In Absentia (by Belle)

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Summary:  The boys have been forced to accept a heartrending loss.  Is it time to move on? 

Rating:  K+ (15,750 words)

In Absentia Series:

In Absentia
Restitution
All Through the Night

 

In Absentia

by Belle

Adam had rarely felt such a strong desire to end the day with a beer or two . . .  or three.  Granted, meetings with the family lawyer were never fun, but this appointment had been particularly rough.  The weight of the documents he carried pulled at him; they might have pulled him straight to the ground if he allowed it.  He paused, willing his breath to even out, commanding his heart rate to slow and regain its natural rhythm.  Finding his self-control, he headed to the barbershop to keep his next appointment.

He spied Joe leaning against the red-and-white pole.  Looking at the eleven-year-old, Adam was hard pressed to imagine anyone more in need of the barber’s services than his little brother.  Chestnut curls covered Joe’s ears, brushed his eyelashes, and very nearly touched his shoulders.  Coupled with the disheveled clothes apparently outgrown overnight, Joe closely resembled a rag doll.  There was, however, nothing forlorn about his expression.  As soon as he caught sight of his oldest brother, Little Joe was the very picture of charm and affection.

Adam bit the inside of his cheek in order to maintain his steely-eyed older brother demeanor.  Little Joe was not even slightly intimidated.  Leaning against a porch upright, Adam looked the kid over.  Responding to a “turn-around” signal, Little Joe rolled his eyes and pivoted on the spot.

“Looks like you should be inside taking care of that mop rather than out here holding down the boardwalk,” Adam drawled.

“No, sir—not today,” Joe grinned.

The kid is getting sassier every day.  Adam held out a hand for Joe’s offering.  Glancing over the history paper before handing it back, Adam winked and caught the boy in a brief one-armed embrace before grabbing a hunk of hair.  He gave Joe’s head a gentle shake.

“Pursuant to our agreement, it appears you have earned another reprieve.”  Adam noticed as he spoke that Mrs. Caswell was leading her son out of the barbershop.  Young Ethan had been shorn like a spring lamb and was casting resentful glances at Joe.

“But . . .” Adam waited until he was certain he had Joe’s full attention, “no matter what, you get a real haircut before the trip.”  Joe nodded vigorously.

“Okay, then.”  Adam straightened up.  “Have you put our gear in the wagon?”  More head nodding.  “Go on down and wait for me.”  Joe sprinted off.

He was enjoying the sight of Little Joe’s exuberance when his thoughts were interrupted by a little disdainful huff along with something muttered not quite under the breath.

“Spoiled!”

He touched his fingers to the brim of his hat in acknowledgment of her presence and remark.  Keeping his smile polite, he lifted one eyebrow as if in mild curiosity and held her gaze until Mrs. Caswell blushed.  Without saying another word, she grabbed Ethan by the hand and hustled him down the street.  Contemplating her retreat, Adam missed Roy Coffee’s approach.

“That woman doesn’t know what she’s talkin’ about, son.”  Roy put a hand on his shoulder.  “You’re doin’ a good job.”

“Thanks,” Adam headed to the wagon.

“Those your court papers?”  Roy asked. He received a silent nod. “Seven years—it hardly seems possible.”

It hardly seems possible.  Adam awoke every day to the reality of that impossibility, but he couldn’t agree more.  He cleared his throat.

“The judge will be here in a few weeks . . . after Little Joe’s birthday, thankfully.  We’ll need you there.”

“Of course, Adam.  You know I’ll be there.”  Arriving at the wagon, the men deliberately brightened to greet the youngster bouncing impatiently in the seat.

“Little Joe, you ready to see Hoss?  You tell him ‘howdy’ for me.”  Roy patted the boy’s knee and then stepped back onto the walk as Adam climbed into place.

“I’ll tell him, sheriff,” Joe whooped.  “C’mon, Adam!  Hoss is waiting.”  He waved good-bye to Roy before turning his attention back to his brother.

“Can I drive?”  When Adam merely lifted an eyebrow, Joe quickly amended his request.

“May I drive?”  Receiving the reins, Joe started the team down the road, concentrating on keeping the animals under control amidst the crowd of vehicles and horses.

Adam balanced the satchel on his knees, careful to hide its contents from his little brother.  It’s the right thing to do. We need to move on.  Yet, no matter how often he repeated the words out loud or in his head, he felt a little more broken-hearted each time. In a few weeks, Adam Cartwright would petition the court to declare his father dead in absentia.

XXXXXXXXXX

Hoss raked the garden thoroughly, clearing away the weeds and tossing them onto the compost heap—all the while listening for the sounds announcing his brothers’ homecoming. He decided that the late carrots could be covered with straw and harvested after the frost had sweetened them a mite.  So much to do.  When he was just a little feller, he hadn’t appreciated everything that went into keeping a house in order, running a ranch  . . . just seeing that food was on the table every single day.  Well, the last seven years had been a lesson in that kind of appreciation.  Hoss didn’t believe he’d ever again take much for granted.

Deciding the garden was in good enough shape, he headed into the house.  He swept the ashes out of the main fireplace and started a fire.  It wouldn’t do for Adam and Little Joe to be greeted by a cold house.  He’d already checked their bedrooms and made sure there was oil in the lamps.  It was always nice to have the house warm and bright.  With the two of them gone most of every week, Hoss had gotten into the habit of spending a lot of time in the bunkhouse with Jeb and Shorty.  Less lonesome.  Back downstairs, he spotted the reins he’d repaired still lying on the dining table.  He grabbed them up.  It’d take only a few minutes to put ’em back in the tack room.

Hanging the reins alongside the rest of the equipment, Hoss paused and closed his eyes.  His memory was always at its sharpest, most painful here.

“Pa, do you have to go?”

Ben gave the cinch he was tightening a final hard tug.  Holding out his arms, he pulled the eleven-year old to his chest and held him quietly.  He gave Hoss a couple of pats on the back for good measure and led his horse out of the barn.

“It’s like I explained last night, son.  Something important has come up.  Trust me, I want this over and done with as quickly as possible.”

“Will you be home for Little Joe’s birthday, Pa?”

“I don’t see why not.  You be a good boy and help take care of your little brother.”  Ben ruffled Hoss’s hair before swinging into the saddle.  “Little Joe didn’t wake up when I kissed him good-bye.  So, if he doesn’t remember, you be sure to tell him.”  He’d smiled and waved before kicking his horse into a trot.

Then, Hoss had run to the edge of the yard after his father’s horse, waving good-bye until Ben was out of sight.

“Hoss!  Hoss!  We’re home!!”  Joe was hollerin’ for him.

Hoss sniffed and swiped his shirt sleeve across his face before answering.  “Keep your pants on, Shortshanks.  I’m coming.”

Don’t worry, Pa.  I tell him every day.

XXXXXXXXXX

Joe set the table with the blue enameled tin plates and cups.  They hadn’t used the fancy red and white dishes for ages.  Adam said tin plates and cups were less trouble and safer around Joe.

Dinner was almost ready. The ham slices were warm, and Hoss was nearly finished frying the potatoes.  There was a little bread left, and miracle of miracles, a few of Shaughnessy’s dried apple pies had survived the week.  She would send them home with more bread and baked goods tomorrow.  Adam said Shaughnessy had a list of chores for Joe a mile long so he’d be plenty busy while his brothers repaired her roof.  Joe was hoping she wouldn’t try showing him how to darn socks again.  The previous Saturday, she’d threatened to teach him to mend his own clothes.  She was kidding, of course . . . probably.

After dinner, they’d all settle in.  He and Hoss would play checkers while Adam read.  Maybe they could persuade him to play his guitar.  Joe grinned to himself; he was pretty sure he could talk Adam into singing.

It was nice to be home.  Joe blamed himself for their current situation even though his brothers told him not to worry.  Hoss had announced when he turned fourteen that he was quitting school.  Told Adam that he was big enough to do a man’s work, and he wasn’t cut out for school anyways.  Even though Adam argued and pleaded, he hadn’t budged.  Hoss and school had come to a parting of the ways.

It worked out real well for Adam to have Hoss there to help.  But Joe could tell it hurt Adam that Hoss hadn’t finished school.  It made his oldest brother even more determined that Joe was going to get an education.  Since everyone but Joe agreed that an eight year old couldn’t ride back and forth to school on his own, and they couldn’t spare anyone to ride with him, they’d boarded him in town with Mrs. Carruthers.

Joe hadn’t meant to cause trouble.  In fact, he’d do anything he could to help his brothers.  It was just so hard.  For that first year or so, he knew he was needed on the Ponderosa a lot more than he was needed in town at school.  When he couldn’t stand being away a minute longer, he’d try to hitch a ride in the right direction.  Most of the time, he’d just start walking.  It got so that folks from Virginia City started expecting to see Little Joe trudging down the dusty road.  Sometimes, they’d scoop him up and take him back to town.  Lots of times, he was able to convince them to take him home.  Naturally, Adam and Hoss had been beside themselves.  They’d given him a couple of ‘necessary talks’ that even Joe knew were half-hearted.  But he could see that disciplining him hurt his brothers, so Joe had made up his mind to stay in town and do as he was told.

No matter what his teacher and Mrs. Carruthers told Adam, Joe had done his very best.  He hadn’t moped a bit, and he definitely hadn’t pretended to be sick.  Things got a whole lot easier when Adam moved into town to take over managing the freight company for Mr. Willis.  Adam said they could use the cash and keeping Joe in school was just a side benefit.  Now, he and Adam shared a room in the boarding house Monday through Thursday and came home on the weekends.  Some of the older boys at school picked on him no end for being such a ‘baby.”  Joe could live with that nonsense.  He’d figured out something more important a long time ago.

People left when you weren’t looking.

XXXXXXXXXX

 

“That’s three times, punkin,” Hoss drawled as Little Joe hastily tried to smother a huge yawn.  “You know the rules.”

Joe rolled his eyes, but otherwise responded appropriately.  He’d gotten real comfortable on the settee, feet propped on the low table, staring at the fire.  He considered pleading for a little more time downstairs.  Unfortunately, although Adam was smiling, Hoss’s attitude was no-nonsense.  With a gusty sigh, he levered himself to his feet and trudged toward the stairs.

“Move it along, boy.  Got lots to do tomorrow,” Hoss fussed.

