them all and he yawned as he filled the cup. “We all missed it, Hoss. It was me that Joe asked about slaves and what would happen if someone helped a runaway slave. You saw his face when he saw the sheriff and Pa. He thought Pa was going to be arrested because of what I told him.”
“Sure shocked me when the kid begged me not to arrest you.” Nick shook his head at the memory. The boy’s odd behaviour was certainly beginning to make more sense as the story padded out.
“I think there is more than enough blame to share around, but I’m the one who decided to leave my son locked in a jail cell.” Ben held up a hand as Hoss began to object again and he walked over to the bed again to stand over his youngest son. It looked like a protective stance and all three of them were clearly struggling with how they had failed to protect the boy.
Before anyone could say anything further, there was a knock at the door. Adam reached to open it and wasn’t surprised to see the doctor standing with his hand raised to knock again.
“Just come to check up on my patients.”
Nobody had much to say as the man settled on the bed next to Matthew. The boy had barely stirred since he’d arrived in town and only been semi-conscious when they had roused him to get him to drink. The doctor smiled as he peeled back the damp washcloth and laid a hand across the boy’s forehead. He waited for some time to be sure of his diagnosis.
“I think his fever has stopped rising. God willing, this little trooper might just be turning the corner.” He glanced up to see smiles right around the room. “You need to get some more water into him and let me know as soon as he wakes up.”
He looked across to where Derek had wrapped himself around Matthew’s left arm. Dark circles smudged under his eyes and it was clear the boy was exhausted. The doctor had already noted that both boys were far too thin, but the younger boy’s profile looked gaunt and he knew the bout of measles could not be the sole cause.
“These boys need feeding up.”
It was an observation that the doctor spoke almost to himself as he stared at the two boys in front of him. The third boy across the room was wiry, but these two were clearly malnourished. He stood up and headed over to check on Joe and he almost smiled as the boy’s father moved along with him.
“You ever find out how he broke his nose? Did he really fall off his horse?”
Adam snorted as he listened to the comment. “Is that what he told you?”
When both men nodded, he smiled across at his brother’s sleeping form. “Joe hasn’t fallen off a horse since he first figured out how to climb up onto one when he was three! He thinks he’s ready to start busting broncs!”
Nick smiled at the comment as he considered the boy he’d only known for a few hours. It sounded about right.
“That’s the story he gave me. Why? What really happened?” The doctor glanced around the room and noted that the smiles quickly disappeared.
“Somebody took a shot at him. Our town sheriff shoved him out of the way and into a wall.”
“Who’d want to shoot a boy?” The doctor was horrified by the answer.
Nick straightened up and shook his head. “That fella I told you escaped from the Territorial Prison. Seems he had a little score to settle in Virginia City. And elsewhere from what the wires have been saying.”
“What do you mean?” Ben stared at the sheriff as if he was only just realising something. He’d been so focused on finding Joe that he’d given no thought to Kent Johnston’s whereabouts. He figured the posse would have caught up with him by now and dealt with the local law. For all he knew, the man could have been hung already. Apparently not.
“Seems he’s got a list of folks he’s going after. So far he hasn’t left any of his victims alive so if your son escaped him, I’d be mighty thankful for that.”
“I am.” Ben nodded slowly in agreement. “Believe me, I am!”
The doctor still hadn’t gotten the full story of just who was connected to who and how the three boys had come to be in his town, but for now, he was satisfied that they were in good hands. He had other patients to tend to and he trusted that if Nick was happy with the strangers, then so was he.
“I need to get on with my round, gentlemen. But like I said, you let me know when this young fella wakes up.”
“Will do, Doctor. And thank you.” Ben ushered the man to the door and shook his hand heartily as he left.
Roy sat at the table as Mitch sipped at a glass of milk and he fiddled with his coffee mug. He’d enjoyed telling the lad that his friends were all accounted for and he carefully avoided giving any real details. The boy’s mother hadn’t missed that, but she had kept quiet as she continued preparing supper at the bench and listened in to the conversation. The younger children had been shooed out into the yard so Roy could focus his attention on Mitch.
“What exactly do you mean, Walter paid for ’em?”
“That’s what Derek told us. He said that Walter paid for them so he owned them. We figured that meant like slaves so Joe asked Adam about it and Adam told him that slaves stay slaves ’til they die. If they run away, they get locked up if they get caught.”
Roy blew out a sharp breath as he considered the comment. He would bet good money that Joe hadn’t given any actual details to Adam when he asked the question or they wouldn’t be where they all were now. He tried to contain his thoughts as he knew full well the boys had clearly only meant to help. “Well that is kinda the facts, but don’t you boys know that slavery isn’t legal in Nevada?”
Mitch twisted his glass between his fingers and tried to explain. “We didn’t know that then and we didn’t want to ask. Joe was real certain not to get his family into any trouble with the law!”
Roy sighed as he thought about that idea. He’d seen the boy cover for Derek and refuse to rat on him when he’d been caught with the knife. He knew only too well how loyalty worked with Joe Cartwright, even when it bit him. “Why would Joe’s family be in any kind of trouble?”
Mitch looked at the sheriff, feeling slightly confused. Didn’t the sheriff know the law? “Cause Adam said so.”
“Now young fella, Adam Cartwright’s no fool and he wouldn’t tell his brother somethin’ that just ain’t true.”
Mitch’s mother glared at him as she wondered if he was still trying to hide something after everything that had come out.
“But Adam said that anybody who helped a runaway slave got into all sorts of trouble with the law and Joe didn’t want any of his family gettin’ into trouble. Honest, Ma!”
Roy reached across and patted at his arm. “It’s alright there, boy. I know just what you mean.”
He could envisage the kind of conversation that had happened. After all, Ben had once said that his son could well become a lawyer one day with the way his mind worked. It hadn’t been a compliment, given the father was at his wits’ end, but Roy chuckled nonetheless as he recalled it. Little Joe certainly had a unique way of seeing the world.
“Alright then. Just one last question for you and I’ll leave you ta get back to that woodpile you was workin’ on. Did Derek or Matthew ever tell you where they came from before Walter brought them to Virginia City?”
Mitch chewed at his lip as he thought it over. Neither boy was very open with any kind of personal information. “I’m not sure, but I think they lived in San Francisco. Derek said somethin’ one day about his pa bein’ a sailor and his ship went down. That’s how he ended up in the orphanage. He didn’t ever say nothin’ about their ma though.”
“Good. That’s helpful. Now, anythin’ else you can think of, son?”
“Umm … the orphanage … it was summer somethin’. I think.”
Roy pushed himself up from the table and reached to place his hat back on his head. “Thank you for the coffee, Ma’am. And thank you for the help, young fella.”
As Mitch watched the sheriff ride back out of the yard, he hefted the axe in his hand and dropped another log onto the block. For the first time in what felt like forever, he felt a measure of hope that things might just turn out all right after all.
The sounds of the main street drifted up to him even though the window was closed. Ben had found himself dozing off only to jolt awake again as his overworked mind would find something new to torment him with. He shifted against the wooden headboard and tried not to wake Joe with his movement. His son had barely moved from where he had been laid down hours ago and Ben knew it was yet another indicator of just how exhausted he was. Ordinarily, Joe slept the same way he did everything else in life – with as much energy as possible. He was a restless sleeper who fidgeted and tossed the bedding from one side of the bed to the other. When he was younger, it was not uncommon for his father to come in to check on him before heading to bed himself, only to find the bulk of his bedding on the floor. The memory brought a faint smile to his face and Ben reached out a hand and laid it across his son’s wayward curls. Somehow the simple physical touch and reassurance was enough to calm his thoughts and he found himself slowly sliding back into sleep. Everybody seemed to notice how tactile Joe was and yet not many people noted how much like his father he was on that front. It was just second nature to both of them.
Both Adam and Hoss had laid out their bedrolls across the floor and rustled up some pillows from the hotel clerk, despite the fact their father had offered to pay for another room. Neither one was prepared to leave, even if it made for a cramped space to sleep. The sheriff had pointed them in the direction of the livery to put up the horses and soon turned up with Joe’s horse and a mare that they assumed belonged to Jed Watson. Old Jed had been very vocal about his stolen horse and what she was worth and even though he’d clearly exaggerated that value, it felt good to know they could actually return her to her rightful owner. Along with a sizeable apology to smooth things over, no doubt.
Even as the small town went about its daily business, nobody in the hotel room was awake to care. The front desk clerk had been issued strict instructions by the sheriff as he departed that nobody was to disturb the room under any circumstances with the only exception being the doctor. As he walked along the boardwalk, he couldn’t help but shake his head at the story he’d been told.
The shabby bar had seen better days and the beer was warm which did nothing to improve his sullen mood. As the few dusty customers drifted in, he watched them intently from under the brim of his hat. Kent was acutely aware that his face would be plastered on wanted posters on every wall from one end of the territory to the other, but figured he was relatively safe in a tiny one-horse town. It certainly wasn’t big enough to have any kind of law that was worth worrying about and the occupants of the saloon didn’t even pay him any mind. He had been locked in a cell for four years and over that four years had plotted exactly what he would do once he got out to all those who had put him there. It never occurred to him that he wouldn’t get out, but the chance to make a run for it had taken longer than he’d anticipated. The hatred had kept him going for four long years and it pushed him on to finish the job before he set out for his new life with a new name. There were only two left on his target list and he knew that one of them had run away to Reno, like a dog with his tail between his legs. He would spend however long it took to hunt his prey down, but his plan had just taken a major knock. It was the only reason he wasn’t in Reno already. Indians had taken to raiding homesteads and unwary travelers and the army was out in force, hunting them down. While he had no wish to run into army soldiers or even local militia, he’d barely escaped one trio of braves. His horse had not been so lucky. The mare had gone down with an arrow embedded in her broad chest and it was only sheer luck that had kept him from being skewered by a second arrow. If the horse hadn’t stumbled and dropped him onto the ground, he knew his hunting days would be over. The horse’s dead body had given him enough cover to take aim and shoot down one of the braves while winging a second one. The third one had wisely decided to retreat along with his injured friend. As he took another slow swallow of the lukewarm beer, Kent made his decision on just how he would get to Reno. First things first meant he needed a new horse as it had been a long and hot walk into the town. It would take a few days longer than planned to get to Reno, since he had to take a longer way around, but he was a patient man. After all, after four years, what was a few more days?
The deep well he found himself in was the blackest place he’d ever been. Joe reached out a hand in front of his face, but couldn’t make out his fingers. He felt a deep sense of dread filling him as he tried to call out, but his voice stuck in his throat.
“Let me out!” The words sounded like a whisper mocking him in the darkness and he tried again. “Let me out!”
“They hung Pa and now we’re going to hang you!”
Joe could feel the rope sliding around his throat and he grasped at it as if he could stop what was coming. Adam’s breath in his ear made his heart race as he could feel his brother’s hatred.
He tried one last-ditch effort to stop the inevitable and pleaded with the brother who had once loved him.
“Adam! Adam don’t! You can’t!”
Hands grasped at his shoulders and he tried to fight them off. If he was going to die, he would not go down without a fight.
Ben jolted awake as he heard Joe cry out and he took a moment to realise what was happening. Joe had pushed himself away and was tangled in the edge of the blanket. He’d seen enough of his son’s nightmares to know what was coming next. Joe’s distress would only escalate so he grasped at his son’s shoulders and tried to wake him. Instead, Joe just grew more agitated.
“Adam … let me go!”
The shouts had woken both Adam and Hoss and they scrambled to help, but Adam pulled up short at his brother’s anguished shout. He watched as Joe wrestled against his father’s hand before Hoss quickly moved over to help. The two men kept hold as Joe struggled against them until he finally shook himself awake.
Across the room, Derek pushed himself up onto his elbows and watched as once again Joe seemed to fight against an invisible enemy. He’d seen it several times since they left Virginia City and each time Joe refused to say very much afterwards. The only insight he’d been given was that first night on the road when Joe had woken them all up with his screams.
“I dreamed about my pa. I dreamed he was dead.”
Derek never had figured out why Joe kept dreaming the same thing. He shivered as he knew how many times he had dreamed of his own father dying. The water swirling over his head as he ran out of air was a nightmare that left him shaking and gasping for breath every time. If Joe’s nightmare was anything like his, he understood entirely why Joe screamed. But his pa wasn’t dead and Derek couldn’t figure why his friend would keep dreaming such a thing. Joe certainly hadn’t given him any further hints and he’d given up asking.
Hoss wrapped his hand around the back of Joe’s head and tried to reassure his brother as he gasped for air.
“It’s alright there, Shortshanks. You’re okay, little brother.”
Adam couldn’t shake the ugly thoughts chasing around his head as Joe had clearly shouted his name in fear. His brother was afraid of him and he had no idea why. As Joe’s senses cleared and he shook off the last vestiges of the nightmare, he was still visibly shaking. He glimpsed Adam behind Hoss and involuntarily pulled back from them both. Nobody missed the fearful glance he cast around until he locked onto his father’s face.
“I’m right here, Son. You’re safe.” Ben reached forward slowly, trying not to spook the boy any further. “It’s all right.”
As Joe grasped at his father, none of them were surprised. It had been some time since Joe last had a nightmare, but his usual response was the same. He would cling to whoever got to him first until he calmed down. Ben had no idea that Joe’s clenched fingers had little to do with usual behaviour and much more to do with reassuring himself that his father really was still alive.
Before any of them could find out what the nightmare was all about, Matthew chose that moment to wake up. The brightness of the room was overwhelming and he rubbed a hand across his face before trying to turn on his side. His body protested and he moaned aloud as Derek grabbed at his arm.
