When Hope and Fate Collide (by BluewindFarm)

Summary: Everything was progressing smoothly, right up until it went so wrong. The brothers and their men drive their largest herd ever to Sacramento, California.
Rating: T (32,520 words)

Author’s Note: I’d like to thank jfclover and Belle for taking the time to beta this story. I have continued to tweak, so any mistakes, omissions, or discrepancies are solely my responsibility.

 

WHEN HOPE AND FATE COLLIDE

High on the hill overlooking a piece of heaven on God’s green earth, Ben Cartwright sat in the saddle and watched. He was thankful that it was no longer necessary for him to spend countless hours supervising, not with all three of his sons working the land.

The full force of the late summer sun bore down from a crystal blue sky. The weather and the hard manual labor took its toll on all involved, as sweat-stained shirts clung to skin and men used their sleeves or hands to wipe perspiration from their brows.

Currently they were four days into the onerous task of round-up and branding, which ultimately would lead to driving a herd of fat cattle to market.

Down in the valley, it was easy to spot Ben’s middle son Hoss; clearly the largest of the men moving around the branding fires. In one smooth movement, he had man-handled a calf to the ground and was kneeling on its neck and shoulder to prevent an escape. A ranch hand quickly pressed the heated iron against the calf’s haunches, searing the pine tree brand into the hide.

Both the calf and its momma bawled in distress before the youngster was allowed to rise up from the ground. The men watched it run away from the pain, and the stench; a fervent desire of their own.

His attention was drawn to just beyond the released animal as his oldest son, Adam, and one of their hands, Wick Ritter, rode into the area, pulling a large two-year old bull with legs braced against their ropes. Man and horse alike were wary of the brute struggling between them. With the brand applied, Ben exhaled his breath once the bull was led a safe distance away and freed of their lariats.

Gazing farther afield, he watched his foreman directing the various new hires and long-time ranch hands to their tasks. Charlie Yeagle originally hailed from Texas; his small stature didn’t fit the image of a Texan. His dark hair showed hints of grey at the temples. A few years back, when the grey appeared in his mustache and beard, he’d shaved them both off and swore to never grow them again. Ben could barely remember a time when the man hadn’t worked for them.

It had seemed so long ago; yet it was only after Marie had given birth to Joe when Charlie came to work for the Cartwrights. He mused, nineteen years – in the life of a worker, nineteen years seemed forever, but to him, nineteen years had passed in the blink of an eye.

Scanning the landscape, Ben’s eyes sought to find one person. He smiled when he spotted the easily identifiable black and white pinto carrying the object of his search – his youngest son.

The young man expertly guided his horse out of the bramble, his lariat swinging overhead while his legs barely encouraged his horse to give chase. The pair was often described as poetry in motion; the rope flew and easily settled around the neck of its quarry. Joe shifted his weight to sit deep in the saddle. With one hand holding the reins, the other turned the lariat around the saddle horn several of times. Cochise squatted onto his haunches, preparing to brace against the momentum and the weight of a yearling calf coming to the end of its run.

Ben signaled Buck into a leisurely walk to the valley floor.

*****

Hoss smiled, the white of his teeth shining through a grin that broke across his face, pointing towards the incoming rider. “Hey Adam, this’ll be Joe’s eleventh this morning… you’re laggin’ behind!”

Looking to the pair heading their way, Adam shook his head; it didn’t lessen the effects of his own smile. “Let him work himself to exhaustion. I’m pacing myself,” he jested.

Moments before, he had stepped down from Sport to stretch his back and to take a deep drink from his canteen. With his thirst satiated, he stepped over to the check the tally book, comparing the actual figures against his estimate.

“Hey Joe!” Hoss called out as his younger brother reined in his horse. Joe and Cochise positioned the calf allowing Hoss to easily flip it to its side before calling out, “You keep this up and we’ll have to put ol’ slow poke here to pasture.”

“He’s not slow, brother,” Joe responded, making sure to keep the rope tight.

“No?” Hoss didn’t take his eyes off the rear end of the calf until the brand was in place and the ranch hand safely away.

“Nah, he’ just too busy making sure we’re doing our jobs,” grinned Joe. On cue, he eased up allowing Hoss to pull the rope from around the calf’s neck. “But he’s not doing such a good job.”

“Oh I’m not, am I?” queried Adam. Nodding, he returned the tally book back to the ranch hand. He walked to the pit, grabbing a canteen of fresh water and handed it to his dust and sweat-covered youngest brother, while removing Joe’s empty canteen from the saddle. “And I bet you could do a better job supervising the men?” Adam’s voice held a hint of acerbity.

“Not men, man. Just letting you know that you need to keep an eye on that Jordan guy. He’s trouble, Adam.”

“He gets the job done.”

“He’s too rough on the horses he rides; none of our mounts need to be manhandled like he’s doing.”

Understanding where his brother’s concern came from; Hoss accepted that Joe didn’t like having any of their horses mistreated, but there wasn’t much they could do. “Not everyone’s as good a rider as you are little brother.”

“I know that, but I also saw him before I found that little lady,” Joe paused. With canteen in hand he pointed to the calf scrambling back to its mother.

“I agree he could lighten up a little, but I’ve not seen him do anything that warrants a warning,” Adam admitted.

Once more Joe drank deeply from the canteen. “Adam, he knows not to do stuff when you’re around.”

“Joe,” cautioned Adam.

Joe recorked the canteen and hung it under his lariat. “Adam, listen to me.” A forearm resting on the saddle horn spoke of the young man’s tiredness. Never would he verbally admit to the fact, at least not until the end of the day. “I don’t put much stock in bunkhouse chatter, but I saw him watching you leave the area. And I swear he’s drinking on the job. You know Pa’s rule.”

“Hold it right there,” warned Hoss taking hold of Cochise’s rein. “Joe you sure? Proof positive?” Disbelief flashed across his face, not towards his brother but that a worker would take such a risk.

“Hoss, honest. You two know I don’t like how he handles our horses, but drinking on the job is something totally different. Ask Charlie. I’m sure he’s heard the men talking; only it ain’t talk. Why would he drink from a flask? He’s got a canteen on his saddle, just like the rest of us.”

Adam knew if Charlie had a suspicion about a hand, new or old, he would say something. Their foreman was soft spoken, but that didn’t stop him from speaking up on matters concerning the ranch. The men respected him for his matter-of-fact ways. A hired hand followed the rules otherwise the boss was informed; resulting in two options – change his ways or change his employment. Maybe Charlie hasn’t seen him. He’d only report facts, not bunk-house gossip.

“Joe,” Adam rested his hand to his brother’s knee and looked up to him. “Tell me the truth.”

“Adam, cross my heart and swearing on Momma’s grave,” he made the motions with his hand, “I’m not lying. Pa has rules in place for a reason. I don’t want to see . . .”

The rest of Joe’s words were lost when his attention was drawn towards the far side of the herd; cattle were clearly showing agitation. Turning his horse, Joe knew he couldn’t charge out to investigate, but at the same time whatever it was needed to stop before it caused a stampede; a stampede that would force the herd into the branding area.

Riding with restraint, Joe witnessed the subject of his discussion with his brothers. Judd Jordan was whipping a downed horse.

“Lay off Jordan!” Joe hurriedly dismounted and shoved the man away.

“Brat! No one shoves me,” growled Judd Jordan. The man had twenty pounds on the oldest Cartwright brother, and was probably the same age. Pockmarks marred his face where it wasn’t hidden by a scraggly beard. Dark eyes lay deep within their sockets under unruly eyebrows and a mop of hair.

The man towered over Joe, who had turned and knelt by the downed horse. With a hand on the muzzle and running his other hand down its neck, Joe gave a cursory inspection – a broken leg. Joe envisioned what happened from looking just beyond their location. Jordan had ridden through the trees and encountered the uneven terrain covered with small boulders and loose shale. Skid marks left by the horse’s hooves showed they were traveling too fast for the footing. Anger drove Joe to his feet.

“What the Hell were you doing there?! Any rider knows you don’t ride a horse through that!” Joe pointed, indicating the rise in the land.

“It’s just a horse.” Furiously, the man reached down to pick up the hat that he had lost when he hit the ground, and spat out blood from having bitten the inside of his cheek.

“Didn’t you see she had a broken leg?! What the Hell do you think you were doing whipping her?!”

“Needed to get it up.”

“With a broken leg?!” his voice pitched up in anger.

“What’s going on here?” Adam arrived, hoping his question would suppress his brother’s growing animosity, he saw the fisted left hand.

“He rode his horse too fast through rocks and shale.” Joe’s chest heaved, both fists clinching open and closed.

With his brother now addressing him and not Jordan, Adam allowed his vision to stray to the downed horse and surrounding area.

“Damn fool horse threw me,” Jordan proclaimed the obvious with sarcasm.

“She should have done more than throw you!” retorted Joe.

With Adam’s calm arrival, Joe realized his anger was getting the better of him. He wanted so much to prove that he was a man and retain control, especially in front of this brother. He took a deep breath and turned his head towards the animal. Sorrow and compassion for the horse replaced his anger against the man; and blinded him to the right hook Jordan threw. Caught unaware, the blow hit him high on his left cheek bone, throwing him towards the downed mare.

“JOE!” Adam yelled; his brother landing too close to the animal’s hooves. Reacting as soon as he saw the punch, Adam jumped from Sport. In long, powerful strides he reached Jordan, grabbed him by the arm, and turned him from the youth he was ready to punch again.

“NO ONE touches my brother, let alone sucker punches him,” Adam coldly spoke, his eyes grew darker. From his periphery, he noticed Joe was now safely away from the animal startled by his falling in close proximity.

“Brat had it coming to him. Who does he think he is?” Jordan’s balance faltered in Adam’s grasp.

With the man less than an arm’s length away, Adam couldn’t help but smell his breath. “Joe was trying to tell me earlier that he thought you were drinking on the job and I was trying to give you the benefit of doubt. But Joe was right, you’re drunk.”

“So what.” The man glared back, attempting to stand upright and taller.

“So what? It’s against the rules.” Adam relaxed his grip now that the man’s focus was on him.

Pulling from Adam’s easing grip, his arm flung wildly backwards, causing him to stumble. “Why don’t you and baby boy there run off to pappy and tell him how mean the big bad ranch hand is,” sniggering his jaw left and right in taunt.

“Not necessary. You’re fired.”

“You can’t!”

“I can and I did. You wait here. I’ll send one of the men to get you back to the main camp. Cracker will see you to the bunk house to collect your horse and gear. You have until sundown to be off our land.”

“What about my pay?”

“I should charge you for the horse you just cost us.” Adam reached into a front pant pocket and pulled out several slips of paper currency. “Today’s the fourth of the month, I know I’m over paying you, but it’s a small price to pay to get rid of you.”

Jordan angrily grabbed the money and retreated towards a nearby tree.

“You okay Joe?” Adam stepped forward and offered a hand to help his brother to his feet. Adam watched his brother’s smoldering eyes diffuse. If ever Joe had a right to go off on a hand, Jordan was the reason. He was impressed his brother had controlled his reaction to the hand’s use of the phrase, baby boy, even after being the recipient of a blind-sided punch.

“Yeah, I will be.” Joe brushed dirt from his pants and picked flecks of shale from this palms.

“You want me to do it?” Adam looked quickly from the mare to his brother.

Adam’s memory returned to a time during Joe’s first year working full time on the Ponderosa. A horse in the wild herd they had corralled had suffered a broken leg. Joe had pleaded that they could splint the horse’s leg. Through careful reassurances, Adam patiently explained what Joe knew to be true. An animal suffering a broken leg was an unfortunate part of ranching, and the only humane thing to be done was to end their suffering as quickly as possible. Still, Adam knew that didn’t stop Joe’s grief over the loss of a promising horse, back then and now.

“No, I’ll do it.” Joe openly glared at the ranch hand walking away from the brothers. “I’ll give you a few minute to alert the closest men.”

“Understood.”

Adam mounted Sport and left Joe to do what was necessary. Having only ridden about twenty yards and with second thoughts about riding off, he halted, turned in the saddle, and looked beyond his brother to where Jordan belligerently leaned against a tree.

Shaking his head, Adam wished he could have lost control and belted the man, tit for tat. He huffed at the example that would have set for his youngest brother. Ultimately, he settled on calling out a warning to the ex-employee, “I don’t ever want to hear of you on Ponderosa property again. If I do, you’ll rue the day you were ever born!”

*****

Wick Ritter was the first rider Adam encountered and he wasn’t too thrilled to be told to pony Judd Jordan back to the branding area; at least he wasn’t to be saddled with the man all the way back to the bunkhouse.

*****

Watching the horse carry the two riders away, Joe wished there was something he could have done differently in order to prevent his next task. He snorted and thought Wish I knew before Pa hired him what I know now. Kneeling next to the stricken animal, Joe spoke soothingly, offering sympathy. Thinking enough time had passed for Adam to spread the word, Joe stood. An unsteady hand drew his revolver from his holster. Holding the weapon in both hand, Joe shook his head. Pointing his gun towards the horse’s head, tears streaked his face. Taking a deep breath helped steady his hand; he pulled the trigger.

*****

Ben entered the camp as Adam returned, “Trouble?” he inquired after seeing his son’s expression.

“Not really, just fired Judd Jordan. Joe tried to tell me earlier he thought the man was drinking on the job.”

“Was he?” Ben hoped there hadn’t been too great a disagreement between the brothers. Joe was beginning to get a feel for what was necessary, especially with the horses, and he could see Adam bristling at some of Joe’s observations and suggestions when it came to working other areas of the ranch. Ben mused at his own reactions to some of Adam’s suggestions after his return from college.

“Yeah. I’ll have Cracker escort him off the Ponderosa.” Adam startled at the shot, even though he knew to expect it.

“What?” Ben looked in the direction from where the shot sounded.

“Joe – putting down the horse Jordan was riding. The idiot rode through rocks and shale, too fast. Horse went down and broke its leg. The man was whipping the animal to get it off the ground.”

“He what?” Ben couldn’t believe someone could be that stupid.

“That’s what it looked like before I reached the area. Joe arrived first.”

Ben turned Buck toward his youngest son.

“Pa,” Adam waited for Ben to face him, “I think Joe would appreciate it more if you didn’t.”

“I’m…”

“I know you’re his father, our father.”

Doubt crossed Ben’s face. “How did Joe take it…”

“Much like anytime we’ve had to put a horse down. Give him time; we’ll keep an eye on him. Pa, he is growing up.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ben’s voice was curious.

“Let him be a man.”

“What?”

“As much as he tries to prove he’s older than he is and can handle situations, I don’t think he’d take it too well if you were to go out there to check up on him. Look, if he can’t handle it, I promise I’ll send him home.”

Seeing Cracker entering the branding area, Adam excused himself and stepped down from Sport.

Cracker McCall was an old-time ranch hand. The man joined the Ponderosa about the same time as Charlie Yeagle, who always joked that Cracker had been born old. No one could find any fault in his work. The man knew his job and easily taught the younger men the tricks of the trade; the man being a jack-of-all.

Ben watched the discussion between Adam and Cracker; he wasn’t happy to see the look of disgust on his employee’s face. Everyone around the fire looked in the direction of the horse bearing two riders entering camp. Ben knew ranch hands had their own code, and at the moment he didn’t think too much of Jordan, either.

“Mr. Cartwright!” Jordan shouted as he slid from the back of the horse. “I want to talk to you.”

“I understand that you were fired and ordered to leave the Ponderosa.” The man began to protest, Ben continued, “I don’t appreciate men going against my rules… and now you’ve cost me a horse.” Ben’s tone conveyed his displeasure at the man for his earlier actions and his apparent attempt to plead for his job to the owner. “I will not countermand one of my sons’ orders when I am of the same mind.”

The men nearby didn’t bother hiding their smirks as Jordan had finally received his comeuppance.

After Cracker drove the wagon and the fired man away, everyone returned to their jobs as if nothing had happened.

Hoss stopped his older brother, having overheard parts of the conversation, “How’s Joe?”

“Wouldn’t hurt to keep an eye on him. Working will do him good.”

Hoss saw Adam looking back to the area where Joe had last been and asked, “What?”

“Kid did a good job in controlling his temper; don’t know how he did it, even after Jordan called him ‘baby boy’.” Looking to his larger brother, “Hoss… If you think he’s over compensating or not handling the situation, putting himself at risk, pull him out of the saddle for a while. See that he eats. I’ll talk with Charlie, let him know to keep an eye on Joe, too.”

“Ya want me to pull Joe?”

“Not yet, let’s see if he can work through it. If necessary, yeah, pull him. He’ll take it better from you than from me.”

“Which horse was Jordan ridin’?”

“The bay mare with the jagged blaze, four stockings over her knees and hocks.”

“Damn… Now I understand. Joe really liked that mare.” Hoss looked to see if he could spot his little brother.

“Give him time.”

“Yeah… Hey, Adam?”

Adam looked to Hoss.

“Did ya tell him he done good?”

“Didn’t have the chance to, but I will. I just thought he needed time alone, not a big brother brooding over him. I’ll tell him, when I think he’ll be more receptive of the praise.”

*****

Under the cover of night, coyotes howling overpowered the orchestra of crickets and cicadas chirping and the sounds of cattle settling across the land.

“Pa head home?” Joe asked having settled down and stretched out onto his bedroll after eating supper.

“Yeah, with the three of us out here, he don’t need to spend the night sleeping out on the hard ground,” Hoss answered. Both men looked up at hearing boot steps approaching.

“Joe, Hoss,” Adam wearily returned their greetings as he sat down holding a hot cup of coffee in his hands.

“You look tired,” replied Hoss.

“Aren’t we all?” Adam sipped his coffee. “Hey Joe, I’d like to talk to you about earlier.”

Joe sat up defensively, yet looked to the ground. Guilt flushed his face; he’d tried so hard to keep his temper, but now he expected his brother to lecture him for not conducting himself in a manner worthy of being a Cartwright. “What about?”

“Just wanted to say, you did good out there today. I’m proud of the job you’re doing.”

“Didn’t do so good when it came to Jordan,” Joe bemoaned.

Adam’s eyebrows rose. “What do you mean not when it came to Jordan? That’s what I’m talking about.”

“But… but…” Joe sputtered, looking between his two brothers in disbelief.

Hoss sat back and snuggled down with his arms crossed; the smile on his face displayed his amusement at how Adam’s words of praise had caught their younger brother off guard.

With sincerity, Adam continued, “I could tell you were on the edge; I heard it in your voice and saw it in your posture, but you didn’t allow it to go any further.”

“You wouldn’t have screamed at him, nor would you have allowed him to sucker punch you…”

“Sucker punch ya,” Hoss sat up straight. “Where’d he hit ya?” It had been dark by the time Joe returned to camp after washing up in the creek, so Hoss hadn’t seen the developing bruise.

“Caught him on the left cheek,” Adam answered. “Joe, I don’t think Jordan would have even attempted to sucker punch me… Regardless, it was you he struck and you worked hard to control yourself, and not go flying off the handle at him. And the fact you didn’t object to my stepping into the fray.”

“I thought I saw him drawing back for a second punch, but I as more concerned about the mare thrashing around and wanted to get away from her hooves.”

“Anyway, I just wanted to let you know I approved of how you handled yourself.”

Knowing his time out of the saddle was growing short, Joe pulled on his boots, “Thanks, Adam.” Joe felt better about his earlier actions, but sorrow over the loss of a promising mare tainted the praise his brother heaped upon him. “I guess if I want to keep you being proud of me, I better get out there and take my watch.”

“Mind yourself, Shortshanks.”

“You make sure one of you comes for me around midnight.”

In agreement, Hoss waved him off.

*****

“We’ll keep the coffee hot for your return.” Adam removed his hand from Joe’s shoulder, allowing his brother to lower the stirrup after tightening the cinch of his saddle.

“Thanks, Adam.” Joe’s eyes spoke more than just thanking his brother for his consideration.

Not wanting to get all maudlin, “Good thing you’re riding Warrior and not Cochise.”

“You don’t have to worry about my horse drinking all the coffee, Cochise doesn’t care for it the way James brews it,” Joe replied.

“Don’t let him hear you say that.”

“No way, brother. I value my hide!” Joe’s cackle echoed across camp.

Having followed his brother to the picket line and seeing him off, Adam returned to the chuck wagon to refill his coffee cup. He paused, overhearing Wick Ritter talking. The man had been with the Cartwrights for just over five years and got along well with the men. If not working with Charlie, he generally found himself assigned to one of Hoss’ or Adam’s crews.

Adam leaned against the chuck wagon and watched the man who was of similar build and mannerisms to himself. They spent time together, discussing their backgrounds; but where Adam’s education had included a college degree, most of Wick’s learning came from the school of life, and time spent reading on his own. Adam found numerous admirable traits in the man.

