Friends and Strangers (by Camera Chic)

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Summary: Little Joe decides to find an old friend of Ben’s, and along the way learns about growing up and responsibility. This story is a sequel to “At the Hands of Strangers”, but it stands alone.

Rating: PG-13 for mild language, strong language, violence  (28,670 words)

At the Hands of Strangers Series

At the Hands of Strangers
Friends and Strangers

 

Friends and Strangers

“Two times two is four, two times three is six, two times four is eight,” the children chanted in unison.

 

Abigail Jones walked slowly between the rows, smiling and nodding at her students- who obviously had diligently practiced their timetables over the weekend.

 

All except one.

 

There was an empty desk where the youngest member of the Cartwright family should be. Abigail frowned. “That boy…” she muttered to herself. He had the intelligence to do anything he set his mind to…but he never set his mind. Well, his father would be receiving a visit later today. This was the fifth time in two weeks he had missed school. The boy was out of class more than he was in it, and when he did attend, he always managed to distract the other students or cause trouble somehow. Yesterday he was making the other children laugh every time she had her back to the class. Two days before he put spiders in the hair of the two girls sitting in front of him.

 

Abigail shook her head, and the student in front of her gulped and stumbled over the next two problems out of nervousness, thinking he had just got one wrong. Abigail suddenly realized the look on her face was not conducive to positive learning, and she quickly smiled and walked back to the front of the room. A talk with Ben Cartwright would be in order. Especially since the math test was Friday, and if the youngest Cartwright expected to not fail the test, he had better well attend every day until then.

 

*****

 

Several streets away, behind the mercantile, two fifteen year olds were sitting on the ground well out of sight of the street.

 

“So how come you don’t have to go to school?” Little Joe Cartwright asked. He tossed a rock toward a tin can that was a few yards away. It glanced off the side.

 

The other boy shrugged offhandedly. He was skinnier than Joe, if such a thing were possible, and taller. Joe had met him yesterday when he and Adam were in town, and had been instantly fascinated by his worldliness and how casually he spoke of it. His name was Andrew Harris, and he had lived in Texas with his stepfather until a month ago. He had seen and done things that Joe hadn’t even heard of…and that Adam and Ben would have had something to say about if they knew.

 

Andrew carefully selected a stone and took aim. “My stepfather says education’s a waste. And I agree. Anyways, I’m glad I’m not stuck in a stuffy classroom with a boring teacher, learning multiple-caption…or whatever that is. I ain’t got no use for any of that book learnin’ stuff.” Andrew‘s rock landed in the can.

 

Joe looked at him. “Oh…well my Pa makes me go. And my older brother Adam says book learnin’s important.” Joe shrugged. “I’d just rather work with horses…Yes,” cheered Joe under his breath as his next toss landed perfectly with a clang.

 

“Well…” said Andrew, a little bit of the worldliness that Joe found so fascinating creeping into his voice, “There’s a whole lot to learn you ain’t gonna find in them books.” Andrew picked up another rock. “You ever been in a saloon?” he said casually.

 

Joe’s ears perked up. Only once…when he was five or six and he had followed Adam in without his knowing. Adam had been really mad when he turned around to see his younger brother standing in the middle of the room staring at the women…and all the older men in the saloon laughing. Joe cringed slightly, remembering the talking-to Adam gave him for that one. Joe cleared his throat. “Sure,” he replied as he picked up his last rock. The stone hit the edge and bounced away.

 

Andrew stood up and brushed the dirt from the seat of his pants. “Well, come on. There’s a saloon called the Bucket of Blood just around the corner. I’ve got some money.”

 

Joe gulped. “But…would they let us in?”

 

Andrew laughed. “Why not? Just follow my lead, Joe.”

 

Joe took a deep breath and followed Andrew.

 

*****

 

“Give me another one, Sam,” Hoss said, putting his empty mug down.

 

“Sure thing,” the bartender replied, sliding a new mug across the counter.

 

Hoss and Adam had been in town all morning, getting supplies. They were going to move the herd to another pasture this weekend, and although it wasn’t a huge move, they still needed some things. Most of the supplies would be in on Friday, so they got what they could and then would have to come back.

 

“Well looky there,” Sam said.

 

“What?” asked Adam.

 

“Don’t turn now, but your younger brother and some other boy just came in. I don’t think he sees you.”

 

Sure enough, when Adam carefully looked around, Joe and his friend had taken a table in the back. Joe appeared entirely too carefree, excited, and even a little nervous to have realized that his older brothers were there. One of the girls came up to Sam at the bar. “They want two whiskeys, Sam. Oh, hi Adam, Hoss. Is it okay…?” She hadn’t even finished her sentence and Adam was away from the counter and pushing his way through the crowded saloon. She looked at Hoss, who sighed. “No, it ain’t okay,” he replied, and finished his beer and tossed the money on the counter before following his brother into the back.

 

Joe was laughing at some joke Andrew just told, when suddenly he realized the rest of the saloon had gone quiet. He was puzzled for a moment, but then closed his eyes and dropped his head, knowing why they were all quiet. “Joseph. Francis. Cartwright. You get your butt out of that chair and outside this instance.” Adam’s voice hadn’t been raised, but Joe felt all the same like he was screaming at the top of his lungs. Joe jumped off the chair and almost ran for the door, amid laughter from the rest of the people in the saloon.

 

Outside, he was leaning against the wall when Hoss and Adam came out. Adam stood right in front of him, staring down at him, and Joe did his best not to squirm. “Where’s your horse?” Adam asked.

 

Joe pointed down the street. “Midnight’s in…the stable…at school.”

 

“And why aren’t you there as well?”