Adam decided it was clear he wasn’t wanted on Joe’s side of the room so he made his way across to the two brothers and sat down beside Matthew.
“Easy there, little buddy.” The words slipped out so easily and he paused for a fraction before he reached out and cupped the side of Matthew’s face. “It’s alright.”
Even before he could ask for it, Hoss appeared beside him with a glass of water and Adam wrapped an arm around Matthew’s back to help prop him up. The little boy gulped at the water, as if he had been deprived for weeks and Adam eased the glass back.
“Easy now, you don’t want to be sick.” Matthew’s eyes still looked glassy and slightly unfocused, but it was obvious he was aware of those around him. As Adam focused on his face, he thought the angry red rash seemed a little less red than it had been. “Let’s make sure that water stays down and we’ll try a bit more soon.”
Derek watched intently as virtual strangers cared for his little brother and ensured he was comfortable. It had been a long time since anybody had shown either of them any such kindness and he suddenly felt overwhelmed. Joe had talked about his family, but Derek realised he hadn’t quite believed him.
“Why are you helping us?” He hadn’t meant to blurt out the question quite so bluntly and Derek tried to backtrack quickly before he offended anybody. “I mean … why would you care what happens to us? You don’t even know us!”
Adam watched the boy sitting across from him and didn’t miss the hint of fear in the question. Derek wasn’t that much younger than Joe and he shuddered to think of his brother being tossed around in a world that didn’t care. He measured his answer carefully, knowing full well that Joe could hear him.
“Because if my brothers were in need and somebody else could help them, I hope that they would.”
Matthew fidgeted against his chest and Adam tipped the glass up once again for him to drain it.
“I’m sorry that folks haven’t always done right by you two, but I promise we are going to try and fix that.” Adam had no real idea at that point just how they were going to do that, but he knew his father well enough to know that he would fight, by whatever means he could, to stop the boys being sent back to the hell they had escaped from.
Derek was speechless as he considered the words. Nobody had ever gone in to fight for him before until Joe and Mitch came up with their plan.
“You mean that?” His eyes widened as he held his breath and waited for an answer.
Adam smiled at him and nodded as he looked around at his family. “We all mean it.”
He slowly looked up again to see Joe watching him intently and he smiled across the room at his brother. Joe’s face was a jumble of emotions and it took all of Adam’s resolve to hold his smile. By the time he looked back down at Matthew, the boy had drifted off again. Adam eased him back down onto the bed and nodded with approval as Derek wrapped his hands back around the younger boy’s scrawny arm. He wanted to go and grab his own brother’s arm and not let go until he got some answers, but instead he pushed to his feet and headed for the door. He felt like a coward as he pulled open the door and escaped.
“I’m gonna go and get the doctor.”
Joe watched him leave without speaking, but his father hadn’t missed any of it. His son’s strange response was concerning, as was his nightmare, but Adam’s reaction also concerned him.
As Adam made his way down the stairs, he couldn’t shake the feeling that Joe was still hiding something and he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to know what it was.
Why was his brother afraid of him?
Roy was never one for detailed letter writing, but he knew that this letter needed detail. He needed answers and he didn’t want to waste time sending multiple letters and waiting to receive replies as they crossed back and forth over hundreds of miles. He needed to put every question down on paper and his lawman’s mind was running at full speed. The wires he had received from San Francisco had confirmed the boys’ sordid tale of children being sold out of Somerset Orphanage and it seemed the law there was finally beginning to act. The caretakers had been under investigation for some time, but it was only a recent case that had produced enough evidence for them to move in and start to dismantle the ring of dealers who had no conscience it seemed.
He sat and read over the letter once again and finally decided it was sufficient. As he pulled out an envelope and addressed it, he was already making plans to ride out to have a very long conversation with Walter Maddington. As Roy and his wife, Mary had never been blessed with any children, his blood boiled to think that anybody could treat children as some kind of commodity to be traded. A part of him could understand the desperation of a childless couple to bend the law, but he could not for the life of him understand a man like Walter who viewed the boys as some kind of slave labour. It was no wonder that Joe and Mitch had come to the conclusions they had. For all intents and purposes, Derek and Matthew really had been sold into slavery.
Nick climbed the stairs towards the first floor, holding the piece of paper tightly in his hand. He hadn’t read it, but he’d asked the telegrapher to deliver any wires for the Cartwrights to him immediately. For some reason, he found himself wrapped up in the saga that had come to such a climax in his town. He was about to knock on the door when it opened from the inside and he saw the town’s doctor heading his way. He tipped his hat at his friend and hoped the visit was good news.
“Doc … I hope this means what I think it does.”
Ben stood just behind the doctor in the doorway and nodded at the sheriff.
“That little fella’s made of stern stuff. He’s been awake a couple of times and he’s definitely turned the corner. I was just telling Ben here that he’s gonna need some more rest before they head home, but my professional opinion is that he’ll eventually be alright.”
Nick clapped his hand on the man’s shoulder and grinned broadly. He’d seen just how sick the child was when he’d carried him into the doctor’s rooms and he wasn’t at all confident of anything.
“Great to hear.”
“Something we can do for you, Sheriff?” Ben looked concerned as a visit from a lawman could go either way.
“It’s Nick, remember? And I brought you this wire. Hot off the line.”
Ben reached for the piece of paper and quickly scanned the words. A slow smile spread across his face and he looked up to see both men watching him. He waved the piece of paper towards them both and lowered his voice.
“That’s the best news I could have asked for. The boys’ adoption was illegal!”
Nick had already figured the man planned to challenge things from a legal point, but the wire had just added extra weight to things.
“Well that changes the picture, now don’t it?”
As the two men headed back down the stairs, Ben pocketed the paper and walked back inside. His emotions had swung from one end of the pendulum and back again many times over recent days and he smiled as he headed towards the youngest boy who was half asleep again after the doctor’s examination. It was time to lay all the cards on the table and fill in the holes that had plagued them for weeks. But first, they needed feeding.
“Hoss, how about you and Adam head down to the kitchen and rustle up some food? You heard the doctor – these boys need feeding up! See if you can get some broth for Matthew and maybe some biscuits and gravy. That’ll be all he can handle yet.”
“Sure thing, Pa!” Hoss grabbed at Adam’s elbow and shoved him towards the door.
Ben sat down on the bed beside Matthew and reached out to ruffle the boy’s hair. Matthew slowly opened his eyes again and flinched at the brightness of the room.
“Easy there, son. You’re gonna feel better real soon.”
“You promise?” Derek’s face still carried a trace of fear, but he was clearly trying to push through it.
Ben smiled at him and nodded. “You heard the doctor. Your little brother is still not well, but he’s going to get better. This rash is starting to fade and with some good food inside him, he’ll get his strength again. When the boys get back, we’ll talk a bit more, but for now, how about we let him sleep again?”
Ben looked up to see that Joe was standing almost at his elbow. Without thinking, Ben reached for his son and wrapped an arm around his waist as he pulled him closer. Joe draped his hand around his father’s shoulder and smiled at the news.
Before long, Hoss and Adam arrived back with two trays that were loaded with food while a young woman trailed behind them with a coffee pot and another tray full of cups. She paused at the door as Adam had asked her to and she waited until he came back to retrieve them.
It was a relatively quiet meal as Ben sat with Matthew propped up against him while Hoss spoon fed him the beef broth. Derek hovered around and tried not to get in the way while he simultaneously devoured the ham and cheese sandwich that Adam had made for him.
Joe grabbed his sandwich and headed for the window ledge and Adam smiled as his brother did his usual thing when he wanted to think. He propped himself up on the sill with one leg against the glass and the other one planted on the floor. Adam decided he’d had enough of waiting and sucked in a deep breath before blowing it out again. He took his own food and coffee and headed across the room. He noted Joe had stopped eating and was staring at the dusty street below.
“Penny for your thoughts?”
“Huh?” Joe startled as he realised how close Adam was and he quickly took a bite of his sandwich to save himself having to speak.
Adam leaned against the wall and swilled the coffee in the mug as he tried to think of how to start. It wasn’t often that he was lost for words and he tried desperately to find the right starting point.
“Joe … you do understand that I’m not mad at you, don’t you? I mean about the money … or anything else.”
Joe nodded, but continued chewing slowly. Adam almost smiled at the old chestnut. It was Joe’s favourite stall tactic, but at some point he would have to swallow.
“Then I don’t understand what I’ve done for you to be having a nightmare about me.”
Joe’s gaze dropped to the floor and Adam finished his coffee before placing the cup on the windowsill.
“Joe? I know we’ve somehow miscommunicated a whole lot recently and I’m really sorry about that, but I’m listening now. I want to fix whatever it is I’ve done to make you scared of me.”
“It’s nothin’. Just a stupid dream. It didn’t mean nothin’.”
“Well whatever it was that you dreamed about, you looked mighty scared of me when you woke up.”
Joe found his breath caught in his chest as he tried to fight off the image of his father’s body that threatened to overwhelm him once again. He wanted Adam to stop so he could stop thinking about it.
“It was nothin’!”
“It was your pa again, wasn’t it?” Derek licked at his lip as he tried to figure what to say next.
Adam frowned at the comment as it made no sense. “Pa? What about Pa?”
“He keeps dreamin’ his pa gets hung … for helpin’ us!”
The room was silent as Joe refused to comment. Finally Adam reached a hand out to lift Joe’s chin and saw his eyes pooled with unshed tears.
“Joe? That true?”
When Joe still refused to speak, Adam nodded at him. “I can see why that’d cause a nightmare. But you were scared of me, Joe. You were calling out my name and you were scared of me!”
“It was my fault.” The whispered words caught his attention and Adam shifted closer.
“What was your fault?”
Joe finally looked up and stared at his eldest brother’s face. It wasn’t the angry face that had pursued him though his dreams while threatening him with a knotted rope. It was full of concern.
“If somebody … if somebody killed Pa … what would you do?”
Adam didn’t stop to think before answering; totally unaware of where the question was going.
“I’d bring them to justice.”
Adam stared at his brother, unsure of what he was getting at.
“Joe? I don’t understand.”
“If it was my fault … what would you do?”
It was as if somebody had lit a lantern and Adam suddenly realised where his brother’s agile imagination had taken him. He had dreamed of his father being hung and blamed himself.
“Joe … you thought I was mad at you? Tell me what happened in this dream of yours.”
Joe’s voice cracked as he described his father being hung for his son’s crime of aiding and abetting two fugitives. When he got to the part about Adam and Hoss hunting him down and Adam slipping a noose over his head in retribution, his voice gave out altogether. The sandwich he’d been eating fell to the floor and he turned his face towards the window. Adam moved closer and Joe flinched involuntarily.
When Adam’s hand wrapped around his shoulders, pulling him upright, Joe struggled against him. His brother was taller and stronger and Joe found himself unable to escape.
“You listen to me, Joe Cartwright and you listen good! There is nothing … and I mean nothing that could ever stop me loving you. Some days I wanna pound you into the ground, but that’s because you are my brother and brothers are supposed to fight with each other. Now I know that nightmare would have rattled you, but it’s just a dream. Nothing has happened to Pa and nothing is going to happen to you. Certainly not at my hand! You hear me?”
As Adam looked at his father over the top of Joe’s head, he saw his father’s anguish at the comment. It was well known by all of them that Joe’s greatest and most deep-seated fear was that he would lose his father as quickly and as unexpectedly as he had lost his mother. The fear had surfaced in different ways over the past ten years, but it was never far away. As Adam felt his brother’s arms wrap around his waist, he debated trying something else. It was something he had never shared with another living soul, although he had shared it with Marie when he’d been to visit her. Finally Adam decided it was time for it to be aired with the rest of his family if it would help his youngest brother.
“Joe … there’s something else that I never told anybody. Not even Pa.”
Joe didn’t move, but he had at least stopped fighting his brother’s grip.
“Joe, when Marie died it scared me too. Not like it was for you and Hoss, but in a different way.” Adam watched his father’s face as he stared back at his son. “I was only sixteen and it scared me that something could happen to Pa and I’d lose you and Hoss as well. I was old enough to know the law and it scared me that I couldn’t do anything to hold onto you both.”
Ben’s face quivered with emotion as he had never heard his eldest son express such doubt. Of course, he’d been oblivious to so much through that time when his life had been ripped apart once again. His boy had become a man overnight and had kept all such thoughts and doubts to himself. It wasn’t a thought that had ever occurred to him before, but he could see how his analytical son would have come up with such a thing.
“I started making plans. I had it all figured out that if anything ever happened, I’d take you and Hoss and leave. Before anybody could take either of you away.”
Ben’s eyes shone with tears as he knew his son would have made good on that plan if he’d ever been forced to.
Finally Adam reached to lift Joe’s face towards him. “So you see, little brother, I understand this whole thing way more than you could ever know.”
As Joe squeezed his arms as tightly as he could around Adam’s waist, he buried his face against his brother’s chest and allowed the tears to finally fall.
It was many hours later by the time the rest of the details had come out. Most of Joe’s misunderstandings were already clear to his family after talking with Mitch, but it felt good all round to finally lay it all out and clear the air. Allaying Joe’s fears that his family could somehow get into trouble with the law had been the toughest sell, but finally it seemed he was reassured on that front.
Matthew wasn’t at all sure what was going on and he clung onto his brother’s arm as he tried to listen. His head still ached and he had to squint to stop his eyes from watering, but it felt good to have a full belly. He was growing sleepy again and had missed a chunk of the conversation when something suddenly caught his attention.
“You can’t make them go back to Walter! Pa, you gotta do something!” Joe’s voice was rising as he stopped in front of his father.
