What the Wind Blew In (by McFair_58)

Summary: One day the wind blows in a woman claiming to be Ben Cartwright’s daughter. As her claim appears to be valid, Belle moves into the Ponderosa bringing trouble from her past in the form of a man who is obsessed with her and who blames Ben Cartwright for taking her mother away. Before the end the lives of the Cartwrights and the Ponderosa itself are in danger of going up in flames.

Rated: PG-13    Word count: 59, 034

All known and public characters belong to those who created them.  All new characters belong to the author.  There is no intent to infringe on copyright and no money is being made – just friends and warm hearts hopefully!

 

What the Wind Blew In

One

Joe Cartwright clung to the shadows in the alley beside the Dry Goods store.  It was a hot and windy day in Virginia City.  He and his brothers had come into town to pick up supplies – and maybe wet their whistle if time allowed before they had to head back home.  Pa had told them in no uncertain terms that they were to be back to the Ponderosa before nightfall.  There was a renegade band of Indians in the area who were bucking for a fight.  So far they’d killed at least four people and had scalped one man and left him bleeding in the dust.  Joe reached up and felt his thick brown curly hair.  He swallowed hard.  Much as he’d hate to die, surviving a scalping would be worse.

Weren’t many women interested in a man of eighteen who was bald – whether he came by it honestly or not.

A sudden noise made Joe pull back deeper into the shadows.  That fella who was hunting him, he sure as shooting was never going to give up.  He hadn’t seen anybody that hot under the collar since his pa found out he had borrowed old chief Winnemucca’s daughter for that dance a month or so back.  Joe placed a hand on his back, pushing against the gray corduroy of his jacket.  It still hurt after all that extra work splitting wood for the new corral fence.

His pa was like a force of nature – nothing to trifle with.

The brown-haired man leaned a little ways out of the shadows to listen.  His horse Cochise was tied up out front of the livery.  All he had to do was get to him and ride.  A glance showed him that Adam almost had the wagon loaded.  He’d say ‘howdy’ on the way past and then beat a path toward home and wait for his older brother a little ways along.

He needed to get out of Virginia City.

As Joe stood there, contemplating his next move, halfway in and halfway out of the shadows, his slight form was suddenly eclipsed.  It was as if a cloud had traveled over the face of the sun.  Catching a quick breath, Joe ducked and rolled even as a pair of strong arms reached out, meaning to capture and squeeze the life out of him.

There were advantages to being small and quick.

Joe came up out of the roll and headed for the wooden deck outside the Dry Goods store.  He hated the idea of running with his tail between his legs to his older brother almost as much as a day without a smile from a pretty girl, but it looked like the stoic Yankee might be his only hope.

Behind him a bellow worthy of a grizzly bear expressed in fine terms the frustration of the man he was running from.  Adam heard it and turned to look at him.  An expression somewhere between concern and outright amusement landed on his brother’s face, lifting the corner of one lip like a shade raised at dawn.

“Joe, watch out!  He’ll crush you!” Adam shouted.

In spite of everything – in spite of what he’d done – he really didn’t deserve to die.  Really.  Just…  Well, maybe…..  Joe winced.  Maybe he should fall on his pursuer’s mercy.

Joe looked at the man’s beet-red face with its narrowed eyes and jutting chin.

No milk of human kindness there.

Ducking, Joe just missed being caught.

“Look out, older brother!  I’m coming through!”

“Oh, no, you ain’t!” the man behind him bellowed.  “You done deserve to be tarred and feathered and I am just the man to do it!”

As the giant shadow lurched for him Joe ducked and rolled again.  He didn’t get it right this time.  The man with the curly brown hair felt a sharp pain in his shoulder as he struck the boards and then, even worse than that, he rolled straight into a pair of ladies side lace boots –

With the lady still inside them.

Joe heard her holler, and then a shower of packages and a bag of sweets came down around him, the caramels and peppermints pelting him like rain.

Unfortunately the lady came down too.  Right on top of him.

The wind knocked out of him, Joe drew in several shallow breaths.  He wanted to tip his black hat, but couldn’t find it.  “Sorry, Ma’am,” he managed to wheeze out.

“Joe, really!”

It was Adam.  His brother was charging forward.  Joe didn’t know if it was to throttle him or to help the lady to stand.

From the look of his older brother’s face, he’d lay money on the first.

“Joe!” Adam snarled.  “Where are you manners?  Help …the…lady…up.”

“Well, I can’t…rightly, Adam,” Joe protested meekly, his words still coming hard.  He looked at the woman sitting on top of him.  She looked stunned.  “Leastways…not till she helps me up.”

“Oh, for goodness sake!”  Adam stopped at his side. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, if a little –”

“Not you!”  Adam glared at him and then looked at the woman.  “Madam, are you all right”

She was a handsome woman, past her prime but pretty as a waning rose.  From a distance a man might have put her at the high end of her twenties.  Closer up Joe could tell she was  in her mid-thirties.  There were tiny wrinkles at the ends of her eyes and lines dug deep around her mouth that showed she liked to laugh.  She was thin and what his pa would have called buxom.  Joe just called it busty.

He liked ‘em busty and, come to think of it, he liked them in their thirties.

The woman’s hair was the color of a brown bear’s coat and her skin pale as the honey that bear liked to eat.  She was dressed in expensive clothes that had once been white, but were gray now with the settling of the cloud of dust their tumble had raised.

The woman blinked several times but said nothing.

“Er, Adam,” Joe asked.  “You think you could get her off of me?”

“If you’re in pain, you deserve it.”  Adam rolled his eyes and then held his hand out.  “Madam?”

The woman blinked again and seemed to become aware of her surroundings.  Looking down at Joe she let out a little gasp.  “Oh! I’m sorry.  Did I trip you?”  she asked.

He’d been about to share some of the blame for the fall, but Adam cut him off.  “Joe, don’t you dare!”

Joe swallowed more dust than pride.  “No Ma’am, the fault…was mine.  I’m glad I was able to…cushion your fall, but Ma’am….”  He winced.  “Could you please get off of me?”

“Here, let me help,” Adam offered as he glowered at him.  “Are you hurt?”

As the woman assured his older brother that she was fine, Joe drew in a long gulp of air.  It tasted sweet for precisely ten seconds and then was forced from his lungs as those strong arms that had been seeking to find and crush him for the last half hour found him and squeezed him like a cow’s teats.

“So I finally got you, little brother!” Hoss proclaimed as his grip tightened.  “If you ain’t slipperier than a horny toad in a spring flood!”

“H…Hoss.  About what happened – ”

Adam had the woman’s arm linked over his own.  She had gathered up one of the boxes and it hung from her arm like a lop-sided smile.  His older brother had been directing her toward one of the chairs pushed up against the Dry Goods store front when he halted and turned back to stare at him.

What happened?” Adam demanded.

“Goldarnit, Adam!” Hoss said, holding Joe so his feet were off the ground and kicking, “ if I didn’t catch this little horny toad shinnying out of the second story window of the Washoe Millionaire’s Club!”

Adam frowned.  “The second story?”

If Joe’s cheeks hadn’t already been red they’d have turned it.  “Now…now, it isn’t what you think, Adam.”

His elder brother patted the woman’s hand and released her to her seat.  At this point she was obviously enjoying the proceedings.  A small smile quirked the ends of her rose petal lips.

“You do know who is on the second floor, don’t you Joe?” Adam growled.  “Who and what?”

“I know who.  I’m not so sure about what.”

His elder brother came right up to him.  Adam made a gesture but didn’t complete it toward his lower parts.

“Trouble.”

“Adam, I swear, it wasn’t what you think!”  Joe gasped in air.  “You tell this…big galoot to let me go and… I’ll explain.”

“You explain and I’ll tell the big galoot to let you go,” Adam deadpanned.

Joe hung his head.  “I was with Nellie.”

“You were what?”

“Nellie Makem, you know?  Prettiest little filly this side of the Mississippi, with the biggest brightest blue eyes and hair like sunshine –.”

“And a pa and five older brothers who warned you in no uncertain terms to stay away from her.”  Adam frowned.  “What was Nellie doing at the Millionaire’s Club in the first place?”

Hoss squeezed so hard Joe squeaked.  “Let me tell you, Adam  It ain’t bad enough that little brother here decided to sneak away and see a forbidden gal he’s sweet on.  The dad-blamed smooth-talking muttonhead took her inside the Millionaire’s Club!”

“Just to dance, Adam, I swear,” Joe protested while testing his brother’s hold.

He needn’t have bothered.

“So how in all that is holy did you end up on the second floor?” his elder brother asked.

“Well, that would be when Nellie’s pa and brothers came into the Washoe.”  Joe hesitated, “The only way out was up the spiral stair and through one of the…ladies’ rooms.”

“Unoccupied I hope?”

Joe screwed up his face.  “Not exactly.”

“I don’t know about you, Adam, but much as I’d like to tan the hide of little brother here, if we don’t get him out of town soon, I won’t have to.  I saw Mister Makem a while back and had one of the hands send him in the opposite direction.  It ain’t gonna be long before he figures it out and comes this way totin’ his anger and a sawed off shotgun.”

“As a matter of fact….”  Adam nodded back along the street.

Joe looked.  Five men walked abreast along it carrying pistols and rifles.  The one in front was Alvin Makem.  He was dragging a very sheepish looking Nellie Makem in his wake.

Quick as lightning Adam stepped over to the wagon and threw the tarp back.  On the bed of the wagon were various boxes of supplies, ropes, and several large bags of flour.

“Toss him in!” Adam ordered.

“Adam!  Hoss!  No!”  Joe wriggled and wiggled, trying to get free.  “It’s gonna hurt!”

“It will hurt a great deal less than two barrels of shot in your backside.  Hoss.”

“Yeah, Adam?”

“Now!”

A second later Joe was flying through the air.  He hit the bed of the wagon with its contents hard, driving the air out of him again – which was a good thing because all around him was a haze of flour that would have stung and made him cough had he sucked it in.

A second later everything went black as Adam pulled the tarp over him.

“Now, keep your mouth shut, Joe.  If that’s possible!” Adam snapped.  There was a pause and then he heard his oldest brother say, “Oh, Mister Makem.  How good to see you.”  Silence and then.  “Joe?  No, I haven’t seen him since this morning.”  Another pause.  “Yes, sir, he certainly is a rapscallion.”

Joe frowned.  He’d have to look that one up.

“Oh, just supplies,” Adam said, answering an unheard question.  “You want to take a look?”

Joe hunkered down in the dusty wagon bed.  Scrambling, he found a blanket and pulled it over himself just as the tarp was thrown back.

“See?  No brother.”

A second later Adam replaced the tarp.  “You do that, sir,” he called out loudly.  Mister Makem must be moving away.  “Yes, Pa will be home tomorrow.  Joe will be too.”  Then he added in a mutter, “Unless Pa kills him tonight.”

There was another pause – this time a minute or so – and then the tarp was pulled back again.  Adam looked in as Joe shifted and poked his head out from underneath the blanket, and then he and Hoss and the woman stranger all broke out laughing.

“What are you laughing at?” Joe pouted.  “Can’t be any funnier than what I see!”

Hoss stepped over and rummaged in the goods in the wagon, coming up at last with a bright shining new grub pan.  He handed it to him.

“If you don’t beat all, little brother.  You act like a devil and come out lookin’ like an angel!”

Joe looked in the pan.  He was covered in white flour dust from head to toe with the exception of two big circles around his eyes.

“Or maybe a coon!” Adam laughed.

Joe looked at them.  Then he looked back at himself.  Then he fell against the ruined flour sacks and laughed until he was exhausted.

When the merriment subsided, the poor woman who had been drawn into their childish interplay rose from the chair where Adam had left her and began gathering up her things.  Adam and Hoss went to help her.  Joe stayed put, sure she didn’t want white dust all over everything.  Besides, his shoulder was hurting pretty bad and, though he wasn’t going to tell his brothers, he doubted he could lift much of anything at the moment.  Leaning over the side of the wagon, he said, “Ma’am, I apologize again.  Sorry you ended up between Hoss and Adam and me.”

The woman had been leaning over, picking up a wrapped package.  He saw her start.  When she straightened up, she looked them over one by one.  “Adam?  Hoss?”  The woman paused.  “So you must be Little Joe?”

He nodded.  “Yes, Ma’am.”

“It’s Miss,” she corrected, “Miss Belle Babylon.”

He exchanged a glance with his brothers.  That name was a brow raiser.

“Welcome to Virginia City, Miss…Babylon,” Adam said. “May I ask what brings you here?”

“You,” she answered.

Adam touched his chest.  “Me?”

She shook her head. “No, all of you. That is, if you are Benjamin Cartwright’s sons.”

“That we are, Madam…Miss Babylon.  How can we help you?”

The lady had gathered all of her goods.  She stood holding them.  “Well, first of all you can help me take my things to the hotel where I’ll be staying.”

“Certainly, Adam answered.  “And then?”

“Then you can take me to see your father.”

“Does Pa know you?” his older brother asked.

She hesitated ever so slightly.  “He knows my mother.  I have a…gift to deliver to him from her.”

“Would we know her, Miss?” Adam asked.

The woman’s blue eyes narrowed.  “How old are you?”

His eldest brother frowned.  “Thirty-one.”

“Then no, you wouldn’t know her.  Your father met my mother before you were born.”  She looked at them again.  “Before any of you were born.”

“When he was a sailor? “ Hoss asked.

She nodded.

“How come he never told us about her?” the big man asked.

“That’s another question I intend to ask your father.”

The three of them looked at each other.  Your pa was…well, your pa..  It was hard, say, to think of him being eighteen years old once upon a time.  Joe leaned back in the flour, thinking about it, wondering if his pa had ever shinnied up a porch post and visited a girl against her family’s wishes, or if he’d ever been chased off with a shotgun and a threat.  Or if…..

The woman was staring at him.  She smiled when she realized he had become aware of it.

“Yes, Miss?” he asked, sitting up.

The smile deepened.  She laughed as she answered.

“You’ll find out soon enough.”

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“Joseph Francis Cartwright!”

Joe winced.  “Yes, Pa?”

“Have you ignored every single thing I have ever taught you about proper behavior and about being a responsible human being?”

Joe shook his head.  “No, Pa.  I got that last part down.”

“The last part?”  His father’s voice was rising like a river toward flood stage.  “About being responsible?”

“About being human, Pa.”

His father began to pace.  “What am I going to do with you, boy? Hog tie you?  Lock you in your room like I would an ornery child?  No, wait.”  His father approached.  Joe was sitting down.  The older man towered over him.  “I’ll just have Roy Coffee lock you in a cell and throw away the key!”

“That wouldn’t do any good, Pa,” Joe answered with a smile.  “I’d just break out.”

“Oh, you would, would you?  And how would you do that?”

“He’d sweet talk the cleaning lady, Pa,” Adam chimed in.

“Or that girl that brings the meals for the prisoners,” Hoss suggested.

“You two,” their pa whirled to look at his brothers who were seated in front of the fireplace, “be quiet!  When you go to town you are responsible for seeing that your brother,” he threw a glance Joe’s way, “behaves.”

“Pa,” Adam protested.  “Joe’s a grown man.”

Their father folded his arms over his chest.  “That isn’t what you told me a moment ago.”

“Well, it’s just Joe doesn’t act like a grown man.”

“More like a ornery bronco if you ask me,” Hoss added, nodding.

Ben Cartwright fixed his middle son with the stare that would have taken down an army of masked robbers.

“I didn’t,” he said.

“Didn’t what, Pa?” the big man inquired.

“Ask you.”

“Oh, yeah…sorry, Pa.”

“Joseph, Joseph, what am I going to do with you?  Last month you almost started a war with the Paiutes.  Now this.”  Ben stroked his beardless chin with his fingers.  “Maybe I’ll send you over to the Makems to help Alvin and his boys with their chores.”

Joe’s eyebrows shot toward his considerable hair.  “Pa, they’ll kill me.”

His father shrugged.  “It might be a relief.”

“Pa!”

Ben Cartwright approached him and laid a hand on his shoulder.  “All levity aside, Joseph, it is time you grew up and accepted the responsibilities of a man.  You want me – you want your brothers to treat you as a man – prove to us that you are one by acting responsibly and facing up to what you have done.”

Joe swallowed over a lump the size of Texas in his throat.  “You want me to go and apologize to Mister Makem?”

“That would be good for a starter.”

“A starter?”

“Joe, think of the way your brothers look out for you.  Now, imagine if you were a girl –”

That elicited snickers from his brothers.

“You call that ‘grown up’, Pa?” he protested.

“Adam.  Hoss.”  His father continued.  “Nellie’s brothers are looking out for her, just like your brothers do for you, Joe, only she’s a girl and as such has to worry about her reputation far more than – ”

“Pa, I kissed her!  And danced with her.  I swear I never – ”

“It’s different with a girl, Joe.  Just seeing Nellie going into the Washoe Club could ruin her reputation and make it impossible for her to find a good man to marry.”  His pa paused.  “Unless, of course, you mean to marry her.”

Joe blinked.  “Pa, I’m only a boy.  You said so yourself.  I’m not old enough to marry anyone.”

“Your pa’s right, Joe,” Belle Babylon said as she appeared on the stairs.  “A woman has to be ten times as pure as a man and twenty times as careful.  One wrong word – one wrong act, and it can mark her for life.”  She arrived at the bottom and turned toward their father.  “Isn’t that right, Benjamin?”

Joe could tell his pa was puzzled.  “Miss Babylon?” he asked.

The woman walked over to them.  When they arrived with her earlier their pa had insisted Adam and Hoss go back into town to retrieve her things.  The least they could do, his father said, was provide her with lodgings to make up for the trouble his boys had caused.  Since her arrival Belle had changed and freshened up.  She was attired in a moss green dress now.  Her long brown hair hung loose and free and fell near to her waist.  It was wavy like his if not quite as curly.

“My mother told me a story of a young man she met long ago.  It must have been in eighteen twenty-seven or twenty-eight.  He was just about your youngest’s age and just as handsome with brown hair and brown brows set over a pair of deep brown eyes.”  She stopped by Joe.   “You look like him, you know?”

Joe frowned. “Like who?”

He glanced at his pa and noted the way the older man was standing had changed.  He seemed anxious, uncertain even.  As Joe watched, his pa took a step forward and caught the back of one of the leather chairs in his hand.  A second later he asked, “Belle, just exactly who is your mother?”

She smiled.  “I thought you’d never ask.  Babylon, of course, is my step-father’s name.  My mother’s name is Persuad.  Jasmin Persuad.”

Their father had gone pale.  “Jasmin….”

“I see you remember her.”  Belle smiled.  “I told your boys I had a package to deliver to you from my mother.”

“Yes?” Ben asked trepidatious.

She spread her arms wide.  “You’re looking at it!  It’s me!” Belle laughed.

The older man scowled.  “What do you mean?”

The stranger walked straight up to him, going toe to toe.  “I mean, Benjamin Cartwright, that I have come to stay.”

“What, here, on the Ponderosa?” he asked.

“Yes, here on the Ponderosa,” she said, reaching out and cupping his cheek with her hand.  “With my pa.”

 

 

 

TWO

It didn’t take long.

If there was one thing Adam Cartwright had learned in his life it was that – after a typhoon – a woman was one of the most powerful forces in nature.  He was standing in the middle of the great room, hands on hips, surveying Belle’s ‘improvements’ to the ranch house.  She’d been with them a little over a week and, slowly, with grace and charm and apologies here and there, taken over – much like he would have expected a sister to do. She said she wanted to help them, to make their lives pleasant.  His father had laughed when he complained just a little bit and told him to give the young lady her head for a while.  ‘Don’t you remember Marie?’ he asked. ‘It’s what a woman does.  She can’t help herself.’

Adam pursed his lips and hung his hands on his hips as he looked around.  There were antimacassars on the backs of all their chairs – small circles made of stiff white crochet work that were meant to protect the leather or fabric from the Roland’s macassar oil both he and Joe used in their hair. Flowers decorated every open surface. She’d added pillows to the chairs and somehow located several sets of white curtains and  managed to hang them in place of the heavy red ones.  He’d come in the day before and found Joe buried under a mound of white fabric, his mouth shut for once since he had a whole paper of pins clenched between his teeth.

The look out of Joe’s eyes had been worth the fuss it caused when he had suggested to Belle – politely – that flowers, frilly lace curtains, and little white doilies were perhaps not the best way to convey strength and potency when meeting with bankers, lawyers, mine owners, and other power brokers of the West.

She’d pooh-poohed his concerns, of course, and put a pin cushion on his arm and told him to hold still or the next pin would go into his arm instead of the filly white valance she was hanging.

He’d tossed a coin with Hoss to see which of them got to ride out with their pa.

He was sure Hoss had cheated.

Adam closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath.  It brought both pleasure and the furrowing of his brow.  The scent of Hop Sing’s cooking made his mouth water – the idea of what Belle was doing to their cook made him want to cry.  While his father might be willing to give the eager young lady her ‘head’, Hop Sing had quite another take on the situation.

A sound made him open his eyes.  It took a second, but then Adam noticed the door had opened a crack.  Joe’s curly brown head poked in.  “Is it safe?”

Adam approached him.  “If you mean by ‘safe’, is ‘sister’ Belle still in the Nevada territory?  No, it’s not safe.”

“Where is she?” Joe asked as he stepped in.

“She’s in the kitchen.”

“With Hop Sing?  No, Adam!  Last night he threatened to return to China if she set foot in his kitchen again.”

“By ‘she’, would you mean the woman who might be our sister?  The one Pa told us to handle with kid gloves?”

Joe scrunched up his nose.

“Well, she’s in there now.”  Adam turned toward the kitchen and listened.  It had gone quiet.  A shiver ran through him.

Maybe Hop Sing was dead.

“Should you or I go check and see if there’s a body?” he asked his little brother, his lips quirking ever so slightly.

“Tarnation, Adam!  What are we going to do about her?  She pinched my cheek today and called me ‘cute’.”

Adam shrugged.  “Well, you are, kind of.”

Joe slapped his arm.  “Have you figured a way to get shy of her yet?”

He shook his head.  “Once again, you know what Pa said.”

His little brother looked like he’d swallowed a bad egg.  “We gotta be nice to her?”

“Joe,” Adam’s tone was serious, “she may be our sister.”

“But Adam, Pa couldn’t have been more than eighteen or so….”

Adam’s dark brows peaked.  “So?”

“But Pa, he’s… Well, he’s not that sort…he’s….pa.”

Adam laughed.  “But he wasn’t ‘pa’ thirty-three years ago.  You know what he’s told us about his ‘misspent’ youth.”

Joe sighed.  “Not much.”

“He’s probably worried about giving you ideas.”  Adam shifted his weight from one foot to the other and stared at his brother.  “I suppose you have been a perfect gentleman with every girl you’ve ever romanced.”

“Course I have!”

“You’ve never gone beyond kissing?  Not once?”

“Adam,” Joe’s cheeks were turning red, “isn’t that kind of a personal question?  What if I asked you the same thing?”

“I’m a bit older than you.”

“And that makes it right?” his baby brother exclaimed.

Adam tugged at his collar.  “Weren’t we talking about Pa?”

Joe laughed.  “We sure were.”

A sudden crash made them both turn their heads in the direction of the kitchen.  Two seconds later Hop Sing burst into the room, his arms and cook’s apron a flutter.

“Hop Sing no cook for Cartwrights anymore!,” he proclaimed.  “Hop Sing no set foot in kitchen while woman is here!  Go live in bunkhouse!”

Adam approached the Chinese man.  “Hop Sing, calm down.  Belle’s just trying to –”

“That woman trying to take over ranch!  She worse than claim jumpers, robbers, and Paiutes combined!”

It was kind of hard to argue with that.  “You just need to be firm with her.”

“Firm?  Firm!”  Hop Sing shook his head.  “I tell her no touch pans.  She touches them.  I tell her leave pans where they are, she rearranges them to look ‘good’.  She tell me what herbs to use, how to prepare the meat, how to fry it on the grill!”  The Chinese man paused.  He reached out and took hold of Adam’s arm.  “Please tell Hop Sing, Mr. Adam, that she go away soon.”

“It’s kind of up to Pa, Hop Sing.”

Their cook’s face fell.  “Your father nice man.”  He gazed back toward the kitchen.  “Too nice.”

“It’s not that Hop Sing,” he hesitated.  “Belle may be….”

Hop Sing shook his head.  “That woman no Mister Ben’s girl.  She no your sister.”

He exchanged a look with Joe.  “Pa told you?”

The cook nodded solemnly.  “You think it could be true?”

“No, it isn’t, Hop Sing,” Joe assured him.

“Joe, we have no way of knowing that.  It’s possible.  That’s why Pa took off for Virginia City to see if he could find anything else out about her, maybe from the people she traveled with on the stage.  Pa’s not denying he knew her mother.”  Adam paused. “You saw his face when he heard her name.”

The three of them stood in silence for a moment, contemplating this act of God, wondering what sin they had committed to deserve such a punishment.

The Chinese man was the first to stir.  “Hop Sing get clothes.  Maybe sail back to China.  Crazy lady cook for you.”

“Adam!  Joe!”  Belle’s voice rang out.

Like the pestilence in the Bible, the darkness was drawing near.

Adam drew a breath.  “Yes, Belle?”

“What happened to that little man?  I didn’t finish instructing him on how to prepare the beef.”

Hop Sing threw his hands into the air and, without his belongings, headed out the door leaving a blistering trail of Chinese words of dubious meaning behind him.

Adam could guess what some of them were.  He’s used them often enough himself since Belle had moved in three days before.

A second later Belle came around the corner.  At the sight of her, Adam had to suck in air.  He hadn’t seen her today.  She’d swept up the most of her hair and locked it in place with a beautiful rhinestone encrusted ivory comb.   The upsweep and the brunette curls that tumbled from it onto her forehead accented her large dark eyes and unusual skin.  It was really the color of honey and he didn’t think it was from the sun.  Her lips were full and slightly pouty but broke readily into a smile.  She was wearing a gold locket and was dressed in a dark blue silk dress that fit her form better than any dress ever had any dressmaker’s form in a ladies’ shop.

Adam shook himself.  What was he thinking?

This could be his sister.

Better derail the train of his thoughts on that track right now.

“Where did he go?” she asked innocently.

“Who?” Joe asked.  “Oh, Hop Sing?  He…he went out to cook for the men in the bunkhouse.”

“Yes,” Adam agreed.  “Hop Sing said he thought you wanted to cook for us tonight.”

She looked a little startled.  “Well, I hadn’t thought about it.  I was just trying to give him some help, poor man.  You know he doesn’t know Cayman from Coriander?”

“If you’re done in the kitchen, Miss, I can go get him and bring him back,” Joe offered.

Belle smiled at him.  “Little Joe.  I’m your sister.  You can stop calling me ‘miss’.  It’s just Belle.”  She looked from one of them to the other.

Joe nodded.  “Belle.”

Adam seconded.  “Yes, er, Belle, perhaps you should go and freshen up in your room?”

“I just came from my room.”

“Well, a woman can’t ever be too fresh,” Joe said and then blanched.  “Sorry..I didn’t mean that…I….”  He paused  “I think I’ll freshen up myself after I get Hop Sing.”  A second later his little brother hightailed it faster than he had ever seen and scooted out the door while tossing another ‘miss’ after him.

That left the two of them alone.

“Where’s Pa?” Belle asked.

That still grated on him.  Still, he had to admit, it could be true, and as such, he would treat it as true until he knew for certain otherwise.  “He went into town with Hoss.”

“What’s he doing in town?”

“Oh, the usual stuff,” Adam said as he moved toward one of the chairs in front of the fire, “checking the wire to see if there have been any posts, picking up mail and supplies.  Visiting friends.”

“Is he checking up on me?”

Adam’s hazel eyes flicked to her face.  “Should he be?”

Belle shrugged.  She planted herself in one of the chairs and spread her skirts wide.  “I guess if I had a stranger land in my house who claimed to be my daughter or son, I would want to check them out.”

“So the thought doesn’t make you nervous?”

She shook her head.  “I am what I said.  Jasmin Persuad’s daughter.”

He sat too.  “That doesn’t prove Pa is your father.”

Belle touched the gold necklace she wore.  She looked at it for a second and then reached up and undid the clasp.  Holding it out, she offered it to him.  “Here,” she said.  “Look inside.”

Adam shook his head.

“I insist.”

Reaching out he took it.  The black-haired man hesitated a moment before opening it.  What he found inside made his breath catch.  The locket contained the portrait of a handsome brown-haired man in a sailor’s coat.  The mass of hair and the shape of his face looked like Joe.  Adam could see himself in the eyes.

There was no mistaking that it was their father.

“It was my mother’s.  She gave it to me before she died.”

He started.  “Your mother is dead?  Did you tell Pa?”

“No.”  She accepted it back from him.  “Not yet.”

“Is that why you came out West?  Are you all alone?”

Belle nodded.  “My mother was not rich, but she left me enough to live in comfort.”  The beautiful woman rose.  “I should leave.  I am causing nothing but trouble here.  I should never have come and expected –”

“Belle.”  Adam stood.  He crossed to her and took her by the hand.  “You have to understand, this is a household of men – Pa, me, Little Joe and Hoss, Hop Sing, and dozens of hands.  It’s been a long time since we’ve had a woman around.  Joe’s mother, Marie, died thirteen years ago.”  He smiled.  “It will just take a little getting used to.”

There were tears in her eyes.  “Really?  You don’t want me to go?”

Adam hesitated.  If Joe were here would he say what he was about to say?

“No, I don’t want you to go.”

A smile broke on her face, lighting it up.  “Oh, Adam!  That is the sweetest thing anyone has said to me in the longest time.  I could just kiss you!”  And she did, right beside his mouth.

He felt her eyelashes flutter against his cheek as she did.

“Belle, I….”  Adam stared at her.  Then he did something inexplicable.

He kissed her – and he meant it.

The funny thing was, Belle wasn’t horrified.  She just looked at him with a curious look in her eyes and then, after drawing a deep breath, rushed past him and flew up the stairs.

Adam remained where he was.  He was disgusted with himself.  This woman could be his sister, for God’s sake!

A second later the door opened and Joe’s head popped in again.  “Psst.”

He sighed.

“Adam, is she gone?”

He turned toward his brother.  “Belle went upstairs.”

“That’s good.  I talked Hop Sing into finishing the cooking.  I snuck him in the side window.  You think she’s gonna come back down tonight?”

He shook his head.  “I doubt it.”

“You mean we can eat our supper in peace and take a drink without crooking our little pinkies out like they’re broke?”

“Yes.”

“How’d you do it Adam?” Joe asked as he came along side him. “Did you do something?”

Joe never knew why that question brought him a slap upside his head.

xxxxxxxxxxoooxxxxxxxxxx

Ben Cartwright closed the door to the telegraph office.  He’d just wired a message to Dayton, Ohio, seeking further information on Belle Babylon.  It seemed her story, so far as she had told it, was true.  She had come into town looking for the Cartwrights and told at least three people  that they were related, even if she hadn’t gone into exactly how.

“You get done what you wanted to, Pa?” his son Hoss asked.

Ben nodded.  “Yes, I sent the message.  From what the stagecoach driver remembered, Belle’s point of origin was Dayton, Ohio.  He said she told one of the passengers that her parents moved there in eighteen-thirty, shortly after she was born.”

Just the thing a young woman would do if she had a child out of wedlock.

She had married Lucius Babylon the next year.

“Are you trying to prove she ain’t who she says she is?”

“Son, I am seeking to verify that she is.”

Hoss removed his hat and ran a hand through his dark blond hair.  “Pa, you think Belle’s really our sister?”

Ben let out a sigh.  “I don’t know.  It’s…possible, I suppose.”

“You and her mother, you…?”

He started to tell his son that that was none of his business.  The problem was – with what was happening – it was.

“I hope you boys are wiser than your old man when it comes to women,” he said with a note of chagrin.

“Did you love her, Pa?”

Ben nodded toward the bench that was butted up against the telegraph office’s wall.  “Let’s sit down, son.”  Once they had, he began.  “I was very young, Hoss.  Just like your baby brother, I thought I was in love with every pretty face I saw – and I knew they were all in love with me.”  He smiled, thinking of his rakish third boy and how alike they were in many ways.  Ben leaned back.  Closing his eyes he thought of Jasmin Persuad.  She had come into Boston on her brother’s ship out of the West Indies to meet her American kin.  He had been a simple sailor then, not advanced yet to first mate as he would be by the time he married Adam’s mother.  Jasmin had been like a warm breeze from the islands.  Her father was white, but her mother was a native of Barbados.  She had looked like a gypsy and had woven a spell from which he had found it nearly impossible to free himself.  In the end it had been Jasmin that had cut it off.  Their dalliance had lasted one week.

It had happened only one time.  Only once.

“I was foolish, Hoss.  If Belle is my child, then I did her mother irreparable harm.”

“But you didn’t know, Pa.  She didn’t tell you.  She coulda.”

Ben shifted.  “Yes, Jasmin could have.  I have to respect her choice whether or not it makes sense to me.  It seems, from what I have been able to find out, that she married this man, Babylon, shortly after Belle was born.  He was a businessman.  Something to do with imports.”

“He musta been a good man, Pa, to accept her and her baby.”

“Yes, Hoss.  That’s some comfort, I suppose.”  Ben patted his son’s shoulder and then rose.  “Come on, we should get back to the ranch.  Belle’s liable to have your brothers wearing their Sunday best and sitting with their elbows off the table.”

“It sure is funny,” Hoss held his hand up and extended his pinky finger, crooking it like an open ‘C’.  “What’s this got to do with drinking tea?”

“It’s got nothing to do with drinking tea, Hoss, and everything to do with a civilized world.  Now, come on.  Let’s get home.”

xxxxxxxxxxoooxxxxxxxxxx

As Ben and Hoss rode out of town they passed the stage coming in from the east.  If they had looked back, they would have seen it roll up and stop and a man step out of it.  It was obvious he was from the city.  He wore a fine tailcoat of dark gray wool and matching trousers with a pair of Contract Brogans.  The Bell Crown top hat on his head was black and beaver with a fine silk band wrapped around it.  His cravat was black as well, the shirt underneath white as snow, and there was a fine silver stickpin decorating his lapel.  He was not a young man, but neither was he old.  He looked to be sixty, but was  in reality closer to fifty.

The choices he had made in life had aged him prematurely.

The man waited as his bags were removed from the stage.  His first order of business would be to meet with the man  he had hired through an agent and give him further instructions.  The man’s campaign was already underway, but Jarvis thought it needed direction.  It appeared, from the wires he had received on his way to Nevada, that McRae was losing his focus.  What the man had done had been, for the most part, necessary, but it was time to go for the prime target.

Oh, yes, it was past time.

In a slow and leisurely manner, to show the inhabitants of this rough, raw, nascent city who was who, he made his way across the street.  These were self-made men here.  Men who thought they were better than the men who had chosen to remain in the east whom they said had done nothing for themselves, but benefitted from hard work of the ones who had come before them.

The stranger paused on the stoop of the hotel and turned south, toward the Ponderosa.

Ben Cartwright was such a self-made man.  Or, rather, the former Yankee had made himself a bed thirty years before that he was going to have to lie in.

Until he put him in the grave.

 

 

 

THREE

“It was sweet of you to bring me into town, Joe.  You and Adam.”  Belle Babylon gave the youngest Cartwright her sweetest smile as the elder son of Benjamin Cartwright offered her a hand and assisted her in climbing out of the wagon.

Joe nodded.  “No trouble, Belle.”

“It was pleasant to have a lady along.  It stopped little brother here from reciting a catalogue of his conquests on the way.”  At Joe’s scowl, Adam smiled  “Give me the money belt, Joe, before you go.”

Belle frowned.  “Oh?  Are you going somewhere else Little Joe?”

Adam’s lips twisted.  “Joe has an errand to run.  I’m going to go to the wire office while he’s gone and see if Pa’s message brought any replies.  We’ll meet back here in a couple of hours to finish with the supplies.”