“I tell ya, that Judd Jordan was trouble from the first moment I laid eyes on him,” Wick crowed. “Can you believe he had the nerve to sucker punch the kid?”

“He what?” asked one of the drovers around the fire.

“I saw it. Joe rode up and shoved him away from that downed horse. Fool was beating it, trying to get it to its feet.”

“Why’d he do a thing like that?” a second drover asked.

“Stupidity,” Will Gannon, another long time hand answered.

“Joe ain’t stupid,” Cracker called out, having returned to camp just after sundown.

“I wasn’t talking about Joe. I was calling Judd stupid for being an ass.”

“No sane horseman…”

“Weren’t nothing sane about him. Wick Ritter said he smelled the whiskey on the man’s breath while he was sitting behind him.” Will’s body gave a foreboding shiver.

“Ain’t cold are ya, Will?” Cracker teased.

“No… felt like someone walking on my grave.” Will looked around.

“So what happened after Judd sucker punched Joe?” one of the men asked.

“You shoulda been there when Adam stepped from his horse.” Wick described all he had seen. “Sure was something to see Judd taken down a peg. Woulda been even better to see Adam take him on; lay him out flat.” The man punched his right fist into his left palm.

“Adam might not have taken the starch out of him, but ol’ Ben sure did,” Cracker stated as he took up the narrative. “Judd comes sniveling in to camp, cries out ‘Mr. Cartwright, I want ta talk to ya’. I tell you what; Ben backed his eldest to the teeth. Put that Judd Jordan in his place. He was stupid to believe the Carwrights don’t stick together; what one says goes for all the rest.”

“Probably would have taken the youngest one to task had he been the one firing a man,” someone else snickered in the background.

Adam straightened at that statement.

“Don’t you dare let Mr. Cartwright hear you talking down about his youngest like that. And you know drinking ain’t allowed when we’re working, especially during round-up,” warned Charlie, walking over to the pot of coffee set on a grate over the campfire.

“So he interfered and stopped the kid from fighting his own fight? Figures,” one said.

“Joe’s had his fair share of fights with hands who’ve challenged his authority. Adam, too.” Cracker answered. “But it has to be fair… sucker punching, ain’t right. That’s why Adam stepped in.”

Charlie watched Adam’s reaction while standing just outside the light from the campfire; he knew the family didn’t care to be fodder of gossips, but these men had witnessed the events and weren’t just passing on hearsay. And if what happened prevented any future attempts at starting trouble, he hoped this would work to their advantage. Besides, he hadn’t cared for Judd Jordan, either, but had never observed the man doing anything wrong.

He nodded when Adam raised his cup in salute and lowered his hand. The eldest Cartwright son turned away from the fire, forgetting about wanting another cup of coffee.

Figuring the men had had their entertainment for the night, Charlie announced, “Morning comes early, and those of you who have mid-watch… best visit your bedrolls.”

*****

Ben was gratified to see all three of his sons working together; and seeing his youngest mature before his eyes. He’d known this child would have it easier than his older brothers, but that didn’t stop the boy… young man from trying to demonstrate that he was as much a Cartwright as the rest of his family. Ever since he’d learned to crawl and to speak, ‘on my own’ had been accepted as Joe’s mantra, and caused many a shaking of heads among his father and brothers while hiding grins or groans behind a hand.

For the most part, the family couldn’t be more pleased with how the youngest was growing up and accepting responsibilities. However, Ben was far from pleased finding Joe in a fight with a much larger man.

“JOSEPH!” Ben rode into the area, witnessing his youngest throw a punch that knocked the man to the ground, where he chose to remain. Stepping from the saddle, Ben ignored his son’s winded stance and grabbed him by the arm, jerking him upright and demanded, “What’s the meaning of this?!”

“Not the boy’s fault,” spoke the man from a prone position, just as winded as his adversary, but not showing any indication of wanting to regain his feet.

“I asked a question!”

“It was personal, Pa,” answered Joe, having regained enough breath to speak.

“There is nothing personal out here!” Ben eased his hold on his youngest.

“As I said, Mr. Cartwright,” Wick Ritter answered, rising to his feet. “Wasn’t his fault. The boy gave me an order and I…”

“You what?” glared Ben.

“Well…it don’t come easy to me taking orders from a kid.”

“I don’t care if it’s easy or not.”

“He ain’t paid his dues. What right does he have…”

“He has every right! He’s just as much an owner of this ranch as his brothers or I.”

“I’m sorry Mr. Cartwright.” Wick knew he’d crossed the line.

“That’s not good enough. Collect your pay!” Ben stared at the man for a moment; his disgust wasn’t directed only towards his former employee, but at his son too. He turned from both of them.

“Pa… no.”

“Return to work Joe.”

“Listen, Pa.”

“Joseph, I gave an order.”

“You’ve always listened to Adam or Hoss when they’ve thought differently.” Joe hesitated and thought of how to get his point across to this father.

Ben reached Buck and turned while crossing his arms. He was irritated, but he was willing to listen.

“Pa, we’ve all made mistakes… Wick’s not worked my crew before… He usually works with Hoss or Adam, the only reason he’s with me is because Peter broke his arm and I needed a good rider,”

“Joseph,” Ben reached for Buck’s reins.

“Pa, don’t blame Wick. I pushed the fight; it was the only way of getting my point across.”

“You have every right to give orders to any one of our employees. None of my sons should have to prove their point, especially with their fists.”

“That’s okay for Adam and Hoss…”

“It’s the same for you. I’ll not have a man go against orders.”

“Pa, it’s not the first time I’ve taken on a ranch hand, and it probably won’t be the last. If I were as big as Adam or Hoss or as old as they are, it would be different; no one would question me. Wick’s learned his lesson. Don’t make me shorthanded, I need him as part of my crew.”

Feeling it was against his better judgment, Ben took his time, looking from his son to the man who waited to hear his fate. Finally Ben nodded, “Mark my words,” Looking directly to Ritter and holding up an index finger as a warning, “One more fight… whether you start it or not… if you’re a part of it, you’re out of here.”

“I understand,” answered Wick.

The relieved ranch hand strode to stand behind his young boss and waited for the elder Cartwright to leave. Side by side, the two were as different as Joe was to Adam.

Once Ben was well enough away, Wick spoke, “I’m sorry, for not following your order. Thanks for not letting your Pa fire me.”

Knowing he needed to acknowledge the man’s apology, he took a deep breath before walking away to retrieve his hat. He turned back to Ritter. “I’ve heard Adam and Hoss talk about what a good hand you are… didn’t want to have to face them and explain why Pa fired you.”

Moving his jaw back and forth with his hand, Wick replied, “You pack quite a punch for a pipsqueak…” The man’s eyes showed it was a good-hearted jest, including the smile on his face.

“You best remember who my brothers are.” Joe’s voice warned, but when he looked up from batting the dust off his pants, he joshed, “They taught me everything I know about fighting fair, and then some.”

“Wish I’d known that before.” Wick laughed.

“You’ve been here long enough to know better.”

“Yeah, still… appearances can be deceiving.”

“You’re gonna have a colorful bruise,” Joe offered, adjusting his hat and grimacing as he touched his cheekbone.

“You’re gonna have a colorful shiner yourself, on top of that other one you got earlier in the round up. If you don’t mind, I’ll go check that ravine area again, like you said.”

“Need some help?” Joe asked, and extended his hand as an offer of truce.

Accepting the handshake, Wick answered, “Naw, you told your Pa I was a good rider, figure I can ride in there and make another sweep of the area.”

The two mounted and began to go their separate ways.

“Hey Joe!” Wick waited for his boss to turn his horse around. “Don’t let anyone else tell you differently, but… you’re alright… kid.” With that, Wick put his heels to his horse’s flanks and rode away.

Joe exhaled deeply in relief, yet wondered what would happen once he and his Pa were alone.

*****

It had been two long, exhausting weeks working alongside their ranch hands. It was inevitable that tempers would flare while working in such close proximity and strenuous weather conditions, but with the work load, all knew they had to work together and not against each other. The reports Ben received during his occasional visits to camp indicated that as quickly as any flare up occurred, it died out and was laughed about over the camp fire; rarely was anything left smoldering.

In addition to the one firing, two other men were lost due to unfortunate circumstances. One hand had been wanted by the law and arrested by Roy Coffee when he accompanied Hoss to town to gather additional supplies. The second hand had suffered a broken arm when a cow took offense to the cowboy roping her offspring; she charged between her calf and the man. The distracted rider was unaware that while trying to deal with his agitated mount, the cow caught the rope in her horns and pulled him from the saddle.

*****

Three tired and dirt-covered brothers traveled from pastureland to their home on well-rested mounts. The brothers wishing they too had been afforded the luxury of rotation as had their horses. Their trip home was tradition, they would enjoy one last evening with their father and one night in their own beds before spending the next two weeks on the trail with a herd of one thousand head of cattle.

“Think we need to put a tether on him to make sure he makes his way home?” inquired Hoss, nodding his head backwards to indicate to his older brother that he should take a look at their youngest sibling, who was lagging behind.

Looking in the direction indicated, Adam halted his horse and waited. Once Cochise was close enough, he reached to take hold of the reins in order to lead both horse and rider home.

“I’m not asleep,” Joe stated while pushing his hat back and sitting up straighter, encouraging Cochise to continue. His brothers shrugged their shoulders and continued home.

“Coulda fooled me,” answered Hoss.

“Even if I was, Cochise would get me home.”

“I know you think your horse knows the way home, I just didn’t want to see you hurt,” Adam answered with a hint of sarcasm.

“Don’t worry; even if I did, I’d still manage to ride drag,” Joe retorted.

“I’d prefer to see you uninjured, and not breaking your neck after falling from the saddle. That was my point,” answered Adam, knowing every man counted since they hadn’t had time to replace the three men they were down.

Wanting to enjoy the rest of his ride in quiet and not listening to his brothers bickering, Hoss changed the subject. “Cain’t wait to get home and have one last meal of Hop Sing’s cookin’ and sleep in my own bed.” He rubbed his hands together in eager anticipation.

“Just when I almost forgot what my bed feels like,” Adam stretched tall in the saddle, trying to ease the kinks out of his back.

“I’ve already forgotten my bed. Don’t see why we didn’t just stay with the herd,” Joe commented.

“Joe, you know Pa wants to have final instructions with us, go over the contract and route one last time. He always does,” Adam answered.

“Yeah, that’s you two. Me… I’m just a drover,” Joe bemoaned. “I didn’t have to come home.”

“And keep Pa from fussin’ over ya?” Hoss jested. “Shortshanks, ya know he’s gonna miss ya, so it’s only right ya come home with us. ‘Sides, we always share one last supper together before we head out.”

“Yeah…” Joe’s posture slumped in the saddle once more.

“Okay, what’s up?” Adam responded. It was rare that Joe wasn’t eager to see their father. There were times in the past when he feared a ‘necessary talk’, but it had been a number of years, almost five, since the last time Joe had made a trip to the woodshed.

“Nothing.”

“Joe, somethin’s botherin’ ya, what’s wrong?” inquired Hoss.

“Just don’t see why I couldn’t stay back with the men. The only business Pa has to say is for you two, not me.”

“It wouldn’t have nothin’ to do with that colorful bruise, now would it?” Hoss asked.

“You never did say how you managed to get another black eye,” Adam answered. “Pa knows the one from Jordon should be almost gone by now. So, what’s your excuse this time?”

“Maybe somethin’s wrong with Little Joe, maybe we best send for Doc Martin. Probably should make sure he’s…”

“I don’t need Doc Martin and I don’t need to come up with an excuse for Pa,” Joe bit back.

“I guess that means you’re going to tell him the truth.”

“I don’t need to tell him anything.”

“Joe, that won’t work with Pa, ya know he’s gonna ask about it.”

Adam halted Sport and stared at his brothers. A moment later Hoss signaled Chubbs to stop.

“What’s wrong, Adam?” asked Hoss.

Kneeing Sport to catch up with Cochise, “Pa already knows… doesn’t he.”

Joe nodded.

“He knows? But he ain’t been back to the herd for…” Hoss stopped speaking mid-sentence.

Taking a deep breath Joe explained, “Wick Ritter and I were having a… uh”

“Discussion?” offered Adam.

“Yeah.”

“Joe, what’d you and Wick fight about? He never gives me or Adam any trouble.”

“And that’s the problem, I’m not you!” Joe gulped in an effort to control his temper. “He didn’t want to follow my orders…told me he’d already check the ravine and there weren’t any more calves or cows. Told me I didn’t know what I was doing and he wasn’t taking orders from me. Said he knew his job, been doing a lot longer than I had.”

“Ouch,” winced Adam.

“Wick said that?” Hoss whistled.

“It’s not the first time I’ve had a set-to with a hand, and it won’t be the last.”

“But it was the first time Pa’s seen ya?” Hoss queried.

Joe nodded and shrugged his shoulder to indicate, ‘I guess so’.

“I’m surprised Pa didn’t fire Wick right there on the spot,” suggested Adam.

“He did,” replied Joe.

“But… but…” Hoss stuttered out.

“That doesn’t make sense. He was still riding with your group today,” Adam answered.

“I had words with Pa,” Joe finally admitted his uneasiness.

“You? Shortshanks? Had words with Pa? No wonder ya don’t wanna go home.”

“Joe, I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”

“Yeah? Why hasn’t he come out to check on us like he’s done every other day since round up began? It’s been three days. I can’t imagine how mad he’s going to be because I spoke up against him firing an employee.”

“Joe, you’re not the first Cartwright son to disagree with Pa when it comes to firing a man. He’s probably forgotten everything by now.”

“Well, it’s one thing for you or Hoss to go against him. It’s totally different for me.”

“I wouldn’t worry too much, he’s not going to do anything to make us anymore shorthanded than we already are. Come on kid.” Adam signaled Sport into a trot with his brothers following suit.

Hoss knew in times past when Joe had rightfully fought one of their employees; some loathing always remained on the part of the ranch hand and everyone eventually seemed to find out what happened. It took time for the unfortunate worker to come to terms that they’d lost to someone as young and as small as Joe. However, once a man realized just how hard Little Joe Cartwright worked and that he knew what he was talking about, most eventually came around, but a few did leave.

“I gotta know, when ya sent him back to the ravine?” Hoss wanted to know who was right.

“He came back with three more yearlings, two with our brand, one without.”

Hoss and Adam burst out laughing.

“Oh, Joe, and ya didn’t tell the men on him? That’s priceless, ya shoulda told!”

“I tried to tell Pa it was personal. And I didn’t think it would go too well with the others to have me rat Wick out.”

Gaining control of his laughter Adam stated, “Joe, that’s the sign you’re maturing and going to make a great boss one day.”

Adam encouraged Sport into a lope with his brothers at his side until they reached sight of the barn.

*****

Hop Sing smiled while standing in the hallway between the dining room and kitchen; pleased with the reception of the meal he had spent the afternoon cooking. Empty serving dishes and plates sat to the table. The long-time housekeeper/cook knew the evening’s dinner and the next day’s breakfast were going to be the last good meals the boys would enjoy for several weeks to come. For this reason, he’d spent hours making sure dinner and breakfast included favorites for each man who sat around the table.

The conversation during dinner focused solely on the cattle drive. Hop Sing took no offense for the lack of words expressing appreciation for his hard work; he knew all that would change. He carried out and set a heavily frosted chocolate cake to the middle of the table, handing a serving knife to his employer. The small man, made a part of the family many years before, stood humbled at the apologies and praise heaped upon him when those around the table realized their oversight.

*****

With the table cleared and a fresh pot of coffee presented, the family moved to the study, with Ben taking his usual seat and his boys taking the chairs in front of the desk.

“As you all know, Adam will be trail boss for the drive again this year,” Ben announced while shuffling the pages of the contract into a neat pile.

“I presume Charlie’s going to be ramrod?” asked Adam, relaxing back into a chair.

“No, I’ve spoken with Charlie and he’s of mind that Hoss should be ramrod this year.” Ben waited for the news to settle in and was pleased to see his middle son’s surprise, as well as that of his brothers. “Charlie feels he’s spent enough time in the saddle as a boss that he wants to just be a drover this year.”

“He does?” Hoss asked incredulously.

“You’ve proven yourself in the past and you’ve earned the position,” Ben stated. “However, he said he wouldn’t hesitate to step in should you fail in your duties.”

“Nah, that won’t be necessary. I’ll do my job, just like he taught me.” Hoss sat straighter, his chest puffed out a little.

“What about me?” Joe tentatively asked.

“That’s up to your brothers,” Ben answered. “Since they are in charge of the drive, it will be up to them to decide each man’s position.”

Joe slipped back into his chair, knowing his fate was sealed; whenever in the past had he worked anywhere other than drag?

Regarding the youngest Cartwright who sat between his older brothers, and seeing Hoss nod his head, Adam spoke up, “Joe you’ve ridden drag for the past three years and I think,” he paused for effect, “I think it’s time for a change.”

Joe looked up his expression was one of hope.

“This will be the largest herd we’ve ever pushed, and for that reason, we’ve hired on quite a few men we know nothing about. Hoss, Charlie and I have discussed that we felt you’ve earned the right to move off drag… but I’ve another problem.”

“I’ll do anything to not ride drag,” pleaded Joe, sitting sat forward in his chair.

“Why don’t you wait to hear what I have to say, first.”

Joe’s emotions warred inside. Had his brother spoke in order to get his hopes up only to dash them away by making him ride someplace worse? But then, what could be worse than riding drag?

“Marco spoke to me and said he also needs help with the remuda, and with your knack with horses, I thought it would be a good place for you to help.”

Joe accepted Adam’s statement, thinking at least he’d be working with horses, but it still wasn’t the same as working the cattle on the drive. His attention returned to his brother when Hoss nudged him in the arm.

“Charlie wants you riding flank, and he also agreed with Marco’s request. Our idea was to give you an extra allotment of time during meal breaks so you can help Marco make sure all the horses being rotated back into the remuda are sound. Marco and his crew will make sure saddles and bridles are swapped, but you and Marco will decide if any horse is to be removed from rotation. And once a horse is pulled, only the two of you have say when the animal can return to work.” Adam was serious, yet the expression on his face recognized and appreciated the exuberance of his youngest brother.

“You mean it?” Joe gulped. “I’m riding flank and helping with the remuda?”

“I mean it.”

“Thanks, Adam.” Excitement flashed bright in his eyes and his smile.

“Charlie will work with you in learning the ropes of handling the flanks and that’s what you’ll focus on when we’re moving. You’ll be glued to Charlie, listen to him and watch everything he does.”

“I will Adam. I will.”

Ben fought down the urge to countermand Adam. He stood to leave. “If you’ll excuse me, I want another piece of Hop Sing’s cake.”

His eavesdropping continued until he reached the kitchen.

“They look out for each other,” Hop Sing busied himself by cutting a slice of cake for his employer.

“I know they do.”

“Be happy number three son happy.”

“I try, but it’s not easy accepting that he’s growing up. I want to protect him.”

“Brothers protect him; it what brothers do. They good boys.”

“That they are. Thank you my friend.” Ben nodded his head, grateful for the words of wisdom spoken.

*****

A few minutes later with plate in hand, Ben stopped and listened; the tone of the conversation had changed.

“We’re under a deadline Joe,” Adam responded with great restraint in his voice.

“Sure, we have to have the cattle to the buyer in Sacramento by the thirtieth, but the penalty clause doesn’t kick in until five days later. We have a five day window. Look, Adam, this here valley,” Joe stood and pointed to the map, “we’re only a half day away from our destination.” Joe looked up, the tone of his voice reflected a maturity the others had not heard before. “Depending on how we’re doing on time, we can stop here – rest ourselves, the horses, and the cattle. You could even ride on into town, wouldn’t take you and Sport but a few hours to get there. Get a room at the hotel, shower and shave before you meet with the buyer. You can assure him where we are and how the herd is doing… take him to dinner.”

“You’re just trying to weasel out a few extra days in Sacramento little brother. It won’t work,” Adam answered, pulling the map away from his brother’s hands and rolled it up.

“Adam, no,” Joe insisted when Adam walked away from the desk. “I’ll stay with the herd while you’re in town. Look, we don’t need to push the cattle any faster than usual, but if we know we can rest them for maybe a couple of days, give them a chance to look like they’ve had it nice and easy… Wouldn’t the buyer be happier about that than seeing cattle that have been pushed hard? I heard you and Pa talking about how we’ve never dealt with this firm before, and don’t you want to make a good impression with them? Looking like someone who just spent more than two long, dusty weeks in the saddle,” Joe left his sentence hanging.

