The Promise Trilogy – #2 – The Jonah (by Wrangler)

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Summary:  This is the second story of The Promise Trilogy.

Rated.  T   WC 30,000

 

The Promise Trilogy:

The Promise
The Jonah
With Wings as Eagles

 

 

The Jonah

 

Note from Author: A long time ago a priest told me that, “God doesn’t draw in straight lines.” That saying appears in this story to honor his wisdom. It took me many years to learn the meaning of the statement he made. This story is dedicated to my daughter Julie, and my son Will who went along on the journey with their mother to discover what these wise words really meant.

Then they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots to find out on whose account we have met with this misfortune.” So they cast lots, and thus singled out Jonah.

(The Book of Jonah, Chapter 1, Verses 7-9, From the Holy Bible)

***

Ben Cartwright crept quietly down the hallway heading towards his youngest son’s bedroom. He felt the strong urge to peer in on the boy to assure that he was in fact sleeping now. Turning the doorknob precariously, he pushed into the room. Ben could see that Joe had left his light burning, though turned down low. He made his way next to the bed and stood there staring at the slumbering young man. The worried father breathed a sigh of relief to see the peaceful countenance of his son. His mind went back to all of the events leading up to the dramatic hypnosis session, which had gone on that day.

For more than six months Ben had believed Joe to be dead as a result of an Indian attack on the stage in which he had been traveling to Salt Lake City. It had taken quite awhile to come to grips with the fact that his son had perished along with five other souls that fateful day. All that had remained to show that Joe had indeed been a victim of the attack was the shredded remains of the boy’s jacket, and a leather pouch, which held a large lock of Joe’s hair.

Ben settled into the chair next to the bed, reached over, and touched his son’s arm, to force the reality of his presence back into the weary father’s mind. Several weeks after Joe had been returned alive, Ben still had trouble believing the story of his son’s survival. An Indian, Lone Eagle who was a renegade Apache warrior, had spared Joe’s life to return an old favor. Many years earlier, Ben Cartwright had fought the stupidity of several men and their frontier brand of justice, and had freed the young Indian and made sure he had been returned safely to his tribe. It was because of that one act of compassion that Joe Cartwright now lived. Though Lone Eagle had no compassion for any of the other occupants of the Overland Stage, he made sure that Joe lived through the massacre.

Dropping his head down into his hands Ben could still hear Joe’s shaken voice as it had conveyed the whole gruesome story. He remembered most explicitly how the boy had slowly described laying there on the ground and keeping his silence as the Indian had thrust his knife through Joe’s shoulder. Ben cringed when he thought of how his son had to pretend he was dead and had bitten through his jacket to prevent the scream which would have brought over the other Indians who would not have been so kind. Kind? Ben shook his head at the thought. Was it out of kindness that the renegade had pierced his son’s shoulder and removed a chunk of his hair? Ben shuddered at the very thought of it all. But, Lone Eagle needed something to take back to his tribe to show that he had accomplished the kill. Ben could not imagine having to hold still and keep from screaming out as a knife was being driven through his body. How Joe was able to do it still amazed his father.

Ben stared at his son’s hair, so short, still so devoid of its normal curls. He remembered the day that his other two sons had returned with the leather pouch containing their brother’s hair. It had been the final piece of evidence that Joe was gone and would never be coming back. Then the mourning had begun and life was never the same. Or at least it held no joy, that is, until the telegraph from St. Louis which told the remarkable tale of how Joe had ended up in a home for boys run by a parish priest named Father Mike. Ben closed his eyes and could still see the telegraphs, one by one, as he had read them the day they had come. His heart still quickened at the very idea that Joe was alive and yet so far away. Even the mention of the boy’s condition did nothing to stop the excitement and heartfelt joy Ben felt from the news. There had been a series of miracles; there could be no other explanation for having gotten his son back. A couple heading east had found the boy walking blindly along the side of the road, unable to speak, and with a shoulder injury. It was due to their kindness that Joe had been brought with them to St. Louis and given to the priest to care for. Then it was due to the generosity of Father Michael Donahue that Joe was given a decent place to live. The biggest miracle of all had been the fact that it had been an old friend of Adam who had been sent by the newspaper that he worked for to do an article on the boys home. If that man, Ernest Duffy, had not spotted Joe and instantly recognized him to be one Joseph Cartwright, most likely no-one would have ever known his identity nor would his family have known he was alive.

Ben noticed Joe had rolled away from him, moving over onto his left side. Instinctively his father reached over and pulled up the covers. It was at that moment that Ben noticed the grimace Joe wore, even in his sleep. Was he having a dream about the horrible events he had dealt with over the months since the Indian attack? Or, had it been the whole ordeal of the hypnosis session that was now making the scene of it all much more fresh in his son’s mind? Not that Ben wasn’t thankful for all that the doctor had accomplished with Joe. In fact, if it had not been for Dr. Wentworth’s visit and expertise, Joe might still be in the catatonic state, which had plagued him for seven months. The doctor had been able to get Joe to release the pent up horrors of the Indian attack and by doing so had brought Joe back to the conscious state. Ben and his other sons were so grateful that Joe could look them in the eye now, understand what they were saying to him, and respond verbally. Yes, it had been a very fruitful day in that regard.

Fatigue taking over now, Ben stood to leave. He ran his hand across Joe’s head lightly. The curls would come back, though the boy’s hair had been clipped very short back in St. Louis to make up for the large amount which had been hacked off by Lone Eagle. But, Ben had to worry about more serious things now. Would his son be able to accept all he had gone through? Would he be able to somehow put it behind him and move on? Or would Joe be stuck emotionally to the past? Ben remembered the awful incident in Virginia City earlier that month. Hoss had taken Joe into town for supplies only to have a run-in with Frank Keller, a man who had lost both his wife and young daughter to the Indian attack. Frank had beaten Joe out in the street before his older brother could come to his aid. The bereaved man had called Joe a Jonah and blamed the boy for being the sole survivor. During that attack Joe had still been in his catatonic state and had not even protected himself in defense of the assault. Ben worried how his son would react now if he were to encounter that man or anyone else who harbored ill will towards him.

Walking toward the door again, Ben cast a final glance towards his youngest son. So many mixed emotions filled the worried father at that moment. He was content that he had his son back. He thanked God each time he looked at the boy he had given up for dead. Ben hoped that whatever problems or conflicts that might arise for Joe, that they could be handled with the love that all the members of his family had for him. Now that Joe was conscious and aware of their presence, each of the other Cartwrights would do their best to pull him back into the safety he had done without for so long. “Goodnight, Joseph.” Ben whispered and left the room as quietly as he had entered.

***********

Assembled at the large dining room table were all four Cartwrights. It was the first normal breakfast that they had shared together in months. Ben nor his oldest two sons could take their eyes off Joe as he filled his plate and chatted amicably with his family. They were astonished to see how his eyes darted back and forth between each of the other family members as he made polite chit chat. After so many months of being in a catatonic state, Joe acted in all ways like his normal self. It was only when the conversation turned to all the changes that had taken place on the Ponderosa that Joe showed a slight change in his disposition.

“Rail line? When did that happen?” Joe asked confused.

“Sorry, Joe, I kinda forgot—we just completed the contract for the railroad ties. The spur is almost done,” Adam jumped in with the explanation.

“How about we take you up that way today?” Hoss continued.

“I think that would be a good idea—then you can take him up to the timber camp and show him the changes there,” Ben agreed.

“I’ll go get the horses ready,” Joe said and stood from the table.

“Joseph? You hardly ate—why don’t you finish your breakfast first?”

“I’m not really all that hungry, Pa. Excuse me,” Joe answered and turned to leave.

“Let’s try not to push too much on your brother right away, boys,” Ben said concerned for his youngest. “We haven’t even spoken since the session yesterday—I know he has a whole lot on his mind.”

“Don’t worry, Pa.” Adam nodded and reached for his coffee. “We will keep a good watch over him. We won’t keep him out long either.”

**********

Joe pulled the barn door open and walked inside. Cochise sensed his presence and whinnied her pleasure over seeing her master. Moving into the horse’s stall Joe dropped his hand down on Cochise and patted her mane. “I’ve missed you too.” Joe whispered and shared a brief moment with the animal. He knew the horse could all but read his mind, their bond having been formed all the way back to when Cochise was just a colt. “I know they’ve been taking care of you—but I’m back now. Don’t worry.” Joe let go of the animal and reached for the horse’s favorite bridle. “Let’s get you ready—we are going for a little ride, Cooch.” The horse responded to her master’s voice by nodding her head up and down to signal she was more than willing to get out of the barn.

**********

Joe spent a long afternoon with his brothers, with them showing him the many changes, which had occurred over the previous seven months. He listened attentively to all they told him and showed as much enthusiasm as he could muster. Still, every now and then both of the oldest Cartwright brothers would catch a stare off into the distance by their little brother and noticed that the brightness in his eyes seemed to fade as the day wore on. As they headed back to the Ponderosa ranch house, Joe had insisted he needed a little time to himself. Reluctantly Adam and Hoss decided not to push the issue but had asked Joe not to be too long so that their father would not worry. Joe agreed and assured them he would be home before dark.

Ben was not happy at the turn of events. It had been all too clear to his two oldest sons that he was upset that they had let Joe out of their sight. Standing in the living room each son ventured his own opinion in the matter but it was falling on deaf ears.

“Come on, Pa—he wanted to be alone! You really can’t blame him either. Look at all he’s gone through,” Adam continued his argument over the decision he and Hoss had made.

“That’s exactly why I wanted you both to keep your eyes on him!” Ben said exasperated. “We have no idea just what all he’s thinking right now. I haven’t even had the chance to discuss what happened yesterday. Now he’s off somewhere…” Ben trailed off his voice breaking with the worry for Joe’s safety.

“Pa—you got to give him a little space,” Hoss jumped in softly. “I know what you’re thinking. It was only a month ago that we thought Joe was dead—it’s hard on all of us to have him out of our sight. But, he said he needed a little time by himself. Besides—he said he would be home before dark anyway.”

Ben looked back and forth between both of his sons and frowned. He knew he was perhaps being foolish, but he did not care. Yes, he was being overly protective, but after all that Joe had gone through he figured it was needed and justified at the present time. Without saying another word, Ben strode over to the credenza, strapped on his gun, and grabbed his hat and coat. “He can have all the time to himself he wants—once we know he’s okay. Right now I’m going out after him,” Ben muttered and left without waiting for a reply.

“Man—I thought Pa was bad before all this—but he’s even worse now!” Hoss exclaimed shaking his head.

“Well, I guess it’s just as much a case of Pa needing Joe right now as one of Joe needing Pa. Hope Joe understands that when Pa catches up to him.” Adam returned and then sank down in a chair. He grabbed a book off the coffee table and called over to Hoss again, “You might as well take a load off. This is gonna be awhile.”

**********

Joe rode up to the familiar overlook above Lake Tahoe holding in his clenched hand the wild flowers he had taken the time to gather from the lower meadow. Dismounting, he tied Cochise’s reins to a low hanging tree branch and made his way down the path to his mother’s grave. Taking off his hat and holding it to his chest Joe stared at his mother’s headstone and began talking.

“I’m sorry, Mama, looks like I missed your birthday,” Joe whispered and placed the bouquet of flowers on the grave. “I’ve been gone a long time—I never would have missed it—you know that. I hope you like these flowers—looks like the last ones of the season. Before long the meadow will be covered in snow.” Joe stopped as his eyes caught sight of the marker sitting off to the right side of Marie’s grave. He moved closer to it and saw that it bore his own name. A chill ran up his spine as Joe understood for the first time how real his death must have seemed to his family to go through the motions of preparing a grave for him. It was at that moment, as Joe stared at the ominous marker that Ben appeared.

“Joseph…” Ben began and it hit him head on that he had forgotten all about the marker. “I’m sorry, son. I meant to have that taken down.”

Joe stood and walked closer to his father. It was a few moments before he spoke. “Kinda gives me the chills to see it here, Pa. What did you bury?”

Ben took a deep breath and let it out slowly fighting back the pent up reminder of his grief. “We only had a piece of your jacket—that and the lock of your hair,” Ben replied and put his hand on his son’s shoulder for comfort.

Joe closed his eyes and for an instant, he could feel the knife as it sliced through his shoulder and then carved the hank of hair from his head. “I didn’t know…” Joe whispered and shot his eyes back to the marker. “I’m sorry…”

“You have nothing to be sorry for, Joe.”

“What was it like, Pa? What was it like when I was dead?” Joe asked and now stared pleadingly into his father’s eyes for an answer.

“Well…” Ben fought again for words that might somehow convey the way he had mourned the boy standing there in front of him. “Look out there.” Ben pointed to the grand view of Lake Tahoe. “Tell me what you see?”

Joe looked a bit confused but did as requested. “I see the lake—the mountains in the distance—the trees.”

“A beautiful sight isn’t it?” Ben continued.

“Yes—but you are losing me, Pa. I don’t understand.”

“When you were gone—when we believed you to be dead—it was as if you had taken away the lake, the mountains, the trees—and only desolation remained. Nothing but a vast desert—where nothing would ever grow.”

Joe lowered his head seeing only the ground at that point, emotionally affected by his father’s words. Ben could see the impact of his statement on the boy. Could Joe have possibly thought it was otherwise? Surely he knew how much he was loved? Ben was surprised and concerned by his son’s silence. “Mind if I ask you a question?”

Joe glanced back up at Ben and simply nodded his reply.

“Do you remember coming here with me when you were brought back home?”

Joe paced for a minute trying to figure out how he could describe what it had been like for him all the time since the Indian attack. It took awhile but he finally stopped in his tracks and shot a look at his father, which showed one hundred per cent pain. “I don’t know how to tell you about it, Pa. I don’t think I can really describe it—what I remember—and what I can’t.”

“Will you try?” Ben asked softly.

“I remember being here with you—but it was so strange—like there was a large pane of glass that separated us! I couldn’t shout through it—I couldn’t break through it either. Your voice was so far away—and mine wouldn’t come at all. That’s how everything is now—all but the day the Indians attacked the stage.”

“Do you remember being in St. Louis?”

“Yeah—I remember the priest—I even remember Duffy. But it was the exact same with them. Like being trapped in a nightmare, you know? You just keep thinking—if I can just wake up—I’ll be okay. But, I couldn’t wake up.”

Ben walked back over to Joe and held him close for a moment, trying to be the comfort he needed now. Of course part of him needing Joe too, to be able to feel his shoulders and hear his breathing, just to prove his boy was truly there and not some vision. “Yesterday when you were under hypnosis you mentioned remembering your promise to me.”

“Yeah—I remember, Pa. Somehow that was always stuck in my mind—that memory from so long ago. You remember it too, Pa, don’t you? That time I went off with Johnny Miller and you and Adam and Hoss were so scared something had happened to me?” Joe’s eyes sought out his father’s to make sure he understood the memory.

“I remember, Joseph, and you probably won’t believe this—but that memory of you—and the promise that you made that night—haunted me every single day. Somehow there was that connection—still in you—still in me—that brought you back here.”

“I promised you that I would never go away and make you worry—looks like I failed.” Joe pointed over to the marker, which rested next to Marie’s grave.

Ben lifted Joe’s chin so that he could force his gaze into the remorseful hazel eyes. “You did not fail me, Joseph. Whether you fully realize it or not, you started walking that awful day—the day after the attack—and though you were walking away from me you were taking the steps necessary to bring you back.”

Joe nodded his head like he had understood his father’s explanation but his face gave the appearance that he still was trapped inside the memories. Ben knew it would take more than one long conversation to ease his son’s mind. The wind whipped upwards towards the grove of trees where the two men stood. Ben looked towards the lake and then up at the sky. “It’s getting kinda cool out here—” He stopped in mid-sentence when he noticed Joe had no jacket and he could see how the boy’s shoulders were shivering. Whether that was due to the plunging temperatures or due to the images that had been resurrected in his mind, Ben was not sure. Instead of questioning it, Ben pulled off his coat and placed it around Joe’s shoulders. “Let’s go home.” Ben announced and threw his arm around his son as they walked back to the horses.

Adam pulled open the front door as soon as he heard the horses out front. He watched as

Joe walked towards him still wearing his father’s coat. As the two men entered the house Adam shot his father a questioning look and Ben just gave him a subtle nod that things were fine.

“Something smells awfully good,” Ben commented as he and Joe removed their holsters and hung up their hats at the door.

“Hop Sing made another great meal!” Adam announced trying to sound cheerful. He could see that Joe now wore a troubled facial expression. “He said it will be ready in just a couple of minutes—glad you both made it back before he got mad.”

Joe walked over to where Hoss was seated and joined him on the settee. Hoss clapped his brother on the back and smiled. “Glad you’re back, Little Brother. Hey—Adam and I wuz just talking and we came up with a great idea!”

Ben joined all of his sons by the fireplace and sank down in his chair. “What great idea?” Ben asked when Joe did not respond right away.