“Don’t you forget about checking in with Deputy Clem too,” his brother said.  “Pa wants to know about those Indians, and if anybody knows where they are.”

The black-haired man bit back his amusement.  Joe wasn’t telling him what to do – he was delaying the inevitable.

A confrontation with Alvin Makem.

Adam laid a hand to Cochise’s bridle.  His brother’s Paint horse was tethered behind the wagon.  “You sure you want to go alone, Joe?  If you want to wait, I’d be more than happy to go with you.”

Joe shook his head.  “You heard what Pa said.  If I want you and Hoss to treat me like a man, I gotta start acting like one.  It was my fault that Nellie got in trouble and its mine to fix.”  Joe hopped from the wagon and approached him.  “I should be back in an hour or so,” he said as he accepted Cochise’s reins.

“If you aren’t, I make you a promise I will come looking for you.”  Adam held up his hand.  “Not because you aren’t a man and can’t handle it, but because Alvin Makem is mean as a rattlesnake and just about as dangerous when riled.  And that’s saying nothing for his boys.”  Joe had mounted.  Adam touched his brother’s gray pants leg above the boot.  “You be careful.”

Joe favored him with that smile he had – bold as brass, cocky, and chagrined all at one and the same time.  He tipped his black hat back.  “Later, big brother.”

As Adam stood watching Joe ride away, Belle came to his side.  She stood there a second and then said, “You really love him, don’t you?”

Adam shrugged. “We’re brothers.”

The lovely woman made a small dismissive sound.  “That doesn’t mean anything.  I know plenty of brothers whose only purpose in life is to best the one older than them, or belittle the youngest.”

“Sounds like you’ve made the acquaintance of some charming people.”

“As an only child I had plenty of opportunity as an outsider to observe my friends and their siblings.  Your relationship, Adam, with your brothers is inspiring.”

He laughed.  “Don’t let Hoss or Joe hear you say that.  I’d never live it down.”

“It’s true.”

He nodded.  He and his brothers did have an extraordinary love for one another.  In his opinion that said more about their father than them.  Though he thought now and then that Joe was a little favored in that his father let his youngest brother get by with things that he or Hoss would have been tarred and feathered for, he knew his father loved them equally.  He had never given them any reason for jealousy.

“You know what else is true, Belle?” Adam asked.

“What?”

“The day is fast flying.  I need to get to the wire office and then back to the store.  Do you want to come with me?  I can escort you to the hotel for that drink after that.”

She smiled.  “Like Little Joe, I can take care of myself.  You go ahead.  I’ll get my own sarsaparilla and wait for you on the porch.”

He tipped his hat.  “I won’t be long.”

xxxxxxxxxxoooxxxxxxxxxx

“Take your time,” Belle  called after Adam as he walked away.  She watched him go, noting the way he held himself, with a tiny little hunch to his shoulders that rolled him forward as if he was a man on a mission.  He was a handsome figure of a man, especially when – like now – he was dressed all in black.  His hair was like a raven’s wings, ebony, glistening, and that smile….  Little Joe’s smile always held mischief, Hoss’s, deep feeling.  Adam’s was a mystery.

Like the man.

Belle drew a deep breath.  The feelings coursing through her weren’t for a sister of the man.  Of course, she had met Adam at thirty-one and not even known he existed six months ago.  It was hard to think of him as a brother.

But necessary.

She watched until Adam entered the wire office and then turned to go to the hotel.  The people of Virginia City were cautious, but friendly.  By now some of them were aware of the claim she made.  There would be suspicions that she was lying and, at the same time, snickering that Benjamin Cartwright had a child he knew nothing of.  She really didn’t want to cause the older man any trouble.  Her mother had loved him until the day she died.  She had grown up with tales of the handsome young sailor who had turned Jasmin’s head and who she, in turn, pretended not to love.  Her mother was not a Christian woman.  She had been with many men.  Jasmin knew what that would do to a man like him.  And so, she had pretended the entire affair had been a lark and sent him away.   Benjamin had been on shipboard when her mother found she was pregnant.  Out of love, she had made the choice not to reveal her pregnancy to him, not to seek him out or to try to trap him.

Belle wondered what her life might have been if she had.  She glanced in the direction Adam had taken.  She could have been elder sister to three wonderful brothers.  She would have had a family.

Belonged.

With a sigh Belle lifted her skirts and took a step up onto the boards out front of the hotel.  As she approached the door, a man stepped into her path, barring her entry.  She looked up and gasped.

It was him.

How had he found her?.

The man tipped his black top hat.  “Belle, imagine meeting you here.”

“J…Jarvis Barrot,” she stuttered.  “What are you doing here?”

“I had business in Virginia City.”

“What business?” she asked, suspicious.

He moved toward her, coming so close she grew uncomfortable.  Without asking permission, Jarvis took her chin in his fingers.  “You, of course.”

She jerked her head away.  “I told you I wanted nothing to do with you.  Ever.”

He shrugged.  “We all change our minds.”

“Not me,” she insisted.  “If I am your only business here, you can just leave.”

“Now, what would your father say if he knew his old business partner left such an innocent as you without protection in this rough and wild frontier town?”

“My father fired you.”

“No, he didn’t.”  A sinister tone colored Jarvis’s words with menace.  “He tried.  In the end, I fired him.”

She had always suspected that Jarvis Barrot had something to do with her father’s death, but had never been able to prove it.  Belle’s jaw grew tight.  She considered the risk for a moment, and then asked, “Jarvis, why are you really here?”

The elegantly dressed man pulled his gloves off and tucked them behind his waistband.  He removed his top hat and wiped sweat from his forehead, and then cast a glance at the wooden bench butted up against the store.  “It’s passing hot.  Shall rest our weary bodies for a bit?”

“I don’t intend to be here that long.”

“A shame,” he said as he moved to the bench and sat down.  “You can run, but I will be here when you return.  Belle, you know you can’t escape me.”

She had hoped…. Well, she had thought she might find protection at the Ponderosa.

With a sigh she crossed over to him.  “Jarvis, what do you want from me?”

“The same as ever, Belle.  I want you with me.”

“So you can have what my father worked for, what you failed to take away from him by deceit and fraud!” she snapped.  “You don’t love me.  You just want to possess me like everything else of my father’s.  You couldn’t have my mother, so you want me!”

He stood up, his eyes cold as a cobra’s about to strike.  “I couldn’t have your mother because she loved another man – and he wasn’t your father.  Or,” Jarvis paused, “was he?”

“You leave Benjamin Cartwright out of this!”

Jarvis came even closer.  “I would have, Belle, but you made a choice.  You brought Cartwright and his sons into this.  If anything happens, it will be your fault.”

A shiver ran through her.

He meant it.

“Jarvis, I –”

“Belle, is this man giving you trouble?” a strong male voice asked from close behind her.  She didn’t have to turn.

It was Adam.

“No.  Mister Barrot and I are of old acquaintance.  He just happens to be in Virginia City on business.”

“I spotted Belle heading into the hotel and thought we might enjoy a drink together.  Perhaps you would like to join us, Mister….”

Adam held out his hand.  His next words doomed him.

“Adam.  Adam Cartwright.”

“Of the Cartwrights?  The ones who own the big spread here in Nevada?”

“That would be us.”  Adam’s suspicions were aroused.  “And what is it brings you here, Mr. Barrot.”

“Please, call me Jarvis.  I am an importer, Mr. Cartwright.  I was once in business with Belle’s dear departed father.  We brought goods from the West Indies to the States among other things.  I am here in Virginia City to see if I can make contacts to extend my own company into the West.”  Belle felt Jarvis’ eyes land on her for a second before returning to Adam.  “Perhaps your father would be interested?”

“It depends on the goods,” Adam said.  “You’re welcome to come out to the Ponderosa to talk to Pa.  Belle’s staying with us.  We could have supper together.”

“I would like that,” Jarvis said.  “I’m staying here at the hotel.  I would be willing to come to your place or, if your father plans on being in town, we could meet in my rooms.”

“I’ll mention it to Pa.  One way or the other, we’ll get word to you.”  Adam turned toward her.  “Would you still like that drink, Belle?”

She shook her head.  “I’m tired.  I’d like to go home.”

Adam turned to the south.  “I hate to leave before Little Joe gets back.  It should be any time now.”

“Your brother?” Jarvis asked.

“One of them.  Joe rode out to one of the neighboring farms to take care of something.”  Adam looked at the sun and frowned.  “Belle, maybe it would be best if Mister Jarvis accompanies you into the hotel.  I have to finish packing the supplies and if Joe’s not here in half an hour, I plan on riding out to find him.”

“Do you really think Mister Makem would harm Little Joe?” she asked, fighting with herself over whether to say ‘yes’ or not.  She had grown quite fond of Joe with his ebullient spirit and winning smile.

“Like I said, Alvin Makem’s mean as a snake and he has a whole brood of viper sons to back him up.  I don’t think they would do Joe serious harm, but I wouldn’t put it past them roughing him up.”

“Really?” she blinked.

“The West is honest, but brutal, my dear,” Jarvis said softly.  “One never knows, when one steps out the door, whether he will live to see another sunrise.  If a man survives the incredible heat and the deadly creatures, he is bound to be taken down by the deadliest creature of all – man.”

“That’s quite a description, Jarvis,” Adam remarked quietly.  “Not one for the travel brochures.”

“It is true, is it not?”

“For the most part,” the eldest Cartwright brother conceded.  “But there is beauty here as well, and kindness.”

“Well,” Jarvis said, turning to look at her, “let us hope it is the latter your little brother has encountered.”  He offered Belle his arm.  “Belle?”

She looked at this man she loathed and then back to Adam.  The worry was evident on his face.  “Go find Joe,” she said at last.  “You won’t rest until you do.  I’ll wait in the hotel until you get back.”

“Thank you, Belle.  Thanks to you too, Mister Barrot,” Adam said.  As he headed for his horse that was tethered in front of the store, he added, “I owe you one.”

As she watched him go, Jarvis came up close behind her.  “You should have straightened him out, Belle.”

She looked over her shoulder at the man who had destroyed her family.  “What do you mean?”

Jarvis’s voice was pitched low and full of menace.

“He and his family own me more than one.”

xxxxxxxxxxoooxxxxxxxxxx

He’d done his best.  He’d tried to explain.  Joe looked at the solid wall of Makems before him and swallowed hard.

If he wasn’t dead by nightfall it would be a miracle tantamount to Moses parting the Red Sea.

Nellie Makem was watching out her second story window, pulling the curtains back and waving, doing everything in her power to draw attention to herself.  If the truth were known – and he knew it for sure – Nellie had gone with him into the Club as much to defy her father and brothers as she had because she was sweet on him.  That was why her pa sat down on her so hard.  He wasn’t her only beau, not by a long shot.

He just happened to be the one who got caught.

“Mr. Makem,” Joe began, trying again, “Nellie wanted to dance, so I took her into the Millionaire Club.  I realize now that wasn’t such a good idea.  I –”

“So now you’re blaming our Nellie,” Alvin Makem growled.  “It was her fault that you two went into that den of iniquity?”

Five male voices growled in chorus with him.  The Makems were tall as the Ponderosa pines and twice as tough.  Even the youngest, who was only a year older than him, was an inch taller and about twenty pounds heavier than he was.  They’d been in school at the same time and, though they’d never been friends, he and Jimmy had never had anything to quarrel about either.

Until now.

“No, sir.  It was my fault entirely.”  Joe was holding his hat.  He ringed it nervously with his fingers.  “I didn’t mean it to sound like that.  I just meant to say that Nellie wanted to dance and the Club was the only place I could think of to take her.”

“How do we know you didn’t take her upstairs, Cartwright?” Robert, the oldest Makem son, demanded as he came to stand before and tower over Joe.  “You was seen comin’ out of one of the windows on the floor them hussies use.”

“I sent Nellie out the back door.  You know that, Rob,” Joe answered, feeling just a little defensive.  “I may have made a mistake, but I wouldn’t have done anything to harm Nellie.”

“Mistake, eh?  That your definition of ruinin’ a girl’s reputation so no decent man will have her?”

“Nellie’s not ‘ruined’, Rob.  She’s a beautiful girl.  No reasonable man is going to reject her because she was seen walking into the Club.”  His temper was rising.  “Respectable people go in there every day!”

Joe heard the sound of a trigger being cocked.  “You watch your tone, boy,” Alvin Makem warned.

“Mister Makem, I’m sorry,” Joe replied.  “It’s just that Rob’s being unreasonable –”

“He speaks for all of us, Cartwright,” Ned, the third son said.

“Okay, look, I’ve tried my best.”  Joe slammed his hat on his head.  “It’s no use talking to you people.  You have my apology.  Take it or leave it as you want.  I’m heading back to town.”

No one said anything.  No, that wasn’t right.  Someone did.

Nellie.

She’d opened the window and leaned out of it.  Waving a silk handkerchief, she cried, “I love you Little Joe.  You tell that mean old snake of a pa that he can’t do nothing to keep us apart!”  To emphasize her point she let the silk hankie float to the ground.

It landed at her father’s feet.

Nellie might as well have waved a red flag and shouted, “Charge!”

Joe sensed the attack coming ten seconds before it happened.  There was no chance to get to Cochise who was tethered some twenty feet away in front of the Makem’s stable before Nellie’s brothers reached him.  Out of those ten seconds, he had about two to think.

They were all he needed.

Turning away from the advancing wall of retribution and unrighteous indignation, Joe bolted into the trees and began to run for all he was worth.

xxxxxxxxxxoooxxxxxxxxxx

Adam Cartwright drew his horse Scout to a halt.  Dismounting, he tethered the animal in front of the Makem’s log house and then stood there, debating what to do.  He didn’t see Joe’s horse, so maybe his brother had come and gone.  Still, he hadn’t passed him on the road.  He took a moment to pat Scout and feed him a treat, and then Adam headed for the front door.

Before he could get there, a gruff voice called out, “You looking for something Cartwright?”

The black-haired man pivoted.  “Alvin, yes, I’m looking for my brother.”

Which brother?”

“Joe.  He was coming out to see you, to apologize for what happened with Nellie.”

Alvin had some sort of tool in his hand.  He went back to cleaning it as he said, “Ain’t seen him.”

“What?  Not at all?”

The older man’s eyes moved to his face.  “You callin’ me a liar, Cartwright?”

“I’m just surprised.  Joe’s been gone for hours.  I don’t know where he would have gone if he didn’t come here.”

“Try any house that’s got a female in it.  You know, Cartwright, your pa needs to take a whip to that randy son of his.  Teach him good how to respect a woman.”

Adam bit back both his anger and the words he wanted to say.  It was well known that Nellie Makem was well on her way to being anything but a respectable woman.  Still, arguing would get him nowhere.

“Joe’s young, Alvin, and impulsive.  He makes mistakes, but he’s always willing to admit to them and make it right.  That’s why he was headed here.”

“Ain’t nothin’ gonna make it right but that brother of yours staying away from my Nellie permanent-like, if you take my meaning.”

Adam’s eyes flicked to Alvin Makem’s hands.  It wasn’t a tool he was polishing, it was a gun.

Adam drew a breath.  “Alvin, I hope you haven’t done anything foolish.”

I ain’t done nothing.  Now why don’t you be on your way, Adam Cartwright.  I got a lot of work to get me done before the sun goes down.”

“All right,” Adam said, adding before he turned back toward his horse.  “If Joe shows up, I want you to let him know I was here looking for him.”

“I’ll do that.”

Adam mounted Scout and turned the horse’s nose toward the Ponderosa.  Five minutes out, he couldn’t do it.  There had been something in Alvin Makem’s demeanor that suggested the older man was being less than truthful.  Tethering Scout just off the road, Adam walked back through the trees and arrived at the Makems’ home where he hugged the shadows and crouched down to wait.  Alvin Makem was standing at the pump, getting a drink of water.  As he watched, the older man turned and entered the stable.  He could hear him speaking to the horses.  Probably getting them bedded down for the night.

Ten minutes later the door to the stable opened.  Alvin stepped out and looked around and then returned inside.  A moment later he left it, leading a piebald horse.

Adam’s heart dropped to his boots.

It was Cochise.

 

 

FOUR

Hoss Cartwright reined in his horse and dismounted.  Tethering Chubb in front of the mercantile, he walked over to the wagon sitting out front of it and checked its contents.

It sure enough was theirs.  He’d read the shopping list.

With one hand on his hip and the other tilting his hat back, Hoss looked in every direction.  It was late night and the town was jumping like jack rabbits.  Adam and Joe could be anywhere.  The big man turned back toward the wagon.  The odd thing was, neither Scout nor Cochise were in sight.  He couldn’t figure why his brothers would have stabled their horses, but left the wagon here in plain sight for any ne’er-do-well to walk off with.

He and his pa had eaten supper together.  All the while the older man’s eyes had been on the two empty plates.  It was something they’d grown sort of used to with Joe, but Adam missing, well, that was a horse of another color.  His pa had wanted to come to town with him, but there’d been word the renegade Indians had been spotted on their land just south of Virginia City.  They’d set out together with about a half-dozen hands, but parted company about an hour out of town

After thinking about it, Hoss decided to go to the saloon first.  Adam was right sensible and he couldn’t imagine him taking off with Joe to gamble or sweep the floor with a couple of pretty ladies when there were chores waiting at home, but then again, he’d surprised him before.  Hoss had seen his cool, slow-thinking and slower to anger brother go against their father’s wishes.  Adam’d flown off the handle more than a few times.  He’d even had to take him and pin his arms back now and again to keep him from popping someone in the nose.

Hoss smiled.  Older brother would never admit it, but you sure could tell by his temper sometimes that he and Joe were related.

It just took Adam a lot longer to boil over.

As he approached the saloon, the big man stopped.  Thinking it through, he changed his mind and decided to head for the hotel instead.  Belle had been with his brothers and sure as shootin’ they hadn’t towed her along to any saloon.  The most likely case was that they were eatin’ a late supper together. If he’d had the chance, and a pretty gal like that Belle on his arm, he would have taken her to the finest hotel and shown her a good time – sister or not.  Hoss removed his hat and scratched his head.  It had been hard at first, acceptin’ Belle.   And, silly as it was, harder to admit that their pa might have been capable of what she claimed.  Their Pa’d read the Bible and the riot act to them hundreds of times, making sure they knew how to treat a woman.

That thought brought Little Joe to mind again.

He’d never considered it before.  Maybe Little Joe and Pa butted heads the most because they were the most alike.

Shaking his head and snorting laughter, Hoss headed for the hotel.

When he was halfway there, a woman stepped out of the door.  At first she failed to notice him.  When she did, she cried, “Hoss!  Thank goodness!”

The big man waited as Belle fairly flew across the street to his side.  Her eyes were wild and she was out of breath as she took him by the arm.

“Hoss…Hoss…I….”

“You take your time, Belle.  Draw in some air afore you – ”

“There’s no time!”  She gripped his arm.  “I know something terrible has happened to either Adam or Little Joe, or maybe both!”

“Beggin’ your pardon, Belle, but you ain’t had much acquaintance with those two.  They can get into a peck of trouble quicker than a starving man can go through a steak.  I wouldn’t worry too much.”  He thought about the missing horses.  “Looks like they might of taken off together.”

“No.”

“No?” he repeated.

Belle shook her head.  “No.  Joe went on his errand – the one to Makems.  When he didn’t come back, Adam rode out to look for him.  It’s going on two hours now since he left.”  She paused.  “Adam looked very worried.”

“Most times when there’s somethin’ has to do with my baby brother and women, there’s cause to worry,” he admitted, starting to worry himself.

She smiled.  “If I were ten or twelve years younger, I’d be in line.”

“Yeah, Little Joe has that effect on most pretty ladies,” he admitted with a snort.

“What about Adam?”

Hoss looked at her.  It was dark and Belle’s face was half-masked, but there’d been something in her voice – something that hinted at an interest in his older brother that was anything but sisterly.

“Most the time Adam’s no problem – unless you stick him with Joe.”

“And you’re the middleman?”

“Pretty much, I guess.”  He shrugged.  “Someone’s got to keep them two from killing one another.  There’s men aplenty around here who would do it for them.”

“Are you and your family disliked that much then?” she asked, surprised.

“There’s them that don’t cotton to us, part-wise as we’re outsiders.  You know, we don’t live in the city.”  He hesitated, not wanting what he said to come out wrong.  “Mostly, it’s because of Pa.”

She was astonished.  “People don’t like Benjamin Cartwright?”

“Some do, Belle.  They like him a lot.  But there’s others…mostly wealthy men who ain’t honest, who’d cheat a settler out of their land or a cowhand of his hard-earned pay without breakin’ stride.  You see, pa has a high sense of justice and he don’t believe in compromisin’.  That’s puts him on the other side of a good many people.”

Belle’s pretty face reflected her thoughts.

“Is somethin’ botherin’ you Belle?  I mean, asides worry for Adam and Joe?”

For a moment it seemed she would tell him.  Then,  “No, Hoss.  Nothing else.”

The big man thought furiously for a moment.  “I can’t rightly take you out into the night and the unknown.  Can you stay at the hotel until I get back from the Makems?”

A little sigh escaped her.  “I’d rather not, but I will if I must.  I don’t want you to delay enough to take me back to the Ponderosa.”

“How’s ‘bout I go to the saloon and see if I can round up one or two of our ranch hands who ain’t had too much to drink.  They can take you and the wagon back.  That sound okay”

Belle glanced over her shoulder at the hotel door.  He thought he saw her shiver.  It might have been the cool night air.  “That would be wonderful.”

Hoss stepped forward and took Belle by the arm.  “You come with me,” he said, sensing her need  “We’ll hitch Chubb up to the wagon and you can wait in it while I go inside.”

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Lantern in hand, Ben Cartwright knelt on the ground and searched it for clues.  Unfortunately, it did little good.  They would have to wait until first light to see whether the small band of Indians had been heading toward the Ponderosa or away from it toward Virginia City.  While his men searched the land, he had interviewed the settlers who had seen the natives passing through.  From their description he believed the band was Ute and led by an old warrior named White Crow, though there was no way to be sure.  If these renegades were of the Ute tribe, most likely they were after horses – which made it even more important that they be driven off the land.  There was a large stock of horses at the Ponderosa right now, fresh from a recent purchase.  For an Indian tribe that specialized in horse mounted combat, the animals would be a temptation too great to resist.

The older man rose and turned toward the west.  The sun was nearly down.  Already the forest pathways and even the road were black with shadows. It was time for supper and a few hours of sleep.  Nothing would be gained from pushing themselves further tonight.

“Hank!” Ben called out.

One of the ranch hands, a tall lanky man with blond hair and a scruffy beard, appeared.  “Yes, Mister Cartwright?”

“Call the men in.  There’s no point in continuing.  We’ll start again in the morning.”

Hank smiled and tipped his hat.  “Yes, sir, Mister Cartwright.  I don’t know about you but I’m saddle sore and weary to the bone.”

He had pulled the men out of one of the far pastures where they had been rounding up cattle.  They had already put in a full day when he called on them to accompany him.  “I’m grateful you came, Hank.  You and the others.”

Hank must have heard something in his voice.  “You’re missing your boys.”

Ben laughed.  “Is it that obvious?”

“To another father.  Sure is.”  Hank was around forty.  His oldest was a few years younger than Joe.  The family lived close to Reno and Hank often went months without seeing them.  “My boy’s nigh on as tall as I am now.  Another year or two and he’ll be a man.”

“I’m sure he’ll be a good one, Hank.  You’re a good man.”

“Thank you, sir.”  Hank paused.  “Remind me why the boys didn’t come with you?”

“Joe and Adam went to town for supplies.  Hoss and I were riding there to see why they were late getting back.  That’s when Jeb Miller found us and told us about the Indians that had been spotted.”

“Hoss went to find Adam and Little Joe then?”

Ben nodded.  “Joseph had to ride out to one of the neighboring farms.  He had a mistake to remedy.  Adam was to wait for him in town and then they were to come back to the ranch.”

Hank smiled.  “I like Joe, but he does have a tendency to leap before he looks.”

“One day I think that boy will be quite a man.”  Ben laughed. “I just hope I live long enough to see it!”

“What mistake did he have to remedy?  If you don’t mind my asking.”

“No.  No.  Youthful hi-jinks.  Joe took Nellie Makem dancing after her father warned him to keep away from her.”

Hank’s blond brows shot up toward the shock of hair hanging down on his forehead.  “Nellie Manning?  Old Alvin’s girl?  How’d Joe get mixed up with her?”

Ben noted something in the ranch hand’s tone.  “She’s a pretty girl.  For Joseph, that’s all it takes.”

Hank shook his head.  “That father of hers.  He’s mean as a snake.”

“Alvin?  Oh, I don’t know.”  Alvin and his family had been in the area about six years before.  They lived a good eight miles outside of town and so kept mostly to themselves.  He and Alvin had met at town hall meetings and shared a couple of beers.  “He’s a hard man, but always seemed fair enough.”

“That was afore his wife died.”

How had he missed that?  “When did Anna die?”

“Last winter.  Since then he’s kept that young filly of his close as the grave.  Some might say too close.  Nellie’s champing at the bit and straining the lead like a wild colt.  Some say she’ll do anything to upset her old man, and the less control he has over her, the more control he tries to have over everyone else.”

“What about his boys?”

“Same thing.  Old Cote here,” he indicated one of the hands sitting by the fire, “he just said ‘hello’ to her and Ed and Rob wiped the street up with him.”

Ben fought to control his rising fear.  Adam had gone with Joe, and though he intended to leave him and remain in town, if his brother failed to return he knew his eldest would have gone looking for him.

“I’m sorry, Mister Cartwright,” Hank said.  “I didn’t mean to lay another burden on your shoulders.  I’m sure Little Joe’s okay.”

“Yes, yes, I’m sure you’re right.  The boys will probably come riding in, in the morning.”  The older man clapped his hand on Hank’s shoulder.  “Now go and call the other hands in and get some shut eye yourself.”

Hank nodded and disappeared into the darkness.

Ben’s eyes followed him, going even farther north toward Virginia City.  He couldn’t believe, no matter how hard Alvin Makem had grown, that he or his boys would hurt a young man just for dancing with his girl. From what Hank said, the whole thing was probably Nellie’s fault.  He’d been hard on Joe.  Probably too hard.  There were times when he looked at his youngest son that he saw himself.  He just didn’t want Joseph – or any of the boys – to make the same mistakes he had.

Like growing infatuated with a beautiful woman such as Jasmin Persuad.

With a shake of his head, Ben crossed to Buck and removed his bedroll from the back of the saddle where he had it anchored.  No matter what, there was nothing he could do about it tonight.  God alone knew what tomorrow would bring.

The best thing he could do was be prepared.

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For some reason Hoss dismounted and walked the remaining half mile to the Makems’ place towing Chubb behind him.  When a man lived in the West, he learned to heed that voice deep down inside him.  Sometimes it was a quiet voice that gave warning of a fork in the road that was best not taken, or of something lying in wait around the bend.

Other times, like now, it fairly shouted.

Just as the Makem’s house came into view he heard his brother Adam’s voice.  “Hoss, get down!”

Ducking instantly, he slipped into some brush beside the path.  “Where are you?” he called back.

“To your left.  Tether Chubb and then come over here.  I’m about ten feet in and the same up.”  There was a pause, as Adam waited for him to tie up his horse.  A second later his brother said, “Now!”

Without hesitation Hoss crossed the open gap and then worked his way through the trees until he was at Adam’s side.  “What you doing hidin’ in here?” he asked him.

Adam indicated the area of the Makem’s stable with a nod.  “Take a look.”

The big man looked.  “That’s Cochise!  What’s Alvin doing with him.”  A second later he added, “Have you seen Joe?”

“No.”  Adam turned toward him.  “Alvin Makem just told me, not fifteen minutes ago, that Joe hadn’t been here.”

Fear for his brother fueled him.  “Well, then, let’s go ask him again.  He’ll tell me!”

Adam’s hand on his arm stopped him from rising.  “I don’t think it’s as simple as that, Hoss.  For one thing, even though Cochise is here, it doesn’t prove anything.  Makem can just say he was mistaken and Joe went out with one of his boys.”

“And for another thing?”

Adam shook his head. “I don’t understand it, but Alvin Makem definitely threatened Joe’s life.”

Hoss felt a knot big as his fist in his stomach.  “Kill him?  Whatever for?  For dancing with his girl?”

“There’s something not right with Alvin.  I don’t know him well, but he was definitely a different man from the last time we talked.  His boys weren’t much better.”

“You know them boys, Adam.  They do whatever their pa tells them.  ‘Cept maybe the youngest.  Jimmy’s always had a mind of his own.”

“And he’s the one closest to Joe.”  Adam turned back.  “Maybe that’s one slim thread of hope.”

Hoss came up beside him and looked.  “Dang it!  If Alvin ain’t takin’ Cochise out to hide him.”

Alvin Makem was leading their brother’s horse into the trees beside the house.

“Come on.  Let’s follow him,” Adam said.

Cautiously, they moved out of the protection of the trees and, hugging the shadows, followed in Alvin Makem’s wake.  As they drew abreast the house the door flew open and a very frazzled Nellie Makem flew out of it.

“Hoss!  Adam!!  You gotta save Joe!” she shouted as she ran.  “My pa and my brothers are gonna kill him!”

Adam caught her by the arms.  “Nellie.  Calm down.  If you want to help Joe, you need to calm down!”

“But –”

“You gotta listen to Adam, Nellie,” Hoss agreed.  “Take a breath and then tell us what you know.”

Adam waited a moment and then asked, “Did your father or your brothers hurt Joe?”

The blonde girl blinked, suddenly frightened for her family as well.  “No.  They was going to, but he ran away.”

“Joe got away?”

She nodded toward a gap in the trees, close to the place where Alvin Makem had just disappeared.  “He ran through there, but they was right on his heels.”

“Nellie,” Adam said.  He waited for her to meet his eyes.  “I need an honest answer.  Do you really think your father and brothers mean to harm Joe, or just teach him a lesson?”

“Maybe they’re just gonna rough him up?” Hoss asked, hopefully.

Nellie looked down and then up again.  Her jaw was tight and there were tears in her eyes.  “My pa ain’t been right since mama died.”

“When did your mother die, Nellie?” the black-haired man asked, surprised.  “We didn’t hear of it.”

“No one did.”  She shivered in his grip.  “It was winter and pa didn’t even bury her for a week or so.  He just sat there, holding her hand while….”

“Good God!”  Adam exclaimed.

“After that, well, he got right funny with me.”  She met his gaze again.  “When he had too much to drink he’d call  me by her name, and things like that.  When he was sober he knew I wasn’t her, but Pa started locking me in my room, keeping me away from town.”

“And boys like Joe.”

She nodded.  “I started sneaking out.  It was the only way I could ever do anything.  I had Joe come get me the other night so I could escape for just a little while.”  Her head went down.  “It was me talked him into going into the Millionaire Club.  He knew it weren’t right.”

Hoss met his brother’s stare.  “That’s little brother,” the big man said with a sigh.

“Yes, disobedient, mule-headed, and chivalrous as ever.”  Adam sighed.  Turning back to Makem’s girl, he asked, “Nellie, do you have any idea where your kin would taken Joe, if they managed to catch him?”

She shook her head.  Then a thought seemed to enter it.  “I imagine Pa was taking Joe’s horse down to the shack we have beside the Little River.  I don’t know if they’d take Joe there too.”

“Thank you, Nellie.  Come on, Hoss,” Adam said, drawing his gun.  “I think it would be expedient to move quickly.”

The big man nodded.  As he began to follow his brother, Nellie Makem caught his arm.  Hoss turned back.

“Yes, Miss?”

Her eyes were wide with the knowledge of the events her foolishness had put in motion.  “Are you gonna kill them?”

“Who’s that, Nellie?”

“My pa and my brothers.”

Pain and fear were evident in her voice.  Hoss tried to ease them both.  “Well, Nellie, we’re gonna try our darndest not to.  It’s mostly up to your Pa and your brothers what happens.”  He paused.  “But you gotta understand – we cain’t let them hurt Little Joe.”

“Hoss?” Adam called.

“Comin’ big brother.”  Hoss covered the girl’s tiny hand with his own.  “Now you go back inside, Miss Nellie, where you’re safe.”

“Isn’t there something I can do?” she protested.

He lifted his hand.  “It might not hurt to say a prayer or two while your waitin’ for Little Joe and your kin.”

As Nellie headed into the house, Hoss turned and followed his brother into the trees.

Whispering a prayer or two himself.

 

 

FIVE

Joe thought about that wolf he and his brothers had been tracking a few days back.  It had been the three of them against the one of him.  At the time all he could think of was what an advantage that was, having the three of them there to circle him, tighten the net, and pin him down.

Now, with the Makem boys closing in, he was thinking about the wolf’s point of view.

From the time he’d left the open area in front of the Makem’s house until now, he’d been on the move.  He hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast and while he not about to faint or fall down, he was feeling it.  The edge he usually had was dulled by fatigue and hunger and he was worried he’d make a mistake.  The Makem boys, on the other hand, showed no signs of slowing down.  He could hear them now.  They were close.  They were beating the brush and every once in a while one of them took a shot, as if they fired blind into the tall grasses hoping to hit him.  As he held still, listening,  he heard one of them shout.  He thought it was Ned.  What part of his words the wind carried to him seemed to indicate that Ned thought he had seen him.  As the Makem brothers’ voices converged, Joe headed in the opposite direction toward the wide stream that cut through the back of Makem’s property.  They called it the Little River even though it was just a wide stream.  He and Jimmy had had some good times fishing and swimming there four or five years back.

Joe darted between trees and crawled through grass for ten minutes or so before ducking down behind a clump of bushes.   By the time he did, he was breathing hard and his head had grown light.  Though he was doing his best to ignore it, fear had a tenacity that stuck it to a man’s bones and he couldn’t shake the fact that the men pursuing him wanted to hurt him.  He really couldn’t see Rob or Ned Makem as a murderer, but he knew they believed in their pa and whatever Alvin Makem had told them had them madder than wet hornets.

They were out for blood.

Another shout brought Joe’s head up.  It was even farther away than the first one.  He thought it was Sam, one of the middle boys.  That accounted for three of them and left Jimmy and Moore as wild cards.  He didn’t really think Jimmy would hurt him, but as the youngest brother he would have little or no control over what his older brothers or father did.

So, where was Moore?

Joe held his breath and listened.  Night had fallen, so he couldn’t see his pursuers, but then that also meant they couldn’t see him.  Even though he wanted to fly fast as he could, he heard his oldest brother’s calm voice in his head telling him to go slow and stay low.  The only way they could catch him was if he made too much noise, so he had to be sure he didn’t.  What saved him, could send him to his grave as well.  One stick snapped underfoot, one cough or sneeze, and they would have him.

“Cartwright!  We know you’re out there!  You cain’t get away.  Why don’t you give yourself up?”

It was Robert again.  He must have slipped around the back and come in on the other side.

“That’s right, Joe.  You ain’t gonna get away,” Ned added, his voice coming at a forty-five degree angle to his brother’s.  “We’ve got you surrounded.”

Joe swallowed hard.  They had him ringed in.

Just like the wolf.

The Makems were closing in; their voices drawing closer with each pounding beat of his heart.

“We’re all around you, Cartwright.  Ain’t no place for you to go!”

Joe sucked in air.  They were right about him being surrounded, but they were dead wrong about him having no place to go.

There was always the river.

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Ben Cartwright had left his men behind to look for the Indians.  He knew he could trust Hank to see it done right.  There was a feeling in his gut that he couldn’t let go of and it told him that he needed to get back to the ranch and his boys.  He had arrived ten minutes before.

There wasn’t a sign of any of the boys.

The older man had asked the ranch hand that was tending the extra horses in the stable about it.  He said that none of them had returned, though their guest had come in about midnight.  Ben had gone in to check his boys’ bedrooms and then looked in on Hop Sing.  No one had seen Adam, Hoss, or Joe in the last twelve hours.  He was contemplating going up and knocking on Belle’s door when the handsome young lady appeared at the top of the stairs dressed in riding clothes.