“But it’s the truth.”

“First impressions Adam. We don’t get a second chance at it,” Joe insisted.

“And you consider arriving past our due date a good first impression?”

“But we won’t really be late… at least not as far as the penalty clause is concerned. And you’ll be able to assure them that we’re ready for delivery. Tell them you just wanted the chance to check out their stock yards. Can they really handle all the cattle we’re delivering?”

“Little brother has a point there.” Hoss scratched his head after listening to Joe’s idea. He also knew Adam’s counterpoint was valid.

Joe continued to plead his idea by following Adam to the table with the brandy decanter, “You can buy him dinner and then buy a round or two at the saloon. Then come morning, bring him out to look over the herd. Tell him he can ride point as we drive the herd to their pens.”

From where he was standing next to the dining room table, Ben listened to the conversation. He didn’t want to say anything, but hoped that Adam would see the logic in his youngest brother’s suggestion.

“Well, Adam?” Hoss asked.

Mentally reviewing the contract and the intended route, and realizing that his little brother had a good point, “Don’t know why I didn’t think of it.”

“That’s why you have me,” Joe cackled.

*****

Joe put the last of the items he would regularly need during the drive into his saddlebags. Changes of clothes in a carpet bag and his bedroll sat on the top of his desk; these item would be transported in one of the equipment wagons making the trip. He thought about the indulgence of bathing and changing clothes, and he hoped that he could at least manage to wash up every couple of days. The youngest Cartwright took pride in his appearance, but a cattle drive didn’t always afford the luxury of bathing. Turning to survey his room to make sure he hadn’t missed anything, Joe’s eyes stopped on his bedroom door when he heard the unmistakable knock of his father.

Taking a deep breath, he walked to the door and opened it, “Hi Pa, come in.”

Ben scanned the room to make sure his son was using what little time he had left to prepare for the drive.

“All packed?” Ben asked.

“As best I can… Don’t have much more room to stow anything anyway.”

“Care if I have a seat?”

Joe shook his head, his fears were coming true; this wasn’t going to be a quick good night and final hug in the privacy of his bedroom.

“No sir,” Joe answered. He waited until his father took a seat in the chair by his desk before he sat on the edge of his bed.

“Do you know why I wish to speak with you?”

“I have a feeling you’re not too happy with me,” Joe looked to the floor, not wishing to face his father’s disappointment.

“And why am I not too happy with you?” Ben kept his amusement to himself.

“Because I spoke out against your firing Ritter, and worse, I didn’t do it in private.”

Ben snickered. “Is that what you thought?”

“Yes, sir.” Joe looked up; there was something in his father’s tone of voice.

“I’ll admit your speaking up surprised me, but your reasons were valid and I know I can’t keep any man from testing the waters, so to speak… We pay good wages to our employees and to have one go against orders…”

“He’d searched the ravine before, but it had been several days.” Joe shrugged at the excuse. “So he thought he was right.”

“Regardless of how often a draw is checked, orders should be followed.”

“He knows better now, and I’m sure he’ll spread the word to anyone else who thinks they can best me.” Joe grinned devilishly.

“So you’ve won him over… and me. I wasn’t ready to see my youngest challenge me, either. I stewed all the way home, but by the time I’d groomed Buck, I realized had it been either of your brothers, I would have accepted their rationale and been done with it.”

“I’m sorry if you felt I was being disrespectful. I didn’t mean to make you mad.”

“I’m not mad at you… more so myself. It’s difficult to see my youngest child become, so grown up.”

Ben stood and approached, lifting his son’s face to get a good look at the colorful bruise.

“Twice in ten days, does it hurt?”

“Only when I laugh?” Joe answered. “I’ll be fine. Hop Sing said he’d mix some herbs and stuff that I could use to help lessen the color and pain. Ritter has a wicked right.”

“I imagine he’s saying the same about your left.”

“He told me he earned his nickname ‘Wick’ from fighting his older brother.”

“And all you received was the nickname Little Joe.”

“Yeah.”

Having assured himself that it was only a bruise and nothing worse, Ben enjoyed the moment of levity with his son before he sat back down.

“I just wanted to tell you I agree with your brothers and Charlie. I’m proud of the job done by the three of you.” Pausing, Ben gathered his thoughts, he wasn’t ready to discuss the subject that had him most concerned. “I also overheard your conversation after I left the room earlier.”

“Oh?” Joe wondered exactly what part he had heard.

“Between you and me, I wished I’d thought of giving the cattle a few days to rest, too,” Ben smiled at his son’s ecstatic expression.

“I can’t believe that Adam listened to me and is actually planning to rest the herd.”

“He knows a good idea when he hears one.”

“And you?” Joe asked.

“Me?”

“I saw your face when Adam said he was moving me off drag.”

“Joe, your brothers didn’t tell me anything about their conversation with Charlie.”

“I couldn’t believe it at first.”

“I know drag isn’t where you want to be, but I’m not so sure I want you riding where there’s more risk involved.”

Joe started to interrupt.

“However, as I said, your brothers are in charge of where the men ride. I want you to listen and do everything Charlie or your brothers tell you. Riding flank is a lot harder than riding drag.”

“I know, and I’ll be careful.”

“Joe, as much as you try to be careful… nature has a way of proving otherwise. Just double check and triple check everything, keep an eye out and listen. That’s all I can ask.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“I know you will.”

Ben stood to his feet and within moments, he wrapped a hand behind Joe’s neck and pulled him into a hug.

“I’m going to miss you, boy. The house will be too quiet without my three sons.”

“I’ll miss you too, Pa.”

*****

Eleven days into the drive and provisions needed to be restocked while the herd was bedded down over an hour north of Placerville. Adam swung Sport around to fall in beside Hoss and Cracker who rode in the wagon, as the small group split off from the herd just as the drovers pushed the cattle to their feet, right after day break.

Entering the growing community, Cracker drove the supply wagon and stopped in the alley beside their destination . Hoss accompanied Cracker in placing the orders at the general store and over at the livestock feed and grain; and later in loading the supplies. Adam made arrangements at the bank to pay for their purchases. Before returning to the general store, he stopped at the telegraph office to send one wire to their father indicating their progress and a second wire to Hague & Associates, notifying them of their anticipated arrival date and an invitation to dinner the night before they made final delivery.

*****

While his brothers were away from the herd, Joe gladly accepted the temporary assignment to ramrod, while Charlie Yeagle stepped up to act as trail boss. The brothers and Charlie thought it would be good for the youth, besides what could happen; they’d only be gone a few hours.

*****

Leaving Placerville, Adam rode ahead and reached the back of the herd, calling out to the first drover he encountered, asking for Charlie or Joe. The man refused to lower the kerchief from his face in order to speak; he just pointed the boss forward.

Halfway to the front of the herd, Adam found Charlie coaxing a few straying cattle back to where they belonged.

“All’s quiet, Boss,” Charlie called out after completing his task and seeing Adam approach.

“That’s good. Hoss and Cracker should catch up to us a little after lunch time,” Adam answered while scanning the herd.

“Joe’s fine, if that’s who you’re looking for,” Charlie knew the brothers well. “Didn’t grow horns either; didn’t let the temporary assignment go to his head, he just kept doing everything like he has this trip. Oh, he did have to break up a squabble between two of the men on drag, sent one to work with Marco, hoping the man would simmer down.”

“Any trouble I should know about?”

“Not really, both men went after the same bunch of cattle that decided they didn’t want to stay with the herd. The men were quite vocal about who should get credit for saving the Cartwrights a couple head.”

“If that’s all,” mused Adam.

“Go on and see for yourself. Joe’s just up ahead on the left.”

*****

The noon day lunch break was long over. James, their cook, was satisfied that nothing had been forgotten or lost on the trip to catch up with the herd. Hoss climbed into the saddle on his second mount, Teeny, in preparation to check in with the trail boss. Once found, Adam heard his brother’s report that the last of the drovers were back in the saddle and then instructed him to take over riding point.

Thirty minutes after assuming point, Hoss listened to their scout, having returned from surveying the terrain they would travel over the course of the next twenty-four hours. The drive was moving at a pace better than planned; Adam had built in additional time allowing for inclement weather. The valleys they chose to rest the cattle overnight were lush with grass and good water was always nearby, so the herd was in good condition.

With his ramrod back up front, Adam signaled Sport into an easy lope and resumed circling the herd, checking in with the drovers and assessing the overall condition of the animals. He also took time to check in with Marco, inquiring how the remuda was faring. Their luck had held; they hadn’t been forced to separate out any injured or sick cattle and none of the horses had been pulled from active duty, nor had they lost any time due to weather.

*****

Halting Cochise on a rise, Joe quickly took a drink before returning his canteen to hang from the saddle horn. His father and brothers had been right; riding flank was more challenging than riding drag. While wiping his brow, he kept his eyes open and alert.

“ADAM!” Kicking Cochise hard, Joe raced to where his brother and Sport went down.

The power of his horse surged at his bidding. Keeping a level head, Joe shouted out, “Max! Check Sport for injuries! Walt, get up front, tell Hoss Adam’s down!”

Without waiting for his horse to transition to a halt, Joe kicked his feet from the stirrups, jumped from his saddle to run the remaining short distance to his brother. Adam lay face down and unmoving, obviously unconscious. With his attention focused on Adam, Joe ignored Sport regaining his footing and the creak of leather while giving a full body shake.

Kneeling, Joe visually assessed his brother. “Careful of his right leg. It looks broken,” he cautioned when a hand touched his shoulder.

Charlie Yeagle, who had also witnessed the accident and made his way across the herd, knelt beside his stricken boss barely a moment after Joe. Running his hands down the man’s leg he agreed with the younger man’s visual assessment. “You’re right, it’s broken.” Pulling out his knife, the Texan slit the pant leg, heaving a curse at what it revealed, a bony protrusion poking into the skin.

“We’re what… a good half a day back to Placerville?” Joe inquired as together they worked to turn Adam onto his back.

Drovers hazing the cattle along the right flank paused momentarily before quickly moving on when the foreman looked up and scowled.

“Probably that, in his condition he won’t be able to travel any faster,” Charlie’s Texas drawl laid thick in contemplation. While holding the fractured leg stable, Charlie looked up and hollered, “Someone get Cracker, tell him to unload the equipment wagon and get it up here!”

“Ouch,” Joe scrunched his face and turned his head slightly away having seeing the awkward angle of Adam shoulder. Taking a deep breath, Joe faced forward and said, “I think his shoulder is dislocated.”

Charlie looked and agreed. “Tell ya what, you hold his other shoulder down and I’ll pop it back into place while he’s still out.”

Joe fought down the involuntary gagging, praying his lunch wouldn’t make a return appearance at hearing the sound of the joint moving into its proper position.

“Glad that’s over with,” Charlie sat back on his heels, using his sleeve to wipe the sweat from his forehead. “You okay? You look a little green…”

“I’ll be okay.”

“Think you can survive my setting his leg?”

“Just do it.” Joe inhaled deeply.

A few moments later, Joe refused to focus on himself while wiping away the blood flowing from his brother’s temple. “It won’t stop bleeding.” He pulled a clean handkerchief from his back pocket and pressed it against the wound. Thankful he had listened to his brothers and Hop Sing, one never knew when a clean handkerchief could come in handy.

“Head wounds do that. Just keep that cloth pressed against it. What about his ribs?” Charlie asked.

Joe heard the question and looked up at hearing the hoof beats announcing Hoss’ arrival.

“I’ll check ‘em,” Hoss announced, stepping from his horse.

The youngest son kept pressure on the kerchief all the while staring at his middle brother, praying he wouldn’t find anything broke; he’d had to push hard against Adam’s chest in order to help Charlie reset the shoulder.

“Cain’t feel nothin’ broken…” Hoss finally stated, having taken his time to evaluate Adam’s torso.

A quiet sigh escaped from Joe before he asked, “What about his…” He rolled his head across his sleeve to wipe away the sweat that threatened to enter his eyes, “…back?”

“Don’t know. We’ll need to treat him as if it’s hurt until he can tell us otherwise,” the middle brother advised.

“I don’t think ya got anything to worry about there…” The two brothers looked to their foreman who was trying to keep Adam from moving about and possibly causing further damage to his injured leg. “He might not be awake, but he’s starting to move some, I can feel it in his legs.”

“That’s good, isn’t it Hoss?” Now that the initial adrenalin was wearing off, Joe sought reassurances.

“Shorenuff, Shortshanks.” Hoss looked to his youngest brother and saw the fear and uncertainty; the need for to be comforted.

Out here in the open Hoss knew that Joe wouldn’t be receptive of a hug, but he also knew words would work wonders. Stepping around his brothers, Hoss placed a hand upon Joe’s shoulder and said, “You’re doin’ a good job there, little brother. Adam would be proud of how you handled yourself while takin’ care of ‘im.”

Hearing the clatter of the equipment wagon racing towards them, all three men turned. Cracker stood from the seat, announcing they’d transferred everything but the bedrolls into the other wagons.

“Cracker, get the splints from the first aid kit,” Charlie yelled.

Carrying the requested items, the old wrangler stepped down from the high bench seat before hurrying to the injured man. He asked, “How bad?” and handed the splints and rolls of gauze over to the foreman.

“Bad enough,” Hoss answered, moving away to allow Charlie and Joe to finish taking care of Adam.

Minutes passed with the herd continuing to meander past those tending to the downed rider. Hoss looked up when Joe stood. He watched and quickly followed when he saw his brother stumble a couple of steps while walking to the wagon.

“Shortshanks? You okay?” Hoss stood behind his younger brother.

“Yeah,” Joe responded while wiping tears from his face.

“You got dirt in your eyes?” Hoss waited.

“It struck me,” Joe turned to look to where Adam lay before moving farther behind the wagon, away from the view of the drovers.

“You hurt?” With concern Hoss reached out for Joe.

Shaking his head, no, Joe’s shoulders hitched up and down. “It struck me that… that… Seeing Adam go down,” Joe breathed deeply before continuing, “It must have been what Pa felt like when Momma died.”

“Oh, Punkin.”

“Sport just went down… Adam…” Old emotions surfaced, causing Joe to grip the front of Hoss’ vest and bury his face in his brother’s shirt.

Understanding why his brother had walked over to the wagon, Hoss’ arms encircled his brother and rubbed his back, allowing the man-child to cry. “Get it all out, little brother… Get it all out… But know this. You done good. You did everythin’ ya should have. Like I said earlier, ol’ Adam couldn’t a done it better.”

“It didn’t hit me at first.” Looking up and wiping his eyes, Joe’s voice was a whisper, “He’s gonna be all right… isn’t he?”

“Yeah, ol Adam’s gonna be just fine. We’ll get him back to Placerville and the doctor. He’ll fix Adam up. He’s gonna be down for a while with that leg, but he’ll be back on his feet. Now… why don’t you dry those tears and get back to tendin’ to him with Charlie.”

“Thanks, Hoss,” Joe answered as he stepped away and did as suggested.

The two brothers carried several blankets from the wagon, Charlie and Cracker smiled as the larger brother kept a reassuring hand upon the smaller figure’s shoulder.

“I hoped Adam would have woke by now.” Hoss turned to Cracker, “Think you’re up to takin’ Adam back to the doc in Placerville?”

“If I had my druthers,” the wrangler pushed his hat back and scratched his head, “I’d say no. Don’t know that I’m up to takin’ on the likes of your brother all by myself.” A smile appeared. “You know how he’s gonna be when he wakes up. More ornery than a New England mule and ten times meaner. You think he’s gonna listen to me about him doing right by himself?”

“Nah.” Hoss resigned himself to be the one to drive the wagon.

With Adam’s leg splinted, a bandage around his head, and his arm in a sling to stabilize his shoulder, four men slipped the blankets under and lifted the still unconscious man. Dead weight pulled at their arms while they maneuvered him into the back of the wagon, laying him on a pallet of extra bedrolls brought along in case others were soaked by rain.

Not looking forward to the long drive back to Placerville Hoss went to fetch his second mount, Teeny, and handed his reins over to the head wrangler, before turning to the men around him. “Charlie, I’m placing you as Trail Boss…”

“No problem there, I’s the one who taught you and Adam all you know about the job.”

“What do you say about making Little Joe your Ramrod?” asked Hoss.

“Seriously?!” Joe squeaked out, his voice pitched up in surprise.

“I don’t see why not. We’re only three or so days out of Sacramento. It’ll do him good,” Charlie answered, unable to stop his own smile at seeing the youth’s eagerness. “Cracker can help keep him in line too.”

Hoss spoke directly to Joe, “You know how important this drive is for the Ponderosa. I want you ta listen ta everythin’ and do everythin’ that Charlie and Cracker tell ya.”

“I will Hoss, I will.”

“Remember who you are, you’re a Cartwright. Anythin’ good or bad that you do reflects on the rest of us, and that means Pa, too.”

“I know… I promise. I’ll make you proud. Even Adam won’t be able to complain about the job I’ll do.”

“Don’t be too eager to do stuff on your own, make sure you talk any ideas over with Charlie. But, if you have a good idea, I expect Charlie to hear you out too.”

“No problem there, Hoss. Little Joe and I have an understanding about working and doin’ stuff; goes way back,” Charlie answered knowing that Joe would do as he said. The man remembered teaching Little Joe how to work with the horse in order to hold the cut. The child had been a natural to feel the subtle movements of his mount before it took off after a recalcitrant calf; he just needed to understand why.

*****

Mile after mile, Hoss sat on the bench seat driving the team, mopping sweat from his brow, and worrying. Not much had changed since they’d left the herd; except the loss of noise from two dozen drovers pushing a thousand head of cattle and a thirty-six horse remuda. Hoss judged that over four hours had elapsed since he’d rein slapped the two-horse team and left the cattle drive with his oldest brother lying unconscious in the back of the tarp-covered wagon. Alternately, he’d switch between watching the team that was plodding along and taking a peek to see if Adam was close to waking up.

Another hour had almost passed when he heard a moan from within, alerting Hoss his brother was rousing. Halting the team, Hoss wrapped the reins around the brake before crawling through the opening and into the back.

Adam had raised his hand to his head, not quite pinching the bridge of his nose, but close. Slowly he moved his legs until pain signaled it wasn’t a good idea.

“How you doin’ there older brother?” Hoss softly asked as he pulled the stopper from the canteen. Gently, the big man lifted his brother’s shoulders so it would be easier for him to drink.

Nodding his head to indicate he’d had his fill and with his eyes still closed, Adam was thankful when Hoss laid him back down.

“What happened?”

“Sport and you took a tumble.”

“He okay?”

“Looks like he bruised his knees up, missing some hide, but he didn’t appear that lame. Marco would know for certain. At least he wasn’t banged up as bad as you,” answered Hoss.

“How bad?”

“You? Busted leg, dislocated shoulder that’s been reset, and probably one hell of a headache. As long as you were out, I’d say you got a nasty concussion too.”

“You can say that… again.”

Adam tested his vision by slowly opening his eyelids, pleased the sun wasn’t blinding and he could fully open them after blinking several times.

“Nauseous?”

“Not bad… let’s see how well that water stays down before I ask for more.”

“Good thinkin’,” Hoss happily replied.

Adam tried to shift into a more comfortable position, his body argued against any movement. Lifting his hand again, Adam looked perplexed after touching the gauze wrapped around his head.

“What’s this for?”

“Your head wasn’t as hard as it shoulda been. When ya knocked yerself out, you gave yerself a pretty good gash… Bled a while. Might need stitches, so just leave it be.”

Adam lowered his arm after the pounding in his head drew his attention. Focusing on breathing regularly, he fought down the onslaught of nausea. In time, the quiet became too much. Adam opened his eyes and looked to his brother.

“I don’t hear any cattle.”

“Kind of hard to when they’s several hours on up the trail.”

“What?!” Adam grew alarmed and tried to sit up.

“Now don’t you go and do anythin’ stupid.” Hoss placed a hand against his brother’s chest and gently pushed, “Just lay back down.”

“Why aren’t we with the herd?” Adam’s agitation incited a return of feeling nauseous. He breathed deep in an effort to quell the bile from rising in his throat.

“We aren’t with them because I sent them on ahead. And I only stopped when I heard you amoanin’.”

“How far behind the herd are we?” Adam struggled to put the bits and pieces together.

“We’re goin’ ta Placerville.”

“Placerville? That’s… backwards.”

“I know where Placerville is.” Hoss’ words bared a slight huff, but he quickly settled himself down and explained. “If we’d kept with the herd, you’d abeen more than two days without a doctor. Ain’t no guarantee the next town had one. So… I knew Placerville did. Don’t you worry. As it is, we can keep goin’ with the full moon and maybe reach a doctor later tonight.”