“How about we throw a party this Saturday? You know—kinda like a welcome home party for Joe?”

“Hop Sing is all for it,” Adam jumped in, still trying to jolt Joe out of his melancholy thoughts.

“I think that is a fine idea! Wish I had thought of it!” Ben announced cheerfully. “What do you say, Joe?”

Joe shot a glance at each of his family members. He could tell they were trying hard to please him. Maybe too hard. “If it’s all the same to you all—I mean it’s not that I don’t appreciate the thought and all…” Joe stammered and then stood. “Could we just wait awhile? I’m not really ready for all the commotion. I’m sorry.”

Hoss and Adam shared a frown and Ben cast a worried look towards his youngest. “Of course, Joseph. You just let us know when you are ready then.”

“Supper ready!” Hop Sing announced proudly standing by the dining room table.

Joe felt the urge to leave the room, he didn’t know why. He just needed some peace at the moment and his appetite had not yet fully returned. “Pa—I’m really not hungry. I’m kinda tired—think I’ll just turn in. Goodnight—Hoss—Adam—goodnight, Pa,” Joe called over to them all and turned for the stairs before there could be a protest.

Once Joe was out of ear-shot Adam stared over at his father. He could tell that Ben’s worried gaze had followed Joe up to his room. “He does look tired. Where did you find him anyway, Pa?”

“He was up to Marie’s grave. By the way—Adam—I think you and I should go back up there tomorrow and get rid of that other plot. The sight of his own marker seemed to upset Joe.”

“I don’t blame him none,” Hoss remarked. “I was kinda hoping to take Joe into town tomorrow. Maybe that would cheer him up? I know you wanted me to go and pay the bill at the mercantile, Pa. You reckon it would be okay to take Joe with me or not?”

“Maybe that’s a good idea, son,” Ben started but then heard Hop Sing clanging a pan. He turned to see the angered cook.

“You eat now—or Hop Sing throw out to chickens,” he called over to them all.

“We’re coming,” Ben answered and the three men walked to the dining room to take their seats.

“Must wait for Little Joe,” Hop Sing insisted.

“Joe is just plumb worn out, Hop Sing,” Ben tried to explain. “He already went on to bed I’m afraid.”

“Boy too thin—Hop Sing worry.”

“Oh—Hop Sing—Joe’s always been thin! He’ll eat his fill tomorrow.” Adam tried to diffuse the cook’s worry over the boy who was a large part of the Oriental’s heart.

“Better eat breakfast!” Hop Sing replied with a threatening tone to his words.

“He will.” Ben nodded and the cook walked away. Ben poured his coffee and glanced over at Hoss who at the time was doing more than his part to make up for Joe’s lack of hunger. “Hoss, stop by Mrs. Collins’ tailor shop tomorrow for me. I ordered something for Joe which should be about ready to be picked up.”

“Sure thing, Pa. I’ll make it our second stop,” Hoss replied and then went back to serious work filling his plate.

“Did you and Joe get to talk while you were up at the lake?” Adam asked his father.

“Some. He still has so much bottled up inside of him. He remembers most things that happened to him these last seven months—but he said it was like one long nightmare. I’m hoping after awhile we can help him. Right now he just seems so sad, so resolute.”

“We’ve just gotta give it time, Pa. Both doctors said that, you remember?”

“Yes—you’re right of course. I just can’t help but worry over him.”

“Heck, Pa—that ain’t nothing new!” Hoss chuckled. “You been worried over that kid for twenty-two years now.”

“I worry about ALL of you, young man!” Ben defended himself loudly. “But you all heard the horrors that Joe lived through. I can imagine how the reality of it is sinking in to him now.”

“Joe is as tough as they come,” Adam insisted. “If anyone can get over a tragedy like this it’s that mule headed kid upstairs.”

Ben smiled at Adam’s statement and at the encouraging message, he was trying to give his father by saying it. “I have every confidence in him too. It’s just the days ahead—well—they aren’t going to be easy for him. I wish I could take it all away.”

“All’s that matters is that we are here for him. Joe knows that, Pa,” Hoss stated and patted his father’s arm to offer his own form of encouragement.

***********

The town of Virginia City was not at her liveliest in the early afternoon, especially on Tuesdays. The miners were all working deep in their tunnels, which honeycombed the town and rarely came up for air any earlier than sundown. Most cowboys and ranch hands were busy working away at the many ranches, which surrounded Storey County and were mostly likely to come into Virginia City on paydays, which were usually Fridays. That left the townsfolk and merchants milling about on the sidewalks and in the streets of the small mountain community.

Hoss dismounted and his little brother followed suit. Securing their horses to the hitching post in front of the mercantile, the two young men stepped up onto the porch. It had been weighing on Hoss Cartwright’s mind all the way from the Ponderosa, the memory of the last time he had brought Joe into town. He would make sure that their paths would not cross anywhere near Frank Keller’s Feed and Grain Store. Hoss was still very angry with the man who had attacked his brother earlier in the month. He remembered all too vividly seeing the man pummeling his brother there on the street in front of the mercantile. Hoss really didn’t care at that point that Mr. Keller was still stuck inside his own grief over losing his wife and child to the Indian attack. He had fought with all of his internal fortitude to not beat the man senseless who had harmed Joe.

Hoss sighed to himself as he opened the door to the store and let Joe pass in front of him. He tried to assure himself that no matter what happened in town now, that things would be a whole lot different. After all, Joe was no longer in the state of mind where he could not respond to an attack. And judging from what his older brother had witnessed in the past, Joe was more than capable of defending himself.

After paying the bill at the mercantile, the two brothers headed down the sidewalk in search of Mrs. Collins’ tailoring shop. Hoss pulled open the door and the bell above the threshold signaled the owner that she had customers. The middle-aged woman approached the two Cartwrights and smiled at them warmly. Joe and Hoss withdrew their hats and nodded over to her.

“Howdy, Ma’am. My pa said you had a package ready for us?” Hoss asked and watched as the woman walked behind the service counter.

“It’s all ready, just let me find it,” she replied and bent down to the drawers in the cabinet below. Retrieving the already wrapped gift, Mrs. Collins placed it on the counter. “I’ll just send Ben the bill. You tell your father it was made exactly as he requested.” And with that the woman handed the package that was sturdily wrapped in brown paper to Hoss. Her eyes then fell on Little Joe. “Why, Joseph! It is so wonderful to see you again. We were all so thrilled to learn of your return. You poor boy—what you must have gone through at the hands of those savages!”

Joe dropped his head down to free himself from her piercing stare. “Thank you, Ma’am,” he answered solemnly and then hoped for a quick retreat from the store so as to not have to answer any of the woman’s questions about his ordeal.

“Isn’t it just awful? I mean—all those poor people—I feel so badly for them! And that dear Mrs. Keller and her little girl Sandra—I was making her a dress for when she was due to return…”

Hoss had to jump into the situation and caught the woman in mid-sentence. “I’m right sorry, Mrs. Collins—but we have so many errands to run for my pa—we really must be going!” Hoss insisted and noticed Joe’s eyes thanking him for the save.

“Oh—yes—I quite understand—well you tell your father I said hello and that I hope he likes the workmanship of his gift,” she called after the two Cartwright brothers as they beat a hasty exit from the store.

Hoss watched his brother’s whole demeanor change after the little scene that Mrs. Collins had caused in her shop. He could tell that Joe was once again trapped in his thoughts about the Indian attack, which had claimed the lives of all but him. Hoss threw his arm over Joe’s shoulder for support.

“I think it’s about time we had us a beer! What do you think, Little Brother?”

“Sure.” Joe’s single word response came without much enthusiasm.

**********

The bar was a bit more crowded than usual as Joe and Hoss walked to the counter and ordered two beers. They stood there for awhile, with Hoss doing his best to make idle chit chat to draw his brother out of his shell and induce a happier mood in the boy. By the time that Sam the bartender drew off the second round of drinks, Hoss could tell that Joe seemed a bit more relaxed and he started to breathe a tad easier. That was when trouble entered the saloon, and trouble’s name was Pete Timmons.

Pete Timmons was only a couple of years older than Joe Cartwright, but he had lived a much harder life and it had aged him beyond those few years. For some reason, which had never been fully explained to Joe, Pete hated his guts. He harbored such ill will towards the wealthy and good-looking Cartwright that it made his stomach churn just to glance over at him now as Sam handed him his beer. How many run-ins had Pete and Joe had over the years? Neither young man would have even known the true count. But, they seemed to get worse and more intense each time their fists met.

Pete worked on one of the ranches that bordered the Ponderosa now. It hadn’t always been so. He had been run out of Virginia City several years ago, only to return and cause more trouble. If it wasn’t for the fact that the Bar S ranch needed a great deal of cowhands, Pete would not even be working there. He had earned himself a bad reputation as a troublemaker but unfortunately was also one of the best wranglers in the area. Pete never had to worry about landing a job if he tired of one particular brand.

Hoss had not missed the swaggering entrance of his brother’s most evil nemesis. He tried to block the view of the man standing now at the end of the bar by using his own body as a wall. Joe didn’t fall for it. He could sense Pete, even though he couldn’t quite see him due to Hoss’ maneuver.

Pete met up with a friend of his, yet another loud mouth and troublemaker named Billy Matthews. He waved Billy over from his table and the man grinned fondly as he made his way over to Pete. If trouble and bad luck had an odor, the smell would be Pete Timmons.

“Lookie here, will you, Billy! If it ain’t Joe Cartwright in the flesh!” Pete stated rather loudly and Sam moved further down the bar worried about gunplay. “Hey, Joe! When did you get back, boy?” Pete hollered over to him and winked at Billy to go along with what he was about to do.

Hoss stared at Joe who would not take his eyes or hands off his beer mug. He simply stood there ignoring the shouts made his way.

Pete drew closer, his own drink in his hand. He sidestepped Hoss and stood on the other side of Joe now, with Billy flanking him. “What’s the matter, Joe? Cat got your tongue? Or maybe I should say chicken got your tongue?” Pete jibed on.

“Get out of here, Timmons—while you’re still standing,” Hoss called out deadly. He was still confounded by his brother’s absence of emotions. Any time before Joe would have already thrown the first punch sending Pete sprawling out onto the street. But, still, Joe did nothing, said nothing as the man neared him.

“I wasn’t talking to Joe’s babysitter—I was talking to Joe. Hey—story is that you’ve got yourself a name change, Joe! I just wanted to know if it’s true? I heard tell your new name is “Jonah”!”

Hoss turned to reach for Pete but his brother’s hand stopped him. “Let it go, Hoss,” Joe pleaded quietly.

“Yeah—that’s right—listen to what old Jonah is saying to you, Hoss! Hey—Jonah—now I hear tell that you hid in the bushes for days just so you wouldn’t get scalped by them Injuns—that you watched as everyone—even that little girl got killed. Now is that right?” Pete continued and Billy burst out laughing at the way his friend was putting the high and mighty Cartwright to shame.

“You’re gonna be minus some teeth, Pete!” Hoss yelled and tried to go for him again. Before he could land the first punch Joe hurried out of the bar. Billy and Pete laughed heartily over the quick exit Joe had made, leaving Hoss standing there alone.

“I ain’t done with you, Timmons,” Hoss spat over towards the man and headed out of the bar to find his brother.

**********

Joe had made it to the hitching post in front of the mercantile a good five minutes before his brother did. He looked up at Hoss as he handed him Chub’s reins.

“What was that all about anyway, Joe? Why’d you let that no good skunk talk to you like that?”

“Let’s just go home, okay?” Joe whispered and swung himself up on Cochise.

Hoss shook his head in disbelief. The boy on the pinto sure enough looked like the quick-tempered brother he had grown up with but apparently, that was where all resemblance to him stopped. Joe had such fierce pride; he would never have subjected himself to the kind of treatment he had endured in the saloon. The brother that Hoss knew and loved would have reduced the Silver Dollar Saloon to rubble before he would have taken the remarks that Pete had thrown his way. Where was that brother now?

***********

The journey back to the ranch house that afternoon was a quiet one. Neither of the two brothers spoke. Joe would cast a fleeting glance over at Hoss now and then and could tell by the big man’s set of his shoulders that he was mad. He could also tell that Hoss was trying as hard as he could not to look over at him. Joe felt nauseous just thinking about what must be going on in his brother’s head at that moment. He had always yearned for Hoss’ respect, and up until that afternoon, Joe had indeed had it.

**********

Joe stared over at Hoss still trying to think of something to say as they unsaddled the two horses inside the barn. Hoss was still doing his best to avoid looking into the sad hazel eyes of his little brother. He knew he didn’t have his emotions in check at the time, and was afraid if he blurted out what he wanted to say that Joe would be crushed.

“Hoss…” Joe started and stopped as his brother turned his back on him and headed for the barn door.

“I can’t talk right now, Joe,” Hoss called back to him and kept moving, now at an even faster pace. His mind and his heart were caught in an emotional tug of war at the time. It was something that no one could straighten out for him, especially not Joe. As much as he loved his little brother, he couldn’t help feeling a bit ashamed of him. He was also mad that Joe had stopped him from going after Pete. It seemed as though it was the least he could have done if he wasn’t going to tackle the man himself.

Joe leaned against the door of the barn and watched the form of his brother as it moved farther and farther away from him. He had a lump in his throat over the coldness, which the big man had shown him in his curt reply. Joe had emulated and adored his big brother ever since he was old enough to toddle after him. There never had been a breech in the love or faith they had in each other, until now.

**********

Hoss did not mean to slam the front door as he entered the house; it was out of pent up hostility that he did it. Ben was quick to jump to his feet and approach Hoss.

“Hoss? What’s the matter? Has something happened to Joe?”

“He’s okay—he’s out in the barn,” Hoss answered quietly and continued his march to the staircase avoiding his father’s eyes this time.

“Hoss—what’s the matter, son?” Ben called across the room at the departing figure heading up the stairs.

“I just gotta be alone for awhile—see you at supper,” Hoss replied and walked up to his room.

Ben had just turned back towards the front door when Joe walked in carrying the package that Hoss had left in his saddlebags. He wore a very unhappy face and now Ben was totally exasperated not knowing what was going on with both of his sons.

“Here’s the package you wanted us to pick up, Pa,” Joe said and handed it to his father.

“Joseph? Hoss came in and sure seemed upset. You want to tell me what went on in town? You boys have any trouble?” Ben forced Joe to look into his eyes as he grabbed the boy’s shoulder.

“It was nothing, Pa. I figure Hoss will tell you about it later. I’m gonna go cut some wood before it gets dark. Looks like a storm’s coming—it’ll probably turn cold tonight,” Joe replied and his eagerness to get back outside was very apparent.

“So, looks like neither of you boys are talking right now—is that it?”

“I really don’t have anything to say. I’m sure Hoss will, though. Now, I better get back out there.” Joe turned for the door and felt his father’s hand stopping him again.

“Just a second—I don’t know what is going on—but I trust you two to tell me real soon. Here,” Ben stated a bit of hurt still in his tone, that along with worry over both of his sons at the present time. Ben handed Joe the package back that he had brought from town.

“I thought this was for you?” Joe asked confused.

“Open it,” Ben insisted. He hoped that at least the gift might lighten Joe’s load for a minute or two.

Joe tore into the brown wrapping paper. It wasn’t long before he was holding a green corduroy jacket in his hands. He closed his eyes to fight back painful memories. All too clear in his mind was the picture of the jacket he had left torn in rags at the stagecoach scene. It was very hard to pretend to be happy, but Joe tried his best to force a smile as he looked up at his father.

“Thanks, Pa. It looks the same as my old one.”

Ben could read the hesitation in Joe’s words and the fake smile on the boy’s face. “I’m sorry, Joe—maybe I should have gotten you something a little different,” Ben apologized, he was afraid he had summoned another part of Joe’s nightmare back into the forefront of his mind.

“No—Pa—really—this is great! You know it’s my favorite color and all.” Joe stopped and pulled the jacket on and looked back at his father. “Fits just fine, Pa—honest—I really am pleased.”

“I’m glad, son.” Ben nodded, still not sure if Joe was just playing the role he thought his father expected him to play.

“Well—it’ll come in handy while I’m out cutting up that wood. It’s getting a bit cold now. I’d better get to it.” Joe reached for the door, pulled it open, and then shot one more glance over at his father. “Thanks—it was real thoughtful of you, Pa.” He whispered and turned out of the house.

Ben stood in the living room full of concern and confusion. He had no clue as to what had sent Hoss up to his room in a bad mood. Hoss was normally the most mild mannered of the three sons, and it took a whole lot to get him that upset. Then, there was Joe and his insistence on cutting wood rather than spilling the story of what had happened between him and his older brother. Shaking his head wearily, Ben vowed he would get to the bottom of the mystery before the night was out.