Another glance at Adam revealed no help was forthcoming.  Adam merely shrugged and winked.  Dang it.  When they were in town, Joe answered first to Adam; at the Ponderosa, Hoss was in charge.

The brothers waited until they could hear Joe’s bedroom door close.

“Want some coffee?”  asked Hoss.

“Sure, thanks.”  Adam abandoned his book to retrieve the satchel he’d left on the desk top.  Returning to the main room, he carefully removed the stack of papers and sorted them into small piles on the table top.

“Ready to explain everything to me?” Hoss handed over the coffee before settling himself on the settee.

Adam closed his eyes briefly then shifted to the edge of his chair, gesturing at the documents as he spoke.

“We’re petitioning the court for a death certificate even though we’ve never found Pa’s body . . .”  Adam’s voice hitched a little, and Hoss nodded sympathetically.

“He’s been missing seven years, and we’ve heard nothing from him since his last telegram.  That stack of papers is from all the sheriffs we’ve asked for help along with the reports from the men we hired to look for Pa.  This stack represents all of the newspapers in which we placed advertisements and offers of reward for information.  Those are the receipts for notices we’ve placed in newspapers announcing the petition and asking Ben Cartwright to come forward.  Despite everything we’ve tried, no one has seen him or heard from him in seven years.”

“The lawyer thinks this will be enough for the judge?”  Adam wiped his hand over his face and nodded.  “So, what happens . . . after?”

“The entire ‘estate’ is ours without encumbrance.”  Adam paused at Hoss’s look of confusion.  “We can do whatever we think best with the ranch, the accounts, and the investments.  No one else will have any say.”

“That’d be a nice change,” Hoss grunted.  Adam didn’t argue.  The last seven years of financial chaos and outsiders intruding in their grief had been beyond frustrating.

Soon after the boys had received the final telegram from their father, the weather had taken an abrupt turn for the worse.  When Ben Cartwright had failed to return as expected, no one had been unduly alarmed.  It was assumed that he had merely been delayed.  By the time the boys were truly alarmed, an early winter’s fury made it impossible to organize much of a search.

Once winter had settled in, the boys were well and truly stuck with little more than each other and their worry to keep them company.  Fortunately, Jeb and Shorty had decided that the Ponderosa was as good a place as any to spend the winter.  With their help and the supplies on hand, they’d managed.

The spring thaw brought renewed hope Pa would return.  It soon became apparent friends and neighbors didn’t share that hope, and Adam had to add fending off attempts to foster out his little brothers to his now very long list of responsibilities.  If Abel Stoddard hadn’t arrived unannounced in the late spring, Adam felt sure things might have turned out very differently.

Adam’s ruminations ended abruptly when Hoss thumped his fist on the table.

“It ain’t right.  Nobody really believed that Pa hadn’t just taken off for good or done something to hurt himself.”  Hoss fumed at the memory.  “That there telegram proves that he meant to come back.  It says so, clear as day. ‘Boys, all is well.  I’ll be home soon.  Love, Pa.’ That ain’t what someone says if he don’t want to come back.  If we’d had more help, we might could have found him.”

“I know, Hoss, we tried . . . we argued.”

“Not only that,” Hoss punched a large finger toward Adam’s chest.  “Everyone could see that he’d snapped out of his misery over Mama dyin’.  Hadn’t he organized the search party when Little Joe wandered off?  Wasn’t he the one who knew where to look?  It was Pa that found Little Joe at Eagle’s Nest and carried him down.  That ain’t someone who’d given up.”  Hoss was nearly shouting.  Adam expected to see Joe downstairs at any moment.  Adam quickly crossed over to the settee and placed his hand on Hoss’s trembling shoulder.

“Hoss, we both know Pa would have come home if he could have,” Adam soothed.  “We did everything we could think to do to find him.  I know Pa did everything he could do to return.  We all did our best.  Pa always said that’s all you can expect of a man.”

“Adam,” his brother whispered, “I don’t wanna let go.  It kills me that so many folks don’t even give Ben Cartwright a thought anymore . . . that they don’t remember him.”

“It’s all right, Hoss.  We remember.”

XXXXXXXXX

Joe figured he wouldn’t have to eavesdrop so much if his brothers would just go on and tell him stuff.  They still thought of him as a little kid to be protected.  If they’d asked, Joe would have told them not to bother.  He could handle harsh truths a lot better than the stomach-turning anxiety of not knowing.

He’d listened to their entire conversation from his hiding spot at the top of the stars.  From long practice, he knew just when to vamoose into his room to avoid detection.  He’d slipped back into bed mere moments before hearing his brothers’ footsteps in the hallway.  Burrowing down into the blankets, he shut his eyes waiting for the inevitable.  As predicted, the door eased open, and Joe could hear one of them stepping inside.  Probably Hoss, the big ol’ worry wart.  When the door clicked closed, Joe breathed easier and shifted around.

So, it was gonna be official.  His pa was dead.  Not just gone, but dead and never coming back.  Adam had said it would be all right ’cause they’d remember.  He had to know that Joe didn’t remember anything—not really.  What he thought he remembered about Pa was a jigsaw puzzle of stories, descriptions, and a blurry face he recognized in his dreams.  In fact, it seemed that Joe remembered his pa best when he wasn’t trying to remember him at all.  Little pieces of memories would come upon him now and then like wisps of smoke carried by the breeze.  There and gone.  Oddly, Joe sometimes felt a little pull of something long forgotten when Adam smiled a certain way, or when Hoss fussed at him to finish his dinner.

It was too bad that Pa was really dead.  Joe had always figured that he would recognize him somehow when he saw him.

XXXXXXXXXX

Adam thumbed through the bills in his wallet, calculating the remaining expenses for their trip.  Content that there would be enough to travel in comfort, if not style, Adam paid for his purchases and tucked the money away.

Hefting the bundle of mail, he returned to his office.  Vegetables before dessert.  Adam attended to the business correspondence before allowing himself the pleasure of opening the package from Boston.

As expected, his grandfather had sent Joe a birthday gift along with a separate note for Hoss and a nice long letter for Adam.  He turned Joe’s parcel over and considered its weight and size.  He couldn’t guess what might be inside, but he was certain that Joe would be delighted with the gift.  Should I give it to him now or when we get back?  Joe’s birthday would occur while they were traveling.  Maybe it would be better to wait.  The package would be a nice surprise when they got home.  Adam slid the parcel into a desk drawer.  Pulling out his own letter, he settled back in the chair to read.

It was both a pleasure and comfort to correspond with someone he could trust implicitly.  Adam and his grandfather had forged a strong bond during the year Abel Stoddard had lived at the Ponderosa.  One of the many hard lessons learned since his father’s disappearance was to never take such a relationship for granted.

When Abel had arrived late in the spring of ’48, he couldn’t have come at a better or worse time depending on how a person looked at things.  Overwhelmed by work, worry, and the winter’s isolation, Adam would admit later he had been nearly at the end of his rope.  Hoss’s characteristic sunny demeanor had been considerably dimmed while Joe had started acting more as if he were three years old instead of five.

As far as ranching went, Abel could barely tell the difference between a cow’s horns and its hind end.  But the old sea captain did know how to take charge of a situation.

Ben Cartwright had disappeared as a prosperous man.  If he’d been less prosperous, there likely would have been less trouble.  By that spring, the boys had discovered that a person’s disappearance made many things far more difficult for the folks left behind than a death would have caused.

While Ben was missing, the judge insisted that his assets be frozen.  Thus, the boys were unable to access his bank accounts or investments.  They were prevented from selling, leasing, or borrowing against any part of the Ponderosa.

Worse, although Adam had celebrated his eighteenth birthday in May, the circuit judge wasn’t willing to give him guardianship over his own brothers.  Abel’s arrival in Virginia City coincided with a huge fight between a handful of leading citizens over who should be granted guardianship of Hoss and Joe.

Fortunately, Abel had thoroughly considered the potential problems during his journey west.  He wasn’t unduly surprised by the ruckus.  In fact, he’d come well prepared—with a San Francisco lawyer and old, but important, letters.

The lawyer held no ties of friendship or obligation with anyone in Virginia City.  He’d been retained by Abel to protect the interests of the boys; therefore, he vociferously employed every legal device, every sentimental argument, and every vestige of his combative personality to secure a viable compromise.

The final decision was certainly better than nothing, but Adam would never have called it ideal.  The cash that was disbursed monthly never quite covered the most basic of ranch maintenance and household expenses.  Purchases of breeding stock to improve the herds stopped.  The very size of the herd dwindled to only what was manageable by the boys and a few seasonal hands.  The Cartwright cattle joined neighboring herds on community drives to markets.  Any income made from ranching was required to be deposited into the protected holdings.  On paper, the Cartwright assets were extremely healthy.  In reality, the boys got by through a combination of barter, odd jobs, and the money in Adam’s account previously earmarked for college.  Adam hadn’t been kidding Joe when he said that the cash from his job came in handy.

At least the family wasn’t split up.  Every time Adam recalled those days, he remembered to give thanks that they were still together.  Abel’s lawyer had also argued that a grandfather had first claim to guardianship.  That point the contenders had been willing to concede since it appeared to only apply to Adam.  When Abel produced a letter from Ben dated shortly after Inger’s death asking him to look after Adam and Hoss if necessary, the lawyer claimed that both the father’s wishes as well as family ties were involved.  The circuit judge agreed, and after posting the required bond, Abel Stoddard was named legal guardian of Eric and Joseph Cartwright.

At the time, the wrangling over guardianship had made no sense to Adam.  The men involved wouldn’t ordinarily have been considered family oriented, and not one of them had been Ben’s close friend.  Abel had merely shaken his head.

“Lad, those rascals are more interested in what your brothers may inherit than they are in caring for them.”

XXXXXXXXXX

“Mind if I join you?”

Adam looked up from the mound of paperwork.  He was determined to finish it before leaving with his brothers in the morning.

When he saw who had interrupted him, it was hard not to make a face.  Instead, Adam gestured to an open chair with as much courtesy as he could muster.

Ezra Grady eased his stout frame into the chair.  He shifted a bit to find a comfortable spot.  Removing a handkerchief from his stained satin vest, he leaned over to wipe the dust from his shoes.  Satisfied, he straightened up and smiled condescendingly at Adam.

“Boy, I haven’t talked to you in ages.  Everything all right at home?  How’s Little Joe and Hoss?”  As he spoke, Grady wiped the soiled handkerchief across his sweaty brow, depositing a trace of grime.