“You were wrong Hoss. We have a duty…”

“Family comes first. ‘Sides, I made Charlie trail boss. He’s done it enough times to know what to do. Just rest there, and breathe nice and easy like.”

Adam closed his eyes and accepted his brother’s suggestion.

“How bad is it?” Adam finally asked, wanting to hear the rest of their situation.

“Considerin’ how long you was unconscious, I’m betting the doctor’s gonna keep you for a few days. Figured I’d catch up with the herd and we’d pick you up on our way home.”

“No way.”

“You’re gonna do as the doctor says, and that’s final.”

“I beg to differ.”

“Adam… If Pa were here, what would you do?”

Grumbling, he knew Hoss was right, but still. Several minutes of silence elapsed with only the sound of the horses jiggling in their traces. Adam waited until he’d calmed himself.

Finally, Adam inquired, “What about Joe? Is he scouting ahead for us?”

“Nah, I left him with Charlie, made him Ramrod.”

“You what?!” Regardless of the pounding in his head, Adam protested. “Hoss, the kid isn’t ready for that kind of responsibility.” Adam rubbed his temple. The constant pain pointed out the stupidity of his quick reaction to sit up. Adam couldn’t help the cynicism in his voice; “You know what Pa said before we left…” he collapsed to the pallet of bedrolls.

Hoss thought back to the morning they pressed the cattle to their hooves and left the lush pastures of the Ponderosa.

Adam spoke before Hoss could. “Pa told us to keep an eye on the kid. How am I supposed to do that with us here and him with the herd?”

“How were you supposed to do that when you was sleepin’ on the job?” Hoss’ smile was jovial. “You and me both know that sometimes responsibilities need to be delegated, and that’s what I done. ‘Sides, I figured you’d appreciate him being back with the herd, so you can have some peace and quiet.”

Adam thought on the sound of quiet that surrounded them and its implication.

“Peace and quiet, sure… Now all I have to do is worry about the trouble he might get into.”

“Now, Adam, Joe hasn’t caused any trouble since we started round up. He’s listened to every word you or Charlie said, and he’s done everythin’ you asked of him since we set out on this little trip.”

“Guess trouble wasn’t the right word to use; maybe I should have left it at worrying about him. He’s too young to be put in that position,” grumbled Adam.

“You sore at him because he thought of somethin’ that you hadn’t back home? Don’t begrudge him this chance. I remember takin’ over ramroddin’ for a couple a days when I was his age, no different with Joe. ‘Sides you know darn well you’d prefer to have me here helpin’ you tend to you.” Hoss laughed, and then told Adam what was so funny. “Little fella like Joe, why you’d probably pancake him to the ground gettin’ out of the back of the wagon ta take care of your… uh… personal needs.”

Adam cocked his head and looked to Hoss. “Now that you mention it.”

Once they had tended to business, Hoss returned Adam to the wagon and checked to make sure they hadn’t shifted the splints holding the broken bones in his leg in place.

“Ya hungry?”

“I think I could eat a little.”

“Good, let me take care of the horses and I’ll get a fire going so I can warm up some beans and hardtack.”

The sun set while the brothers ate their simple meal; the horses grazed nearby.

*****

Two hours after stopping, Hoss made sure the campfire was dead after hitching the team to the wagon.

Climbing up to the bench seat he stated, “He’ll make you proud of him.”

“Who?”

“Joe. You’d abeen proud of him, had it not been you he’d abeen takin’ care of. The way he acted once you was down. Him and Charlie were all business-like in carin’ for you and tryin’ not to cause you any more harm. He kept his wits about him.”

“Well…”

“Adam, face it. Our little brother is growin’ up,” Hoss admitted.

“Well, maybe, but there was no way I would have left him as trail boss.”

“Oh, heavens no.” Hoss laughed before he looked one more time into the back of the wagon. “And Joe knows he ain’t ready for that responsibility, neither. He’ll do good by Charlie, just like he was doin’ good by you. He deserved the chance to ramrod. Lord knows he’s followed Charlie and me around like a puppy dog tryin’ to learn everythin’ there is to know.”

“It was kind of cute,” mused Adam, the happier thoughts alleviated his headache. “He was happy when I told him he wasn’t riding drag this trip.”

“Ya made him happy when you told him he would be responsible for helpin’ Marco with the remuda in addition to ridin’ flank.”

Hoss untwisted the reins from the brake and released the lever.

“Don’t know that I’ve seen him that excited about working,” Adam answered, unable to keep the smile off his face.

“I do.” Hoss clucked to the team, they put their chests into their harnesses, which moved the wagon with a lurch.

“Ow…” cringed Adam.

“Sorry about that.”

“You were saying?” Adam inquired once the pain from the jolt of the wagon hitting the end of the traces subsided.

“Huh?”

“You said you remembered seeing Joe that excited,” Adam had grown curious at his brother’s words.

“Oh… uh… Yeah, back when he was a little shaver. You hadn’t been home from college that long and the Bar Cross was goin’ to market a little early. Pa sent you ta represent the Ponderosa.”

“And Joe tagged along.”

“He’d been workin’ on holdin’ the cut for almost a year with Charlie watchin’ over him. Pa wouldn’t have let him go along had he thought he wasn’t ready.”

“Easy to do when he was riding Star. That pony was the best trained cutting horse we ever had.”

“Joe shore did put enough hours in the saddle that spring and summer, workin’ him. Wantin’ you to be proud of the team they were.”

“He did do a good job.”

“He shore did, and Pa got a kick out of the kid puttin’ ya in yer place.”

“Say what?!” Adam cranked his neck around to look up to his bigger brother. The movement reminded him of his head injury.

“Pa rode out to make sure things were goin’ smoothly. He didn’t expect no trouble, but it was your first time to represent the Ponderosa since ya’d been back, and he also wanted to make sure that you and Joe had some time together.”

“Well, I wish the kid…” Adam bit back his comment, and laid back down.

“What?”

“Wish he hadn’t been in an all fired hurry to grow up. It was easier dealing with him as a little child.”

“Adam, to you… he’ll always be a child. I can see it now. Joe nearing forty, hair long past touching his collar and it turnin’ gray.” Hoss laughed. “And you’ll still be callin’ him boy or kid or thinkin’ on him as anythin’ but a grown up.”

Taking the statement in the spirit in which Hoss intended, “And you and I ready to give up the saddle for a nice, comfortable rocker.” Adam laughed.

“That’s right. And Pa after him to not put his feet on the table.”

“Getting after him to not slam the door.”

“Don’t race Cochise into the yard.”

“Get a haircut.”

“By the way, we’ll need to make sure when we come back for ya that he gets his haircut,” Hoss reminded.

“Yeah, that little brother of ours will do all right. How could he not.” Adam admitted as he closed his eyes.

‘With us teachin’ ‘im everythin’ there is to know and Charlie watcin’ over ‘im? He’ll be fine as frog’s hair.”

“If he isn’t, Charlie will put him in his place easily enough,” mused Adam.

“He minds Charlie just a smidge better than he minds Pa…”

“He knows Charlie’s necessary talks,” mumbled Adam. A full belly and the gentle rolling of wheels lulled him to sleep, helping to block out the aches and pains.

Looking back into the wagon, Hoss replied to himself, “That he does. Sleep tight brother, sleep tight.”

*****

A light in the front room lit in response to his knocking on the door.

“Just a minute!” he heard from the other side.

The door opened, revealing a man maybe not much older than himself, tall and broad-shouldered like Adam, and skinny like Joe, with a black robe wrapped around his body; yet he still wore his trousers and dress shoes that were fashionable in places along the eastern seaboard of the United States.

“You the doc?” Hoss squinted his eyes in an involuntary response to the bright lantern held aloft.

“Last time I looked at my diploma…”

“Didn’t mean no disrespect… but… my brother…” Hoss turned to look back to the covered wagon. “He got throwed from his horse, broke his leg. Probably got a concussion too.”

“You’re not from around here.”

“No sir, we were pushin’ a herd of cattle to Sacramento.”

“Let’s go see this brother of yours.” They walked down the cobble stone path to the street, where the physician stated, “My name’s Everett Gage… Doctor Everett Gage.”

“Pleased to meet ya, Doc. I’m Hoss Cartwright, and this here,” Hoss pulled back the covering to reveal the sleeping form, “is my brother Adam.”

“Thrown you said?”

“Yes sir,” Hoss answered, watching the doctor climbed into the wagon.

“How long ago?”

“It was well after lunch.”

“Possibly eight, maybe ten hours?”

“Haven’t looked at a watch, don’t know what time it is,” Hoss answered, craning his neck to see the doctor performing a cursory examination.

“A little before midnight.”

“Sorry about being so late, didn’t want to push the team and have Adam jostled around in back, makin’ things worse. We also stopped for a couple hours to rest the horses and eat something.”

“No, you did right in taking your time. Stabilized the leg, good. Cleaned and bandaged his head wound.” Looking up, “Did he lose consciousness at all?”

“Yeah, from the moment he hit the ground until about maybe 5 hours later?”

“For him to be out that long, you’re probably right about the concussion.” The doctor hmmm’d to himself a few times. “When he woke, was he lucid?”

“Was he what?”

“Did he know who he was, who you were, talk clearly, understood everything you said?”

“Yes, sir. Wasn’t too happy about me leavin’ our younger brother with the herd. Nor happy I told him you’d probably keep him a few days…”

“You’re right about that. He’s not going to be catching up with your herd, any time soon.” The doctor looked up. “You said you stopped to eat? Did he keep everything down?”

“Yeah, and once we got back ta movin’ he fell asleep.”

“Doc? Everything all right?” called a voice from near the horses.

“Oh, Henry, can you help us? Have an injured man I need to get into my clinic.”

“I can carry him,” Hoss offered.

“Hoss…?” Doc Gage phrased the word more as a question to make sure he remembered correctly. When Hoss nodded, he continued, “Marshal Ludlow here knows where I keep the stretcher inside. I’ll need the two of you to carry your brother, while I support his broken leg.”

*****

With Adam under a doctor’s care, and time on his hands, Hoss left to take care of the team. He returned to the wagon and slowly climbed to the seat and drove to the livery he’d driven past earlier. It didn’t seem possible that they had purchased supplies only that morning.

*****

An hour later, Doc Gage opened the door and stepped into his waiting room, Hoss was immediately to his feet.

“How’s my brother?”

“Concussed and madder than a hornet when I told him he wouldn’t be rejoining your cattle drive.”

“Then he’s gonna be okay?”

“He’ll need a week or so to get over the worst of the concussion, he was pretty nauseous when he woke.”

“But he kept everything down from supper.”

“I’m sure it’s just an after effect from his head striking the ground. It took a few stitches to close the wound. I’m sure it will completely pass, given a few days peace and quiet.”

“He didn’t look that bad, but then the sun was goin’ down. He didn’t tell me he was bad off.”

In the short time the physician had known the two brothers, he was fairly observant, “Does that surprise you?”

It only took Hoss a moment to answer, “No sir. But that’s more a sompthin’ Joe woulda done.”

“I take it Joe is your younger bother?”

“Yes sir. How long before Adam can travel?”

“Like you said earlier, I’d like to keep him here for two or three days. Give the gypsum cast on his leg time to dry out and harden, and I’d really prefer to keep an eye on him.” The doctor paused. “A concussion is nothing to take lightly.”

“Does he have to say here?” Hoss looked to the doorway of the room where Adam lay.

“He can be moved to a room at the hotel later in the morning. Too late to wake Alistair. Besides I do want to wake your brother every couple of hours, as a precaution.”

“At least Adam’ll be easier to wake than Joe,” Hoss tried to sound encouraged.

“If you’d like, I’ve another examination room with an empty bed.”

“I shore would like that, but… can I see Adam first?”

“He’s asleep, I administered a hefty dose of laudanum, but I don’t see that it would do any harm.” Doctor Gage reopened the door to the examination room and gave the two brothers their privacy.

The cast his brother wore looked cumbersome and Hoss was thankful it wasn’t on his leg. He knew the sling was only there to prevent the arm from putting any additional strain on the healing shoulder. His brother’s appearance looked better; the light colored bandage wrapped around his forehead appeared in contrast to his tanned complexion.

Content that Adam hadn’t endured any further injury and that the doctor was correct in his diagnosis and treatment, Hoss followed the doctor to another room and was soon fast asleep.

*****

The rising sun bathed Placerville’s sky in bold red colors as it rose above the mountains. Stepping to the street, Hoss stretched his arms wide and couldn’t stop the yawn.

“Sleep well?” Marshal Ludlow inquired in greeting the big stranger.

“Sorta, bed was comfy, but…”

“You’re worried about your man in there?”

“Yeah, I’m worried about ‘im.”

The marshal interrupted before Hoss could continue, “Doc Gage is a good doc. Sorry we weren’t properly introduced last night, I’m Marshal Henry Ludlow.”

Hoss guessed Ludlow to be about forty years old, and even as early in the morning as it was, the man was clean shaven, revealing a deep cleft in his chin.

“Hoss, Hoss Cartwright,”

“One of them Ponderosa Cartwrights?”

“Yes sir, Ben Cartwright is my pa.”

“Met him a few years back, real respectable man.”

“That he is,” Hoss acknowledged.

“What brings you to Placerville, other than your injured man?”

“We’re deliverin’ a herd of cattle to Sacramento; and that man’s my brother.”

“Has to be Adam?”

“Yeah, wouldn’t a taken both of us to move Joe from the wagon,” Hoss answered with a grin.

“Don’t remember too much about your younger brother.” Marshal Ludlow greeted a citizen of Placerville who passed by the men. “You’re probably wanting Mason’s diner for breakfast? They have the best food in town.”

“I sure am hungry. Ain’t ate since last night, and beans weren’t that much. I’m plum starved.”

“Come on, I’ll take ya there.”

“Uh… I need to send a wire first.”

“Telegraph is on the way.”

*****

Having sent the wire home and ordered breakfast, Hoss returned to the clinic carrying a tray of food and greeted his brother.

“Smells good,” Adam announced.

“Hotcakes and sausage patties.”

“Any for me?” teased Adam.

“Shore, I brought you a little, if’n you’re up to eating.” Setting the tray on a nearby table, Hoss watched Adam nod and helped him sit up in bed by propping a few pillows behind his back. “How’s the shoulder?”

“Tender, but it doesn’t hurt as much as it did yesterday.” Hoss set the tray to Adam’s lap. “Thanks.”

“And yer head?”

“It’s there,” Adam lifted a fork from the tray and began to cut a sausage patty.

“I wired Pa… Told him you were injured and under a doctor’s care. Said you’d be stayin’ here until we head back home.”

“That’s all I need is Pa worrying.”

“And you don’t think he’s not worried about us even without ya gettin’ hurt?”

“No, I know he worries.”

“Get ta eatin’ before Doc comes in here and scolds ya. He said if you were a good boy,” Hoss grinned when Adam scowled, “we could move ya to the hotel.”

The brothers continued to eat in silence. Hoss enjoyed the quiet, while Adam thought on a logical argument that would ensure his return to the herd with his brother.

“Hoss, if we take it slow…”

“WE ain’t doin’ anythin’. I’m gonna head out once I get you settled and like I said,” Hoss stood and addressed his brother, “You ain’t goin’ nowhere but the hotel.”

“And what am I supposed to do while I wait for you to return?”

“You sound like an educated man, you might appreciate my personal library.” Doctor Gage entered the room, having overheard his patient’s complaint.

“I appreciate your offer…”

“It’s not an offer, Mr. Cartwright, it’s an order. Doctor’s orders.”

“He got ya there older brother,” Hoss snickered. Once Adam was finished with his breakfast, Hoss removed the tray of dirty dishes.

“I’ll be back as soon as I return these ta Miss Mason.”

*****

By mid-morning, Hoss found himself behind Adam, pushing him along the boardwalk in a chair with wheels, as they made their way to the hotel.

“I don’t like that sky,” Hoss commented. “It’s too late to be that red.”

“Yeah, Pa always said nothing good could come from a sky like that in the morning.”

The brothers thought of the old saying, Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning, sailor’s warning.

Doctor Gage, who was leading the way, commented, “Old Jerome’s been complaining for days that we’re due for a humdinger of a gulley washer if his aches and pains are any indication.”

After signing their name into the hotel registry, Hoss was pleased to hear there was a second floor suite available for Adam’s use. Once he and Joe returned, the three brothers could spend a few extra days taking it easy until the doctor proclaimed Adam well enough to travel home.

On the far side of the room, a set of French doors opened to a balcony where Adam could sit and watch the people walking along the street.

“Headache back?” Hoss inquired, opening one of the French doors to allow fresh air into the room.

Adam barely nodded from where he laid back on top of the settee in the parlor area of the suite, a settee long enough that he could stretch out and not be cramped. He relaxed comfortably, more than he had when Hoss and the doctor carried him up the flight of stairs and into the suite.

“And you thought you could rejoin the herd. Why you could barely make it down the street and up one measly flight of stairs.”

“Leave off Hoss,” Adam snapped.

“I’m sorry.”

“No I’m sorry. I just feel so frustrated to be stuck here.”

“I know, but Doc said he’d bring over some of his books for ya to read and keep yerself occupied until Joe and I get back.”

“Then you best get going. The sooner you head out, the sooner you’ll get back. Besides, they’re probably complaining about needing the wagon for hauling the equipment.”

“Yeah, yer right about that.”

“The only thing I’ll be glad about being stuck here is that I won’t have to deal with James yammering about not being able to find anything for all the stuff crammed in the wagons.” Adam gave a brief laugh.

“Well, I’ll head out. You sure you’ll be okay?” Hoss was torn, he felt that Adam still needed help.

“I’ll be fine. I’m sure Doctor Gage will stop in periodically.”

“Okay, I’ll send a wire once I get to Sacramento.”

“I’ll be waiting on pins and needles.”

*****

Two hours from town, the weather forecasted by the morning sky let loose with a vengeance; the heavens opened up, dumping a torrential downpour on top of man and beast. Hoss continued on, not wanting to change his mind about driving the team to catch up with the herd. Once he reached Weber Creek, the decision was taken out of his hands. If emotions could be attributed to water, Hoss would have declared the waters were angry; cascading between and over the banks — dirty, frothy, and debris laden. Begrudgingly, Hoss turned the team around and returned to Placerville.

*****

Adam pushed away the empty plate from his dinner when he heard the door knob jiggle, and looked up.

“I sent a wire on ahead to Charlie in Sacramento. Told ‘em we’re stuck here,” Hoss announced after entering the hotel suite, unwilling to look his older brother in the eye.

“The storm?” Adam didn’t have to ask, but he did.

Within an hour of Hoss having left, Adam grew worried over the darkening sky and the rain hammering heavily over the town of Placerville. With his bedraggled brother safe, he now worried for his youngest brother and the rest of the men, plus the herd.

“It was bad. I’m soaked clear through.” Hoss tried to shake off more of the rain, “It was just too risky to cross Weber Creek. I’ve never seen anythin’ like it. Never had trouble dealin’ with a team of horses before, neither. This storm had ‘em spooked. Wanted to kiss the ground when I made it back to the livery.”

“You did the right thing Hoss.”

“Why don’t it feel that way?”

“Because Joe’s out there. We both know the men will look after him, but he’ll always be our kid brother. And we’re not there to help protect him.”

Hoss answered the door and accepted several towels from the attendant standing in the hallway.

*****

Being shorthanded, drive managed well and was just under a day away from reaching the valley where Adam had agreed to rest the herd before final delivery. Joe had worked hard to prove himself to Charlie and the others; hoping their reports would show his brothers that he was worthy of their trust in taking over as ramrod, and representing the name Cartwright.

*****

The first day after Hoss and Adam left had dawned grey and overcast skies that continued to be the new norm. The cloud cover hid the ominous red dawn witnessed by those in Placerville. The men had no time to prepare; rain ponchos stayed tied to the back of saddles with the drovers focusing on the cattle, and prayed their luck held out.

Not quite half the herd had leisurely forded the American River, southwest of Folsom lake, when Charlie and the others heard the unmistakable rolling roar. Above, the sky darkened while sheeting rain marched its way across the valley.

“We have to split the herd!” Charlie shouted. “Push those back! Force ‘em to follow the bank!”

Men urged their mounts; drag riders raced forward to reinforce those riding flank. Every man was intent on changing the direction of those remaining on the near bank.

“Keep them split! Don’t let them join up!” Joe screamed above the protesting bellows. Pushing his mount hard and wishing it was Cochise he rode, he raced back and forth to keep the animals from following those that had successfully crossed. “We’ll lose them if the river rises!”