“Joseph, I have no intention of allowing them to go back there. Now, the sheriff dropped by earlier and gave me this.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the piece of paper. “It’s a wire from Roy and he’s been doing some checking up on things. It seems the adoption wasn’t legal so the boys will not be going back to Walter Maddington.”
“Yes, Son,” Ben smiled. “Really! And just so you know, even if Roy hadn’t sent this, I planned to petition the judge in Virginia City for temporary custody anyway.”
Joe’s whoop of joy could be heard down the hallway as he rushed at his father. Hoss laughed at the incredulous look on Derek’s face and he patted the boy on the shoulder. “I think you’re both stuck with us for a while yet.”
Neither boy could speak as the fear of being forced to go back had hovered in the background for days. It sounded unbelievable, but Derek had finally decided that Joe’s family really was all that he had talked about.
As Ben pulled the blanket up over Joe’s shoulders he paused and stroked a hand over his head. The bruising had faded and turned a spectacular array of colours and the swelling had almost subsided as well. For the moment, in spite of the markings across his face, Joe finally looked at peace as he slept.
Across the room, Hoss had tucked in the two younger boys while Adam had settled himself on the same windowsill where Joe had been earlier. As Ben straightened up, he smiled at the sight. His youngest and eldest were more alike than either would have ever admitted.
There was a knock at the door and Hoss wandered over to open it to collect the coffee his father had ordered sent up. As he set the tray on the table, he realised that Adam hadn’t even heard the door open. It was clear that his thoughts were miles away until their father tapped him on the shoulder and pointed towards the coffee pot.
“Pa … what are we going to do with those two?”
“Well, as soon as young Matthew is well enough to travel, we will rent a buckboard and take them home.”
“And then we see what Roy has come up with. Like I told Joe, I intend to petition for temporary custody to give us time to make some decisions.”
“Temporary … or permanent, Pa?” Hoss nudged at his father’s elbow with a cup of coffee and Ben smiled at him.
“What? Five males in the house already isn’t enough for you?”
“That ain’t it, Pa. Those two boys ain’t had a home in a real long time. We can’t just send ’em packin’ back to that orphanage!”
“I don’t intend to, Son. I’m certain that given time we could find a home for them. If not in Virginia City, then maybe Carson City.”
The three of them settled at the small table and tried to make a list of possible families for the two boys. There were several childless couples who had either never had children or had lost them to sickness or accidents. There were a couple of families with older children who might be possibilities. It was over an hour later when they finished up and decided it was time for bed. As Ben eased himself into the bed beside his son, he smiled as Joe shifted in his sleep and rested up against his arm.
The shadows ran down the length of the main street as Kent pulled his horse up against a hitching rail. He had stayed to the backroads and kept out of sight, but he needed supplies. He was down to his last handful of bullets and the coffee in his saddlebags had run out two days earlier. If he had come across another man’s camp, he would have just taken whatever he wanted, but instead he’d been forced into town. He slung his hat low over his face and settled down against the verandah post to wait for the mercantile to open. It didn’t look like much of a town, but then Riversbend weren’t such a big place. He appeared to be asleep, but from underneath his hat he could see the immediate area and he was alert to anybody who may pass by.
Joe was quiet as he walked down the stairs with Adam by his side. For several days he hadn’t even thought twice about his horse or where it could be, but with so many of his other worries finally laid to rest, he was beginning to think of the future without trepidation. His pa had said they would take the boys home and it had suddenly occurred to him that he had no idea where his horse was. The last he’d seen of him was outside the doctor’s office. It felt like another lifetime ago since that morning he had carried Matthew into town, fearing the boy would die before he even made it there.
He’d left Derek behind, hidden away safely outside of town, or so he thought. When he’d woken up and found the boy in the hotel room with them, a part of him had been angry. He soon realised it was born out of fear that they could be caught and not real anger, but it had taken a while to shake it. Seeing Derek sitting so close with his brother had been the thing that had done it as Joe knew just how he felt. If one of his brothers looked like he could die, he would have fought tooth and nail to be by his side.
As the two brothers trekked down the boardwalk towards the livery, Joe looked up into the early morning sunshine. He smiled at the warmth on his face. Adam watched without comment as his little brother seemed to be slowly coming back to them. He had lain awake for hours the night before, half afraid that Joe’s nightmare would return. He felt sick to his stomach that Joe could have ever thought him capable of doing him such harm and even though it was a dream, it felt like a kick in the guts. He’d spent the dark hours thinking through every time he and Joe had butted heads in recent months and he didn’t like what he saw. His pa was right. His brother had grown while he was away and he’d been too pre-occupied with finding his own place again that he’d missed a lot since he got back. He vowed he would start to change things, beginning first thing in the morning. Hoss had started to head out with them, but Adam had grabbed his arm and asked for a few minutes alone with Joe before he joined them. As Hoss always did, he could read the situation between them and smiled in response. It grated on him when his brothers were at odds and he was happy to see them finally reconnecting.
Across the street, Kent slunk back into the shadows as he saw the brat he was sure he’d dealt with in Virginia City. He was so close to his goal and had no intentions of having anybody identify him now. He waited until the boy and whoever he was with had moved further down the street and he cautiously trailed along behind.
The livery door was closed with no sign of the owner, but Adam figured it didn’t matter as they weren’t removing the horses. He smiled as he pulled the wooden door open and Joe made a beeline for his pony. The two of them were inseparable and Joe was often caught talking to the horse, carrying on a one-sided conversation. It was something that both of his brothers often teased him about which Joe vehemently denied doing. As Joe patted the pony’s neck and rubbed at his nose, Adam went to check on the other horses and ensure they were all being well cared for. Nick had sent them there so he trusted the livery owner was an honest sort, but he still usually checked on his horse more regularly than they had done this time.
“Hey, Adam.” Joe’s voice floated across the stalls in the still morning air.
“What happened to my saddlebag?”
Adam heard the tension in the question and figured he knew why. He waited as Joe slowly made his way out of the stall.
“It’s in the hotel room. Under the bed. There isn’t a whole lot of room up there you know, what with our gear and bedrolls and six of us in the room.”
Joe looked almost white as he took in the answer.
“Something in it that might have you concerned, little brother?”
Joe gulped as he looked at his brother’s face. It was clear that Adam already knew what he was looking for and there was no point trying to lie about it. Adam crossed his arms as he leaned against the railing and stared his brother down.
“Joe … where on earth did you get a gun from?” They had gone looking for clothes for the boys and found a Colt wrapped in a shirt and buried under everything else. It wasn’t one that any of them used and if Joe hadn’t taken it from the Ponderosa, they were at a loss as to where he could have gotten it. None of the options they could think of were good.
“I thought I might need it. To … if I … if I needed to protect us!”
Adam chewed at his lip as he watched Joe’s face. “That’s why you had it. Not where you got it from.”
“It was on the floor … in the jail.”
“”You mean it belongs to Sheriff Coffee?”
“That old windbag never could do nothin’ right! Seems he couldn’t even hold onto his own gun.”
Adam spun around towards the voice behind him and found himself facing a drawn gun. He instinctively went for his own gun and cursed under his breath as he realised he wasn’t wearing it. An early morning walk to the livery hadn’t seemed very dangerous at the time. His hand froze by his side as he glanced around for anything else he could use instead. The stranger had his hat drawn low across his face and Adam couldn’t make out any features, but Joe’s blood ran cold as he knew exactly who it was. The soft chuckle that carried across to them held no mirth.
Adam tried to keep his eyes fixed on the stranger while trying to ascertain how close his brother was. He began to edge closer to Joe when the stranger waved his gun at him.
“Don’t you go movin’ now, mister! That brat ain’t worth protecting. After all, he’s a young’un to be gettin’ himself locked up! Must be all sortsa trouble if the law’s after him already.”
It only took a moment for it to sink in for Adam. The only way the stranger could have recognised Joe from the jail was if he had been in the jail. Roy wouldn’t have let anyone else in there while Joe had been in the cell and that left only one obvious conclusion. The stranger pointing a gun his way was the escapee who had shot up the jail and almost killed Roy Coffee. Adam’s usual rational demeanor went out the door as he saw red.
Kent kept the gun trained on Adam as he beckoned towards Joe. “Get on over here, kid!”
“Joe, don’t move!”
“You don’t move kid and I’m gonna sink a slug into him. Right there in the middle of his chest would be a good spot, don’tcha think? You know I will, kid. I took that sheriff down the same way, remember?” The smirk on his face made Adam sick, but he still had to try and get his brother out of the man’s reach.
“Joe, he’s gonna shoot anyway. Don’t you move!”
Joe found his feet seemed to have grown roots and he could hear the blood roaring in his ears. Before either of them could do anything else, Kent suddenly shifted his focus to Joe and took aim. His eyes sparked with laughter as he saw abject fear on both faces. It was a taste he had grown to like as he watched his victims squirm and plead for their lives.
“Which one of you is gonna go first? You?” He nodded towards Adam, “Or you?” He smirked as he waved the gun back towards Joe’s chest. “I don’t know. Maybe I should toss a coin and see who dies first.”
“Neither of ’em!”
The roar from behind him caught him unawares and Kent fired off two shots as he spun around without knowing where they were going. Joe couldn’t hold still any longer and he leapt sideways towards the horses as the gun went off.
As Hoss rushed at him from behind, Adam launched himself at the man before he could take another shot. His first punch glanced off the side of the Kent’s jaw and Adam staggered forwards as he lost his balance.
Joe found himself in a heap on the ground with no real idea of why he was there. It wasn’t until he tried to stand up again and his leg gave way beneath him that he felt it. Warm blood trickled down the back of his thigh and his hand came away sticky as he patted at it. Before his mind could catch up with his body, he saw the stranger pushing forwards from the wooden railing towards his brothers. Hoss had a wooden broom that he was brandishing like some kind of club and swinging his way closer while Adam threw another furious punch. The momentum carried both men sideways and they both slammed into the railing again.
The stranger fired off another shot into the middle of the livery and the horses were beginning to stamp and push against their stalls. Joe crawled across the floor in an attempt to get out of the line of fire and he saw Kent take aim at his brother’s back.
“Adam! Look out!”
Adam ducked sideways as a bullet ploughed into the wooden railing. He spun and threw himself forward in one fluid motion and this time his fist connected. Kent staggered backwards, but managed to keep a grip on his gun. As he lifted his hand to take aim again, Joe threw a fistful of straw and horse manure into the air towards him. It was enough to distract him as he blinked furiously and rubbed at his face. Adam took another swing and the third punch sent the man reeling backwards into the railing. He suddenly roared and lunged forward and threw a mean hook into Adam’s face with one hand as he lifted the pistol to fire with the other. Hoss saw his brother go down and he lifted the broom and brought it down with all his strength against the man’s back. It snapped in two and he threw the piece aside in disgust. The gun finally clattered to the ground as the stranger toppled over.
Joe pulled himself across the ground, grasping for the gun as Adam tried to pull himself upright. Hoss had the man by the back of his shirt and was pulling him onto his feet as Adam reached up against the railing. Hoss may have had the advantage of youth, but the man had the advantage of prison and his next movement swept Hoss off his feet and onto his back. He was about to sink a boot into Hoss’s face when Adam launched himself at him once more. He continued to swing furious punches at the man who had just threatened both of his brothers.
Joe hunched himself up against the post and tried to take aim. The two men seemed to be locked in some kind of sick dance and he couldn’t get a clear shot without hitting his brother.
“Hold up there!” A shout carried across from the door and Joe looked up to see the sheriff standing in the doorway with a rifle pointed at them. Dust motes floated through the bright early morning sunlight and it took a moment to realise just who the silhouette was.
“Adam! Adam stop!” Joe screamed at him as he feared the sheriff might just shoot first and ask later.
Adam took one last slug at the man he was gripping onto before suddenly letting go of him. The man crashed to the floor and Adam staggered over to where Hoss was before dropping down in front of him. His chest was heaving as he grabbed at his brother’s shirt and pulled him towards him.
“Yeah, but Little Joe ain’t.” Hoss nodded towards where his youngest brother sat, looking dazed.
Joe still had the gun firmly clamped in his hand and his breathing was wild. Adam carefully slithered over to crouch in front of him and he gently eased the gun out of Joe’s hands.
“No need for that now. It’s alright, Joe. Sheriff’s here.”
Joe nodded as he stared at his brother’s bloodied face. “Are you alright?”
Adam smiled as blood dribbled down his face. “Take more than that to stop us Cartwrights!”
Joe began to laugh until he shifted his leg. His face suddenly went chalk white as pain shot up his leg and into his gut. The adrenaline was quickly subsiding and the pain was escalating quickly. Adam gripped at his shirt as Joe slipped sideways and he frantically patted him down, looking for any sign of injury. When he grabbed at Joe’s hand and saw blood, he pulled it up towards his face.
“Where are you hit?”
Joe stared at him as if he was speaking another language.
“He shot Sheriff Coffee!”
“I know that, Joe. Where are you hit? Joe! You’re bleeding!”
Hoss was suddenly right beside him and he pointed to the blood pooling in the straw under Joe’s leg. “There!”
Between the two of them, they eased Joe onto his side and could see the blood spreading down the back of his leg.
“Damn it.” Adam muttered under his breath as he reached for his neckerchief and twisted it around Joe’s thigh while Hoss did his best to hold him still. Neither of them paid any attention to the sheriff behind them who was issuing orders to various men as they ran into the livery. The sound of gunshots had carried a long way in the quiet morning air and several men had come running to find the source of it.
Joe groaned as Adam tightened the tourniquet and he bit at his lip to stop himself from moaning any louder. Hoss barely waited for Adam to be done before he eased Joe into his arms and stood up. He winced in sympathy as his brother cried out at the movement, but moved towards the door.