“Belle,” he said, crossing to the staircase, “are you planning on going somewhere?”

She descended to his level.  “I was planning on going out to find you.”

“Where are the boys?”

Belled shook her head.  “The last one I saw was Hoss.  He looked up two of your hands and they brought me home.”

“Where were Adam and Joe?  I’ve not reared my sons to abandon a lady or a charge to look after one.”

She shook her head.  “It’s not like that.  Little Joe went off on that errand you set him.  When he didn’t come back, Adam took off to look for him.”

“Didn’t come back?  How long was he gone?”

She thought about it.  “Four, maybe five hours.”

The Makem’s house could be reached on horseback from Virginia City in an hour.  Joe should have been there two and a half, maybe three hours at most.  “What time did Adam leave?”

“Around supper time.  Then Hoss followed a quarter to a half hour later.” She paused.  “Adam was very worried.”

He nodded.  “Joseph, for all his youth, can take care of himself under normal circumstances.  Alvin Makem and his boys would make it six to one.  And they’re all built like giants.”

Joe, of course, was not.

“What are you going to do?” Belle asked, her eyes wide with concern.

“I should be out there with the men looking for those renegade Indians, but my sons have to come first.  I’ll head into town and if I can’t find them, I’ll ride out to Alvin Makem’s.”

“Please, take me with you.”

He touched her arm.  “Belle, this is not your fight.  These men are mean and, most likely, dangerous.  I can’t allow you to expose yourself to such danger.”

She looked down and then lifted her head and met his eyes.  “I know you don’t believe I am your daughter.  That’s all right.  Most likely, if I was in your boots I would think the same thing.  But, well, whether they are my brothers or not, I think of Adam and Hoss, and Little Joe as if they were.”  She paused.  “I want to do something to help.”

Ben looked at her with sympathy.  “Can you handle a gun?”

“No.”

“Or ride fast in the saddle?  Or maybe stalk someone and shoot to kill if you have to?”

Belle blanched.  “No.”

Ben took her by the shoulders.  “While I appreciate your offer,  and your feelings, I am afraid you would only slow me down and, in the end, be in the way.”

“You love your sons deeply, don’t you?”

Without hesitation he answered, “They are my life.”  As tears brimmed in her eyes, he added, “I’m sorry, Belle, they have to come first –”

“It’s not that,” she said, turning away.  “I only wish I had known such a father’s love.  My stepfather was a good man in many ways.  He worked hard to make sure my mother and I were comfortable and never wanted.”

“But….”

“I always knew I was not his child.  He loved my mother and she loved him, but most of the time – as far as William Babylon was concerned – I was in the way.”  Belle laughed sadly.  “I was definitely not his life.  I have never….”  She drew in a breath.  “I have never known such a love as your sons have.”

“Surely there’s been someone – you’re a beautiful woman, Belle.”

“There were boys, and then men, but none of them counted.  They either wanted the things I would not give, or wanted the things I had.  My mother was considered a wicked woman.  Men just assumed I would be the same, and since we were well-off…..”

“Men are fools,” he said.

She looked up at him and smiled.  “Not all of them.”

At that moment Ben heard the sound of horse’s hooves beating the ground in front of the house.  With hope he flew to the window and looked out.  Regrettably, it wasn’t any of the boys.

It was a city slicker in a dark gray tailcoat and black top hat.

Belle followed him.  He heard the sharp intake of breath the man’s presence elicited and felt her grip his elbow.

“Please, Benjamin, please.  Don’t tell him I am here.”

“Who is he?”

She hesitated and then replied, “Jarvis Barrot, my step-father’s former business partner.”

“What is he doing out here and so late?”

“I’m not sure.  At first when I saw him in town today, I assumed he had followed me from back East.  He couldn’t have my mother and so he ruined my step-father, taking his company and driving him to an early grave.  For some time, it was just my mother and me against him and then when she died, well –”

Ben started.  “Jasmin is dead?”

She nodded.  “It was after she died that I decided to come looking for you.  I’m sorry.  It seems I have brought my troubles with me.”

He patted her hand.  “Don’t you worry.  Now, what do you want me to tell this Jarvis Barrot?”

“He’s going to say he’s come out to see if he can do business with you.  Don’t believe him.  Jarvis is not interested in business.  The only thing that snake is interested in is vengeance and retribution.”  At his look she went on.  “I’m sure you don’t remember him.  Jarvis was a sailor too.  He fell in love with my mother while in Barbados, but she cruelly rejected him.  When he asked her why, she told him.”

“Yes?”

“My mother told him she wanted nothing to do with him because she was in love with you.”

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“It’s blacker than the heart of a coal mine out here, Adam.  How are we gonna see to track Joe?”

“The good thing about that is that if we can’t see him, neither can the Makems.”  Adam paused .  “Did you hear that?”

Hoss straightened up and listened.  “No.  I don’t hear nothin’.”

“I’m sure I did.”  His brother held up a hand.  “There.  Someone shouting.  Hear it?”

This time he did, though the voice was far enough away he couldn’t make out the words.  “You figure that’s one of the Makems?”

“Must be.  I don’t think Little Joe would be shouting.”  The black-haired man paused as the same thought occurred to him.  He wouldn’t be shouting unless someone had him cornered and he was screaming for mercy.

“Which direction you figure?”

Adam shook his head.  “Hard to tell in the woods.  Toward the stream, maybe?”

“Makes sense.  Probably thinks if he can get across, he can get away.  And there’d be help not too far away on the other side.”

“I think it’s the wisest, if not our only course.  There’s no tracking any of them.  We’ll just have to –”  Adam stopped abruptly.  A shot had been fired.  It was followed by an excited chorus of voices.

“Sounds like they’re closing in,” Adam said between gritted teeth.

“I still cain’t believe they’d hurt Joe.  We ain’t exactly been friends, but for gosh sake’s all he did was dance with Nellie.”

“Yes.”  Adam shifted his position.  “But is that all they believe Joe did with her?  Alvin Makem could have told them anything, maybe that Joe took advantage of Nellie. Nothing would rile a bunch of brothers up like that.

“It’s funny, you know?  Even though we don’t know anything about Belle – even if she’s telling the truth – I kind of feel that way about her.”

The black-haired man nodded.  “Me too.”

“Adam?”

“What?”

“I think Belle likes you.”  At his brother’s puzzled look he added with emphasis, “Really likes you.”

“Well, now, that would fly in the face of her thinking we were siblings, wouldn’t it?”

“It sure enough would.”

Adam held his hand up again, calling for silence.  Hoss heard it.  Another shot.

“Definitely down by the river.  Come on, Hoss.  We need to reach him before the Makems do, and before he’s forced into the stream.  The water’s not terribly deep but with the recent rains, it’s running fast.”

“Joe’d do okay.  He swims like a fish.”

Adam nodded.  “Yes, you’re right.  So long as he enters it conscious.”

Hoss paled.  Men drowned every day.

“I know,” his brother said, translating his look.  “It would be the perfect murder, wouldn’t it?”

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Ben Cartwright halted with his hand to the door handle and looked back at Belle.  She was pale and trembling.  She’d told him something of her story, but he could sense there was more – something she was either afraid to name.

Or ashamed to name.

“You go upstairs,” he said quietly.  “Don’t come down until I call you.”

The lovely brunette nodded and then bolted up the stairs.

Ben opened the door and stepped outside.  “Hello,” he said, “its late, friend.  Did you need assistance?”

“Mister Cartwright?  Benjamin Cartwright?”

“Yes.”

The man left the side of his rig.  Crossing over to him, he held out a gloved hand.  “Permit me to introduce myself.  Jarvis Barrot at your service.”

Ben looked him up and down.  “And are you?” he asked.

The man was a little thrown off.  “Am I what?”

“Reallyat my service’, or is that just the polite thing to say?”

He saw the man’s estimation of him go up a notch.  A slightly wary look entered his pale gray eyes.  “As a matter of fact, Mister Cartwright, I do mean it.  Pardon the latest of the hour, but I only have one more day in Virginia City and I wanted to offer you a proposition.  I am a wholesale importer of goods and am looking to establish myself in the West.”  Jarvis looked around.  “An account with the Ponderosa would do much to establish my business as legitimate.”

Ben pursed his lips and nodded.  “Well,  I can’t say as I would or would not be interested right now, Mister Barrot.  I was just heading out.”

Jarvis eyes traveled the length of his frame.  “If you don’t mind my saying so, you look like a man who only now left the road.”

Ben glanced down.  He was covered with trail dust and horse hair.  He probably smelled like horse too.  “Yes, I just arrived, but I am also going back out.  I have three sons.  They’re missing.”

“All three of them?”  The man seemed genuinely surprised.

“One was in a little trouble.  His brothers went to find him.  Now it seems I must find them all.”  He started to turn. “Now, if you will excuse me I need to gather up a few supplies before I go.”

“Perhaps later then?  After you locate your sons?  I’m staying at the hotel in Virginia City.  Shall we say lunch tomorrow and, if not, dinner?”

Ben turned back.  “You’re very persistent, Mister Barrot.”

The man’s smile was self-deprecating – and a little bit false.  “I’m a salesman, Mister Cartwright.  What else would you expect?”

“Oh, I don’t know – courtesy? “

Jarvis laughed.  “Point taken.”  He reached up and tipped his expensive hat.  “Until later then.”

Ben said nothing but watched him go, and then reentered the house.  He crossed to the bottom of the stairs and shouted, “Belle!”

She appeared momentarily.  ”Is he gone?”

“I think so, though he could double back.”  Ben watched her descend the two final steps before speaking.  “I changed my mind.  I think you should come with me, at least as far as Virginia City.”

She shook her head.  “I don’t want to be there alone.”

“You won’t be.  I have a lady friend I’m thinking of.  I’m sure she’ll entertain you for the day.  I’m not comfortable with you being out here with no one but Hop Sing to protect you.”

“He wields a pretty mean knife,” Belle said with a little smile.

Ben laughed.  “That he does.”  He took his hand and squeezed it.  “Since it seems you and Hop Sing are getting along now, would you mind going into the kitchen and asking him to pack food for me for a two day journey?”

“Do you really think it will take two days to find your sons?”

“It could, but more than that I am thinking of Joseph.  He woke late yesterday morning and went to town with nothing but his breakfast in his stomach.  He would have gone to Makems before or around lunch time.  It may be he’s had no food for over half a day.”

“I see.  You think of everything, don’t you, Benjamin?”

No, not everything.  If he thought of everything none of them would have been in this pickle in the first place.

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This was it.  Joe’s back was to the water and the Makem brothers were advancing, guns drawn.  Their ghostly forms moved toward him, illuminated by the lanterns they held.  He’d stopped just short of the water.  He meant to plead with them one final time, to try to make them see reason and forget all about whatever it was they were thinking of doing.  Rob and Ned were on opposite sides of the advancing line.  Moore and Sam came next, and Jimmy was the man in the middle.

Joe held up his hands.  He’d try his ‘friend’ first.  “Hey, Jimmy.  What do you think you’re doing?”  His old school mate’s face was masked in shadow.  He couldn’t tell what he was thinking.  “It’s me.  Joe.”

“Jimmy ain’t gonna answer you, Cartwright.  He’s with us.”  Robert Makem stepped forward.  His gun was aimed directly at him.  “You’ve ruined our little sister and you’re gonna pay.”

“Ruined?  What do you mean, ruined?”  Joe shifted back.  He felt the dirt crumble under his feet on the bank and could hear the trickle of stones striking the shore some five or six feet below.  “I took Nellie dancing, that’s all.”

“That ain’t all, Cartwright,” a deep gruff voice pronounced.  Joe turned to find Alvin Makem emerging from the trees to his left.  “We know what you did.  Nellie told us.”

“Nellie told you?”  Joe’s voice had gone up in pitch.  “Well, if she told you we did anything but dance, then she’s –”

“Don’t compound the sin by lying, boy,” Alvin warned.  “You’re about to meet your maker.  You want a clean conscience to do that, don’t you?”

“Mister Makem, I swear….”

“You can swear till your blue, boy,.  It won’t make no nevermind.  Either you or Nellie is a liar, and I’m banking on my girl being the one who’s telling the truth.”  Alvin moved forward, lifting the barrel of his gun and sighting along it.  “Say your prayers, boy….”

Without warning, a voice cut through the dark night.  “Joe?  Joe, can you hear me?  It’s Adam.  Joe?!”

Relief flooded through him, making him somewhat giddy.  Adam.   Adam was here to save him.  As he opened his mouth to reply, Joe turned toward Alvin Makem.  He saw the blow coming a split second before it landed.  Alvin had flipped his rifle and was swinging the gun butt-end toward his head with brutal force.  Joe threw his arm up, deflecting it a bit.  After striking his left wrist, the metal and wood club continued on, taking him in the forehead, knocking him back and then over the edge so he dropped like a stone to the pebbled shore some six feet below.

Joe opened his eyes once to find the world was spinning out of control, and then he closed them and sunk into a darkness deeper than that which cloaked the shore and his battered form.

 

 

SIX

Adam and Hoss emerged from the trees a few minutes later to find the Makem boys and their pa sitting pretty beneath the stars, warming their hands around a small campfire.  Alvin Makem rose and came to meet them.  His expression was unreadable.

“Hoss.  Adam,” Makem said in greeting.

“Where’s our brother?” Hoss demanded.  “What’ve you done with Little Joe.”

“I ain’t done nothing.  I told you.  I ain’t seen your brother.”

Hoss was riled.  He started forward.  Adam held him back with a hand to his chest.

“Then, may I ask, what you are doing with Little Joe’s horse?  I saw you leading Cochise into the trees not twenty minutes ago.”

Makem didn’t skip a beat.  “Been spying on me, eh?”

Adam drew a deep breath.  “Yes, if you must know, I have been spying on you.  I believe you mean to do my brother harm.”

Alvin nodded toward the shelter by the river.  “The horse’s in there.  It wandered into our yard.  I figured Joe was in this area after all and brought the boys out to look for him.  There’s a passel of things can happen to a man alone in the woods after dark.”

“And you expect me to believe that?” Adam asked, his tone skeptical.

“Don’t matter one way or the other to me,” Alvin spit out tobacco juice. “Might to your brother.”

Adam exchanged glances with Hoss.  It was a signal for him to take over.  Sometimes the big man had a better way with people than he did.  Hoss certainly had more patience.

“Alvin, you seen any tracks that might indicate Joe was in this part of the wood?”

“Nah.  Too dark.  That’s why we parked here.  Ain’t no point in lookin’ until mornin’.”

The big man turned toward him.  “You think Cochise might be able to nose him out, Adam?”

The man in black shrugged.  “It’s worth a try.  You know what they say about a boy and his horse….”

“The Paint’s in the lean-to over there.  Jimmy?”

The youngest son, the one who had been friends with Joe, rose to his feet.  “Yes, Pa?”

“You go get these two boys their brother’s horse.”

Adam waited until Jimmy had returned and placed Cochise’s reins in Hoss’s hand before turning back to Alvin Makem and saying, “I want to make things clear between us, Alvin.  I don’t for one minute believe Cochise just happened on your property and you just happened to head out looking for Joe.  I believe you were tracking my brother with the intent to do him harm, and I am here to tell you that if you hurt Joe, it will be me you answer to.”  Adam’s jaw grew tight as he considered this man who thought six to one were fair odds.  “I will come here and shoot you down, and think nothing more of it than if I was putting down a rabid dog.”

Adam heard Makem’s sons stir and rise from where they sat.

“The same thing goes for all of you,” Hoss added, his tone deadly serious.  “Only this time the odds will be better – it won’t be only Adam, but me and my pa.  From my perspective, six to three is right fair.”

“Don’t you threaten me,” Alvin growled.

Adam snorted.  “We just did.  Now, get out of my way.  Hoss and I are going to keep looking for Joe.”

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Alvin Makem watched the two Cartwright boys disappear into the trees.  Then he turned to his middle son.  “Moore, you get down that hill and find out if that boy is alive or drowned.”

“Yes, sir.”

The older man watched his son cross to the bank and then cautiously work his way down in the dark.  Several minutes passed and then finally Moore called out.  “He ain’t here, Pa!”

Alvin walked over to the bank.  “What do you mean, ‘He ain’t here’?”

“Just what I said Pa.  Joe must have fallen in the water and been taken away.   I found his hat, but nothing else.”

Alvin chewed on that for a moment and then spit out a heartfelt, “Damn!”  He drew a breath and let it out slowly and then said, “Come on back up here, boy, and bring that hat.”

Moore handed it to him once he reached the top.  The hat was black with gray trim, and small.  It was Cartwright’s all right.

“You think Joe’s dead, Pa?”

Alvin sensed both fear and shame in his boy’s tone.

“If there’s any justice, he sure as Hell is,” Alvin growled.

“Pa….”

“What?” he snapped.

“Are you sure Nellie was telling the truth?  You know how she can be.  If’n she was sore at Joe, she might’a made that story up –”

The crack of his hand on his son’s cheek resounded through the woods.  “You callin’ your sister a liar?”

Moore remained quiet for a moment.  Then he said, “Yeah, Pa.  I am.”

Alvin brought his gun up.  The barrel rested under his son’s chin.  “I should –”

“What Pa?  Kill me like you did Little Joe?  What’s wrong with you?  Ever since Ma died –”

“Don’t you bring your Ma into this, boy!”

“Why not?  Pa, you know you were killing Ma slowly, keeping her caged up here, never letting her go to town – just like you’re doing with Nellie now.”

“This world ain’t safe boy!”

Moore’s eyes flicked to the barrel of the gun that was still pressed up under his chin.  “It’s safer than being here with you.  Either lower your gun, Pa, or shoot me.  I don’t really care which one.”

Alvin’s eyes flicked to the campfire around which his other sons sat.  “Your brothers think the same thing?”

“Only Jimmy.  You got the others hoodwinked, Pa. They think Joe defiled Nellie and they’re glad you made him pay.”  Moore paused.  “You didn’t make Little Joe pay, Pa.  You murdered him.”

“You shut your mouth, boy,” Alvin said, lowering the rifle.  “I’ve had enough of your backtalk.”

The young man stared at his father. “You’ve had all of it you’re gonna get, Pa.  You stay here and keep looking for the man you murdered.  In the morning, I’m packing my things and going somewhere that isn’t here.”

As Moore moved away, his father shouted after him.  “You’ll change your mind by morning.  You mark my word, boy.”

Just before he entered the trees, Moore swung back.  “I ain’t a ‘boy’ anymore, Pa.  What you did here just made me a man.”  With that, Moore faded into the trees.

Alvin felt another form close to his.  He turned to find his son, Rob, watching.  “He don’t understand, Pa, how them Cartwrights think they can just take what they want.”  His oldest snorted.  “We just sent them a message they ain’t ever gonna forget.”

“Yeah,” Alvin agreed as he hefted his rifle.  “Now, come on.  We got us a body to find.”

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Pain exploded in Joe Cartwright’s head the moment he opened his eyes.   The world around him was black with the single exception of a star winking overhead in a clear sky.  He shifted and moaned, and then moaned again as he balanced on one elbow and attempted to rise.  Just working his way into a seated position from which to make the attempt made his head spin.  Bracing his back on a tree trunk he looked at the Little River running beside him.

He was lucky when he struck the bank that he didn’t roll into its fast running waters.

Joe didn’t remember much as he’d come down hard on a stone, striking his head, and driving consciousness away.  After waking up he’d felt everything and didn’t think anything was broken, but he was stoved-up and he’d done something to his left leg.  He doubted it would bear his weight very well.  Shifting, he felt the ground around him for a suitable branch to use to make a splint.  The night was so dark he couldn’t see to find what he needed.  Joe’s gaze went to the bank that loomed above him.  He had crawled using his hands and good knee some twenty or thirty feet down from where he had fallen and taken refuge in the tall grasses that lined the stream.  A short time before one of the Makems come down to look for him.  The only reason he knew was because the light of a lantern had illuminated the man as he descended.  Alvin and his boys knew he was alive now and that meant the chase was on.

He had to move – and fast.

As that thought occurred, Joe’s hand landed on a sturdy branch.  He hesitated to snap it, for fear of the noise it would make, but it was too long to use otherwise.  Joe held still for a moment, listening.  When he was sure the Makem’s’ voices were some ways away, he positioned the branch against his good foot and applied pressured, snapping it in two.  Then he listened again.  When he heard nothing, he laid the branch parts to either side of his wounded leg.  Working the tail of his light gray shirt out of his black trousers, he tore strips from it and tied them around both the branches and his leg.  After finishing the splint, he used his hand to work his way up the tree and then stood and put his weight on his leg.

The pain wasn’t quite as bad as being shot, but it wasn’t much better.

Joe stood there, contemplating his next move.  He really needed to get to the other side of the stream.  Jim Phillips cabin was there, within two miles.  His Pa had helped Jim keep his place when a sickness had laid the other man low and he’d been unable to work.  All four of them had gone there to do chores to help his wife, Liz.  Joe was sure Jim would help him now.

If he could just get to him.

Suddenly, he remembered the shack the Makems kept near the water’s edge.  Jimmy and he had often used the raft Jim’s father kept tethered there.  It might surprise Alvin and his sons if, instead of running, he circled back and took the raft.  They’d assume he’d be making for the Ponderosa and not going in the opposite direction.  If he could get on the raft and use it to cross the rushing stream, then he’d be home free.

Home.

Free.

Fighting back tears, Joe began the slow walk along the lower bank to where he knew the shack and raft lay.

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Early the next morning Ben Cartwright stepped out of Anne Bannington’s home and closed the door behind him.  Anne and her husband had been settlers in the area before moving to the city.  She’d known Marie and liked her and he knew she would do anything for him if it meant he was free to go find Marie’s son.  He’d left Belle in her care and felt good about it.  It would also be good for the young lady to spend some time with womenfolk.  He’d had a word with Anne, who would be about Belle’s mother’s age, and asked her – in a gentle way – to see if she could get any more information out of the mysterious young lady.  He’d already picked up the wire from Dayton and it seemed, so far as what she knew, that Belle was telling the truth.  Still, whether or not he was related to her, the young woman was now his responsibility and in order to protect her he needed to understand just what she needed protection from.

Or who.

As he stepped into the street Deputy Clem was crossing it.  It appeared he wanted to talk to him.

“Clem,” Ben said as they came abreast one another.  “What can I do to help you?”

The deputy indicated the wagon sitting outside of the mercantile.  “That yours, Ben?”

He nodded.  “Yes, it is.”

“It’s been there since yesterday morning.“  Clem shoved his hat back.  “Is something wrong, Ben?”

Ben pursed his lips, calculating just how much to say.  “Joe rode off on a errand and didn’t come back.  Adam and Hoss went to look for him.”  He paused.  “If the wagon’s in the way, Clem, I’ll….”

“No.  No, it’s fine.  Did the boys find Joe?”

“I wouldn’t know.  It’s been nearly a day since I saw hide or hair of any of them.”

Clem seemed to think a moment.  “You got a minute, Ben?”

“Maybe a minute.  I need to hit the trail.  Why?”

The deputy indicated the jail with a nod of his head.  “I think there’s someone you should talk to.  Came in this morning and turned himself in.”

Ben’s dark brows shot toward his hairline.  “Who?”

“Moore Makem.”

“Moore?”  That was Alvin’s middle son.  “Turned himself in, you say?  For what?”

Clem’s mouth was a thin line.

“The murder of Little Joe.”

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Ben watched Clem return to the main room of the jail. Then he turned back and looked at the young man who stood before him, his hands clenching the iron bars of his jail cell.  Moore Makem was a fine looking lad.  He had his mother’s black hair and favored her in every way more than his father.  Alvin’s wife had always had a smile on her face and been a kind soul.  Alvin Makem had a hang-dog look. He cut furrows deep in the field of his life, even when it meant plowing others under to get what he wanted.

Ben waited for Moore’s blue eyes to meet his and then he asked.  “What is this about Little Joe?”

The young man hung his head.  He muttered something that Ben couldn’t understand.

“You’ll have to speak up, son.  I can’t hear you.”

The young man sighed.  “I said Little Joe is dead.”

Panic rose in him.  He meant to beat it down with facts.  “What makes you think Joe’s…dead?”

“I don’t think, Mister Cartwright, I know.”

How do you know?”

“I was there!” Moore’s eyes brimmed with tears.  “Joe didn’t stand a chance.  There was six of us and only one of him!”

“Why would you want to harm Joseph?” Ben asked, still not believing it.

“Nellie lied about what happened the other day.  She told Pa Joe took her in that place on purpose and took her upstairs to…well…you know what happens upstairs at the Club.”

“My son would never take advantage of a woman.”

Moore looked pained.  “I know that, Mister Cartwright.  But Pa, well, he ain’t been himself since Ma died.  Once he gets his mind set on something there’s no changing it, especially if it has to do with Nellie.”  The young man paused.  “I sure am sorry.  I should of done something to stop it.”

“What happened?  Did you see it ?  Was Joseph shot?”

“No, sir, but not for lack of trying.  Pa had us hunt him down, circle him, and then move in for the kill.  We was down by the river.  Before Pa could shoot, Little Joe lost his balance and fell into the water.”  The boy winced.  “He’s drowned, Mister Cartwright.  Drowned dead.”

“Did you find…a body?”

The first ray of hope came when Alvin’s middle boy shook his head.  “No, sir.  I went down the bank to look for him.  I found his hat, but nothing else.  Joe must’ve hit the water and been carried away.”

Ben drew a breath and held it.  The boy’s guilt stopped him from seeing any other option.  If there had been no body then that meant most likely Joseph had gotten away.

Stepping closer, Ben steadied himself with a hand on the cell door.  “Tell me, Moore, did you happen to run into Adam or Hoss?”

“They was there.  They came up just after Little Joe fell.  My Pa didn’t tell them nothing, just let ‘em think we hadn’t seen him at all.”

“And Hoss and Adam believed that?” he asked, not believing it himself.

“I don’t think so.  They took Little Joe’s horse and set off looking for him.”  Moore paused.  “But they ain’t gonna find anything.  That’s why I came into town and turned myself in.”  The young man looked to the window.  “Clem says he’s gonna organize a party and go out and arrest all of the rest of my kin.”

“Yes, he’d have to do that. Let’s just hope Alvin is wise enough not to resist arrest.  Moore….”

“Sir?”

“I want you to understand that I respect what you have done.  It’s not easy to admit to a mistake and to face a possible murder charge.”  His look stopped the young man from replying. “I also want you to know that I don’t for one minute believe you , your brothers, or your father have killed Little Joe.  That boy’s strong.  Most likely he awoke on the bank and dragged himself away and out of view.”

Hope entered the young man’s eyes.  “You really think so?”

Ben patted his hand.  “I really do.  You take care of yourself, son.  When I find Joe, I’ll come back and make certain you’re released.”

Moore’s voice cracked as he said, “Thank you, sir.”

The older man nodded and then returned to the main room of the jail.  Clem was there with a half-dozen other men.  “What are you planning on doing, Clem?” Ben asked.

“Doing?  Going out to catch those killers.”

“Did you question the boy, Clem?”  As the deputy nodded, Ben finished, “From what he said he didn’t see anything except Joe falling off the bank and, maybe, into the river.  There’s no proof my son is dead.”

Clem shook his head.  “There’s no proof Joe’s alive either, Ben.”

“I know.  Clem, my other sons are out there searching for their brother.  I don’t want them to get killed in the crossfire.  Can you give me an hour or two to find them?”

The deputy hesitated.  “I don’t know, Ben.  My duty –”

“Is to protect the citizenry of this town.  Clem, this situation has the potential to turn into a powder keg.  Let the boys and me see if we can find Joe.  If we can – and he’s alive – then you’ll be looking for men who made a mistake and not murderers.  Go now and you’ll be forced to shoot if the Makems take a stand.”  He paused for emphasis.  “Neighbors killing neighbors, Clem, that’s not what this city is about.”

Clem looked at the men he had just deputized.  For the most part, they were mumbling and nodding their heads. “All right, Ben, we’ll wait until noon, but I can’t promise we’ll wait any longer.”

Ben clapped his hand on the deputy’s shoulder.  “Thank you, Clem.  You won’t regret it.”

Clem’s gaze went from him to the young man standing in the cell, still leaning on the bars.

“I certainly hope not.”

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Joe had managed to find the raft.  It took some work to free it and he was exhausted by the time he had it done, but he launched it into the stream and was floating now along with the fast-running water, heading for the opposite shore.  As he floated he could hear the Makems’ voices.  They were on the river bank.  He could see the reflection of their lantern’s light on its black surface and knew they were scouring the ground, looking for a trace of him.  He had pulled his gray jacket close and buttoned it, hiding the lighter gray shirt beneath so the light would have nothing to reflect off of.  Then he had laid low and let the raft drift.  He figured he was about a half-mile downstream.  He’d make the attempt to land soon.  From what he remembered, he should be about parallel to the Phillips’ place.  Once up the bank he would have to cross open fields, but – hopefully – the Makems would still be on the opposite side of the water and pose no threat.

He was really hunger and really tired and really ready to be home.

About five minutes later Joe stirred again and reached for the pole he had found with the raft.  Using it as a crutch, he rose to his feet and began to alter the raft’s path, forcing it closer to the shore.  Just as he reached it and hopped onto the bank, a shot rang out.  The bullet whizzed over his head, striking a nearby rock. Dropping the pole, Joe bolted into the trees, seeking shelter.

They’d seen him!

Moving as quickly as he was able, Joe began to work his way up the bank.  As he did another shot flew over head.  ‘Damn!’ he thought.  He didn’t understand how the Makems had gotten on the other side of the stream so quickly when he had their only raft.  Out of breath and nearly out of strength, Joe clawed his way up the bank and emerged into a field of wheat.  The shafts of the wheat reached to his knees and were visible as far as the eye could see.  The sun was rising.  It was a new day.

He only hoped he lived to see it through.

Knowing it would be only a matter of time before the Makems caught up with him, Joe started to make his way across the field as quickly as he could, dragging his injured leg.  He made it about twenty feet before a rope dropped over his shoulders and he felt it jolt and draw him back.  Losing his footing, he fell to the ground and lay there, panting.  Seconds later a pair of boots appeared.

Fringed leather boots.

Joe looked up, wondering what in all of God’s green earth he had done to deserve this.

He’d found the band of renegade Indians.

 

 

SEVEN

Anne Barrington looked over her needlework at the young lady Ben Cartwright had dropped on her doorstep.  Belle was standing by the window looking out, concern written into every line of her slender form.   They had shared a light breakfast with Ben before he left and then she had had household matters to attend to.  This was the first chance there had been to stop and see if she could become acquainted with this young woman who claimed to be Ben’s child.

Her eyebrows had shot up when he told her that!

“Belle, your tea is growing cold.”  Her guest didn’t move.  Anne wondered if she had even heard.  “Belle?”

The lovely brunette started.  “Oh.  I’m sorry.”  Belle turned, looked at the cup, and then reluctantly came to the table and sat down.

“You seem a million miles away.”

Belle took a sip.  She smiled.  “More like two thousand.”

“Thinking of home?”

Her guest’s lips turned down at the corners.  “I guess you’d call it that.  Ohio’s where I spent most of my childhood, so I suppose that qualifies it as home.”

Anne placed her needlework in her lap and folded her hands over it.  “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”

Belle’s hand shook, rattling the spoon in her cup.  “I guess not.”

“What brought you to Nevada?  I know you’ve been staying with Ben and his boys.  It would be rare indeed to find anywhere in the state that represented home and hearth better than the Ponderosa and the family that inhabit it.  Did you come directly to see them?”

Belle nodded.  A moment later a tear slipped down her cheek.

Anne rose and crossed over to the table.  Pulling up a chair, she sat beside her.  “Child, whatever is the matter?”

Belle drew in a breath and let it out in a sob.  “I’ve brought such grief to them.  I never meant to.  I just….  I just wanted to be a part of a family.”

“If you mean what’s happened with Little Joe, I’m sure he’s all right.  That boy is always all right in spite of the situations he gets himself into.  He leads a charmed life,” she finished with a smile.

Belle glanced at her.  “That’s part of it, but there’s more,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

“Does this have to do with you not wanting to be alone in Virginia City?  Ben mentioned someone…Jasper Barrot?”

“Jarvis.”  A shiver ran through her.  “Yes, it does.  Jarvis is a wicked man.  I had no idea he would follow me or that, if he did, he would follow me all the way out here.”  The young woman looked down at her hands.  “Jarvis hates Ben Cartwright.”

“Oh dear!  Who could hate Ben?”

Belle’s eyes flicked to her face.  “It take a special kind of man.  A wicked one!”

Anne thought a moment.  “And you think this man means Ben harm?”

There was no hesitation.  “He told me as much.”

Fear gripped her.  Ben and his boys were dear friends.  She hated to think of anything happening to any of them, but there was a special place in her heart for the father of the Ponderosa.  “Does Ben know?”

The young woman laughed sadly.  “You know Benjamin.  I tried to talk to him.”

“Did he listen?”

Belle shook her head.  “Anne, I admire Benjamin more than you can know.  I…love him.  But he’s a bull-headed man who believes he can take care of anything and protect his own.  I’m sure he can when it comes to the brutal honesty of the West where life and death are the stakes.”  She shook her head.  “Deception and subterfuge are the heart of the East.  Jarvis Barrot occupies the shadows.”

“I think you should try to talk to Ben again.  Have you told him all you know?”

She looked down.  “I was going to – until this trouble with Little Joe came up.  How can I tell Benjamin now – how dare I distract him from looking for his son?”

Anne reached out and took Belle by the hands.  “Promise me, when Ben comes back – whether Little Joe is with him or not – that you will tell him everything.  If you don’t Belle, I am afraid you will be making a mistake and the consequences to Ben and his family may prove dire.”

The young woman hesitated and then nodded.

“Now, my dear, finish your tea.”

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Adam drew in a deep breath and reined in his horse when he spotted their Pa riding toward them.  He glanced at Hoss and then at the empty saddle Cochise carried, acutely aware of the missing third of their trio.  He and his brother were both saddle sore and heart-weary.  They’d searched through the night for Joe, stopping only once to snatch a few hours sleep, and had faced the dawn still having no idea what had happened to their baby brother.

“Pa ain’t gonna be happy,” Hoss said, stating the obvious.

“Well, neither am I.”

“I mean about you wanting to go into town to get the Sheriff.”

“Like it or not, Hoss, there’s too many Makems for us to tackle alone – and too much land to cover.  If Joe was able to get away, he could be anywhere along the Little River, and on either side.  If he’s hurt, he might have taken shelter.  We can’t find him on our own – at least, not quickly enough for me.”

Their father arrived.  He checked Buck and asked without preamble, “Where’s your brother?”

“We couldn’t find him, Pa,” Hoss said quickly.  “We searched all night and there just weren’t no sign of Joe anywhere.”

“Did you look along the river?”

Adam frowned.  What, he wondered, had made his pa’s thoughts go there first?  “As much as we could, Pa.  It was dark and impossible to –”

“Why aren’t you there searching now?”

The two exchanged glances.  Here it came.

“Pa, Adam and I, well, we figured it would be best to go back to Virginia City and get more men.  There’s a powerful lot of land to cover.”

“And a powerful lot of Makems,” Adam added sourly.

Their father shifted in the saddle.  “Well, there’s one less Makem than there was last night to contend with.”

“What do you mean?” Adam asked.

“Moore Makem came into town last night and turned himself in to Clem.”

“Turned himself in?  What for?” Hoss asked.

They watched their father’s eyes go to the empty saddle.  “The murder of your brother.”

His words struck both of them dumb.

“Boys,” their father said before either one of them could speak, “I don’t for one minute believe Joe is dead.”

“But…but, Pa,” Hoss stuttered, “what about what Moore said?  You think he was lying on purpose?”