Hooves churned rain and dirt into mud as horses obeyed the commands of their riders and the cattle belligerently protested. Plops of mud and manure flew into the air and indiscriminately splattered those unfortunate enough to be in the way.

Hearts hammered and breaths came ragged as the riders chased down the cattle that made a break towards the water. Drovers worked hard to turn the livestock to stay on their side of the river; never given a moment’s rest, for as soon as one batch was in motion in the right direction, another group took off.

Joe’s actions were mirrored up and down both banks of the American while it swelled into a raging maelstrom. Lariats swung left and right, slapping beasts on their noses or their rumps in order to turn or keep them in the right direction.

Clothes clung tight, water poured from brims of hats if they were lucky enough to still be worn and not hanging down their backs by their stampede straps. Eyes blurred as sweat and dirt mingled with rain, and feet squished in rain soaked boots making everyone miserable. As if mocking those thankful earlier for such an easy drive, the storm turned violent as pebbles of sleet mixed with the rain. Drovers suffered painful cuts to their exposed skin when the hail turned to sharp pieces of ice, some up to an inch in diameter. Discomforts were pushed aside; each man knew and did his job. Their only thoughts were to moving the cattle forward; not letting the herd think of anything other than getting away from the man-beast who chased after them.

The riders kept to a pace they hoped they could control, yet at the same time wear the animals down. Lightning splayed across the darkened sky with thunder crashing in close proximity. Every man was working on instinct, riding on the edge; knowing any moment they could lose control. All it would take would be the wrong combination of events to set the surging masses into a full blown stampede.

“St. Elmo’s Fire!” Joe called out. The blue aura spread among the cattle. He didn’t have time to check if Charlie was spreading the word on his side of the turbulent waters. Cattle horns glowing blue was supposed to be an old wives’ tale told around a camp fire to scare greenhorns riding drag or so they thought. “St. Elmo’s Fire!”

Thunder boomed overhead with a roar that rumbled continuously across the land; setting the already agitated herd into a new frenzy.

“STAMPEDE!”

Standing in their stirrups, the flank riders raced their mounts to the front to help the point riders turn the cattle. From his peripheral vision, Joe saw a horse gored, its rider thrown and trampled in an attempt to evade an angry bull ignoring the bite of a lariat on its nose. Grief over an unforeseen death was a luxury he couldn’t afford; he made a mental note of the horse and the clothes the rider wore and pushed on to do his job.

Desperate times called for desperate measures forcing Joe to pull his revolver to keep another drover from going down; he fired. A lightning bolt illuminated the scene, accenting the bovine crumpling five feet short of its intended target. Both riders barely took time to acknowledge what just happened before continuing to urge their mounts forward, the heart of the violent thunderstorm was right on top of them. Riders gave up shouting, they knew their voices couldn’t carry above the sounds of more than four thousand hooves striking the ground and the deafening thunder overhead.

Hairs prickled and stood on end. Riders found it hard to breathe in the super-heated air. A white-hot bolt struck not thirty feet away. Tendrils snaked out as the shaft maintained contact with the ground. The closest in proximity crumpled immediately, while the unfortunate rider nearest to the strike was propelled from his saddle. His horse thrown sideways by the force of the air expanding outward, and the arcing strand that made contact.

*****

Not a man among them could accurately calculate how much time passed before the panic faded. Exhaustion overtook the herds, bringing the strung-out masses to a slow stop. Man and animal alike were all too willing not to move. Once calm returned, the cattle stood or collapsed. Dark clouds shrank, pushed along by a prevailing wind, revealing a crystal blue sky. Sunshine on the landscape emphasized the damage inflicted. Churned up terrain and downed cattle littered their visible trail for as far as the eye could see; whether the animals were maimed or dead remained to be seen.

Mud-caked, rain-soaked drovers and horses waited along the periphery where one by one they dismounted; a dangerous movement, but fear had passed and the need to inspect their mounts for injuries or to feel terra-firma beneath their feet overrode all else.

The sun beat down on weary men, who looked up as a solitary rider forged the shrinking waters, each man’s answer was along the same lines, “I ain’t seen ‘im since before the stampede started.”

Only one man was able to offer more; that his life had been saved by Joe Cartwright during the melee, but he lost sight of their ramrod as they continued with their jobs.

Charlie Yeagle looked back the way they had come. “God help him.”

“What do we do now?” someone absently asked.

“We’ll let them rest here, see about pushing the stragglers into the main body. This looks to be as good a spot to cross and combine the herds back into one. Let them cross if they want!” Charlie shouted to a drover who was working to prevent a few head from venturing across the river. “For now, there should be plenty of grazing to let them rest while we sort ourselves out.”

Charlie turned to speak to Ritter; his mind was already at work on what needed to be done.

“Get your rifle and ammunition out. We’ll need to take care of any that are too maimed to continue.”

“What about Cracker and James?” Ritter asked about the old wrangler and cook who trailed them with the wagons.

“Hopefully they survived better than we did.”

Both would have laughed had they known what the other was thinking, ‘We’ll find out soon enough.’

*****

By the time the morning sun rose, the drovers were thankful for the herd peacefully grazing in the valley. Facial cuts and raw knuckles had been tended to when the men changed clothes the night before. Dry socks kept feet warm that were slipped into still damp boots having not quite fully dried by the camp fire. Cracker and James had arrived well after sundown; hurriedly set up camp and fixed a hot meal. The final tally – twenty head of cattle had been trampled to death, almost a dozen more were put down due to broken legs, and two men reported missing… Walt Ryerson and Joe Cartwright.

Charlie, Cracker, and the drovers not riding herd stood or sat around camp, thankful for a hot cup of coffee as the last of them returned from backtracking the stampede.

“What do we do?” a drover inquired.

“We get this herd to the buyer,” answered Charlie as he accepted a cup of coffee.

“What about Joe and Walt?” Cracker asked.

“I buried Walt,” Charlie shuddered at the memory of what he had found. “His horse went down.”

Wick Ritter offered, “I found Skeeter, lying near the bank. Looked like he took a lightning strike.”

“Any sign of Joe?” asked Cracker.

Shaking his head, Wick answered, “I think he was thrown into the river.”

Numerous men muttered, “Damn,” and silently left the area in ones or twos.

*****

The thirtieth of the month appeared as bright as the hours after the storm; however, there was nothing cheerful while the men went about their assigned tasks in order to break camp and push the herd on its final stretch into Sacramento. If any of the Cartwrights were with them, Charlie would have rested the herd longer. But with everything that had happened, he wanted to be done with this drive.

“You’re the foreman and trail boss. You should be the one to take the herd on in. I’m going to look for Joe.”

Not accepting Charlie’s silence, Cracker spoke up, “Wick, you know what you’ll find…” Leaving the rest of his thought unvoiced.

“Probably,” a tone of loss permeated his voice, “but I can’t just leave him out there. If Joe drowned, the family deserves closure. I lost an older brother to a flash flood. I know there’s a good chance I won’t find him. We never found Jerry’s body. But I have to try.”

*****

Wick Ritter stayed within sight of the herd as he searched the river banks; until the river turned southward. He bid goodbye and said he’d keep in touch.

The drover turned searcher scanned the sandy banks as he rode along, only stepping down from the saddle when the ground rose well above the waterline. He checked the brush or flotsam for any signs of a body. Hours had passed when a tributary split off from the American. His decision was to follow the main river, thinking it more probable that was the direction Joe had been taken.

*****

With the herd delivered and a bank draft in hand, Charlie entered the Cattleman’s Hotel and inquired if there were any wires waiting for him or for the Cartwrights. With telegrams in hand, and before even thinking of a hot bath and shave, the ranch foreman headed to the telegraph office to send his dreaded response. The news wasn’t a message one wanted to send in this manner, but with Hoss and Adam back in Placerville, he needed to let them know as soon as possible.

Hoss/Adam Cartwright
Placerville, California

Herd delivered /stop
Storm – stampede /stop
Man killed /stop
Joe missing /stop

Charlie

*****

Hoss stepped away from the hotel, his plans on setting out after the storm ended had changed; he stayed to care for Adam once a fever set it. For two days he was by his brother’s side, tending to him around the clock until his body was engulfed in a drenching sweat. He’d waited one additional day, until Adam woke and was lucid, insistent that Hoss go find their brother. Things were finally looking up.

On his way to the livery, a young boy stopped and handed him an envelope. After giving the youth several coins, he read the message. Scanning the page several times, he wondered had it been worth it? The family had high hopes centered on the delivery of this herd. Their plans to procure the final thousand acres of land that would ensure their water-rights had rested on the proceeds. But now a man was dead and Joe was missing. He read between the lines, what wasn’t said. Was the expansion of the Ponderosa worth his little brother’s life?

Second thoughts and doubt assailed the large man; motionless since he’d received the wire. Had he done right in delivering Adam back to Placerville? He berated himself, he should have sent someone else with Adam, he should have been there. What if Hoss had not made his brother to ramrod? What if they hadn’t agreed that it was time to move Joe off drag?

“How’m I gonna tell Adam? How do we tell Pa?”

With a heavy heart, Hoss returned to the hotel.

*****

Hoss somberly pushed open the door to the parlor of the hotel suite and hesitated, he wished that Adam had fallen asleep after eating. His older brother sat propped up on the settee, a book in his lap, his casted leg stretched out in front of him, and the tray bearing the empty plates from his lunch set on the end table.

Hearing the door open, Adam knew it would only be one person; the doctor and hotel staff always knocked. Adam jovially stated, “I thought you were heading out to…” Seeing Hoss’ face, “What’s wrong?”

Words wouldn’t come. He held out the wire and waited.

“Mi—missing?” Adam could barely get the words out.

“I asked the hotel manager to send a wire telling Charlie to get here as soon as he can.”

“You have to go.”

“Go where? We don’t know where it happened? We…” Hoss collapsed into a chair opposite of his brother.

“It has to be a mistake. Joe’s just looking for more cattle.” The oldest brother sat forward, wanting to act, to do something. He knew the inherent dangers involved in stampedes; he’d experienced a couple as well as the death of a drover as a result. This storm had been extremely violent. He couldn’t imagine enduring that weather out in the open trying to stop a panicked herd.

“Adam?” Tears unashamedly fell down the larger man’s face with his shoulders hitching up and down in grief. He knew the likelihood of finding his brother after a stampede was slim, especially if they had already searched and finally delivered the herd.

Adam buried his face in the pillow he had grabbed from the back of the settee and hugged tightly to his chest; it did little to quiet his anguish.

The brothers’ grief was thick; they thought back on the child Joe had been, and man he was becoming.

“Adam, you don’t think—” Wiping away the tears streaming down his face.

“Think what?” He looked up.

“Charlie said a man was killed… could it a been?”

“No, he would have said that right off, if it had been Joe.”
*****

Consciousness returned, barely. He panicked; yet the pull was different this time. Not as fierce as previously experienced. Like a rag doll he’d been tossed and summersaulted, battered against deadfall and slammed into boulders. For the longest time he fought the turbulent waters, all the while he kept hearing his Pa begging him to hold on. As the violence eased, his brothers held out their hands to pull him ashore, encouraging him to swim towards them. But that had been so long ago…

Like a small child in the arms of its mother, the calmed waters supported and guided his bloodied and battered body into a small pooling near the bank.

Cognizance of the pull returned, it was persistent, tugging, hurting. White dots flashed in front of his eyes, he rolled over as retching tore from deep within. With nothing more inside, the blackness was once more welcomed.

*****

With light came pain and confusion. The coppery taste he thought he remembered was absent. Instead, there was smoke. If he could have moved he would have panicked over the threat of fire. But the sounds were wrong; there was no roaring, no loud crackling, and the air cleared on the breeze. He felt the hard ground beneath his battered body and realized he wasn’t home.

Turning his head, he heard a groan followed moments later by quick foot falls shuffling across dirt. The groan sounded again before he realized it came from him. Struggling to open his eyes, he was startled when he felt something against his lips, almost like his Pa had done with his index finger to quiet a small overwrought child in the darkest of the night, after the boy had cried out for his momma.

He reached up and touched a small hand. More precisely, he felt two dainty fingers upon his lips. Eyes opened, he blinked and blinked again in an effort to clear his vision.

Looking to the owner of the hand, he vaguely made out a woman dressed in a simple black dress with a white apron covering her front and the skirt of her dress, but that’s all he could ascertain. The presence of her fingers on his lips left, only to be followed by a gentle hand placed to his shoulder. Warmth and caring were conveyed by just a touch. As long as the hand remained, he allowed his eyes to close and the hurt to fade.

Pain returned with the woman’s departure; leaving him on his own. Eyes snapped open to see her step from his field of vision and into the blur that lay just beyond. His breath came too shallow and fast. He didn’t want to be alone. His heart pumped erratically in his chest. Blood-filled eyes silently searched for her comforting presence. His thoughts returned to her touch, soft, peaceful, feather-like… an angel. Tears slipped down his cheeks as he realized he had died. He would never see is family again, and they would never know what became of him. His only comfort, knowing he would be taken safely to the other side, to his mother.

“Mary Seraphina!” he faintly heard, drawing his attention away from where the angel disappeared. Minutes later, “Mary Seraphina!” sounded closer.

Two figures stepped into the clearing, their voices softened. “Mary Seraphina, you were due back hours ago.” A man chastised the young woman who approached them.

“The Reverend Mother is worried about you. Don’t you know how dangerous it is for you to be out here alone?” the other man asked.

At the distance they stood from him, he couldn’t hear the young woman’s response nor could he see their movements, just blurs. But from their tone of voice, he felt there was nothing to fear from these men and relaxed, maybe his angel needed help getting him to heaven.

He was surprised when the first voice sounded closer, he opened his eyes.

“Well, young man, welcome back. I’ve sent Matthew to get a wagon to help move you.”

He breathily whispered, “Heaven?” and scrunched his face, revealing his considerable pain.

“Not yet. Not for some time if Mary Seraphina has her way.”

“Hurt… scared.”

“I’m sure you are. We’ll be as gentle as we can when we move you. Where do you hurt?”

“Arm… head… ribs…legs…” he took shallow breaths between each word. Tears slipped unabated from his eyes.

“Anywhere else?”

“Can’t see,” he reached out his hand, in response to the persistent need to have contact with someone.

“Blind?” the man asked.

“No, bl-blurry.”

“Doesn’t surprise me. Your eyes are really bloodshot, and before you woke I felt a pretty good lump on the side of your head.” The man gave a brief huff. “Boy, if you were anywhere else I’d give you an earful about the vices of getting all liquored up and into a bar fight. By the way, I’m Jacob.”

“Joe.”

“Nice to meet you, Joe.” Turning to the woman he took the cup of coffee she held out. Positioning himself, Jacob slightly elevated Joe so it would be easier to drink.

“That should warm you up. You ain’t nauseous, are you?”

His patient nodded slightly before he was laid back to the ground.

“Well… we’ll wait to see if that helps settle you some. I’m sure Mary Seraphina also put some willow bark into your coffee.” Joe struggled to get comfortable, pain reflected panic on his face. “Easy there. Mary Seraphina has your arm bandaged to your body and a make-shift splint on your leg.”
The man kept a running commentary as they waited. He continued telling the injured man what they planned to do once Matthew returned with a wagon and some blankets. “Doesn’t help you’re soaking wet, but not much the young lady could do to remedy that. At least your torn clothes cover you where it matters most.”

*****

Several villagers returned with Matthew. Carefully they loaded the unconscious and badly injured Joe into the back of the wagon and safely delivered him into the infirmary of the Teresian’s Convent.

In a small room off the kitchen, two men who stayed had stripped Joe of his shredded clothing. The remnants of his shirt and pants weren’t even salvageable to use as rags. His mottled and shriveled skin revealed the beginning of countless bruises and abrasions, indicating more than a teased about bar room brawl. The women of the cloth were spared from dealing with a naked young man, now that he wore a pair of cut-off at the knee long john bottoms.

Once allowed back in the room, Reverend Mother Mary Collette deftly bandaged his ribs and set the broken bones in his right arm before placing a proper split on the appendage. One knee was double the size of its counterpart, indicating it had been severely wrenched; which she had learned from past experience could be more bothersome than a broken bone. Ointment from a glass jar was administered to the numerous cuts and scrapes. Finally, warm bricks were placed under the many covers in hopes of staving off any complications from time spent in the cold river water. The bandage around his head was barely whiter than his face, with a tinge of red seeping through from his head wound.

“Mary Seraphina, he still has a long road to recovery,” Mary Collette stated to her young charge who had assisted her in tending to the stranger.

The young woman nodded in agreement while she cleared away the medical supplies used to treat Joe.

“He’s lucky you found him.”

“Reverend Mother,” interrupted Jacob, “We found Mary Seraphina and Joe near the broken pines. She showed us where she pulled him from the river, and as blue as his skin was, he had to have been there for some time. She also indicated that he had… uh… emptied his stomach.”

“Do you think he was caught out in the storms?” Mary Collette inquired.

“That’d be my guess. Probably caught in a flash flood.”

“Jacob, would you please take that,” Mary Collette pointed to the empty holster on the floor, “and do something with it? You know we do not abide by what that represents.”

“Yes Ma’am. I’ll take care of it.”

The worker removed the offending object from the room, and the building.

*****

For a second night in a row, Mary Seraphina woke at hearing Joe cry out during his sleep; only this night her comforting hand and placing a cool compress to his brow were not enough to settle him. She went to alert the Reverend Mother.

“You’re right, he is running a fever, and I don’t like the sound of his breathing.” Standing up from sitting on the edge of the bed, Mary Collette stated, “Here, help me sit him up and prop those pillows behind him.”

Worry wore on both women as their patient struggled to live, while sketchy memories plagued his dreams.

*****

The sun was high overhead the next time the Reverend Mother asked Mary Seraphina to step aside, their patient began to rouse once again.

“Good afternoon,” the Revered Mother quietly stated, looking into the pain-filled green eyes as they finally settled to look at her. Taking their patient’s bruised hand in hers she asked, “How are you feeling?”

“Hurt,” the young man breathed out heavily and groaned. “Scared.”

“You’re safe. And among friends.”

“Did I… die?”

“Heavens, no. Mary Seraphina found you and you were brought to our convent several days ago.”

Coughing shook the young man’s body, while the fever waged its own battle. The Reverend Mother decided now was not the time to ask him any questions. With the increasing flush on his face, she decided they had best ask the doctor for help.

*****

“Reverend Mother,” Doctor Abrams stated after completing his examination. “You were right in sending for me. You did well with your treatments and diagnosis; however, we need to deal with the added complication of pneumonia. I don’t want to do it, but he needs to breathe deeper. I think we need to unbind his ribs, and pray that he doesn’t puncture a lung during a coughing fit.”

“And if he does?”

“Send for me immediately. You and Mary Seraphina know the signs.”

“Yes, we do.”

“Try to keep him quiet and propped up. Continue boiling the pine needles in water to help alleviate his congestion. I’d prefer for you to continue using willow bark tea to manage his pain; however, if it gets too bad, you can sparingly administer some laudanum. In this case, too much of a good thing can be bad for this man. I’ll stop by later this evening to see how he’s doing.”

“Thank you Doctor Abrams.”

The Reverend Mother returned to the room after escorting the physician to the main door of the convent. The novice Mary Seraphina looked up with worried eyes as the older woman stood next to her.

Placing a comforting hand on her shoulder, Mary Collette said, “Child, you know that we can only do so much, the final decision on whether this young man lives or dies rests with God.”

Mary Seraphina quickly nodded her acceptance of God’s will.

*****

Fever induced dreams coalesced into a kaleidoscope of images, mixing fragments and events from his past.

“I thought you didn’t want any more killing.” His voice spoke. “All right Pa, you go on… start the killing all over again.”

Without thought, his gun was in his hand and pointed to his father’s chest.(1)

Next, Adam was riding away. He stopped Sport, turned in the saddle, and called out, “I never want to see you on the Ponderosa again. If I do, you’ll rue the day you were born!”

Illness and pain from his injuries kept him from recognizing the two scenes were not related.

“NO!” he cried out, his dreams broke through the darkness. His heart pounded, his breath ragged; that was until arms wrapped around him, rocking, soothing, comforting.

*****

For days, Wick Ritter rode and slept along the American River. Needing to replenish supplies, he stopped in Gold River and spoke with their lawman. Disappointment and relief mixed at hearing no one report finding a body. Before leaving, he left instructions should Joe’s remains be found to contact Ben Cartwright, care of the Ponderosa in Virginia City, Nevada.

Five days later, the results were the same having entered Ranchero Cordova.

Each day without results brought more memories to Wick as he remembered his brother’s friends talking of his death and how they too had searched in vain for Jerry’s remains.