Somebody had pulled a length of rope from the livery wall and was tying Kent’s hands behind his back, but neither brother gave the scene more than a passing glance as they hurried out. Nick pushed through the men to grasp at Adam’s arm as he passed.
“He’s been hit?” The concern on his face was genuine and Adam simply nodded.
“Back of the leg. We’re taking him to the doctor’s.”
“Let me get this mongrel sorted and I’ll be right over.”
Hoss had already made his way out into the street and Adam hurried to catch up with him. Joe’s head was barely visible against Hoss’s broad shoulder and Adam quickly realised he would be the one who needed to get their father.
“I’ll get Pa and meet you there.”
Hoss watched as Adam sprinted down the street, pushing past several gawkers who had stopped up the street. He made his way towards the doctor’s and prayed the man was not out somewhere. He climbed the steps up onto the verandah and kicked at the door with his boot.
“Doc! You in there? Doc!”
Minutes later the door swung wide and a disheveled looking man appeared as he wrapped a robe around himself. He was used to being awoken at all hours and was long past complaining about it. The sight in front of him shocked him into wakefulness immediately and he stepped back and pointed towards the examination area.
“In there. Take him through there.” As he tied the sash of his robe around his waist, and rubbed the hair back across his head, he reached out towards the boy on the table.
“What in Heaven’s name happened to him?”
“He’s been shot. Back of the leg.”
Having practiced medicine in the territories for over twenty years, he had seen all manner of illness and injury, but a boy with a bullet hole was not commonplace. Instead of wasting time on pointless questions that could wait until later, he ripped at the blood-soaked pants leg and began to examine the wound. Joe screamed as the doctor’s fingers prodded at the edge of the wound and Hoss gripped onto his hands.
In the outer foyer, the sound of a door slamming was quickly followed by a bellow.
“Where’s my son?”
Elise Robertson knew just what it felt like to be an orphan. She knew the feeling of being utterly alone in the world and thinking that not a soul in the world cared what happened to you. She knew what it felt like to fall asleep on a pillow that was so drenched in tears it felt like it would never be dry again. She knew a great many things about just how cruel the world could be, but she had learned something else along the way as well. She had discovered that sometimes God allowed suffering so that something greater could come from it. After all, who better to understand an orphan than one who had been orphaned themselves?
As she swept up the last of the dust from the kitchen, she looked around with tired satisfaction. She had also learned that love could overcome a great many other shortcomings and she had love in abundance. For the better part of four years, she had run the kitchen at the Somerset Orphanage and every meal was prepared with a very large dash of love. There was never quite enough money to buy the supplies she needed, but there were other ways of doing things. The darning and mending she did most evenings put a few extra coins in her purse and the chickens she ran in a coop out the back helped supplement the meagre meat supply she could afford. With an Irish grandmother, she knew only too well how far a potato could take a meal and her sunny smile and warm heart had caught the attention of the local padre who often passed a portion of the collection plate her way.
The faint odour of beef stew wafted through the room and Elise smiled as she remembered young Timmy’s toothless grin when he came racing in for supper. The smile quickly faded as she thought of another youngster with his front teeth only just growing in again. Matthew had less smiles to share than Timmy did, but something about the child tugged at her. He was already there when she came to work in the kitchen and she had been almost shocked when he had suddenly been adopted out. The boy had clung to her apron and tried to be brave as he explained that he was going to have a papa. She had smiled and kissed him on top of the head and wrapped her arms around him for one last hug. And then he was gone.
Not long afterwards, three well-dressed men had knocked on the door and started asking unsettling questions. She had been shunted aside and threatened that she needed to keep her mouth shut if she wanted to keep her job, but something had arisen inside her that would not give her a moment’s peace. The men had come back several more times and finally one night she had slipped out and followed them.
The sordid tale the men had told her made her cry. The place that she had thought of as a haven for lost little boys and girls was no longer what she thought it was. The newly appointed administrator was not the kindly older gentleman he portrayed himself as. The horror of it made her want to retch and she had vowed to do whatever was needed to bring justice. It was the hardest thing to do to show up every morning in the kitchen and feign ignorance, but it was better than just walking away and pretending it was not her problem. If it was not her problem, then whose was it?
Ben paced across the room, trying to keep his anger in check. Two of his sons sat silently while the third of his boys was still locked away behind the door to the next room. He’d arrived in time to hear Joe scream and the sound still tore at him even in the silence of the room. The doctor they had come to trust had chased them all out of the room and told them to wait outside. As he looked up at the sun angling through the window, Ben frowned at how far it had moved. It was taking too long!
Finally the door cracked open and Doctor Hanes walked out into the waiting room. His outer robe had been discarded in favour of a large apron, but he hadn’t bothered to dress and was still wearing his nightshirt and boots underneath it. His hands were still damp and he wiped at them with a towel as he walked. All three of them sprang towards him and he held up a hand as if to ward them off.
“I got the bullet out and he’s sleeping now.”
“How long before he’s awake?”
The doctor saw three anxious faces watching him intently and he carefully considered how to answer. Instead, he turned to Ben and asked a question.
“Ben, has your son ever needed ether before?”
Ben frowned as he remembered the one time that Paul had deemed it necessary when Joe had a badly broken arm. He’d overestimated his climbing ability and was trying to race Mitch up a ponderosa pine when he slipped and fell. The bone protruded from his forearm and there was no way they could hope to hold a small boy still and set the bones without it.
“Once, several years ago. Why?” He knew the answer even before the doctor spoke again.
“Because your son apparently doesn’t take too kindly to it. He was vomiting when I brought him round and I’d like to keep him here overnight where I can keep a close eye on him.”
Ben nodded as he recalled the last time. There hadn’t been time to warn the doctor and it wouldn’t have made any difference anyway. It wasn’t as if the man would dig a bullet out of a child without ether unless he had no other choice.
“It took two days last time. He was sick for two days.”
Paul had thought it might just have been Joe’s age or his size at the time. Ether was not an exact dose and it was impossible to know how a patient would react until they did. All of them clearly remembered just how wretched Joe had felt until the effects wore off.
“Can I see my son?”
The doctor smiled at him and nodded.
“Of course. He’s asleep so don’t wake him, but yes, you can see him. Then I need to check this fella over and give him a clean up.” The doctor nodded towards Adam who still had dried blood tracking down the side of his face. Adam shrugged him off and kept moving.
“Course you are, but since I’m the doctor, how about you humour me and let me do my job?”
As the trio began to move past him, the doctor grasped at Ben’s arm. “Joe is going to be fine. He’ll be pretty sad and sorry for a bit, but he’ll be just fine.”
“Thank you.” Ben needed to see that for himself and he hurried through the doorway, followed closely by his two sons. Joe was propped up against several pillows to help against the inevitable nausea and Ben paused as he looked at him. The boy who claimed to be almost a man looked more like a small child. Once again, the guilt slammed into him and he was acutely aware that he could have prevented all of it if he had just paid attention. It seemed he was saying sorry far too often lately, but he made his way across the room and said it again anyway. If Roy hadn’t been distracted with trying to protect Joe back in Virginia City, he could very well have apprehended Kent there instead of allowing the man to go on a murderous rampage that had come full circle and almost claimed his boy a second time.
“Joseph … I’m so sorry, my boy.” He reached out a hand to cup the side of his face and was relieved to feel the skin was a normal temperature. Of course, it was far too soon to know if infection would be a problem, but he would take whatever small mercies were granted as they came.
The doctor was wise enough to know that he needed to bring the treatment to his patient as there was no way Adam would leave the room and he carried a bowl of clean water across to him and placed it on the table. He dabbed at Adam’s forehead to clean off the dried blood and wasn’t surprised to find a large gash under his hairline.
“That’s going to need stitching together.”
His patient didn’t seem particularly concerned so he just gathered the needle and catgut and set to work. By the time he was done, Adam hadn’t spoken a word or made a sound. He wrapped a length of bandage around the wound and stepped back to remove his instruments.
‘You need some rest too. A knock to the head is nothing to trifle with, young man.” As he packed away the last of his things, the doctor turned to survey the room. “Now, if you gentlemen don’t mind, I think I’ll go and get dressed!”
It was several hours later when Joe awoke and found himself instantly wishing he hadn’t. His stomach roiled in protest and he found an enamel basin propped under his chin before he even had time to ask for one.
“I’m right here, Son.” As Ben moved in again with a glass of water, he watched intently as Joe tried to move without pulling at his leg. His father knew that any kind of pain draught was pointless for as long as it was likely to come back up and Joe would just have to wait it out.
“Stay still, Joe. Try not to give that leg any more grief.”
“Pa … Adam ‘n Hoss? They didn’t … ” Joe’s eyes clenched closed as pain shot up through his back and his fingers dug into the blanket.
Ben reached for his hands and unwrapped Joe’s fingers before wrapping his own hands around them. “Easy, Son. Just breathe and it will pass.”
As the only sound in the room was Joe’s ragged breathing, Ben waited until the pain spasm passed. He kept his gaze locked on his son’s face and tried not to entertain the thoughts that had tormented him since Adam had shoved open the hotel door and franticly called his name. He had taught his boys to respect the law, but everything in him wanted to march over to the jail, rip the door off its hinges and use it to beat the living daylights out of Kent Johnston. In the time it took for the doctor to operate on his son and remove the bullet, he had been sufficiently filled in to want to explode with rage.
He’d seen the same raw fury on his eldest son’s face and had pulled Adam aside and specifically warned him to keep it in check. Hoss had turned the other way and sat with his head in his hands as he stared at the floor. It didn’t mean his anger was any less, but Ben knew his gentle middle son would turn that anger inward. Once all three of them had been assured that Joe would live, Ben had sent both of his sons off with something to keep their minds busy. Two small boys sat waiting alone in a hotel room and it did not take three of them to wait for Joe to sleep off the ether.
The two brothers reluctantly left and headed for the hotel, but half way there, Adam suddenly stepped off the boardwalk and began to cross the road. Hoss grabbed at his brother’s shoulder and tried to steer him back again, but Adam shrugged off his hand and kept going. He’d seen that determined look before and Hoss resigned himself to leaving Adam to his own devices. Nothing he had to say about it would make any difference anyway. He stood on the side of the main street and watched as Adam marched across to the sheriff’s office. He figured it was a good thing that Kent was on one side of the jail cell and Adam on the other. As he turned and headed for the hotel, he realised that it was an even better stroke of luck that Adam wasn’t wearing a gunbelt or the sheriff may have trouble on his hands.
Nick shifted back on his heels, as if getting ready to leap into action. He’d seen the venom in the young man’s eyes and he figured he’d feel exactly the same way if it was his brother in the doctor’s office.
“You aren’t going in there. Ain’t no need.”
Adam opened his mouth to protest once more and Nick stepped forward.
“I said, you are not going in there!” He held a hand against Adam’s shoulder and hoped he was not going to be forced to restrain him. “Don’t matter how many times you tell me otherwise!”
Adam glared at the lawman, unsure of what he had even hoped to accomplish. If it was Roy staring him down, he knew he wouldn’t be getting any closer to a prisoner either, but the thought brought no comfort.
“That snake escaped a state penitentiary. This is just a small-town jail and you …”
“Don’t even finish that comment!” Nick pulled himself up to his full height with his hand resting on his holster. “Believe me, I understand how angry you are, but that prisoner is my prisoner until the marshals come get him. That should be some time tomorrow if my wire got through. In the meantime, he’ll be guarded twenty four hours a day.” His tone softened as he patted his hand against the young man’s chest. “I promise you, Adam …. justice will be done. He won’t be going anywhere except straight back to the pen to face a noose.”
Revenge had never been a part of him as his father had always taught him that vengeance belonged to the Lord. His father’s words echoed in his ears as he struggled to keep himself in check.
Son, you are not God.
The lawman staring back at him was not Roy Coffee, but the look was the same one that Roy would have shown him. Vigilante justice was not his style and he blew out a sharp breath as he considered his own thoughts.
Nick allowed himself to step back a pace as he smiled. “Alright then. Now, something I bet you haven’t thought of yet is how you are gonna spend your reward money.”
When Adam didn’t answer, the sheriff grinned broadly as he pulled a wanted poster off his desk. “The Governor is always appreciative when one of his is brought back home. There’s gonna be two thousand dollars on its way for you and those brothers of yours.” He quickly sobered as he thought of the cost involved. “Of course, I know that don’t make up for a hole in his leg, but I’ll bet young Joe can come up with a few interesting ways to spend his share while he’s recovering.”
Adam smiled slightly at the thought of his brother running wild in Cass’s Mercantile with more money than he had ever seen in his life. “A wagon full of candy isn’t outside the realm of possibilities.”
Nick slapped him on the shoulder as he pointed to the door. “You let me focus on that one in there and you go and take care of that brother of yours. He might even share his candy with you if you play your cards right.”
Elise sat at the table and tried to pretend she was working through the monthly ledger. Part of the reason she had been taken on in the first place was because she was good with numbers and could help keep the books. It had never occurred to her the reason why she only had access to certain ledgers, but had just assumed that the administrator took care of more important things than food supplies. She kept the ledger open on top of the one she was trying to skim through and prayed that nobody came through the outer door. Her heart was in her mouth the entire time as she searched out the details the investigators had asked for.