He shook his head.  “Moore was telling the truth as far as he knew it.  He saw his father strike Joe with his rifle butt and then watched as your brother fell off the bank.  When Moore went down to find him at the stream’s edge Joe wasn’t there, so he assumed your brother must have drowned.”

“Pa,” Adam began, “did Moore explain why they were so hot to hurt Joe?  I understand Alvin Makem is a hard man and insanely protective of his daughter, but murder is another –”

“According to Moore, his father is deranged,” the silver-haired man answered.

“I wouldn’t have no argument with that,” Hoss said.  “You shoulda seen him last night.  He was like a crazy man.”

“Yes, well, that’s all the more reason we need to find your brother.”  He indicated the road behind them with a nod.  “Now, you just turn your horse’s noses back the way you came and we’ll get going.”

Adam shifted uncomfortably.  “Pa, didn’t you hear what we said before, about getting help?”

“Yes, I heard, and for once I agree with you.  If Joe was hurt in that fall and is lying somewhere along the river, we need to find him as quickly as possible.”  The older man paused and a slight smile curled his upper lip.  “Didn’t you hear what I said?”

The black-haired man frowned. He glanced at Hoss, but his brother seemed as mystified as him.  “What did you say?”

“That Moore told Clem everything – including how his father and brothers meant to kill Joe.  The deputy was organizing a posse as I left town.  They’re an hour, maybe a little more behind me.”

“Clem’s coming for the Makems?” Hoss asked.

“Yes, and I would prefer to find your brother before he does.  There’s no knowing how it will go down.”

“There’ll be a lot of lead flying, that’s for sure,” the big man said with a sigh.

“And I don’t want you or your brothers to be in the middle of it.  Now, come on,” Ben Cartwright said as he nudged Buck and began to move forward.   “Let’s go find your brother.”

xxxxxxxxxxoooxxxxxxxxxx

Belle Babylon stood at the top of the staircase in Anne Bannington’s house, listening.  A delivery had come and the older woman told her she would be in the back for a while accepting and paying for it. It presented her with an opportunity.

She was debating whether to take advantage of it.

As she saw things, she had two choices – she could return to the ranch house with Benjamin when he came to retrieve her and tell him everything, or she could gather her things and fly.  Whatever grudge against, or evil plans Jarvis had for the master of the Ponderosa, she doubted very much they would outweigh the wicked man’s desire to find and possess her.  She was sure if she left, then Jarvis would too.

But where to run?  Was there a place on the face of the earth where she could escape from him?  At one time California had seemed far enough, but if he had come to Nevada….  Maybe north.  Maybe, Washington state where there was nothing but wilderness and loggers.  Yes, she  could be safe there.  She’d heard Seattle was in need of women, and while she might not be good for much of anything, she could cook and make some lonely logger a home.

Belle shivered.  She could.  But she didn’t want to.

Another possibility, she thought as she descended the Barrington’s stair, was to leave the country entirely.  She could go back to her mother’s people, if she could find them.  In a suitcase in her room at the Ponderosa were several packets of her mother’s letters.  A few of  them, which had never been sent, were addressed to Benjamin Cartwright from Barbados.  They didn’t exactly detail where in that country her mother had come from, but she thought she could puzzle it out if she read them more closely.

As far as practical matters, she had enough money.  Though her father’s life and business had been ruined by Jarvis Barrot, the trust William Babylon had established for her had remained untouched.  She was an independent woman with enough means to support herself in the manner to which she was accustomed.  Still, she’d have to wire for the money, and that meant she would have to continue to live with the Cartwrights for an undetermined amount of time.

God alone knew what destruction that would wreck.

In the end Belle decided there was nothing she could do at the moment.  She’d ask Anne to walk with her to the telegraph office and had the man there send for the money.

Once it came, it would be time to decide.

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“You see anything, Adam?” Hoss Cartwright was looking at his brother who was kneeling on the lower bank of the Little River, searching for clues.  The sun was up and the day heading toward noon.  He and Adam and his pa had canvassed the area around the Makem’s homestead, giving the house itself a wide berth, but had soon returned to the river to search for clues to Little Joe’s whereabouts.

So far they had found nothing.

“This is where Joe should have landed,” Adam replied.  “There does seem to be a place where the river rock is scattered, but that could have been done by an animal.  I don’t see any boot prints.”

“This close to the water it would be a miracle to find any, what with the water rising and falling,” their father said.

Hoss glanced at his older brother.  Adam was wearing that exasperated expression where he leaned in on his knee, cocked his head, and one eyebrow headed for the sky.  “So what are we looking for?”he asked.

“We’ll know it when we see it, son.”

Hoss had only one ear to their conversation.  The other was trained on the water, listening to how fast it was flowing.  As he searched the bank with his eyes, the big man’s thoughts flew to his little brother.  It was hard to imagine what Joe felt, facing six angry men with rifles bent on his destruction.  Truth be told, he bet Joe jumped rather than fell.

The water would have been his only way out.

With another glance at his pa and Adam who were talking, Hoss began to move forward, scanning the stream’s edge and the surrounding brush for something out of place.  It took about five minutes, but he found it.

Kneeling, Hoss called out, “Adam!  Pa!  I think I got somethin’.”

They were at his side in seconds.

“What did you find, son?” his father asked, his voice full of hope.

Hoss stood up.  In his fingers was a scrap of cloth.  Just a plain simple scrap of gray cloth – with a button on it.  “I think it’s part of a shirt, Pa.  Joe’s shirt.”

Adam came forward to finger it.  “I agree, Pa.  It’s that shirt you bought Joe a while back on that trip to Carson City.”  His older brother handed the scrap to their pa.  “You remember, the one with the abalone buttons?”

Their father nodded gravely.  “I remember.  Joseph was wearing it yesterday morning.”

Hoss knelt again.  He found a few scraps of pale wood, the kind you found on the inside of a branch.  One was still attached to a bit of the tree’s outer husk and looked torn.  “Looks like someone snapped a branch.”  The big man puzzled it out for a moment.  “You think Joe might’a made a splint of some kind?”

“Maybe he hurt himself in the fall,” Adam suggested.

Their father nodded.  “It would make sense.”  He looked up at the water and the bank beyond.  “I hate to think of Joe out here somewhere, injured, not knowing the danger is over and running for his life.”

Adam was frowning.  “You know, Pa, I just remembered something.  Do you recall when Joe and Jimmy Makem were spending a lot of time together – back when Joe was eleven or twelve?”

“Yes.  They were inseparable that one summer.”

“I caught them down here on the Little River one time when the water was riding high.  I barely stopped them climbing onto a raft and riding the flood like a bronco.”  Adam looked up the bank.  “If I remember correctly, Alvin kept the raft tied to a tree low on the bank behind the shack.”

Hope lit their father’s eyes.  “Joe would be sure to remember that!”

“Adam’s right, Pa.  Joe and Jimmy used to go out on that raft for night fishing.  I remember Joe telling me about it.”

“Let’s get a move on it then,” their father said.  He glanced up.  “It’s almost noon.  If Clem comes when he said he would, we have little time left before we chance being caught in the middle of a firefight.”

They traveled for ten or fifteen minutes along the bank.  It was Adam that spotted the raft first.  It was tethered to a tree on the opposite side of the bank.

Relief washed over all three of them.  Hoss reached up, removed his hat and wiped his brow free of sweat before replacing it.  “It sure enough looks like Joe made it, Pa,” he said.

Their Pa turned to the left and right and then back to them.  “Am I right?  Are we below the Phillips place?”

Adam nodded.  “You’re right, Pa.  That’s Jim’s wheat fields up there.”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“That Joe would have headed for the Phillips?”  Adam thought a moment.  “It’s what I would have done.  Jim would be the only safe harbor within a good many miles.”

“I agree,” their father said, his voice growing excited.  “Come on, boys.  Let’s get back to the horses and ride to Jim’s.  God willing, we will find your brother there.”

The ride to the Phillips took them a little more than an hour and a half.  It should have been shorter, but they had to get their horses and then ride to the footbridge a few miles south in order to cross the Little River.  About five minutes into their ride they had some across Deputy Clem and his men, heading for the Makems.  The deputy was glad to see them and even happier to hear they were heading out to look for Joe.  Their pa was known for taking matters into his own hands, law or no.  Their departure freed Clem up to pursue the matter as he thought best.

As the three of them rode away gunfire broke out behind them.  Their pa halted and turned Buck’s nose back.  Hoss could tell he was struggling with the right or wrong of leaving the Makems to the law and worrying that, at the end of the day, there wouldn’t be no Makems.  It was no more than ten seconds before their pa sighed and ordered them to turn their horses toward the south and the narrow wooden bridge that spanned the Little River.  Once across it they rode hard toward the Phillips’ home.

In their wildest dreams they couldn’t have imagined what they would find.

It was Adam who smelled it first.  He drew Sport to a halt and waited until they both had done the same with their animals.  “You smell that, Pa?  Smoke.”

He smelled it.  It was kind of funny ‘cause it was a warm day.  Still, Liz Phillips was a skinny little thing and she might have a fire going to stave off the morning chill.  “What do you mean, Adam?” Hoss asked.  “Ain’t no surprise to smell smoke.”

“Not wood smoke, no.  There’s something there.”  He drew in a noseful of air.  “Oil and, I don’t know, maybe gunpowder?”

Their pa shifted in the saddle and then urged his mount forward.  “There’s only one way to find out.”

Hoss patted Chubb on the neck and then urged him forward.  They were still near five minutes out from Jim’s house at a full sprint.  Four minutes later as they broke through the tree-line all three of them drew to a halt.

Jim Phillips’ house was on fire.

Their Pa looked at both of them and then kicked Buck into full speed.

As they approached the house, the smell of oil grew stronger.  At a guess, someone had smashed an oil lamp to set it on fire.  The small ranch house was still in flames.  Little remained but a blackened skeleton.  Together they dismounted and drew their weapons.  Their pa waved Hoss toward the barn and then followed Adam to search the area beside the house.  With a frown Hoss noted a dead dog by the barn door.

It had an arrow in its side.

Dropping beside the dead animal, the big man fingered the feathered end of the arrow, thinking of what he knew of the various tribes.  If he had to guess, he’d have said it was Ute.

Hoss turned to call his brother and father, but they were already heading to his side.  Hoss indicated the dog.  “Indians, Pa.”

The silver-haired man nodded.  “Jim’s dead.  We found him by the stable.  There’s no sign of Liz.”

“Or Joe,” Adam said, voicing it for all of them.

“Maybe that’s a good thing.”  Their father nodded toward the stable door.  “Did you look inside yet, Hoss”?

“No, sir.  I was just about to.”

“Let’s go then.”

Hoss put his hand to the door.  It swung open on its own.  As he prepared to step inside, his father’s hand came down on his shoulder.  “If Liz was able to escape, she might be in there.”

“With a loaded rifle pointed at you,” Adam added.

“I think we better call out,” Ben said.  Hoss stepped aside to let his father draw near to the door.  “Liz?  Liz!  It’s Ben Cartwright, are you there?  Liz?”

For a second there was nothing.  Then, a strangled sob.  “Ben?”

“Come on!”

The three of them entered the barn.  At first they saw nothing, but then a bedraggled, smoke and ash -covered Liz Phillips stumbled out of one of the back stalls.  She looked at them, let out another strangled cry, and then dropped near senseless to the floor.

“Adam, look after her.  Hoss check the other stalls.  I’ll get the loft.”

A few minutes later they were reunited.  Neither of them had found anything.  The Phillips’ didn’t have any children at home, but Hoss knew that wasn’t who his father was searching for.

“Pa,” Hoss said, “it looks like Joe ain’t here.”

Their father crossed to where Adam sat cradling Liz Phillips’ shaking form.  “Has she said anything?”

“You mean about Joe?”

The older man nodded.

“When I asked, Liz told me they hadn’t seen him today.  She and Jim were working outside the house when the Indians attacked.”

“I see.”

“Pa.  No.  You don’t.”

“What do you mean, Adam?  Did Missus Phillips tell you something else?” Hoss asked.

His brother nodded.  “She said that after the Indians attacked, they headed east, back toward the river.”

It only took a second.

‘Back toward the river’, back the way Joe would have been coming?” the older man asked.

“Pa, you don’t think….”

His father came to him and placed a hand on his shoulder.  “I’m trying not to, Hoss.  If your brother was injured and the Indians found him….”

Hoss knew what he meant.  The Ute weren’t known for taking prisoners, especially ones that couldn’t keep up or pull their own weight.

“That’s our baby brother,” Adam sighed. “Out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

Hoss nodded.  Once they got Missus Phillips set, that’s where they’d have to go too.

Into the fire.

 

 

EIGHT

Joe didn’t know why he wasn’t dead.

At first he had been sure the renegade Indians were going to kill him.  The natives were kitted out for war, their faces painted red and their belts heavy with weapons.  As a tall one took hold of him and lifted him bodily from the ground, the scent of oil and smoke had struck him like a hand across the face.  His gaze had gone immediately to the area of the Phillips’ house.  The sight of a plume of smoke rising high in the sky had turned his stomach.

The native who held him tossed him to the ground at the feet of another warrior.  The native knelt on the grass beside him and gripped his hair.  Pulling his head back, he laid the knife blade against his throat.

At that moment another native spoke.  Joe couldn’t see him, but he could tell from the sound of the newcomer’s voice that the man was older.  Whoever he was, he must have been someone in authority because the warrior holding the knife to his throat pulled the blade back just a hair.  Joe felt blood trickle down his neck.

It had been that close.

Next, words had been exchanged in the Indians’ tongue over his head, flying fast and furious between the tall warrior and the unseen older native.  When they finished, he was hauled to his feet, trussed like a pig, and slung over the bare back of a horse. The warrior mounted behind him and, holding on to his belt to anchor him, kicked the animal into a gallop and flew across the fields toward the water.  The others followed close behind.  For a quarter of an hour the Indians paralleled the stream and then turned abruptly to the south and galloped into the trees.

By the time they arrived at the native’s camp he was barely conscious.  The Indian who rode behind him dismounted and, taking hold of his belt again, pulled him off the horse’s back and let him fall to the ground.  Still trussed up, there was nothing he could do to break his fall.  The impact drove the wind out of him and he passed out only to awaken here sometime later  – wherever here was.

Joe glanced around.  He was in a wickiup, he knew that at least.  He could see the mid-afternoon sun shining through the willow branches it was constructed of.  He was gagged and tied to a pole near the middle of it, with his hands and feet bound.  His injured leg was laid out flat before him and it throbbed with every rapid beat of his heart.  He hated to admit it, but his heart was beating fast – in tune with his growing fear.  Joe knew he was smart and could handle himself in about any situation – with white men.  Indians were another matter entirely.

Especially the unfriendly ones.

As he sat there contemplating what if anything he could do about his situation, the red, black, and white blanket covering the entry into the wickiup was thrust back and a man stepped in.

Surprisingly, he was not a native.

For a second Joe thought the man might have been there to free him, but then the tall Indian who had held him on the back of the saddle entered as well and stood there shooting arrows at him with his eyes.  The white man wasn’t much friendlier.  He was tall as well, but rangy, with black hair and pale cold eyes.  He had a gangrel look to him, like a hungry coyote eying its next meal. The man stared at him for a few seconds and then turned to the native.

“Yeah, that’s him,” he said.  “Old man Cartwright’s youngest.”

Joe frowned.  He thought he recognized the man, but only as an acquaintance.  He was fairly new to the town.  He’d said hello to him at the saloon and seen him loading wagons outside the Mercantile.  He was surprised the man knew who he was.

“You are sure?” the native asked.

The man snorted.  He moved forward and knelt by Joe’s side and then took his head and thrust it back against the wooden pole.  With a finger, he traced the fresh wound on his throat.  “You almost had him, Yellow Hawk.”

The native grunted.  “I would have him yet, McRae’” he growled.

“You know that ain’t gonna happen.”  The man glowered at Joe and then thrust his head back savagely against the pole he was bound to.  As his head spun, the man stood.  “He’s too valuable alive.  You know that.”  The man looked down at him  “You know, Cartwright, you stumbling into us was a God-given answer to prayer.  A real God-given answer.  It’s gonna make what we have to do that much easier.”

Joe struggled against the ropes that bound him even as he stared daggers at the white man.

“I’ve heard about you and that there temper of yours.  Ain’t no use trying to get free.  Yellow Hawk here tied you up real good.”  McRae  bent and ruffled Joe’s brown hair.  “We wouldn’t want you getting away before we can use you against your old man.”

Joe stopped.  What?

“That’s right, you heard me.”  McRae straightened up.  “Haven’t you heard, something’s got these here Indians all riled up.  The word is it’s old man Cartwright’s fault.  He caught a party of Ute on his land a while back, killed most of them.  Old Yellow Horse here, he escaped, but not before he saw what you Cartwright boys did to their womenfolk.”  McRae kicked Joe’s boot as a sly smirk lifted his upper lip.  “One of them was the old chief’s granddaughter.”

Joe’s head was spinning.  He tried to remember when he had first heard the Ute were acting up.  It hadn’t been that long ago – in fact, he thought it had been just about the same time McRae had come to town.  Most of the Indians in the area were friendly.  Not this group.  Before attacking the Phillips today, they had burned and looted at least two other spreads.

“Trouble is,” McRae went on as he knelt briefly to check the ropes binding his hands, “there’s too many folks around here who won’t believe the truth.  Too many who think your pa’s some kind of saint.  Don’t matter.   Everyone in Virginia City knows old Ben’s youngest boy is a sinner.”  The white man’s laugh was short and carried no mirth.  “After you’re found with the dead body of the old chief’s girl, there won’t be any question.  Then, when the Ute attack the Ponderosa and burn it to the ground, well…the people of Virginia City and those nearby it will count it as justice, don’t you think?”

It would have been better if the Makems had killed him.

Now, everything his father had fought to gain and sought to retain was in jeopardy.  No one would question a sudden strike by Indians, especially not at a time when a renegade band was known to be on the warpath.  Everyone would shake their heads and look at the ground and say what a pity it was if his pa and brothers’ bodies were found burned among the ashes of the ranch house, but no one would suspect foul play.  Joe shuddered.  Whoever had set this up had killed the other families in the area just to cover up their wicked scheme.   There was a lot of killing in the West where a man had to look after his own and keep them safe from predators – both the four-legged and two-legged kind.  But killing innocent people?  Starting a was between the white men and the Indians?   On purpose?

There was a special place in Hell reserved for such men.

“Come on, Yellow Horse,” McRae said, rising.  “We gotta talk to White Crow and get things going with the others.”  He indicated Joe with a nod.  “Then we’ll come back for him  and Pretty Prairie, and unite them in death…forever.”

Joe’s jaw tightened as the two men left the wickiup and he listened to their cruel laughter fade into the distance.

It sounded like the poor girl might already be dead.  Murdered – no doubt – by McRae and Yellow Horse.  White Crow must know nothing of it.  If he did, and the chief suspected that he had had a part in the girl losing her life, then he would have been dead before they left the Phillips’ fields.  Apparently the scheme was just hatching.  So far, nothing had touched his pa and his brothers.  He had to find a way to make sure it never did.

He had to escape.  Somehow.

Joe’s leg had gone numb under him,  His head was still reeling from being slammed against the wickiup pole and from the knock he had taken at the bottom of the bank beside the stream.  It was hard to think straight.

Someone was out to destroy his father and to destroy everything he had built.  But who?  Who hated Ben Cartwright that much?

Weary, exhausted, hungry as a bear and aching like a man the Grizzly had attacked, Joe closed his eyes and concentrated on his hands.  The ropes around them were tight, but there was a bit of wiggle room.   If he could just find something sharp to work on the ropes with.  Feeling around as best he could with his bound hands, Joe stiffened as his fingers encountered an object on the ground.  Probing it, he discovered it was a scrap of metal.  It was an odd place to find it, just beside the pole that supported the willow structure.  As his hand closed on it, Joe weighed the odds that it had been left there on purpose.  If he escaped and McRae managed to kill him while running, there would be nothing to challenge the wicked man’s story and nothing to prove that he had not abused and killed the old chief’s granddaughter.  It was better he stay put.

Joe turned the scrap of metal over and began to saw away at his bindings with the sharpest edge.

Better.

But he wasn’t going to.

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Jarvis Barrot was an impatient man.  He hated waiting for anything.  The long years he had put in to build up William Babylon’s trust in him had been hard, but the promised pay-off made it more than worth it.  It had been even longer since he had decided that William and Jasmin’s daughter was just as much a possession of his as the lion’s share of the stock in her father’s company he had won, and all of the thousands of items filling their various dry goods shops back in Ohio.  Jasmin should have been his.  She never was.  Her heart belonged to another man and it was not her husband.

It was this damned Benjamin Cartwright.

He’d heard of Cartwright first when he’d asked Jasmin at the supper table one night whose portrait was in the locket she constantly wore.  The object of his heart had glanced at the man at her side and said only, ‘Someone dear to me.’  Later, when he’d asked William if it was his likeness in that locket, his partner had hesitated and then told him haltingly about his wife’s infatuation with this man who got away.  Apparently, William had known all about her feelings and had married her anyway.  Jarvis’ smirked.  When you considered Jasmin’s past, he supposed a youthful love affair paled by comparison.  Jasmin’s family back in Barbados supplied the slavers’ ships and she was known to have bedded just about anything that walked through the door with a handsome face.   That included a good many young sailors.  Like Cartwright.

Still, for all the men she had known, Jasmin had worn that locket until her death.  He supposed that was why he hated Ben Cartwright so.  The men in Jasmin’s life had been passing fancies, meant to amuse and entertain her – including her husband.  Cartwright had been different.  Jasmin had loved him.  Really loved him.  Which made Ben Cartwright and his beloved Ponderosa with those three strong boys even more of an impediment to his possession of Jasmin’s daughter.

But not for long.

Jarvis shifted.  He had been looking east out the window of his hotel room toward the land where he knew Gabriel McRae was working his will.  The talk around town was that a half-dozen settlers’ families had been burnt out, with at least seven killed and more wounded.  The count might have been exaggerated, but McRae’s work was doing what he wanted.  It hadn’t taken much to get Yellow Horse and his band of Indians on his side.  Owning a number of Mercantile shoos went a far way toward securing the loyalties of the Indians.  He’d promised the Indian warrior more guns and blankets and tobacco than one Indian would normally see in a lifetime.  Beside, this particular band of Utes were thugs.  No different from a band of white men working to keep miners in line by beating the life from a few of them as a warning, or men threatening innocent shop keepers in a town and taking protection money.

Yellow Horse, in particular, enjoyed killing.

So it hadn’t been hard to get them in on his scheme to destroy Benjamin Cartwright and the Ponderosa.  The ironic thing was, he had hatched this scheme and meant to carry it out before he’d found out Belle had flown to her mother’s former lover for protection.  The last time he’d seen her, she had been extremely distressed.  Her mother had just passed and Belle had only recently found Jasmin’s personal letters – the ones addressed to Benjamin but never sent.  Apparently something she read in them had compelled her to seek the man out, even though more than thirty years had passed since they had been written.

Jarvis turned from the window.  He crossed over to the ornate dresser that occupied the east side of the room and picked up his sterling silver diamond stick pin and worked it into his lapel.  It was fate, he knew it.  Everything was coming together.  And this last bit of news – the one a messenger from McRae had just brought to town – capped it.

When McRae put the corpse of the youngest Cartwright next to the dead body of old chief White Crow’s granddaughter Pretty Prairie, and Yellow Horse told his tale, there’d be nothing in Heaven or on the Earth that would save the Ponderosa and its master from destruction.

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Ben Cartwright stood beside his horse at the edge of the thick tree-line on the eastern side of the Little River, just south of Alvin Makem’s lands.  For a brief moment he let his thoughts wander that way, wondering if Alvin and his boys had been taken into custody for what they tried to do to Joe – or if they were even alive.  Weary as he was, he didn’t have much energy to spare for such matters.  Quickly deciding that all of that was best left in the law, and the Lord’s hands, Ben turned his attention back to the trees.  Hoss was down by the water filling canteens and rustling up a bit of grub for them to eat before renewing the hunt for Joe.  Adam had pushed into the trees and was looking for a sign that would lead them to his brother. Ben glanced at the sun which was descending the sky and pushing the day toward night.  His eldest boy had been gone about a half an hour.  He wished Adam would hurry.  They didn’t have much time left to look.

“Pa?”

Ben turned to find his middle son walking toward him.

“What is it Hoss?”

“Food’s ready, Pa.  Any sign of Adam?”

He shook his head.  “Not yet, but you know Adam.  Your brother is nothing if not thorough.”

“Sometimes I wonder at you, Pa, handling all of us boys without no help.  Adam, well, he’s smart – book smart – and he can hold his own in a fight or with a mountain lion or desperado.  He always thinks things through before he acts – looks before he leaps, you know?  But Adam’s so gosh darn stubborn.  Moving him once he’s made his mind up is like workin’ a mule who’s plain figured it’s done. ” Hoss smiled.  “Then there’s Joe….”

“Ah, yes, Joseph.”

“That boy’s heart is on his sleeve, don’t matter whether its romancin’ some pretty girl or spoilin’ for a fight.  Everything he thinks passes through them bright green eyes so fast there’s no time to take warning.”

“Or action most of the time,” his father laughed.  “And what about you, Hoss?  What do I have to put up with from you?”

The big man thought a moment.  “Me, Pa?  Why, nothing, Pa.  I’m perfect, you know  that.”

Ben roared.  So did his son.  When the laughter had died down, Ben put a hand on his son’s shoulder.  “You’re my mediator between the two of them, you know that, boy?”

“I sure do, Pa.”

“But more than that you’re the strength, the backbone of this family – planted as firmly as a mountain and rock-steady and solid as the land the mountain stands on.”

“Ah, shucks, Pa.  You’re makin’ me blush.”

Ben studied him.  “I wasn’t aware mountains could blush,” he deadpanned.

Hoss covered his father’s hand with his own.  He opened his mouth to say something, but the words never came.  Hoss nodded toward an opening through the trees.

“Pa.  It’s Adam.”

Ben whirled to find his eldest emerging from a forest of tall trunks that reached for the sky.  “Son, did you find anything?” he asked.

“A good many horses tracks, crossing over the country and headed for that hilly region south and west of here.  One set of prints was dug in deep….”

“As if the rider was carrying something heavy,” Ben finished for him.  “Most likely that’s your brother.”

“I suppose there ain’t no way to tell if Joe was alive or not?” Hoss asked, hoping against hope that there was.

The black-haired man shook his head.  “Though I doubt the Indians would have taken a corpse with them.  No, Joe’s alive – for now.”

Ben paused, thinking.  “Adam, I think you should ride back to town.”

“Why’s that, Pa?”

“Well, for one thing I left Belle with Anne Barrington and I don’t want her to wear out her welcome.  Also, I think you had better head back to the ranch.  Check things out there and then bring a half dozen hands back with you when you return.  We’re going to need help with the hunt for your brother, and –”

“And if it comes to war, we’re going to need even more help.”

Ben nodded.  “I’m afraid so.”  He looked at the sky.  The day was dying.  “Hoss and I will press on south for a few hours and then get some shut-eye.  You find Belle and take her back to the ranch, but Adam….”

“Yes, Pa?”

“Don’t leave her alone there.  Be sure to set several of the men to keep watch on the ranch house.  There’s something Belle’s not telling us and I think it has to do with a man named Jarvis Barrot.  Barrot came to the Ponderosa last night looking for her.  She was terrified.  He’s a city slicker, Adam, wearing a gray coat and a tall black hat.”  Ben gestured at his vest.  “He wears a diamond head stickpin here.”

“I’ll see to it, Pa.”  Adam’s dark gaze went from him to Hoss.  “You two take care.”

“You do the same, son.”

His eldest son didn’t smile as much as the other boys, but when he did it melted Ben Cartwright’s heart – he looked so much like his mother, Elizabeth.

“Always,” Adam said, then he turned and went to where he had tethered Sport.  A minute later he was gone.

“So what now, Pa?” Hoss asked.

“That food ready?” Ben asked.

“It sure enough is. I hope you’re hungry, Pa.  I made enough for three.”

“I’m famished.”

“Me too.  Come on, Pa, follow me.”

Ben turned to do just that, but the thought of filling his belly made him think again of his youngest son.  Most likely Joe’d been without food for more than a day now.  That had a way of wearing down a man.  Closing his eyes, he whispered a quick prayer, asking the Almighty to look over his boy and to give him strength.

“You comin’, Pa?  It’s gettin’ cold.”

“I’m on my way,” he called back as he headed for the fire.

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Joe’s wrists and hands were bloody, but he was almost free.  Since the departure of McRae and Yellow Horse no one had come in to check on him.  He was tied to the pole that anchored the wickiup and it was a good thing.  He’d been long enough now without food that he felt weak and was having trouble concentrating.   The first thing he’d need to do once he got away from here was find some grub, wild plant or otherwise.

He was going to need all of his strength if he was going to move fast enough to survive.

Closing his eyes and leaning his head back, Joe continued to work.  It wouldn’t be long now.  Once whoever was keeping watch came to check in on him, he would break the ropes on his wrists, untie his feet, and run like the Devil himself was on his tail.  That way he might have an hour or so before anyone realized he was missing. He wasn’t sure what direction to take.  The first thing McRae would expect was for him to head back to the Ponderosa.  Much as it hurt him to think of worrying his father and brothers for a few more days, it would be best if he headed  either south toward the lake or west and crossed the Truckee.

An unexpected noise caused him to stop moving his hands.  He kept his eyes closed and listened.  Someone had come into the wickiup and was crossing over to where he was tied.  He heard them kneel and place something on the ground.  Then he felt a hand on his shoulder.  It shook him once, gently.  Several seconds later it shook him again, more firmly this time and the action was accompanied by words.

“You must wake up.  Eat, so you will be strong.”

Joe’s eyes popped open.  He fought to mask his surprise.  It was an Indian woman – well, a girl really.  She looked like she might be sixteen at most.  She was pretty as a spring filly with long, straight black hair falling almost to her waist.   The Indian girl was wearing a fringed knee-length buckskin dress decorated with beadwork and shells, and a pair of buckskin moccasins edged with elk’s teeth.  Her eyes were black and her lips pink; her skin the color of Tupelo honey.  As Joe watched, she reached toward him.  A moment later the gag come off.

He gasped in air, swallowed, and then said, “Thank…you.”  His voice was rougher than he had expected.

“You must promise not to shout.”

He nodded.  “I do.”

The girl glanced toward the door.  When she turned back, her face was troubled.

“What is it?” Joe asked.

She shuddered, but gave no reply.  Dipping the spoon into the bowl, she lifted it toward his mouth.  Joe took the food, relishing not only the taste of the simple soup but the warmth it generated as it traveled the length of his gullet.  He took about ten spoonfuls before he shook his head.  His stomach was starting to churn.

“You have had enough?” she asked, surprised.

“No.  I just need a minute.  I’ve been a day and a half without food and my belly’s not ready for that much.”

The girl nodded.  She put the bowl down and picked up a horn cup that held water.  Joe accepted it with thanks.  As she put it down next to the bowl, he asked, “What’s your name?”

She looked at him, a little bit frightened.

Joe knew names were important to Indians.  Giving yours away gave something of who and what you were to the person you told.  So, in order to put her at ease, he told her his name first.

“I’m Joe.  Joe Cartwright.”

The girl nodded, accepting his gift, but still reluctant to give one of her own.

“Come on, now,” Joe said with his most winning smile.  “I promise I don’t bite.”

That made her laugh – just a little.  “I am called Pretty Prairie.”

“That sure is a good name, ‘cause you sure are pretty,” he said with a grin.  “So how’d you pull jailhouse duty?”

Pretty Prairie frowned.  “Jailhouse?”

“Sorry.  How’d you get the job to come and feed the prisoner?”

“White Crow trusts me.”

He thought about that.  If White Crow was as much of a killer as he suspected, having his approval might not be a good thing.  “So you know the old chief well?” Joe asked.

“Oh, yes,” she said picking up the bowl and filling the spoon again.  “He is my grandfather.”

Any appetite Joe had  remaining fled at her words.  White Crow’s granddaughter?  Then she wasn’t dead.  Still, if what McRae said was true, she would be soon.  Joe looked her up and down, deciding, renegade Indian or not, he just couldn’t let those men kill her.

When he escaped, he was going to have to take Pretty Prairie with him – whether she wanted to go or not.

 

 

 

NINE

It was early morning.  So early even a bustling town like Virginia City was still asleep.  The shopkeepers were at work behind closed doors, but none of the blinds had been raised and, for the most part, Belle Babylon walked the street alone – which was the way she wanted it.  She had made up her mind to return to the Ponderosa and gather her things.  The money she wired for would be in by late afternoon.  There was a stagecoach leaving for Sacramento about the same time and she planned to be on it.

She had brought enough grief to the Cartwrights.  It was time to move on.

In order to get out of town and to the ranch she would have to hire a wagon, and so she was headed for the livery.  As she walked she passed one or two people, but no one who knew her.  When she arrived and lifted a hand to knock on the door, her luck changed.  Belle was startled as it opened and Adam Cartwright stepped out.

“Belle,” he said, tipping his hat.  “What are you doing here?”

“I, uh, well, I thought I would go back to the Ponderosa.  Mrs. Babington has been sweet, but I don’t want to overstay my welcome.”

“I see.”  The eldest of the Cartwright boys held her gaze – for so long she began to squirm.  It was as if he was reading her like one of the books he was so fond of.  “Well, it’s fortunate then, that I came along.  I’m headed to the Ponderosa.”

“Did you find Joe?” she asked.

“In a way.  He’s alive, we know that.”  Adam paused.  “But we think he’s been taken by the band of renegade Indians who have been wrecking havoc with the settlers.”

“Oh, no!”

“Pa and Hoss are still looking for him.  That’s why I’m headed to the spread, to rustle up some hands to help us search.”

“Then you won’t be staying at the house?”  Belle hoped she did not sound too eager.

“Not for long.  Belle.  Why don’t you go back to Ann’s and wait for me?  I need to check in with Deputy Clem before I head out.”

“About the Makems?” she asked.

“Yes.  Do you know anything?”

“The whole town knows it.  Your deputy Sheriff came riding into town last night.  He had the Makems with him.  There were four men riding horses and a body slung over the saddle of another one.”

“Dead?”

She nodded.

“Do you know who it was?”

Belle drew a breath.  The sight had been horrible, what with the crowd pressing in and people whooping and hollering and cursing and crying all at one and the same time.  She had stood on Ann’s porch and watched for an hour and then retreated to the parlor and cried for two.

“I’m not certain,” she said at last.  “I think someone said the dead man was named Robert.”

Adam frowned.  “That would be Alvin’s oldest son.  Rob was hard-nosed as his father.  He wouldn’t have backed down.”

Belle wrapped her arms about her shoulders.  “It seems such a waste, and all over a misunderstanding.”

His tone was harsh.  “A misunderstanding perpetuated and used by the Makems to try to justify killing my brother.”

Belle blanched.  “I’m sorry, Adam.  I didn’t mean to –”

“No, I’m sorry.”  Adam looked to the east where his father and brother were still searching for Joe.  “Nevada is a harsh mistress, Belle.  It’s kill or be killed out here.  Sometimes it seems a man is no better than an animal.”

She stepped closer to him and laid a hand on his arm.  “There are good men here, like you and your father and brothers.  Trust me, Adam, bad men are everywhere.  Back East they’re still wolves.  They hide behind a sheep’s fleece pretending that they are civilized, when they are really worse than men like Alan Makem.  They don’t make the kill clean.  They want to see men suffer and dry up without dying.”

Adam was looking at her in that way again.  “You sound bitter, Belle.”

She shook her head.  “Well, maybe I am, a little.”

“Want to tell me about it?”