“Thank you for asking.  What can I do for you?”

Lord, I despise this man.  Adam wasn’t willing to share even the most innocuous of personal information with Ezra Grady. This seedy man had been the most persistent of the group vying for guardianship of his brothers.  Despite having no family of his own or other qualifications for the role, Grady had argued that he could provide a far better home than their brother—or even their grandfather.  Given that the disreputable businessman had some level of political connection, Adam had truly feared the man would prevail.  Despite his failure to gain custody, Adam had seen Grady stalk Little Joe with covetous eyes ever since.

“That’s what I like about you, Adam, all business. You know that Ben and I arrived in the territory about the same time.  Your pa and I had a lot in common . . .”

Nothing!  You have nothing in common with my pa.

“ . . . We both had big dreams of empires.  Your pa wanted land, and he set about gathering the largest, richest land tracts he could find.  Me, well, I’m a businessman.  I make deals that help other folks find their dreams, or at least help them out of trouble.”  Grady winked meaningfully at Adam.

Adam pinched the bridge of his nose.  “Mr. Grady, I have a lot of work to do.  Perhaps you can just tell me what’s on your mind?”

Grady nodded in understanding.  “Adam, in a couple of weeks, you’re going to get the judge to declare your pa dead.  Now, don’t get riled—everyone in town knows it.  That means you and your brothers are going to receive a helluva inheritance.”

“None of that is your concern.”  Adam was barely restraining himself from throwing the man out into the street.

“I’d like to make it my concern.  You boys ain’t been allowed to do nothing with the land and investments for seven years.  You’ve worked like demons to hold onto it and take care of it.  I admire that; it shows respect for your pa.  But that land is a millstone around your neck.  It’s too big and expensive for you to handle.  That place has you pinned like a bug to a board.  Weren’t you supposed to go to college, boy?”  Grady had worked himself into a passion, leaving the chair to pace in front of Adam’s desk.

Adam face was carefully neutral.  “I promise you, Mr. Grady, I’ve received an excellent education in the last seven years.”

“I’ll bet you have,” Grady snickered.  “But it ain’t the kind of education you were planning on, now was it?  What are you, 23 . . . 24 years old? You could still go to college.  Spend time with that nice old grandpa before he passes away.  Put Little Joe in a real good school so he can go to college, too.  I’ll bet you could even find somethin’ for Hoss.”

“We’re not leaving the Ponderosa.”

“Why?  The Ponderosa was your pa’s dream.  You’ve paid it enough respect; I say it’s time for you boys to worry about yourselves.  I’ll give you a good price for it.  Along with the rest of the estate, you three can go live like kings and do whatever you like.”

“We’re not selling.”  Adam got to his feet, and came around his desk.  “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot to do.”

Grady shrugged and nodded. “Adam, you may not like me, but you know I’m talkin’ sense. You think about it.”  He clapped Adam’s shoulder in a friendly gesture that made Adam want to reciprocate with a punch to the rascal’s jaw.

Alone again, Adam sat down.  Instead of returning to his paperwork, he withdrew his grandfather’s letter and read again the final words.

Adam, I know I’ve talked to you often enough about this.  You and your brothers are always welcome to make a home here with me. I’ll respect any decision you make, but I would ask that you decide on what’s best for all of you now.  Your father’s legacy should be a blessing, not an anchor.

I hope you find what you’re looking for.

“So do I, grandfather,” Adam murmured.  “So do I.”

XXXXXXXXXX

Joe was pretty certain the man hadn’t noticed him.  Coming out of the barber shop, he was headed to the freight office when he’d seen Mr. Grady coming down the walk.  It seemed like every time Joe got within shouting distance, Mr. Grady had to summon him over and make a big fuss:  hugging his shoulders, ruffling his hair, even patting his cheek.  Joe figured Mr. Grady thought he was being all fatherly.  Frankly, it just gave Joe the creeps.  Now, Joe kept an eye out for the dude and ducked out of sight when necessary.

Thinking fast, Joe sprinted into the alley and hid behind some barrels.  As soon as he saw Mr. Grady go past, he’d scoot out of there over to Adam’s office.  He peeked around the barrels and jumped back quick.  Mr. Grady had stepped into the alley himself.  Stupid, stupid.  Joe hated being subjected to the man in public; there was no way he wanted to be cornered in some alley with the guy. His heart in his throat, he squeezed himself into the corner between the barrels and the wall and tried to breathe quietly.

He could hear Mr. Grady’s boots crunch on the rocky soil as he paced around.  Joe shut his eyes and tried to fight down a little rush of panic.  Go away, would ya?!  He tried talking himself down.  So what if he was found?  It wasn’t like Mr. Grady was goin’ to do anything to him.  But thinking rationally didn’t convince Joe to come out of hiding.  He was so intent on keeping himself still that he nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard someone else approach the alley and start talking to Mr. Grady.

Another cautious peek around the barrels did nothing to make him feel better.  He knew right away who was talking to Mr. Grady.  It was Nat Higdon. That was bad news. Mitch had told Joe that Mitch had overheard his pa and Seth’s pa saying that Sam at the Bucket of Blood had heard that Nat Higdon was a hired gun who’d as soon shoot a man as look at him.  Joe sure didn’t want to interrupt a gunslinger’s conversation.

The two men were talking so quietly that Joe couldn’t hear much of what they said.  Mr. Grady was doing most of the talking and his tone of voice was a little snappish.

“ . . . just gotta do it the hard way. . . take care of it . . . not like last time . . . people need to know . . .”

Joe heard Nat Higdon’s reply pretty clearly.  “I’ll take care of it. You’ll hear in a few days.”  It sounded like someone spit in the dirt and then walked away.  Joe waited a little while until he heard a second set of footsteps departing.  Swallowing hard, he counted to fifty just to be safe before hightailing down the block to the freight office.

XXXXXXXXXX

Hoss gave Joe’s shoulder another little shake to wake him up.  This kid can sleep anywhere!  Two long days of bouncing knees, heads, and backsides against the rough interior of the stage prevented most folks from getting rest, but apparently Joe wasn’t ‘most folks.’  Even now, Joe turned a little, trying to get comfortable enough for more shut-eye.

Hoss and Adam allowed the other passengers to exit ahead of them.  Once Joe was conscious enough to stumble out of his seat, Adam hopped out and went to retrieve their luggage.  Hoss stepped into the California sunshine and stretched his arms and back.  He turned in time to keep Joe from hitting the ground face-first when the kid leaped from the stage door instead of using the stairs.

“I’m fine,” complained Joe as Hoss brushed dust from his knees and jacket.

“Sure, you are,” muttered Hoss.  “Don’t fuss.  Adam’s gone to see about someplace to stay.”

Hoss looked around.  Sacramento had recently become the new capital of the state of California, and the street was busy with vehicles.  The sidewalks bustled with activity as well—crowded enough that Hoss lost sight of Adam.  There were plenty of folks around.  Some of those folks looked pretty respectable, some of them not so much.  Wranglers, drifters, mountain men, and even Chinese folks intermingled with the well-dressed citizens.

Craning his neck to find his brother in the crowd, Hoss caught a glimpse of the back of Adam’s tan jacket and grabbed Joe to head them in that direction. Looks like ol’ Adam got somethin’ to read already. They’d only gone a few steps when he was caught by the elbow.

“Where are you headed?  I found us a decent boarding house not very far from here.  C’mon.”  Adam pointed down the block.  Taking Joe by the shoulder, Adam started off at a brisk pace.

Huh—fooled me.  Hoss took another look at the man he had mistaken for Adam.  Now that he had a better view, he couldn’t understand his mistake. It was just an old mountain man dressed in buckskin shirt and trousers, a big brimmed hat shading a face full of grey whiskers.  The man’s grey hair lay on his shoulders, and he seemed keenly interested in the newspaper he was holding. Funny, you wouldn’t think a feller like that could even read.  Hoss shrugged and lit out after his brothers.  Like Adam says, things aren’t always what they seem.

XXXXXXXXXX

They spent the day exploring the city.  It was by far the largest town the younger boys had ever experienced, and it was hard not to get caught up in Little Joe’s enthusiasm.  Out of habit rather than interest, Adam used some of their time in the city to check in with the freight company’s customers.  They enjoyed a late lunch that satisfied even Hoss and strolled out to the river as evening approached.

As they neared the muddy banks, the boys fell silent.  The sun, glorious in red, orange, and purple, sank toward the horizon.  A freshening breeze cooled their faces as they studied the view.  Adam watched Little Joe skip stones across the water while Hoss scouted around the tree line behind them.  When he returned, Adam put his hand on Joe’s neck and guided them all to a grassy knoll overlooking water iridescent in the sunset.

Clearing his throat, Adam pulled his pa’s small Bible from his coat pocket.  Opening the book, he drew out a paper marking the page.  Hoss’s hands were jammed in his pockets, his eyes on the ground.  Little Joe was looking right back at him, his face pale but otherwise calm.  Adam coughed a little to get Hoss’s attention, and they all turned to face the sunset.

“Pa, Shakespeare wrote that we must ‘give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o’er wrought heart and bids it break.’[i]  We’ve been pretty broken-hearted for a long time, and we needed to find the right time and place to say goodbye.  We know you were here in Sacramento, pa, and we hope you enjoyed a beautiful sunset by the river just like we’re doing right now.  We’ve stayed together, and we still have the Ponderosa.  We planned for you to find us waiting for you at the ranch, but it looks like we won’t be seeing you again until we see you with Marie and our mothers.  We’ll always miss you, and we’ll always remember what you taught us.”

Adam was hanging onto his composure by a thread, and he was afraid to look at his brothers before he finished.  Opening the Bible, he read aloud, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:  a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;  a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;  a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”[ii]

The silence was broken only by the sound of the water lapping against the rocky banks.  Adam wiped his face and tucked the Bible back into his pocket.  Hoss caught his eye and gave him a little encouraging wink. Then, his middle brother sniffed hard and rubbed Joe’s back as he spoke.

“Pa, I gotta tell you that we ain’t been to church as often as we should.  It ain’t no one’s fault, especially Adam’s, but it didn’t happen like you would have liked.  But, one Sunday, the preacher said somethin’ that made a whole lotta sense to me, and I believe it with all my heart.” 

Drawing a smudged paper from his own pocket, Hoss read his own lines of comfort for his brothers. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”[iii]  Hoss’s voice faded away.