As she carefully slid the heavy ledger back into the filing cabinet, something else caught her attention. A pile of letters were tied together and shoved into the back of the file, as though somebody wanted to keep them out of sight. Her heart was beating so fast that she feared she may fall down as she reached for the envelopes. The same scratchy writing covered each one and she had no idea why they suddenly had her interest. Afterwards, she would wonder if it was female curiosity or divine intervention that made her lift them, but she tucked them into the fold of her apron and hastily pushed the file closed. Moments later, boots on the outside staircase warned her that someone was coming and she slid back into her seat and began copying numbers with her pencil. As the door swung open she was the picture of innocence as she looked up.
“Aren’t you done on that yet?” Henry MacAllister stared at her as she fumbled with her pencil.
“I thought I had this all added up … but I’m so sorry …. I must have lost track of something because it just won’t balance.” She tried her best innocent smile and he huffed back at her.
“Well get a move on, girl. I have work to do and an important meeting shortly.”
“Certainly, Mister McAllister. I can finish this later if you wish.”
As Elise stood up and packed away the things she had been using, she hoped he could not see how much her hands were shaking.
It would be several hours later that she got time to go to her small room and lift the letters out of the folds of her apron. They felt like a lead weight in her hand and she slowly untied the string that held them together. The first letter she opened had her gasping in surprise and she hastily pulled open the second one. Her hand caught at her mouth as she read a father’s heartbreak in the scrawled words on the page.
“Oh my Lord! What ever have they done with him?”
Nick shook hands with the army captain and stood back as the man mounted his horse. He tipped his hat as the ragged troop of men headed for the main road again and he smiled to himself as he headed across towards the hotel. It felt good to be the bearer of good news.
As he climbed the staircase towards the upper floor rooms, he wasn’t surprised to see young Lily making her way back down with a tray laden with dirty plates and cutlery.
The shy young girl blushed as she did any time she was paid any mind by a man and she smiled in response.
Nick kept going up the stairs and wondered if the girl would ever outgrow her shyness. At thirteen she was blossoming into a beauty and her father was going to have to be more careful which customers’ rooms he allowed her to be sent to. Not all men were like the ones he was about to catch up with. As he raised a hand to knock, he heard laughter on the other side of the door. When Adam pulled the door open, he wasn’t surprised to see Hoss sitting on the side of the bed with a checkers board propped on his lap. Something had just happened before he arrived that had the big man huffing and fuming, but he could see it was all bluff. Joe was trying to stifle a laugh as he threw his hands up in mock surrender.
“I wasn’t cheating!”
Adam rolled his eyes as he ushered the sheriff into the room. “He never does! Leastways not in any way that Hoss can ever catch him at it!”
“Just you wait ’til you’re back up on those two feet o’ yours ’cause you’re gonna need to git runnin’, little brother!”
Joe giggled as Hoss threw his arms around in an exaggerated gesture and Nick couldn’t help but comment.
“I’d get runnin’ now, Joe if I was you! This brother of yours looks like he don’t like to lose.”
Hoss turned around at the comment and looked chagrined. “I was just windin’ him up.”
Adam clapped a hand on his brother’s shoulder and smiled. “He knows that, Hoss.”
“I was actually looking for your father, but I see he’s not here.”
“He’s gone down to the livery to see about renting a buckboard.”
“Well that’s what I came to tell him about. The army patrol I just spoke with says the Indians have moved West so you should have a safe run home.” Nick lowered his voice as he leaned in closer to Adam. “Of course, I’d still have to say to be careful.”
Adam nodded as he took in the hushed warning. His father had weighed up the danger and the need to get his boy home and had decided it was time to leave for the Ponderosa. Joe was on the mend and Matthew was almost rash free with his face finally clear of the red spots. There were still a few across his feet, but the doctor was confident they would soon all be gone. He still insisted the boy needed some meat on his bones and Ben had assured him that Hop Sing would take on that challenge with relish.
The sun was well past setting as the wagon rolled into the yard. Joe had complained loudly about being made to ride in the back instead of riding his pony, but his father had nodded and pursed his lips and then shook his head firmly. He had finally smiled as he rejected the adamant argument. His son was coming back to him if he was up to arguing. Of course, the fact that Joe couldn’t possibly sit a horse for more than five minutes didn’t stop his son putting up a token protest.
The road home had been a long and slow one as all three boys had settled in the back amidst a pile of blankets and plump feathered pillows that had been purchased from the mercantile. Matthew was finally regaining some colour in his cheeks while he slept for a good portion of the trip. Joe wasn’t fooling anyone that he was as fine as he said he was and he quietly accepted the powdered pain draughts that his father mixed into a cup of water every so often. His leg throbbed, but the wound was barely inflamed whenever Hoss unbandaged it and redressed it. As the wagon rolled along, Joe had also slept and Derek had been left to his own thoughts.
The road looked vastly different on the return journey than it had on the way north. Instead of almost blind panic, there was an air of calm as the group headed for home.
It was such a small word that held such huge promises. Derek allowed his thoughts to wander to a time when he had a place called home. It wasn’t a huge home, but it was warm and smelled of cinnamon and apples and there was a woman who made him feel safe when his father went to sea. Mrs Harris was so old he couldn’t guess at her age, but her white hair was always tied neatly in a firm bun at the nape of her neck and her voluminous apron was often sprinkled with flour and whatever she was baking. How he missed her baking! And her hugs. And the words of comfort that she had in abundance when his father’s ship went down. The day he had found her face down on the floor with her eyes glassed over and vacant was etched deep into his spirit. Not long after that he had found himself in the place that some called Somerset Orphanage, but he secretly thought of as something else. It was a place of despair and darkness where he spent most nights trying to drown his heartache in his pillow.
It wasn’t until he met another woman who also baked pies and bread and smiled at him like he mattered that he began to climb out of the darkness. And then he had found his shadow. A five-year-old boy who followed him wherever he went. Even when he tried to climb out onto the roof so he could sit and stare at the stars that his father had taught him about. They showed the way home, he’d said. He’d stared at those stars on many nights and wondered why his papa hadn’t found his way home.
He was oblivious as the wagon came to a stop as he was too busy staring up at the stars and wondering for the thousandth time where his father had ended up. Was his body still floating somewhere in the salty water he said flowed through his veins? Or had it been swallowed up by a big whale like happened to Jonah? Or had he been spirited away by the mermaids his father had told him about that lived somewhere mysterious?
He suddenly realised the wagon had stopped moving and he looked about at the huge house that loomed in front of him. Matthew was soundly asleep beside him and he nudged at the younger boy to wake him up. Joe was already trying to drag himself out of the end of the wagon while his brother was trying to stop him.
“Hold up there, Joe. Let me help you.” Adam reached a hand out towards him and Joe almost objected. He was about to say something when he looked up and saw his brother’s concern and he reached for the outstretched hand instead.
As he clambered down onto solid ground, his leg reminded him that it wasn’t yet fully healed and he found his brother’s arm wrapped around his waist before he could even ask for it. As he hobbled towards the house, he wasn’t surprised when the door flew open and Hop Sing came barreling towards him. The torrent of words was so fast he couldn’t pick up any of them, but the meaning was abundantly clear. The Chinese cook was very happy to have Number Three Son home again!
Behind them, Hoss had lifted Matthew out of the wagon and Ben had a grasp of Derek’s arm to help him down. The two boys looked overwhelmed as they were led into the house. While Hop Sing fussed and brought food and heated water for a bath, his eyes stayed locked on the boy he feared may never return home. Joe looked tired, but his eyes betrayed his relief at making it home.
By the time the boys were all settled in bed and soundly asleep, Adam excused himself and headed for his room. A thought had been nagging at him and he made his way towards his dresser. He hesitated before pulling open the top drawer and reaching in for the wooden box that had sat in that drawer for many years. Joe had already confessed to taking the money, but he needed to see for himself. He was surprised to find a wad of money still sitting in the box as he’d expected it to be empty. As he lifted up the paper, he realised what Joe had done. A folded slip of paper was underneath a couple of top notes and he sucked in a slow breath as he pulled the paper out. When he opened it up and saw his brother’s barely legible scrawl, he wasn’t sure he wanted to read it. It really didn’t matter now as Joe had shown valid reasons for his actions and there was no longer any issue between them. At least he didn’t think there was.
Finally curiosity won out and he spread the paper on top of the dresser. A smudge in the ink at the bottom of the page made him smile as Joe seemed incapable of writing without smearing ink somewhere. Of course, being left-handed didn’t help.
He skimmed across the lines and found himself holding his breath.
I know you will get mad when you read this but I promise I will pay it all back. Please don’t hate me but I have a good reason. I can’t tell you why but I need it.
Adam found his hand clenched against the edge of the dresser as he stared at the words. What was it about his relationship with his brother that could cause Joe to think he could ever hate him? True, if he had just discovered the money was gone without the reason behind it, he would have been furious. But was he so hard-nosed that Joe was justified in his fear? Adam hung his head as he considered once again how he spoke to his brother when he was angry with him. It was certainly never his intent to make him feel that way, but he could see how his young brother would read it and come to that conclusion.
“You got one too?”
Adam spun around to see Hoss standing in the doorway with a familiar-looking piece of paper in his hand. He knew, without asking, that Hoss’s note would read differently to his. He didn’t want to see it in black and white and he simply nodded in agreement.
“I’m kinda glad.”
Adam stared at his brother, not quite sure he had heard correctly.
“He was desperate enough. I’m real glad he didn’t try taking this from anywhere else. He knew we’d be mad, but we’d forgive him.”
It wasn’t that simple, but Adam wasn’t going to dump his concerns on his brother. Instead he just nodded and folded the paper up again.
Hoss was frowning at him and Adam knew just how perceptive his brother could be. He smiled as he nodded again.
“Sure. Just thinking. About how determined our little brother can be when he sets his mind to something.”
“That’s fer dang sure!” Hoss slowly crossed the room until he was standing next to the dresser. “Adam … what do ya s’pose Pa’s gonna do with them two little fellas?”
Adam barely suppressed the smile that threatened as he looked at his brother’s earnest face. “You can’t keep them, Hoss!”
“I know that! I was just … I mean … I won’t wanna see them handed out to somebody who don’t really want them.”
Adam dropped a hand on his brother’s shoulder and smiled. “None of us do. Pa’ll find somewhere for them to go. Someplace that’s good for them.”
Elise walked along the edge of the waterfront and scanned the ships that were docked there. Any one of the dozens of vessels could have been the one. He could be standing right in front of her or be thousands of miles out to sea. The salty air filled her nostrils and she drew in a deep breath. The smell of the sea was a peculiar mix of life and death. The salt spray was tangy and the sea breeze carried a faint odour of rotting seaweed that collected in the rocks below her. With each new incoming tide it got washed clean, only to once more ebb out to sea and leave behind a new batch.
“Where are you?”
Her eyes gazed out over the water, but they saw something else instead. The intense young boy who had come across her path just over two years before was gone. His story wasn’t much different to any of the other children, but she had felt his pain just as deeply as every other child’s. It took some time before he trusted her enough to talk about any of it. His mother had died when he was young and his father had raised him with the help of a kindly old widow who owned a house, but had no income. The rent from her boarder more than covered her needs and she loved having a child to fuss over as if he were hers. When the sailor drowned at sea, she had kept the child as her own. Until the day her heart gave out on her and the boy found himself cast adrift in a foreign world with nothing to anchor himself to.
Except it was all a lie.
The letters she had pilfered told another story altogether. Gregory Miller had put out to sea on a voyage to Panama. It was a journey he had done many times, but unlike every other time, the ship had foundered in a storm. It was presumed that all hands were lost at sea and he had been declared dead, along with the rest of the crew. It had taken him over two years to find his way home from wherever he had washed ashore and he had arrived at his home to find another family living there. Mrs Harris had passed on and his son was nowhere to be found.
Elise drew herself up against the railing and watched as the sun began to drop lower over the horizon. She would need to head back soon if she was going to have supper done on time, but her gaze lingered over the ships that bobbed in the harbour.
“Where are you?” It was a duel-edged question as the frantic father had pursued every lead he could think of. Letters had arrived at the orphanage asking if they had seen his boy since neighbours had suggested that was possible. There was more than one orphanage in the port city and when Somerset had denied knowing anything, he’d tried all of them. Many times.
Elise shivered as she considered the sickening truth she had uncovered. Somerset not only knew who his boy was, but they also knew where he had gone. She beat her hand against the railing as neither Derek or Matthew had known where they were going to live. They just knew they would have a father and that was enough for both of them.
When she handed the batch of desperate letters over to the investigators, she had prayed many times over that the answers would come. A father was searching for a son he had been told was dead. In despair, he had gone back to the only thing he knew. He had sailed out on the tide to places unknown. A son had been sent away, believing his father was long dead. There was no justice in a world that allowed such a thing to go unchecked and she refused to believe in that kind of a world.
As she turned and trudged back up the hill towards the orphanage, she once again prayed that the answers would come.
Dan Mitchell had been a marshall for the territories for over twenty years and he’d seen all manner of prisoner cross his path in that time. A rare few he’d felt sorry for, but not the current one they had been charged with escorting back to prison. As he settled down for the first watch of the night, he looked across at the man they had securely tied to a tree. He knew the man’s story as it had been splashed all over the wires and news for weeks as he went on a revenge-fueled killing spree. Johnston had escaped from the prison and taken out two guards in the process. Another prisoner who had apparently escaped with him had been found at the foot of a rocky ravine only two days after their escape. His neck was broken and nobody cared too much if it was from the fall or other means, but the bruising around his neck suggested foul play. A short, blunt report had been filed and the prisoner had been buried alongside many others who were just as unwanted. Justice, such as it was, had been served for one of them. The other was yet to be dealt with.