She looked at him, at Adam Cartwright with his handsome face, raven-black hair, and hazel eyes.  He had a handsome and a kind face; one that shone with intelligence.  Adam was a strong man, the kind a woman could have clung to, counting on that strength for a lifetime.  The eldest of the Cartwright sons had a high sense of honor and a commitment to justice that went deeper than most.  He was a serious man, not given to quick expressions of what he was thinking, and yet, she had seen him laugh at the antics of his younger brothers and be nearly broken with worry when one of them went missing.  If her life had just been different – if she hadn’t been who she was – she might have loved him.  Would have loved him.

Did love him.

“Belle?”

She jerked back to the present.  “I’m sorry, Adam.  I didn’t sleep well last night.”

“Pa said the man who came out to the house, this Jarvis Barrot, was bothering you.  Is it him?”

“Only in part.”

Sensing she had nothing more to say, Adam offered her his arm.  “Let me take you back to Anne’s.  I’ll check in with Clem and tell him what we know about Joe, and then I’ll come to fetch you and we can head back to the spread together.”

Belle knew she shouldn’t.  The minute Benjamin’s oldest son left her, she should run as far away as fast as she could from the Cartwrights.  Her presence at the ranch would be a magnet for trouble.  And yet….

Adam was looking at her, his hazel eyes sparking in the rising morning light.  Belle sighed and took his arm.

And committed them both to purgatory.

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Gabe McRae peered around the trunk of the Ponderosa Pine he had parked his horse behind.  He focused his attention on the wagon pulling up to the ranch house below.  He recognized the man driving it.  It was Adam Cartwright, the oldest of Ben Cartwright’s sons.  He’d seen the woman who was with him in town too and knew who she was.  That pretty brunette was gonna be the cause of Jarvis Barrot’s downfall.  Barrot was a smart and savvy man who’d cooked up a scheme to get rid of Ben Cartwright and his boys.  One with no possible blame attached to him.  Before Jarvis arrived, an agent of his from the East had hired him to find a group of renegade Indians willing to take on a job.  He chose Yellow Horse.  He and the Ute warrior had known each other for years and participated in countless raids together.  Yellow Horse and his men had begun that week to harass and then burn out and kill local settlers, setting the stage for one big burn-out at the end.  Upon Jarvis’s arrival the scheme had kicked into high gear.  The final act was about to begin.  After he and Yellow Horse took care of the Cartwright kid and the old chief’s granddaughter, the Ute would gather his men and head for the Ponderosa.  Jarvis had hoped to catch most of the Cartwrights at home, but – if it came to it – this one would do.

This one and the woman.  If Belle Babylon died along with the Cartwrights, Jarvis would be sure to seek revenge against the Indians and, well, weren’t no way the city slicker could survive that.

McRae shifted in the saddle.  Jarvis had promised him a good wage for his work, but it wasn’t enough.  He’d make far more from all of the businessmen and disgruntled ranchers in these parts he’d contacted on his own, promising the destruction of the Ponderosa.   Once it was done, they would owe him.

They’d owe him big time.

Yes, once the deed was done and he had the money in hand, he and Yellow Horse would hit the trail again.  Maybe go up into the north country and lay low for a while.  Then, in a year or so, they’d part company and he’d go on to San Francisco and live like a king.

Using his knee, McRae edged his horse forward.  Adam Cartwright had just returned from stabling his horse and was standing by the supply wagon talking to the woman.  McRae picked up his rifle and sighted along the barrel.  He wouldn’t kill him, but he’d send his father a clear message  by taking him out of action.  That would make one less Cartwright able to defend what was theirs.  Course, if he killed him, it weren’t no never mind.  If he’d had his choice, he’d rather die clean and quick with a bullet in his belly than be burned.

So, actually, he was doing the man a favor.

Laughing at his own joke, Gabe McRae checked his aim again and fired.

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Belle left Adam at the wagon.  He had asked if she would go into the ranch house and return with Hop Sing so the Chinese man could help unload the supplies.  She had agreed, of course, and was just about to open the door when a sound stopped her.  It wasn’t a familiar sound, but she’d heard it the night before.  In fact, she had heard it many times when the bloodthirsty men surrounding the Makems had pointed their guns into the sky and fired them in celebration of a possible hanging.

A gun shot.

Whirling, Belle looked for Adam.  The tall handsome man was nowhere to be seen.  She wondered if he had returned to stable and been confronted by something that made him fire off his weapon.  Leaving the door behind, Belle returned to the wagon.  It was then she realized how she had missed Adam.

He was on the ground underneath it.

“Belle!  Get…down!” he ordered.

“Why?  What?”

Adam cut her off.  “Get…down here.  Get under the wagon!”

As Belle complied another shot whizzed over her head, striking the wagon’s side.  She dropped to the earth and rolled under it.  “Who do you think it is?” she asked as she clung onto him.

“It could be anyone,” he replied, wrapping one arm around her.  “Cattle rustler, one of those renegade Indians, or someone wanting to rob the house.”

She drew a breath.  “Or someone hired by Jarvis Barrot.”

Adam’s eyes flicked to her.  “You think so?”

“I wouldn’t put anything past him.”

They’d gone a minute or so now without another shot being fired.  Belle hesitated and then released her hold on Adam.  The closeness was making her uncomfortable.  As she shinnied out from under his arm, she looked down..

It was then she saw that her dress was covered in blood.

“Adam!  You’re hit!”

“Yes,” he admitted.  “That first one took me in the shoulder.  If I hadn’t have just straightened up from taking supplies out of the wagon, it would have been my head.”

Adam’s tan shirt was quickly turning red.  “We need to get you into the house.  You’re bleeding badly.”

“I’m feeling light headed,” he grudgingly admitted.

Belle looked toward the trees.  “Do you think whoever shot you is gone?”

“No idea.  He could be, or he could be hiding and just waiting for another chance.”  Adam turned over and looked toward the house.  “If we head to the right side of the door, for the water trough, we can keep it between us and him.  The sprint to the door after that shouldn’t be too bad.”

“What about Hop Sing?” she asked.  “I could go alone and bring him out to help.”

“No.”  Adam sighed.  “Hop Sing must not be here.  He would have heard the shots and come running.”

Belle’s eyes were full of tears.  She knew this had to do with Jarvis. Her own selfish desires were once again bringing harm to this family.  A steely determination overcame her as she thought of how kind and welcoming the Cartwrights had been to her.  In spite of any danger to herself, she had to get Adam into the house and get that wound tended.

“If we back out under the wagon, can you manage the crawl to the water trough?” Belle asked.

The black-haired man’s eyes were slightly glazed.  She could see that the shock was wearing off and the pain setting in.  “I think so,” he replied.

“All right.  Let’s go.”

Belle placed her arms around Adam’s waist and helped him to crawl to the  rear of the wagon and, from there, to the water trough which they laid low behind.  She was horrified to see the trail of blood their journey left.  Adam was bleeding badly.  It was imperative she get him into the house and bandage his wound.  Taking what little courage she had in hand, Belle left Adam where he was and, in spite of his weak protests, sprinted to the door and thrust it open.

No one fired at her.

Returning to Adam, Belle ringed her arms around him just under his arms.  He’d fallen unconscious and it was all she could do to move him.  By the time she got him to the sofa in the great room she was shaking like a leaf in an October wind.  Looking around, she located a blanket and tossed it over him and then sat on the table that flanked the sofa and let it all sink in.  She was covered in blood and trembling from head to foot.  Adam had a bullet in his shoulder and was bleeding profusely.  She had no idea where to find bandages, medicine, or anything else, and really no idea of  how to take care of a gunshot wound or, Heaven help her, get the bullet out.  There was a killer outside, so going for help was out of the question, and Ben and Hoss were unlikely to return because they were still hunting for Joe.

Belle let the tears come.  How could she have done this!   It was all because she had selfishly wanted a family and its protection and had failed to consider the consequences of involvement with her for that family.  She had known Jarvis would never let her go.  She had also known of his hatred for the Cartwrights.

She had played right into his unprincipled hands.

The young woman dissolved into tears.  Belle allowed herself a minute or two of self-pity, and then drew a breath and rose.  After checking Adam and pressing the blanket up against the wound to slow the bleeding, she headed for the kitchen.

She was going to make a mess of it, but she didn’t think Hop Sing would mind.

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Gabe McRae reined in his horse as Yellow Horse and his men came into view.  They were waiting on the top of a ridge.  He’d sent word for them so that Yellow Horse’s warriors could be dispersed around the ranch house to keep watch while they were gone.  He and Yellow Horse needed to return to the Indian camp.  It was time to take the old chief’s granddaughter and the Cartwright boy into the hills and set the stage.   They’d make it appear that the boy had been trying to have his way with Pretty Prairie and when she refused, had strangled her.

Of course, being an Injun, she had the strength to knife him before she died.

After the bodies were  discovered, White Crow would give them his blessing and order them to sweep in and burn the Ponderosa to the ground.  When it was done, Jarvis would find out his woman had been in the house and, driven mad, would end up getting killed by Yellow Horse or one of the other Indians.  After that, he’d take in the money promised by the business men and cattle barons and run.

Not a bad day’s work.

“Did you get the old chief to agree to his granddaughter taking the Cartwright boy his food?” McRae asked as the tall Indian rode up to him.

“Yes.  When we return, she should be with him.”

McRae nodded.  The hand that fate had dealt them, with Joe Cartwright falling into their laps, was almost beyond believing.  He’d set the stage for the boy’s escape – leaving that metal shard near him.  They’d catch Cartwright within minutes, but it would appear he had run away.  White Crow would assume the boy took Pretty Prairie with him as a hostage and then killed her when she refused to cooperate.

“You have men watching the wickiup?” he asked.

Yellow Horse nodded.  “The boy will not see them, but they are there.”

“We’ll need to distract White Crow.”

“There is no need.  White Crow has announced that he will go to the water to seek the wisdom of the holy people at the setting of the sun.”

A smirk lifted the corner of Gabe McRae’s lips.  Once again, it seemed everything was falling into place.

“Perfect.”  McRae nudged his horse with his knee and turned its nose back toward the Indian camp.

“Come on,” he said to Yellow Horse.  “Time’s a wasting.”

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The light outside was fading.  Another day was nearly done.  Belle stood by the window in Adam Cartwright’s bedroom looking out.  She was exhausted.  After rummaging in the kitchen and coming up with a suitable knife to extract the bullet, she had made an abortive attempt to remove it that had ended with her sobbing on the floor.  Thank the Heavens, God had taken pity on her and as she rose to try again Hop Sing had returned.  The Chinese man boiled water, found a bottle of whiskey, laid out bandages and several instruments from which to choose from, and then set to probing for the bullet.  Adam had become insensible, but he woke when the knife went in.  She had to hold him down.  As the bullet came out, the black-haired man lost the battle to remain conscious.  He’d been unconscious ever since.  Before he went to fetch the doctor from Virginia City, Hop Sing had told her to keep cold compresses on him and given her a bottle of medicine, telling her to dispense a few drops into water and make him drink it every hour.

When she asked the cook how he had come to know so much about bullet wounds he had flown into a frenzy of Chinese and finished with a flurry of English words.  ‘You try living here on Ponderosa.  You care for Cartwright boys and you know.  ‘Specially Little Joe!”

The medicine had been left over from the last time the youngest of the Cartwright men had been shot.

Leaving the window Belle returned to Adam’s bedside.  She placed her hand on his forehead to check the course the fever was taking.  His skin was cooler to the touch.  Crossing to the basin by the door, she wet a fresh cloth in the cool water and then, returning to the injured man’s side, traded it out for the old one that was warm.  As she did, Adam stirred.  He groaned slightly and then opened his eyes.  At first they were not quite focused, but a moment later he favored her a pale imitation of his usual smile.

“Belle.”

“How do you feel, Adam?”

“Like someone shot me.”

It took her a moment.  Then she realized he meant the statement to be humorous.

“You must be feeling better.”

Adam pursed his lips and raised one black brow.  “‘Better’ being a relative term.”

Belle reached out and took his hand.  “Hop Sing has gone for the doctor.”

“He went out?  What about the shooter?”

“There’s been no sign.  We think he must have run.  But don’t worry, Hop Sing was careful.”

Adam took hold of the coverlet laid over him and drew it back.  “Help me up….”

“No, Adam!  You’ll reopen the wound.”

“I can’t just lie here,” he said as he began to rise.  “Joe’s…still missing. And whoever did…this…could be after Hoss or Pa.”

“Or you!”  Belle started to plead again but stopped as Adam Cartwright went the color of paste and fell back into a seated position.  Moving to the other side of the bed, she sat beside him and took hold of his arm.  “They might have meant to kill only you!”

He looked sideways at her.  “Why me?”

It was a fear that had grown within her as the days passed and she became more and more attached to the eldest of the Cartwright sons.  Had Jarvis noticed?  Was this attempt on Adam’s life entirely her fault?

Belle dipped her head.  “You’ve been very kind to me.”

“And you think someone would take offense at that?”

“I’ll answer your question, but you need to lie back,” Belle said.  “You’ve lost a lot of blood.”

Adam did as he was told.  Once braced against the pillows, he asked, “Doe this have to do with this man, Jarvis Barrot?  Do you think he’s behind it?”

Her jaw grew tight.  “I don’t think, Adam, I know.  Jarvis Barrot means to possess me, and he will let nothing and no one stand in his way.  Nothing!”

“Belle, you’re giving that man power over you.”

She jumped to her feet.  “He has power over me!  He always has, over me and my family.  I thought by coming here, by becoming a part of your family, that I could escape him.  That he would see the power and the might of the Cartwrights and leave me alone!  That he would –”

“You’re not our sister, are you?”

His words silenced her for a moment.  Belle closed her eyes and lowered her head.  “No.”  She shrugged.  “At least, I don’t think so.”

“And you’ve known this all along?”

She nodded.  “The story is true.  My mother loved your father.  She wanted her baby – wanted me – to be his child, but there was no way she could be certain.”

“And this man, Barrot?”

“He loved my mother.  She gave him nothing in return.  She married William Babylon instead and rubbed that rejection in Jarvis’ face every day that she lived.”  Belle paused.  “My mother was not a nice woman.  Your father was fortunate he escaped her.”

Adam was silent for a moment.  “Well, Belle, I can’t say I’m happy about the lies you’ve told.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to be,” she said, straightening her shoulders and looking him square in the eye.

Adam nodded.  “But there is one thing that I am happy about.”

Belle blinked.  “And what is that?”

The black-haired man reached out to her.  She caught his hand thinking he wanted help lying back in the bed.  Instead, Adam pulled her toward him and kissed her passionately on the lips.

“I’m happy you’re not my sister.”

 

TEN

It was time for Pretty Prairie to bring Joe his food.  He’d finished sawing through the ropes that bound his hands and was sitting, waiting for her to arrive.  He’d thought about standing by the wickiup door and catching hold of her the moment she stepped inside, but he was worried she might cry out before he had a chance to talk to her.  There was no reason she should believe him over her own people.  He doubted he could convince her that she was in danger.  Still, he had to try.  If he could take her somewhere and talk to her – explain everything – then maybe, just maybe she would believe him.

Pretty Prairie didn’t know it but her life hung in the balance.

Of course, he didn’t want to die either, and it would have been a whole lot easier just to leave her behind.

Joe sighed.  Easier, but not right.

He’d taken a bit more fabric off of the tail of his shirt and fashioned a tie that he could use to keep her from making any noise if he needed to.  At first he’s thought to gag her and toss her over his shoulder and carry her out of the camp.  The problem was his injured leg.  He just didn’t think it would support him with the added weight.  The smartest thing would have been to steal a horse – smart, of course, unless you were dealing with a group of renegade Utes who valued their horses more than their own children and wives.   No, he’d just have to try plan B and hope against hope that she didn’t put up too much of a stink when he told her.

He’d be able to handle her, of course – she was after all, a girl – but girls were also good at making noise and that was what he was afraid of.

Joe’s head came up as the blanket that kept the wickiup’s entrance closed was pulled back and lifted away.  A second later Pretty Prairie entered carrying a basket laden with food.  She was dressed in a buckskin dress again, the shoulders of which were covered with multicolored beads and elk’s teeth.

“Supper time already?” Joe smiled.

She hesitantly returned it.  The smile lit her face and made her even more beautiful.  “Are you hungry?”  she asked.

“As a grizzly,” he replied.

Pretty Prairie approached him.  As she knelt at his side, Joe said softly, “You sure are pretty, just like your name says.”

The girl said nothing but her cheeks turned crimson.

“I was wondering, since I’m a condemned man and all….”  Her dark eyes flicked to his face.  He could see she was distressed.  “Don’t you know?  The men of your tribe, they mean to kill me.”

She frowned.  “Why?”

“Because I’m a white man.”

Pretty Prairie was silent a moment.  “White men bring us harm.”

Joe cocked his head and looked at her.  “I haven’t.”

It took a second.  “No.”

“So, do you think it would be all right if I got away?  Escaped, I mean?”

Fear entered her deep brown eyes.  She nodded toward him.  “You are bound.”

This was it – the moment that either saved or condemned them both.

Joe shifted and pulled his bloodied hands forward, showing her that he was free.

“How?” she gasped.

He produced the metal shard.  “I found this and used it.  Pretty Prairie, I need to get away.  I know there are men keeping watch outside.”  He batted his long lashes and smiled that smile – the one that kept getting him in trouble with so many girls’ fathers.  “Do you think you could help me get past them?”

Every line of her thin frame went rigid.  For a second, Joe thought she was going to holler right there and then, and he’d be trussed up like a pig and ready to roast sooner than he could say Jack Robinson.

“I do not know….”

Joe hesitated.  Then he laid his hand on hers.  “Say now, you don’t want me to die, do you?”

“No,” she responded – a little too quickly.

He had her.

“So you’ll help me escape?”

Pretty Prairie nodded.  “What do you need me to do?”

“The main thing I need to find is a clear way out.  There’s a man stationed out front, right?”

She nodded.  “Yes.”

“Is there one out back – out back of the wickiup I mean?”

She shook her head.

Joe considered that.  It either meant the Indians considered him little or no threat, or that there was a man there – in hiding.  He didn’t like the implications of that.  Still, he had little choice.

“Then that’s the way we’ll go.”

“We?”

Joe thought furiously.  “Well, you don’t want them to think you helped me, now do you?  If I disappear right after you’ve been here, then that’s what they’ll think for sure.  If we pretend I kidnapped you, then you’ll be safe to return.  You can go with me, outside the camp, and then after a bit come back.”  It was a lie, he wasn’t going to let her return, at least not right away.  Still, he figured it was going to take every lie he could come up with to get her out of the camp and save her life.  “All right?”

Pretty Prairie hesitated.  She was obviously frightened.  He lifted her hand and, holding it up to his lips, planted a light kiss on it.  “You can believe me.  I won’t let anything happen to you.”

The Indian girl reached out and touched his cheek. “You have not told me what I have to do.”

“Just sit there looking pretty,” he smiled.

The blush grew deeper.

“All I need for you to do is this,” Joe continued, “when you leave, wait a few minutes and then come back.  Bring something with you to cut through the wickiup’s hide.  I’ll escape out the back and we’ll run for a while, and then you can return to your people.”

Pretty Prairie sat there, thinking about it for a full minute.  Joe fought to keep the sweat from beading on his forehead.  If she didn’t help him, he didn’t think there was any help to be had.  McRae and Yellow Horse would show up soon and kill the both.

Finally, she nodded.  “I will help you.”

He felt weak, but he hid it behind a smile.  “You sure are one of the nicest Indians I ever met – and about the prettiest.  I’m having a hard time thinking of a way to thank you.”

“I know one,” the girl said, startling him.

Joe’s eyebrows peaked toward the cascade of brown curls on his forehead.  “Yeah?”

Her dark eyes met his and then she leaned in and kissed him – on the lips.

Joe sighed.

This was going to be more fun than he had first imagined.

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Ben Cartwright stood looking east toward the Ponderosa.  The sun was dipping behind the horizon, casting a coppery glow on everything, and he and Hoss were making camp for the night. They had continued to follow the tracks of the Indian’s horses and had been led into a densely forested hilly area.  He allowed himself a moment to take in the wonder of it all – the pine trees tall and straight as the mast on a schooner, the brilliant blue sky, the rocks and the prairie grasses.  Like a beautiful woman the West took a man’s breath away.  The trouble was it could also take a man’s life away somewhere between that breath and the next.  Adam was long overdue, adding to his worry about Joe.  Each boy’s whereabouts were unknown.

Wherever they were, his eldest and his youngest sons’ fates lay in two different directions.

“The grub’s ready, Pa,” his remaining son called from near the small fire they had kindled.  When he didn’t move immediately, Hoss added, “You need to eat to keep up your strength.”

Ben turned and crossed to him.  He held his hands out for the plate Hoss had prepared.  “Words of wisdom, son.”

Hoss grinned that big friendly bear of a grin he had.  “Sure enough, Pa.”

Ben took a seat on a nearby log.  He lifted his fork and poked at his food.  “I sure wish we had found something more concrete in the search today.”

“These are Utes, Pa.  They ain’t gonna be easy to track.”

His son was right.  Following white men, well, it varied.  There were some that were masters of masking their trail, but most proved easy enough.  The ones who were masters of it had usually ridden or lived with Indians.

When he said nothing, Hoss added, “I’m sure we’ll find some sign of Joe tomorrow.”

Ben nodded.  He took a spoonful of stew and chewed for a minute, thinking.  After he had washed it down with water, he said, “I think we’re going to have to part company tomorrow, Hoss.”

His son frowned.  “I was thinkin’ you was probably thinkin’ that, Pa.  Don’t seem right smart.”

“No.  No, it isn’t, but I don’t see that we have any choice.  Adam should have been back by now.  Something has to have happened.”

“Maybe he had to ride out far to get the hands,” the big man suggested.

“Maybe.  Or maybe Jarvis Barrot’s schemes concerning Belle have progressed.”  Ben took another bite and swallowed.  “I’m praying that’s all that’s happened and not something worse.”

“Worse, Pa?”

Ben took another bite and then placed his plate on the ground.  “I wouldn’t put anything past Barrot.  If I didn’t know better, I would say he might have something to do with Joe’s disappearance as well.”

“You think Barrot’s gunning for us then?”

Did he?  His thoughts about all that was happening around them were just coming into focus.  “Let’s look at the situation, Hoss.  Apparently this man Barrot arrived in town shortly before Belle did.  She seemed surprised to see him, so I don’t think they are working together.  I think Belle is who she says she is if not what she thinks she is.”

“You don’t think she’s yours?”

The question hung in the air a moment.  “Belle’s a lovely girl.  I’d be proud if she was, but no, I don’t think so.  I can’t explain why.  It’s just something a man feels.”

“I agree, Pa.  It just don’t…fit, if you know what I mean.”  Hoss thought a second.  “So Belle didn’t come here with Barrot?”

“No.  He met her in town and she became extremely agitated and upset.  That night, Barrot shows up on our doorstep with a deal.”  Ben leaned forward.  He exchanged his water for coffee and then continued.  “Only I don’t think he had a deal.  I think he was just seeking information about Belle.”  Ben scowled.  “You can tell by the way he looks at her what his thoughts are.”

“Kind of a hungry look?”

Ben nodded.  “I think Belle feels threatened by him, and has been most of her life. Apparently her mother Jasmin married William Babylon not for love, but for security, for a safe haven from Barrot.  Belle says her mother tormented Jarvis and that her attitude and actions led to the downfall of her father’s company and her father as well.”

“But he loves her, right?  Jarvis, I mean.”

“Yes, son.”

Hoss shook his head.  “Beats me, Pa.  I remember you and Marie.  That’s the standard I set for love between a man and woman.  How can this Jarvis think that what he feels is love?”

“Like I’ve told you before, son, there are many kinds of love.  Jarvis Barrot’s love for Jasmin is something like the fever a man gets when he hears there’s gold in the hills.  Barrot doesn’t want a woman to work at his side or give him strong sons.  He waned to possess Jasmin like a man owns property or goods.  And when he couldn’t have her, he turned his attentions on her daughter.”

Hoss thought a moment.  “You said this here Jarvis Barrot wants to destroy us too?”

“Belle said as much,” the silver-haired man said as he leaned back, coffee cup in hand.  “Apparently her mother never stopped talking about me, and holding up my example to both her husband and Barrot.  In her mind I became the image of the perfect man.”

“Well, Pa, you’re just about as close as it gets,” Hoss deadpanned.

Ben snorted.  “If you could talk to your mother, she’d probably have a thing or two to say about that!”  The older man grew sober.  “It’s a terrible thing, Hoss, fighting a ghost.  I feel for Jasmin’s husband.”

“Yeah.”  Hoss paused.  “So, from what I understand, Pa, Barrot ruined Babylon and his business.  The man died.  Then, last year, Jasmin died too.  Why do you think Belle showed up now?”

“I think she was frightened.  Jarvis may have intensified his pursuit of her.  There’s no way to know for sure until she tells us.”

“So you think this Barrot has something to do with Adam bein’ late?  And maybe with Joe being missing too?”

“Your youngest brother’s disappearance is a mystery.  If Joe was free, he’d have found us by now.  Someone has to be holding him.  I hope it’s the Indians.”

Hoss stopped in the middle of a bite.  “Hope it is?  How come, Pa?”

“The Indians are pure in their hate, son.  They’ll kill a man without a thought if he threatens them, but for the most part they don’t kill without good reason.  Your brother has never offended the Indians.  And there are a good many of them who know the Cartwright name and know we mean to help them when we can.  But Barrot?”  He shuddered.  “He’s like a snake, full of venom, ready to strike the first man who walks by.  That’s why I’m close to being more worried about Adam than Joe.  Your little brother can take care of himself in a situation like that.  Adam’s situation is entirely different.  Since he went back to the ranch, he’s in Barrot’s territory.”

“So what are you thinkin’?  You want me to go back to the house?”

Ben tossed his coffee on the ground next to the fire.  “No, son, much as I want to keep looking for Joe, I think it’s me who has to go back to the Ponderosa.  I need to make sure Belle is in a safe place and that Adam is all right, and then he and I need to gather up the men to come here and help us scour these hills and the caves they contain.”

“Are you thinkin’ Joe might be holed up in one?”

“It’s what I taught him – taught all of you to do when you were boys.”

Hoss tossed his own coffee next to the fire and rose.  “First light then, Pa.  I’ll make for the caves aside the stream.”

“God willing, you’ll find your brother.”

Hoss crossed to his bedding and laid down.  “I’ll find him, Pa.  Don’t you worry.  You go find Adam.”

Ben nodded as he watched his middle son scoot down to a comfortable place and pull his hat over his eyes.  He thought about doing the same, but poured himself another cup of coffee instead.

With half of his family missing, he was going to get very little sleep tonight.

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They’d made it out of the wickiup and were running, hand in hand, through the tall trees.  Joe’d thought he would have to help Pretty Prairie to cross the rough land, but he was forgetting she was the granddaughter of a rogue Indian chief who had moved her from one place to the next as regular as the moon waning and waxing, probably from the time she was born.  She was a sure-footed as any wild animal and had actually outpaced him a couple of times.

Of course, he did have a bad leg.

The girl had just climbed a ten foot rise and was looking down at him.  She knelt at the top and extended a hand.  “Does Joe Cartwright need help?”

He tried to pretend that he wasn’t in pain and his breath wasn’t coming hard.  “No.  No.  I’m all right.  I’ll be up there in a minute.  I’m just, well, listening to see if anyone is behind us.”

Pretty Prairie looked at him and then past him to the trees.  “Someone is.”

“What?”

“I hear them.”

Joe took hold of some of the long grass on the ridge and began to work his way you.  “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Pretty Prairie figure you not say anything, so white man must know.”

Was that sarcasm in her voice?

“Well, maybe my hearing ain’t what it should be.” He reached for some tall grass sticking out of the side of the ridge.  As his hand caught it, the foot on his bad leg slipped and he slid several feet back down the rise.  “Next time,” he huffed, “just tell me.  Okay?”

Joe felt the Indian girl’s hand circle his wrist.

“Next time Joe Cartwright ask.  Okay?”

He looked up at her.  She was grinning.

“Okay,” he agreed as he used the strength her grip added to complete the climb to the top.  Once on the crest of the rise, he sat down and looked at her.  “Thanks,” he said, returning the grin.

The Indian girl’s dark eyes were full of mischief.  “You’re welcome,” she said and then she leaned over and kissed him again.  Before he could do anything about it, Pretty Prairie was on her feet and offering him a hand.  “Come, Joe Cartwright.  My father’s people come close.”

A minute later they were on the move again. They made steady if somewhat slow progress.  The more he used his leg, the less it wanted to be used.  He was beginning to think he might have fractured instead of strained it.  By the time they reached the area of the river caves, he was sweating like a horse after a gallop and his leg was throbbing in tune with his heartbeat.

He was also leaning heavily on Pretty Prairie.

Joe nodded toward one dark opening gaping in the hill before them.  “We need to get inside.  Even if your grandfather’s men follow us into the cave, there’s plenty of places to hide inside.”

She was looking at him.  Her face was all screwed up the way a girl got when she heard bad news or was looking at something she was afraid was going to die.  “You are hurting,” she said.

He didn’t know if that was a statement or a question.  Either way she was right.

“I just need to rest for a while.  I’ll be fine after I do.”

“White men lie,” Pretty Prairie replied.

He shook his head. “Not all of us.”

The Indian girl reached up and fingered the brown curls dripping down on his forehead.  Then she laid her hand alongside his cheek.  A moment later her soft lips met his again and for just a second he was able to completely forget about the predicament he was in.

Just a second.

“Well, lookee here.  It don’t look like we’re gonna need to lie at all, does it?”

Joe pivoted on his good heel.  Then he took hold of Pretty Prairie and shoved her behind him as Gabriel McRae and a group of Indian men stepped out of the tree-line to their right.

“Get ready to run,” Joe told her over his shoulder.  “Head west into the trees.”

He felt her hand on his back.  “Joe,” she said, sounding hesitant.  He looked.

They were surrounded.

McRae left the other Indians’ side and approached them.  “You been having your way with White Crow’s girl, boy?” he asked as he stopped. “Even with that bad leg?”

Without warning McRae’s leg shot out taking him squarely in the center of his injured limb.  Joe cried out and fell.  Pretty Prairie began to drop beside him, but another of the renegade band caught her around the waist and prevented her from doing so.

While lookin down at him, McRae said to the man, “Why don’t you take Juliet there into the cave.  I’ll bring Romeo here in a minute.”

The Indian holding Pretty Prairie lowered her to the ground.  As he did, the girl began to strike him.  There was a loud slap! as the man struck her cheek.  After that she fell silent and allowed the man to lead her away.

Joe’s temper flared.  “Hey!  You didn’t need to do that!  She’s a girl.  If you’re angry about something, you take it up with me!”

McRae knelt beside him.  “Ain’t gonna make no nevermind to neither of you an hour or so from now, boy.”  McRae caught him by the hair and thrust his head back.  “Soon as Yellow Horse shows up, you’re both gonna be dead.”

“Let her go,” Joe pleaded.  “You can tell White Crow anything you want.  You can say you found me with her, killed me, and then brought her back.  You don’t have to kill Pretty Prairie!”

McRae smirked.  “White Crow wouldn’t want her if she’d been sullied by a white man.”

That stopped him.  He hadn’t given a thought to what having Pretty Prairie run away with him might do to her – he’d just wanted to escape.

“You mean, he wouldn’t want her back?  His own granddaughter?”

“So’s he could raise some white man’s pup?  He’d as soon kill it as look at it.”

That was another thing he had forgotten – prejudice went both ways.

Joe felt the barrel of the rifle the villainous man held rest on his stomach. “Now get to your feet, boy, and get movin’ afore I put a hole through you right here and now!”

Joe fought a wave of dizziness as he struggled to stand.  He got to his feet, but then his bad leg gave out and he stumbled.  McRae made a disgusted sound deep in his throat and then reached out and caught him around the waist before ordering him forward.  Joe eyed the man’s rifle as they made their way to the cave.  He could drop and take McRae out by rolling and striking his legs and then maybe, just maybe get hold of the gun.  Once he had it, he could shoot his way out.   Or he could have if it hadn’t been for Pretty Prairie.  She’d already disappeared into the cave.

There was nothing to do but follow her in.

And die.

 

 

ELEVEN

It was, maybe, three in the morning and Hoss was on the move.  So was his pa.  Neither of them had been able to get any shut-eye, so they’d decided to break camp and go their separate ways.  His pa’s path was easier, sticking to the road and heading back to the Ponderosa.  Hoss found himself on foot leading Chubb and making his way across rocky uneven ground by the light of the stars.  They’d agreed he should head for the caves located near the stream first.  They were the best shelter in the area and if Joe’d managed to get free of a bunch of Utes, he was going to need the best there was.  As the big man approached the water’s edge, that inner sense that a fella developed when spending most of his time in the wilderness set off an alarm.  It was strong enough it brought him to a halt.  Something was wrong, but he just couldn’t place it.  It might have been a sound on the wind, or a smell, or maybe a shadow moving when all of the other shadows were still.  Hoss drew a deep breath.  Yeah, that was it.  That last one.  He’d seen something shift not too far ahead of him.

Something that moved like a man.

Ducking into the trees with Chubb, the big man tethered his horse and began to work his way slowly forward on foot.  He’d gone about a hundred yards when the figure turned from a shadow into an Indian sitting on a horse.  There were three of them actually, two on foot and the one riding.  They were talking low about something.  Hoss moved forward a few more feet, hoping to hear what it was.  Before he could arrive, the tall warrior on the horse kicked his mount’s side and moved forward – heading for the big dark opening into a cave that was up a small hill and a little ways to the south.

The moonlight revealed that there were two more Indians standing guard outside the cave.

Hoss scowled.  He needed information and he needed it now.  The dumbest thing he could do was charge a bunch of renegade Indians holed up in a cave if their presence had nothing to do with Joe.  The big man eyed the two Indians who remained.  They were talking to one another.  His guess was, when they were done talking, that they’d go their separate ways.  Most likely they were patrolling the perimeter, making sure no one got through.  He’d just have to change that.

Then he’d just sit the feller he caught down and have a nice friendly chat with him.

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Ben Cartwright galloped into the yard in front of his ranch.  He checked his mount, tied the reins to the rail, and then looked around.  The supply wagon was still sitting by the pump, its cargo intact.  He could see the supplies in the bed, lying open to the sky.  Puzzled, the silver-haired man made his way over to it.  As he did, he noticed a dark substance on the ground.  Kneeling, he fingered it.

Blood.

Rising, Ben called out, “Adam!  Adam, are you here? “  When no one answered, he headed for the door, trying again.  “Adam!  Son, if you’re here, answer me!”

A voice stopped him and caused him to backtrack.  Looking up, Ben spotted Belle leaning out of one of the upstairs’ windows that fronted the yard.

“Benjamin!  Benjamin, up here!  We’re in Adam’s room.”

Before she finished speaking, Ben was on the move.  He passed through the front door and flew up the steps, reaching Adam’s bedroom in less than a minute.  The first thing he saw when he entered it were the blood-stained linens hanging on the side of the washstand.

Belle turned toward him.  “Oh, thank goodness!” she said.  “Adam needs help.  He’s been shot.”

Ben was at his son’s side in a heartbeat.  He took a seat beside him and reached out to touch his arm.  “Adam?  Adam, can you hear me?”

“He’s in and out, Benjamin.  Sometimes I can wake him, other times his sleep is so deep there’s nothing I can do.”

The older man lifted the coverlet and looked at his son’s wound.  “Is the bullet out?”

She nodded.  “Hop Sing took care of it.”

Ben’s silvery brows shot up.  “Hop Sing?”

Belle shrugged.  “Desperate times call for desperate measures?”

Ben laughed.  “Well, Hop Sing has certainly watched enough bullet extractions in this house.  If the bullet wasn’t in too deep, I suppose he could take care of it.”

“Adam thought he was shot from some distance.”

“Oh?”  Ben wondered now if he had ridden right past the shooter who had allowed him to reach his home for some reason – or if they were gone.  “You’ve seen or heard nothing else?”