**********

With an abnormal quiet filling the dining room, Hoss, Joe and Ben took their seats for supper. Waiting for a minute before digging in to the food Hop Sing had provided, Ben listened for the sound of Adam’s boot steps. Hearing the front door open and then close, Adams arrival signaled that they all would be saying grace soon.

“Sorry I’m late,” Adam apologized and took his seat. He bowed his head as his father began to give thanks for their food. When he was finished, the eldest Cartwright son cast a perplexed glance over to his excessively sedate brothers. “What’s wrong? Don’t tell me Virginia City ran out of beer?” he quipped only to have his elbow tugged by Ben to show that there was something serious going on between Joe and Hoss.

The meal continued and it was only the voices of Ben and Adam, which kept the conversation going. Hoss and Joe hardly touched the food on their plates, each troubled in mind and spirit.

“Hey—I noticed your new jacket, Joe, when I came in. It looks like Mrs. Collins did a real fine job of it,” Adam tried again to start up something to involve his brothers.

“Yeah—it’s real fine,” Joe agreed nodding his head slightly.

“Any new gossip in town today, Hoss?” Adam asked staring over at him now.

Hoss finally looked over at Joe and frowned. Joe dropped his head to avoid his gaze. “Naw—nothing.”

***********

When the four Cartwrights were done with their meal, they assembled, as was the usual routine, in the living room. Adam went back to the book he had been reading and Ben pretended to be interested in the newspaper from the day before. His eyes were never totally off his youngest two sons at the time.

“You wanna play some checkers, Hoss?” Joe offered setting the board on top of the coffee table. He had hoped he could break the ice a little and get Hoss to speak to him now.

“Don’t feel like it,” Hoss answered and stood from his position on the settee. He never even looked at Joe as he had addressed his question. His attempt to avoid the boy was all too apparent and it sent a pain through Joe’s heart. “There’s a storm coming up outside—I’m gonna go check on the horses,” Hoss announced and left the house.

Adam could see the sadness that formed in Joe’s eyes and , though he still had no clue as to what his brothers were arguing over, he felt a great deal of compassion for the boy who had been through so much. “Hey—Joe—” Adam reached over from his chair and clapped his brother on the back. “How ‘bout you and I having a game? It’s been so long since I played you just might get lucky and beat me!”

Joe set up the checkers, but his heart wasn’t in it. As much as he appreciated Adam’s kind offer, he wished it was Hoss who had agreed to play instead.

Ben nodded over to Adam, sending the message to him that he appreciated what he was trying to do. Rising from his chair, Ben called over to his two sons. “You both go at that game now—I want to help Hoss.”

Both Adam and Joe knew very well what Ben’s intentions were. He had obviously had enough with waiting for an explanation and was now heading out to force one out of Hoss. They watched as their father left the house and then began their game of checkers.

***********

The wind whipped Ben’s face as he approached the barn. At least one part of Hoss’ lame excuse had been truthful, there was a bad storm brewing. Ben could smell the pungent scent of sulfur in the air and heard the distant rumble of thunder. Making his way into the barn, he saw Hoss standing inside Chub’s stall brushing down the animal.

“Looks like we will have to batten down the hatches tonight, son!” Ben exclaimed and threw a smile over to the big man. He could see that Hoss was so deeply troubled he had not even heard his father’s statement. “Come on, Hoss. Let’s hear it.” Ben stated wearily, pulled up a barrel, and upended it to sit down.

“Did Joe tell you what happened?”

“No—he said there wasn’t anything to tell. Naturally, I can read it all over both of your faces that his statement to me wasn’t truthful. I want to hear it from you.”

Hoss set down the currycomb and pulled over a stool and sat opposite his father. He had misery written all over his face as he began to explain. “Well, nothing really happened until we got to the bar. Well—there was Mrs. Collins who did go on a little about the Indian attack—but I got Joe right out of there and he seemed like he was okay then. We wuz drinking our beers when in walked that polecat Pete Timmons.”

“Timmons—I might have known. Go on.” Ben nodded for Hoss to continue.

“I just don’t rightly know how to explain this to you, Pa. You know Joe—if someone so much as said one nasty word to him before he would have busted up the place! This time—Pete really rode him hard—beyond anything I’ve ever heard him say before.”

“What did he say to your brother?” Ben asked biting his lip in anger.

“He said Joe was a coward—called him a Jonah—just like that idiot Keller did before! He insinuated that Joe went and hid and let the others get killed to protect himself! Pa—it was just downright awful!”

“What did Joseph do about it?”

“Not a damn thing!” Hoss exploded and then apologized quickly. “Sorry, Pa—didn’t mean to cuss—but it just made me so mad!”

“What did you do?”

“Well, when I saw that Joe wasn’t gonna do anything about it, I went for Pete my own self—but Joe begged me not to. Then before I could even throw a punch Joe high-tailed it out of the bar! I had to go follow him to make sure he was okay—leaving Timmons and his pal laughing it up at Joe’s expense.”

Ben drew in a deep breath. Hoss’ revelations had made it all clear to him why he and Joe were now on the outs. Part of it was worry for his brother’s reputation and part of it was surely a matter of honor. “Hoss—listen—I know that what happened was very difficult for you both. I know you’d just as soon have Joe nail Timmons right there in the bar to stop his remarks…”

Hoss cut his father off. “He never would have let him say those things before! It didn’t even seem like my little brother in there. It seemed like some kind of…” Now Hoss stopped in his own statement. It didn’t matter, Ben knew his son enough to know what he was thinking.

“Some kind of coward?” Ben asked softly and noticed how Hoss now hung his head in shame for even thinking it.

“I just want the old Joe back, Pa. I know what you’re gonna tell me—that Joe is still hurting and all but this has got to stop! Not just for the sake of stopping these awful rumors—but for Joe’s own safety. If the kid won’t defend himself then we could have another one of those incidents like what happened with Mr. Keller that day. And, next time one of us might not be there to save him.” Hoss’ deep blue eyes mirrored his concern and fear for the brother he loved so much. Even though he was still peeved at the boy for not standing up for himself, he still cared more about Joe than he did about himself.

“I know,” Ben stated flatly. “I’ll try and have a talk with him about this—when the time is right. I don’t want to go in there now and start in on him. He’s probably already figured out that we are out here talking about him right now. Let me see what I can do, okay?”

“Yes, Sir.” Hoss nodded. He stood back up and felt a whole lot better having gotten the awful story off his chest.

Ben smiled and stood also. He threw his arm around his son’s shoulder and tried his best to reassure him. “Now—how about we get the horses all settled? That storm is heading in—it will be here any minute now.”

“Sure, Pa,” Hoss replied and began securing the animals for what looked as though would be a rather rough night.

***********

Ben and Hoss made it back into the ranch house just in the nick of time. The heavens opened up and what had started as large drops of rain became large pellets of hail. Lightening lit up the sky and the thunder shook the house as the two men walked back towards the fireplace for some much needed warming. Ben stared over at Adam and noticed that he was back to reading his book and that Joe was gone.

“Where’s Joe?” Ben asked.

“We never even finished the first game. He said that he was tired all of a sudden and said he was gonna turn in.” Adam stopped and stared over at Hoss. “So, now will somebody in this house tell me exactly what the hell is going on?”

“Go on—you might just as well, Hoss. You tell Adam and I’ll go get us some coffee. Maybe between the three of us we can come up with some helpful ideas before I talk to Joseph myself,” Ben replied and turned for the kitchen.

***********

As the thunder continued to clap and the rain grew more fierce Ben tossed and turned in his bed. It wasn’t just all of the noise that was keeping him from slumber; it was the dreadful thoughts of what had transpired that day in Virginia City. He had peeked in on Joe before turning in for the night, but the boy appeared to be sleeping so he decided a talk could wait.

Ben stood from his bed and reached for his heavy robe lying on the footboard. There was no use tossing and turning any more. Ben decided that he would read and then may be fortunate enough to nod off. Pulling on his robe, Ben turned and smoothed out his comforter and propped his pillows up against the headboard. He turned up his lamp and settled back with an old favorite of his, A Tale of Two Cities. Ben read the first line and chuckled at the irony of it. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Ben read aloud to himself. How true! Best of times being the fact he had three sons slumbering safely in their rooms at the time. The family in that respect was intact. The worst of times. Yes, it was that too. The family was struggling to somehow renew their relationship with a boy who had gone away and come back so changed. Where was the brilliant smile and the happy go lucky kid who could light up the house with his zest for life? Where were the curls for that matter? Joe’s experiences had marked him. Ben worried that even the love that they were all offering the boy would not be enough to bring him back to the way he had been before his painful ordeal.

Caught in his whirling thoughts and worry over Joe, Ben did not even hear the slight tapping at his bedroom door until it grew a bit louder. “Come in,” Ben called out.

Joe stood in the opened doorway looking far more troubled than he had before. He was in his nightshirt and robe, and of course, old habits were hard to break, he had no slippers covering his feet. “I thought maybe you were still up, Pa—I saw the light from under your door. Can I come in for a minute?”

Ben dropped his book to his lap and grinned over at his son. “Of course you can come in. Get over here and off that cold floor!” Ben insisted and Joe made his way around the bed to sit on the left side of his father. He pushed his way up against the headboard. Ben waited for Joe to speak, but when the wait grew into minutes, he decided to start himself. “I looked in on you awhile ago—I thought you were down for the count.”

“No…” Joe began and shook his head. “I couldn’t sleep.”

“You know, Joseph, I remember when you were just a little guy—storms like these used to send you into my room all the time.” Ben smiled and patted the boy’s shoulder fondly remembering his son’s earlier fears.

“I wish I was still a kid,” Joe admitted and glanced into his father’s eyes and dropped his head back down again. “Back then you used to be able to fix all of my problems. I guess that’s the bad part of growing up.”

“I may not be able to fix your problems, son, but I sure don’t mind you talking about them. We’ve worked problems out in the past just talking things over, remember?”

“You talked to Hoss didn’t you, Pa?” Joe burst out with what had been bothering him all night. He was now worried not only about what Hoss thought about him but also what his father thought about him as well.

“Yes—I spoke with your brother.”

“He thinks I’m a coward, Pa—and now you probably do too.” Joe revealed what was in his heart now and why his chin quivered trying to hold back the tears, which were mounting in his eyes.

Ben reached over and turned his son’s face so that he could address his statement head-on. “First of all, Hoss does not think you are a coward. Secondly, I can’t believe you would even suggest that I would ever think that about you. You have more than proved your bravery to me time and time again over the years!”

“But, now, Pa—what about now? Hoss is mad because I let Timmons say bad things about me! He wanted me to deck him—then he got mad because I didn’t want him to do it either.”

“He’s worried—and the fact of the matter is that so am I—that you are going to get hurt if you don’t start defending yourself. I know you don’t exactly have a clear picture in your head of what happened between you and Frank Keller. But we do! Joseph—you have to understand—we just got you back, after over six months of mourning your death! We can’t stand the thought of anything happening to you now.” Ben’s voice held in it a deep resonance of desperation as he spoke and tried to relay his message clearly.

A bright flash of lightening filled the room with an ominous glow and it was followed by a loud crash of thunder, which only intensified the feelings in the room now.

“I’m just so tired of violence, Pa,” Joe whispered and that was when the tears began to flow from his eyes. “I can’t erase the pictures in my mind—the screams in my head—of everyone being killed.”

“Joseph—answer me truthfully now…” Ben started and pulled his son closer, encasing his slender shoulders with his embrace. “You don’t buy in to what Timmons said do you? You don’t think you are some kind of Jonah do you? Because I can assure you that you aren’t”

“But—they all died—and I lived. If only one of them had made it out of there besides me, Pa! Just one of them.” Joe stopped and ran the sleeve of his robe across his eyes to blot his tears. “And I can’t get Sandra out of my head—she was just a little kid, Pa! Not even ten years old! I told her it would be okay—I lied to her. I would have died in her place, Pa! But,—no—of all people I lived. It doesn’t seem fair.”

Ben thought for a while as he held his son, the tumultuous storm raging in the distance and the other storm raging in his son’s mind mirrored each other. “Joseph—it’s not an uncommon thing—to feel guilty for living when someone else has died. I felt it when Inger died. I blamed myself for such a long time—thinking the arrow that killed her should have been for me. And not only that, but when your own mother died—I felt just the same way. It was me who bought her that mare. Yes, she insisted on it, but it was a free-spirited animal—I should have fought her over it. Instead, I gave it to her—and it threw her.” Ben stopped his explanation as he started to feel the pangs of grief again over two lost loves. He needed to be strong to send his message through to his son. Ben fought back his own tears and continued. “But, Joseph, it is God’s will and not our own. We don’t make all the decisions, unfortunately sometimes we are just thrust in the middle of something that we have no control of. You couldn’t have stopped those Indians from killing those poor folks. The reason that Lone Eagle was there—the reason it was he who found you—well none of that was by your own doing. God wasn’t ready for you. That’s as much as we know right now, we are not mystics—but someday the answer will be revealed to you.” Ben paused again, when he felt Joe sink down a little further into his arms. He could tell that his son was spent emotionally. “A very wise man once told me this, ‘God does not draw in straight lines’.”

“I don’t understand, Pa,” Joe replied.

“Neither did I at the time.” Ben broke into a profound smile thinking back to his own confusion over the strange statement. “But, I have come to understand it, and so will you.”

A long time passed between both father and son with neither of them speaking. Ben could feel his son’s breathing becoming more relaxed as the time went on. He decided that enough was enough for the night. There would be time for more talks, time to further help his son on his journey back to his former self. Right at that moment, Ben felt the one thing Joe needed more than anything else was his father’s shoulder and his offer of unconditional love.

“What should I do about Hoss, Pa?” Joe whispered, his eyes starting to grow heavy and still his mind caught on his brother.

“It will pass. One thing I do know, he loves you very much. So does Adam.” Ben stopped and hugged Joe tightly to him. “So do I—but that goes without saying. Now—I’ve got an idea—I was just starting this book—how about I read you some and maybe we will both fall to sleep?”

Joe closed his eyes to signal his approval and Ben pulled the book up and began, “It was the best of times—it was the worst of times…” Ben’s soothing baritone voice was exactly what Joe needed to drown out the storm raging outside and inside as well.

***********

The ravaging storm of the previous night had left a beautiful new day in its wake. The sun cast it’s rays brightly into the bedroom, and outside the sounds of nature slowly nudged Joe from his peaceful slumber. Still partially enveloped in the blanket of drowsy bliss, Joe struggled to blink his eyes open and summon the strength to challenge the new day.

Reaching instinctively for the shoulder he had turned to during the unyielding tempest in his soul, Joe was surprised that it was no longer there. Slowly he pulled himself upright in the bed, tossing back covers which his father had placed over him before leaving the room. Joe frowned, disappointed that he had not awakened when his father had. As he threw his legs over the side of the bed, Joe spotted the note, which Ben had left on top of the book he had read from the night before.

You were sleeping so soundly that I didn’t have the heart to wake you. I have a meeting at the bank this morning. I won’t be gone long. I hope you were able to sleep in after your long day yesterday. I’ll see you when I get home. Love, Pa. PS. You and I have a whole book to finish reading; we both fell asleep before page two.

Joe smiled in spite of himself. Leave it to his father to try and cheer him! Those few brief moments spent in the compassionate embrace of his father had served its purpose. Joe felt a bit more cleansed in spirit after spending some time with one of the few constants in his life; his pa.

Joe washed, dressed, and ate a hurried breakfast before heading out into the front yard. He remembered Hoss telling him the day before that the two of them were supposed to work on the front corral. Ben had noticed two sections, which had started to rot, and he wanted his two sons to make the repairs.

Walking over to the corral, Joe was confused to see his brother Adam standing next to the gate with hammer in hand. He was using the claw of the hammer to pull out nails in preparation to remove the damaged boards.

Hey—Adam…” Joe started as he moved to stand next to him. “What are you doing? I thought you were going up to the timber camp today and that Hoss and I were supposed to be fixing the corral?”

Adam turned around to face his little brother. “Hoss and I kinda changed chores today. He’s up at the timber camp and I am gonna help you with this.”

Joe looked to the ground, visibly upset over what had quite obviously been a decision that Hoss had made on his own. He preferred going way up into the high country over staying home and making repairs with the brother he was angry with.

“Anything wrong with that, Joe?’ Adam asked when he noticed the boy’s reaction.

“No—nothing wrong with that,” Joe replied and walked off. “I’ll go bring over the boards,” he muttered as he moved towards the barn. It was very apparent to Adam that Joe wished Hoss had forgiven him.

***********

The two brothers worked on the corral for hours, never taking a break. Adam would send a glance or two Joe’s way every now and then. He could tell that Joe was diligently working and keeping pace with his older brother. The sad hazel eyes showed whenever Joe would look over to answer a question Adam asked of him. Frowning, the older brother decided that maybe he should try to have a talk with Joe.

“Let’s take a break, okay? We’ve only got four more boards to replace. Pa will be surprised to see us get this done so soon. I think he expected this chore to last all day. It’s only a little after three now,” Adam said as he looked at his pocket watch and then stuffed it back into his pants pocket.