As Mitchell watched the man, he couldn’t see him working at the ropes behind his back. Earlier in the day their prisoner had faked a fall as he got down from his horse and managed to palm a rock with a jagged edge. Prison had taught him a range of skills and stealth and deception had been finely honed. On the outside, he’d relied on strength of force and a gun, but on the inside it required a little more finesse to stay alive. As they rode closer to the prison, he had become more desperate, but the marshalls had both kept such a close watch that he had not found a chance to do much of anything.
Mitchell sat and pushed his hat back and made a show of polishing his gun while keeping a close eye on things. Across the way from him, his partner was rolled up in his bedroll, already snoring. It had been a long road from Reno to Riversbend and on to the prison, but they figured this should be their last night on the trail. If they pushed things the next day, they could be enjoying a hot meal for supper instead of trail grub.
It would be over four hours later before he got up and walked towards the treeline. Too many cups of coffee were making themselves felt and he couldn’t ignore them any longer. It was almost time for a change of shift and he could settle down for a sleep once he got back. He debated waking his partner first, but decided he could do with a few more minutes of sleep since a few hours a night was never enough. He appeared to be taking care of business, but when he was done, something raised the hackles on the back of his neck. He’d call it twenty years of experience that gave him an intuition, but whatever it was, he had been grateful for it on more than one occasion. He carefully made his way around the back end of the rock and came out above where his prisoner was still tied up and apparently sleeping. Kent took what seemed like a moment of inattention to take one last tug at the frayed rope and wrenched it free with a desperate tug. He rubbed at his wrists as he tried to rub bloodflow back into his hands and he crouched at the foot of the tree, looking for the marshall who hadn’t come back yet.
Dan watched as the man began to creep across towards the fire, getting closer to his partner. The sound of snoring had long since ceased and he held his breath, knowing that Mac was probably awake under that blanket. The man had an uncanny knack of waking just before the shift change no matter what time it was or where they were. Dan could see Kent reach down and lift up a rock and he started shouting.
“Hold it right there, Johnston!” A shot ricocheted off the rocks as he fired a warning and the prisoner made a dash for the cleft in the rock. He hated returning dead prisoners as it felt like he had failed to do his job somehow. Mac rolled sideways out of the bedroll with his gun in his hand and aimed it towards the noise.
“I’m not going back to that stinking hellhole!” Johnston growled as he backed towards the treeline while hugging the rocks. It wasn’t an unusual sentiment for those who had tasted freedom and Dan kicked himself for his lapse. Another shot threw up dust near Kent’s feet and he shuffled back further. With both men having their weapons trained on him, he knew it was the end of the line if he put up a fight, but if he made it back to the prison, it was definitely the end of the line. He could make out the edge of the rock and took one last look at the two men in front of him.
“Hold it! The next shot won’t miss!”
Kent threw himself sideways and sprinted for the relative safety of the darkness as another shot shattered the rock where his head had just been. He knew the area was littered with caves and if he could stick to the rocks, he couldn’t be tracked come daylight.
Mac charged left as Dan clambered up over the rocks in an unspoken dance that both had learned from long years on the road together. They did not always need words to convey what they were thinking to the other. As he scrambled higher, Dan caught movement in the trees and he raised his pistol and fired twice. A grunt of pain was the only response and he shouted out for his partner.
“Mac? Where are ya?”
“Down here, you great galoot! With our dead prisoner. Who taught you to shoot, Dan? You just about put a slug in me!”
Dan swallowed down a sarcastic comment and climbed down towards where he had fired. Moments later he caught up with Mac and noted their prisoner was indeed dead. The moonlight was enough to show a bloodstain spreading down the man’s back, but he leaned down to check anyway. His fingers grasped at the man’s neck and found no pulse beneath his fingertips.
“Good shooting.” Mac’s comment was typical of his friend. Only moments earlier he had been critical, but now he was smiling. “Just saved the cost of a trial and a noose. Those witnesses won’t be needed after all.”
Dan stood up and pointed back through the trees. “Yeah, I s’pose. Help me get him back there, will ya?”
Between the two of them, they dragged the body back up towards the rocks and dumped it on the ground. The morning would be soon enough to tie him in a blanket and drape him over his horse’s saddle for the long ride back to the prison. As Dan looked up into the pre-dawn sky he sighed deeply. It wasn’t his preferred way to finish the job, but he couldn’t muster an ounce of sympathy for the man who lay dead at his feet. Instead he turned to find some more wood to stoke up the fire and put on a pot of coffee as any thought of sleep was well and truly done for the night.
Joe was chafing under the constant questions surrounding his leg and his appetite and his sleep patterns and he wanted nothing more than to saddle up his pony and take off over the meadows. His father smiled behind his back as his son was well and truly on the mend if he was up to complaining. It had only been a couple of days and Paul had not yet authorised the boy to leave the house and he knew just how torturous that was. Joe was always outdoors somewhere, climbing or running or racing his pony with his friends. The fish were waiting in the pond and his son’s irritation at being cooped up was well known.
“Well then I guess you are ready to return to school then, Son.”
Adam kept a straight face, but Hoss had to walk back towards the kitchen to stop himself from laughing. Joe was stuck between a rock and hard place. If he said he was fully recovered, he would be on his way to school in the morning. If he balked, he would be confined to the house for at least another day.
Joe’s face was comical and his father took pity on him and stepped closer. “I guess not. Now Joseph, you heard what Doctor Martin said. That leg needs complete rest and none of the things you have in mind is restful.”
“But, Pa! Hoss said he’s taking Derek and Matthew out today and I just figured that I could …” His voice trailed away as his father’s face grew stern again.
“You just figure on staying put on that couch and getting better. Is that understood, young man?”
“Yes, Pa.”Joe sighed despondently as he knew it wasn’t worth fighting any longer.
“Joe, we ain’t gonna be gone too long. I just figured we could go for a quick look-see since the boys ain’t never seen the Ponderosa in the daylight. We’ll be back before you know it.”
Joe resigned himself to his imprisonment as the trio left the house and reluctantly picked up the dime novel he’d been reading the night before. He had no idea that his father had an ulterior motive to remove the two boys from the house and was surprised when he heard a horse ride up not long after and a knock at the door. It was a good thing he was already sitting down as he may have fallen down when he got a glimpse of their visitor. Roy Coffee strode across the room and quickly settled himself on the edge of the table, barely a foot away from where Joe was propped up on a pillow.
“Hello there, young fella! Good to see you back home in one piece.” Roy found himself struggling to stay calm as he stared at the boy he had feared was dead. Ben’s boys felt like his own sons and he had berated himself many times over for allowing Joe to be in the jail at all when Kent had ridden in. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time and it had backfired spectacularly.
Joe’s voice stayed stuck in his throat as tears filled his eyes. His last sight of the sheriff had him convinced the man was dead and even though he’d been assured otherwise, it was comforting to see the man in the flesh. He reached a hand out and Roy grasped at it and wrapped his gnarled, worn fingers around it.
“It’s alright, boy. Everything’s gonna be alright.”
Hop Sing bustled in with a tray of coffee and set to pouring cups for everybody. Joe still hadn’t spoken and Adam watched him from across the room as his emotions played out across his face. Joe never could keep a secret when it came to his feelings.
“I hear I busted your nose. Sorry ’bout that.”
“S’okay. It’s almost stopped hurting.” Joe touched at the tip of his nose and Roy smiled to see the last vestiges of bruising were fading.
Roy looked at the boy in front of him and debated sharing the news he had with his father first. Instead, he decided that Joe was old enough to hear it and hopefully it would help him.
“I got a wire this morning. From the prison.”
Joe shot upright and winced as his leg protested the sudden movement.
“He escaped again?” The whispered fear echoed around the room and Ben moved up behind his son and laid a hand on his shoulder to calm him.
“He tried on the way there and got hisself shot dead. The two marshalls delivered his body to the prison last night.”
Joe sagged back against the pillow and swallowed hard. He couldn’t think of what to say in response. Was he glad? Angry that the man had escaped a hanging? All he did know was he was confused at his own thoughts.
Adam turned towards the fireplace and tried to calm his own runaway thoughts.
“You aren’t God, Son.”
His father’s wisdom echoed in his mind and he nodded to himself. It seemed that justice really did come after all.
Somehow the conversation rolled on to more mundane things as Hop Sing poured more coffee and Joe settled back against his pillow once again. By the time Ben and Roy headed for the yard, Joe looked exhausted. Adam slid onto the table and watched as Joe fiddled with the blanket edge.
Joe looked up and frowned. “I don’t know.”
Adam waited to see if there was any more coming and he could see Hop Sing hovering at the edge of the kitchen.
“Adam … is it … is it wrong that I’m glad he’s dead?” Joe’s distress was almost palpable and Adam leaned closer.
“I’d say it’s pretty normal. The man tried to kill you, twice.”
Joe nodded as he felt a sense of relief wash over him.
“Joe … I wanted him dead too. Back in Riversbend, I went over to the jail after you’d been shot and I wanted to …” Adam licked at his lip as he considered the primal thoughts that had fought so hard with his usual rational mind. He hadn’t told anybody just how close he’d come to doing something monumentally stupid.
Joe stared at him since Adam was the one with the coolest head in the family.
“What stopped you?”
Adam smiled at his brother, hoping he could make him understand. “Pa.”
Joe frowned at him, trying to put the pieces together of a story he couldn’t remember. “Pa?”
“He taught us all that vengeance isn’t ours and I think the sheriff helped me see that too. I had to leave it to the law and I guess things have a funny way of working out sometimes.”
Joe still wasn’t sure of how he felt, but it somehow helped to know that Mister Rational wasn’t quite so calm and collected after all.
“I’m sorry….for all of it. I never meant to make things such a mess.”
“I know that, Joe. But I hope you learned something in all of this.”
Joe hung his head and resumed picking at the edge of the blanket. Adam cleared his throat and Joe slowly looked back up again.
“Joe, you’re a Cartwright. And that name carries a lot of weight with it. Pa taught us all a moral code and you’ve obviously caught on to that or you wouldn’t have gone to such lengths to help. But there’s more to it than that, Joe. That name carries something else as well. Cartwrights stick together, no matter what!”
Joe felt his insides churning as he watched his brother’s face.
“Joe, I know that you tried to talk to us and I’m so sorry we didn’t hear you. I’ve told you already and I hope you believe me – there is nothing that you could do that would make me stop loving you. I found your note in my drawer and nothing could make me hate you either.”
Joe gulped as he recalled what he had written on a day that seemed a lifetime ago. Desperation had driven the decision, but in the light of hindsight, it looked so very different.
“Joe, you have to promise me something.”
“That you will never take off anywhere again. Joe, I don’t care what the problem is, this family sticks together. You hear me?”
“That’s very true, young man.”
Adam had seen his father come in, but Joe jumped at his father’s voice.
Ben moved around to seat himself in the nearest chair. “Adam’s right, Joseph. We are all sorry we missed what was really going on and I’m proud of you for protecting your friends, but don’t you ever do anything like that again.” His tone softened as he looked at his son’s face. “I couldn’t bear to lose you.”
Ben pushed open the office door and strode out into the corridor. The expectant faces that greeted him were soon smiling as he nodded in confirmation.
“Judge Bates said yes?’
Ben ruffled his youngest son’s hair as he stepped towards him. “Yes, Joseph, he said yes!”
Joe turned back and grinned at the two boys who sat huddled together with their arms interlinked. “You get to stay with us. You don’t havta go back to Walter ever again!”
Ben slid into the seat that Joe had vacated and smiled at the boys. “Well, the judge has granted me temporary custody of you both. That means we have some time to make some decisions for you while we find you a new family. One that you both approve of.”
Matthew stared at him as the words sunk in. It was almost unbelievable what he was hearing and he looked to Derek for confirmation. As his brother nodded at him, a slow grin spread across his face. It was the first real one they had seen.
“Pa, how sure are they?”
Ben leaned against the edge of the couch and tried to steady his hands. The letter was carefully refolded and sitting back in its envelope on his desk. He had re-read it four times, trying to pull anything more from between the lines that he could.
“They seem fairly certain.”
Adam stood across the room with his hat in his hand. Hoss had no idea of the momentous news he had delivered into his father’s hands with the mail bundle only an hour earlier and he had left to continue on with his chores. When Adam came in to pick up some ammunition, he’d been surprised to find his father pacing the floor instead of working on the books as he had said he would be.
“Well … that certainly puts a different spin on things.”
Ben straightened up and rubbed at the back of his neck. If the news was true it was most welcome. But if it wasn’t, he could not afford to raise a child’s hopes and dash them again.
“Roy already said that there were certain irregularities and the orphanage was already under investigation. The manner in which Walter Maddington got hold of the boys was illegal, but I never guessed they could be this cruel. I thought it was just greed, but this is a whole other level of despicable.”
Adam watched his father’s face as the rage that was just below the surface was barely reined in.
“What are you going to do?”
“We say nothing to Derek! That boy has been through more than enough already. This young lady has not yet made contact with the man she believes is his father and I will not raise his hopes without more substance.” As Ben strode closer to his son, he held out a hand. “And we say nothing to Joe or Hoss either. I won’t put that burden on either of them.”
Adam simply nodded as he knew neither of his brothers could keep that kind of information a secret for long. Suddenly he thought of something else.
“How did she even know to write to you, Pa?”
Ben pointed across the room at the desk and shook his head. “That letter was addressed to Roy. He’s been poking around since Joe first took the boys and Mitch told him what was going on. The investigators who have been looking into the whole … I don’t even know what you would call it! … this whole sickening children for sale thing … have been trying to track down any children who were placed up for adoption in recent months and determine if they were legitimate or not. Roy sent letters off to every place he could think of trying to get information. It seems he tipped off the right person somewhere.”