She shook her head.  “Hop Sing went for the doctor earlier.  You didn’t see him along the way?”

Ben glanced at the window.  “They’re probably bedded down for a spell.  It’s the blackest part of the night.”  He sighed.  “Hoss and I, well, we tried to sleep.  It was pointless.”

“Did you find out anything about Little Joe?”

“No.  I left Hoss to look for him.”  He frowned.  ‘It was a hard choice.  Now I’ve got all three sons at risk.”

The lovely young woman had grown pale.  “I am so sorry….  I am so sorry I brought this on you.”

He shifted to look at her.  “You had nothing to do with Joe’s trouble.  That was his own fault.  But this,” he glanced at Adam, “you think you are responsible for this?”

Belle’s eyes were fixed on Adam.  “I think I’m in love with your son, Benjamin.”

It was hard for his brows to fly higher, but they did.  “In love with you ‘brother’?”

She flopped down in the chair beside the bed.  “I already told Adam.”  Her eyes flicked to his face as she winced, anticipating trouble.  “Much as I would like to be, I’m not your child.”

“You’re sure of this?”

She shrugged.  “One hundred percent?  No. Mother, as you know, had many lovers at once.  She thought I was yours.  She wanted me to be yours.  So did I.”  Belle sighed and smiled ruefully.  “If you had a choice between the most wonderful man in the world and the dregs of soldiers, sailors, and other men she was with for a father, who do you think you would have chosen?”

“So why come here?  What was your purpose?”

She rose and began to pace like a caged animal.  “I don’t know!  I guess I thought, if you believed that I was your child, that you would protect me from Jarvis.  My pa did until he died.  Things got worse that last year while my mother was ill.  Then when she died….”  Belle shuddered.  “Jarvis has connections, Benjamin.  Men he hired hounded me everywhere I went.  I still had part ownership in my father’s company, not control, but ownership.  They began to cut off all of our supply lines and made legal trouble for me.”

“Legal?”

“These men, Benjamin, they’re lawyers and doctors and council men, even senators.  It was nothing for them trump up charges.  Jarvis was determined I would be left with nothing so I would have to call on him and take him up on his offer.”

“What offer was that, Belle? “the silver-haired man asked softly.

“To marry him.”  She shivered and wrapped her arms about her shoulders.  “I’d rather bed a grizzly.”

Ben rose, intending to go to her side, but when he did, Adam stirred.  Turning back, he placed a hand on his son’s good shoulder.  “Adam?  Son, can you hear me?”

Adam’s hazel eyes opened.  “Pa?” he asked with a little smile.

“I’m here, son,” he said, taking his hand.

“Joe…?”

Ben shook his head.  “Nothing yet.  Hoss is still looking.”

Adam blinked and seemed to become more aware.  “Pa, there was someone laying in wait when we got back.  He shot me.”

“I know, son.  It looks like Belle and Hop Sing took care of you.”

That brought a smile.  “I’m fortunate I didn’t end up on the table for supper.”

He smiled too.  “How do you feel?”

“Better.”  Adam glanced at Belle.  At her look he added, “No, I really feel better.  I think I can get out of bed – ”

“And I think you can just stay in it a little longer,” his father replied.  “There’s nothing to do right now.”

“Pa!  That shooter is still out there!”

“If he is, why didn’t he shoot at me when I came in?”

Adam paused.  He blinked.  “That’s right. Sorry.  I’m a bit confused.”

“You’ve lost a great deal of blood son.”  Ben patted his arm.  “You just lay there and get better.  I’m going to go out and gather up some of the men.  I’ll send some after Hoss and Joe and position the others around the ranch house to keep watch.”  The older man finished with, “Does that meet your approval?”

“I must be in sorry shape if you’re asking my approval, Pa,” Adam said with a grin.

Ben leaned over and kissed him on the forehead.  “You get some rest, son.”

As Adam leaned back and closed his eyes, Ben turned to Belle.  He held out a hand. “Shall we?”

The lovely brunette nodded.  As they headed down the stairs, she asked, “What would you like me to do?”

Ben thought a moment.  “I think it’s best if you stay here and look after Adam.  I’m going to take Buck and go out and look for the men.”  As he finished speaking they passed through the door.  Continuing on until they were near the wagon, he said, “I’ll come back with a couple of the hands and unload this before I head out again to look for Joe.”  Bidding Belle farewell for the moment, the silver-haired man lifted his foot and placed his boot in the stirrup.

The moment he did a shot rang out and a bullet struck the ground not a foot from him.  Reacting instantly, Ben turned and ran toward Belle.  He pulled her close to the house and out of the line of fire.

“What was that?” she gasped.

The older man frowned.  “A warning.”

“A ‘warning’ of what?”

“That we’re allowed to come home, but not to leave.  Someone has men positioned to watch the house and keep us contained.”

Belle was clinging to him.  “But why?”

“I don’t know, Belle, but I’m afraid we’re about to find out.”

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Hoss looked down at the native who lay trussed and gagged at his feet.  He’d remained where he was, holding still, until the Indian passed in front of him and he was able to take him down without a sound.  He’d dragged the man away and threatened him with all kinds of terrible things he had no intention of doing.  Whether the Ute sensed that, or was tough enough not to care, he’d gotten very little information out of him.  From what he could tell the men in the cave were guarding a white man and someone else – a woman, he thought.  That made it less likely that it was Joe, but then again if the renegade Utes were holding a white man, he was duty-bound to try and save him no matter who he was.

After checking his bindings, the big man left the native lodged between a fallen log and a clump of rocks.  He threw several handfuls of dry grass over him for good measure before he left, making sure no one would see him.  After that Hoss made the short trek back to where he had taken the man captive and positioned himself to watch the cave’s entryway.

There was a horse tethered outside it now.  The tall Indian he’d seen before was standing beside the animal.  As he watched another man – a white one – came out of the cave to greet him.  Hoss narrowed his blue eyes, squinting against the dark.  The moon was strong and so he could see pretty well.  Still, the night stole all the details.  He thought he recognized the white man, but couldn’t be sure.  From what he remembered they’d talked a few times over a beer in the saloon.  He thought the man’s name was Gabe, and that he was a drifter who moved from ranch to ranch, going where the work was.

Gabe seemed mighty friendly with the mean-looking warrior.

Remaining where he was, the big man continued to watch and assess the situation.  He hadn’t seen the other man who’d been walking the perimeter in some time, so he was betting he’d gone back to the cave to join in whatever was happening there.  Other than that there was Gabe, the tall Indian, and two others who had been standing guard.  He couldn’t know, of course, if there were anymore in the cave but from the count of horses tethered close to it he thought there might have been maybe six at most.  One of them he’d left back in the woods.  That made the odds five to one.

He’d had worse.

Hoss took a moment to unfasten the strap on the holster that held his gun in place.  He also put a knife in his right boot, pushing it all the way down so the handle was hidden.  Then, with a silent prayer that he get through and successfully rescue whoever it was these men were holding, Hoss moved off into the night.

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Joe Cartwright shook his head trying to dispel the stars that floated before his eyes and against the black interior of the cave.  One of the natives keeping watch had been handling Pretty Prairie and it had been more than he could take.  With his hands bound he’d charged the warrior, body slamming him and knocking the native backwards.  Unfortunately, the other Indian guarding them had come at him with a one of the staffs the Utes carried when riding on horseback.  Joe’d managed to avoid the point piercing him, but at the last minute the Indian had turned and struck him across the chest with the end, throwing him against the cave wall where he’d hit his head. The Indian stood over him now where he lay on the ground, pressing the staff’s head into his torso and pinning him down.

Pretty Prairie was sobbing.

“You’re a feisty one, Cartwright, I’ll give you that.”

Joe’s mouth was gagged so he couldn’t answer, except with his eyes.  If only looks could have killed….

Gabe McRae came to stand over him, relishing the power it gave him over a bound man as only a varmint could.  McRae smirked as he kicked his bad leg, bringing him renewed pain.  “Too bad you’re a Cartwright.  With that temper and speed of yours, you’d make a good addition to our little band.”  He shook his head.  “It’s a shame, but all of you high and mighty Cartwrights are gonna be dead by the next nightfall.”

Joe asked the question with his eyes.

McRae leaned in and lifted him up by taking hold of his tattered collar.  “Not you, boy.  You’re gonna be dead by this one.”

Joe looked toward the cave mouth.  All of the Indians were there now, including Yellow Horse who had just arrived.  The tall Indian walked to his side and stood there, knife in hand.

“It is time,” he said.

McRae rose to his feet.  “I’ll get the girl.”

Joe squirmed beneath the Indian’s staff.  All he accomplished was to get the pole pressed more firmly into his side.

McRae snorted and shook his head.  “Stupid kid.  Doesn’t know when he’s beaten.”

Joe watched helplessly as McRae approached Pretty Prairie and wrapped his hands around her neck.  He feared he was going to watch her die in the next few seconds, but it was worse than that.  The wicked man removed her gag and then pressed in against her and twisted his lips against hers, taking some sick pleasure from the experience of abusing a helpless woman.  As Pretty Prairie struggled against her attacker, a black shadow eclipsed Joe.  He looked up to find Yellow Horse had moved in for the kill.  The Indian ordered the native who held the staff to move away.  He used one hand to draw him to his feet and position Joe against the cave wall.  With a sadistic smirk on his weathered face, Yellow Horse toyed with him first, pressing the tip of the blade into the flesh of his shoulder.  Then, with a short push, the Indian split his skin and thrust the blade in until it struck bone.

Joe bit his lip to keep from crying out.  He wasn’t going to give the man any satisfaction.  With a cold chuckle, the Indian withdrew the blade.  Joe fought blacking out as the world began to spin again and the stars reappeared.

“Now, white man,” Yellow Horse snarled while pressing the knife tip into his belly, “you die!”

Joe closed his eyes and waited for the killing blow.  When it didn’t come, he dared to open them.  Yellow Horse had not moved.  He was looking toward the cave’s mouth.  The other Indians were alert as well and McRae had released Pretty Prairie and taken a step away from her.  His mind taken off of dying for a moment, Joe listened as well.  This time he heard what they had heard.  Several gunshots struck the front of the cave, first from one angle and then maybe thirty seconds later, from another.  Outside, he could see the feet of one of the native’s who had been standing guard.  The man was lying on the ground.

That left four in the cave.

A voice followed the gun shots.  “We’ve got you surrounded, McRae.  Come on out with your hands up!”

Joe frowned.  There was something familiar about that voice.

McRae had moved to the cave mouth.  “We got hostages in here!” he shouted.  “They’ll die if you come any closer.”

You’ll die if you don’t let them go,” whoever it was called out.  “You hear?”

Joe watched as the native with the staff moved past McRae, heading for a stand of rocks beside the cave.  It was a mistake.  A shot rang out and the man fell.

The odds were getting better.  It was three to three now.

Unfortunately, two hardly counted.  Pretty Prairie was in a heap on the floor, and his hands were bound.

Yellow Horse was still holding him.  Looking into the native’s eyes,  he read his death.  The Indian was going to carry through and kill him.  Before he could, McRae yelled, “Yellow Horse, no!  He’s a Cartwright.  He’s worth more now as a hostage.”

The light in the Indian’s eyes shifted from murderous to cunning.  He was weighing his options, considering what path would benefit him the most.  Coming to a decision, the warrior called out, “Come, McRae!  There is a back way out.”

McRae stared at Yellow Horse in disbelief for a moment and then ordered the remaining native to grab Pretty Prairie up from the floor and follow.  The man did as he was told, but as he did another shot rang out.  It struck and ricocheted off the wall above McRae’s head and struck the man causing him to let loose of Pretty Prairie.

The Indian girl shot Joe a look that contained a combination of fear and regret and then bolted for the cave opening.

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Hoss frowned.  He’d taken out at least two of the kidnappers and most likely three since no one was shooting at him anymore.  Moving out from the cover he had concealed himself in, the big man sprinted for the cave.  He had just arrived and made a step to enter when a small form came hurtling out.  Whoever it was barreled into him and rebounded, falling flat on their behind.  Hoss’s brows shot up when he saw it was a skinny little Indian gal.  The girl stared at him and then jumped to her feet.  Taking hold of the ends of his buckskin vest she pulled the tough fabric, urging him toward the cave.

“They’ll kill him!” she shouted.  “Please!  Come! Come now!”

Hoss caught her by the hands and waited until she met his eyes.  “Who are they gonna kill?  Your Pa, or maybe a brother?”

“No!”  Tears streamed down her cheeks.   She looked like she’d been ill-used by whoever held her.  “No!  Not Indian!”

“Miss,” Hoss said, “if you’ll calm down and tell me what’s going on, I promise I’ll do my best to help you.”  As she quieted, he said, “Now if you’ll just tell me your fellers’ name and who has him.”

The girl blushed.  That alone should have given him a clue to what her answer would be.

“Joe,” she said.  “Joe Cartwright.  Yellow Horse and McRae have taken him!”

Hoss looked into the dark maw before him that had swallowed his brother one minute away from recue.

Joe.

 

 

TWELVE

Hop Sing had returned from town.  Thankfully he arrived unmolested.  Unfortunately, the Chinese man had also arrived without Doc Martin.  The Doc, it seemed, was away attending a young man about Joe’s age who was the victim of a mountain lion attack.  His family lived on a ranch outside of Virginia City.  Ben was glad for the doctor’s sake, but worried for his son.  Hop Sing told him he had handed a note to one of their hands in town and asked him to ride out to the Carters’ place, so it was possible the doctor might still stumble into whatever Jarvis Barrot had planned for them.

They had no way of warning him off.

After allaying Hop Sing’s worries about Adam, who really was doing better, Ben had sent the Chinese man to the kitchen to rustle up some grub for all of them.  Ben crossed to the door and looked out.  Since it appeared they were under siege, he felt they were going to need it.

“Pa.”

He turned to find Adam leaning on the banister on the lower portion of the staircase that went up to the second floor.

“Son!  What are you doing out of bed?”

“I’m tired of laying down, Pa.  I thought I’d come sit by the fire.”

The older man crossed to his son and offered him his shoulder for support.  Adam accepted and let him lead him to one of the big crimson chairs that butted up against the hearth.  Once he had Adam positioned, Ben sat on the edge of the table.

“How are you, son?”

“I’m fine, Pa.  The fever’s almost gone.”  He shifted his left arm.  “My shoulder’s sore, but luckily whoever it was didn’t hit my gun arm.”

“You’re not intending to fight – ”

“Pa, if Barrot’s hired thugs attack the Ponderosa like Belle thinks they will, you’re going to need every able-bodied man watching one of these windows.”  At the moment that’s you, me, Hop Sing, and Belle,” Adam grinned.  “If such a pretty lady can count as able-bodied.”

“Belle has no experience of guns,” Ben said.

Adam shrugged.  “It doesn’t take much to learn to aim, point, and shoot.”

“No.”  Ben was adamant. “I won’t willingly put her in harm’s way.”

“It’s I who have put you and your family in harm’s way,” Belle announced as she appeared at the top of the stairs.  Please, Benjamin, let me help.”

He shook his head as she approached.  “It’s too dangerous.”

“The only reason there is danger is because you took me in.”

Ben took her shoulders in his hands.  “You don’t know that, Belle.  You said Jarvis hated me from the moment he knew I had been in Jasmin’s life.  That was before you were born.  Men like Jarvis, they don’t need a reason.  They’re so full of self-hate they have to find something to justify their existence.”

Belle frowned  “Self-hate?  It seems Jarvis loves no one but himself.”

“It often appears that way.  But deep down inside them that self-love is a cancer that gnaws away at who and what they are, until there is nothing left but the need to take what they want and destroy what they cannot have or be.”  Ben released her. “Belle, your being here might actually prove our salvation.”

Tears entered her eyes.  “How?  Please tell me how?”

“Whether we’d use the word or not, Jarvis loves you.  It’s likely he’ll change his plans once he knows you are in the house.”  Ben was glad to see hope dawn in her eyes.  He didn’t want to dash it  so he said nothing about the fact that the men working for Jarvis would hold no such compunction.

“Do you really think so, Benjamin?”

“I’m sure of it,” he replied, giving her hand a little squeeze.

“Pa.”

His son was rising.  “What is it, Adam?”

“There’s someone outside.”

Ben went to the door and looked out.  A familiar carriage was parked beside the still unloaded supply wagon.  Doc Martin was just stepping out, bag in hand.

“Damn,” he said.

“Oh, I don’t know, Pa,” his eldest said as he came to lean on the tall case clock beside him. “Before this is over we may be glad the Doc’s here.”

Ben nodded.  He didn’t like it, but this – like Joe’s life and Hoss’s whereabouts – were in the Almighty’s hands.

“Let’s get the good doctor in here where he’s safe, Adam, and have him take  a look at that arm,” he said.

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Once Hoss released her the little Indian gal took off like a shot and plunged into the cave.  He had a time following her.  She was fast on her feet and slender as a stick, so while he had to take time to work his way around the rock formations in the cave’s innards, she just kept running and calling his brother’s name.  It was good she was a noisy little thing.  It was pitch-black in the cave and he had to make his way by following her voice. Not for the first time the big man wondered how his little brother had ended up in this mess.  The last time he’d seen Joe he’d been headed for the Makems and now, here he was, being held captive by a band of renegade Indians.

That boy did have a way about him.

Hoss stopped to draw a breath.  As he did, he shouted, “Hey!  Slow down.  It ain’t gonna do you any good to get there afore me!  Hey!”

It took about thirty seconds.  He couldn’t see her, but he felt the girl touch his hand.  “It is too late.  They are gone.”

She was trembling.  Hoss placed his big hand over her tiny one.  “What’d you see?”

“McRae and Yellow Horse were mounted.  Yellow Horse had Joe slung over his saddle.”

“Was he conscious?  Could you tell?”

She made a small strangled noise.  “He did not move.”

Hoss squeezed her hand.  “Take me to the opening.”

The Indian girl took his hand and began to lead him forward.  Hoss followed her all the way through and out of the cave.  He had seldom been so happy in his life as when he was able to draw a deep breath of the cool night.  The moon was in the  west and the sun was peeping over the horizon to the east.  There was a footpath leading down the hillside, but no road.

“Did you see what way they went?” he asked her.

The little Indian gal scrunched up her face.  “Northeast,” she said at last.

Hoss drew a breath.  The Ponderosa lay northeast.  Now why would the men who kidnapped him be taking Joe back home?  Maybe to try to ransom him?  “Did those men who took Joe know who he was?  Ben Cartwright’s son, I mean?”

She nodded.  “They want to destroy Ben Cartwright.”

“Destroy?  Why?”  Hoss paused.  The girl was shaking from head to toe and looked like she might faint at any moment.  “Miss,” he said, removing his hat, “I’ve been mighty remiss.  How long’s it been since you ate anything?”

She shook her head.  “We need to go after Joe.”

“It ain’t gonna help Joe any if you faint and fall off the horse, now it is?”  The big man pursed his lips.  “Hey, I don’t even know your name.”  He held out his hand.  “Mine’s Hoss.  Hoss Cartwright.  Joe’s my little brother.”

That seemed to surprise her.

“Oh, I know we don’t look any more alike than a stallion and the hind end of a mule, but it’s true.”  Hoss smiled, trying to put her at ease.  “Will you tell me your name?”

She hesitated only a second.  “Pretty Prairie.”

“Now that sure is a good name since you’re about the prettiest little thing I’ve seen for a long time.”  Hoss glanced back at the cave.  “Pretty Prairie, you and me are gonna have to go back through that there cave and get my horse before we can go after Joe.”  As she shook her head, he added, “Those men are on horseback.  Ain’t no way we can catch them on foot.”

The Indian girl sighed.  She looked back the way Joe had been taken and then nodded.  “We must move quickly.”

“How come?”

Pretty Prairie frowned.  “Does your father have much money?”

“Well, he’s got a good bit.”

“The white man, McRae, he wants money.  That is the only thing keeping Joe alive.”

“What do you mean?”

“Yellow Horse has been shamed.  He has been defeated by a white man.  Yellow Horse would kill your brother to make it right.”

“Do you think McRae can control him?” Hoss asked, frightened by her words.

“I do not know.  I only know we must go.”

As she pushed past him, Hoss caught her arm.  “You don’t have to – go, you know?  Would you like me to take you back to your people?  It might be safer.”

The disgust was evident on Pretty Prairie’s face.  “Yellow Horse is my people.  He meant to kill me and make it look like Joe had done it so there would be war between the Ute and the Ponderosa.”  She moved toward the cave mouth.  “I want nothing to do with my people!”

As she disappeared into the cave Hoss tilted his hat back on his head and turned to look back the way the kidnappers had taken.

What was that Adam had said about Joe?

Out of the frying pan?

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Jarvis Barrot waited at the edge of the Ponderosa lands.  Gabriel McRae had sent him word that the raid was to be tonight and had arranged this place and an approximate time to meet to go over everything.  A slow smirk curled Barrot’s thin lips into a cruel smile.  Ben Cartwright’s youngest must already be dead, his body left beside that of old White Crow’s granddaughter for the aged chief to find.  Poor Cartwright wouldn’t have much time to mourn.  White Crow’s revenge would be swift, and by morning the great Ponderosa and Ben Cartwright would be nothing more than a memory.

There was only one thing that troubled him.  He had no idea where Belle was.

Jarvis removed his watch from his inner pocket and checked the time.  McRae was nearly an hour late.  He looked to the southwest where he knew McRae and Yellow Horse had meant to do the deed, wondering if something had gone wrong.  There was always a chance, when working with such unsavory men, that their greed would get in the way of his need.  He had stressed to McRae that there was one constant with two ends and that was all that mattered – Ben Cartwright was to be destroyed and Belle must be his.

The sound of hoof beats warned him of someone’s approach.  Drawing the small snub-nosed pistol he carried in his inner vest pocket, Jarvis melted into the shadows and waited.  The light was dawning, so he recognized McRae almost immediately.  The native man beside him must be Yellow Horse.

But there was someone else – someone slung over the Indian’s saddle.

Gabriel McRae dismounted.  He looked around and then called, “Barrot?  Barrot, are you here?”

“I’m here,” he said stepping into the waxing light.  “You’re late.”

McRae nodded.  “We ran into some trouble.”

Jarvis indicated Yellow Horse and his prisoner.  “Who have you got there?”

“Well, that was the trouble.  Someone came looking for young Cartwright.  Must have been three or four of them.  They took out Yellow Horse’s men.”

“White Crow’s granddaughter?”

McRae scowled.  “She got away.”  Before Jarvis could respond, he nodded toward the horse.  “Cartwright didn’t.”

“Is he dead?”

McRae snorted.  “Not yet.”

Jarvis began to walk in a circle.  “What now?  If Pretty Prairie isn’t found with Cartwright, how are we going to draw White Crow into this war?”

“Hold on, Barrot.  Think about it.  The Cartwright boy escaped and Pretty Prairie is missing.”  His smile was slick.  “That just about says it all.”

He stopped.  “Yes.  Yes, it could still work.  Does White Crow know?”

“That his granddaughter is missing and that Cartwright took her?  Yes.  I met one of my men on the road and sent him back to the Indian camp to stir things up.  White Crow should be heading this way soon.”

Jarvis eyed McRae for a moment and then walked over to where Yellow Horse was.  He stepped close to the native’s horse and, taking the youngest Cartwright by the hair, lifted his head up.  The boy didn’t make a sound as he did.

“Are you sure he’s still alive?” Jarvis asked.

“If I had my way, he would not be,” Yellow Horse said with a scowl.

“It took some convincing to get my Indian companion here to leave him alive.  Think about it, Barrot.  You can use him as a hostage.  His old man would do anything to get him back.  Or, you could ransom him and have enough gold to build a second empire.”  McRae smirked.  “If he lives, that is.”

Jarvis had noted the blood on the shoulder of the boy’s gray jacket.  “What happened to him?”

“I did,” Yellow Horse snarled.  With a hand on Joe Cartwright’s back, the native turned and looked at McRae.  “I must return to White Crow and make sure he chooses the red path.”

McRae nodded.  “I’ll take Cartwright then.  You – ”

Before he could end the sentence, Yellow Horse took his knife and sliced through the cord binding Ben Cartwright’s boy to his saddle.  Joe Cartwright plummeted like a stone to the ground and lay there unmoving.

Yellow Horse glared at them and then turned his mount to the south and disappeared into the trees.

Jarvis knelt beside the boy.  He felt just the slightest bit of regret for what he was about to do.  This young man’s only sin was being the seed of Ben Cartwright.  He felt no animosity toward him.

It would have been easier if the boy’s death had occurred far away.

Jarvis took hold of the young man’s shoulders and laid him flat on his back.  Then he placed an ear to his chest.  His heart was still beating, but it was rapid, and there was a sheen of sweat on his face that suggested he was fevered.  Turning to look at the other man, he said, “At this point he’s worth more to us alive than dead, McRae.  Help me to get him off the road and then bring me something to bind this wound with.  It’s been bleeding for too long as it is.”

McRae snorted.  “Sounds like you’re going soft, Barrot.”

Jarvis rose to his feet and turned on the other man.  “You yourself said he’s worth more to us alive than dead.  Your bungling – and your Indian’s savagery – have nearly killed him.  Without help, he won’t last long enough for us to use as leverage against his father!”

“Okay.  Okay.  I got some whiskey in my saddle bag.  I’ll get that and some bandages.”  He glanced at Joe Cartwright where he lay on the ground.  “Still, seems a waste of time when he’s gonna be dead by morning.”

Jarvis rose to his feet and looked toward the Ponderosa.  A lot could happen before morning.  Having the boy as insurance may have been better than having him dead.  If everything else failed – if the Ponderosa survived as did Cartwright’s sons – at the least he would still have the man himself.

He’d have Ben Cartwright’s life for his son’s.

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Adam Cartwright shifted his shoulder and looked up at Doc Martin.  “Well, Doc, I’m sorry you’re trapped here with us, but I’m not sorry you’re here.  That feels a lot better.”

“Hop Sing did an excellent job for an amateur.  I just added some finesse,” the doctor responded with a smile.

“Oh, I hardly think Hop Sing qualifies as an amateur.  After all, he’s been with Pa since Joe was born – he’s had a lot of practice coping with emergencies.”

“I don’t see Joe here now and I seem to have had plenty of work.”  The doctor closed his bag with a smart snap.  “Where is your youngest brother?”

They hadn’t had time to tell him.  “Joe’s missing.”

“Oh.”  Doc Martin’s gaze went to the dining room table.  His father was sitting there, staring at the cup of coffee Hop Sing had just brought him.  “How’s Ben doing?”

Adam shrugged.  “He’s used to it.  Worrying about Joe, I mean.”

“I haven’t seen Hoss either, is he here?”

Adam’s lips pursed.  “He’s out looking for Joe.”

The doctor snorted.  A moment later he sat in the chair opposite him.  “So what exactly have I gotten myself into here?”

“I’m sorry to have to tell you, Doc, but it’s not pretty.  We expect a raid on the house shortly.”

“Raid?  By who?”

“We’re not entirely sure. There’s a man in town who hates Pa for some reason.  He’s hired men to cause trouble with the Indians.  We think there’s a ranch hand named McRae involved as well.”

“So, some combination of the above?”

Adam nodded.  “Odds are, you’ll have a lot of work before daylight.”

The doctor rose to his feet.  He looked toward the table.  “Ben?”

His father’s head came up.  “Yes?”

“It’s been a long day.  Adam here seems to think I may have a lot to do later on tonight.  Do you have a bed I could borrow for a few hours?”

“There’s plenty upstairs, Doc,” the older man said, rising.  “You can take your pick.  They’ll be quieter than the guest room down here, and we won’t be using them tonight.”

“Thank you, Ben.”  The doctor headed for the staircase.  “You be sure to wake me the moment something happens.”

“I will – ”

Adam looked at his father.  The older man had stopped and was turned toward the front of the house.  “Pa?”

He inclined his head toward the door.  “Someone’s coming.”

The black-haired man was on his feet in a second.  In two, his pistol was in his hand.

Ben had moved to the door.  “They’re coming this way.”  After hesitating a second, the silver-haired man opened the door far enough to look outside.  Relief washed over him.  “Adam, it’s Hoss.”

“Does he have Joe with him?”

The older man frowned.  “There’s someone.  It’s not Joe.  Whoever it is, they’re smaller than your brother.”  In spite of the danger they were in, his father laughed.  “And wrapped in Hoss’s coat!”

Adam went to his father’s side.  Sure enough, his brother was making his way across the yard.  Whoever was with Hoss was sheltered under the big man’s arm.  He half-carried them as they rushed toward the house.

A moment later both were inside.

“Adam, go get me a warm blanket and have Hop Sing warm up some soup!”  Hoss ordered.  As the big man lifted his charge from the ground and bore them to the sofa, he added, “Sure enough this one’s gonna fall down and not get up f she’s not tended to soon.”

Their father had paced him and stood by the sofa.  “She?”

Hoss had deposited whoever it was.  Kneeling by their side, he reached out and drew away the bandana that covered their head.  Adam heard his father’s sharp intake of breath and went to see who it was.

Cloaked inside the cocoon of his brother’s corduroy jacket was a small framed, pale Indian girl.

“Her name’s Pretty Prairie, Pa,” his brother announced.  “She’s old White Crow’s granddaughter.”

He and his father exchanged glances.  “Adam, go get Doc Martin, and while you’re at it, fetch Belle too.  I have a feeling we are all going to want to hear what Hoss has to say.”

Adam’s eye went to his brother.  “One thing, Hoss, about Joe….”

“He ain’t dead, leastways not yet,” the big man replied.  “But that scum McRae’s got him, along with Yellow Horse, and Pretty Prairie here says he’s hurt.”  Hoss looked at their father. ‘Those two mean to use Joe against you, Pa.”  He looked at the native girl on the sofa.  “We was gonna go after Joe, but this here little gal here needed tendin’ first.  She can tell you more once we get her fixed up.”

“I’ll go get the doctor, Pa,” Adam said as he headed for the stair. A sound made him turn back.  His father had crossed to the door and stood looking out it.  Worry was written into every line of his strong figure.

“Thank you, son.  And warn the Doc, it’s going to be a long night.”

 

 

THIRTEEN

Joe opened his eyes one at a time and blinked as the daylight struck them.  He drew a deep breath against the ache in his shoulder and looked around, noting he was in some kind of a makeshift camp.  Six or seven men moved around him, preparing to ride.  His jaw clenched and a white hot fury shot through him as he realized one was Gabriel McRae.  No matter how long it took, he’d make him pay for the way he’d treated Pretty Prairie!  At the thought of her, Joe extended the look-around to include everything he could see.

The Indian girl was nowhere in sight.

A strange man dressed in a fancy gray city suit with a diamond pin sparking on his lapel was.  He looked oddly out of place with the other rough cowpokes and rustler types in their worn cotton shirts and jeans.  If it hadn’t been for the presence of McRae – and the ropes binding his hands and feet – Joe might have thought he’d had a good turn of luck.

“I see you’re awake, young man,” the stranger said, approaching him.

He was gagged too, so no response was needed.

“You’re probably wondering where you are and why you’re here.  And, maybe, just maybe, why you’re not dead.”  At his look, the man extended a hand and placed it on his shoulder.  “Your usefulness is not done, son.  There’s something very important you have to do yet.”

Joe squirmed under his touch.  There was something in the man’s eyes – something akin to the look out of a rabid dog’s.

The man pulled back.  “Do you know who I am, boy?”

Joe shook his head.

“Oh, that’s right, you went missing before I became acquainted with your family.  Maybe you’ve heard my name while you’ve been here?”

He thought a second, and then shook his head again.

“Well, then, son, let me introduce myself.  The name is Jarvis Barrot.   I came to Virginia City for one purpose and one purpose only – to put an end to your father’s life and destroy everything he has.”  The man leaned in so close he was practically touching him. His words dripped venom.  “You are going to be the weapon I use.”

Joe stiffened.  He struggled against his bonds.  Barrot held his gaze and then, with deliberation, caught his wounded shoulder in his fingers and pressed hard, driving his thumb into the wound.

Joe gasped.  His eyes watered and stars appeared before them.  He shook his head vehemently.

“I know you’d rather die than bring harm to your Pa.  Consider it a gift, boy, that I’m giving him a chance to make his death count for something.”

With that Barrot stood up and moved away.

A second later Gabriel McRae took his place.  The varmint towered over him.  A wicked light in his eyes.

“Whoever was looking for you spoiled our plans, Cartwright.  I should kill you for that.  Fortunately, old Barrot there came up with a new one.  We’re not gonna attack your place.  Why do all that work when we have you?”  McRae knelt beside him.  “Did you notice your jacket is missing?”

Joe looked down.  It was true.  He was only wearing his shirt and pants.

“We’re gonna send that there jacket to your pa and tell him if he wants you back alive, we’re gonna make an exchange.  Him for you.”’

Joe didn’t believe for a minute that they would let him go.  He knew too much.  He also didn’t believe they would leave the Ponderosa untouched.  Jarvis and McRae would know Adam and Hoss would never quit.  He’d have to kill them too.  Joe glanced around.  Yellow Horse was missing.  Most likely the Indian was gathering his men, preparing for a strike as night fell.

He had to escape!

“Now don’t you think of trying anything,” McRae admonished him, seeing the look in his eyes.  “We got that jacket and nothing about it will tell your pa whether the boy who wears it is alive or dead.”  So quickly Joe couldn’t catch the movement, McRae lifted a knife and pressed the blade to his throat. “I’d be just as happy to see you dead.”

“McRae!”

It was Jarvis.  Apparently the city slicker wasn’t as comfortable with outright murder as the man he hired.

“What?”

“Haven’t you got something better to do than torment that young man?”

“I could kill him.”

Even from a distance Joe could hear Jarvis sigh.  “We’re not savages.”

Gabriel McRae stared for a second.  He stood up and then he roared.  When the laughter subsided, he said, “Jarvis, you’re the man who hired me to hire Indians to burnout and kill settlers just so you could destroy the Ponderosa and everyone associated with it.  And just because you want to bed some filly who don’t want you!  Just like her mother didn’t want you!”

Joe watched the two men square off.  There was something there if he could just use it.  He pulled at the restraints on his wrists.

If he could just get free to use it.

Jarvis Barrot hesitated and then, quicker than a flash there was a small snub-nosed pistol in his hand.  He pointed it at McRae.  “One more word, Gabriel.  Just one.”

McRae raised his hands and backed away.  He was still laughing.  “Whatever you say, big man.  Whatever you say.”

Jarvis slowly returned the gun to his pocket.  He glanced at the sky.  “It’s almost time,” Jarvis said, confirming Joe’s suspicions about an attack on the ranch house.  “Take his jacket to the house and spell it out for Ben Cartwright.  Tell him if he doesn’t make an appearance within the hour, his son will pay the price.  Oh, and McRae….”

“What, boss?”

Jarvis grew deadly serious.  “You find out first if Belle is in that house.  If she is, you bring her too.  I want her out of there before anything happens that we can’t control.“  Joe saw the man glance at him.  “Tell Cartwright the price is the same.”

“Whatever you say, Barrot,” McRae shrugged.  “You want me to warn his other sons not to follow.”

Jarvis snorted.  “The bullets that hit them will be warning enough.  Now get going!”

McRae tipped his hat.  Returning to his side, the lean man knelt and caught Joe’s blood-stained jacket up from the ground.  McRae looked, and when he saw that Jarvis Barrot had turned to talk to another man, he sneered and, under cover of the jacket, pressed the barrel of his gun into Joe’s side.  “I could kill you now, Cartwright, but I won’t.”

Joe felt the pistol ease away.

“I’ll wait until your daddy can watch.”

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Ben Cartwright was weary to the bone.  There were times when he thought he was too old to be raising young sons, especially one as young as Joseph.  Marie’s boy was so like his mother – quick to laugh and fight, determined, and so sure of himself he thought he knew just about everything. Ben leaned back in the chair and ran a hand over his face.