*****

“Well, Joe,” Doctor Abrams stated when he returned his stethoscope to his black bag and smiled at his patient. For ten days he had made daily and sometimes twice daily trips to the convent to check on the condition of this patient. The bruising on his face and body had reached its full maturation of blacks, blues, and purples, and were beginning to fade. Having listened to the young man’s lungs, he was pleased with the clearing of the past few days. “I’d say that you’re over the worst of the pneumonia.”

“Thanks… I feel… a lot better.” The pneumonia had stripped Joe of the ability to speak without having to take a breath every few words.

“I know we haven’t had a chance to talk about how the rest of your body is recovering. How’s your vision today? The sisters stated you were having difficulties seeing when you were first found.”

“Still blurry… but not as bad… as before.” Looking around the room, “I can see… across the room… pretty well…, but nothing… out the window… the gardens… won’t focus.”

“And just how do you know what is out that window, young man?” challenged the Reverend Mother. Her words might have frightened him; however, he’d seen the mischievous expression on her face. She smiled at Joe’s reaction to being caught admitting he had been out of bed, against doctor’s advice.

“Well, no damage done,” Abrams hid his own smile from where he sat on a wooden chair. “Joe, I want you to stay in bed, unless there is someone to assist you. Your knee is still swollen and I’m not sure how stable it is. If you should fall, you could injure yourself worse. My fear is additional damage to your ribs which could cause you to puncture a lung. You can thank the prayers of the Sisters that you didn’t do just that while you were suffering from pneumonia.”

“I’m sorry. Just wanted… to see,” Joe blushed and looked to Mary Seraphina, he smiled at the laughter in her eyes over his embarrassment.

With his patient on the road to recovery, the doctor grew curious over what happened to cause such injuries. While rebinding Joe’s ribs, he continued the conversation.

“You care to tell us what happened? How you came to be in that river?”

“Don’t remember much… Fuzzy. There was… a herd of cattle,” he involuntarily shivered, “horns glowed blue… then all hell… I’m sorry,” Joe’s face reddened, realizing his language was totally out of place with the two women present. “There was a storm… the cattle stampeded. I… I guess my horse… must have… thrown me.”

“The storm was the worst one we’ve experienced since we settled in this valley. Now that you’re feeling better, do you have family you’d like for us to notify that you’re safe?”

Joe thought long and hard before answering the Reverend Mother. His dreams were vivid; he couldn’t remember why he had drawn a gun on his father, but that had to be why Adam had warned him against ever returning home.

“No ma’am…”

“Do you have a last name? After you were found, Jacob said you only told them your name was Joe,” spoke the Reverend Mother.

“Carson, Joe Carson,” he answered. In his mind, if Adam didn’t want him home, he would forgo the name he had worked so hard to prove himself worthy of being called.

“You should make a full recovery, in time. Don’t worry about not remembering everything right now; you suffered a pretty good blow to the head. Be thankful that you remember what you do.” Doctor Abrams stated. “As for what’s next? Your lungs need exercise, so I recommend you talk until you can speak a full sentence without having to take a breath every few words.”

“What should I… talk about?”

“I think you’ll figure something out. As for your leg, I’ve left a few exercises that can help strengthen the muscles and your knee, but you need to take it slowly. Your arm will need to stay in the cast for at least six more weeks.”

“At least it’s not… my left arm.” Joe held out his casted right arm.

“Keep his ribs bandaged, until I return to remove his cast.” Doctor Abrams spoke to the Reverend Mother before speaking to Joe. “Now, I do have other sick patients to tend to.”

“Bye Doc… and thanks,” Joe offered.

*****

The following morning, Mary Seraphina left the room carrying a tray of dirty dishes bearing testament to Joe’s returning health and hunger; the Reverend Mother entered.

“Reverend Mother? Can I… ask you something?”

Mary Collette nodded, the young man had engaged in an enjoyable conversation the day before, after the doctor has left. She was curious where today’s discussions might lead.

“Mary Seraphina, she doesn’t wear… the same… uh…” Joe was at a loss for the word, his hand tried to convey the nun’s attire.

“Our clothes?” Joe nodded. “It’s called a Habit. Mary Seraphina has not taken her final vows of servitude, for now, she is considered a novice. We’ve offered her a life here, and we hope she will accept, but the choice is hers, just as the choice is yours.”

“Me, join a convent?” Joe’s voice rose an octave during the last word. He gasped for breath, he had said too much at one time.

“No. I was referring to your life. How and where you chose to live, once you’re healed.”

“Looks like… you and the other… sisters… are stuck with me…for a… while.”

“We’re not stuck with you. Our Order tends to those less fortunate, the sick, the injured. Those who need shelter, and those in need of guidance. We’re only too happy to have found and rescued you.”

The Reverend Mother’s words held a double meaning. She had spent enough of her life devoted to God to understand the truth contained within a person’s heart compared to their words and their actions.

*****

Ben Cartwright fell heavily into the leather chair near the fireplace… He’d been so happy to hear the noise of wagons and horses returning, indicating his sons were home from the cattle drive.

Nothing alarmed him when he first saw his middle son riding next to the wagon; he figured Joe was in the wagon as company for Adam. Hoss was quick to the back end and lowered the tail gate.

“Welcome home,” Ben called out in greeting as he stepped from the wooden porch.

“Hi Pa, can ya help me?”

“How’re you feeling, Adam?” He held out a hand to pull his son forward.

“Been better, Pa.”

Of Hoss, Ben asked, “What happened? There wasn’t much in your wire.”

“We’ll tell you once we’re inside,” Adam answered.

“Where’s Joe?” The expressions worn by Cracker and Charlie, as well as his sons, cause his stomach to plummet.

“Inside, Pa,” Hoss quietly answered.

*****

Ben continued to sit numbly in his chair, he couldn’t believe the cruel turn. He despaired of why fate would take the life of his youngest son. He had accepted the loss of three wives, but wouldn’t, not his youngest.

Once Charlie finished recounting the events after the devastating stampede, Ben watched the pain his sons suffered in their grief; he knew his final words to them were probably lying heavy on their shoulders. A casual comment, a request made of any family member to look after the youngest and least experienced. From the accounts told in the great room, Joe had handled himself in a manner befitting a Cartwright from the first morning they had set out. He’d earned the respect of the men who worked with him.

“Why wasn’t I notified? It’s been…”

“Pa, that’s not the type of news easily conveyed via a wire.”

“And we kept hopin’ we’d hear somethin’,” Hoss added to what his brother had said.

“Is there any chance?”

“There’s always a chance, Ben. But that storm was so violent and from what Wick said he saw of Skeeter, Joe’s horse took a direct hit from a lightning bolt. Them being so close to the river, Ben…” Charlie slowly shook his head. “He had to be unconscious when he hit, and there’s little chance that an unconscious man’s gonna survive. Not in those waters.”

“But a chance, slim as it is,” Ben pressed.

“Wick Ritter stayed behind,” Charlie added. “Said he lost a brother years back in a flash flood, knows sort of what you’re going through.”

“Ritter?”

“He’s the man you tried firin’ durin’ the round up, Pa,” Hoss explained. “The one Joe fought.”

“Why would he offer?”

“Joe and Ritter became good friends during the drive,” Adam expounded while shifting his casted leg to a more comfortable position. “Wick, seemed to respect him more because he stood up to you.”

Ben appeared to age ten years in the hour since his sons and their foreman arrived home. The others waited, allowing Ben to think and remember… they’d had time to accept the fact that Joe was presumed dead during their travel home.

“I want to know of any telegram that Ritter sends back. Tell Orville at the telegraph office, I don’t care how late at night a wire comes in, I want it brought to me immediately,” Ben sat straight in his chair, his voice full of authority. “Whatever he needs, money, supplies, I don’t care how much.”

“Pa, speaking of money,” Hoss spoke.

“What about it?” Ben asked.

“We stopped in town before comin’ home and deposited the bank draft. The money’s there for that piece of land.”

“The land be damned.”

Standing, Ben left the others, heading to the sanctuary of his bedroom.

Crawling into his bed, he wondered if it had all been worth it. Hope and fate… Three times he’d experienced hope from falling in love, and three times he suffered the cruel fate of losing a wife. But each had left behind a son; his hopes continued that they would be his legacy. In his mind, he knew his youngest had to be dead. If he were alive, he would have found some way to send word. But his heart wouldn’t accept the loss. And so he held on to the slightest hope that somehow he would be blessed with a miracle. Fate be damned as that piece of land.

*****

Once Joe was granted permission to get out of bed and allowed to explore the convent, his first request was for clothes.

“I can’t very well walk about… wearing only a pair of long johns… and a robe.” His breathing and speaking were improving.

“Jacob brought some clothing he thought might fit you,” Reverend Mother Mary Collette stated.

“Sister?”

“Reverend Mother,” she politely corrected.

“I’m sorry, but…”

“Joe, what is it? You seem troubled…” Joe appeared lost, the perfect example of a soul needing help to return to his flock. “Why won’t you tell me of your family? I’m sure they’re worried sick and should be told you’re alive.” The Reverend Mother pulled out a chair, hoping to encourage Joe to talk. “Joe, you call out names in the night.”

Guiltily Joe looked up as she sat down. “I had a family… once.”

“We all have family. They’re still alive, aren’t they?” Mary Collette’s words weren’t accusatory, but compassionate.

Joe nodded.

“Then why don’t you tell me where home is, and I’ll wire them.”

“Can’t… I,” Joe struggled with what to say. “Adam doesn’t want me… home.”

“Is Adam your brother?”

Again Joe nodded.

“Why doesn’t he want you home?”

“I pulled a gun,” Joe cringed at Mary Collette’s reaction to his mentioning a weapon, “on my father.” His voice faded to a whisper.

“Did you…”

“No. I didn’t, pull the trigger. Least I don’t think so.”

“I’m sure he has forgiven you. It’s the nature of a father to accept and forgive the faults of his children. He must be so worried.”

Joe, shaking his head, gave the Reverend Mother pause.

“I can’t.”

“It’s your home.”

Joe shook his head. “It used to be.”

Looking at the troubled young man, “I think you need to forgive yourself, my child.” She reached over and placed a hand to his uninjured arm.

“Why?”

“Because I’m sure he loves you; you’re flesh of his flesh.” Seeing the emotions displayed across Joe’s face, Mary Collette stated, “Think on it Joe. If only to let him know you’re alive. The not knowing is the worst any parent can experience. Suffering through a child’s death is devastating, but at least there is closure when the body is buried. For a child just to vanish…”

Joe looked to the hand on his arm.

“Joe how long ago did you leave home?”

“I don’t remember exactly,”

“When you first recovered from being sick, you said you were on a cattle drive. Were you with your family?”

“I don’t know.”

“Joe, would you please look at me?”

Slowly Joe looked into her warm, brown eyes.

“Truthfully, as if you were in confession. Are you telling me the truth of not remembering?”

Nodding, Joe continued, “I don’t remember everything, just pieces… but I can’t see that it was my family’s cattle drive… I think I was ramrod, second in command.”

“Wouldn’t it make sense for your father to make you ramrod?”

“No ma’am, I have two brothers.” Joe averted his eyes and gazing to the window. “If anything, Pa would have made Adam trail boss… and my other brother Hoss would be ramrod.”

“Joe, you have family. A father, two brothers. What of your mother, surely she must miss you.”

“My momma died when I was little.”

“Oh child…” the Reverend Mother wanted to reach out and wrap her arms around Joe, but she wasn’t sure how he would accept her actions.

Knowing the Reverend Mother was waiting for him to say something, Joe whispered, “I’ll think about it.”

“That’s all I can ask,” Mary Collette answered, but to herself she added, ‘for now.’

*****

Wick Ritter had lost track of how many towns and settlements he’d stopped in as he searched for Joe Cartwright. Once he passed Sacramento, the number of tributaries to explore became mind boggling, but he continued on.

*****

Joe enjoyed his explorations of the convent; meeting the workers taking care of the livestock – sheep, pigs, and goats. He watched several women churning goats’ milk into butter or cheese before he explored the grounds where men worked to weed the garden full of fresh vegetables.

Walking the corridors, Joe stopped outside of a large room filled with small children sitting on benches, their attention focused on Sister Mary Josette who stood in front of a small blackboard.

“Who can tell me the answer to the math problem?” She pointed to where she had written, 2 + 2 =.

Joe smiled as the children squirmed in their seats.

“Children, this is a simple problem. We worked this yesterday.”

No one answered.

“Maybe Mr. Carson can help you today.”

“Me?” Joe queried from the doorway.

“Please Mr. Carson. Would you mind helping the children with today’s problem?”

Joe entered the room musing, ‘What would Adam think if he knew I was helping in school?’

“Well, my pa always said there was always more than one way to look at a problem and come up with the correct answer.”

Joe stood in front of the board, pretending to not understand the problem. He changed his posture as often as he changed his facial expression, causing many of the children to giggle.

“Let’s see. I know. How many apples would I have if this little girl,” Joe pointed to a young girl with her hair in double plaits hanging down her back, “gave me two apples and this little boy,” Joe pointed to a boy in the back row who had been whispering to a boy sitting next to him, “gave me two more apples? How many apples would I have?”

Many children raised their hands, eagerly hoping to be the one chosen to answer the question.

“Children, since it appears that you know the answer, please write the number down on your slate. Mr. Carson will review your answers and let you know if you are correct.”

Once Joe had finished walking among the students and checking their slates, all but Billy and his friend, Liam, had the correct answer.

“Very good, everyone.” Sister Mary Josette separated Billy and Liam, the boys now sat on opposite ends of the bench with three girls between them. “Mr. Carson would you be willing to stay for the rest of class? I think the children would enjoy your help.”

“Sure.”

*****

After supper, while the Sisters were in prayer, he’d climb up the wide, brick wall that cordoned off the flower garden. Taking a deep breath, he could detect a hint of pine. He longed for his family, but the nightly dreams of holding a gun on his father and of Adam warning him away were reminders he could never go home.

*****

Another day found Joe walking outside.

“Look out below!”

Joe jumped back towards the wall as a hammer slid off the roof and fell to the ground.

“Sorry about that,” Jacob spoke, while precariously looking over the edge.

“What are you doing up there?”

“Patching the roof.” Jacob reached out and easily caught the hammer Joe tossed to him. Depression colored his words, “It’s a never ending job, especially after every storm. The whole roof needs to be torn down and rebuilt, but the Sisters can’t afford it. So up here I work.”

“Need a hand?”

“With your knee and your ribs? And have the Reverend Mother find you climbing the ladder? She’d skin us both alive. I’m not that foolish and I don’t think you are either.” The two grinned.

*****

That night his rambling dreams vividly returned. His family stood in front of him and a body at his feet. He argued with his father (1). Waking before the scene of pulling his gun, Joe startled upright in bed. The room was dark and quiet, not even the crickets sounded outside. Carefully he slipped from bed, making his way to the doorway and looked both ways down the hallway. Something had woke him, he heard it again.

Jacob had been right earlier in the day, his knee wasn’t ready for all the manual labor he had taken upon himself to perform. He hadn’t thought that fixing a few broken fence boards around the pig pen would have been that big of a deal, but evidently being down on his knees while hammering had been too much. So, Joe used the wall for support as he went to investigate the noise.

His room was just off the kitchen but it was both too late and too early for anyone to be fixing a meal. Just ahead, a pale glow from a lamp spilled into the hallway from an open door.

The Reverend Mother sat on the edge of Mary Seraphina’s bed, her arms wrapped around the young woman.

“Reverend Mother?” Joe asked.

“Joe, what are you doing out of bed at this hour?”

“Something woke me. I heard a noise. Is everything alright?”

“It will be.” She turned to sooth the distraught young woman.

“Was there someone in the convent? Did someone scare her?”

“No, just a nightmare. And I’m sorry she woke you.”

“I woke my family plenty when I was younger…”

Mary Seraphina calmed in the Reverend Mother’s arms.

“There, there child. It was just a dream. Why don’t you go back to sleep. You’re safe.”

Joe watched the young woman settle down into bed, while Mary Collette covered her with blankets.

When the door closed, Joe asked, “Why didn’t you get her to try to talk about her nightmares. My Pa and Adam always tried to make me talk.”

“Did you always talk of your dreams?”

“No ma’am.”

“Why did you choose not to talk of your nightmares?”

“Sometimes, I couldn’t remember them. Other times, I guess I was too embarrassed about what woke me. I wanted to be grown up like my brothers.”

“Joe, you chose not to talk.” The Reverend Mother escorted Joe slowly back into his room, silently acknowledging his pronounced limp. “Mary Seraphina can’t talk. There’s no medical reason why, but Doctor Abrams thinks it’s because of a traumatic event she experienced.”

“What happened?”

“We believe she witnessed her entire family killed. She was the only survivor. Her parents and an older brother. In the five years she has been here, she has never uttered a word.”

“I wondered why she never spoke, but never thought it appropriate to ask. I just thought she might be too shy or too embarrassed to talk to me.”

“If only that were the reason.” Mary Collette sighed heavily. Guiding Joe to his bed, “I think tomorrow, you need to take it easy with your healing knee. Not so much exploring of the convent.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Joe rubbed his knee while snuggling under the covers.

“Good night, Joe.”

“Good night, Reverend Mother.”

*****

The following day, after waiting for the Sisters to finish morning prayers, Joe willingly agreed with the Reverend Mother from the night before to restrict his activities. Without being asked, he spent time in the kitchen helping Mary Seraphina peel potatoes and carrots for the evening’s stew. No mention was made of the nightmares, hers or his. Over breakfast he had closely observed how the other Sisters interacted with the novice, and decided her past didn’t matter. As he had during their few times together, he spoke of his explorations from the day before and his plans for later in the day. When Paco entered carrying a basket of corn fresh from the stalk, Joe stood to help the man, only to sit back down when Sister Mary Avila cleared her throat and pointed with the knife she was using to cut beef into cubes, indicating he should sit.

During afternoon devotionals, Joe meandered outdoors, taking a good look at the buildings of the convent, the main building, several barns, a tool shed, the chicken coop, and fencing for the animals. They really did need a lot of work. Joe wished there was more he could do to help the Sisters. There was no way he could access his bank account back home, not that there was enough money to begin to cover the basics of what needed done. As for performing manual labor, he couldn’t believe with what little he had done the day before that his knee had throbbed well into the morning. And there was still the cast on his arm, at least fixing the pig pen had been an easy job of replacing nails.

His mind dawdled on what it would be like to settle down outside the convent. He thought that once his arm and ribs were thoroughly healed, he could help Jacob with all the work required around their compound. Images of improvements he could help make were welcomed, compared to the nightmares he still suffered.

*****

He sat beside his small campfire, drinking coffee from a battered tin cup. He knew what he had promised, but too much time had passed—weeks. Joe had to be dead, otherwise he would have contacted his family and they would have notified Wick to stop his search. Were they too holding out hope for a miracle? Miracles were never guaranteed; he knew that from past experience.

Taking paper and pencil from his saddlebags, Wick decided to write a letter to his employers advising them that though he didn’t want to, he didn’t think there was any other choice. He called off his search.

He left the river once he reached Courtland. It was from here he posted his letter to Ben Cartwright and family.

*****

Hoss drove the team of horses during the trip from the Ponderosa to town. It had been just over six weeks since Adam’s accident. They stopped in front of Doctor Martin’s clinic.

“You ready to get that anchor off your leg?” Hoss inquired in an attempt to lighten the shroud of mourning that had settled over the Ponderosa, ever since their return.

“Yeah, beyond ready,” Adam lifted his heavy leg over the side and waited for his brother to pull his crutches from the bed of the buckboard, and offer him a stabling hand to step down to the boardwalk.

“Think you can manage on your own from here?”

“Sure, go drop the list of supplies off at the store. I’ll see you in a little while and help you load.”

*****

An hour after entering Paul Martin’s examination room, Adam re-entered the waiting area with only a slight limp and a feeling of being off balance.

“That’s only natural, Adam. Your body has compensated for the additional weight for six weeks. It won’t take too long to get your land legs back, so to speak.”

“When can I get back in the saddle?”

“You can probably ride tomorrow, but I don’t want you doing any roping or anything that might force you quickly from the saddle. Take it easy for a week and if everything feels fine, then you can go back to your normal work. But definitely no bronc busting for another month.”

“Thanks, Paul.”

“Adam, how’s your father? How’s Ben holding up?”

“Not so good.” Adam sat down in one of the chairs. “I think it would have been better if we’d had a memorial service or something. Some kind of closure.”

“He’s holding out hope that Ritter will find Joe?”

“Yes, and it’s eating him alive. With me out of commission and Joe… gone. He’s thrown himself into working. Riding out with Hoss every day. Doing manual labor he has no business doing. I thought he’d stay home, wait for word. He’s growing older by the day.”