“So what do we do know?”
“I’ve got some contacts in San Francisco. We try to find the boy’s father!”
The clipper had been due in to port almost a week ago and Elise was growing impatient with each passing hour. She had lived near the sea for long enough to know that while ships had a schedule, they also were subject to the forces of nature and schedules were flexible. For the sixth day in a row, she walked down to the customs office and asked to leave an urgent message. Again.
“I know, Miss. When the Windrunner puts into port, I will alert the captain of your request.”
Elise nodded in thanks and resigned herself to trekking back to the orphanage. The men who had removed Henry MacAllister from his position of power, had also promised to help track down the children who had left the orphanage under his direction. A few had been found in San Francisco, but many more had gone further afield.
The uphill climb from the harbour had her puffing as she hurried back, but it was the ache in the pit of her stomach that stole her strength. It had taken some detective work, a couple of bribes and a measure of luck for her to find the ship that Gregory Miller had sailed out on. She was impatient for him to sail back in again, but she was even more concerned that so far there had been no news on either Derek or Matthew.
Joe grinned at Mitch as they waited for Matthew to finish up. It had been a good ten minutes that the boy had stood in front of Mister Cass’s candy canisters and debated which ones to buy. The first time the trio had ventured back into the store, it had been behind the sturdy back of his father who had assured him that the store owner knew the details of Joe’s misadventure and the truth of Derek and Matthew’s situation. It didn’t make the moment any easier to face as Joe had apologised profusely and promised to make amends. Will Cass was not one to hold a grudge and since he knew the real story, was more than prepared to let it go. Of course, since the Cartwrights were some of his best customers, it wouldn’t do to cut off his nose to spite his face either.
“It’s gonna be time to come back to school before we ever get home from school, if you don’t choose somethin’ soon!”
Joe giggled at Mitch’s comment as he watched Matthew struggling with too many to choose from. He glanced around to see where Derek was and was stunned to see his friend frozen in the doorway. He raced over to see what was wrong and quickly saw what had his attention. Across the street, staggering along on the boardwalk, was Walter. The man was clearly drunk as he stumbled every few feet and grasped at the hitching rail to stay upright.
Joe tried to pull Derek out of sight, but it was too late. Walter caught sight of them and he shouted across the street.
“You ungrateful little brat!
Joe grasped at Derek’s arm and tugged at him, but he seemed rooted to the spot. Walter staggered across the street, pointing his finger and waving a half-empty bottle of whiskey at him.
“You told all them lies and set the sheriff on me! You and that little skunk of a brother! You ruined me, you did!”
“Come on!” Joe urged the boy to move, but Derek seemed almost mesmorised as the drunk approached. Before he could do anything, Roy Coffee appeared along the boardwalk and he placed himself in between the boys and Walter.
“Now don’t you go making no trouble here, Walter. Don’t make me lock you up.”
Walter glared at the sheriff and spat a wad of spit into the ground in front of him.
“You! You always do what them Cartwrights tell ya to do! You ain’t no lawman. Ain’t got no kinda backbone ‘less Ben Cartwright’s tellin’ ya what to do!”
Inside the store, Matthew had heard the voice he had grown to hate and all thoughts of candy were swept aside. He panicked when he realised he couldn’t see Derek and he began to frantically search the immediate area for him. Mitch tried to grab at his arm, but the boy slipped from his grasp and ran for the door where Derek was still standing. He stopped dead when he heard Walter’s vitriolic rant and Mitch almost ran into him.
Derek finally seemed to shake off the stupor that had gripped him and he pushed away from Joe and stepped up beside the sheriff. His knees felt like rubber as he felt the weight of the sheriff’s hand on his shoulder and he stared down the man who made his life such a misery.
“You don’t own us. You never did!”
“You little snot-nosed brat! Nobody wanted ya ’til I took ya in. Think ya’s all high and mighty standing there with that Cartwright brat. Well I don’t want ya back. You hear me? You and that sniveling brother of yours! You can rot for all I care!”
Roy could feel the boy’s shoulder quivering under his hand and he squeezed it for good measure.
“You get on home, Walter and sleep it off. And you leave these boys alone. You hear me?”
Walter grunted as he took a swig from his bottle and turned to slowly walk back up the street.
“I think you boys need to get on home now too.” Roy watched to make sure that Walter was heading away from the Ponderosa before pushing the boys towards the door.
“Wait up! It’s a long ride home.” Will held out a large bag filled with candy and waved it in front of Matthew. “I think you should be in charge of sharing this out, young fella.”
Joe fished in his pocket to find the coin his father had given him and Mister Cass waved him off.
“The treat’s on me, boys. Now get on home.”
It was a slow and quiet ride home, broken only by the occasional request for a candy. Joe still couldn’t figure what could make a man like Mister Maddington so nasty, but he was sure glad that his friends didn’t have to go with him ever again. Sheriff Coffee and the judge had said so.
Roy sat at his desk and grabbed at the mug of coffee that he’d forgotten was there. It was stone cold and he swallowed the mouthful and pulled a face. He held the three wires in his hand and considered what had gone back and forth for the better part of the day. Out of necessity, a wire was brief and to the point. It lacked the nuance and depth of a letter, but it was much faster in the transmission of information.
As he pondered the information he was piecing together, he was already calculating how long it would take to get the stage from San Francisco through to Virginia City. If all legs of the journey were maximized it would be three to four days. If any connections were missed, it would be longer. Either way, it wasn’t a whole lot of time for Ben to prepare. Roy pushed back his chair and reached for his hat. It was time for a ride out to the Ponderosa.
Hoss smiled as he watched his protégé nervously holding a bottle filled with milk. The young calf he was trying to feed was slurping enthusiastically at the teat and almost knocking him off his feet.
“Set your feet apart. It’ll keep you anchored better on the ground.”
Matthew nodded as he tried and found it seemed to help. The calf continued to gulp down the milk and when it was done, his long tongue curled around the edge of the bottle seeking more. Matthew laughed as the rough tongue tugged at his fingers and Hoss gently removed the bottle.
“Now that’s enough! You’re a beeve, not a pig!”
Matthew giggled as he watched the calf nudging at Hoss’s leg and the big man scratched behind its ears.
“He thinks I’m his mama.”
“Where’s his real mama?”
Hoss straightened up and nudged the calf away from him. “She got stuck in the creek and broke her leg. Weren’t nothin’ we could do to save her.” He noted the frown on Matthew’s face and hurried to reassure him. “But we saved her baby and he’s gonna grow up to be a strappin’ young fella!”
Matthew stared at the calf for a moment. “My mama died too. And my papa. I don’t remember them.”
Hoss watched a wistful look draw across the boy’s face as he reached out a hand to scratch at the calf’s head.
“My mama died too. I was just a baby so I don’t remember her neither.”
“Do you think I’ll ever get a new mama? Like your pa said he was gonna find for us?”
Hoss hunkered down with his hands on his knees and nodded. “When my pa says he’s gonna do somethin’, he does it. He’s lookin’ real hard for the best place for you boys.”
“Hoss … doesn’t he like us enough?”
Hoss frowned at the tears he could see forming. “Course he likes ya! Whatever do ya mean?”
“He don’t like us enough to keep us.”
The trembling voice tugged at Hoss and he reached out to lift Matthew up onto the top railing. The small boy felt like a featherweight in his hands.
“My pa is lookin’ for a family with a ma and a pa for you boys. We ain’t got that here.”
Matthew seemed to think on that one for a moment and Hoss tried again. “Pa just figured that a little tacker like you still needs a ma. He’s lookin’ for the very best place for both of ya. But if that’s here in Virginia City you can still come visit any time you like.”
Matthew brightened at the idea and he grinned as Hoss turned around and presented his shoulders to climb onto while he patted at his own shoulder. By the time Hoss charged back into the house, Matthew was squealing for his horse to go faster.
It had been almost a month since Ben had brought his family and two strays back safely from Riversbend. In that time, his son’s leg and face had fully healed, but he wasn’t so sure about the unseen scars. Joe had changed in his time away. While the sound of laughter filled the house once again as three boys chased each other down the stairs, Ben was still watching closely. He could not and would not allow himself to get so caught up in other things that he could ever miss the important things again. The two boys had told his son of life in an orphanage and it had been a very real and legitimate fear for his youngest to entertain. No amount of adult logic could change that and Joe needed to overcome those fears in his own way and his own time. In the meantime, his father would watch and step in where he was needed.
In the same way, Matthew had healed from his ordeal and Hop Sing had taken it on like some kind of personal challenge to see that both boys were fed and nourished.
There had been no further news from San Francisco and Ben was running out of ways to stall his son’s questions. Joe had hinted, not so subtly and more than once, that Ben should consider adopting the boys. To his son, it seemed like a perfectly logical solution to their dilemma. What he couldn’t tell his son was that one of the boys may have a father out there somewhere and he would have to split up the boys if they ever found the man. It was a double-edged sword that he wasn’t at all sure how to handle.
As the stampede of elephants made its way out into the yard, Ben rubbed at the back of his neck and leaned back into his chair. The paperwork he was trying to finish was not progressing at all and he turned to look out into the yard. Adam and Hoss had gone into town for the Saturday night dance and that left three very energetic boys to run amok without big brothers to stop them. Ben watched as Joe and Derek swung Matthew up and over a length of railing and he was drawn back in time. Adam and Hoss had once taken great delight in chasing a feisty toddler around the same yard until he squealed with laughter.
Something else had changed in Joe since he’d been away and Ben suddenly saw it. Joe had grown up and stepped into the role of an older brother. It brought a smile to his lips as he watched his son who had gone away a boy and come back almost a man. Joe would have objected and said he was already a man, but he didn’t see what his father saw. As he had once told Joe, he had a ways to go yet, but he was a lot closer than he had been.
As Ben stood at the window and watched, he was surprised to see Roy riding into the yard. Given how busy it got in town on a Saturday night, he knew it wasn’t a social call.
Gregory Miller had traveled so many thousand miles in his life that he had lost count many years ago. His parents had sailed from the Motherland looking for adventure and a new world and he had been born on the open seas. His father had joked that he had been born with the wanderlust as his young spirit longed to roam. He had been called back to the sea as soon as he could convince a captain to take on an inexperienced landlubber and neither of his parents had been surprised. What had surprised them was when he had brought home a young bride. None of them had seen him settling down, but the young woman was wise enough and in love enough to allow her husband to keep both of his loves. He chose shorter voyages so the times away were less, but she never tried to make him choose between his love of the sea and his love of his wife.
As the miles of dusty road rolled by under the stagecoach wheels, he stared at the landscape and saw none of it. He’d known great love and great loss in his life, starting with both of his parents who died when an influenza epidemic gripped the area. He had buried them both within a week of each other. He could forgive God for taking the elderly, but what he could not forgive was when his wife succumbed to the fever after nursing both of his parents. Their boy had been sent to Mrs Harris while the fever had raged and he never came back.
Gregory closed his eyes and grit his teeth as he recalled his own cowardice. He’d run away, lost in grief and pain and taken the nearest vessel that would hire him. After three months on the sea, he’d pulled himself together enough to return and face up to what he had done.
He figured that God had held onto that poor choice and used it against him when he’d set sail for Panama years later and the ship had foundered. They were so far off course due to the storm that he had no idea where he was when he washed ashore. Only two others had survived as far as he could tell and the three of them had set about finding their way home.
As he stared out the window once more, he still couldn’t believe that two years had passed as they had fought, struggled and survived. The final blow came when he arrived at Mrs Harris’ house and found a stranger answering the door. The kindly woman was old and he shouldn’t have been shocked at her death, but the fact his son had disappeared was the cruelest blow of all. When the orphanage told him his son had also died, he had run to the only place he knew. The sea welcomed him back with open arms.
He absently patted at his pocket and felt the folded paper within it. The last two weeks had been a blur and a stranger had rekindled hope he thought had died. Could it really be true? Could his boy be alive and well and living in Virginia City? Could God have given him another chance to be a father?
Joe couldn’t figure why his father had decided to collect them all from school as there was nothing special about the day as far as he could tell. He had the wagon with no supplies or anything else in it and Adam and Hoss were with him so something strange was going on, but he couldn’t figure what. His father seemed nervous and that was never a good sign. As he sidled up to Adam, he couldn’t find the question he wanted to ask. Adam just squeezed his shoulder and smiled.
The group was gathered near the stage depot and Ben had walked away a distance as if he didn’t want to have to talk to any of them. Adam was watching his father, knowing exactly what kind of turmoil was going on under the brim of his hat. He had decided to fill Hoss in on the ride into town, but it was still a tense wait. The man that was coming on the stage could turn the world one of two ways.
Joe could feel the tension, but had no idea of its cause and it set his stomach churning. Something was going on and he couldn’t decide what it was. Derek and Matthew were sitting on the top of the railing, totally oblivious to Joe’s anxiety.
As a shout echoed down the road, the stage rolled around the bend and pulled to a stop in front of them. The Wells Fargo Express official walked out and pulled down the step as he opened the door. He then stepped out of the way and helped the driver as he began to toss luggage from the top of the coach.
Joe waited as his father moved forward, still uncertain of just what was going on. Hoss had shifted the boys off the railing and appeared to be moving towards the street with them. Ben stood to one side and reached out a hand to assist a young lady down to the street. The next passenger to alight was an older woman who was clearly the young woman’s mother. Finally, a man climbed down into the street and was scanning the area immediately. As he walked forward, Ben recognised the rolling gait of a sailor before the man even opened his mouth.
“Mister Miller?” He held out a hand as the stranger reached to shake it.
“Yes. I assume you are Mister Cartwright?”