“Dear Lord,” he muttered, “where is my boy?”

The night before the Indian girl had recovered enough to tell them all about the scheme to use her and Joe to start a war with the Utes under White Crow.  Whoever this Gabriel McRae was, he’d intended to kill them both and then, along with an Indian named Yellow Horse, destroy the Ponderosa.  Ben was certain that Jarvis Barrot was behind it.  The man’s obsession with Belle and his hatred of him were driving Barrot to extreme measures.  Unfortunately, trapped as they were in the ranch house, there was little they could do to stop any of it.  Adam had offered to sneak out the back and go to town for help.  So far he’d refused to let his son undertake anything so dangerous.  Still, the older man knew it might come to one of them taking just such a risk in the end.  He’d sent Pretty Prairie upstairs to bed and set Belle to watch over her.  In a little while he’d have to wake her.  He couldn’t just sit here waiting.  Somehow – somehow he had to find Joe.  It had been three days since they had seen the boy and what with knowing he was wounded, every minute – each second counted.

“Pa!”  Hoss was keeping a watch at the window beside the front door, rifle in hand.  Ben turned toward his middle son in time to hear him say, “Someone’s coming, Pa.”

Four long strides took him to his son’s side.  “Who?”

The big man shook his head.  “It ain’t Joe, Pa.  It looks like that man Pretty Prairie described.  That there Gabriel McRae.”

Ben stiffened.  This was the man whose intent it was to kill his son and use Joe’s death and his supposed rape of a young Indian girl as the spark to set off a war between the Utes and the Ponderosa.  It would soon spill over onto the other settlers and ranches nearby, causing untold damage and uncountable dead.

The man was pure evil.

“He’s just standing there, Pa.  Waiting.”

“What do you suppose he’s waiting for?” Adam asked from where he stood on the staircase.  He’d been on the second floor checking on Belle and their other guest.

Ben looked at him.  Belle was only a few steps behind his eldest.  Her face was white as chalk.

“I imagine he’s waiting for me,” the older man replied.  “Adam, alert the good doctor and Hop Sing.  Give them firearms and tell them to position themselves to the back and west side of the house.  You can cover the east.”

Adam came to stand beside him.  “I still think one of us needs to go for help.”

He considered it.  After moment later Ben turned and looked at the door.  “I suppose now would be the best time, while McRae and his men are involved out front.”

“I’ll get my things.”

Ben reached out and caught his son’s arm.  “The odds are, son, they’ve set someone out back of the house to keep watch.”

“I’ll be careful – and I’ll be back with help as quickly as I can.”

The silver-haired man watched his son as he returned to Belle’s side.  Adam halted.  He took her hand and she responded by touching his face with her own.

“Be ever so careful, Adam,” Belle breathed.  “These men are mercenaries.  They only care about the money Jarvis can pay them.”  Belle paused and then she added, so low Ben almost missed it.  “Come back to me.”

Adam bent his head and kissed his one-time ‘sister’ on the lips.  When he drew back, he promised, “I’ll be back – with help.”

“Son.”

The black-haired man pivoted on his heel.  “Yes, Pa?”

“Give me five minutes.  I’ll gave McRae engaged by then.”

“It’ll take me that long to get my gear.”

His father nodded.  He turned back toward the entry to the house.  “Hoss, open the door.”

“Yes, Pa.  You want me to go out with you?”

Ben thought a moment.  “I think that would be wise.  Belle?”

The young woman turned toward him.  Her cheeks were wet with tears.

“Will you go up and mind Pretty Prairie?” he asked.  “And stay there until I tell you it is safe to come down?”

Belle drew a strengthening breath.  She nodded and then returned to the staircase and climbed to the second floor.

The older man turned back.  “All right, Hoss.  Open the door.”

Gabriel McRae didn’t move as he and his middle son stepped and into the yard fronting the ranch house.  It was mid-afternoon.  The day was cloud-covered, but the light was strong it revealed McRae’s lean and rangy form.  He was dressed as a ranch hand in jeans and a patterned shirt.  Ben noted he wore his belt and holster low on his hip and tied down like a gunslinger.  McRae’s face was a tough one, tanned hard by years in the saddle until it resembled the leather the saddle was made of.  But it was his eyes that stood out – cold, with no compassion or mercy.

“What took you so long, Cartwright?” McRae asked as Ben halted some four or five feet away from him.

“Since we had a guest, I had to have everyone get ready,” the older man replied ironicly.

McRae snorted.  “Would that be fixin’ supper, or fixin’ to shoot?”

Ben’s lips twitched.  “Both.”

“You better not shoot me, Cartwright, or else you ain’t never gonna see that youngest boy of yours again – not even his corpse.”

“Pa, you want I should do something?” Hoss asked.  Ben could feel his middle son’s concern for his little brother .  It was palpable.

“Stay where you are, Hoss.”  Turning his attention back to McRae he said, “The only thing I have tying you to my son are the words you speak, and I give them very little credence.”

“That may be the only thing you have, Cartwright, but it ain’t all I have.”  McRae was carrying a saddle bag.  He opened it and reached inside and drew out a piece of gray cloth.

No, not cloth, a jacket.

Joe’s jacket.

“Catch!” the villain shouted as he tossed it.

Ben stepped forward and caught the jacket with his hand.  He stared hard at it, wanting to be wrong, but he wasn’t.  The gray corduroy jacket had been a gift to his son.  He knew it like he knew his own hands.  As he examined it, Ben noted the dust and dirt, the torn places – and the blood.  There was an awful lot of dried blood on the left shoulder.

Hoss was champing at the bit, but it was he who went off half-cocked.

“McRae!” the older man shouted, moving forward.  “What is this?  What have you done to my son?  If you have hurt Joe so help me God I will not rest until you hurt ten times more!”

McRae didn’t move.  “You might make me hurt, Cartwright , but if I’m not back to that camp in about half an hour – and you with me – your boy ain’t gonna hurt no more.  He’ll be dead!”  The lean man smirked.  “Some of my boys, well, they can be a mite trigger happy.”

All the fear and fury and worry in Ben Cartwright turned into steel that nailed him to the ground.  “I need to see my son.”

“You will when you come with me.”

“No.  I need to see him here.  I want you to bring Joe here so the exchange can be made with witnesses.”  McRae opened his mouth to speak.  Ben stopped him.  “I will not surrender myself so you can kill me and Joe.  I have no guarantee you’ll let the boy live and, even if you gave me one, I wouldn’t believe a lying, murdering coward like you.”

“You watch your mouth, Cartwright!”

“And you watch your back, McRae,” Hoss threatened.  Then he asked, “Pa, you ain’t actually gonna go with him, are ya?”

“If he brings your brother here, I will.”  He looked at McRae.  “And that is a promise you can trust.”

The rangy man seemed to be considering it.  “There’s no guarantee the man I work for will go along with this.  He may just order me to shoot that boy of yours when I get back and be done with it.”

Ben knew it was a possibility.  He wasn’t one to gamble, especially with the life of one of his sons, but he knew this kind of man and knew a bargain – a promise – meant nothing.  Agreeing to go now would be tantamount to signing Joe’s death warrant.

“McRae, you tell Jarvis Barrot what I said.”  When the lean man looked surprised, Ben continued, “Yes, I know Barrot is behind this.  You tell him to bring Joe here for the exchange and I will go with him.”  The older man took a step forward.  “And you tell him this as well, if my son dies there won’t be a rock between Heaven and Hell I won’t turn over to find him, and I will kill him with my bare hands.”

“Have it your way, Cartwright.  If Barrot accepts your proposal we should be here by five o’clock.  If not,” McRae tipped his hat, “I’d be calling the undertaker.  Won’t take much wood to make a coffin for that youngest boy of yours.”

With that, McRae turned and walked out of the yard.

Hoss came right up behind him.  “That’s an awful chance you’re takin’, Pa.”

Ben drew a deep breath and let it out slowly.  He placed a hand on his son’s shoulder.  “I know, son, but I know just as surely that neither I nor Joe would have walked out of that camp alive.  I’m hoping this keeps the boy safe.”

“I don’t know, Pa.  It feels like I need to be doing something.”

Ben smiled.  “I was hoping you’d say that.  I want you to wait five minutes and then trail McRae back to the camp.  I’m sure some of his men will be going  back with him and there will be fewer keeping watch.  Still the way will be dangerous.  See if you can find your brother and get him away before this goes down.  But son….”

“Yes, Pa?”

“Be careful.  The trees around the ranch house may be hiding death.  You’ll have to move like the wind.”  The older man glanced back at the house.  “Did Adam get away?”

“He’s gone, Pa.  There weren’t no shots fired, so I’m thinkin’ he did.”

“Good.  Good.  Night’s coming.  I’d put on a dark coat to mask that white shirt you’re wearing.”

“Sure enough will, Pa.  And don’t you worry.  I’ll track that varmint and find Joe.  I sure enough ain’t gonna let you go to him.”

He squeezed his son’s shoulder.  “Hoss, if it comes to it, you know I will to save Joe’s life.”

The big man dropped his head.  “Yes, sir.  That’s why I ain’t about to allow it to come to that.”

Ben nodded.  “Thank you, son.  Come on, let’s go back into the house.  I need to question that Indian girl about your brother.”

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Pretty Prairie was staring out of the window in Joe Cartwright’s room.  She had asked Belle to get her some food and then wandered the halls, searching for the place where the beautiful white man laid his head.  She knew this was his room by the scent that lingered in the air and on the things he touched.  Her grandmother used the white men’s spices to cook.  Joe smelled like that, like cloves and cinnamon mixed with other scents she did not know.  With a sigh, she let the curtain drop back into place.  Was the handsome man with the green eyes still alive, she wondered?

It would be a shame if he was not.

Crossing to the piece of furniture that held brushes and bottles and other things for which she had no name, Pretty Prairie looked in the glass above it.  The face it reflected was haunted.  Her normally large eyes seemed great as a doe’s and were surrounded with darkness like her friend the raccoon’s.   She closed them and listened to the spirit within her.  It was not content to lie here in this white man’s house, to eat his food and sleep in his bed, while her people killed Joe Cartwright and his family.

If they did, it would be as if she had killed them too.

The young woman turned and leaned her back against the wooden piece.  She had spoken with the white woman named Belle.  She was afraid for Joe Cartwright’s oldest brother.  He had gone to town to bring the white man’s law to the Ponderosa, but Pretty Prairie knew the white man’s law meant nothing to the Indian.  The warriors would not stop until everyone of them was dead.  Well, perhaps Yellow Horse would stop.  He was a coward.  Her grandfather did not trust this, his sister’s son.  If only she could get word to her grandfather.  If only White Crow could know she was well, and that the white man named Joe had risked his own life and lost his freedom to protect her.

Pretty Prairie eyed the window again.  It was not a long drop to the ground.  She could open the window and fly on the hawk’s wings through the darkening woods to meet her grandfather as he rode out of their camp.  Of all the young woman in her tribe, she was the fastest.  If Senawahv was with her, and the spirits of the mothers of her tribe who had gone before her accompanied her, she would reach White Crow in time and then none of the Cartwrights would have to die.

She did not want Joe Cartwright to die.

Coming to a decision, Pretty Prairie crossed once again to the window.  It took her a moment, but she figured out how to open it.  As the cooling air that signaled the return of the night struck her, blowing her long black hair back from her face, she straddled the wooden frame and placed one foot outside.

“And just where do you think you are going, young lady?”

The voice was stern but loving.  It reminded her of her grandmother who had raised her.  Pretty Prairie turned back into the room to find the father of Joe Cartwright standing with his hands on his hips, looking at her.

As she had when her grandmother found her sneaking out of their lodge one night to meet a boy, she lied, “”I am not used to being inside.  I was going to sit on your roof.”

He crossed over and sat on the side of the bed facing her.  “You weren’t going out to try and find my son?”

This time the answer was honest.  “No.”

“No?”

“I was going to find my grandfather,” she admitted.

“White Crow?  What good do you think you could do there?  It’s well know your grandfather hates the white man and wishes him off the land forever.”

She nodded.  “That is true.  But grandfather does not believe in murder.  He will fight and he will kill, but not a man who is bound or who cannot fight back.“  She stepped back into the room and approached him.  “Joe’s father, you must let me go.  I will tell grandfather you have cared for me and that Joe Cartwright did not harm me.  That he risked his life to save me.”

She had told them how, when McRae attacked her, Joe sought to stop him and was knifed for his courage.

The silver-haired man drew closer.  He reached for her and when she did not flinch, took both shoulders in his hands.  “Young lady, you are very brave.”

She held her head up.  “The mothers are with me.  I am not alone.”  Pretty Prairie frowned.  “Where is Joe’s mother?”

Pain flashed in Ben Cartwright’s dark eyes.  “She’s in Heaven, with the Lord.”

“Your Lord, he is the Creator?”

“Yes.”

The young Indian woman nodded.  “Then Joe Cartwright’s mother is with me too.  She will guide me through the woods to my grandfather so he will not kill her son.”

Joe’s father’s eyes were wet.  “Yes, I’m sure she will.”

Pretty Prairie brightened.  “Then you will not try to stop me?”

He released her.  “Child, if you can stop your grandfather from attacking the Ponderosa, you will be saving not only Little Joe but all of the men, women, and children who stand to get hurt because one evil man is willing to do anything to get what he wants.”  The older man paused.  “Including killing my son.”  He dropped back on the bed.  “If only I knew that the choice I made was right. If only I could be sure that if – if Joe dies – my choice didn’t kill him.”

“What choice is this?” she asked.

Ben Cartwright looked as if he carried a the trunk of a great tree on his back.  “I told McRae there was no deal unless he brought Joe here.  I will gladly go with him if he does, but I don’t trust him or Yellow Horse.  I was certain when I got to their camp they would kill both of us and then burn the Ponderosa to the ground.”

She  crossed to him and placed a hand on the older man’s shoulder.  “You are wise.  Yellow Horse lies to the white man and thinks nothing of it. McRae does the same with all men.  They would not have let Joe Cartwright go.”  Pretty Prairie lifted her hand.  “Now, I must go.  I have asked Senawahv to watch over you and your sons, and for the mothers to watch over Joe Cartwright this night.”

A tear escaped the older man’s eyes to trail down his tanned cheek.  “Thank you.  I have asked my God to watch over you as well and to make you run swift as the deer.”

Pretty Prairie nodded and then headed for the window.

“There are men out there watching,” Ben Cartwright said as he rose to his feet.

The young Indian woman smiled.

“Do not worry, Joe’s father.  They will not see me.”

 

 

FOURTEEN

Adam Cartwright flew along the road to the Ponderosa.  He had fourteen riders trailing him – more than enough men and arms to stop the renegade band of Indians who were threatening his home.  His wound throbbed with each jolt of Sport’s feet on the packed earth.  He ignored it.  Later, there would be time to rest and heal.  Later after McRae and Yellow Horse were defeated.

After he found Joe.

Adam glanced back to make certain the men were following.  He was riding hard and had outpaced them several times.  Deputy Clem waved a hand and then sunk his spurs into his horse’s sides and burst forward with renewed speed from the group.  The men who were with the lawman quickly matched his pace.  Adam waved back, and then turned and pushed his mount into a gallop.

It was almost dark and they still had a good hour before they would reach the spread.  The odds were Yellow Horse would make his move once the sun had set and the shadows masked his men.  The renegades had attacked other homestead in the daylight hours, but the Ponderosa was different.  Once the shooting starting and their ranch hands heard the bullets fly, it would be out and out war with dozens of men trying to kill each other.  Adam leaned forward in the saddle to gain a little more speed.  He wished Belle wasn’t in the house.  Her presence would be a distraction for him.  Their home was likely to be the main target.  Between the threat of fire and the hail of bullets that would hit it, anything could happen.

Anything.

As he pushed forward fears for his family occupied the black-haired man’s thoughts.  If the Utes attacked sooner than he expected, he could return home as the only surviving member of the Cartwright family.  Joe might already be dead.  His father and Hoss would go out fighting, never backing down, never surrendering.  Between one heartbeat and the next, everything could be irrevocably changed.  He often had thoughts about leaving the Ponderosa and returning to the East.  The idea that his Pa and his brothers would still be here, where his heart lay, was the one thing that let him contemplate it.  If he was left alone, could he remain forever?

Would he want to?

Deputy Clem pulled up alongside him.  Adam glanced at the deputy and saw the same fear in his eyes.

He nodded, and then, asked Sport for more speed.

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Hoss Cartwright was one weary man.  After sneaking out of the ranch house, past guns and guards and Indians. he’d walked on foot to a nearby ranch.  Once there he’d explained his need and the family had loaned him the only horse they had.  Their youngest daughter – a pretty little thing named Amy about eight years old – had volunteered to come along.  Her Ma explained she was sweet on Little Joe.  After saying farewell and assuring Amy he’d send Joe over later to let her know he was all right, Hoss mounted the horse and went back nearly to where he had started and began to follow McRae’s tracks.  The big man knew he was a good quarter to a half hour behind McRae.  He’d prayed to God all along the way that the man have an unexpected delay, and that the two of them arrive at the varmint’s camp at about the same time.

He’d sure enough know soon if that there prayer was answered.

Dismounting, Hoss tied the horse off to a tree and began the push toward the camp on foot.  He had no idea how many men would be in it, though he doubted it would be a lot since more men meant more mouths that could run  off and ruin a man’s plans.  Plus McRae ‘d left men watching the Ponderosa.  At a guess he’d expect six to a dozen.  Not the best of odds, but then he didn’t mean to go in with guns blazing.  He meant to locate Joe and free him somehow and then take off like a jackrabbit running from a wolf.

At a sound, Hoss ducked.  Lo and behold Gabriel McRae went riding by, headed into the camp.  His horse was limping.

Hoss looked to the Heavens.  “Thanks,” he said softly.

Shifting deeper into the underbrush that covered the forest floor, Hoss moved forward until he was right on the edge of the clearing where the scallywags had made camp.  At first fear almost undid him.  He couldn’t find Little Joe anywhere.  Then, as McRae dismounted and dropped to the ground, several men appeared dragging Joe between them.  At a word from McRae the men dropped him.

His little brother hit the dirt and didn’t move.

Hoss glanced up again.  “There’s another one for ya, God.  Let him be alive.”

Next McRae did something that made the big man want to leap out of the trees and take him by the throat and squeeze until he was dead, dead, dead.  The lean man took his boot and kicked Joe in the side near his belly.  Then he put his foot down on Joe’s shoulder and applied pressure.

The only good thing about the scream that came from that was to tell Hoss his brother was alive.

With another quick ‘thanks’ on his lips, the big man drew back and then began to work his way around the perimeter of the clearing.  His intention was to come up behind Joe.

What he did after that might be the subject of another prayer.

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Joe Cartwright’s world at the moment consisted of pain – pain in his body from lack of sleep, pain in his stomach from not eating much for days, pain in his ankle that was still bound with strips of linen and broken sticks, and pain from the knife wound Yellow Horse had inflicted, which was festering and hot as Hellfire.  He wanted nothing more than to curl up and sleep, forgetting everything around him, but every time he almost got there someone would hit him, or shake him, or stomp on him and wake him up, bringing it all back like a hammer blow to the spine.  The only good thing about the way McRae had stepped on his wounded shoulder just now was that it had given him a few minutes of blessed relief because he’d passed out.

A bowl of cold water thrown in his face had brought him right back.

“Wake up, Cartwright!”

Joe opened one eye and then closed it again.  There wasn’t anything worth looking at.

“Get him up!” McRae ordered.

As he was caught by the collar and forced to his feet, he heard another man say, “What is this?  Where’s Cartwright?”

He’s right here, Joe thought.  Then as his head stopped pounding from the sudden change in position, he realized it was Jarvis Barrot speaking and his interest wasn’t in him but in his father.

“What explanation do you have, McRae?  I know Ben Cartwright.  He wouldn’t abandon his son to be killed.”

“That’s why Cartwright ain’t here, Barrot.  He’s too wily.  He knew we’d kill them both if he came here.”  McRae paused.  “He wants us to take the boy to him.”

“What?” Jarvis roared.

“We have to take the boy to him.  Once he knows he’s safe, Ben Cartwright said he would surrender himself.”

“What about Belle?” the man from the city demanded.

The lean man shrugged.  “Didn’t see her.  I figured she was in the house.  We’ll get her one way or the other when we make the switch.”

“So you think I should just capitulate to Ben Cartwright – do this his way instead of mine?”

McRae shifted his hat back on his head.  He glanced at Joe and then back to Jarvis Barrot.  “At the moment ain’t much we can do about it.  I’d gladly kill Little Joe here, but if I do you’ve lost your leverage.  Ben Cartwright knows that.  He’s using it against you.”  Gabriel McRae shifted.  “ ‘Sides, if we take the boy back and leave him at the Ponderosa, he’ll be dead by morning with the rest of them.  I didn’t think it was worth arguing about.”

“I don’t pay you to think.”

McRae snorted.  “Consider it a bonus.”

Joe watched Jarvis Barrot pace.  “I suppose it doesn’t alter anything.  But I’m coming with you.  I don’t trust you to transport or deliver such a valuable commodity.”

“No honor among thieves, eh?  You’re breaking my heart, Barrot.”

“I’d like to break your head.”  Jarvis turned and walked toward Joe.  He laid a hand on his forehead. It remained a second or two before Joe found the strength to pull away.  As his guards held him fast, the man continued to stare at him.  A moment later he ordered his gag removed.

“You’re sick, boy.  Can you ride a horse?”

Joe wet his lips.  He swallowed and coughed.  Could he?  Probably not.

“Sure I can,” he replied.  “You planning on a trip to town and a stay in the sheriff’s nice hotel?”

Jarvis scowled.  “Don’t make me regret removing that gag, boy.  It can go right back in place easier than breathing.”

Joe glanced at the throng of thugs surrounding him.  There was McRae who was standing by enjoying himself way too much, Jarvis, of course, and a half dozen other mean and rangy gunmen.  Even in top form it would have been hard for him to take all of them down where they stood.

On the road, things might be different.

“Okay,” he said, blinking sweat out of his eyes.  “So where are we going?”

“You’re going home, Cartwright.  Didn’t you hear?” Gabriel McRae asked as he drew closer.  “Old Jarvis here’s gonna talk to your Pa.”  The lean man halted beside him.  “And then kill him!”

Joe fought against the men who restrained him  “Then I’m not going back.  You can just kill me right here and now!  I won’t put Pa in danger!”

McRae stepped up to him.  “You’re going on that horse one way or the other Cartwright.  Nothing says you gotta be conscious.”

Joe looked at Jarvis Barrot.  There was a crazed look in his eyes that hadn’t been there before.  It was the look a man got when everything he had was sinking under the waves and he was desperate, somehow, to rescue what he could.

“Just so he’s alive when we get there,” he growled. “After that, he’s all yours.”

“Jamison!” McRae shouted, looking toward one of the gunmen.

“What’s up, Gabe?”

“Saddle up a horse for young Cartwright here.  We’re gonna go visit his daddy.”

As the other man moved off, McRae turned back to him.  “You got the gag, Jarvis.  We won’t want him shouting out when we get close.”

Joe didn’t want that gag back in.  “I won’t.”

“This may come as a real surprise, Cartwright, but I’m not about to take you at your word,” McRae said as he accepted the rag from Jarvis.

Joe fought as hard as he could.  It did no good.  The gag was quickly back in place. McRae kept his gun trained on him as he began to move.  Joe considered dropping to the ground, bowling McRae over, and running for it, but decided against it.  There were too many guns trained on him.

He wouldn’t get five feet.

McRae waved his pistol.  “Mount up!” he ordered.

Joe did as he was told, catching the saddle horn with his bound hands and settling on the horse’s back.  A momentary wave of nausea and dizziness washed over him and he swayed, but quickly caught himself.

“You fall off, Cartwright, we may just let the rest of the horses tramp over you.”

It wasn’t a threat.  It was a promise.

He’d just have to remember to fall off the road and not land on it.

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Adam had left Clem and his men about a thousand feet from the house, well beyond the perimeter of gunslingers Jarvis Booth and Gabriel McRae had positioned around the house.  As he made his way out, taking hidden paths he and Hoss had used when he was a boy, he had counted a half dozen circling the ranch.  Most of them were less than vigilant.  It was almost as if their heart wasn’t in what they were doing.  He wondered if they had come to realize that they were putting their lives at risk for the personal vendetta of one man and that, maybe, it wasn’t worth it.  Still, he didn’t want to take any chances and so he was making his way back the same way he had left and that was taking time.

Time he felt he simply did not have.

On their way they had seen smoke signals rising into the sky and heard the sound of a war dance in the distance.  Even if all the men McRae had hired deserted, there was still White Crow and Yellow Horse and a band of Ute Indians who hated the white man.  The renegade Indians were always ready to take advantage of an opportunity to kill and destroy as many settlers as they could.

The black-haired man breathed a sigh of relief when the ranch house came into view.  His father was pacing in the yard out front.  Doc Martin stood in the doorway with Belle.  The scent of food told him Hop Sing was in the kitchen, cooking away as if a full belly would solve everything.  He didn’t see Hoss and wondered what that meant.

Much as he wanted to run right up to his pa, Adam knew it was not wise.  Continuing on, he circled the yard and entered the trees, intent on passing to the back where he’d enter through one of the rear windows, cross through the house, and then join his pa by using the front door.  He’d made plans with Clem.  If the deputy heard multiple gunshots, of course he would come.  But if Adam needed him before the Utes arrived, he was to fire three times rapidly, wait for a count of ten, and then let off another shot.

The black-haired man’s jaw tightened.

His only wish was to have Jarvis Barrot on the other end of one of them.

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It had been all Hoss could do to stand still and remain hidden while McRae and the city slicker mistreated his brother.  It was obvious Joe was hurting and it pained him to think of what else he might suffer before he got him out of the varmints’ hands.  There were six of them on the road now – McRae, who rode beside Joe with his pistol trained on him, the city slicker, and three other scallywags.  Joe was swaying in the saddle, barely able to keep his seat.  Every once in a while Gabriel McRae would reach out to steady him.  They were riding that close.  Hoss was on his horse, pacing them from behind, worrying about Joe and wondering what he could do to get him away from the men who had him.  The party was coming up on a footbridge over a steep-sided creek and would be forced to travel one at a time soon.  The big man wasn’t sure whether to wait and follow them, or to go farther downstream and cross over where there was no chance they could spot him.  With one last look at Joe, he decided on the latter.  It was too risky keeping to the trail.  If they spotted him, Joe’d be dead for sure.

Turning his mount, Hoss applied his left knee to the horse and took him to the right and off the road.  The bank was easy here, though the point where he’d have to climb out was mighty steep.  After edging the slightly skittish horse down the hill the big man paused to give her a moment to catch her breath.  While parked there he heard the sounds of a scuffle.  There was a gunshot.  Then another followed by a lot of shouting.

Hoss dismounted and drew his gun.  He also smiled.

Sure as shooting his little brother had just leaped out of the pan again.

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Joe tumbled end for end down the hill until he came to the bottom where he was stopped by a thorny bush with wrist-thick branches.  He lay there breathing hard for a second or two, and then righted himself and rose to his feet.  With a glance back up the hill he took a step and went right back down as his leg gave out.  He could hear the men shouting above.  An angry Jarvis was screaming at McRae.  McRae, humiliated, was threatening to kill him when he found him.  Gritting his teeth, Joe tried again to stand.  This time he managed to keep his feet, but every step he took was agony.  Leaving the ground behind, he made his way along the creek bed, sticking to the water.  It would be the best way to lose his pursuers, plus the cold water was numbing his leg, making it easier to walk on it.  He had travelled about sixty or seventy feet when the first bullet whizzed over his head and struck a tree of the other bank.

Joe glanced back to make certain no one was in sight and then pressed on.  There was a fork not too far ahead, offering two choices.  If he could just make it to that point, maybe he could fool McRae into thinking he had gone the other way.  Maybe by leaving a bit of his ripped shirt or something else behind.  The echo of a shot made it to him before the bullet and he ducked as he ran.  It took a second, but when nothing struck the trees before him, he realized the shot had come from close by and been aimed away from him and toward his pursuers.

“Joe!  Joe!  Over here!”

The voice had come from his right.  His head and heart were pounding so hard he couldn’t hear it well enough to place it.  “Where’s here?” he shouted in return.

“Over here by this here rock that looks like a grizzly crouching!”

It took a second, but then he saw it.  A clump of rocks with a big one for the bear’s bent back and a smaller one for its head.  As he started for it another shot rang out, flying over his head and back the way he had come.

“I can see ‘em, Joe!  Get your skinny little hiney out of there!”

Joe was grinning as he ran.  Even if the voice didn’t tell him who, the words did.  “Hoss?  Is that you, big brother?”

“You bet it is.  Tell me, just how many times am I gonna have to do this afore your grow’d?”

Joe ducked as a bullet whizzed past his head – real close.  “I’m all for this being the last time, brother!”  He was almost at the cluster of rocks.

“Joe, behind you!”

McRae had appeared.  He was pointing his pistol straight at him.  Joe saw him take aim.  He glanced quickly about. There was no cover until he made it to the rocks.

“Joe!  Get down!  Now!”

He didn’t think.  He just dropped.

At the same instant two bullets flew through the air.  McRae’s went over his head.

Hoss’s took Gabriel McRae in the chest and dropped him like a stone.

“There’s more of them coming, Joe,” his big brother said as he appeared beside the rock.  “Get moving!  We need to get out of here.”

Joe looked at Hoss.  He was real.  His brother was really here.  A wave of relief washed over him making him weak in the knees.  Added to that was the fact that he felt like he’d been run over by a herd of cattle.  Those two things were enough to bring a fella down.  Of course, you had to add to them the fact that he was finally going home.

Joe smiled weakly at his brother – and then collapsed on the ground.

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Ben Cartwright paced the yard before his ranch house.  It was long past the time McRae had said he would return with Joe. Images of his youngest son with the barrel of a gun pressed into his curly brown hair flashed before his eyes.  What if Jarvis had not agreed?  What if he’d murdered Joe out of spite, angered by his own refusal to come?

Could he live with himself if that choice killed his boy?

The older man halted and looked out, wondering where all three of his boys were.  Adam would have had time to make it to town and back if the sheriff  had been in his office and they had set out right away.  He wondered if Hoss had found his brother and, if so, was his middle son in danger as well?  McRae might have both of them – or maybe all three – or….

Ben shook his head, driving the fear and doubt out.  They’d eat away at a man as surely as a bark beetle ate away at one of the giant Ponderosa Pines.  ‘Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself,’ the Good Book said.  ‘Each day has enough trouble of its own.’

In other words, it did no good to borrow trouble.  He’d be better off checking the rifles, making sure they were battle worthy, or going over yet again the plan of response to the impending Indian attack with the Doc, Hop Sing, and Belle.

With one last glance at the yard, the silver-haired man turned to enter the house.  As he did, the door opened and Adam stepped out.

“Son!” Ben exclaimed, opening his arms and gathering his son in with a bear hug.  A few seconds later he extended the boy to arm’s length and looked at him.  “You made it unscathed, I see.”

Adam nodded.  “McRae’s men are getting sloppy.  I don’t think they’re much of a threat.”

“Did you bring help, son?”

“Yes.  Deputy Clem and a dozen of his men are stationed in the trees, about a thousand feet from the house.  They’re going to take out as many of McRae’s men as they can find and then wait for a signal.  Have you heard anything about Joe?”

Ben sobered quickly. “No.  I only hope I haven’t killed him by refusing to go.”

“You know that kind of man, Pa.  It would have done no good.”

“Standing here, helpless, waiting isn’t doing any good either,” he growled.

Adam laid a hand on his shoulder briefly.  As he removed it, he said, “I didn’t see the Indian girl anywhere inside.”

“She’s gone off to try to talk to her grandfather.”

“To talk White Crow out of attacking?”

Ben nodded.  “She’s a spunky one.  Who knows?  She might have a chance.”

His son waited a second and then asked, “What about Belle?”

The silver-haired man frowned.  “What about her?”

“I didn’t see her inside either.  I searched the second floor and checked in the kitchen.”  The color drained from Adam’s face.  “You mean she should be here?”

“Yes, son.  If Belle is missing, my guess would be she decided to take matters into her own hands.”

“Pa!  I’ve got to go after her.”

Ben placed an anchoring hand on his son’s shoulder.  “No, you don’t.  We need you here, son.  Think about it, she’s safe.  Jarvis won’t let any harm come to Belle, and if the Indians attack, she’s better out of it.”

His son considered it.  “I guess you’re right.”

“Adam, I’m tired of waiting.  If Clem’s taken out those men who were watching the house, then you and I need to saddle up and go find your brothers.”  His tone softened.  “Maybe we’ll find Belle too.”

“And leave the house unprotected?”

“Yes.  I’ll tell the Doc and Hop Sing to leave.  I’ll not have them dying for something that can be rebuilt.”

“You’re right, Pa.”

Ben grinned and slapped his son on the back.

“Aren’t I always?

 

 

FIFTEEN

Pretty Prairie stopped her progress through the wood and listened.  On her left the stream that cut through the land north and east of their village was singing.  She knew her grandfather White Crow would follow the water and she would find his warriors camped somewhere along it, waiting for the night and the time when they would attack Ben Cartwright’s house.  Yellow Horse would be with him, and so she would have to watch and wait and find a way to speak to her grandfather without the warrior joining them.  Yellow Horse’s words were like the rattler’s venom.  They stung at first and then burned as fire in the veins.  His words would be lies about the Cartwrights, about Joe and his father.  Lies meant to anger her grandfather so he would not think but would act.  If he did – if White Crow burned down the Ponderosa – there would be nothing to stop the white men hunting him down and killing him.  Most likely they would kill all of the Utes she lived with.

Yellow Horse, of course, would be long gone.

Moving with stealth, the young Indian woman moved through the trees lining the stream.  She could see a light ahead and thought it must come from a fire her people had kindled, which meant she was close.  There were men talking.  A dog barked.  Someone raised their voice and ordered ‘Silence!’   Cutting through the tall grasses, Pretty Prairie headed for the water’s edge, halting behind the last bit of shelter that was a thick grove of wild plum trees.  It was her grandfather’s camp.  She could see White Crow standing in the center of a circle of warriors that included Yellow Horse.  Their faces and bodies were painted for war, marked with handprints in the color of the blood of the men they would seek out and kill.

She would have to wait.  She could not approach her grandfather until he was alone.  Her hope was that the men in the circle were not ready to depart.  If they were, all too soon the warriors would say their prayers, sing their songs and dance, and then mount and ride.  She would not be able to follow on foot.  They would be too swift.

Settling in, Pretty Prairie closed her eyes and sought the spirits who walked with her.  “Mothers,” she whispered, “guide me.  Help me to save your red and white sons.  Do not allow them to kill one another when there is no need.”  Her eyes opened and she looked into the night, sensing the presence of one to whom she felt a special bond.  “Marie, Joe’s mother, hear me.  I cannot be with your son.  You must watch over him and bring him to his father safely.”

As she finished the wind stirred the leaves on the trees and lifted the ends of her black hair, tossing it against her cheeks.

She had her answer.

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“Joe!  Joe, come on.  Wake up!”

Hoss hesitated to strike his brother.  By the look of him, all battered and bloodied, Joe’d been struck more than enough lately.  But he needed him to wake up.  He had to get his little brother on the horse and, though he could sling him across the saddle, they’d make better time and be able to move more quickly if Joe sat before him.

Gently, he patted his face.  “Joe?”

The next time it was closer to a slap.  “Joe!”

He was rewarded when his brother moaned.  “Hoss….”

“That’s right, little brother.  It’s me.  Now come on, we gotta get you up and get outa here.”

“Too tired….”

“I know you’re tired, Joe, but unless you think sleeping in a pine box is something you want to do, we need to get on that horse and ride!”

His brother rolled over and began to curl up.  The words came out in a mumble.  “Can’t you just leave me here?”