Joe had thought and thought about what to say.  It’d worried him something fierce that he would let his brothers and his pa down by standing there all tongue-tied.  Since he hadn’t found the words in a book, he decided to close his eyes and speak from the heart.

“Pa, Adam and Hoss take good care of things—they take good care of me, and you ain’t got anything to worry about. They talk about you and all the good times we had together.  I’ve been waiting and hoping to see you—but it looks like it’s gonna be a longer wait than we figured on.  I know that when I do see you and Mama, we’ll have good times again.”  Joe looked up at his brothers, smiling at him through tears, and he knew he’d done them proud.

The brothers walked to the tree line and the small hole Hoss had already prepared.  Removing a pine seedling from its wrapping, Adam allowed Joe to mound the soil they’d carried from Nevada around the plant.

“Might not survive here,” said Hoss.

“It’ll be fine,” Adam replied firmly.  Hoss smiled at his conviction, and the three brothers began the walk back to town, leaving the river behind them.

XXXXXXXXX

Joe’s stomach rumbled as the enticing smells from Mrs. Sutherland’s kitchen wafted through the open window.  With the excitement of exploring Sacramento and the nervous anticipation of saying goodbye to his father, Joe hadn’t managed to eat much of his lunch.  He was looking forward to supper.  Shutting the outhouse door, he headed to the pump to clean up before going inside.

He had barely dried himself off when he was grabbed from behind.  A burly arm wrapped around his torso, pinning his arms down.  Joe struggled and twisted—at first, he was too surprised to call for help.  When he took a deep breath to shout, he found a rough hand clamped over his mouth as he was carried away from the boarding house.

All the lurid stories Joe had ever overheard about what happened to kids on their own flashed through his mind. Doggone it! I ain’t gonna be no one’s cabin boy!  His brothers always said he had grit.  Joe might be small for his age, but the size of his temper more than made up for the size of his body.  He’d had to fight off more than one bigger kid, and he knew it didn’t pay to fight fair.  Whoever this fellow was that had him, he was at least as tall as Adam—and Joe had brought Adam down in play fights.

Hooking his right foot behind the guy’s knee, Joe pulled hard at the joint.  Knowing what to expect, Joe braced himself for the fall.  They both hit the ground face first with Joe momentarily pinned beneath the man—but the impact loosened his grip on the boy. Without hesitation, Joe bit down hard on the hand covering his mouth and kicked the guy’s stomach.  Twisting and shoving, Joe was able to get to his feet and start running. Even though there was no one in sight, he yelled as loudly as he could for help. Before he’d gone ten steps, the man was on him again.  Joe was spun around and landed in the dirt on his back.  Before he could scoot away, the man slapped him hard, shook him until his teeth banged together, and slapped him again.

“Don’t try any more of those stunts with me, boy, if you know what’s good for ya,” the man hissed.   A rope was quickly and painfully tied around Joe’s wrists.  A bandana was stuffed in his mouth.  Once more, Joe was lifted off his feet and carried into the shadows.

Joe knew perfectly well what was good for him, and going quietly with this dude was definitely not good.  He waited to get his bearings and maybe fool the fellow into believing he was cowed.  It didn’t take long before the two of them were in front of a horse; it looked like they were going to ride away.  Joe really liked horses, but he was running out of ideas.  When his kidnapper turned to throw him into the saddle, Joe drew his knees up and kicked the horse as hard as he could in the neck.   The horse protested loudly, kicking and pulling against its reins.  Although the horse and Joe both put up a powerful fuss, the guy managed to hold onto both of them.  Swearing viciously, the outlaw pulled hard on the reins and brought the horse under control.  Jerking hard on Joe’s arms, the man threw him into the saddle and put his own foot in the stirrup.

“Let him go,” a deep voice demanded.  Far from the house lights and street lanterns, Joe could hardly see who was confronting his kidnapper. The man holding him stepped away from the horse, keeping his eyes on Joe’s rescuer.

“Mister, you don’t want any part of this.  Get on your way now while you still can.”  A moment passed, and the outlaw started to move back to the horse.

“I’ve got nothing to lose, friend.  Haven’t you heard?  I’m dead.”

Joe’s kidnapper took a hard look at the man then, and whatever he saw had him grabbing for the gun in his holster.  Both men fired at the same time, and if that horse had been a caution before, gunfire panicked it completely.  There was no way Little Joe could stay in the saddle.  Once again, he was slammed into the ground.  This time, he rolled to avoid the hooves threatening to trample him.

“Grab the horse,” Joe heard his rescuer order.

Strong hands caught him under the arms and shifted him gently to a patch of grass.  An arm went under his shoulders and the dirty gag was taken from his mouth.  Joe blinked the grime and tears from his eyes as best he could.  An old mountain man dressed in buckskin clothing was holding him, one hand cupped around his cheek.

“What did he do to you, boy?” the man whispered.  Joe was astonished to see tears in the man’s eyes.  Behind them, he heard shouts and running footsteps.

“Take your hands off my brother,” Adam’s voice was cold and hard.  The mountain man eased Joe down before raising his hands and stepping back.  “Keep your hands where we can see them.  Someone has already gone for the sheriff.”

Then Adam was down on his knees in front of Joe working to untie the ropes.   As soon as he was loose, Adam embraced him fiercely, his face buried in Joe’s curls.  Joe held on just as hard, shaking with shock and emotion.

“Hoss, keep your eye on that one.  We’ll need a doctor for Joe.”

“Yeah, there’s someone else here on the ground that might could use a doctor, too.”

Joe grabbed Adam’s arm. “You don’t understand. That guy saved me.”

Never taking his eyes off Joe, Adam nodded.  “Don’t worry; we’re going to find out what’s going on here.”

Adam straightened up and helped Joe to his feet.  “Mister, you’ve got a lot of explaining to do,” he said as he steadied his little brother.  They both heard a strangled cry and the sound of Hoss’s pistol hitting the ground. Instinct had Adam’s gun drawn before he’d even completed turning to face the old man.

Joe didn’t think Adam had ever fainted in his life, but it seemed like there might be a first time for everything.  Incredibly, their middle brother was sobbing in the old man’s arms.  When the man lifted his tear-stained face from Hoss’s shoulder, Joe had to steady Adam.

“You’re right, son.  I do have a lot to explain,” Ben Cartwright said.

XXXXXXXXXX

Joe had thought he understood what was happening, but the scene before him had him completely confused.  Adam left his side and stumbled toward the old mountain man.  Hoss stepped back to allow Adam’s approach.

“Am I going crazy?” asked Adam, raising a tentative hand to the man’s bearded face.

The man grabbed Adam’s arm and pulled him close.  Hoss was smiling bigger than Joe could ever remember seeing and patting Adam’s back.

It was all a bit much for Joe, and he sat back down on the ground to wait for someone to tell him what was going on.  He had barely hit the dirt before Hoss grabbed him up and put him on his hip—on his hip like a little kid!—and was shouting in his ear.

“That’s Pa, Joe!  That there is Pa!”  Hoss wouldn’t stop hugging him and jumping around.  All the commotion was making Joe’s injured head pound, and the bouncing was making him sick to his stomach.

“Stop, Hoss!” begged Joe. “Please . . . put me down.”  Something in his face brought Hoss up short.  He settled down quickly and eased Joe to the ground.

“Sorry about that, punkin. You’ve had a rough time, and I aint helpin’ none.”  For the first time, Hoss carefully looked over his little brother noticing the bruises and sickly pallor.  “We’ll get a doctor here soon, and he’ll take a look at you.  While we wait, you just lean on me.”  Joe took him at his word, leaning into Hoss’s chest with his brother’s arm around him.

“What the hell is goin’ on here?”

Joe looked up to see a small crowd of people led by a man wearing a sheriff’s badge.  The landlady, Mrs. Sutherland, was peering around the sheriff’s shoulder, and another fellow with a badge was bent over the prone figure of his kidnapper.  When the sheriff didn’t get an immediate answer, he took charge of the situation.  Walking over to Joe and Hoss, the sheriff squatted down next to them.

“You the young’un that got snatched?” the sheriff asked kindly.  At Joe’s nod, he continued.  “Can you say what happened?”

“The feller on the ground grabbed me and tried to drag me to his horse.  I fought him and almost got away before he caught me and tied me up. He was gettin’ up on the horse behind me when he . . . my pa . . . stopped him.”  Joe was cold now and started to shiver.  The sheriff noticed and wrapped his own coat around the boy.

“That’s your pa?  Funny, he don’t look like someone that would be related to the three of you.  While we sort this all out, you lay here quiet and rest.”  The sheriff patted Joe’s shoulder and encouraged him to stretch out.

The sheriff stood. “You!  Holding the horse!  Come on over here!”  A small man in loose clothing stepped forward and bowed.  “What have you got to do with this, Chinaman?”

“He’s with me,” Ben Cartwright spoke up.  “I can explain.”

“This should be quite a story—”

“Sheriff McCray! This feller’s comin’ around,” interrupted the deputy, “but he ain’t lookin’ so good.”

“Can’t imagine why,” muttered the sheriff.  “Abner, find the doc.  Lemme see what I can get out of him.”  The deputy took off as ordered.

The sheriff shook the wounded man’s arm a bit, “Mister, I need you to talk to me.”  Aware that someone had come up behind him, the sheriff glanced at Ben Cartwright.  When he looked down again, he saw the wounded man’s eyes were fixed on the mountain man.

“You remember me?”  Cartwright asked.  The man barely nodded.  “Why?”

“It was a job.”  The man’s voice was a breathy whisper trailing off at the end.

“I suppose tonight was a job, too?”  Cartwright’s voice was filled with righteous fury, barely controlled.  “Were you going to sell him to some crimp?”  The man shook his head.

“Take him . . . be rescued . . . kill the other two.”

“Who sent you?”  Ben Cartwright bent over the dying man.  “Who paid you to do all of this?”

Instead of answering, the man closed his eyes.  A final breath rattled in his throat before ceasing altogether.

McCray rocked back on his heels in frustration.  “Well, son of a . . .  Now, we’ll never know.”

“Sheriff?” All eyes turned to the youngest Cartwright, still wrapped in the sheriff’s coat, staring down at the dead man.

“I know,” Little Joe said.