“Ben. Call me Ben.” As the two shook hands he was still looking around and his eyes finally latched onto what he had been seeking. Disbelief spread across his face as he stared at the boy standing on the boardwalk.
“Derek? My God, boy … it really is you!”
Derek had turned white and was staring at the man in the street. Hoss thought he was about to keel over and grasped at his shoulder to steady him. The boy stayed rooted to the spot as the man he had thought long-dead climbed up onto the boardwalk and moved towards him. He couldn’t speak and couldn’t move as tears streamed down his face. The arms he had long dreamed of wrapped around him and he buried his face in his father’s chest as he began to sob uncontrollably.
“Well I guess that answers that question.” Adam nudged at his father’s arm and wasn’t surprised to see tears in his eyes.
People walking along the boardwalk were forced to step around the tableau as Derek simply clung to his father. Joe finally stopped staring and he moved over towards his father.
“Pa? You knew?”
“I hoped, Son. We weren’t sure we had the right man and I wouldn’t hold out false hope until we knew for sure.”
Joe blinked at him as the reality sunk in. “Where’s he been? Derek said he was dead and they put him in an orphanage! That don’t make sense, Pa.”
“I’m sure there is a long story to be told here, but for now, I think we have a long ride home.”
Adam had the man’s suitcase stowed on the back of the wagon and father and son were already settled on the front seat by the time Joe went to climb onto his pony. Matthew usually rode with Derek and Derek’s pony was already tied to the back of the wagon so he went to see if Matthew wanted to ride with him. Hoss beat him to it as the little boy looked lost in the midst of the group. His gentle big brother hoisted the child into the saddle and swung up behind him without waiting to ask.
“Me and Matthew got us a few things to talk about on the way home.” Hoss commented to nobody in particular and he nudged his horse out onto the road home.
Ben smiled at his son as he climbed into the driver’s seat and set the horses moving. Gregory had not let go of his boy and the two of them were wrapped together as if fearful that the other could disappear at any moment.
Hop Sing had outdone himself preparing a meal fit for a celebration and Ben was profoundly grateful that it was a celebration. He looked across the table to where his youngest son was seated and felt his chest constrict. The fear-filled days where he did not know if his son was even alive had taken their toll on him and he wondered how a man could deal with two years worth of such days.
One side of the table was extremely animated as father and son answered the myriad of questions they all wanted answers to. It didn’t escape his attention that Matthew hadn’t said more than two words since they had arrived home. Hoss had placed the boy beside him and he was once again grateful for his son’s gentle and intuitive nature. The youngster was going to need it when Gregory left with his boy.
It was several hours later when the younger boys had been put to bed and Gregory settled on the couch with a brandy. He looked across at the man he owed an unpayable debt to.
“Ben, I can’t begin to thank you and your boys. I had given up hope of ever seeing my son again. When that young lady came and told me what had happened to him, I was so desperate to get to him that I left that night. You have no idea what this means to me.”
“I have some idea.” Ben nodded at him as he glanced at two of his sons.
Gregory settled back against the couch and sipped at his brandy. “That was quite a tale those boys had to tell.”
“Your story was rather incredible too.” Ben watched as the father closed his eyes and tried to keep his hand steady by gripping onto the edge of his seat.
“For two years … the thing that kept me going was getting home to my boy and when I got there …” Gregory looked up around the room and the tough outer shell of a sailor melted away to reveal a broken-hearted father. “When they told me he was dead, it near killed me. I went back to the only thing I had left.”
“I can only imagine.” Ben shook off the fear that crept around his shoulders as he considered the idea. He had done more than imagine. He had blamed himself when he thought Joe was dead.
Hoss had managed to keep his mouth shut, but found he couldn’t do so any longer.
“For two years, the only thing your boy has had is young Matthew.”
“Hoss!” His father’s warning glare was almost ignored as Hoss fiddled with his trouser leg.
Gregory looked across at him and nodded slowly. A couple of times over the evening Derek had called the boy his brother before realising who he was talking to. “They seem very attached to each other.”
“They are.” Ben tried not to put any implications into the comment, but the man needed to know the truth. Taking one boy and not the other would break both their hearts. But taking on someone else’s child was a major commitment that no man had the right to pressure another into.
“You have three fine sons, Ben. My wife and I always wanted more children, but it was not to be.”
Silence filled the room as nobody seemed inclined to continue the conversation. Eventually the tension was broken as Hop Sing arrived with a coffee tray and cups were passed around. Ben hadn’t missed the man’s thoughtful glances upstairs. It was not a conversation to be rushed.
Over the next two days, Joe was indignant that his father insisted that both he and Matthew head off to school while Derek got to spend time getting reacquainted with his father. Each night they would sit at the supper table and it was clear to all of them that Matthew was withdrawing. For the most part, Derek had been so absorbed in reconnecting with the man he thought he had lost that he wasn’t aware of the problem.
It was well after supper when Joe came downstairs and looked around. Derek was seated on the couch with his father, reading a book that Adam had loaned them.
Ben looked up from his own book. “What are you looking for, Son?”
“Umm… I kinda need to ask Derek something. It’s real important.”
Derek clambered to his feet, suddenly alarmed at Joe’s strange demeanor. As he got closer, Joe carefully indicated he wanted to go upstairs. Since Matthew had been put to bed half an hour ago, he wasn’t sure what the problem was, but he trusted Joe and followed him up the stairs.
As they reached the upstairs hallway, Joe turned and put a finger on his lips. The sound of crying carried across the space and Derek pushed towards the bedroom door. His brother was on the other side and yet when he stepped into the room, he wasn’t there. As he looked around, he realised the sound was coming from outside.
Joe pointed at the window and nodded as Derek followed his finger. The younger boy slowly clambered out the window and crawled onto the ridgeline. When Matthew saw him coming, he gulped and scrubbed a hand across his face, trying to wipe away the tears. Derek didn’t say a word as he wrapped his arm around his shoulder and Matthew leaned into him.
“What for? You haven’t done anything wrong.”
Matthew swallowed again and tried to find the words for the misery that flowed out of him. “I wish he hadn’t come.”
“My papa?” Derek was stunned at the comment. His greatest wish had come true and his brother didn’t … “Oh, Matthew!” Understanding slammed into him and he gripped at his brother a little tighter.
Joe leaned up against the inside wall and tried to keep his own emotion in check.
“He’s gonna take you back to San Francisco and Mister Cartwright will find me a family here. I ain’t never gonna see you ever again!”
Tears streamed down the boy’s face as he thought of how bleak that future looked.
“You always said the stars could bring your papa home and … and I prayed they would bring my mama and papa too. Guess not.”
“Maybe they did.”
Matthew jumped at the voice behind them and felt Derek’s hands against his shoulders.
“I haven’t climbed on a roof for a while, but it’s no harder than getting up to the crow’s nest.” Gregory laughed as he tried to get his long legs through the small window before pulling at the top of the frame and sliding out onto the roof.
Derek smiled as his father settled down beside them.
“Son, this young fella seems awfully important to you.”
“He’s my brother, Papa. I know he’s not, but he …”
Gregory held up a hand to stop him.
“I served on vessels with men who felt as close as a brother so I understand how that works. Now, I’m a little out of practice with this whole fathering thing so I think I’m going to need some help. Do you suppose you and your brother might be able to remind me of how to do it?”
Matthew clutched at Derek’s arm as he held his breath.
“You mean it?”
Gregory reached out to ruffle his son’s hair and smiled. “Yes, Son. I mean it. If young Matthew will have me, I’d like to take him with us back to San Francisco.”
He grabbed at his father and slipped on the ridgeline as he did so. Gregory grabbed at him and pulled him closer.
“How about we get back inside and discuss the details in there? Where it’s a little safer!” He thumbed towards the window and grinned at Ben as he tried to climb back in through the window.
As he reached to pull Matthew in, he set the boy on his feet and knelt down in front of him. “My boy couldn’t love you the way he does if there weren’t somethin’ special about you.”
Matthew simply stared at him as tears rolled silently down his face. He felt Derek behind him and he turned to hug the older boy who was also crying.
It would be another week before the circuit judge was back to officiate over the custody paperwork. In that time, Ben was pleased to see Matthew coming to life again. The misery and fear that had settled over him was gone and in its place, hope was beginning to blossom. Hope for a future that looked very different to what it had only a short time earlier.
Roy sat in the saloon with the two men and shared a beer along with some new information on the investigation in San Francisco. Gregory found himself boiling with rage as the details grew. The thought of what his boys had been through made him sick to his stomach. The name Walter Maddington felt like dirt in his mouth and he wanted to find the man and deliver some justice of his own. It was only Ben’s restraining hand and reminder that two boys needed their father that stopped him. Roy had left with a firm promise that once the charges were laid at one end, they would also be laid in Virginia City. They all knew it could be months before the investigation was done and Ben had suggested they could stay at the Ponderosa and he would help set them up somehow.
“Thank you, but all I know is the sea. There’s salt water running through these veins. If I can’t go back to sailing, I need to at least have the smell in my nostrils or I’ll go mad.”
Ben smiled at the comment and understood. It had taken a long time to shake the brine out of his own veins and replace it with pine sap.
“What are you going to do when you get back?”
Gregory shook his head. “I have no idea. But I’ve got two very good reasons to make it work.”
“Well, I have some contacts there and could write a letter of recommendation.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
Gregory sipped at his beer as he considered what lay ahead of him. The unknown challenges faded into nothing as he considered what he had gained. The man sitting drinking a beer across from him had given him his life back.
“There’s something more that has nothing to do with me and comes from my sons.”
Gregory leaned forward as the father smiled across at him.
“You’ll recall I told you about a man called Kent Johnston who tried to kill Joseph.”
“Well, there was a reward for his capture and the sheriff in Riversbend paid it to my boys and they made a unanimous decision as to what to do with it.”
Gregory had no idea where he was going with it until Ben slid a piece of paper across towards him. “They opened a bank account with the Virginia City Bank for each of the boys.”
As Gregory stared in disbelief, he felt his throat closing over and his breathing quicken. “Ben … you and your family have already done so much … and this …. this is too much. I can’t accept this.”
“You’re a brave man.” Ben grinned at him as a confused frown crossed his face. “You really want to have that argument with the three of them? Good luck with that!”
Ben burst out laughing as Gregory shook his head again.
Joe sat on the third step from the top of the stairs and leaned up against the railing. Mitch sat next to him and looked equally as miserable.
“Well don’t that beat all, Pa? Warm sun on a day they don’t need to be in school, fish abitin’ in the pond and them two sad sacks just sittin’ there, lookin’ as blue as that there chair.”
Hoss leaned against the newel and tried to draw a smile from his brother. His usually lively little brother had been unusually quiet since Derek and Matthew had left two days before to start a new chapter in San Francisco. Joe looked up at him and shrugged.
Adam appeared at the top of the stairs and slowly settled on the step above his brother. He clapped a hand on Joe’s shoulder and another on Mitch’s.
“You two ought to be proud of yourselves. There’s two boys on their way to a whole new life because of you.”
Joe shifted against his hand and tried to smile. It felt good to draw his brother’s praise.
“But you miss your friends.” Hoss smiled at the two of them as they both looked the picture of misery.
“Well, older brother …” Hoss straightened up again and nodded towards Adam, “I reckon there’s still fish abitin’ in that pond and they’s got our names on them.”
“Well, younger brother … I reckon you’d be right about that. So what are we doing sitting here? You grab that one and I’ll grab this one!” He winked at Hoss as he hoisted Joe over his shoulder and began marching down the stairs with him. Hoss quickly had Mitch in a similar hold and Ben laughed as his two oldest sons carried the boys right out the door with both of them protesting to be put down.
“Hold up you two!” he roared as he reached the front door. Adam and Hoss turned back towards him, looking a little concerned. Ben struggled to keep a straight face at the sight of the two boys being carried towards the barn like sacks of grain. “I think I could do with a day chasing those fish too.”
Elise tried to stop herself from pacing as she waited outside the stagecoach office. As it finally rolled to a stop, she found her breath hitching in her chest. An older gentleman climbed down the step before a mop of dark hair appeared and she couldn’t contain a grin. As Derek clambered down to the ground he turned to reach for another hand. Elise almost skipped forward as she got her first glimpse of Matthew. The child had grown since she’d last seen him and his skin was a golden tan colour. Tears filled her eyes as she watched the man she barely knew step down and wrap an arm around both boys’ shoulders. She stepped forward and Matthew caught sight of her first. He looked up at the man before bolting across towards her and flinging himself into her open arms.
“Welcome back, my darling!”
Derek tugged at the man’s hand and pulled him towards her. She reached to hug him as well before standing up and taking the hand that was held out towards her.
“Mister Miller. I’m so pleased to see you all made it back together.”
“I believe I have you to thank for even making that possible. I cannot begin to ever repay your kindness to my boys.”
Elise raised an eyebrow at that comment, but said nothing. Gregory smiled at her face and nodded.
“Yes, my boys. I’ve got legal custody of Matthew and intend to file adoption papers as soon as I can.”
Elise grinned again in a most unladylike fashion.
“This day just gets better and better!”
When I started writing this story I didn’t intend it to become anything other than a story, but it got me thinking. Child trafficking is a very real horrendous thing in our modern day world and we often feel helpless in the face of such huge issues. We feel like we can’t do anything to help, but there is something very simple you can do to help. There is an app called TraffickCam that you can download for free. If you stay in a hotel anywhere in the world, you snap a few shots of your room and upload them to a database. That way investigators have a chance of identifying where children are being trafficked from because they can identify hotel rooms. Simple hey! And who knows, you could save a child’s life. Please share that one far and wide.