“Sounds to me like deep down, he knows the news won’t be good and doesn’t want to be there when it comes.”

“I jump every time I hear someone step to the porch.”

“Has Ritter sent many wires?”

“Some, and he’s been thankful to Pa for paying all his expenses.”

“And why shouldn’t Ben?”

Adam shrugged his shoulders.

“What of Hoss?”

“He’s hoping there’ll be a wire while we’re in town. It’s been too long since we last heard from him.”

“How long?”

“Probably two weeks.”

“You don’t think…”

“I don’t know.”

Adam left the doctor and headed to the general store where Hoss was loading a few heavy items to the buckboard.

“What’d Doc say?”

“Light riding for a week, and then have at it.” Adam refrained from mention that last instructions, it was too much a reminder of Joe.

“Then you can help load the boxes of stuff for Hop Sing that’s inside. I’ll get the heavy stuff.”

With the final item loaded and tied down, Adam offered, “Care for a beer?”

“I think I’d rather read what Ritter has to say.”

“You received a wire? Why didn’t you say something?”

“Ain’t a wire, it’s a letter.” Hoss pulled the envelope from his pocket addressed to the Cartwright family.

After the salutation, the letter read:

I’ve searched high and low, followed the American River and a number of its offshoots. I went clear beyond Sacramento, leaving word with the law and any doctors as I traveled. Talked with lots of people, but no one seen or found a body matching Joe’s description.

I thought I’d found him alive in Grizzly Flats. The sheriff told me about the trouble they’d had. The more I listened, I knew it couldn’t abeen Joe who beat up one of their saloon gals. That and the sheriff stated this man was probably in his late-twenties or early thirties. No one would even think of Joe almost being twenty, let alone that old.

I’m sorry I failed you. I had hoped that I’d find him, or at least his body to bring home. I’m planning to head back, if I still have a job. I’ll be staying at a friend’s place outside of Sacramento until the end of the month. You can send a wire to me to the attention of Jacob Lisandro at the Teresian Convent; I’d be grateful.

Sincerely,

Wick Ritter

“Well, that’s it,” Adam answered, having finished reading the letter aloud.

“Does he still have a job?”

“I don’t see why not.”

*****

More than six weeks had passed and Doctor Abrams’ trips to the convent became infrequent, at least where this patient was concerned. His current examination revealed most all of the bruising had disappeared, and the swollen knee had returned to the same size as the opposite leg. The battered ribs had healed, and the young man’s lungs were clear. The area on the side of Joe’s head was no longer tender, but he still felt a lump; whether it was normal or not for this patient, he didn’t know.

Mary Seraphina quietly entered the room carrying a large pot of hot water.

“Well, it seems you’ve done a remarkable job of tending to my patient, Mary Seraphina. What do you say we remove his cast today?”

A smile appeared on her face, and her eyes danced in merriment.

*****

Saturday dawned with Joe accompanying Mary Seraphina on a trip into town for supplies. Raised with manners and good grace, Joe escorted the young woman by extending his elbow after they stepped from the wagon and walked along the boardwalk to the general store.

Across the street, a sober Judd Jordan stood straight and recognized the person behind his being firing from a damn good job. Turning away from the dirt street, and planning to re-enter the saloon, Jordan inadvertently knocked Doctor Abrams to the walkway.

“Sorry, mister. I didn’t see ya.”

“That’s all right. I should have been watching where I was going.”

Jordan followed the man’s gaze, focused on the two people across the street.

“You know them two?”

“Mary Seraphina is a novice at the convent outside of town. Joe Carson was a patient of mine until a few days ago.”

“Patient?”

“Got caught in a storm, practically drowned. It’s a miracle he survived long enough for the young woman to find him.”

“You said his name was… Carson?” Judd thought of an idea.

“Yes, that’s what he told us.”

“Maybe my mistake then, it’s been a while.”

“Do you know him?”

“I only got a brief look.” With a wicked smile, “but he sure does look the man they rode out of Grizzly Flats.”

“Rode out?” Doctor Abrams inquired.

“The law and a few others made sure he left town, quick like.” Judd thought on how he could force Joe from town, he wanted a chance to get even for his firing.

“He seems like such a nice young man.”

“Don’t ya know him?”

“He’s only been here a short time. If he’s done something wrong, you need let the Reverend Mother know.”

“Why would I tell her?”

“He’s living at the convent.”

Judd pushed his hat back, his plan took shape. “Them ladies ain’t safe. He assaulted a young woman. Hear he beat her up pretty good when she refused his advances.”

“I wish I could take you out there, but I have several patients waiting for me to arrive. I really need to get going. You can follow this road out of town and take the left fork.”

*****

Thankful he hadn’t drank that much; the dusty cowboy was escorted into the office of Reverend Mother Mary Collette.

“Sister Mary Elizabeth said you had news for us?” She graciously greeted the man and motioned for him to have a seat in one of the chairs.

“Yes, ma’am. I came to warn ya about a certain young man. I saw him in town and the doctor said he was living here.”

“You know Joe Carson?” Mary Collette’s curiosity piqued.

The man finally remembered to remove his hat. “I know him, but I know him as Judd Jordan. Sister, you ain’t safe. None of the ladies here are safe while he’s around,” Jordan was pleased with himself.

“Mister …”

“Cross,” Jordan quickly answered, he hadn’t thought of needing to come up with a name for himself once he lied about Joe’s identity. He grabbed the name after seeing the crucifix upon the wall.

“Mr. Cross, young Mr. Carson, or Jordan, has been a true gentleman while he’s been with us.”

“Lady, he beat up a saloon gal, beat her real bad.” Jordan voiced indignation. “The sheriff even threw him in jail for the night before running him out of town. That town was really upset, some wanted to lynch him.”

“Where did this happen?”

“A little town this side of Placerville, a place called Grizzly Flats.”

“How long ago?” Mary Collette asked.

“Why probably about three weeks back, I think. I came through there when they was riding him out.”

“Three weeks you say.”

“Yes ma’am.” Jordan eagerly anticipated Joe being thrown out of the convent that very day, and it was only a matter of time before he would have his revenge.

Standing up, the Reverend Mother bitterly spoke, “Mr. Cross, if that really is your name.” Her eyes narrowed. “I’ll have you know that Mister Carson has been with us for over six weeks. And he has been the epitome of a gentleman. There is no way our guest can be the man you are accusing. In fact, if I were to believe my own instincts, I would say that you are Mr. Jordan. Now get out of our convent before I send for the law.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, lady!” Jordan slammed his hat on top of his head and left the office.

*****

Later that night, Mary Collette had finished her rounds, making sure the convent was secure when she saw a light glowing under the door to Joe’s room.

Quietly she knocked before opening the door and entering.

Joe looked up to see the Reverend Mother.

“You shouldn’t walk into a man’s room without waiting for him to grant you permission.” Joe’s voice ranked cold.

“You seem troubled.”

“I’m leaving.”

“Why?”

“You said it was my decision. I decided I’m leaving.”

“From your voice and posture, I take it you’re not planning to return to your family.”

Joe continued to pack the few meager belongings he’d acquired while at the convent.

“What are you running away from?”

“If you have to ask me that, then you know. I know a man came here to tell you I’d assaulted a young lady.”

“How did you know?”

“I ran into Doc Abrams, he told me.”

“Then he told you wrong.”

“I don’t think the doctor would lie. I can’t stay here.”

“Why?”

“Because of what I did.”

“Even if I told you that you didn’t do anything wrong?”

Joe looked up.

“Joe, do you know a man named Judd Jordan?”

Joe felt a twinge of a headache at the mention of the man’s name.

“I believe he was the man who came here this afternoon. He said he’d seen you in town and came here immediately to warn us.”

“Aren’t you scared of being here with me, or having me here with all the other sisters?”

“No,” the Reverend Mother decided to take a seat in the one comfortable chair in the room. “Joe, I’ve been a nun for more years than you’ve been alive… probably longer than your older brother too. I’ve encountered people, good and bad. I think I’m pretty good at determining the kind of person people are. I didn’t care for this man today, but I’m totally comfortable with you being here.”

“Why didn’t you trust him?” Curious, Joe kept his back to the Reverend Mother.

“He said he’d just ridden into that town when they were riding the man out. He knew too many intimate details.”

“He could have heard people talking about it afterwards.”

“Maybe, but there was also his eyes.”

“His eyes?” Joe turned around.

Mary Collette sat forward in the chair, folding her hands together. “Joe, the eyes of a person can reveal their soul. Your eyes are bright, alive. Happy to help. Compassionate. Eager to please.” The Reverend Mother smiled at Joe’s squirming on the bed. “And your actions speak louder than any words.”

“What about that man’s eyes?”

“Shifty, evil, happy… but with danger. He just seemed too eager to have me believe his story.”

“But if he came here to make sure you and the others were safe?”

“There was no compassion or concern in his voice. Not like yours. You want to leave here, but it is because of some misguided belief. If you were evil, would you want to make sure we’re safe? Everything about you tells me that you could have done nothing to violate a young woman. Whether she was a young lady from town, a saloon girl, or even a woman of God. It’s not in you. I believe you were raised better than that.”

“If I was raised that good, why’d I pull a gun on my own father?!”

“Maybe he can help explain that to you.”

“I told you, I can’t go home.” Joe jumped to what the Reverend Mother was implying, “I told you, my oldest brother threatened me… told me to leave and never return. I saw my own hands holding a weapon on my father.” Joe’s voice quivered. “If I could have done that to my father, I could very well have assaulted that young woman and been forced from home.”

“Do you live in Grizzly Flats?”

“No.”

“Joe, what do you really remember, before you came here?”

Joe cringed with the headache pounding. “Like I said, I don’t remember that much, just see bits and pieces in my dreams, and I remember them when I’m awake.”

“Bits and pieces of a dream can be mixed up and not remembered in the correct order. Why don’t you let me wire your family?”

“No.”

Mary Collette knew in her heart and her mind that she wanted more than anything to reunite Joe with his family.

“Isn’t there anyone else who I could write, to help you know the truth? If this is all a misunderstanding…”

“There’s the sheriff,” Joe hesitated.

“Where? Where is home, Joe?”

“Nevada,” was all Joe would admit.

*****

Roy Coffee looked at the wire handed to him by Orville long after the church picnic broke up.

Sheriff Roy Coffee
Virginia City, Nevada

Request information concerning Joseph Cartwright /Stop

Reverend Mother Mary Collette
Teresian Order
Sacramento, California

Roy responded:

Joseph Cartwright presumed dead, caught in flash flood during cattle drive outside of Sacramento.

*****

Joe Carson, aka Joe Cartwright, sat in the small diner in town, sipping coffee while waiting for a return wire. Even though the sun was close to setting, he couldn’t bring himself to return to the convent, not until he knew the truth. He’d fallen into an exhausted, dreamless sleep after his late night conversation with the Reverend Mother. He’d slept through the bells announcing church services, and woke to find it past noon. Another discussion lasted off and on throughout the afternoon and into the evening before Joe finally relented and told her the sheriff’s name and the name of the town, thus allowing her to send the wire. They had arrived in town, stopped at the telegraph office, and now they waited.

“Relax Joe, I’m sure the news will be good.”

“I can’t… something seems so wrong all of a sudden.”

A child running errands for the town’s telegrapher entered the diner, and walked over to the Reverend Mother and handed her a folded sheet of paper.

“Thank you, Michael,” she offered and handed him a nickel for his prompt delivery.

Opening the sheet and reading, Mary Collette felt her heart plummet. “Oh, my.”

Joe looked to the doorway when he heard his name yelled.

Staring hard to recognize the figure standing in the entryway, Joe squinted his eyelids.

“My God! It’s you, Joe!” The man was quickly across the room, pulling Joe from his chair and pumping his right hand up and down.

Joe tried to pull away. He looked beyond the man who held him to see a smiling Jacob approach. Joe’s left hand hesitantly reached for the holster that no longer hung from his hip.

“This is the young man you seek?” Jacob asked.

“Of course this is Joe Cartwright! I’ve been looking for him for practically seven weeks! My God Joe, don’t it beat all to find you here!”

“Wick?” Joe heavily sat in the chair, hand to his head.

“Joe?” Mary Collette inquired.

“Hey Joe, what’s wrong?”

With pleading eyes, Joe looked up and beyond; only the whites of his eyes showed before he slid from the chair to the floor.

*****

A vile odor forced Joe awake. He batted a hand at the offending smell.

“Come on Joe, open your eyes,” a man’s voice ordered.

“Is he going to be okay?” Joe recognized the voice of the Reverend Mother.

“He should be. What happened?” the man’s voice again.

All conversation stopped when Joe’s eyes fluttered open, they watched him look from person to person, stopping to stare at the newcomer. Raising his hand to his temple, Joe pressed against the pain.

“Do you have a headache?” Doctor Abrams finally capped the vial of smelling salts.

Joe nodded.

“When did it start?”

“I believe last night,” stated Mary Collette, explaining their conversation.

“And what happened right before he passed out?”

“I called his name,” Wick Ritter stated.

“You’re a gunslinger?” Doc asked having hearing the man admit he had called Joe out.

“Nah… I didn’t call him out, I called out to him. I ain’t no gunslinger. I work for Joe, well… him and his family. Dang Joe, what’re you doing here? Why ain’t you wired your Pa that you’re alive?”

“Alive?” Joe whispered.

Between Doc Abrams and the Reverend Mother, they assisted Joe to sit in the chair he had previously occupied.

“I think this wire from Sheriff Coffee might explain some of your confusion,” Mary Collette handed the wire she had received only moments before Wick entered the diner.

“Dead? My family thinks… Oh God.” The past and the present collided in Joe’s memory, everything slipped into the proper order of events. “It wasn’t me that Adam warned off the Ponderosa… It was Judd Jordan.”

Standing in the background, near the counter of the diner, Sheriff David Braun listened to the conversation. He’d grown curious when the doctor’s presence was required at the diner and followed.

“That happened during round up. And then on the cattle drive, Adam broke his leg when Sport fell. Hoss took him back to Placerville because it was closer and we knew there was a doctor. We had to split the herd because of the storm, their horns glowed blue,” Joe stopped for a breath.

“St. Elmo’s Fire. First time I’ve ever seen it and I don’t ever want to experience it again,” Wick inserted.

Joe continued, recounting the events as if they’d happened to someone else, “The herd, it stampeded. I… I saw Walt Ryerson go down. He didn’t have a chance.”

“You said you know a Judd Jordan,” Sheriff Braun walked over to the group.

“Did,” Joe stated emphatically. “My brother fired him about two months ago for drinking on the job.”

“That and sucker punching Joe,” Wick added.

“I’ve got him over at my jail.”

“Why?” inquired Mary Collette.

“Drunk and disorderly, disturbing the peace. Frank over at the Silver Slipper overheard him grumbling about getting even with someone and how them ladies was gonna be sorry for not listening to him.”

“Sheriff, I believe he is the same man who came to the convent yesterday. He claimed Joe was responsible for assaulting a young lady in Grizzly Flats.”

“I read a report on that. Judd Jordan did that.”

“He tried to claim Joe was he.”

“Figures. There’s a bounty for his return. Seems in addition to beating up the young lady, he’s also responsible for a few thefts around their town. He’ll be locked up in my jail until they come get him.”

“Thank God, for small favors,” Mary Collette offered.

The small group watched Sheriff Braun leave the diner.

“Wick, what of Walt?” Joe’s attention returned to the drive.

“Charlie buried him on the trail.” Looking to the others he explained, “Charlie Yeagle, he’s our ranch foreman and after Adam’s accident, Hoss made Charlie the trail boss and bumped Joe to ramrod.”

Joe nodded. “I remember. The lightning, it was so close. At first there was light, noise, and pain, and then nothing but feeling like I was… flying,” he paused in his narrative.

“I’m sorry about Skeeter, Joe. He was dead when we found him. We figured you’d got thrown into the waters. I been checking all along the river and such for your body ever since it happened.”

Looking Wick directly in the eyes, Joe asked, “Then what are you doing here?”

“Like I said, I was looking for you. Couldn’t find you, and decided it was time to go back. I been waiting for a wire from your Pa, if I still had a job. I told him I’d wait with my friend Jacob here. I was telling him about what I’d been doing and well, Jacob got this wild idea and was telling me about a Joe Carson and that I had to come with him. And dang, if he weren’t you! Your Pa’s gonna be…”

Joe interrupted, “I have to wire Pa!”

Young Michael returned to the diner with another wire, he walked up next to Jacob and tugged his sleeve. The boy motioned the man to bend down to him, “This wire came in yesterday, but pa held it ‘til he saw you come to town.”

“Wick, this wire is for you,” Jacob stated when he saw the name on the page.

“Well, don’t that beat all, even though they don’t know that I found you, I still got a job,” Wick announced after reading the wire.

*****

Roy Coffee looked up from his desk when Orville entered, holding several sheets of paper in his hand.

“You up to making a ride out to the Ponderosa tonight, Roy?”

“You heard something from Ritter?”

“Sort of…”

“Now either ya did or ya didn’t,” Roy castigated the man, indicating he was not up for word games.

“It’s from Joe.” A broad smile spread across the man’s face.

“Joe?”

“Yep, and one here’s from Ritter.”

“Give them to me. Orville, I swear…”

“You better get in the saddle. Ben left explicit orders regardless what time of day or night.”

“And you’re sending me?”

“Figured you’d want to be the one instead of my boy. My wife would have my hide sending him when it would be dark before he even got there. Now you and I know neither Ben nor his boys would let Jeffrey ride back in the dark, but my Missus… oh she’d make me ride out there to make sure the boy got there okay.”

“You’re right. I wouldn’t want to suffer your wife’s wrath. I’ll see you later, Orville. Oh, and send word back that I’m taking this to Ben.”

*****

The final light in the study area darkened as Roy entered the front yard and dismounted. He knocked loudly on the front door.

Adam opened the door and recognized the lawman. “Roy?”

“Your pa and Hoss still awake?”

“Pa went to bed hours ago, Hoss about thirty minutes…”

“Roy? What’s wrong?” Ben called from the top of the staircase, tying the sash of his robe.

“Nothing’s wrong…”

“Then why ya here, Roy?” Hoss stood, wearing his green and white checked night shirt.

“You told Orville you wanted any wire received from Wick Ritter delivered immediately.”

“We know he never found Joe’s body and that he’s returning home,” Adam informed the lawman, allowing him to enter farther into the great room.

Roy removed his hat, trying hard not to grin like a Cheshire cat.

“So I heard,” Roy had second thoughts about stringing out the news, the family had suffered enough grief and this was news they needed to hear. “But that ain’t exactly right.”

“What isn’t right?” Adam picked up the change in Roy’s voice.

“Got a wire from Ritter, but also have a second wire here ya might be interested in reading.”

Roy handed the sheets to Adam, and curiously watched his expression. ‘Dang, the boy can be surprised.’

“Adam?” Hoss witnessed his brother’s tears.

“This wire is from Joe.” Looking up, Adam’s face cried and laughed at the same time. “He’s alive, just outside of Sacramento.”

“Where is he?” Ben was fast to his son’s side and took the wire Adam held out to him.

“Ritter’s outside of Sacramento, too,” Roy offered.

“He is? Wire him back, tell him where Joe is. Tell him to go find my son.”

“He knows,” Adam laughed, having read the second wire. “They’re together.”

“Together?” Hoss joined his family, looking over their shoulders at the wires. “Don’t that beat all?”

“I’m sure there’s a long story, but they’ll be heading home tomorrow… Only Joe needs some money.” Ben smiled, placing a hand upon Adam’s shoulder.

“He needs money?” Hoss laughed.

“I’ll ride into town and send a return wire and make arrangements for funds to be transferred,” Ben announced.

Hoss and Adam looked to each other, pleased to hear hope in their father’s voice. In Joe’s absence and Adam’s injury, Ben’s demeanor had turned despondent, just going through the motions and not caring. An exhausted body fell to sleep easier; not allowing grief to wallow in one’s mind.

“I think we’ll all go to town in the morning,” Ben responded to his sons’ reactions.

“Oh, Ben. I had Orville send a wire back to Joe letting him know that I was bringing you the news,” Roy stated. “I best be getting back to town.”

“Roy, please,” offered Ben. “You can stay in one of the guest rooms.”

“Not tonight. I got a town to mind. Night Ben, boys.”

“Good night Roy,” the family chorused.

“Lit’le Joe come home?” Hop Sing asked from where he waited in the dining room.

“Hop Sing!” Hoss walked towards the diminutive man and picked him up in a huge bear hug, “Little Joe’s coming home!”