XXXXXXXXXX

Although his brothers backed up Little Joe’s identification of the dead man as Nat Higdon, they were inclined to argue with his interpretation of what he had overheard in that Virginia City alley.   Sensing that tempers were already strained by emotion, the sheriff threw up his hands in frustration and sent the newly reunited family away for the night.

After being tended by the doctor and the intensely curious and sympathetic Mrs. Sutherland, Joe joined his family on the boarding house’s back porch.  It seemed Mrs. Sutherland’s curiosity and sympathy didn’t quite extend to allowing the elder Mr. Cartwright’s heathen yellow friend admittance to her dining room.

“Feeling better?” Adam asked.  Joe nodded and sat next to his brother.  Adam’s arm went reassuringly around his shoulders.  Lately, Joe had resisted being hugged in public, but the day had been so far from ordinary he was grateful for the embrace.  Besides, none of his friends were around to see him.

He and Adam were sitting across from the mountain man— his pa, Joe had to keep reminding himself.  Hoss sat next to their pa—touching his arm or back constantly as if to reassure himself that Ben Cartwright was actually there.  His pa’s Chinese friend perched on the steps just outside the glow of the lantern light.  No one had introduced the fellow yet to Joe, but when the little man caught Joe’s eyes he grinned and bobbed his head.

Joe studied the man in front of him.  Nothing about him matched the description his brothers had supplied over the years.  Maybe Adam read his mind.

“Pa, I can’t get over the grey hair and beard!  I’m still stunned by everything.  How did you know where to find us?”

Ben leaned forward in the chair, hands clasped over his knees.  “Adam, I had no idea the three of you were here until I realized who Higdon was following.  We’d only arrived yesterday, and I spotted Higdon near the stage depot soon after I noticed this in the newspaper.”  Ben pulled a clipping from his pocket and handed it to Adam. “I decided to keep an eye on him.”

Adam read the notice of petition to declare Benjamin Cartwright dead.  His hands shook, and he found it difficult to meet his father’s eyes.

“Pa, I’m so sorry.  It had been seven years, and . . .” Adam’s voice was husky with guilt.

“Hush, son.  I’m not hurt or angry.  You did what was right.”  He reached over and touched Adam’s knee.  He moved to touch Little Joe as well who unconsciously shrank back against his brother. Ben halted and cleared his throat.

“Higdon ambushed me here in Sacramento seven years ago.  Drugged me into a stupor and put me along with a number of other unlucky souls in a wagon bound for Portland.  From Portland, I was put on a ship sailing west to Asia.”

“Portland?  Why take you clear to Portland?  Why not San Francisco if you was goin’ to be shanghaied?”  Hoss demanded.

“That was one of the many questions I intended to ask Higdon,” Ben replied.

“Pa, where were you all of those years?”  Hoss asked him.

“Boys, it’s a long story.”

XXXXXXXXXX

Ben scanned the beloved faces—now so different from what he remembered.  Adam, of course, had changed the least; but even so, he was more mature and self-assured.  Tonight, however, his oldest son’s handsome face was touched with fatigue and edged with needless guilt.  Ben was astonished by the size of his middle child.  Eighteen-year old Hoss had outgrown his father by a few inches and showed all the potential of becoming a powerful man.  Too thin, though.  The broad chest and shoulders needed building up.  Seeing the change in his youngest wrung Ben’s heart.  Where was the affectionate little boy who had climbed into his lap and hugged his neck?  This solemn youngster held onto Adam’s arm as if it were a lifeline.  Ben shivered in the cool night air.  Despite his warm clothing, he never felt warm these days.  So much lost . . . so much taken from me.  Ben closed his eyes to quell the surge of grief and anger.  Hold on.  Don’t lose control. 

“Pa?  You all right?” Ben nodded in response and began to talk.

“As I said, I was taken by wagon to Portland.  I did my best to escape and come back to you,” Ben’s voice shook with remorse, “but the men in charge were ruthless.  By the time we got to Portland, I was somewhat the worse for wear.”

“Portland is notorious for shanghaiing the unsuspecting. The crimps are efficient, and apparently willing to pay top dollar for deck hands—former sailors, in particular.  Before I was quite back to thinking straight, I found myself on a vessel bound for the Orient.”

“Couldn’t you tell the captain what happened to you?  Couldn’t you tell him your family didn’t know where you were?”  Little Joe asked.

Ben was encouraged by the questions.  It had been the first time Joe had addressed him directly.

“I tried to do just that, son.  I wasn’t surprised to be ignored.  The captain reminded me that there was no place to go, and I should make the best of things.”  His sons’ faces reflected their shock.

“After sailing the Pacific for nearly a year and a half. I’m sure we visited every available port–each of them impossible to use as either an escape or a way to communicate with anyone at home.  Finally, we anchored in the Sandwich Islands to provision for the long journey east to England.  I thought it was my only chance, and I jumped ship.  I hid in the jungle until the ship had sailed.  When I came out, I kept away from the officials while I searched for some way home.”  Ben saw the question forming on Hoss’s face.  “Even though I had been kidnapped, I was bound by contract to the ship I had deserted.  I would have been punished if I’d been caught.”

“I heard that a ship was in port bound for North America.  I thought, at least I would be going in the right direction.  I found the ship’s captain, Robert McClure, and convinced him to take me on board.  I agreed to serve on the HMS Investigator in exchange for release at the end of the expedition.”

“The Investigator?  It disappeared . . .” Adam put in.

Ben nodded to his son and continued, “Do you remember the talk in the newspapers about Franklin’s lost expedition to find the Northwest Passage?   How the British Crown sent a number of expeditions to the Arctic to find and rescue Franklin if possible?  The Investigator was part of that effort.”

“McClure is a bit of a daredevil.  Since he was already separated from his consort ship, he decided to push on alone.  The Investigator made good time.  We left Honolulu in July and spotted ice fields around Point Barrow in early August 1850.  From there, it was uncharted waters.  Despite a thorough search of the the coast east of Point Barrow, there was no trace of Franklin and his men, although we did meet local Indians.”

“The captain did not completely anticipate the extent of the ice.  By September of that year, we were firmly ice-bound and remained that way until the following summer.  We were able to make some progress during the warmer months, but too soon we became hopelessly trapped again.”

“How long were you trapped?” Adam asked.  Ben saw that Little Joe’s eyes were as round as saucers at the tale.

Ben sighed.  “Four winters before another expedition came across us.  It could have been worse.  The ship had been reinforced before the voyage and carried plenty of provisions.  We met and traded with the Indians I mentioned.  Even hunted and fished a bit.  Everyone did very well for a long time.  It was only in the last few months that the men started to sicken and die.”

“No wonder your hair is white,” Little Joe murmured.

Ben smiled at his youngest.  “No wonder,” he agreed.

“When rescue came, the Investigator was abandoned and everyone left on dog-pulled sledges to other expedition ships.  Those ships were bound for England—which I was not.”

“How did you get here?”

“Let’s see . . . dog sledges, ships hop-skipping south along the coast, homesteader wagons when possible, and a great deal of walking!”

For the first time during his story, Ben could see a little trace of amusement on his oldest son’s face.  When he looked quizzically at Adam, his boy shrugged and replied.

“So, you abandoned the Sandwich Islands for four winters in the Arctic?”

Ben chuckled.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

XXXXXXXXXX

Even though Hoss was pretty sure Mrs. Sutherland had been eavesdropping during the story, he was still grateful when she came outside with lemonade and cookies.  It gave his pa a chance to rest for a few minutes and get over telling about what had happened to him.  Hoss didn’t think he had ever seen anyone look as sad . . . as mad . . . as cheated as Pa looked.  Maybe all that walking had really taken its toll, his pa looked plumb worn out.

They thanked the lady for the food and silently waited for her to return to the house.  Hoss snuck a look at his brothers to see how they were taking all of this.  Adam was chewing his bottom lip and clenching then unclenching his hands.  Hoss could understand what he was feeling.  The injustice of what had happened to their family demanded some sort of retribution.  Little Joe looked a bit overwhelmed, like he’d been told a scary bedtime story and wasn’t too sure what was real and what was make-believe.

They’d all been silent for so long that Hoss jumped a little when his pa spoke again.

“You know, McClure ended up finding the Northwest Passage.”

“You said you were stranded,” Adam stated.

“Oh, we were definitely stranded, but we weren’t idle.  Whenever we could move the ship a bit, we did so, and we explored by land quite a bit.  I imagine the whole story will be in the newspapers at some point.”  His father rocked quietly in his chair.

“That reminds me,” Ben said.  “Hop Sing, I wonder if you could hand me my pack, please?”  The little man fussed around their meager possessions and brought forth what was requested.

“Adam, I asked the captain for a copy of his map.  I talked so often about you and your curiosity that he was good enough to oblige me.”  Ben pulled a roll out of the pack and smoothed it out before handing it to Adam. Hoss and Little Joe looked over Adam’s shoulders at the sketch of coastline, islands, sea, and the passage marked out for future exploration.

“This is fascinating, Pa.”  Adam tried to hand it back to his father.

“No, son, it’s for you.  Keep it.”  Adam accepted with a warm smile.

“Hoss, despite the perils, there were times I wished you were beside me.  There are animals living in that ice and snow unlike anything you’ve ever known.  I traded with one of the natives for this.”  Ben placed a beautiful stone carving of a creature in Hoss’s hands.  The animal had a strange face with large tusks extending from the mouth. Flippers took the place of hind legs.  Curled on the creature’s back was a smaller version of the animal.

“It’s a walrus with a pup on its back.  It’s actually a very good likeness.” Ben wrapped Hoss’s hands around the offering.

“You brought presents?”  Joe whispered.  Ben seemed startled by the question.  He shook his head.

“Presents?  I never thought of it that way.  I can hardly explain.  The three of you were with me every step of the way.  I thought of you constantly . . . talked about you incessantly to anyone patient enough to listen.  I just sort of collected things that I thought you might like . . .  things that reminded me of you.  Anyway, Joseph, let me show you this.  I think you’ll like it.”

Joe dared to leave Adam’s side to approach his father.  He watched as Ben carefully removed an object from a length of animal skin.  Inside was an exquisite knife carved from bone.

“This was a gift for helping to care for an Inuit who had been injured on a hunt.  Be careful, it’s very sharp.”  When Joe hesitated to touch it, his father encouraged him.  “Go ahead and take it.  It’s yours.  A boy should have a good knife, and I believe your birthday is tomorrow.”