Joe and his brother walked to the porch, drank some water, and leaned back on the steps. It was several minutes, but finally Joe blurted out what had been on his mind. “I know why Hoss changed with you, Adam. And, I bet you know it too! There aren’t any secrets around this place. You know what went on in town yesterday, but you haven’t said anything about it yet.”

“Well, Joe—you are right of course—no-one in this family has ever been able to keep a secret!” He smiled and put his hand on his brother’s shoulder to try and lighten his mood and give Joe the signal that he wasn’t angry with him. “Things will straighten out—I’m not all that worried about it.”

“So, you don’t think I’m a coward because I didn’t knock the hell out of Pete?”

“No—I don’t. But, I don’t think Hoss or Pa do either. They are just worried about you.”

“Me or the Cartwright reputation?” Joe forced his gaze on his brother demanding a truthful answer to his question.

“They are one in the same, aren’t they? I mean you are a Cartwright, and you represent this family just the same as the rest of us. Hoss wanted to defend you, since you didn’t want to do it yourself. But, you wouldn’t let him. That upset him pretty bad. You know we are all concerned about you getting hurt—hurt in anyway.”

“You know what I think is funny?” Joe gave an ironic laugh and continued, “I mean all the years—all the years you all told me to watch my quick temper—and now it’s like you want me to fight. I wish you would all make your minds up.”

“Now, Joe, this isn’t the same as when you were just a kid and were eager to jump on anyone who even looked sideways at you! From what Hoss told us, you had every right to deck him—and deck him good.”

“Oh? And what would that do, Adam? There’s a lot of folks who probably think I am a Jonah—you think I should go and punch them all out?”

Adam grabbed Joe’s hand for effect and to shake his brother from his sarcastic musings. “If they say the things that Pete said to you—then the answer is yes! Most folks would take your complacency to be an admission of guilt. And that’s not right, Joe! You have nothing to feel guilty for! You survived, the others died; it was just the way of it.”

“Let’s get the corral finished,” Joe whispered standing from his place on the porch. He had heard his big brother’s explanation of the turn of events, but did not feel quite the same way in his own mind or heart.

**********

During the next long two weeks, Joe kept mainly to himself despite his father’s attempts to pull him back into the arms of his family. Hoss had softened to some degree and had stopped in his attempts to avoid his baby brother. That eased Joe’s mind and heart some, but there was always the slight show of disappointment in the eyes of his family members whenever the incident in town was mentioned. The ranch was very busy during this time, securing the Ponderosa for the upcoming winter, moving the herd to safe winter grass and all the other varied chores it took to run such a big spread. Each son had his own separate responsibilities, as did their father and there were times when they would get their signals crossed. One such time was when Joe realized that no one had remembered to go to the bank to pick up the payroll and took it upon himself to go there and take care of it himself. He left word with one of the hired hands as to where he was going and left for Virginia City.

Joe decided that he would simply go to the bank, collect the money, and return home. Unlike times in the past when he had mixed business with pleasure, this time Joe did not venture over to the Silver Dollar and into harm’s way. He was never really sure who he would find inside the bar, be it friend or foe, so he decided it was unwise to take any unnecessary chances.

As Joe turned off C Street and stepped down off of the wooden sidewalk, someone jumped out from the alleyway and before he knew it he was slung up against the brick wall of the feed and grain store.

“I’ve been waiting for you for weeks, Jonah! Let’s see what you’ve got!”

“Oh. Pete? What, you taking up robbery now?” Joe spat back still holding the payroll money in his right hand.

“I don’t want your damn money! I want you!” Pete yelled out and from the blackness of the alleyway came another figure. It was Pete’s friend Billy again.

Joe tried to turn back to the safety of the street but the two men pushed him back and this time Pete’s right fist connected with Joe’s cheek drawing first blood. Joe reeled from the punch and moved back up against the wall.

“I’m not fighting you, Pete,” Joe said, his breathing hard trying to contain his pent up hatred for the man standing in front of him. He looked over at Billy now. “You want to get in trouble with your pal, Billy? If not, then get out of here while you can.”

“I ain’t throwing no punches, Jonah—I am just hanging around for the show.” Billy laughed and leaned back on the other wall opposite Joe.

“What you gonna do, Jonah? Run home to your daddy crying? Or maybe you are gonna send that big ox back here to defend you?”

“I don’t want to fight. Now let me go.”

“You ain’t got no choice. There’s no place to hide here—no bushes to duck into, Jonah!” Pete laughed and grabbed Joe by his jacket sending him sprawling onto the dusty ground. “I’m gonna keep on you, Jonah, until you start fighting me!”

Joe closed his eyes and tried to ready his body for the blows that were about to be sent. First a punch, then a kick, followed by a series of more punches, Pete dealt out his best. Joe rolled on the dirt trying to avoid the kicks to his ribs, but to no avail. He had no idea how long it had been, but it seemed like hours before he heard the shout.

“What’s going on here?” came a voice at the end of the alleyway. Through hazed thoughts and bloody vision, Joe recognized the sound of Roy Coffee’s voice and he sent up a prayer of thanks as the man made it closer to him.

Pete and Billy disappeared leaving just their victim lying there in the alley. Roy kneeled next to his best friend’s son and cradled the boy’s head in his lap. “Who was it, Little Joe? I didn’t get a good look before they skedaddled!”

Joe tried to pull himself up, leaning heavily on the sheriff for support. “Don’t know, Roy,” Joe whispered, biting back pain. “Guess they were after this payroll,” Joe said reaching for the bag that had fallen onto the ground next to the fight scene.

“Can you make it, boy? Want me to get you over to Doc’s?” he asked worried. Joe looked awful. He had blood coming out of his nose and trickling down from his lip as well. Joe tried to stand upright, but his ribs hurt so bad he had to catch his breath to be able to tolerate the pain of it.

“If you can just kinda help me to Cochise, Roy? I can ride; I’m just bruised up a bit.”

“You sure? Sure you don’t need Doc? Anything happen to you—your pa will have my hide you know!”

“Just get me to my horse, okay?”

“Sure, Joe—sure,” Roy answered sympathetically.

***********

Ben had fussed and complained for what seemed like hours. Hoss and Adam had received their brother’s message from Cliff and when they told their father where Joe was he was angrier than they had seen him in a long while. As he stood over by the credenza strapping on his holster, Ben still was fuming, cussing under his breath over his youngest son’s stupidity. He had a deep gut feeling that something had happened to Joe and the only thing he knew to do about the premonition was to venture into Virginia City himself and drag the boy back by his ears.

Pulling the door open, Ben realized he was far too late to protect his boy. Joe fell as he dismounted in the front yard. Calling back to his other two sons for help, Ben charged out to aid his fallen son.

“Joseph? Can you hear me?” Ben whispered as he wiped the grime from the side of the boy’s face.

“Yeah—Pa—just help me up will you?” Joe mumbled, still thinking he had some residual strength left in him to power him into the ranch house.

“Help you up!” Ben boomed angry and frustrated at the sight in front of him. Not wanting or needing an argument at that point, Ben reached down, pulled Joe into his arms and carried him past the worried faces of his two brothers and marched up the long staircase.

***********

Ben settled Joe into his bed and went about assessing the situation before him. “Hoss! Go get Hop Sing to bring up some ointment and some hot water and soap. Adam, go bring up some brandy.” Ben barked his orders as he began pulling Joe’s boots off and trying to free him of his clothes to view his injuries.

“I’m okay—really…” Joe protested as his father tugged and pulled and had him stripped down to just his trousers now.

“Be quiet!” Ben demanded as he continued his work. He lifted Joe’s chin up and took a good long look at his boy’s battered face. “Where’s Hoss with that water!” Ben called out frustrated as he cast a glance out towards the hallway.

“Just have some bruises, that’s all, Pa,” Joe persisted until he felt Ben’s rough hand on his shoulder and noticed the stern look shooting from his brown eyes.

Ben pressed lightly around his son’s chest inspecting the rib cage, which had taken quite a few boot kicks to it. The whole area had already started to turn black and blue, but Ben was much more worried about what he could not see under the skin. He prayed the boy’s ribs had held up against the assault.

“Here, Pa. Hop Sing had this water on the stove already. He’ll bring up some more too if we need it.” Hoss said and handed his father the pan of water, soap and towels.

“Let’s wash some of this grime off so we can see what’s under it,” Ben commented more to himself than his sons. Joe flinched as Ben washed away the blood from his nose and his mouth and held the lamp up for further inspection. “You’ll be lucky if you don’t have a broken nose, Joseph,” Ben said turning to rinse the cloth out once more.

“Here, Pa. Looks to me like you need this more than Joe, though.” Adam quipped addressing the distress showing on his father’s face as he handed Ben the glass of brandy.

Ben helped to raise Joe’s head and the boy took several sips of the liquor before holding up his hand to wave it away. It was at that moment that Ben caught sight of Joe’s left hand. Ben felt as though he had been hit in the face himself now. The knuckles of his son’s dominant hand were unscathed, totally devoid of scuffs. He knew his youngest son, having doctored him so many times in the past. If Joe had put up any show of defense, those knuckles would have been so skinned and bloodied that they would have required a bandage. Here they were, right in front of his father’s nose, totally undamaged. Ben knew all too well now, what had happened and it made his blood go cold. It took every piece of will power not to address the subject right then and there, but Ben somehow held out. He had some serious doctoring to accomplish and it wasn’t time to talk yet.

“Who done this to you, Little Brother?” Hoss called from the end of the bed. “Was it Timmons?”

Joe closed his eyes so they could not read the lie he was about to convey. “I don’t know who it was—it was too dark in the alley. A couple of guys jumped me. Roy got there before they could take the payroll—that must have been what they were after.”

“You don’t have any clue as to who it was?” Adam jumped in, not buying his brother’s story.

Ben shot a hard look at both Adam and Hoss. He didn’t need their questions right then. In fact he had every intention of getting to the bottom of the situation, but not until Joe was patched up. He felt it was futile to have the two oldest sons standing there firing off questions which obviously Joe was not going to answer truthfully.

“Hoss—Adam—please go on downstairs. I have it under control now. I’ll speak to you both when I am done up here.”

“But, Pa…” Hoss began but caught the glare that was now in his father’s expression and decided not to push him any farther. He could see that Ben was not very happy at all, and at that moment discretion was the better part of valor. Hoss grabbed Adam’s elbow and gave him his own little signal that they needed to do as they had been told. Their father was not playing.

**********

Joe may have been feeling a little better physically by the time his father had thoroughly doctored his wounds, but mentally he was in great pain. He could also tell that Ben’s demeanor had changed. He could read it in the way his father held his shoulders so rigid and stiff. He could see it in the tightness around the man’s lips. Moreover, he could tell it in the way his father no longer spoke to him. Once his brothers had left the room, Ben had only spoken enough to tell his son what he wanted him to do, whether that was to move to one side or breathe in as he secured the bandage around his chest. The gentle and loving manner used in the past had become less emotional now, seeming uncharacteristically mechanical. Whereas Ben had always whispered words of encouragement and love during such times, his silence was now deafening. The absence of all these things hurt Joe far worse than anything that Pete Timmons had done to him.

“Finish this,” Ben commanded as he handed Joe the remainder of his brandy. Joe did as instructed and handed the glass back to him. Ben set all of the items he had used to treat his son on the tray Hoss had brought up with him. He stood next to the nightstand, his back turned toward his son. Ben could feel the surge of anger coming up from the pit of his stomach. He could no longer fight it. Yes, he was angered at whoever had beaten his boy! They would have to deal with the wrath of the other three Cartwrights that was for certain. But, no matter how mad he was at the person or persons who had reduced Joe to a mass of bruises and cuts, he was equally mad at the boy lying there in the bed. The thought that his youngest son, the son he had taught to fight, the son he had taught to defend himself, had not even tried to fend off his attackers sent Ben’s blood boiling.

“Pa?” Joe called to him weakly. He was acting awfully strange, the boy thought. Where was the sympathy and comforting? His father was his chief support and would never turn away from him when he had been injured. Joe could not comprehend what was going through his father’s mind at the moment, and why he had turned his back on him. “What’s wrong, Pa?” Joe continued when he got no reply.

“What’s wrong!” Ben shouted. It was a losing battle to contain the many emotions, which were only now fighting their way out of the worried father’s heart. “This! This is what’s wrong!” Ben reached across the bed and grabbed up Joe’s left hand. He took it into his own hand and held it in front of his son’s face so he could understand the meaning of his maneuver.

Joe closed his eyes hoping to contain the tears, but they found their way out just the same. He knew that the truth had been found out. His father, the most important person in his whole life, was yelling at him demanding to know what was going on. The harshness of the man’s actions sent a stabbing pain through his son’s heart. Ben had never in his life been this rough with his son, especially not when he was injured.

“I’m sorry if I made you cry—but this is too important to play around with and you know it!” Ben made a half-apology, his voice still raised in anger and frustration. “You didn’t even defend yourself did you, Joseph?”

Joe could not speak, he could not lie. He simply shook his head to announce his reply.

“Damn it!” Ben shouted again and then that part of him, the softer side that had been both father and mother to the boy, shook him from his tirade. There Joe lay, battered, bloodied, and crying. Regardless of what he may or may not have done, the boy did not need to hear these things that night. He needed rest. “We’ll discuss this tomorrow, Joseph.” Ben bit back his ire and pulled the blanket up over Joe’s shoulders. “Go to sleep,” Ben said and walked toward the bedroom door.

“Pa?” Joe called over, still in tears.

“What?” Ben asked pausing at the door.

“Please—please don’t be mad at me—I can’t sleep when you are mad at me,” Joe begged.

Ben’s eyes closed as hurtful tears gathered in them, stinging him and jolting him back to the memory of a little boy who had said those very words to him. He could still see the ten-year-old Little Joe standing in the living room, tears falling from his eyes as he spoke.

“I can’t sleep; it scares me when you are mad at me.” Joe looked sadly into his father’s eyes now and brought his own point home.

Ben frowned and tried to read the boy’s face. Joseph did have a way of playing him at times, and he wanted to be sure that the boy wasn’t just trying to get off the hook with his sad eyes. “Scares you? Why?” Ben asked confused at what the boy had said.

“‘Cause it makes me think you don’t love me anymore.”

That did it! Ben was now putty in the little boy’s tiny hands. Here he was standing before him, looking like half street urchin and half angel. Ben could not take the tears any longer, and had decided that at least “this” time, Joe was telling the truth.

“Just because I am angry with you does not mean I don’t love you. You need to remember that, Joseph.      

Ben shook himself from the memory of his little boy to face his twenty-two year old son laying across the room in the bed pleading for his understanding, begging him not to be mad at him. Ben shook his head and sighed. He could not let his guard totally down, the situation was much too serious to dismiss. He couldn’t go over to him to soothe and hug the boy closely and forgive him. If Joe continued in this fashion he might surely be killed the next time. No, he couldn’t cave, not this time, not till his point was understood. Ben simply stared over at the young man and said what he had said some twelve years earlier.

“Just because I am angry with you does not mean I don’t love you. We will talk about this in the morning.” Ben turned for the door, leaving his son feeling as though his last piece of security had been stolen from him. If he no longer had his father’s respect or understanding, Joe was truly alone in the world. He yearned to have the strong and protective arms of his father around him, but Joe could hear the boot steps as they walked down the hall and away from him. Leaning back in his bed and fighting again the tears, pain and humiliation of his situation, Joe fell into a troubled sleep.

***********

“What’s going on?” Adam called to his father as he made it to the bottom step coming down from Joe’s room.

“What’s going on?” Ben boomed and stormed across to his desk. “Joseph is lying, that’s what’s going on!” Opening his brandy decanter, Ben poured himself a hefty shot of the liquor and tossed it down.

Hoss and Adam shared a glance, neither of them speaking at that moment. They both knew that their father had a very long fuse, but what was at the end of that fuse was an explosion which could have rocked the whole state of Nevada. The two brothers stood in the living room and bided their time, sure that Ben would explain once he cooled down a bit.

Two shots of brandy later, along with several deep breaths calmed Ben down enough that he could return to his chair by the fireplace. He sank down into the leather cushion, still shaking his head in disbelief. There was just no figuring out Joseph, at least not since he had returned home weeks ago. Adam and Hoss took it to be a sign that they should be seated, and settled down on the settee still waiting for their father to begin the discussion.

“He didn’t even fight back—never defended himself!” Ben finally burst out discouraged.

“That don’t surprise me none, Pa—not after what I saw him take in that saloon a couple of weeks ago,” Hoss admitted frowning at the thought of his run in with Pete Timmons.

“Hoss and I checked Joe’s saddle bags; all the payroll was there intact,” Adam offered.