“Joe.  You ain’t thinkin’ straight.”  Hoss sat back on his heels and stared at Joe.  He knew how it was.  A man would push and push to survive, driving himself harder than made any sense.  But the moment he knew someone else was there and that burden of living was off his shoulders, he’d just plain and simple give up.

Over the saddle it was!

Leaning forward, the big man slipped his hands under his brother’s knees and shoulders.  Joe was a skinny little thing, so rising with him was nothing.  As he turned to head for the horse he had tethered some ten feet off in the trees, Hoss halted.

They weren’t alone.

At the same moment he realized it, he felt the barrel of a rifle press between his shoulder blades and a half dozen natives appeared from out of the shadows.  One of them stepped in front of him.  With a nod, the warrior ordered one of his men to come and take Joe from his arms.  Hoss wanted to fight, but even as the native reached for his brother, he felt the tip of a knife follow the rifle barrel.

“You fight or try to escape,” the warrior said, indicating Joe.  “This one dies.”

“Now you just be careful with him.  He’s sick.”

The native shrugged.  “He will live or die.  This is not for me to say.”  Turning, he ordered the native who held Joe to, “Put him over the back of the horse and tie him down so he will not fall.”  At Hoss’s look, he added, “We do not have far to travel.”

“Where are you taking us?” Hoss asked even as his hands were drawn back and tied behind him.  “Joe needs help!”

The warrior glanced at Joe who was slung over the saddle like a sack of grain, and then back at him.

“That is for White Crow to decide.”

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Belle Babylon was lost.  She had no idea where she was.  She had left the ranch house, determined to turn herself over to one of McRae’s men only to find they were all being held captive and she had to avoid the deputy’s men instead.  She had ruined her green gown.  Her brown hair was flying and there were cuts on her cheeks.  The tree’s brown fingers had reached out and pulled the pins right from her hair.  It was dark and she was frightened, but she was also unwavering in her decision to find Jarvis and accept his offer of marriage.  It was the only thing she could do to save the Cartwrights who had been so kind to her.  She didn’t know if it would save Little Joe, but gentle Hoss, tough Benjamin, and Adam – dear, sweet, strong Adam – at least would be spared.   Jarvis wanted her and though he wanted to kill the idea of Benjamin Cartwright as much as the man, she was sure his jealous fury would be cooled by the thought of wedding and bedding her.

The brunette halted.  She shivered and pulled her cloak more tightly about her thin frame to stave off the chill night air.  Closing her eyes, she drew in a breath.  This was it.  The last of freedom she would taste before being committed to the prison of Jarvis Barrot’s passions.

A sound behind her startled her.  She was pacing the road, not on it but keeping close by.  She figured McRae would have set men to watch it too and that one of them could lead her to wherever Jarvis was.  Listening, she decided it was horses’ hooves striking the hard earth.  Quickly Belle stepped behind a tumble of rocks.  From there she watched as Benjamin and Adam Cartwright went flying past.

Adam!  He was alive!

She had feared he would be taken by Jarvis and killed just for looking at her.  But here he was, hearty and well and on his way to find his brother.  She hadn’t thought about the fact that the absence of McRae’s men would have freed them to take action.  If the Indians could be stopped the whole thing would blow over – once, that was, she and Jarvis left town.

Belle rose and left her hiding place.  She stood in the open staring after them.  As she hesitated, she heard another noise.  Shortly after that a man a man said, “So I’ve found you at last.”

The brown-haired woman turned slowly.  A slightly harried and rather disheveled Jarvis Barrot was standing behind her.  His hat was missing and his fine gray coat was tattered and torn.  His pants looked like he had waded here through river mud.

“Jarvis, what have you done?” she asked.

His stare was ice cold and glinting as the stars in the firmament above.  “There’s only one thing left, Belle, and that’s watching Ben Cartwright die.”

She stepped closer to him.  “Why, Jarvis?  Why do you want to destroy the man and all he has built?  Benjamin never loved my mother.  She would never have been –”

“Don’t you see, that’s part of the reason why!” he shouted, his tone slightly hysterical.  “He never loved her.  How could he not have loved her?  If for nothing else, he deserves to die for that.”

Belle’s head was reeling.  “I thought you hated him because my mother loved him. I don’t understand.”

Jarvis’ jaw was tight, his lips a thin straight line.  “I just hate him.  That should be enough for you.  You don’t need to understand.”

She held her breath for a moment, and then committed to the path she had chosen.  “Jarvis,” she said coming even closer, “let’s leave, go away from here, just you and I.”  She reached toward him.  “Isn’t that what you want?”

He frowned.  “What kind of trick is this?”

Belle shook her head.  “It’s no trick.  I’ve seen the error of my ways,” she lied as she touched his face.  “I want to be with you.”

He caught her hand and pressed it so tightly it hurt.  “Or are you lying because you want to save the Cartwrights?”

Belle winced.  “I will be honest with you, Jarvis.  Yes.  The Cartwrights have been good to me, they took me in and accepted me as one of their own.  I don’t want anything to happen to them, but that doesn’t mean I am lying about how I feel about you.”  She thought furiously.  “After all these years, and especially being out here in the West where conditions are so harsh, I have finally realized that all you offer me – a beautiful home, fine clothes, elegant jewels, and everything else a woman could want – is what I want.  It just took running from it to realize how much I want it.  Do you understand?”

It took a moment.  “No.  I can’t say I do.”

She forced a laugh.  Her fingers went to this silver hair.  “That’s because you’re a man.”

He caught her arm and pulled her tightly against him.  “You’re right, I am a man, and I want everything from you that is due to a man.”

Belle didn’t hesitate.  She pressed into him and kissed him passionately on the lips. “And you can have it,” she breathed.  As he reached for her, she pulled back.  “On one condition.”

He scowled.  “And that would be”?

“That you forget this vendetta against Benjamin Cartwright and leave him and his sons in peace.”

Jarvis’ eyes were flint struck against steel.  “Do you have feelings for the man?”

She shook her head.  “No, I feel only gratitude toward Benjamin.”  Fortunately she didn’t have to tell him what she felt for Benjamin’s son, Adam.  “Please, Jarvis, call everything off and I will go with you – willingly.”

“I can’t,” he said.

“What?  Why?”

“McRae’s dead and his remaining men have deserted, so there’s no threat there.  But there’s nothing I can do to stop Yellow Horse.  The Ute are probably on the way to the Ponderosa ranch right now.”

From what she had seen the only men remaining there were Doctor Martin and Hop Sing.  They wouldn’t stand a chance.

“Is there nothing you can do?”

“Yellow Horse told White Crow that Joe Cartwright ravished his granddaughter and left her body to rot somewhere in the woods.  Nothing but the girl showing up alive could stop the massacre that’s coming.”

Belle drew in a breath.  Ben had told her, when they met in the hall for the last time, that Pretty Prairie was going to try to reach her grandfather and tell him the truth.

“The girl was at the Ponderosa, Jarvis, with me.  Ben let her go. She was going back to her people.  Maybe, just maybe this madness can end with no one being killed.”

“All right, then, Belle,” Jarvis said taking hold of her arm.  “Let’s go.”

“Right now?  My things are back at the ranch house.”

“I’ll buy you new things and the Cartwrights can send on anything you want from there.  I want you on a stage out of Virginia City with me before you can have second thoughts.”

She closed her eyes.  God willing, everything was going to be all right.  Benjamin would be free of Jarvis’ hate, Adam would, and their home would be spared.  Belle said a quick prayer for Hoss and Little Joe.  If the Almighty was merciful, they would live too.  There was nothing she had done with her selfish scheme that couldn’t be undone.

That was enough to last a lifetime.

Linking her arm with Jarvis Barrot’s Belle smiled and said, “Let’s go.”

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Joe had been dumped unceremoniously in the center of the ring of warriors.  His brother was only half-aware of what went on.  Hoss had been forced to his knees beside him.  He was all but hogtied.  The Indians had made sure he wouldn’t be able to do anything.  Or so they thought.

He still had his head and his shoulders and three hundred pounds of muscle behind them.

Beside him, his brother stirred.  Joe blinked several times as he looked at him.  “Hoss, what….”

“Hush, Joe, we got company.”

Joe’s eyes went to the ring of fierce painted natives surrounding them.  His head dropped to the ground.

“I think I’ll just go back to sleep….”

Before Hoss could stop him, a warrior straddled Joe and, gripping him by one arm and the back of his hair, hauled him to his feet.  Joe let out a strangled cry, but once he was on his feet, he bit his lip and stopped anymore coming.

They both knew a show of strength was their best defense.

A second later the big man was hauled to his feet too and positioned beside Joe.  His little brother gave him a pale imitation of his usual game smile and swayed like he was drunk.

“Hold on, Joe.  I’ll get us out of this,” Hoss whispered.

Somehow.

Outside the circle there was a hastily erected lean-to.  The blanket that shut it was drawn back suddenly and two men emerged.  One was older, about their pa’s age.  The other was about Adam’s age.  He was tall and well-muscled, with a scarred face and long black hair drawn back in a tail.  There was a red hand painted on his face and he was holding a long sharp spear.  His weapons belt dripped death.  The older man advanced toward them.  He had a strong face, hard but not cruel.  His white hair was contained by a beaded band.  Feathers both rose and dangled from it.  On his wrinkled face was the twin of the red hand.

“You will tell me who you are,” he demanded.

Hoss swallowed.  “Well, my name’s Hoss and this is Little Joe.”

The elder Indian’s gaze flicked to his brother.  “The white men have two names.  What is the other?”

Hoss knew what was coming next.  He’d tell them their name and Joe would be dead.   Pretty Prairie had explained it all to him on the way to the Ponderosa.  The tall Indian was Yellow Horse.  He’d told her grandpa she was dead and Joe had done it.

And he had nothing but his word to prove otherwise.

“Before I answer that, White Crow….  You are White Crow, ain’t ya?”

The older of the two men nodded.

“Well, I got some good news for you.  Pretty Prairie ain’t dead!”

He saw the news strike the old man like a hand.  Yellow Horse immediately reacted.  ‘The white man lies to save his brother!”  The warrior struck Joe with the back of his hand, sending him reeling to the ground.  In a second the tip of the war spear he carried was pressing into his brother’s chest.  “He will die!”

White Crow said nothing.  He simply raised his hand.

Yellow Horse growled, but he backed off.

“Explain,” the old chief said.

“Well, sir, the last time I saw Pretty Prairie she was at our ranch.  I found her in a cave.  McRae and some Indian feller,” his eyes flicked to Yellow Horse, ‘took her and my brother there to kill them both.  They was gonna make it look like Joe done tried to take advantage of her.  According to Pretty Prairie Joe didn’t do nothin’, but that man McRae tried to have his way with her.”  He glanced at his brother where he lay unmoving on the ground.  “Joe tried to stop them and they took him hostage while the girl got away.”

“You cannot believe a white man!” Yellow Horse snarled.  “All white men lie.”

“Red men lie too,” a light voice pronounced.  Hoss felt relief wash through him like a flash flood as Pretty Prairie stepped out of the trees.  The Indian gal stood there with her shoulders back and her head held high.  “Yellow Horse lies.”

“She thinks she loves this one,” the warrior shouted as he gave Joe’s still form a kick.  “She will say anything to save him!”

Pretty Prairie ignored him and went to kneel before her grandfather.  “White Crow knows Pretty Prairie does not lie.  Joe Cartwright saved my life.”  She turned and pointed at the warrior.  “It is Yellow Horse who meant to take it!”

White Crow turned to look at Yellow Horse.  The warrior must have scented which way the wind was blowing and was backing up toward the trees.  “Take him!” the old chief shouted.

Before they could, Yellow Horse lifted his spear and threw it, taking one of the young warriors in the side.  In the confusion that followed, he bolted and ran into the woods.

Hoss was on his feet and stretching toward him.  White Crow turned to him.  “He will not escape.  Yellow Horse is not your worry.  Your brother is your worry.  My men will help you take him into the lodge where we will tend him.”

Hoss was rubbing his wrists.  Pretty Prairie had found a knife and freed him.  She was doing the same now to Joe.  “I thank you kindly for your offer, White Crow, but Joe is gonna need the white man’s medicine.  Our…medicine man is at the Ponderosa.  He’ll look after him.”

White Crow was looking at the ground where his granddaughter was seated with Joe’s head in her lap.  “The journey will be hard,” the elder Indian said.  “He is near the other side.”

Hoss swallowed.  “Yes, sir, but Joe’s tough.  He’ll make it.”

“We will rig a horse and travois for you so you may bear him home.”  The older man went to stand over his granddaughter.  “A warrior would wish to die with those he loves.”

Pretty Prairie looked up.  “Grandfather….”

“You may go.  See him settled and then return.”

The Indian girl slipped out from under Joe and gently laid his head on the ground.  Then she embraced her grandfather.  The older man placed his hand on her head and bent down to kiss her forehead with great affection.  A moment later he raised his eyes, and in those eyes that had ordered the deaths of hundreds was a gentleness no white man would have thought an Indian capable of.

“Thank you,” he said simply.

Hoss nodded and then he bent to look to his brother.

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“Pa.  Someone’s coming.”

Adam Cartwright caught the reins of his father’s mount and pulled him to a halt.  They had been backtracking Gabriel McRae’s tracks and were about an hour into the woods.  He could hear a stream babbling beside them.  The light was rising in the sky, heralding a new day.

Neither of them had any idea of what it would hold.

His father checked Buck and looked at him.  “I don’t hear anything.”

“Listen, Pa,” he told him.  Adam did the same himself.  At least two horses were coming their way, but there was another sound he couldn’t identify.  It was rough, like a millstone grinding.  “Hear that?”

Ben Cartwright was frowning.  “Yes. Yes, I do.  What do you think it is?”

“Sounds like someone’s hauling something.”  He nodded toward the trees.  “It’s best if we get off the path until we see who it is, don’t you think?”

“I completely agree.”  With that, his father turned his horse’s nose toward the trees and the two of them settled just within the cover of their shadows.

The wait was not long.  Adam was the first to realize it was an Indian horse dragging a travois that they had heard.  There were two others on horseback.  An Indian and a big white man whose face was hidden by the morning’s shadows.  Beside the travois a native woman walked with her head down.  Adam sucked in air when he realized who she was.

“Pa!  It’s Pretty Prairie!”

“What?  Then that must be Hoss.”  His father leaned forward in the saddle, worry etched into every strained muscle.  “But where’s Joe?”

Adam shook his head.  “Someone’s got to be on the travois, Pa.  Odds are its Joe.”

Without saying a word his father urged Buck forward and moved onto the road.  His sudden appearance halted the small party.  It was early morning and there was mist in the air so it took both the Indian girl and his brother a moment to realize who it was.

“Pa!” Hoss shouted.  “If you ain’t a sight for sore eyes!”

Their father was off the horse and heading toward the travois.  Adam saw him stiffen as he looked at the still form laying on it.  “What happened to your brother?”

“Little Joe’s had some rough days, Pa.  He’s plumb wore out and that shoulder don’t look good.  Is the Doc still at the house?”

“So far as I know,” the silver-haired man said as he knelt by the rig.  “Joe?  Joe, can you hear me?”

Adam followed.  He watched as Little Joe stirred at the sound of that beloved voice.

“Pa?”

“I’m here, son.  We’ll get you home and see to your injuries.”  His father had reached out and laid his hand on Joe’s forehead.  As he knelt there, Pretty Prairie stepped over to him and placed her hand on his shoulder.  When his father looked up, there were tears in his eyes. “Thank you,” he said.

The Indian girl smiled.  Then she said, enigmatically, “Thank Marie.”

Adam watched his father choke.  The older man nodded and then rose to his feet.  Looking at him, his pa said, “Adam, I think you should find Deputy Clem.  Let him know it’s over.”

“I’ll find Roy, Pa.  But is it really over?”

The older man frowned.  “What are you talking about, Adam?”

The black-haired man sighed.

“We still don’t know what happened to Belle.”

 

SIXTEEN

Ben Cartwright stood by the window as he had done so many times before with his wives, with all of his boys, waiting for the doctor to come and tell him the chance someone he loved had of living.  Joe was young and strong as Doc Martin always said, but a body could only take so much  The boy had been missing nearly a week.  He’d been without food for most of that time.  He was battered and bruised, and the muscles in his leg had been strained to the point of tearing.  Still, it was the knife wound that worried him.  Thankfully someone along the way had actually tended the damage done by the blade and bound it, which kept the open place in his son’s shoulder from being contaminated.  Another plus was that the knife blade had gone through mostly flesh and had missed the artery.  The biggest threat to Joe’s life was the fever brought on by the infection and the possibility of gangrene.

“Ben.”

It was Doc Martin.  Fortunately the older man had remained at the house when he and Adam rode away.  Ben steeled himself as he turned.  “How’s Joe?”

“That boy of yours, Ben, leads a charmed life.  He’s still alive.”

The older man’s brows peaked at that.  “You sound surprised.”

“I am.  If you’d asked me an hour ago, the news might not have been so good.”

They’d brought Joe home as the sun rose.  It was now six hours later.  The day had been a  rough one on all of them.  Joe had been out of his head for most of it.  His youngest kept trying to get out of bed, all the while shouting about being pursued by the Makems.  It had been so long, or so it seemed, since Joe had set out to Alvin Makem’s and this whole thing had started that he had almost forgotten that one of his neighbors had tried to kill his boy.  Adam was going to look into what happened to the Makems and Nellie while he was in town searching for Belle.  The poor girl was all alone now and needed someone to watch over her until her relatives back East came to take her home with them.  Nellie’d paid quite a price for being a silly, self-serving child.

“But you think he’ll make it now?” Ben asked.

“If we can keep the infection at bay and the fever down until it’s done its work, then I’d say yes.”  The doctor turned and looked back the way he had come, up the stairs to the second floor.  “He certainly won’t lack for care.  Joe’s got a devoted nurse.”

Once they had arrived at the Ponderosa and deposited Joe in his bed, White Crow’s men had wanted to leave.  Pretty Prairie would hear none of it.  She insisted that her grandfather had said she should stay until Joe was ‘settled’.  Well, she didn’t consider him settled until he was out of danger.  He’d sent his thanks back with the warriors to the Ute chief along with a pile of blankets, some silver, and a fine rifle for White Crow.  He’d also sent his assurances that the girl would come to no harm and that, once Joe was better, he would personally see her home.

The only thing that had left him unsettled was that Yellow Horse was still on the loose.

“There’s times I think that boy’s made of honey,” Ben said, shaking his head.  “There’s not a girl, red or white, can resist him.”

“There’s nothing more I can do for him now, Ben.  You keep cold compresses on him and give him the medicine.  Tonight there will probably be a crisis.  I’ll try to make it back before then.”

“Where are you going, Doctor?”

“I’ll run my rounds in this area.  I need to check in on the young man who was mauled by the mountain lion for one.”

Ben nodded.  There were other fathers out there who were just as worried about their sons as he was.  The silver-haired man held out his hand.  “Thank you, Doctor.”

Doc Martin smiled.  ‘You tell that youngest boy of yours, once he’s well enough, that I’m going to start charging double if he keeps running me out here.”

The older man laughed.  “I will.  Thank you again, Doctor.”

Ben watched as the white-haired man opened the door and stepped out into the light.  It was mid-afternoon.  The day was a bright one, with lots of promise.  Unfortunately, it was winter in his soul.

“Mister Cartwright?”

Ben turned to find Pretty Prairie standing at the top of the stairs.  He moved toward her.  “What is it?”

Her eyes were wide.  “You need to come now.”

xxxxxxxxxxoooxxxxxxxxxx

Adam Cartwright was leaning on the post of the Mercantile’s porch.  He pushed his hat back on his head.  He looked up, noting the sun was beginning to fall toward the horizon.  He’d really hoped to be back to the Ponderosa before nightfall.  He was worried about Joe.  Hoss had come with him to town and they had scoured it like a muddy floor, searching every establishment and back alley for a sign of Belle.  So far they had found nothing.  He’d gone to the hotel and inquired about her, but they hadn’t seen her there.  The items Belle had brought to the Ponderosa were still in the room she had occupied.  It was as if she had vanished.  He had a bad feeling about it all.  Belle had felt responsible for what happened to Joe, and for what was going to happen to the spread.  He was afraid she had done something foolish.

Like left with Jarvis Barrot.

As he stood there thinking, Hoss rounded the corner.  His brother stopped and looked around. When he spotted him, he made a beeline over.

“What is it, Hoss?” Adam asked, straightening up.

“I seen her, Adam.  You was right.  She’s with Barrot.”

He pursed his lips.  “Where?”

“Waiting on the stage.  There’s one due in about a half hour.”

“Is there?  Well, that’s plenty of time to get her to change her mind.”

Hoss caught his arm as he moved past.  “Adam, are you sure that’s smart?  We ain’t got any right to question her.  Belle’s old enough to know what she’s doing.”

“Oh, I know she knows ‘what’ she’s doing, it’s why she’s doing it that bothers me.”

“You mean to protect us?”

“That’s what I mean exactly.”  Adam moved into the street.  “We can take care of ourselves.”

“Adam, you ever consider this is something Belle needs to do?  To make up for what she thinks she’s done wrong?”

He stopped and looked at his brother.  “Don’t be ridiculous.  None of this is Belle’s fault.”

“I know that, Adam, but that don’t mean she don’t believe it is.”

“Well, then, I am just the man to set her straight.  You wait here.  I’ll be back shortly.”

“You want me to come with you?”

Adam shook his head.  “No. This is something I need to do alone.”

“Okay, brother, I understand.”

Adam’s jaw tightened.  No.  He didn’t.

Stepping out into the sun the black-haired man headed for the small building where the stage came in.  As he approached he saw her.  Belle was dressed in the Virginia City Milliner’s finest.  It was a dress of canary yellow with rose and green trim.  He’d seen it in the window for over a month now.  The price had been high enough to buy the town.  When he had almost reached her side Jarvis Barrot appeared.  The man from the city stepped out of the office and placed himself between them.

“You’re not wanted here, Cartwright.”

“Did you ask the lady?” he replied.

Belle didn’t look at him.  “Go away, Adam.  Go home,” she said.

“Not until you look me in the eye and tell me that this is what you want.”

She hesitated, and then looked at him.  Her eyes were moist.  “This is what I want.”

“No, it isn’t.  Barrot’s bribed you or threatened you or –”

“Those words, young man, are libel,” Barrot said as he stepped down to street level.  “I would suggest you take them back,”

His eyes never left Belle.  “What are you going to do if I don’t?”

“I shall call the sheriff.”

Adam snorted.  “I’ve never known Roy or Clem to arrest a man for words.”

“Then I shall do this!”  Barrot pulled off one of his gloves and struck Adam across the face with it.  “Consider yourself challenged.”

Belle went white.  “Adam, no.  Jarvis has killed two men in duels.  You can’t go up against –”  A sharp look from Barrot silenced her. As she looked around wildly, her eyes lit on Hoss who was coming up behind him in spite of what he had said.  “Hoss, stop him!  Stop them!”

“Adam, you cain’t –”

“You stay out of this, Hoss.  I can do anything I like.  I’m a grown man in spite of what Pa seems to think at times.”

Hoss hesitated.  “You’re acting like Little Joe, Adam.  He ain’t grown.”

That stung.  Adam’s jaw clenched.  “It’s done.”

“Yes, it is,” Barrot said coldly.  He indicated the street with a nod.  “Shall we?”

“Informal, then?” the black-haired man asked.

“Quite.  Twenty paces and then draw.  Does that satisfy you?”

“Suits me fine.”

Hoss had moved to the platform where Belle stood.  She clung to him as if for dear life.  Adam gave her a smile and then turned and began to count the paces down the street.  When he had reached the count of fifteen he heard her draw a breath.  At one and the same time both she and Hoss cried out, “Adam!”

Quicker than thought he turned and fired.  Barrot already had his weapon out and it was smoking.  At the same time Adam realized it, the bullet hit him, glancing off his collarbone and cutting a path through his flesh.  He staggered back.  Barrot did something more.

He dropped where he stood.

Hoss was at his side in a second.  “Adam, are you okay?”

He nodded.  “Its’ nothing.  Mostly flesh.”  The black-haired man moved past his brother and headed for Belle where she knelt in the dust beside Barrot’s prone form.  Her hand was on his chest.  When she looked up, it was with disbelief.

“He’s…dead.”

Adam knelt beside her.  “Yes, Belle.  He’s dead.  And not by my hand, by his own.”  He reached out and touched her face.  “Belle, you’re free.”

She blinked.  It hadn’t sunk in yet.  “Free?”

“Jarvis Barrot will trouble you no more.”

Belle reached up and covered his hand with her own.  Then she burst into tears.

In spite of his wound, he pulled her close and held her as she cried.  When the storm had subsided a little, he pushed her away and met her red-rimmed eyes.

“Now come on, ‘big sister’, it’s time to go home.”

xxxxxxxxxxoooxxxxxxxxxx

Halfway to the Ponderosa they met Hop Sing.  He was in one of the rigs and was flying down the road.  He told them Mr. Ben had sent him to find the doctor.  Little Joe had taken a turn for the worse.  Exchanging Hop Sing for Hoss, Adam sent his brother in search of Doc Martin.  He put Hop Sing on his horse, took Belle in hand and climbed into the rig, and made record time back to the ranch.

They arrived at a house in crisis.  Joe was out of his head.  Adam heard him crying out as they entered the great room.  Sprinting up the stairs with Belle at his heels he opened the door to Joe’s room and stepped inside.  The look his father gave him nearly broke his heart.  The older man was forcibly holding Joe down as he thrashed and screamed, crying out that the Makems were going to kill him.  Adam crossed to the bed and placed his hand on his little brother’s forehead.  Joe was on fire.

He turned and looked at Belle.  She was standing in the doorway.  “Go and see if there’s any ice in the ice house.  If there is, bring it here.  Now!”

Belle shook but she didn’t move.

“Belle!  Now!  Find Hop Sing.  If there’s no ice, then bring all the cold water you can. We need to soak these sheets!”

“Is…is he going to die?” she stammered.

“He is if you don’t move!” Adam snapped, ignoring the look his father gave him.  “Go!  Get moving!”

She did.

Still holding his brother down, the older man turned and looked at him.  “Adam, was that necess –”

“Belle blames herself for Joe.  She needs to feel she’s helping.”  He glanced at his brother.  “Pa, if Joe dies, we’ll have two dead.”

His father’s jaw tightened.  “Joe won’t die.  The Doc said we’d have a crisis to pass through.  This is it.”

Adam nodded.  This was what it meant to be a Cartwright.  Never giving in.  Never giving up.

Never, ever admitting defeat.

xxxxxxxxxxoooxxxxxxxxxx

It was a long night.  One of the longest Ben Cartwright had known since coming to Nevada.  Oh, he’d known long ones before –  nights without hope when there was nothing to be done but keep watch – but this one was different.  Joe had a chance and even if it was slim, then they had to grab hold and hang onto it for all they were worth.

Ben had surrendered his seat by his boy’s side to Hoss a few minutes before.  He was downstairs now beside the fire, collapsed in one of the crimson chairs that sat before it, weary beyond putting into words.  Doc Martin had returned several hours before and had drained Joe’s wound and rebandaged it, and then given him a dose of laudanum to quiet him.  Joe had calmed down and then fallen silent.

That had been worse than the ranting.

The silver-haired man leaned forward and placed his head in his hands.  His mind had flown to Marie as he sat there on Joe’s bed holding him down, fighting with his boy like he was a wildcat bent on being free, and then watching him retreat into silence.  He remembered how it had been after Joe’s mother had fallen from the horse.  She’d cried out in pain and then gone silent like her son.

And never awakened again.

At the end of the day Sheriff Coffee had made an appearance, checking on them.  He hadn’t spoken to Roy directly, but Hoss had conveyed that Adam was in the clear for the death of Jarvis Barrot.  He’d also told them that they’d let the youngest of Alvin Makem’s sons go.  Moore and Jimmy were back at the house now with Nellie.  The other two boys and their pa were being held for what they tried to do to Little Joe.  Doc Martin had visited Alvin s before coming to the Ponderosa and declared he was unsound of mind and unable to stand trial.  Alvin’s brother back East had been contacted and was looking for some place where he could get him help.

Ben still had his head in his hands when he felt a gentle touch.  He looked up to find Belle.  She was white as a sheet, but on her feet and functioning.  A steely sort of resolve had overtaken her guilt and grief and she had served alongside Pretty Prairie as Doc Martin’s assistant throughout the long, nearly unendurable night.

“You should get some sleep,” she said, sounding like a woman.

He shook his head as he sat back.  “Not until I know Joe is out of danger.”

She sat beside him.  “The doctor is with him.  We should know soon.”

Ben smiled at her.  “Thank you, Belle, for all your help.”

She shrugged.  “I brought this one you.  It’s the least I can do.”

“No,” he said, straightening up, “Jarvis Barrot’s evil brought this on us.  You are just as much a victim of his as Joe.”

“He wouldn’t have come here if it hadn’t been for me.”

“Belle, look at me,” Ben said.  When she did, he went on.  “Barrot came here without knowing you were here.  He meant to destroy me with or without you.  You have to consider, if  you hadn’t come, we would have had no warning and his scheme with McRae might have succeeded.”

“I don’t know….”

“Well, I do,” he said taking her hand and squeezing it.

“Ben.”

They both stood and turned toward the stair.  His heart dropped to his toes as he asked, “Doc?”

The white-haired man smiled.  “Your son is asking for you.”

In a heartbeat he was on the stairs and moving past the doctor.  As he did, the physician caught his arm. “Only a minute, Ben.  The boy needs to rest.”

He nodded and finished the climb.  When he arrived at Joe’s bedroom, Hoss was waiting.  “The fever ain’t broke, Pa, but its way down.  The Doc thinks it will break yet tonight.”

“Go find your older brother and tell him.”

“Pretty Prairie already went to get him,” the big man answered.

Ben’s eyes sought his son as he entered the room.  Joe’s slender form was blanketed in wet sheets topped off with what ice remained.  His  brown hair was soaked with sweat.  The fever had painted his cheeks a rosy red and flushed his slender form with perspiration.  His breathing had evened and he was sleeping like a babe.

The older man sat gingerly on the bed beside his son, trying hard not to wake him.  He needn’t have bothered.  Joe seemed to sense he was there.  His son’s dark eyelashes fluttered.  His green eyes opened and his lips moved.

“Pa….”

Ben touched his face, grateful to find it was warm and not blazing hot.  “I’m here, son.”

A slow smile spread across Joe’s lips.  “Did you see that Indian girl, Pa?  She sure was pretty….”

“Yes, Joe, I did.”

“I tried to help her, Pa,” his son said, growing agitated.  “McRae, he wanted to hurt her.  He…..”

“McRae’s dead, son.  And Pretty Prairie is here.  She’s been watching over you.”

He smiled like a little boy.  “She sure is pretty….” he said as he drifted back to sleep.

Ben turned toward the door to find the young Indian woman standing in it.  Adam was behind her.  Rising, he laid Joe’s hand on the wet sheet and crossed to White Crow’s granddaughter.  “I think that you’ll do my son more good now that I can,” he said with a smile,

She nodded.  “I will stay with Marie’s son.”

He touched her shoulder.  “Thank you.”  Turning his attention to his oldest boy, Ben signaled for Adam to follow him into the corridor.  “Have you spoken to Belle?”

Adam shook his head.  “I passed her downstairs.”

“Belle is a young lady who has lost her way, son.  Why don’t you see what you can do about helping her find it?”

xxxxxxxxxxoooxxxxxxxxxx

Adam stopped on the stairs near the top.  Belle was seated in the great room.  She had a bunch of letters in her hand.  She was staring into the fire, her mind as far away as the life he had known back East.  Taking the steps quickly, he crossed to her side.

“Belle?”

It took a second before she looked up at him.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

“How’s Joe?” she asked.

“He’s going to be all right.  The fever’s nearly gone.  It will take time, but Joe won’t care so long as he has a pretty nurse watching over him.”

The young woman smiled.  “You Cartwrights are an interesting bunch.”

We Cartwrights?   So you’ve decided completely that you aren’t one of us?”

She sighed.   “These are my mother’s.  I read them again, setting all of my own wishes aside.  Mother wanted with all of her heart for Benjamin Cartwright to be my father, but I don’t think he is.”  She shook her head.  “I’ll probably never know for certain who was.”

“Why not?” Adam asked.

She winced as she waved the letters.  “Too many candidates.”

“Oh.”

Belle laughed.  “It’s okay.  My mother was not me and I am not my mother.”

“No.  But you are a beautiful woman just like Pa said she was.”  Adam moved closer.  He reached out and took her chin in his hand and when she didn’t resist, kissed her on the lips.  “I want you to stay here, Belle.  With me.”

She closed her eyes briefly.  When they opened, they were full of tears.  “Adam, I would like nothing more, but I have to go back to Ohio.”

“To deal with your step-father’s business?”

“In part.  But more than that, to discover who I am.  I think I’ll go back East and seek out the people who knew my mother – and my real father.”

“I thought you said you wouldn’t be able to figure out who he was.”

“Probably not.  But I can try.  Who knows, he could still be living.”  Belle took his hand and pressed it between her own.  “Who knows?  I could have real brothers – or sisters out there somewhere.  I need to try to find them.”

He nodded.  “I understand.”

“Do you?  I don’t think so.  Adam, you are so rooted here.  You know who you are and where you came from, and who the people were who made you what you are.  I need to find out who those people were in my life, and what they have made me.”

“A strong, beautiful, intelligent and compassionate woman,” he said.

Belle smiled and kissed his hand.  “Thank you.”

“Do you want me to take you into town?”

She looked up the stairs.  “I’ll wait until I know Little Joe is well, and then I’ll go – and yes, I would love to have you take me into town.”

He looked at her, thinking of all the possibilities, and of all that had happened since the wind blew her into their lives.

“I’ll miss you, Belle.”

She nodded, unable to speak.

Then they kissed.

xxxxxxxxxxoooxxxxxxxxxx

Two days later Belle was gone.

 

 

Tags:  Adam Cartwright, Angst, Ben Cartwright, Hop Sing, Hoss Cartwright, hostage, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright, JPM, Roy Coffee, SJS

 

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Author: mcfair_58

Welcome and thank you to any and all who read my fan fiction. I have written over a period of 20 years for Star Wars, Blakes 7, Nightwing and the New Titans, Daniel Boone, The Young Rebels (1970s), Robin of Sherwood and Doctor Who. I am currently focusing on Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie. I am an historic interpreter, artist, doll restoration artist, and independent author.

If you like my fan fiction please check out my original historical and fantasy novels on Amazon and Barnes and Noble under Marla Fair.

I am also an artist. You can check out my art here: https://marlafair.wixsite.com/coloredpencilart and on Facebook. Marla Fair Renderings can found at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1661610394059740/

You can find most of my older fan fiction archived at: https://marlafair.wixsite.com/marlafairfanfiction

Thanks again for reading!

9 thoughts on “What the Wind Blew In (by McFair_58)

  1. Another great one from the great writer. There was so much going on in this story. Poor Little Joe always gets the worst of it. I think Adam and Joe are such Stubborn blockheads that bad people want to use them against Ben to get what they want from him. But Hoss is too sweet and big and loving that they don’t want to bother him, accept for his large size. I think the bad guys like the challenge of trying out smart brain and the Bull. Thanks for a great thriller of a story.

  2. MacFair I just adore your Bonanza stories, you write with such wonderful insight and feeling for the characters. I can clearly hear them saying the words. This one is terrific. Great plot and great original characters. Enjoyed every moment. Thank you so much for such an entertaining read.

  3. Thank you for taking the time to comment and for your generous words. I’m glad you enjoyed the tale. It was tempting to make Belle a ‘real’ Cartwright. Of course, no one knows for sure….

  4. This was an awesome story, So amazing! Thank you for saving and editing this story! It was very thrilling…… I also like the idea of the Cartwright brothers having a big sister! Wonderful story! Thank you!

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