Joe carefully took the knife and turned it in his hands, gently drawing his thumb down the honed edge.  When Joe raised tear-filled eyes to his father’s face, Ben could barely breathe.  His son was the picture of Marie!

“Thank you, sir,” Joe said.  Ben briefly hoped that Joe would come to him.  Instead as the youngster’s shoulders shook with emotion, he turned to Adam instead of Ben for comfort.

“C’mon, buddy.  You need to turn in.  You have to be exhausted,” Adam said.

Joe nodded and, with no more than a subdued ‘good night’ to his Pa and Hoss, allowed his oldest brother to lead him inside.

“That knife’s really something.  I can tell Joe likes it a lot.”  Hoss spoke into his ear.

“He’s so different than I remember. So quiet.  He’s obviously very attached to Adam,” Ben choked out.

“Well, I wouldn’t fret about it, Pa,” Hoss soothed his father.  “He had a tryin’ day.  You can’t really blame him for strugglin’ a little.”

Suddenly, a huge smile graced Hoss’s face.  He put his arm around his father’s shoulders and squeezed.

“You made it home.  You said you should make it back in time for Little Joe’s birthday, and that’s just what you did!”

XXXXXXXXXX

“I want to hear the whole story, but . . .” Sheriff McCray wagged a finger at Little Joe, “only one of you at a time.”

Unsure who was to begin, Joe leapt into the breach.  “So, last night after we got back from sayin’ goodbye to Pa, we were gonna eat at the boarding house, but I had to attend to some personal business outside.  While I was cleanin’ up, Nat Higdon grabbed me from behind and tried to throw me on the horse, but my pa stopped him and shot him down. I heard that gunslinger talkin’ with Mr. Grady about doin’ things the hard way, and that means Mr. Grady paid him to do it and to make my pa disappear, too.”   Joe’s explanation came out in a rush of words that left him gasping for air at the end.  He punctuated his declaration by crossing his arms over his chest and nodding emphatically at the sheriff.

The sheriff regarded Joe thoughtfully before turning to the rest of the family.  “I want to hear the whole story . . . from someone else.”  Joe looked highly insulted.

And so Ben’s story was told again, no less extraordinary with repetition.  Adam, keeping a guilty eye on his father, described their reason for the trip.  Finally, Joe was allowed to speak again.  The sheriff asked him to repeat exactly what he’d overheard in the alley.  All of them discussed Higdon’s final words.  The newspaper clipping advertising the petition to declare Ben Cartwright dead in a few days lay on the sheriff’s desk.

The sheriff sighed and shook his head.  This story sure beat anything he’d ever heard in his life.

“I can’t say I’m not suspicious of Ezra Grady.  But suspicion ain’t guilt.  Why would he want you gone, mister?  For that matter, why hire someone to hurt these boys?”

Adam spoke up.  “The day before we left, Grady visited me.  He wanted to buy the Ponderosa.  He told me it was too much trouble and expense for us to maintain.”

“Balderdash,” sputtered Ben.  “He had to know you three had plenty of resources to take care of the ranch.  What was he thinking?”  Expecting agreement from his sons, Ben saw instead looks of discomfort.

“What happened?” he asked anxiously.

The sheriff cleared his throat.  “Well, I don’t know the particulars.  But, it wouldn’t be unusual for things to be all snarled up in these circumstances.  The family wouldn’t be able to touch the assets.  Is that about right, fellas?”

Troublesome details he had noticed but given no further thought fell into place for Ben.  The boys were too thin and poorly clothed.  They were staying at a cheap boarding house instead of a hotel.  It was clear now that there had been no college for Adam.  Instead of being provided for, cared for . . . they’d been taken advantage of, even impoverished by someone—no, not someone, Ezra Grady!  He could hardly breathe through the filter of his emotion.

“I can’t quite make out what Higdon meant about ‘take him to be rescued’ . .  .” the sheriff was musing.  “Would Grady want your youngest for some reason?”

“He’s just some crazy old coot,” Little Joe piped up, “always grabbing me and stuff.”

That remark silenced the group.  Ben crossed the room in a second gripping Joe’s shoulders forcefully.  Inches in front of his boy’s face, he demanded, “What are you saying?  What has he done?”

Joe shrank back from his father’s rage.  Dark eyes were blazing beneath the bushy gray brows.  Joe had always felt like he would know his pa when he saw him, but looking at this angry stranger, he couldn’t see the person his brothers had always described.

“You know,” he replied, trying to soothe his pa, “stuff grown-ups do when they don’t know any better.  He was huggin’ me and talkin’ to me all the time like I was his favorite nephew.”

Satisfied with the answer, Ben released his son.  Joe immediately stepped back out of reach.

“I’ll kill him,” Ben said.

“Simmer down, Cartwright!  Seems like you’ve gone through too much to end up on the gallows now.  We need evidence.”  The sheriff pointed to a chair, and Ben reluctantly sat down.  He raised a shaking hand to swipe across his brow.

“Then, let’s find evidence and put the monster away,” he growled.

XXXXXXXXXX

“Hop Sing get food.  Take number three son.”

The Chinaman had been so quiet that they had all but forgotten he was there.  Joe smiled gratefully at the little man.  He was on his feet trailing Hop Sing out the door before anyone could object.

A brisk walk via main thoroughfares and back alleys landed them eventually at the kitchen door of a large hotel.  Gesturing for Joe to sit on a nearby crate, Hop Sing disappeared into the building.  Listening to the voices that carried through the door, Joe didn’t need to understand the language to understand the authoritative tone of the ‘request’ being made.

It wasn’t long before Hop Sing reappeared followed by another Chinese man bearing bowls of steaming rice and strips of meat.  With a bow, the man presented a bowl to Joe.

“What did you say to them in there?”  Joe asked.

“Hop Sing tell cousins make food for honorable Cart-lights.  Will bring when ready.”

“More food like this?”

Hop Sing rolled his eyes.  “This for number three son to eat while wait.  Boy too skinny.  How boy grow if not eat?”

Joe tried a heaping spoonful of the concoction.  Wonderful!  He tried to relay his appreciation to Hop Sing’s cousin who bowed before turning to head back into the kitchen.

“Wait!” he called, stopping the man.  “How do I say ‘thank you’?” Joe asked Hop Sing.

Hop Sing nodded at him approvingly.  “Say xie-xie.”

Joe repeated the phrase and was rewarded with a wide smile and another approving look.  He dug into his meal with gusto before realizing Hop Sing wasn’t eating.

“Aren’t you goin’ to eat, too?”  Joe scooted over on the crate to allow Hop Sing room to sit.

Hesitating for a moment, Hop Sing perched next to Joe and began eating his own meal.

“How did you meet my pa?” Joe asked around mouthfuls.

“Hop Sing cook in big house in Port-land.  Two months ago, Hop Sing going home at night when attacked by white men.  Very bad—cannot run and too many to fight.”  He pointed to a scar above his right ear.  “Honorable father see what happen and fight men-scare them off.”

“Why did they attack you?”

“Who know?”  Hop Sing shrugged.  “Maybe not like Chinese.  Mistah Ben tell Hop Sing about journey.  Sound like hero’s story from long ago.  Mistah Ben not well.  Mistah Ben need Hop Sing to take care of him.  Hop Sing come along to see end of story.”

Noticing Joe had nearly finished, Hop Sing jumped up and shouted another demand to those inside the kitchen.

“Hop Sing tell cousin to bring my L’il Joe more food.”  When Joe started to object, he found himself the target of the little man’s indignation.

“L’il Joe not argue.  Hop Sing know best.”

“All right, all right,” Joe muttered.  They sat in silence for a few moments except for the sound of Joe digging his boot toe in the dirt.  Finally he gathered his courage and caught Hop Sing’s eye.

“What boy need?” Hop Sing asked gently.

Joe swallowed hard.

“Tell me about my pa.”

XXXXXXXXXX

Bearing the basket of food, they heard his brother shouting before they opened the door.

“I won’t have it!”

Joe hardly ever heard Adam yell like that.

“Well, son, I reckon that’s up to your pa,” the sheriff interjected mildly.

“With all due respect,” Adam modulated his tone and volume with effort, “I am legally responsible for Little Joe.”

Hoping to break the tension, Joe spoke up, “Yep, Adam is my loco parent.”

“You’re not helping, brat!” Adam lightly cuffed the back of Joe’s head.  “But he’s right.  Joe is Grandfather Stoddard’s ward, and I’ve been designated in loco parentis.”

Ben’s pain at the pronouncement was evident to all.  He turned away from his sons to sit dejectedly in one of the chairs.

“It’s a good plan, Adam, and we’d all be around,” the sheriff argued. “It ain’t much risk.”

“Don’t you understand, I won’t have him at any risk,” Adam was back to hollering.

“Everyone hang on,” said Hoss.  “The three of us have gotta talk.”  Hoss grabbed Adam by the elbow and pushed both brothers outside.

“What’s goin’ on?”  Joe asked.

Hoss hunkered down to Joe’s eye level.

“We think we got that Grady character figgered out.” Adam snorted, but Hoss silenced him with a glare.

“See, all those documents have already been recorded at the courthouse back home.  The judge could declare Pa dead any time.”  Hoss paused, but Joe gave him a “keep on going” gesture.  “If me and Adam were dead too, like that Higdon feller said was the plan, not missing like Pa was, but dead—well, you’d inherit everything.”

“So . . .” Joe prompted.

“Well, if you were ‘rescued,’ say by Grady, we’re thinkin’ the judge might be liable to make Grady your guardian.  Once that happened, he could take over your inheritance—the Ponderosa and everything while you weren’t looking.”

“But why,” Little Joe sputtered, “why not just kill us all?”  This logic was way too convoluted for him.

“Because this way, Grady just sort of slips into Pa’s shoes without any fuss or even havin’ to spend no money.”  Hoss gave Joe a pat, “plus, we think Mr. Grady likes you and wants you around.”

“So, what are we gonna do?”

Adam answered, “The sheriff wants to set up a trap—with you as bait.  Why Pa would even go along with this . . .” Adam threw up his hands in disgust.

“Dang it, Adam.  It ain’t baitin’ no trap with Joe,” Hoss growled.  The sheriff thinks Grady can be tricked into showing his hand.  Pa don’t like it any more than you do.  But doggone, we’re sittin’ ducks right now.”

Turning back to Joe, Hoss continued, “There’s a little risk, but everyone would be close by.”