“That whole excuse of an attempted robbery was an out-and-out lie. No robber takes that much time beating up someone. They either shoot or knock someone over the head. To take the time to do as much damage as Joe has had done to him, it had to be an assault, a purposeful assault,” Ben replied.

“Why? Why is he lying about this? And is he still telling you he doesn’t know who it was?” Adam asked before Hoss had the chance.

“Of course he knows who did this!” Ben snapped back and then felt bad to be taking his aggression out on his older sons. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to go off on you boys.”

“We understand, Pa,” Adam paused and then thought for a moment. “You think we ought to go into town and have us a little talk with Timmons?”

“No! Not just yet anyway. We don’t want to go off half-cocked and blame the wrong person. For all we know it could have been Frank Keller again—or even someone else for that matter. I am going to have one more talk with your brother before we do anything.” Ben sighed and rested his head on his hands wearily. All the events were weighing on the distraught father’s mind now. He was worried about Joe, so intensely worried that his boy could not possibly survive another attack such as the one he had endured that day. Ben also felt torn in his soul. He had to fight his desire to go back up the stairs and whisper his forgiveness and understanding to the battered boy. He couldn’t do that. That was the toughest thing about being a father, to not cave in to the desires of the heart. If he did that, and gathered Joe into his arms now and consoled him, it might make the future far worse. He had to shake the boy from whatever was keeping him from fighting back. Ben knew there was no way possible, in the tough country that was their home, that Joe would not encounter other situations like the one he had found himself to be in that day in Virginia City. And, Ben knew the three of the other Cartwrights would never be able to protect him at all times, even though they wanted to do just that.

“Pa?” Hoss called trying to shake his father from his sudden trance.

“Yes, son?” Ben looked back up.

“What are you gonna say to Joe?”

Ben shrugged his shoulders helplessly, he didn’t have a clue. “I don’t know—I have to either get him to open up to me or shake it out of him. I know that part of this is his guilt over being the sole survivor of that attack. We spoke about just that a couple of weeks ago. I thought I had him convinced to some degree back then—evidently I was grossly wrong.”

“It don’t help none with folks calling him names like ‘Jonah’,” Hoss replied, remembering both Timmons and Frank Keller’s comments made to Joe at two separate times.

“No —no it doesn’t at all.” Ben nodded.

“Anything you want us to do?” Adam asked.

“Let me think on it, Adam. Right now I have to figure out how to handle all this.”

“Sounded to us from down here that you were kinda loud with him a little while ago,” Adam remarked and stared into his father’s eyes questioning his actions.

“I didn’t have any choice. Once I noticed that his fists showed no sign that they had been used—well—I guess I blew up at him.”

“I’m feeling awful sorry for Joe right now,” Hoss added thinking of what his father’s ire had cost Joe.

“Me too,” Adam agreed.

“Don’t make me feel any worse than I already do will you, boys? You think I wanted to say the things I did? Any other time in his life, I would still be up there—sitting at his side, helping him through his pain. Tonight I just can’t do it. I just can’t. Not because I’m mad, but for Joe’s sake. I think it’s hurting me worse than Joseph to tell you the truth,” Ben admitted sadly.

“Maybe you’ll get through to him, Pa. Try not to worry,” Adam said and walked over to his father and put his hand on his father’s shoulder in a show of support and comfort.

“I sure hope so,” Ben sighed.

***********

Joe painstakingly made it down the long staircase the next morning, still holding his ribs in an attempt to hold cushion the jarring jolts sent through his body as he took one step at a time slowly moving into the living room. Casting a look towards the dining room, he noticed only his father was seated there. Joe had hoped that he wouldn’t have to face Ben alone this time. Even though he knew that surely his brothers also were angry with him, he still would have welcomed the sight of them to keep him from facing his father’s wrath alone.

Sitting down gingerly, Joe called over a solemn good morning to his father.

“You look awful,” Ben commented and passed his son down a cup of coffee.

“I’m okay,” Joe replied and fought back any appearance of pain to not show the lie in his statement.

Ben took a good long look at the boy sitting next to him now. Joe’s nose was swollen and he had two black eyes, which made him look that much worse. There were several cuts on the boy’s face, including a fair gash to the corner of his mouth. Joe looked as though he had run head on into a brick wall. And that was not even mentioning the bruised ribs that were securely bound to prevent further damage to them.

Joe partially filled his plate and ate slowly, attempting to chew with the one good side of his mouth. The salt that Hop Sing had seasoned the scrambled eggs with stung as they passed through the swollen lips. Joe sipped his coffee trying his best to rinse the stinging away. He could feel his father’s piercing stare with each move that he made. He tried his best to stifle his groans as he tried to get more comfortable in the hard wooden chair.

“When you are done, Joseph, I want to see you in my study,” Ben said sternly, biting back his own pain at seeing his son in so much obvious discomfort. He didn’t even think the boy should have attempted to come down the stairs in his condition, but was not going to argue that point. There were far more pressing matters to discuss now.

“Yes, Sir,” Joe muttered and watched as his father stood and crossed the room.

***********

Joe dragged out eating his breakfast as long as he possibly could that morning. He knew what was coming and he was dreading it. The appearance was still on his father’s face, the same one that he had seen on it the night before. Joe felt so bad physically at the time, he wasn’t even sure if he could hold up during the lecture he was surely soon to be hearing. Making his way apprehensively to the study, Joe slowly took a seat next to Ben’s desk and waited.

Ben stared over at his youngest son. He loved that boy so much, it was almost impossible to gather his thoughts on what he was going to say to him. If he felt that he could wait to confront Joe he would have. Ben wished he could just help the boy up to his room, get him more comfortable, and tell him not to worry about anything. That would prove to be the worst thing he could do in the long run. So, with all this in mind, Ben started in on Joe. He made his way over to the end of his desk and leaned up against it, now towering over the boy in the chair.

“Before we get into all this, would you be more comfortable over on the settee?”

Joe dropped his head down and looked at the floor. Not only didn’t he want to move, but he didn’t want the lecture either. Shaking his head Joe replied, “I’m fine here.”

“Okay.” Ben paused and folded his arms across his chest, in a subliminal attempt to keep his heart in his chest before jumping on his son’s case. “Joseph, as far as we knew, seven months ago you had died. Do you have even the slightest clue as to what that did to all of us?”

“Pa—that wasn’t my fault,” Joe protested.

“Nothing was your fault—but that isn’t exactly what I am getting at right now. I just want you to fully understand what the idea of your death did to the ones you left behind. It totally devastated your brothers—and I have already told you what it did to me!”

“But…” Joe started and his father cut him right off.

“No—no buts—you just listen. I’ll let you know when I want you to say something,” Ben said tersely. Joe shifted his body in the chair, visibly upset by his father’s attitude. “And then—well we find out you are alive! We rejoiced—there was no describing how this house came to life after having mourned for so long! We got you back, fortunately we found a doctor to help you. And now—after all of the strain of these last seven plus months—you decide that you are going to let yourself get killed! You want to tell me why? You want to try to explain it to me so that I will understand why you want to throw your life away?”

Joe said nothing; he just looked away, fighting tears.

“Well? You going to tell me or don’t you even know? Come on—you can talk now!”

“I don’t have anything to say,” Joe muttered his response.

Ben reached down and pulled Joe’s chin up. There was an abruptness of the gesture, which by no means conveyed tenderness. “Oh you have to say something! First of all, I want to know who did this to you,”   Ben demanded this time.

“I don’t know,” Joe repeated himself, tears still welling up in his eyes.

“Oh? I see—you think that I am a fool? Can you really sit there and lie to me that easily? And do you think after over twenty years that I can’t tell when you are telling the truth or lying?”

“What do you want from me, Pa? I can’t answer your question.”

“Can’t or won’t? Are you trying to protect the animal who beat you this way? Why? Because deep down you think you deserve it? Because you lived and five others were killed?”

Joe sat in hushed silence as tears coursed down his battered cheeks. He looked into the eyes of the man who was his whole world and saw disappointment and anger. Joe had no clue as to how hard it was for Ben to maintain his calculated aplomb. Joe thought he saw a face in front of him totally devoid of love, when, in fact, it had taken a whole body full of love for Ben to maintain his aloof demeanor.

“I’m sorry—sorry I’ve dishonored you—dishonored this whole family,” Joe finally sobbed his response. He pushed back his tears and Ben looked away. He had to. Ben found the sight of Joe to be breaking his already wounded heart. This was tougher than he had ever even thought it would be, and it was far from over.

“Then do something about it! And you can start right now by telling me who did this to you!” Ben turned back towards Joe.

“I can’t. I don’t want any more trouble. I don’t want to fight anymore.”

Ben groaned loudly, he was getting nowhere fast. It didn’t appear as though he had even made a dent in Joe’s attitude. He decided he needed to go for some shock value now.

“Then tell me why!” Ben shouted and reached for his son’s two hands, pulling them towards him roughly. “Tell me why you won’t even use these to defend yourself?”

Joe grimaced in pain; the sudden movement by his father had sent a jolt to his bruised rib cage. “You hurt me,” Joe whispered, fear showing in his glazed eyes.

Ben had not intended to cause his son any physical pain with his actions. When it dawned on him that he had hurt the boy, he felt a stab of pain in his own chest.

Falling down to his knees in front of his son, and still holding the boy’s wrists tightly in his hands, Ben fought for strength. “Joseph…” Ben started, this time with desperation in his tone of voice. “That’s what I’m trying to prevent—can’t you see it? I don’t want to see you hurt again! I don’t want to lose you again! Now—I am asking you for the last time—tell me who did this to you? If you don’t want to see justice done that’s your right, but you are not going to prevent me from seeing the person punished for what he did to my son!”

“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe sobbed, still in the grip of his father, but unable to let go of the truth.

Ben knelt there for a long while, part of him wanting to pull his son into his protective embrace and beg him to forgive him for the hurt he had caused by his own actions. But, the part that had to protect the boy for a lot longer time than just a moment’s embrace fought for control. It was that part of him that allowed Ben to let go of the boy’s wrists and stand again.

Joe covered his face in his hands, still crying. He hated what he had done by refusing his father’s requests for an answer. More so he hated the fact that his father seemed so cold and distant. All Joe wanted was his pa to forgive him and tell him he was still loved.

Ben walked back to his desk and sank down into the chair. He wished at that moment that he had something a whole lot stronger than brandy in the house. Frowning at his own inability to break his son’s silence, Ben shot a stern unyielding look towards the boy and cleared his throat loudly.

“If this is the way you want it, Joseph—if you have no intention of telling me the truth of the matter then so be it! Drastic times call for drastic measures.”

Joe looked up and wondered what his father was going to do now.

“You are not to go anywhere ever again without one of us with you. Damned if we are going to see you hurt again! If you are hell bent on getting yourself killed then we will have to do all we can to prevent it! Other than the front yard, you will have constant bodyguards. Do I make myself clear?”

“Pa—please…” Joe began his plea but it was cut short again.

“Do I make myself clear, Joseph?” Ben shouted and stood up to bring home his point and to prevent an argument over his decision.

“Yes, Sir,” Joe whispered turning his face away.

“Now go to your room—you’re in no shape to do any work anyway. You might just as well get some rest.”

Joe slowly pulled himself up from the chair, aching with the movement. His father’s eyes were never off him as he grabbed his rib cage again and painfully crossed the living room and ascended the stairs.

As soon as Ben was sure that his youngest son was once again upstairs in his room, he sat back down at his desk. Covering his eyes with his hands, Ben wept over what he had just done.

**********

When Ben Cartwright made up his mind about something it was set in granite. And he had more than made up his mind about what he would do about his son’s worrisome decision not to fight nor defend himself against any and all attackers. Hoss and Adam were later informed that they would be keeping a watchful eye on their brother at all times. So, with the three oldest members of his family in solid agreement over the plan of action there was nothing that Joe could do but go along with it.

Joe’s injuries healed quickly and within ten days he was once again back at work. Ben made sure that his youngest son’s assignments were not too strenuous to make sure he wouldn’t end up re-injuring his ribs. Most of his chores for the first week back in active duty were largely around the house. Normally despising the various barn chores along with all the little things like cutting fire wood and straightening up the tool shed, Joe did not complain when given those tasks now.

When it came time to venture from the close surroundings of the ranch house, Ben made sure that each of his other two sons would keep their guard up and protect their younger brother. After several days of riding herd on Joe, both Adam and Hoss were getting use to watching his every movement. Though it usually wasn’t a hard thing to do, keeping up with Joe. He stuck close by no matter where the brothers were working. It amazed both Hoss and Adam, that the formerly independent younger brother did not protest their continuing watch over him.

After dinner, close to three weeks after Joe’s run-in with Pete Timmons, the three oldest Cartwrights were assembled in the living room, Joe having turned in for the evening.

“Pa, you are just gonna have to find him something to do around here tomorrow!” Adam exclaimed, a bit frustrated over his role of babysitter. “I’ve got to finish securing the cattle, half of the herd stampeded yesterday and it’s gonna take the better part of the day to gather them down at south shore. And, I am going to need Hoss with me. That’s one job where we can’t be looking over our shoulders and watching the kid.”

“Adam’s right there, Pa. It’s been rough sometimes to keep a sharp eye out for trouble and do our chores,” Hoss entered in on the conversation.

“I thought that Joseph would have protested my assigning him to ride with you boys a long time ago. I have a hard time understanding where I went wrong with this little plan. I was sure he would have rebelled against it by now,”   Ben confessed shaking his head annoyed.

“Well, it looks to me as though we will be babysitting the boy for the rest of our lives!” Adam replied with a strong note of sarcasm in his statement.

It was right after Adam’s words were spoken that the three men heard a noise over towards the staircase and were embarrassed to see Joe standing there. He had listened to the whole conversation, unbeknownst to his family.

“Joseph…” Ben started and then shot a look over to his other sons hoping for some kind of a bailout of the situation.

Joe walked down the last few steps and glared at the three men. There was both hurt and a bit of anger in his woeful stare. He continued over to the door and began to strap on his holster.

Ben and his other sons saw what was happening and they all stood up wondering what the boy was up to now.

“Where are you going?” Ben called over to Joe.

Joe continued his process of securing his gun belt and ignored his father’s question. Ben hurriedly walked over to his son and took him by the elbow forcing him to look over at him.

“I asked you where you were going, Joseph.”

Joe bit back his mounting anger and then shot another glance towards his brothers. “Oh—you all don’t have to worry! You don’t have to babysit me tonight!” Joe said hotly.

“Joseph, answer me!” Ben demanded.

“Where am I going?” Joe laughed in a sarcastic way. “I thought I’d go into town, Pa. Yeah—I thought I’d go there and kill me nine or ten folks to start with! That is what you all want isn’t it?”

“Joseph!” Ben shouted but it served no purpose. Joe broke from his father’s hold and opened the door, slamming it loudly as he walked outside.

Adam and Hoss moved next to their father who was still standing by the door in total disbelief.

“Well…” Adam sighed and put his hand on his father’s shoulder. “It looks like he’s got back some of that awful temper of his. That’s a start.”

“Yeah—well wonder where he’s off to for real?” Hoss asked.

“We can’t let him leave like this—he’s upset! He overheard what we said about him,” Ben insisted, pulled the door open, and ran out towards the barn.

***********

Joe had just finished saddling Cochise by the time his father entered the barn.

“Leave me alone will you, Pa?” Joe whispered just loud enough for Ben to hear.

“No, I won’t! Now you know the rules—I don’t have to tell you again, do I? You are not to leave here without one of us with you.”

“I think your form of punishment has gone on long enough, don’t you?” Joe answered bitterly. He never had let go of the way his father had treated him after he had been beaten by Pete Timmons. Joe could not get it out of his mind nor his heart how coldly his pa had treated him. When he needed comfort and sympathy he had gotten only harshness from the man. The whole idea of it, and the way Ben had hurt him to the very core made Joe grow more bitter each day. The cherished closeness that he had shared with his father had been replaced by a wall between them both. Joe had even stopped hoping for the offer of his father’s shoulder now. He felt that he was a big disappointment to his whole family, and it ate at his guts every day. Where was he going? Why hadn’t he answered his father’s question? The reason was because even Joe himself had no clue as to his destination. If he could go anywhere, it would have been to go back eight months in his life. To go back to a time when his father doted over him and was always there to make him feel better about himself, not worse as was now the case. He missed his father’s touch, he missed all the little things that the man did for him to show him he was valued and loved. Joe truly felt in his heart he had lost all of that the day his father had decided he would be watched for the rest of his life.

Ben, on the other hand, was thinking just the opposite in his mind. He was thinking of how much he would lose if something were to happen to the boy standing before him. He knew in his heart that another incident like the attack earlier in the month would be a strong possibility if he let Joe out of his sight. He loved the boy far too much to see that happen. As much as he wanted to get close to his son, he could read it on Joe’s face that he didn’t want that anymore. Ben felt the wall, the same wall that Joe was feeling at that moment that separated the two of them. His father wished he could tear it down and let Joe in on the big secret that all of the so-called punishment had been dealt out because he loved his son so much.