*****

Early the following morning, Joe read the telegram from home.

Joseph Cartwright
c/o Teresian Convent
Sacramento, California

Request confirmed /stop
Come home /stop

Pa

Joe asked Reverend Mother Mary Collette if Sacramento had more than one bank. By the time he arrived at the third bank, he was happily informed by the manager that he had received a wire from Benjamin Cartwright of Virginia City, Nevada.

“If you are indeed young Joseph Cartwright, you’ll need to prove your identification.”

“How, I lost everything in the flood waters,” Joe replied.

“Your father asked a few very specific questions and gave the answer.”

“But then anyone who read that wire or talked with your telegraphers could know the answers.”

“The description your father listed is also a factor. I don’t know of many a young man who could fit your description.”

Fifteen minutes after entering the bank, Joe couldn’t believe the amount of money his father had made available to him. Joe’s first stop was the general mercantile where he purchased a hat, a few shirts and pants, as well as other items and supplies he and Wick would need for the trip home.

Second on his list of places to visit was the livery. He inquired if they had a horse for sale, only to be informed to purchase a horse, he would need to travel to one of the horse ranches just south of town. In the meantime, they would willingly rent a horse for such an endeavor. Walking his rented horse to the street, Joe smiled to see Wick waiting for him.

“Let’s go find you a horse, Joe.”

Two hours and half a dozen horses later, the two returned to town with Joe leading another horse. Joe halted in front of the leather shop, intending to purchase a saddle.

“Guess I know why Pa sent so much money,” Joe stated after leaving the shop.

“What are you going to do with the rest?” Wick inquired.

“Some good.” Joe smiled and headed to the doctor’s office.

“What’s this for, Joe?” Doc Abrams inquired having seen what was inside the envelope handed to him.

“To pay you for services rendered in seeing that I survived.”

“I didn’t do that much.” Doc Abrams attempted to give the money back.

“No Doc, I think my Pa would strongly argue that point. I’m alive to go home.”

“Joe, the women folk at the convent did most of the work.”

“I know, and I want you to help restock their medical supplies. This money,” Joe handed over another envelope, “is for you to purchase anything you think they might need to help others.”

“They’ll be pleased and humbled.”

“I also want to arrange for someone to make sure the convent is properly taken care of. I was thinking of asking Jacob if he’d hire the men and oversee the repairs needed.”

“He loves those women, he’d do anything for them.”

“I thought you’d say that.”

*****

Once their errands in town were finished, Joe and Wick rode to Jacob’s home. His young son, Liam, greeted them while hanging from a tree in the front yard.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in school?” Joe asked.

“No school today.”

Jacob stepped from his home, “You are leaving?”

“Yes, it’s time I returned home. I have family waiting for me. Can we go inside for a few minutes?”

Jacob allowed Joe to walk in front of him. “It is good to go home.”

“Yes, but I’m going to miss you and the Sisters.” Joe looked around the simple home the man and his young son shared. “Jacob, I’ve opened an account at the mercantile and the hardware store. Anything you need, to help fix the convent, I want you to purchase and to organize men to do the work. I’ve left instructions at the bank for the manager to pay you and the men a weekly salary until the Sisters are pleased that everything has been completed.”

“You want me to be the boss?”

“I can’t think of anyone better suited to handle the job.”

“Thank you. But before you leave, I have something for you.”

“You don’t need to give me anything.” Joe held out his hands in an attempt to refuse any type of gift.

“I return this to you.” Jacob pulled Joe’s holster from a desk drawer. “The Reverend Mother asked that I dispose of it the first night you were with us. It is good workmanship, I could not throw it away. I oiled it regularly. The water was not good for it.”

Looking over his holster, Joe was beholden to the man for the return of the gift given to him by his father upon his sixteenth birthday. Blushing, “I hadn’t even thought about what happened to it. Thank you, Jacob. Thank you for everything.”

“I had asked Mary Seraphina about the weapon, it wasn’t in your holster when she found you.”

“As much as I was thrown about in the river, it doesn’t surprise me that it’s gone.”

The two men shook hands before Joe left the house. Jacob stood on the porch with his hand on his son’s shoulder.

“Hey Joe, you found your holster,” Wick called out when seeing the item slung over Joe’s shoulder.

“I hadn’t even missed it until you showed up.” Using the back of his hand, Joe teasingly gut slapped his friend as he took the reins to his new horse.

“Yeah, I saw your hand straying to your side in the diner last night. No gun?”

Joe shook his head no. “I need to stop by the gunsmith before we head home. That should give you some time to say goodbye to your friend.”

“Thanks Joe.”

*****

With the last of their purchases and arrangements completed, Wick held the reins to the two horses loaded with supplies, and patiently waited under the shade trees in front of the convent.

The youngest Cartwright removed his hat as he stepped inside to say a final goodbye.

Holding the Reverend Mother’s hands in his, Joe spoke, “Thank you for being more stubborn than I was.”

“You’re welcome, Joe.” Pulling a hand from Joe’s, she caressed his face. “We all lose faith at one time or another, whether it is with God or one’s family. What matters is you listened to you heart.”

“Not sure it was my heart.” Joe blushed. “Before I leave, I wanted to let you know I’ve made some arrangements to help you and the Sisters in your work here. Doc Abrams knows what to do, and so does Jacob.”

“Joe, what have you done?” Mary Collette’s eyes bespoke amusement.

“Only what needed to be done to repay you for everything.”

“We didn’t do anything expecting repayment. We do what we do because it is how we can best serve God.”

“I want to help you, and I know my father would approve of what I’ve done.”

“You’re not going to tell me, are you?”

“No ma’am. However, I’m thankful that fate dropped me on your doorstep, so to speak.”

“Bless you, my child. Go in peace,” the Reverend Mother stated as she kissed Joe’s cheek.

Joe next spoke with Mary Seraphina, “I wanted to personally thank you for nursing me back to health and being a friend.”

Joe leaned in and kissed the young woman’s cheek, causing her to bush and gape her mouth open. Using his index and middle fingers, Joe lifted her chin to close her mouth.

“If you should decide to take your final vows, I want to know. I want to be here when you begin your new life ministering to those in need.”

Mary Seraphina looked away. Joe gently turned her face back to him. His crooked finger remained under her chin.

Softly he spoke. “Don’t base your decision on whether you can or cannot talk. You have a special talent in these hands.” Joe took both her hands in his. “I thought you were an angel when I first opened my eyes. Just being there, your presence was comforting, a healing touch is worth so much more than a spoken word. I’m alive because of you. I know you’ll take good care of anyone else in need.”

Mary Seraphina smiled, her blush deepened.

“We’ll send word to you Joe,” the Reverend Mother stated as she wrapped an arm around Mary Seraphina’s shoulders.

Joe walked out into the yard and in typical Little Joe style, he swung aboard his new horse. Removing his hat and placing it over his heart, Joe called, “I’ll be back some day.” He waved his hat over his head as he and Wick Ritter turned their mounts and headed to the Ponderosa.

*****

Each day that passed, Joe experienced a case of jittery nerves concerning his reception once he returned home. In the six days since they’d left Sacramento, Joe switched between wanting to rush home or slow down due to his worries. Longing to be with his family finally overrode his fears of their reactions, and so he wanted to ride as long and as fast as possible. But reason prevailed when Wick reminded Joe of the inherent dangers of riding at night.

The next morning, they only stayed in camp long enough to drink a cup of coffee; Joe had both horses saddled in record time while Wick removed any trace of their stay.

On the last rise he needed to cross, Joe looked out over the final few miles of his return; the majesty of his home stood grand among the towering trees for which she took her name. In his heart he knew his brother’s voice, “Quit lollygagging around Shortshanks! I done did your chores.” Another voice echoed, “You did a good job, kid. I’m proud of you.” But the voice that rose above the others was the one he was desperate to hear, “I’ve missed you Joseph, please come home soon.”

Hearing a tinge of pleading, Joe kicked his mount into a gallop and soon out distanced Wick and his horse. Joe knew he shouldn’t race into the yard, but somehow he knew he’d be forgiven, this time. In rhythm to his horse’s hoof beats, Joe’s heart sang, “I’m home, I’m home.”

*****

“Dagnabit! He shoulda been home last night!” the big man worried, walking a path back and forth in front of the massive fireplace.

His father and older brother sat in their chairs on either side of the low table; both with their own apprehensions of what was keeping the youngest member from reaching home as fast as possible.

“Hoss, fretting won’t bring Joe home any sooner.” Ben set aside the three day old paper he’d been attempting to read.

“He doesn’t have Cochise to ride; we brought him and Warrior home after the drive. Who knows what kind of mount he found.”

“Maybe we should head out and meet him.” Hoss finally sat down on the stone hearth.

“Where? Just where would we meet him? We have no idea what route Joe is taking to get home. We could pass him and never know it.”

“He’d come the most direct route home.”

“Hoss, think back to when you and Adam were planning the cattle drive. There were several alternate routes that you could have taken. No, it’s best we wait for your brother right here.”

“I cain’t just sit here!”

“Neither can I.”

“He’s home.” Ben stood and ran for the door. The brothers looked to each other in confusion for a moment before following.

Ben hurriedly stepped from the porch as the overwhelming feeling pulled him forward.

Following their father, the brothers were disappointed to find the yard empty, but hearts lightened when they heard the approach of a galloping horse.

“Think Pa’s gonna get after him for racin’ into the yard?”

“Not this time.” Adam smiled as he shook his head. “Pa’s just as anxious for him to return home as we are.”

“JOSEPH!”

Reining back, Joe brought his horse to a halt and sat there. Staring at his family he felt his chest constrict as they clamored around him, a hand on his knee, his thigh, and his forearm. Their reassuring need to touch confirmed he was really home and that he was loved.

*****

No one let Joe out of their sight until he announced that he was tired and probably should go to bed. Climbing the staircase, he teased his brothers about all the chores they probably had left for him to complete in the morning.

Hoss teased right back, “Just you wait an’ see what all we let pile up for you.”

Adam couldn’t let Hoss get in the last word, “It’s about time you learned the books. So once you’re done with chores tomorrow, get your scrawny butt back inside and I’ll put you to work on the ledgers.”

*****

Earlier in the afternoon, having survived his family’s reactions to seeing him for the first time in almost two months, Joe turned to see Hop Sing standing at the doorway to the kitchen. Slowly he approached the man who had watched him grow up and helped take care of him. “I missed you Hop Sing.”

“Boy too skinny. Get washed up. Lunch on table.” The Oriental man turned to walk away, but paused and looked back. “Hop Sing missed you too. Next time, no die.”

Ben allowed his older sons their laughter at their brother’s expense, wishing he too could laugh at Hop Sing’s order, but his emotions were too raw. Hoss and Adam entered their home leaving Ben with his youngest as the boy, no, the young man surveyed his home.

“Being away like I was; makes me appreciate home all the more. I didn’t mean to make you worry, Pa.”

“That’s just one of my jobs. I thank God for bringing you home safely.”

“He sure had a lot of help, why if it hadn’t been for the Sisters…”

“You can tell me all about your exploits after lunch.” Ben cringed, had his young son stayed away because he’d met a set of sisters? His stomach growled, “Let’s go in, I’d hate to lose Hop Sing back to China just when you’ve returned.”

*****

Once the table was cleared from lunch and the family retired to the great room, Joe told his story of the stampede, being thrown into the raging river and finally of floating. Rapt attention was given to his description of wanting to give up when the pain became too much; that is until he heard his family pleading for him to fight and to come to them.

“Why didn’t you wire us that you were safe?” Adam asked.

“I told you, I’d broken my arm as well as some ribs,” Joe began fidgeting, “I also came down with pneumonia. In my dreams, I…” Joe averted his eyes from his oldest brother.

“You what?” encouraged Ben.

“I remembered pulling my gun on you, Pa, and I saw Adam warning me never to return home.”

“I never!”

“I know you didn’t – now. My dreams were all mixed up, everything was jumbled. I didn’t even remember those were Ponderosa cattle I was helping to drive. I finally remembered it was Judd Jordan you were warning.”

“Shortshanks, how?”

Joe told of the Sisters of the Teresian Order, causing Ben to blush at his earlier assumption. The sun continued to traverse across the sky as Joe’s tale unfolded. He watched anger infuse his family when he told of Jordan’s unwelcomed appearance at the convent. They calmed in hearing how the Reverend Mother was able to see through his lies. The story ended with the wire sent to Roy and Wick Ritter’s appearance in the diner.

“Let me tell you that gave me one heck of a headache. But when I came too, everything was back in its proper order, like I never forgot.”

By the time Hop Sing had set the dinner on the table, Joe had finally explained the gifts he bestowed on those who had helped him.

*****

With the fire banked for the night, Ben walked outside. His steps, slow and measured, took him across the yard to the paddock where their horses were enjoying the cool evening. As if the breeze spoke to him, he looked up to the heavens.

“Thank you,” Ben murmured, his arms rested across the top railing with his pipe in hand.

“I’ll second that.” Adam quietly approached his father.

“I thought you were in bed.”

“I tried, but couldn’t sleep.”

“Afraid to wake up and find out his return was a dream?”

“Something like that.”

“He’s home son. He’s healthy and he’s home.” Ben inhaled deeply through his pipe; exhaling slowly, allowing the smoke to billow in imitation of the wispy clouds above.

“That was some story he told.”

“Indeed it was. Earlier, when you and Hoss headed inside the house, he began to tell me if it hadn’t been for the sisters…” Ben gave a brief laugh. “Well, you can imagine my thoughts.”

“That would be my little brother.” His eyes sparkled at the image of his father’s thoughts.

Ben grew solemn, “I guess we both need to forgive ourselves.”

Adam stared at his father.

“Son, I felt the same way. Wondering if things would have been different had I been in charge of the drive.”

“Pa, there was nothing you could have done to prevent what happened once the storm hit. No one could have even prevented Sport and I from taking that tumble.”

“I know.” Raising an eyebrow, “And I hope you do too.”

Thoughtfully, accepting the truth, Adam nodded.

“Come on son, morning comes early.”

Side by side, father and son walked across the front porch. Adam allowed his father to cross the threshold first. Ben paused one last time, thankful that hope and fate worked together – Joe was home.

~The End

Verbiage/ scene from The Truckee Strip were included in this story.

 

Tags: Adam Cartwright, Angst, Ben Cartwright, Cattle, Grief, Hoss Cartwright, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright, pneumonia, Stampede, Storm

Other Stories by this Author

Bookmark(1)

No account yet? Register

Author: BluewindFarm

A dressage rider who's a cowgirl at heart.

Though I wasn't old enough during the heyday of Westerns on TV, with the introduction of cable and satellite services in the 1980's, I fell in love with Bonanza, Lancer, The Big Valley, The Rifleman, and The Wild, Wild West, among others. Through syndication and fanfiction; our heroes will live on forever.

I hope you enjoy reading the stories I've written, and look forward to reading your comments.

35 thoughts on “When Hope and Fate Collide (by BluewindFarm)

  1. What can I say, MV you out did yourself. So many different emotions though out this story. The tension, the Drama, the love and the joy of all the family and friends. Love hearing Adam and the rest of the family giving Joe the Praise he always wanted and needed by his Family. Joe made a good friend with Ritter. This story is so awesome. Keep writing these awesome stories. Thanks for an awesome read. The respect and loyalty of the help was great too.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this story, you had the details of how a cattle drive takes place perfect. I loved everything about the way you wrote the brothers and their roles that they played in the cattle drive and the responsibilities that each one of them took. There was just so much angst and drama in it and I could not put it down. I know the amount of effort and research and discipline it takes to write such an in-depth story and I commend you on that. Great job.

  3. I love this story so much. Your characterizations were spot on and it made it even easier to get involved and feel like everything was happening to me too!

    Great job, BWF!

    1. Nita, glad the story pulled you in, hopefully I wasn’t too rough on you. Thank you for reading and for taking a moment to leave a comment.

    1. McFair, it was a roller coaster at times all wrapped in family. Thank you for reading and for leaving a comment.

  4. That was quite a story!!very interesting * intense !!I loved the SJS part. Wick was a nice character!!thanks for sharing such a wonderful story!!

    1. Bij, glad I could fulfill your SJS quota with this story. 🙂 Thank you for reading and taking a moment to leave a comment.

  5. Oh, and forgot to add — really liked the cattle drive descriptions, too. It felt like I was there watching. And the St. Elmo’s fire … I learned something today! Had to go look it up, very weird … 😛

    1. Believe it or not, the cattle drive stampede was written first when working on this story. Again, thank you for reading and taking the time to leave a comment.

  6. I really very much enjoyed this story. 🙂 When I saw the tags — storm, pneumonia — I thought, hmm, okay, there’s going to be a storm and Joe will get pneumonia, sure … But you went in a whole different direction with it, and it was great. I liked Joe’s growing friendship with Ritter — sometimes, especially with men, that sort of scuffle really does cement a positive relationship. I just loved your Sisters and the convent — joyful, caring, discerning women of God. I really like, too, how you showed Joe’s respect for the ladies who cared for him, and especially his encouragement of Mary Seraphina at the end. My sister commented once that she thought Joe was always the most charming with women he wasn’t trying to ‘woo’, and this was definitely the case here. And of course the reunion at the end — yay! I’m glad I read this, well worth the time. Thx for writing!

    1. PSW, thank you for the rousing review! I’m glad you enjoyed this story, and thank you for letting me know.

    1. PC, thank you for giving this story a second read. Makes an author feel good when a story is worth coming back for more.

  7. Good Joe story and the scene when Adam got hurt was masterfully written, I’m glad he was out for most of it though—-(shivers)OUCH!

    1. Miss Kitty, the scene you refer to was the second scene written for this story and like the stampede scene, my muse wouldn’t let me write anything else until she was satisfied. I’m glad you enjoyed it, too. Thank you for taking the time to read and to leave a comment.

  8. Wonderful story!
    I am so grateful for this! Please, write more about Little Joe! You did it very well! Congratulations!

    1. MV, coming from someone who is the epitome of being a JoeGal, your words mean a lot. Thank you for taking the time to read my story and leaving a review.

  9. Great job, Bluewind Farm! I love the imagery and emotion in this story. The whole storm and stampede section in particular was particularly well done. 🙂

  10. JFCL, thanks for all your help! I’m glad the conversation between Ben and Joe worked for you. Joe’s at that age where he wants to be a man and Ben wishes him to stay his child, yet knowing he has no choice but to let his son grow up.

  11. You worked hard on this one, Deanne, and it shows. I love the conversation Ben had with Joe before the drive. Very nice. Good job!

    1. Cheaux, The stampede was one of the first scenes I wrote for this story. I’m glad it impressed you! Thank you for reading and leaving a comment.

    1. It’s been years since I’ve heard Little Joe the Wrangler, and I hate to say I had forgotten about him. Thank you for the link.

  12. I found my place and finished!:) really enjoyed this one!:)

    Here’s the key verse of the song:

    “Between the streaks of lightnin’ we could see a horse ahead
    It was little Joe the wrangler in the lead
    He was riding old Blue Rocket with a slicker o’er his head
    And he’s trying to check the leaders in their speed.
    We finally got ’em millin’ and they sort of quieted down
    The extra guard back to the camp did go
    But one of them was missing and we all knew at a glance
    Twas our little Texas stray boy wrangler Joe”

    You can find several recorded versions on You Tube and in iTunes!;)

  13. I’m a little more than halfway through. Had to stop and lost my place so I’m taking this opportunity to provide preliminary comments.;)

    Great family interactions! I love how the family is learning to see Joe as a man in his own right. I love responsible and competent Joe recognizing these changes as well. From a scene standpoint, I truly enjoyed Hoss and Adam in the wagon en route to Placerville!:) As to the storm scene…well done! I found myself singing “Little Joe the Wrangler”….

    Stopping to give preliminary FB obviously makes me say more than “loved it”! LOL Maybe I should do this more often!;)

    1. Freya, Thank you for the preliminary feedback on this story. I hope you find your place and continue to enjoy.

      By the way, can you provide the lyrics and the tune for “Little Joe the Wrangler”? 😉

  14. It was nice to see how much Adam’s opinion mattered to Joe and how Adam let Him know that He was doing a good job. I love how Hoss talks to Adam in that no nonsense way He has, allways liked the relationship between Adam and Hoss. Nice to see it here. I lol when Roy said, “dang, the boy can be surprised” that was pricless! Thanks for a great tale!

  15. Betty, Thank you for taking the time to read and leave a comment. Glad the ‘brotherhood’ scenes came through for you.

  16. Wonderful story of Joe growing up and dealing with a lot. Love the conversations among the brothers very much as they seemed so real and showed the love and respect each had for the others even with some teasing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.