Joe looked up at Adam’s troubled face. “I won’t do nothin’ you don’t want me to,” he promised.  “But do you think this would fix things?”

“Fix things?  I don’t know about that, buddy.”  Adam stopped his moody pacing. “If we catch Grady off-guard, we might be able to put an end to it.”  He sighed, “Hoss is right.  We might be at more risk by doing nothing.”

Both brothers waited for his response.  Joe took a deep breath and squared his shoulders.

“Let’s do it.”

XXXXXXXXXX

Looking at things objectively, Ezra Grady could brag that he was a successful man.  However, he couldn’t remember ever before feeling this jubilant over one of his schemes.

Virginia City had been stunned by the news from Sacramento about the Cartwright boys.  Sheriff Coffee had left town to retrieve the bodies of Adam and Hoss Cartwright.  Apparently, the youngest boy had been taken by the gunslinger responsible for murdering his brothers. Wasn’t it a darn shame?

Wearing the same mournful face as the rest of the town folks, Grady was hardly able to conceal his glee; especially after he had received his own telegram that evening:

Three miles east in Purdy Canyon off the Austin road.  Higdon.

Everything had fallen into place just as he’d planned.  Oh, there were a few fussy details needing attention: ‘rescue’ the boy from his kidnapper, bury the brothers, have the judge finally declare Cartwright dead and appoint him guardian.  Piddling stuff, really.

Soon enough, though, Ezra Grady would be the master of the Ponderosa—residing in the sunshine of prosperous respectability instead of the glare of notoriety.  He’d have money, reputation, and a bright, handsome boy by his side.  It was everything he’d ever imagined for himself.

One more piddling detail . .  .  A man of his stature sure wouldn’t need someone like Nat Higdon hanging around him.   Might as well make it a real rescue.

XXXXXXXXXX

Ben absentmindedly patted the coat pocket containing the small Bible that Adam had pressed into his hands before departing with the others to set the trap.  The little book was heavier than he remembered.  He’d always carried it with him on his travels—always—until that last journey seven years ago.  Why had he left it behind?  He couldn’t remember.

When his ordeal was still new, he’d prayed constantly. Every step, every breath brought forth a word to the Almighty.  He’d prayed for rescue at first as well as protection for his sons and himself.  He’d uttered prayers of thanksgiving for his survival and whatever slim opportunities presented themselves that brought him closer to home.  He’d prayed for the well-being of his shipmates, Indians, and most of all for his sons.  As he endured the months of nearly constant darkness during those captive winters, he’d prayed for strength.  But, somehow, after all the time locked in fields of ice—isolated, bereft, and hopeless, it occurred to him that the Almighty couldn’t hear him . . . had maybe even forgotten Ben Cartwright.  Since he figured he was on his own now, after a while he’d simply forgotten to pray.

He shifted in the saddle atop Nat Higdon’s horse.  Lately, he’d done a lot more walking than riding, and his backside was reminding him of the fact.  It hadn’t helped that he’d slept poorly the night before, but Ben couldn’t remember his last good sleep.  It wasn’t just the actual nightmares taking him places he didn’t want to be.  Simply closing his eyes produced disturbing chaotic images.  If he allowed himself to close his eyes as he rode, he knew what he’d see—Nat Higdon’s brutish features . . . Nat Higdon’s cruel hands on his boy.  Learning that Ezra Grady was behind it all was nearly too much to bear.

So Ben kept his eyes open and fixed on his son riding beside him.  Since it was just the two of them, Little Joe had opened up a bit and begun acting and speaking more naturally.  It was astounding what the boy found to talk about!

Joe began with a running commentary on the scenery before moving on to stories about school, his brothers, and the Ponderosa.  Whether Ben responded or not made little difference.  Neither did Joe refrain from questioning Ben about his time aboard ship.  When Ben could bring himself to answer, he found Little Joe was a good listener.  His boy even made him laugh.  To some extent, talking helped.

Yet, during a rare moment of silence, Ben found his attention lingering on the bruises Higdon had inflicted on Joe.  That son of a . . .  Bile rose in his throat and he clutched the reins with white-knuckled fury.  He must have made some sound because Joe looked at him questioningly, “Sir?”

Shaking his head, he wiped a hand across his eyes and over his smooth jaw.  His beard was gone along with his buckskin outfit.  Dressed in a long coat and ordinary trousers, in many ways he more closely resembled the old Ben Cartwright.He tried to smile for his son, “I’m fine, Joseph, I promise.”

Ben made a promise to himself as well.  No matter what, Ezra Grady was going to pay for what he had done.

XXXXXXXXXX

Grady fought to keep the buggy upright on the rutted trail.  He’d considered riding, but knew he wasn’t physically up to the challenge.  Besides, this way he could bring Little Joe back with him in comfort.  Yessir, he could picture the boy’s surprise in seeing him come along.  After what the poor young’un had been through, he’d be grateful for the rescue.  With time, that gratitude would strengthen into affection for his adopted father.  Nothing would be too good for Joe as far as Grady was concerned.  He’d make sure the boy enjoyed every luxury, and the two of them would become as close as any friends could be.  He smiled in satisfaction at his vision; he could hardly wait to start making it a reality.

What would the townsfolk say when they saw that Grady had rescued the youngest Cartwright?  He’d explain he had been on his way to Austin on business when he’d detected suspicious signs along the trail.  He’d describe how he had come upon the outlaw’s campsite and faced the man down.  He imagined the uproar, the pleasing fuss that would be made over him and his courage in dispatching the boy’s kidnapper.  It would be a hero’s welcome, no doubt.

He hoped Higdon was smart enough to keep the boy ignorant of his identity.  Surely the child wouldn’t recognize the rascal.  If Joe did remember seeing the gunslinger around town, Grady would convince the boy that he was mistaken—too shocked and confused by the ordeal to really know.

Grady shielded his eyes looking for some clue to their location.  It was hard to see with the sunlight glaring off rock.  He took a swig of water and wiped his sweaty brow.  The jostling buggy ride combined with the heat upset his stomach; he could even feel a cramping pain from his jaw on down his left arm from hanging onto the reins all day.  Well, after this, I’ll be damned if I ever drive my own buggy again. 

He could just make out the little column of smoke that had to be a camp fire. Bringing the vehicle to a halt, he climbed down and pulled out his new pistol and its fancy holster from underneath the seat.  Grady knew he wasn’t much of a shot.  He was counting on getting pretty close and surprising Higdon.

XXXXXXXXXX

Joe saw the signal first.  A few flashes of light from the hilltop.  Adam and Hoss must have seen Grady heading in their direction.  His brothers and Hop Sing would be hurrying to get into position. Joe handed the soft old rope to Ben.

“Go ahead—tie them like we talked about,” Joe held out his wrists to his father.   Making the complex knot, Ben reminded Joe how to use his fingers to quickly free himself.  Settling the boy in some shade, he moved in the direction of the nearby creek.  Ducking behind a boulder, Ben waited for Grady to appear.

XXXXXXXXXX

“There!  Adam, do you see that dust cloud?  That’s a buggy comin,’ and this ain’t no casual picnic spot,” Hoss pointed out.

Adam pulled the mirror from his pocket and positioned it to catch the sunlight.  He saw Joe give a little wave in response to the signal.  So far, so good. 

“Can you spot Sheriff McCray and Roy?” asked Adam.

“No.  I don’t see ‘em yet.”  Hoss shifted a little on the pile of stones to get a better view.  “They shoulda made it by now.”

“We can’t wait!  We gotta move,” Adam said.  He turned to help Hop Sing start down the hillside.  Before they’d gone two steps, he heard the rattling of the stones shifting under Hoss’s feet.  Helplessly, Adam watched Hoss fall.

XXXXXXXXXXX

Moving as stealthily as he was able, Grady crept around rocks and tried to stay in the shadows.  It was a longer walk than he had counted on.  He was short of breath by the time he saw the campsite.  There was Higdon’s horse all right along with another animal, but he couldn’t see the murderin’ scoundrel.  He did see the boy, though, leaning up against a rock with his hands tied in front of him.  Grady slipped in closer, peering around a scraggly shrub.  Poor kid had his eyes closed, probably asleep.

“Little Joe!”  Grady called out in a hoarse whisper.  “Little Joe, wake up!  I’ve come to rescue you.”  He received no response.  The youngster didn’t even move.  Grady checked again for Higdon.  Seeing no sign of the man, he scampered right over to Joe.

“Little Joe, I’m here, son!”  Finally, the boy moved and opened his eyes.  Instead of the startled expression Grady expected, Joe was strangely calm.  Inexplicably, this pleased Grady.  Somehow, the boy had expected his help—no, counted on his help.

“That’s it, Little Joe.  It’s me, Uncle Ezra.  We need to get you out of here before that outlaw gets back.”  Grady tugged at the ropes, pleased that he was able to free the boy so quickly.  When he caught sight of the bruises on Joe’s face, he sucked in a whistling breath through his teeth.

“Did Higdon do that to you?  There wasn’t a bit of need for that.  Don’t you worry; I’ll take care of him.”

“Uncle Ezra,” the boy finally spoke to him.  “How do you know the man’s name?”  Hearing Little Joe call him ‘Uncle Ezra’ sent such a delighted thrill through him that he nearly missed what was actually said.  Grady was casting about for some plausible explanation when he heard the crunch of gravel behind him.

“Yes, Uncle Ezra, how did you know the man’s name?”

XXXXXXXXXX

Where is everyone?  Here was Grady as expected, and he’d just given away the fact that he knew Higdon had taken Joe.  This was what they’d wanted: proof Grady was involved.  But instead of everyone coming forward to arrest him, it was still only the three of them.

Grady pushed to his feet, leaning heavily on Joe’s shoulder.  From the look on the old coot’s face, Joe had to give him credit for being able to stand up at all.  Grady’s skin was a waxen gray, and his breath was coming in short gasps.

“How . . .?”  Grady managed to ask Ben.

“That’s not your concern.” Ben snarled.  His rifle was aimed at the dead center of Grady’s chest.  “But I would like to know why.”

Joe felt Grady draw himself up straighter and resume some of his normal patronizing air.  “You’re dead, Ben Cartwright, you just don’t know it yet.  You never did deserve what you had, so you lost it.  I’m a man who knows how to make his own luck, and I ain’t never squandered an opportunity.”  Grady grabbed a fistful of Joe’s jacket and dragged him up to stand at his side.  He pointed a shaky finger at Ben.