“You were the one, Joseph, who made the rules—not me! You were the one who flat out lied and would not tell me who had hurt you! You were the one who refused to defend yourself! Don’t pin all this on me for trying to keep you alive!” Ben replied harshly.

Before Joe could respond to what Ben had said, they both heard a rider coming into the front yard at a fast clip. Stopping their intense discussion for the time being, both Ben and Joe walked out of the barn to see what was going on and who would be coming by for such a late visit.

“Howdy, Ben—Joe!” Roy Coffee called out his greeting as he dismounted next to the front hitching post.

“Roy—what brings you out here so late?” Ben asked as he moved over to his old friend and shook his hand.

“Let’s go into the house to talk about it, okay? It’s bitter out here.”

Ben gave an ironic laugh at the sheriff’s statement. It was surely bitter, and not just because of the cold, partly due to the atmosphere that hung over both Ben and his youngest son.

“Sure…” Ben started and then cast a glance over at Joe who stood off by himself in the background. “Joseph? Will you please come in?” He tried to get to the boy in a softer tone in hopes that he wouldn’t have to embarrass him by demanding it of him in front of Roy.

Joe dropped his head in defeat and followed the two men inside the house.

After Hop Sing brought in the coffee and all five men in the room had a cup to warm himself, Roy got to the point of his visit.

“Got me some news—and I thought you all would want to know.”

The four Cartwrights looked back and forth between each other and then over to the sheriff curious over his news.

“There’s been three Indian raids in the past week. Last one was yesterday over by Carson City way. A little ranch not an hour’s ride from town there—six settlers killed and last we heard them renegades are heading out towards Genoa.”

“That’s terrible news.” Ben shook his head disgusted and then noticed the strange look in Joe’s eyes. He could see his son’s thoughts going back to the stage attack. “Any idea what tribe they’re with?”

“Here’s why I thought you all would be interested—renegade Apaches—and Lone Eagle was spotted there with them. Look like it’s them same bunch that got the stage that Joe was on.”

Joe sank down to the arm of the settee feeling weak in the knees. He fought to gather himself as he took a couple deep breaths. Once again Ben wanted to go to the boy, to in some way shield him from the news he had just heard. He knew he couldn’t, especially not now. Joe had already been embarrassed once that night, Ben was not going to let it happen again.

Roy continued after he noticed how the room fell in silence with his news. “We were getting some men together to go after them. I was wondering if you men wanted to come with us? I got me about fifteen coming along so far, but I sure could use the help. We gotta keep them from killing any more folks.”

“Adam—Hoss—get your gear. I’ll see to the provisions. We’ll be ready to head out in an hour,” Ben called over to his two oldest sons, totally leaving Joe out of the posse that was forming.

“I’m coming,” Joe said sharply and stood again.

“Joseph…” Ben tried to get a little closer to his son but Joe broke away from the group quickly and headed towards the stairs.

“I said I’m coming!” Joe said once more and this time far louder than before. They all watched him as he ran up the stairs.

“You gotta let him go, Pa,” Hoss whispered to his father. “This may bring him back to us—the way he was before.”

“Or send him over the deep end,” Ben replied concern filling his words.

***********

When the first rays of sunlight peaked over the mountain range surrounding Virginia City, the full posse had been assembled in front of the jail. Roy only chose people he knew and trusted to be on this mission and had warned each one of them that it was a dangerous one. Counting the sheriff they now had a patrol of twenty people as they headed out towards Genoa and the last known position of the renegades.

Ben rode next to Adam and would, every now and then, cast a glance back towards both Hoss and Joe. He noticed his youngest boy had a marked determination on his face and wondered just what he was thinking at the time. He also wondered what had sparked the pacifist that Joe had become into going on this mission in the first place. Ben wondered if Joe understood that there would surely be men wounded, perhaps killed, in trying to stop the Indians.

Joe could only think of the passengers who had been riding with him that peaceful day so many months ago. They were simply minding their own business, heading to Salt Lake City. Joe felt tears sting the corners of his eyes when he thought of the youngest member on the stage that day. Sandra. The girl’s bright smile, pigtails, and deep blue eyes still haunted Joe every time he closed his eyes. Why was he going out to try and kill the Indians who had scalped everyone but him? He was doing it for all of them, but especially for that little girl. Joe had told Sandra everything would be okay, only to have her die with the others that day. The thought of what he had said to her tore his soul in two. Joe took no thought as to whether he would perish this go round with Lone Eagle. Perhaps because he didn’t care or perhaps because he knew he had to avenge his fellow passengers and the driver he had known for years.

************

Darkness spread out like a heavy blanket just as the posse made camp. There had been several scouts sent out to see how far they were from the raiding party and they had just returned to the newly set-up camp with their findings.

“I wouldn’t light that campfire if I wuz you,” Hoss called over to Roy and the sheriff stopped what he was preparing to do.

“How close, Hoss?” Roy asked as the others gathered around for the details.

“Only got one more ridge—that way.” Hoss pointed into the distance. “Like as not they don’t know we are here—but I wouldn’t take the chance of showing no smoke tonight.” Hoss said sitting down on the ground and trying to stretch out his legs a little.

“You think we can surprise them in the morning? We could strike at first light?” Ben asked now and moved with Adam to sit next to Hoss on the ground. He handed Hoss some hardtack and a strip of beef jerky as his meal for the night.

“I think so. We need to stay quiet—keep the horses at the other end of the camp so they don’t get a whiff of those other horses.”

“How many renegades are there you reckon?”

“Not exactly sure, Roy. Me and Cliff counted about twenty five—but don’t know if that was the whole camp or whether others are out here somewhere.”

“They have us a mite outnumbered—but if we can take them by surprise I think we can do it.” Ben nodded over to Roy.

“Okay, men, you heard it now. Right before daylight we will move into position over that ridge over yonder. Tonight we’ll post watch, five at a time just in case.” Roy explained what would be their strategy.

Ben looked across the camp where he spotted Joe sitting all alone leaning up against his saddle. The boy had been extremely quiet all day and now he was avoiding everyone. Ben walked over to him and kneeled down. “Did you hear what Roy just said, Joseph?”

“Yeah—I heard him—first light,” Joe answered flatly, and avoided his father’s eyes.

“If you want to talk…” Ben offered but Joe cut him off.

“No, I don’t think we’ve really got much to say to each other anymore,” Joe responded with hurt in his voice and stood and walked away.

Ben sighed, he wished that he had been given the time to really talk to his son before leaving with the posse but there hadn’t been any. He wanted to offer a shoulder to Joe, if he needed one, but weeks at a distance had damaged their normally tight bond with one another. Ben prayed that somehow, if the posse was fortunate enough to put a stop to Lone Eagle and the other renegades that Joe would be able to move forward in his life. He also prayed that somehow he would recapture the closeness with the boy who shared his heart.

***********

Not quite an hour before dawn, the posse members made their way to the steep ridge overlooking the Indian’s encampment. Roy pulled out his field glasses as he hunkered down low to the ground to try and get a sight as to what was ahead of them. Ben, Joe and Adam moved to be near Roy and just as the sun started to pierce the horizon, they got their first real look at the camp below. They could make out three full sized tepees, and saw that sentries were posted in front of each one of them. They saw two rope corrals, each containing approximately a dozen horses.

Roy passed the field glassed down the line so that the other three men could get a good look at the situation unfolding. Movement was just starting around the renegade’s camp site and from out of the tents first came the few female Apaches, readying the meal of the day. It was at this exact moment that Joe was handed the field glasses by his father, who still lay on the ground on his stomach next to him.

As he focused in on the view down below, Joe’s heart almost stopped completely. He rubbed at his eyes, thinking he was imagining things. When he looked back through the binoculars, Joe realized he was not seeing things at all. With his hands trembling and tears clouding his eyes, Joe reached with his left hand and grabbed his father’s arm.

Ben, surprised by the action, stared over at his son. He could see that the boy was crying and visibly shaken by something. Ben imagined it must have been the sight of Lone Eagle which had caused the reaction in his son. “Joseph? Are you all right?” Ben whispered.

“Pa,” Joe whispered, choked with emotion. “Pa—look down there—next to the tepee in the middle—Pa—it’s Sandra! Oh God! She’s alive, Pa! She’s really alive.”

Ben grabbed the binoculars from his son in disbelief and focused in on the little white girl, dressed in Indian garb. Her hair was the dead giveaway; it was as blonde as his late wife Inger’s was and stood out amidst the raven haired Indian women surrounding the child. “Oh, Joseph!” Ben smiled and stopped short of hugging the boy. Instead, weighing the situation in his mind, Ben settled for a quick pat to the boy’s shoulder.

“Roy—you gotta let me get her out of there before you all come in! She could get shot if we don’t fetch her first,” Joe insisted and the sheriff glared back at him.

“I’m all for rescuing that child all right…” Roy stopped when he saw the panic on Ben’s face. “But, it ain’t gonna be you, Little Joe! You’ve already had one run in with those renegades—let’s not push your luck too far.”

“But, it’s just got to be me!” Joe protested and this time turned to his father and forced his gaze intensely into the man’s dark eyes. “I have to do it, Pa. Please—I have to,” Joe pleaded with him.

Again Ben Cartwright was forced to make a decision that pained his heart and shook his soul. He did not want his son to risk his life by going down into the camp below and perhaps getting killed in attempting to free the child. But, looking into the eyes of his youngest son and seeing how they were begging him for help, Ben could not say no. He knew the look in the boy’s eyes and exactly what it meant. It wasn’t just a plea to save Sandra; it was a plea to help him to save himself.

“Joseph…” Ben stopped and forced himself to make the decision. “You be careful down there,” Ben replied and nodded to Joe that he understood what he had to do.

***********

The plan of attack was methodically worked out so that Joe would have as much coverage as possible as he made his approach from behind the Indian encampment. They had already witnessed the young Sandra being taken back into the tepee that sat in the center of the camp. Joe was to crawl through the surrounding brush and, if need be, cut with the knife placed in his boot the back of the tepee to free the girl. The other men would plan their assault from the front in an attempt to draw fire away from the youngest Cartwright.

Joe handed his father his jacket, wanting to blend in better with the sage colored brush. They shared a brief glance which held a lot of pent up feelings which had long been withheld from each other. Then Joe went off towards the Indian camp to free the girl who he had mourned for so long.

Ben and his other sons watched with baited breath as Joe moved closer and closer to his target. They had told him that just as soon as they saw him exit the tepee they would send Cochise into the camp to bring her master back. Holding up the field glasses Ben watched as Joe came within yards of the tepee. He took the time to close his eyes and send up a prayer for his son’s safety before mounting his horse and heading off with the other men.

Holding his breath to stay his concern over what or who he would find inside the tepee, Joe withdrew his hidden knife and sliced through the weathered leather. Surprised and thankful that the only occupant was Sandra, Joe crawled inside and over to the girl. He placed his hand over her mouth to prevent her frightened scream from being heard.

“Sandra—honey—it’s okay—really. It’s your old friend Joe—remember? I was with you on the stage?” Joe whispered and felt the girl’s rapid breath against his hand. “Now I’m gonna let go of your mouth but you’ve got to be quiet, okay?” Joe warned and drew down his hand.

“I’m scared, Joe,” the girl whispered and her eyes filled with tears.

“Don’t be afraid, darling, I’m gonna get you outa here and back to your pa. But, we have to hurry and I’m gonna need your help.”

“What can I do?” she asked looking into the familiar hazel eyes and for the first time in months had hope that she would really see her father again.

“You know how to play piggy back don’t you?”

“Uh huh.” She nodded.

“Well, I need you to wrap your arms around my neck just as tight as you can—come on.” Joe maneuvered the child behind him and the girl did as instructed. “That’s good, Sandra, real good. Now, you keep those arms wrapped there tight—don’t worry you ain’t gonna hurt me none. And throw your legs around my waist. There—now we are gonna head out of here. I want you to promise me that you will keep your eyes closed until I say so! You promise me?”

“I promise Joe—but I’m still scared.”

“We’ll be up on my horse in no time, honey—now on the count of three, I want you to close your eyes and not open them again until I say so. When you look at me the next time you are gonna be all safe and sound.” Joe finished his instructions to the child and said a brief prayer for her safety. His prayer was that he could keep his promise to her this time, unlike before. “One—two—three!” Joe whispered and then dove out of the back of the tepee with the girl holding onto his neck for dear life.

Ben saw the move his son had made and slapped Cochise on her hindquarters and the horse took off, guided by both its devotion to her master and by divine intervention. Cochise made it quickly to the camp just as the posse members made their attack known. That was when it seemed like all hell broke out.

Some of the Apaches had pilfered rifles, some had bow and arrow. But, no matter what they were going to fight to the death the white men charging their camp. The women of the band of Indians rushed into their tepees as their male counterparts began the battle. The quiet morning was suddenly alive with gunfire and shouts.

Hoss knocked a brave down with the butt of his rifle just as Adam came charging over to help him. They saw one of their own men fall and rushed over to get him back onto his horse. That was when Joe first became aware of the melee he was unfortunately cast in the middle of. He ran as hard as he could, with Sandra clutching his neck but never opening her eyes. Joe tossed Sandra up into the saddle and then made his own lunge up into it. Just as he grabbed his horse’s reins and kicked at its sides, Joe caught a glimpse of Lone Eagle. The Indian pulled back his bow and sent his arrow flying, hoping to kill the young man he had saved months earlier. Fortunately, through the grace of God, Joe made the sudden move and instead of catching him in a more vital part of his body, the arrow found its target directly in the outer thigh of his right leg. Still spurring his horse forward Joe charged out of the danger and up the embankment towards safety.

************

The battle with the renegades didn’t last longer than twenty minutes, but to the men of the posse it seemed like a lifetime. By the time the dust had settled, close to fifteen Indian braves lay dead on the ground. The squaws gathered around the dead bodies and mourned their loss. Unfortunately, a good many of the Apaches got away during the fight and that included Lone Eagle. Ben and Roy inspected the carnage and gathered their men together. They left the females of the tribe alone, knowing that they probably had no recourse than to go along with the tribal leaders and had done none of the killing themselves.

Ben had not seen the arrow go into his son’s leg. The last time he had seen Joseph, he was putting Sandra up on Cochise, and Ben assumed they had made it out of there fine. As he walked into the campground they had used on the previous night, Ben saw the scene unfold in front of him. Joe was laying on his back, a tight grimace on his face, but the girl in his arms.

“Okay, Sandra…” Joe whispered biting back pain. “You can open your eyes now.”

The little girl looked at Joe and then at all the other men who were now gathered around her. “But—where’s my pa, Joe? Didn’t he come to save me?” she asked with tears streaming down her face.

Joe thought about Frank Keller, and what had happened between him and the man in the past. It had been Sandra’s father, after all, who had branded Joe with the name “Jonah” in the first place. Joe held his resentment. All he cared about was the little girl. “Oh—your pa is back at your house getting it all ready for you! He will be so happy. Now, everything is gonna be fine—just fine.”

“But your leg, Joe…” Sandra opened her mouth widely, surprised to see an arrow still embedded in Joe’s leg.

“Heck—I’ve had worse.” Joe nodded as his father and brothers gathered around him. “Hey—Adam—how about getting Sandra something to drink while I get patched up?” Joe asked his brother and gave him the sign that he had no intention of letting the girl watch what was going to happen next. The poor kid had been through far too much already.

“Sure, Joe.” Adam nodded to his brother. “If you will help me, Sandra, I think we can get something for all of us to drink. How about helping me put on some coffee?”

“Who are you?” She asked confused and the men around Joe laughed.

“I am Joe’s oldest brother—this here is Hoss, his other brother—then this is our father. Oh—and I am sure you know Sheriff Coffee, right?” Adam made partial introductions.

“Yeah—my Pa talks to him all the time.” Sandra nodded and took hold of the hand that Adam was offering her. Before they got two feet away she cast another look over at Joe and called to him, “Joe—you sure you gonna be okay?”

“You bet—you go and make that coffee and then we will head back to town and get you to your house.” Joe forced a smile and the girl seemed satisfied.

As soon as Sandra was out of immediate sight, Joe collapsed back onto the bedroll under his head. The arrow shot streams of hot pain upwards from his leg and he groaned.

“You are pretty good with putting on an act, Little Brother,” Hoss smiled, knowing why Joe had to pretend to be so brave.

“Joseph…” Ben whispered and went down on one knee to inspect his son’s leg. The shaft of the arrow appeared to be pretty deeply imbedded in the boy’s outer thigh and blood streamed from the wound.

Joe looked up at his father, if it were any other time or place he would have fallen into the man’s arms and probably cried tears of both pain and relief over all that had happened. But, Joe couldn’t do that right now, it would have to wait until later. Right now all he wanted was the danged arrow out of him and to get into town to return Sandra to her father’s arms.