“There he is, Little Joe.  The man that abandoned you all those years ago,” declared Grady.  He grinned a little at Ben’s hiss of response and leaned hard on Joe’s shoulder to steady himself.  “Move along, Ben.  Go back to whatever hole you crawled out of.  I’ll take care of your legacy from now on.”

Joe saw his pa’s face change then.  Eyes that had been blazing with fury seemed to go cold as ice.  Mr. Grady must have noticed something, too, because that’s when he pulled a shiny new pistol out of his gun belt and pointed it square at Little Joe’s head.

I guess I’m not the favorite nephew anymore.

Joe didn’t have a lot of experience with desperate men, but he seemed to be in presence of one.   A moment before, Grady’s demeanor was haughty and possessive.  In the face of Ben’s Cartwright’s wrath, his attitude crumbled into a mere gamble for survival.

“Put the gun down, Ben, or you lose everything.”

XXXXXXXXXX

Ben’s gun never wavered.  His hands were rock steady. With Grady already in his sights, he could shoot him down before the man knew what hit him. He studied Grady in  fascination.  This quaking, sweating lump of a man had feasted on his sons’ misfortune for seven years.  He didn’t believe for a minute that Grady was capable of shooting Little Joe.  Oh, the man could murder by proxy, no doubt.  But to spill the blood of a child he’d hoped to call his own?  Would Grady dare pull the trigger to end Joe’s life?  No, Ben knew better. His spirit soared at this perfect opportunity.

“Pa?”  There was terror in the boy’s green eyes. But . . . Little Joe wasn’t just afraid of Grady.  His son was also afraid of . . . himHas Joe seen what I’ve become?  Concentration broken momentarily, the rifle butt dropped from his shoulder.  Ben took a couple of long breaths to steady himself.

“Drop the gun, Ben!  I’ll kill him!  I’ll do it.”  Grady was struggling to stand up, and he clamped his free hand hard on the back of Little Joe’s neck.  Joe winced in pain.

Ben made his decision.  He jerked the rifle up and snugged it against his shoulder.  The movement pulled at his coat emptying the pocket’s contents onto the ground before him.  Ben stared at the Bible lying in the dust, its worn leather cover lifting slightly in the breeze.  Suddenly, he couldn’t breathe.  When he dared raise his eyes again, he saw Joe watching him.

“Damn you, Ben, drop the gun!” Grady called out again.

He couldn’t do it.  After all this time, he couldn’t do it.  He wouldn’t take the chance with Joe’s life; and he wouldn’t take the chance with his own soul.  Ben dropped his rifle into the dirt.  It took all of his strength and self-control not to fall to the ground himself.

“That’s better!”  It sounded as if Grady was talking through clenched teeth. “I knew you were soft; I knew you’d squander your opportunity!”  Grady swung the gun away from Little Joe and pointed it at Ben.  He couldn’t miss at this distance.

“Joe?”  Ben called to his youngest.  “Everything will be all right.  You’ll be all right.”

This time, Ben’s smile was peaceful and loving.  As he gazed at his son, he watched Joe’s eyes open wide as if in recognition, and the beginning of a delighted smile graced his boy’s face.

“Dear Lord  . . . your will be done” was all Ben could manage before Grady raised a wavering arm and fired.

XXXXXXXXXX

Adam had barely roused his middle brother before Hoss was scolding him.

“Go! Go!  You can’t wait for me!” Hoss might be bruised and bloody, but he was still determined.

“Go,” said Hop Sing. “I care for him.”

Before Adam could thank him, gunfire echoed from the canyon. Throwing caution and stealth to the wind, Adam sprinted away, slipping down the gravelly hillside and dodging manzanita.  What he saw when he skidded into the campsite stole his breath.

Little Joe was on the ground with their father’s head and shoulders in his lap, Ben’s face was turned into Joe’s chest, and his hands were clutching Joe’s jacket.  Grady lay a few feet away writhing in pain.

Joe lifted a tear-stained face when he heard Adam rush up.  Adam swiped the back of his hand across his mouth before kneeling beside the pair.

“Where’s he hit?” asked Adam.

“He ain’t hit.  Mr. Grady sorta grabbed his chest and fired into the dirt.  I think he’s sick,” Joe said.  “But Pa collapsed, too, and when I ran over he just grabbed hold.  I can’t get him to talk to me.”

Pounding hooves announced Roy and the sheriff. After briefly considering the tableau, Roy went to Grady, loosening his collar and offering water to the groaning man.

McCray put a hand on Adam’s shoulder.

“We were delayed,” he said.  Adam nodded, unable to speak.

“Where’s your brother and the Chinaman?”

“Over there,” Adam pointed.  “They could probably use some help.”  The sheriff trotted away.

Adam reached out to his father, attempting to loosen the iron grip on Little Joe.

“Pa, can you hear me?” Adam begged.

XXXXXXXXXX

How could he?  He’d come so close . . . too close.  He’d almost forgotten himself.  No, he did forget, and forgetting had nearly made him as monstrous as Grady.  Ben’s shame was so profound, he didn’t dare lift his head much less stand and face his sons.  They would never forgive or accept him after seeing what he had become.

Heaven help him, he’d just wanted to escape the ice that had trapped him for so long  . . .  the ice that had stayed within him through all those miles and all those days.  What he wouldn’t give to warm up and break free.

But it seemed that even if he had forgotten, he had not been forgotten.  The cold was indeed receding under an onslaught of soothing touches and warm embrace.  His head began to clear; in fact, he was more clear-headed than he had felt in months.  The blood pounding in his ears faded until he could only hear the steady heartbeat against his cheek.  Other sounds became distinguishable:  horses, birds and the blessed voices of his sons.

“Pa, everything’s all right.  We’ve got you.”

XXXXXXXXXX

They buried Grady in the canyon, carefully marking the grave in the unlikely event a relative might want to claim the body.  He’d fought and cursed until the end.  His face in death was such a mask of terror and pain that Ben felt real compassion.

It made no sense to travel so late in the day.  Bed rolls and saddles were arranged around a cheerful fire.  Hop Sing transformed beans, jerky and fresh rabbit into a feast.  Hoss’s injuries were minor and easily tended.  The conversation and laughter lasted well into the night.  When Ben finally settled down to rest, his arm was around his youngest son.  He couldn’t remember the last time he had slept so well.

XXXXXXXXXX

“I can’t thank you enough for the trouble you’ve gone to on our behalf.”  Ben shook the McCray’s hand.  He and Hop Sing were heading back to Sacramento.  Roy had already left with Grady’s buggy, his own horse tied to the vehicle.

“Mr. Cartwright, I can’t think of anyone more worthy of the trouble,” the sheriff grinned in response.  “I’d say you’ve given me a story I’ll be telling for years.”  Hop Sing sat up startled at the words and turned a speculative eye on the Cartwrights.

Sheriff McCray turned his horse and gestured for Hop Sing to ride alongside.  The Cartwrights waved their farewells before heading toward Virginia City.

“Come on, son,” Ben called to Little Joe.  “You need to keep up.”

When Joe didn’t answer, Ben reined his horse around to see why Joe was dawdling.  The boy had his eyes on the trail behind them.  A small dust cloud heralded the approach of another rider.  They all waited in cheerful anticipation for their friend.

“You decided to come with us?” Joe asked.

“Story not over yet,” said Hop Sing.

Ben clapped his friend on the back.  “Let’s go home.”

XXXXXXXXXX                                                     THE END                                                                                               XXXXXXXXXX

 

Next in the In Absentia Series:

Restitution
All Through the Night

 

[i] Macbeth

[ii] Ecclesiastes 3:1-4

[iii] Revelation 21:4

24 thoughts on “In Absentia (by Belle)”

  1. It’s amazing how easily this WHI sounded plausible. I could see Adam taking on the care of his brothers, but I’m glad you brought the family back together. On to part two.

    1. I’m so glad you found the story plausible. It was important to me that our Cartwrights remain our Cartwrights except for subtle necessary adjustments. Thank you for reading and letting me know how you felt.

  2. Wow! What a story! Can’t wait to read the next one. Adjustment when a family member returns is tough. Hop Sing was so perfect. He came to see the end of the story. I am right behind him!1

    1. Neano, thank you so much for reading the story and letting me know what you thought. I’m so glad you are going to follow the rest of the saga.

  3. Very nicely done, Belle. You seem to have a gift for making me actually like genres I normally avoid, first the spooky tale and now the alternative canon story. This was well conceived and well executed. The cloud of dust at the end and what it signified made for a most satisfying and smile-producing conclusion.

    1. Awww, Puchi Ann—thanks for giving these stories a read even though they aren’t normally your cup of tea. I’m glad you enjoyed In Absentia and that the conclusion made you smile.

  4. Thanks, Bluewind Farm, for hanging on with the story throughout the creative process. I appreciate all your support and feedback.

  5. Difficult to imagine all that the boy, and Ben, suffered through. Quite thrilled to see the cloud of dust coming towards them at the end. Great story, Belle!

  6. Great story! I couldn’t put it down. You portrayed very well the depths of despair that both the sons and the father went through after he disappeared. Look forward to reading the sequel!

    1. Thank you so much for reading this story. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much. I appreciate you letting me know your thoughts!

  7. I love alternate Bonanza histories, and this is a favorite. I refuse to give spoilers for this one, so I’ll just say this: Loved the characterizations, the determination to cope rather than give up…loved the monkey wrench thrown in just when you thought everything would be fine…loved the resolution. Hop Sing is adorable; I can see why he stayed with the Cartwrights and why they wanted him to. This is a keeper.

  8. What an amazing alternate history! You’re attention to detail was marvelous, and your characterizations, poignant. I love how the boys stick together, despite the odds. The determination, the memories…or lack thereof. And Ben’s story…and the perfect time of his return (as Hoss had always promised Little Joe). And Hop Sing at the end…. Such an opening to a story not yet finished! Thank you so much for this one! 🙂

  9. Well done, Belle. I saw you’d started this as a WIP, but I always wait until the story is finished and hits the library. I would have liked to hear what Hop Sing told Little Joe about his father, but I think their chat was interrupted. Maybe LJ had to find those things out for himself without HS’s help.

  10. Wonderful alternate story of Ben and his sons and their dreams. Enough twists to keep the story suspenseful, and lovely interactions among the brothers.

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