“Just get it out, Pa,” Joe begged and bit his lip trying to stay in control.

Ben took a deep breath and reached for the end of the arrow. He tried for a quick pull to remove it, but the shaft broke half-way out. “Damn…” Ben muttered, throwing the broken piece aside. Ben removed his neckerchief and secured it tightly around Joe’s leg to staunch the flow of blood. “I’m sorry, son; looks like we better get you to Doc’s to get the rest of it out. Do you think you will be able to ride?”

Joe looked around the camp at the other men and Sandra sitting by the newly built fire with Adam. “Yeah. Hey—did we lose anybody?”

Ben put his hand on Joe’s shoulder and smiled shaking his head at the boy’s question. “No, Joseph. Cliff got winged, but the bullet barely grazed him, he is fine. As usual, you sustained the worst of it all.”

“Doesn’t matter, Pa,” Joe commented fighting back pent up tears of joy as he looked again towards the little girl. “Let everyone get some coffee in them and I’ll be ready to ride.”

Ben stared down at the young man before him and his chest swelled with pride. There was so much he wanted to say to the boy, but not now. It would wait until the two of them were alone. There was the leg that needed mending first, and then their relationship needed some doctoring as well. He reached over for the boy’s jacket and helped him to put it on.

“I’m proud of you,” Ben whispered as Joe settled back on the bedroll to try and catch his breath. His father’s words eased Joe’s heart and helped fill the large void which had been there for so long. “I’ll go get you some coffee—maybe even see if Roy has some snake bite medicine on him too!” Ben smiled and walked over towards the campfire.

***********

An hour later the men decided it was time to break camp. Roy had made the decision that going after the renegades who had left during the heat of battle would have to wait until another time. He rationalized that at least a good many of their warriors were dead and it would take awhile before Lone Eagle and the others could regroup and cause more trouble.

Hoss helped to pull his little brother to his feet in order to get him ready for the long ride back to Virginia City. Joe had been given just enough rot gut, which fortunately had been brought along by one of the posse members, to ease the pain. Ben did not want to over-do the use of alcohol, since Joe would need to keep his wits about him in order to stay in the saddle. Fighting back his pain, Joe was helped up into the saddle and grabbed his reins.

“I want to ride with Joe!” Sandra protested, feeling so much more comfortable with the young man who she knew had saved her.

Ben could see that his son was having a hard time trying to think of what he could do. There was just no way he could hold the child in front of him all the way back to town. In fact, Ben worried that Joe might not even make it himself. Ben reached for the little girl’s hand and tried his best to explain. “Sandra, we don’t want Joe to bump his leg anymore than necessary riding back. How about you ride with me? We’ll both be right next to his horse all the way back so you can help me keep an eye on him.”

Joe nodded his thanks over to his father, glad that he had gotten him off the hook this time. As much as Joe treasured the little girl, and was touched that she had formed such a strong bond with him, he didn’t relish the thought of having to try to keep her in the saddle. The point of the arrow was jabbing at the bone in his leg already and he was having trouble just trying to stay up on his horse.

“Okay,” Sandra reluctantly replied and Ben helped her up onto Buck.

“Let’s go men!” Roy called out to the posse members and they headed back towards Virginia City.

************

Dusk fell on the mining town just as Roy and his entourage came down the main street. He looked over at Ben and his sons and nodded his thanks and then headed over to the jail house. The four Cartwrights rode down the street a little farther and stopped at the office of Doctor Paul Martin.

“Adam, you and Hoss get Joseph inside. I am going to take Sandra on to her house and I’ll be right back,” Ben called over to his sons.

When Hoss dismounted and walked over to his little brother he could see the bad shape he was in. The arduous ride had only worsened his brother’s condition and Joe looked as though he was just about to make his own awkward dismount. Hoss grabbed Joe up in his arms and noticed how the boy felt like dead weight.

“I can walk…” Joe mumbled his protest.

“Ah—but that would take away your usual grand entrance into the doctor’s office,” Hoss teased his brother and kept him in his arms. Adam dismounted and ran to open the door and help Hoss bring the boy inside.

Ben watched his sons, and though he wanted to go along with them, he knew he had to get the little girl home. Joseph would want it that way.

“Come on, sweetheart, we are gonna get you to your pa right now,” Ben whispered to Sandra and turned Buck’s reins.

The Keller house was just at the end of town. Ben noticed the black wreath that had been on the door for months. He knew it would be a big shock to the man to see his little girl returned from the dead. Ben remembered all too well his own feelings when he had learned that his youngest son had survived the Indian attack after having been presumed dead. In that respect he felt a kindred soul to Frank Keller. However, he still held resentment to the man who had beaten his son weeks prior and had labeled him a “Jonah”. Ben hoped he could put that behind him as he knocked on the door to the man’s house.

Opening the door, Frank Keller only spotted Ben at first. Sandra was standing right behind him. “What do you want, Cartwright?” He asked angrily.

“Papa!” Sandra cried and flung herself towards the man’s legs.

Frank went down to his knees and clung to his child. He sobbed tears of joy as he stroked her hair. “Sandra—darling—how? When?” he started between sobs.

“We found her with Lone Eagle’s band of renegades,” Ben explained.

Frank looked up at Ben and his mouth hung open for a few minutes, trying to take in all the news and the miracle of holding his child again. “How can I ever thank you?” he asked after a long pause.

“I didn’t rescue her, Keller, my son did,” Ben replied and bit back his old hurt over what the man had done to the boy.

“Your son?”

“Yes, my son, Joseph. You remember Joseph—he was the boy you beat up. He was the boy you called a Jonah.” Ben had to stop himself at that point. He did not want to harm Sandra in any way, and had already regretted his statements.

“Where is he? I have to thank him—I have to apologize for all that I did.”

“He’s getting an arrow cut out of him right now. Maybe once he is better, you can have a talk with hm.” Ben stopped and let his hand fall down on the blonde curls of the little girl. “But, for right now, why don’t you take care of your child and I will go and see to mine?”

“Thank you.” Frank nodded toward Ben and lifted Sandra up into his arms.

“Tell Joe I hope he feels better,” Sandra called over to Ben.

“I sure will, Sandra. Now you go inside and get some rest.” Ben smiled and walked back over to his horse.

***********

“How is he?” Ben asked as he entered the front parlor of Doctor Martin’s office and saw Adam standing there.

“Doc’s got him all ready to get the arrow out, but, Joe said he wanted to wait until you were here.”

Ben frowned and moved to the examining room. He saw that Joe had a blanket over him, all but his right leg. The boy was still conscious and had struggled with all his might to stay that way until his father returned.

“Glad you’re back, Ben,” Paul called over to him exasperated with his patient by then. “I have the area all cleaned, but this ornery cuss wouldn’t let me start anything until you were back.”

Ben walked around the table and looked down at Joe. The boy looked very pale and weak laying there and it made the worry grow larger in the father’s mind. “Now, Joseph—what’s the holdup? You want to get that thing out of there don’t you?” Ben whispered and reached for his son’s left hand.

“Pa?” Joe asked getting a little foggy from what the doctor had given him.

“He’s still conscious and all—but I did get down a sedative,” Paul explained Joe’s confusion.

“I’m right here, Joseph. Now, how about we get that arrow out now?”

“Will you stay, Pa?” Joe asked as tears formed in his eyes.

Ben could not believe his ears. He wondered why the boy would ask such a stupid question. Would he stay? Hadn’t he always stayed close by when his boy was injured? It was then that Ben realized the significance of his son’s question. Joe had obviously gone back in his mind to the night that he had been beaten in town. The boy was thinking about the way his father had turned away from him for the first time in his life. Ben realized that Joe still had no idea of why he had done that. The lesson that he was trying to teach Joe had somehow gone drastically awry. Ben let Joe’s hand loose and instead reached up and pushed the curls off of his son’s forehead. They were soaked with perspiration, but were the first curls Ben had noticed on Joe’s head since his long ordeal. The sight was one that heartened the worried father; it was a sign that Joe had come back, curls and all.

“Will I stay?” Ben asked fighting tears. “Could anyone get me to leave you? Of course I will stay. When you wake up I will be right here in this chair.”

“Promise?” Joe asked again as his eyes fought to stay open for just another minute.

“I promise.” Ben smiled. “And you know how hard you and I try to keep our promises!”

Joe forced a slight smile and then closed his eyes.

“Well…” Paul began, grinning now himself. “If you are both through with your talk, I have an arrow to get to.”

Ben stepped back to give the doctor room and settled down into the chair. It looked like another long night ahead of them all.

**********

Doctor Martin walked over to his patient and felt his forehead for signs of a fever. He was pleased to find it just barely warm now. The head of the arrow had been removed and the incision had been closed and so far there were no signs of infection in the wound. He moved over to Ben and put his hand on the weary father’s shoulder.

“You sent Hoss and Adam to the hotel—why don’t you go and get some sleep too?”

Ben shook his head and stood to stretch his sore back. “I promised Joseph I would be here and I intend on keeping my word.”

“Well, if you insist.” Paul chuckled; he knew his request would fall on deaf ears after so many experiences with the two Cartwrights in the room. “I can bring that old cot back here?”

“No—that’s okay. This chair will be fine,” Ben replied and reached down to pull up the cover on his son. “You did say he would be all right—his leg and all?”

“Yes, I don’t see any permanent damage. That arrowhead barely nicked the bone. You can take him home in the morning and then a few days in bed should help. I bet in a week or so Joe will be back running around causing trouble for us both.”

Ben smiled and patted the doctor on the back. “Paul, you must be exhausted—go on, we will be fine.”

“Okay—but I’ll just be in the back lying down; you can wake me if there’s any change.”

“I will—and thank you again.” Ben nodded and watched as the doctor walked through the doorway.

Ben had dozed off in the chair, his mind filled with all the events of the past few weeks and all the worry over his youngest son. He fell into a deep sleep and didn’t hear Joe’s call at first.

“Pa?” Joe whispered and struggled to pull himself upright.

“I’m right here,” Ben answered and moved over to him.

“You stayed,” Joe said as if he was unsure that his father would be there when he awoke.

“I promised, didn’t I?” Ben replied and looked down at the sadness which had taken over Joe’s face. “I think you and I have some things to discuss. Seems we have to clear the air about all that has happened. You thought I wouldn’t be here because I didn’t stay with you before—now is that right?” Ben asked softly and reached for Joe’s arm to comfort him.

“Yeah—I guess so,” Joe said getting a bit choked up from the emotions of his heart. “You have always been there for me, Pa; I guess I’ve taken for granted that you always would. That night—a couple of weeks ago—you were just so mad. When you left me there alone…” Joe stopped and pushed back the onslaught of tears.

Ben sighed and pulled the chair up closer; he figured he would have some deep explaining to do now. Still holding onto his son’s arm, Ben addressed the issue, “Looking back on it all now, Joseph, I may have handled the whole situation wrong. But you made it so difficult for me! You wouldn’t answer my questions—you refused to tell the truth of the matter. When I saw your hand and knew that you had let someone beat you that way—well—I was beside myself with worry.”

“You’ve never walked out on me when I’ve been hurt before—no matter what,” Joe argued the point.

“I guess I was just trying to get you to crack and tell me the truth. It’s very apparent to me now that I handled it wrong,” Ben apologized and looked into his son’s eyes for forgiveness.

“I know I put you through a whole lot, Pa. I’m not blaming you—I know you want what is best for me. But…” Joe stopped trying to explain himself. He wasn’t sure he had the words in his head, though they were written all over his heart.

“But…” Ben began where Joe left off. “But you needed me and I turned my back on you. I had no idea how bad that made you feel at the time. It won’t happen again.” Ben paused and let his hand move to Joe’s forehead once more. “No matter how mad you make me.” Ben smiled now.

“I can’t really explain myself, Pa. I’ve tried to work it all out in my head—but I just couldn’t get over what folks thought of me—what I thought about me either. It wasn’t until I saw Sandra that I felt all right again. It probably doesn’t make any sense—but I needed that—the proof that I wasn’t the only survivor of that attack—to be able to let go. I needed that to prove to myself that I really wasn’t the Jonah people were saying that I was.”

“It makes more sense than you think, Joseph. No matter what we were telling you, you had to find your way back yourself.”

Joe reached for his father and Ben knew it was finally time. He pulled Joe into his arms and hugged him tightly. The connection was back and the bond just as strong as before. Both father and son could feel the love that they had for each other and it renewed them in spirit.

Joe clung tightly to his father, totally ignoring the pain from his injury at the time. All he cared about was that he still had the man’s love and respect. All the pieces that had been missing in his heart fell perfectly back into place. “I understand it now, Pa.” Joe choked on his words as tears fell from his eyes.

“Understand what, son?” Ben whispered.

“What you told me before—you know? God doesn’t draw in straight lines? It makes sense to me now.”

“Well, then I would say that you are a very smart young man, Joseph.” Ben smiled as his own tears streaked down his face. He felt that after more than eight long months he indeed had his son back the way he had always been and it made all the worry disappear. “Because it took your father a whole lot longer to figure that one out.”

“Thanks, Pa—for always being there for me—no matter how messed up I get. I know I haven’t said it much; I know it’s kinda been a given. But, I’ve learned a hard lesson now. I don’t know what I’d do without you. I love you,” Joe whispered against his father’s shirt.

“You’ll never have to find out—I’ll always be there for you. That’s a promise. Because you know how much I love you.” Ben replied and closed his eyes sending up another prayer of thanksgivings.

***********

The next day the four Cartwrights returned to the Ponderosa. His father more than made up for the time he wasn’t there for his son. Ben fussed over the boy profusely, but Joe didn’t mind. He was happy to again be with his family and to know that they all loved him.

Two days passed by quickly in Joe’s recovery from his leg wound, but he was still confined to bed. He didn’t argue the point as he was hurting quite a bit. The physical pain, however, was not nearly as bad as the emotional trauma he had suffered with for so long. It made Joe rest so much easier knowing he had conquered his problems and he tried to put them all behind him now.

“Joseph…” Ben called walking into his son’s bedroom. “You feel up for some company?”

Joe tried to pull himself up a bit in the bed wondering who would be visiting. He hoped it wasn’t the doctor. “Who is it, Pa?”

“Frank Keller,” Ben replied and watched as his son’s face broke into a frown. “Oh—and he’s brought Sandra with him,” Ben added, knowing that Joe would probably want to see the little girl.

“I guess it’s okay then, Pa.” Joe nodded towards his father and pulled the covers up a bit more.

Ben left the room and was soon back with both of the Kellers. Sandra was quick to run over to Joe with the flowers she had brought for him.

“Hi, Joe! I got these for you.” She smiled and handed him the flowers.

“Oh—they’re beautiful, Sandra!” Joe replied taking them into his hand. “That was real thoughtful.”

“I’d kinda like to talk to you a minute, Joe. If that’s okay?” Frank called across the room.

Ben could see the look on Joe’s face and knew he was a bit apprehensive. He figured that the two men should be alone. “Sandra—why don’t you and I go downstairs for a minute and get a vase to put those lovely flowers in?” Ben asked reaching for the child’s hand.

“Okay—be right back!” Sandra said and Joe handed her back the flowers. She then turned and walked out of the room with Ben.

Frank slowly neared the bed, his heart in his throat. He knew he had some crow to eat.

“Joe—I just don’t know what to say exactly. I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to see me—but I was glad when your father said you would. I am so very sorry for what I’ve done in the past—what I said about you too. I was trapped in my grief—so devastated by the loss of both my wife and my daughter! I guess I was just looking for someone to blame. I shouldn’t have done that—not to you. After all that I did—all that I said—here I find out that it was you who risked your life to save my child! I have no earthly way to repay you for what you did.”

Joe listened to the man’s words and fought to find forgiveness in his heart. Finally, after a very long silence had fallen over the room, Joe looked into the man’s eyes and said, “Just take care of Sandra—give her all your love. That’s the only way you can repay me.”

It was after Joe’s statement that Ben and Sandra returned with the vase of flowers. She hurried back over to the bed and pushed her way past her father and moved to be next to Joe.

“We fixed them up good for you, Joe.” The girl smiled and placed the flowers on the night stand.

“You sure did, honey; they are almost as pretty as you. But just almost.” Joe winked at the girl. He noticed after his statement that the little girl’s bright smile had disappeared and she looked so sad. “How are you doing anyway? You okay?” Joe asked pulling Sandra closer to him so he could read what was in her eyes. He saw a familiar look to be there, one he had seen in his own eyes in the past.

“I miss my ma, Joe,” she replied sadly and Joe put his hand on her shoulder.

“Come here.” Joe patted the bed and the girl hopped up. Ben and Frank stood at the end of the bed watching Joe trying to soothe the child. Both fathers could see the connection between the two survivors of the Indian attack. By living through all of it, both Joe and Sandra had somehow forged a bond.

Joe reached over to his night stand, where a picture of his mother still sat. Ben remembered the day the boy had taken the picture up to his room; the worried father had never requested it to be returned to its normal position on his desk. Ben felt that Joe still needed it. Now he watched to see what the boy would reveal to the little girl as he brought the picture over and put it in the child’s hands.

“This here was my ma.” Joe paused and searched for the right words. “My ma died when I was even younger than you. But you know what?”

“What?” Sandra asked with tears still filling her eyes.

“I feel she is still with me—all the time. And this picture here reminds me of her every day. I can still talk to her and everything! I bet you your pa has a picture of your ma at home somewhere doesn’t he?”

“Yeah—got one in the living room.” Sandra nodded.

“Well…” Joe began and cast a glance over at Frank. “I just bet you he would let you bring it into your bedroom—like my pa let me bring my ma’s picture in here. That way you can talk to her—tell her good morning and goodnight. And whenever you are down or troubled you can tell her all about it.”

“But will she hear me, Joe?”

“She’ll hear you, honey. I promise you she will hear you.” Joe hugged the girl to him for a minute his eyes falling on the picture of Marie.

“Pa? Can I have the picture—for my room? Can I have it by my bed like Joe has his?” Sandra called over to her father.

Frank looked relieved; he had worried so much the past two days that he would never be able to even begin to mend his daughter’s broken heart. Once again it seemed like Joe Cartwright had done the impossible. “Why of course you can, darling. Matter of fact, we’ll go home right now and move it.”

“See? Told you.” Joe smiled as the little girl hopped off his bed.

“Joe?”

“Yes, Sandra?”

“You’re my hero.” Sandra smiled and kissed the young man on his cheek.

The word hero echoed in Joe’s mind for a second. What a wonderful word, he thought. “You’re my hero too.” Joe winked over at her.

“Huh? How can I be your hero? You’re the one who saved me.” Sandra stood confused by Joe’s statement.

“You saved me too. But, you won’t understand that right now. I’m gonna tell you something that a very wise man once told me…” Joe stopped and shot his father a glance and smiled wryly over at him. “God doesn’t draw in straight lines.”

“Huh? I don’t understand.”

“Oh—you will someday—I promise you.” Joe laughed and patted Sandra on the head. “Now you go on home and get that picture all set up. I’m gonna stop by and see you just as soon as I’m up and running around again.”

“Okay—bye!” Sandra cast her captivating smile at the young man and hurried over to her father excited now about her mother’s picture.

Ben followed Frank and Sandra to the door, but paused as they moved into the hallway and looked back at his son. “You’re my hero too,” Ben called across the room. The brilliant and endearing smile of Joe Cartwright spread across his face and Joe laughed for the first time in a very long while.

***********

Two weeks of recuperation was about as long as Joe could take. He wanted to get out of the house. He wanted to get back to his life, the way it had been a long time ago. Joe wasn’t too happy when he was informed that he had a re-check due at the doctor’s office, but a trip into town was just what he wanted.

Ben drove Joe in the buckboard, even though the boy had insisted he would be just fine riding Cochise. Ben had to laugh to himself when he thought about how the boy’s stubbornness had returned in full force. It took a great deal of persuasion to get Joe into the buckboard, but having Hoss riding along helped Ben in his threats to hop on board.

When Doctor Martin gave Joe a clean bill of health the boy’s face lit up. It was the final obstacle in getting back to a normal life. He climbed back into the buckboard and grinned over at his father. “I told you so,” Joe said sarcastically and Ben frowned.

“Well, that’s just fine, Joseph—because now you can help your brother here load up the grain,” Ben replied, squeezing the boy’s shoulder in a show of who was really in control.

“Should have kept my mouth shut.” Joe frowned as the wagon pulled up in front of Keller’s feed and grain store.

“Let’s get to it, Little Brother!” Hoss called over to him as he dismounted in front of the store. Joe hopped down and started to help his brother stack the sacks of grain that had been ordered from Mr. Keller the day before.

Ben walked over to Frank Keller who was standing in front of the doorway. He shook the man’s hand and returned his smile.

“Well, Frank—how is everything? Sandra doing okay?” Ben asked as he watched his two sons hard at work.

“Oh yeah—she’s doing great just great! That is thanks to your son.” Frank smiled and called into his store. “Sandra—somebody’s out here that you’re gonna want to see!”

Sandra came out of the store, and when she saw Joe, she hurriedly ran back into the store.

Ben looked perplexed. “What’s that all about?” he asked Frank.

Before Frank could reply, the girl was back, clutching a picture in her hand. It was the picture of her mother. Frank had taken the time to put pictures of his late wife in all the rooms of his house as well as in the store that he ran. Sandra hopped down the steps and ran over to Joe.

“Joe!” she yelled and the boy spun around.

“Hey—look, Hoss! It’s my best girl!” Joe grinned and pulled the child up into his arms. “What have you got there, Sandra?” Joe asked and she showed him the picture.

“This is a picture of my Ma—I wanted you to see it—since you showed me your Ma.”

“Oh—well yeah, you know something? You are going to look just as pretty as she did when she had this picture taken! You are already starting to look like a real lady!”

“I’m gonna be nine soon, you know!” Sandra said excitedly. “And I’m gonna marry you then!”

Joe giggled at what she had said and tried to find a loophole to crawl through. “Oh—well—you know you can’t get married until you are at least twenty. No—your Pa just wouldn’t hear of it!” Joe explained. He could see how his predicament was amusing both Frank and his own father who moved closer to hear what Joe would tell the little girl.

“Okay—but when I am twenty you are going to marry me, right? You did say I’m your best girl, remember?”

“Well—you got me there—I did say that.” Joe nodded and thought about the situation he had gotten himself into with his remarks. “I’ll tell you what! You come and get me when you are twenty, and if you still want me to marry you then, I will.”

“You’ll wait for me? Really, Joe?” Sandra asked excitedly.

“Sure I will. But, for right now why don’t you go give your pa a big hug; looks like he could use one.”

“Okay.” Sandra grinned and planted a kiss on Joe’s cheek as she sprang from his arms.

She ran over and grabbed her father’s legs and he pulled her into his arms.

“Okay, Romeo, while you was busy flirting, I got all the sacks loaded. We can go now,” Hoss announced and patted his brother on the back.

Joe climbed back up into the buckboard and his father did the same. Before Ben sent the team of horses forward he looked over at his youngest son and grinned. He wasn’t about to pass up on his own chance to do some playful teasing.

“Well, congratulations, Joseph, I understand you are now engaged.” Ben said and dropped his arm over Joe’s shoulder.

“Sure am, Pa!” Joe laughed and played along with it. “But, looks like it’s gonna be a long engagement at that. It will be at least another eleven years, so don’t start pressing your suit.”

Ben looked over at the scene in front of the feed and grain store. Frank Keller was still standing there and Sandra was hugging onto him tightly. “I don’t know if even that’s going to be long enough, son. Looks like you are going to have some trouble getting Sandra to yourself. You’re going to have some tough competition. Looks like she loves her father a whole lot.”

“I know the feeling,” Joe replied and Ben grinned over what his son had revealed.

“Let’s get old Romeo home, Pa—before he has a chance to break any other gal’s heart,” Hoss called over to his father as he rode along side of the wagon.

“He’s right,” Ben commented and sent the team forward. They drove down the main street in town and turned off just as Joe spotted someone out of the corner of his eye walking out of the Silver Dollar Saloon.

“Wait!” Joe sang out and reached for the reins in his father’s hands. He pulled the team back and Ben stared over at the boy confused and a bit upset at his sudden actions.

“What in the world are you doing?” Ben asked as he saw Joe jump down from his seat in the wagon.

“I got some business I need to take care of. I won’t be long,” Joe replied and headed out across to the saloon.

“What business?” Ben called out after his son but Joe never turned around. It was at that moment that both Hoss and his father noticed the cowboy walking down the sidewalk. It was Pete Timmons.

“Hey, Pa…” Hoss started and dismounted and tied his reins to the back of the wagon. “I think we are about to find out who beat Joe up a couple of weeks ago.”

Ben began to climb down from the wagon but Hoss’ hand stopped his progress. “No deal! Wasn’t we the ones who wanted him to defend himself? Let’s stay out of his way and see if Joe still has it.” Hoss winked at his father and sat there next to him with a perfect view of the upcoming fight. Ben frowned at his son’s logic, but knew he was right. He tried to hide his fear over Joe’s safety and watched as the scene unfolded in front of their eyes.

“Hey, Pete!” Joe called coming up from behind the man.

Pete spun around surprised to see Joe Cartwright standing there. He broke into a sadistic smile as he remembered vividly how he had earlier beat the hell out of the young Cartwright.

“Oh—you want some more, Jonah?” Pete laughed and stepped towards Joe.

“The name is Joe!” Joe shouted and decked the man so hard that he fell from the sidewalk and landed in the street below.

“Looks like Joe’s still got it, Pa,” Hoss grinned. “This is gonna be great!”

Ben frowned, as much as he wanted to see Joe go after the person who had attacked him, he still wasn’t thrilled about sitting idly by watching his son get hit. But, not wanting to embarrass the boy, Ben folded his arms across his chest and tried to be patient.

Joe sent blow after blow at Pete. Pete got some in, and knocked Joe onto his back, but in no way was a match for his opponent. Joe tried to remember every punch that the other man had hit him with weeks before and mimicked it all. He stopped short of kicking the man while he was down. That was something that he considered much too low, even though Pete had done it to him. It was a good fifteen minutes before Joe sent the last blow which knocked Pete into the water trough. When he shook himself out of the daze, Pete pulled himself out of the water and held his hand up that he had enough.

“Now what’s my name again, Pete?” Joe asked and readied himself to send another punch if he didn’t get the right reply.

“Joe…” Pete coughed out. “Joe Cartwright.”

“Remember that,” Joe said angrily and stooped down to retrieve his hat. He dusted off his pants as he walked back over to the buckboard. He could already see the huge smile on his brother Hoss’ face, and knew that at long last he had redeemed himself in his big brother’s eyes. He wasn’t exactly sure about the look that was on his father’s face at the time. Ben looked angry.

“Joseph Cartwright!” Ben boomed. “Fighting in the streets like a ruffian! I am ashamed of you!” Ben could not hold his expression any longer. He burst into laughter and hugged Joe close to him. “Great fight, son!” Ben exclaimed and patted the boy’s back proudly.

“Hey look!” Joe laughed and showed his father the knuckles on his left hand. They were bloody and had already started to swell. “Guess this makes up for last time, huh?”

“It sure does.” Ben grinned and Hoss walked around the wagon and over to his little brother.

“I ain’t never been so proud of you, Short Shanks! Guess we don’t have to ask you now who beat you up before do we?”

“Nope—it was that creep all right. But, I think the days of me being called a Jonah are over now.”

“I think you’re right.” Hoss nodded and patted his brother on the back fondly. “Now—can we please get on home—or is there someone else you wanna attack?”

“No, I got me engaged, and I polished off old Pete—think I’ve done what all I came to do today,” Joe laughed.

Hoss untied his horse and mounted. Ben sent the team of horses forward and shot a glance over at his son.

“If you had done all that in the first place, Joseph, we wouldn’t have had to go through all of this you know?”

“But, Pa…” Joe teased. “You know I never do things the easy way. Life would be pretty dull if I did, wouldn’t it?”

Ben laughed at his son’s logic. “Yes, I guess it would. But, I could use a little dullness for awhile thank you. So, try to stay out of trouble at least for a few days will you?”

Joe touched at his bruised cheek and groaned. “Yes, Sir. I think I could use some dullness right now myself.”

“Good answer” Ben laughed and put his arm around Joe’s shoulder again as they rode home.

***********

Epilogue

Winter ran its course and the ranch was socked under with a good amount of snow. Trips into town were scarce now with the weather so precarious. It had been almost two months since Joe’s run-in with Pete Timmons and he had kept his promise to his father and had stayed out of harm’s way for a change. In most respects the ranch and everyone had gotten back to normal following a tough summer and fall. Joe was back to his old self now in all respects including the fact that his hair had grown completely back to even beyond its normal length. Every time his father looked over at him and wanted to mention it was time for him to get a haircut, he found himself choking on the request. He remembered all that had happened, especially the leather pouch which had held Joe’s lock of hair. It was always in the forefront of his mind each time he even got close to suggesting a haircut. Ben finally promised himself that if Joe didn’t make any attempt to get a haircut by spring that he would address it at that time. Meantime the long curls that dipped down over Joe’s collar stood as a reminder of all that had been accomplished in his recovery.

The nightly routine had also gone back to normal as the Cartwrights were assembled one evening in the living room. Hoss and Joe were in the midst of a heated checker game and Ben was reading his book in his chair by the fireplace. They had waited dinner for Adam’s return from town, but Hop Sing was getting very impatient to put the meal on the table.

“Wonder what’s keeping your brother?” Ben called over to his sons worriedly. He wasn’t exactly pleased with his eldest son’s decision to brave the snow and venture into town that day.

“Don’t know, Pa,” Hoss answered as Joe jumped his last checker and claimed the game. “What was so all fire important that he went into town today, anyway?”

“He was expecting something to come in on the stage he said,” Ben replied and stood and stretched.

“Hop Sing isn’t gonna keep dinner warming much longer,” Joe warned and set the checker pieces back up to start a new game.

It was then that Adam appeared coming in the front door. He shook the remaining snow off of his coat and then removed his holster and hat. “Sorry I’m late,” Adam called over to his family. He crossed over to the settee and sat down.

“What do you have there?” Joe asked curious over his brother’s secrecy. He hadn’t told anyone exactly what he was expecting on the stage and Joe could see the small book sized package on Adam’s lap.

“Oh, a little surprise.” Adam grinned. “And as a matter of fact it’s for you, Joe.”

“For me?” Joe asked and was even more curious now.

Adam pulled the object from the paper sack he had placed it in. He had already looked at the gift to be sure it was exactly what he thought it was. “Yeah—you remember your old friend Duffy don’t you?”

“He was your friend first.” Joe chuckled and nodded over to his older brother.

“Yeah, well he told me back when he first found you months ago that he would be writing an article about your experiences. So, two months ago I wrote him with all the information about what had happened with you rescuing Sandra and all, and by the time he started putting it all together he had far too much information for just an article. So, with his editor’s approval and help, Duffy wrote a book all about you and all you went through.”

Joe sat stunned and Ben and Hoss smiled at the way it had surprised him. They both had known about Adam’s secret, but did not know that it was the book which had come by stage that day. “A book?” Joe asked still shocked that someone would write about him.

“Yeah, and part of the proceeds are being donated to St. Joseph’s Home for Boys, to honor all that Father Mike did for you. That should make a lot of folks very happy. I’ve just skimmed through it so far, but it looks pretty good. I bet it’s gonna sell a lot of copies!”

“I don’t know if I want to read it,” Joe said frowning over some of the bad memories of his ordeal. “You know I was the one who lived through it all.”

“Oh—well—I think you should. Besides, it was dedicated to you.” Adam pulled back the first page of the manuscript. It wasn’t in bound form yet; Duffy having rushed the first copy out to the Cartwrights at Adam’s insistence. “This is just the rough copy. Duffy is sending us a bound copy later.” Adam handed the first page to his little brother so that he could read the dedication.

“Well?” Ben asked as he waited for Joe to tell them all what it said. “Come on the suspense is killing me! What does the dedication say?”

Joe tried to clear his throat, feeling a bit emotional after he read the kind words that Duffy had written. “This book is dedicated to my dear friend Joe, who is a hero in anybody’s book.”

Hoss clapped Joe on the back so very proud of him.

Ben grinned broadly and then called over again to his youngest son. “That’s very nice—very nice. But what’s the title of the book?”

Joe handed the book over to his father after he read the title. He was now smiling.

Ben looked at it and winked over at Joe.

“Well?” Hoss asked impatiently. “What’s the dang thing called?”

“The Promise,” Ben replied, a bit choked up now himself.

“Maybe I will read it after all.” Joe laughed and walked over to his father to retrieve the book. He put his hand on Ben’s shoulder and shared a special glance with him. “I just love books with happy endings.”

*****END*****

Next Story in The Promise Trilogy:

With Wings as Eagles

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.

 

 

6 thoughts on “The Promise Trilogy – #2 – The Jonah (by Wrangler)”

  1. What a wonderful follow up to your first story. Both Ben and Joe went through so much, but I’m glad they made it back to each other.

  2. God not drawing in straight lines… Starts and stops, turns to and fro, back tracking and forging ahead. May not even a circle; none of the family will be the same as they were before that fateful day. Survivor’s guilt and remorse can be powerful emotions to surmount; uncharted territory to set the course to redeem one’s self. However; at least now, the family is in a better position to face their future.

    A fantastic follow up to, The Promise.

  3. Wonderful! I suppose life would be pretty dull if God drew in straight lines. It’s the curves that teach us. Such a valuable lesson in your wise priest’s words! Thank you for sharing those words and packaging them so nicely in a Cartwright story worth treasuring!:)

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