 

Joe bit back a smart answer. Getting Adam angrier at this point would not help things. “I decided to go with Andrew instead. And he…suggested we go to the saloon.”

 

“And you did.”

 

“Yes, sir,” Joe replied, quite without thinking, and then immediately wished he could take half of it back.

 

Adam was a little surprised at the “sir” as well, but decided not to pursue it. At least the kid knew he was in trouble. “Go get your horse, and be back here in ten minutes.”

 

Joe turned and ran down the street. Ten minutes meant ten minutes, and not ten seconds more. He knew Adam was furious, as much as his father would likely be, but Joe was a little more scared of Adam sometimes. He could be a lot stricter then their father, and Joe didn’t doubt that if Adam thought it necessary, he wouldn’t hesitate to give him a tanning.

 

*****

 

It was a silent ride home. Joe was still grooming Midnight when Hoss and Adam were done with their horses. Adam went up to him and pulled the brush out of his hand. “Enough,” he said. “I know what you’re doing. Hoss can finish this; we’re going inside.”

 

Joe exchanged a brief glance with Hoss, and then reluctantly followed Adam out. Hoss could tell Joe was intensely disappointed. He had probably hoped not to be there when Ben was told, and also that Hoss would be there to soften the blow. He had such a forlorn look on his face that Hoss felt deeply sorry for him, but there was nothing he could really do. What Joe did was just outright wrong, and he knew it. His regret was probably getting caught.

 

About ten minutes later Joe came back out to the barn. He walked up to Midnight and looked him over for a minute, before burying his face in the horse’s mane.

 

“Joe…?” Hoss said, and walked up to him from the back of the barn where he had been cleaning the horses’ tack. “What’s wrong?” The teen turned an angry tear streaked face to his older brother. “That bad?”

 

Joe nodded. “You know how Pa said I could have the weekend free, for keeping up with all my chores and because they wouldn’t really need me? Well, he changed his mind. I have to help Adam move the herd all weekend, and do whatever he says. It’s going to be horrible, Hoss. You know he’ll pick the worst jobs for me.”

 

Hoss sighed. It was true…their brother wouldn’t go easy on him. Adam was right most of the time, but Hoss wished he’d lighten up a little. Joe wasn’t a bad person; he was just…well…he wasn’t a bad person. Hoss ran his hand through Joe’s hair, mussing it up. “Don’t you worry none, buddy. It’s only for the weekend, and…I’ll bet if you do a good job, older brother won’t be quite as angry. I bet he’d even be impressed.”

 

A smile glanced across Joe’s face for a moment, but he was still upset. It seemed too strict a punishment for the “crime” he had committed, but Hoss was right. There was no point in getting Adam even angrier.

 

“Hello!” someone called from outside.

 

Hoss went to the door. “Why, it’s Ms. Jones.” He watched as Adam and Ben helped her down from her buggy, and then they all went in the house. He turned back to find Joe sitting on the ground with his head in his hands. “Joe…what’s wrong? Are you ailin’?”

 

Joe shook his head as Hoss knelt down in front of him. “It’s gonna get much worse,” he whispered.

 

“JOSEPH!”

 

Joe cringed as their father’s voice echoed across the empty yard. He reluctantly got up and walked outside. This just wasn’t his week.

 

*****

 

As soon as Ms. Jones announced it was the end of class, Joe grabbed his books and stood up. He had to get out of here before Ms. Jones gave him…

 

“Joseph.”

 

…the note.

 

Joe stopped at the schoolhouse door and slowly turned back. Ms. Jones was holding out the piece of paper. Joe groaned and shuffled to the front of the room and took the note. He shoved it in his pocket and then turned and left the building. As he saddled Midnight, he could feel his anger rising. The fight hadn’t been his fault. Exactly. Sure he had thrown the first punch…but only after Billy had been picking on him all day. Billy had knocked him down in the play yard this morning, and been whispering cruel things during class when Ms. Jones couldn’t hear. It had been the last straw during lunch when he had called Hoss names. Joe knew he was just a bully, but he couldn’t bear to have his best friend being insulted. And so he had started the fight. Joe was sure that was all the note had said as well- that he had thrown the first punch. He knew the second he got home he would be in trouble for it. His father and eldest brother were both pretty angry last night, and he knew they would be a lot less than pleased now.

 

He wondered what kind of punishment would be in store for him. He already had to help Adam all weekend, and after Ms. Jones had left last night he was restricted to the ranch for two weeks…which meant he was going to miss the fishing trip he and three of his school friends had been planning for the following weekend. He also had to attend school every day; if Ms. Jones caught him out, it would mean an extension of his ranch prison sentence.

 

As he rode into the clearing in front of the ranch house, he could tell it wasn’t going to be good. Hoss and Adam were getting cleaned up at the pump…and both of them looked hot and tired. Joe led his horse in the barn without a word, and he knew Hoss and Adam were probably staring at him. He finished taking care of Midnight, and then ran in the house before either of his brothers could say anything.

 

Slowly he approached Ben’s desk. “Pa…”

 

Ben was engrossed in his work, and hadn’t even noticed Joe come in. He looked up. “Oh, hello Joe- Joseph!” he cried as he saw his son’s torn clothes and bruised face. “What in tarnation happened…?” Ben took the note from Joe’s outstretched hand, and read it with building anger. He put it down and took a deep breath. “Go to the barn.”

 

“Pa, if you’d just let me explain-“

 

“Now, Joseph!”

 

Joe quickly turned and ran out the front door. He now knew what kind of punishment was coming.

 

Adam and Hoss had come just as Joe left. Adam closed the door after him, and followed Hoss to the study. He took in Ben’s stormy expression, and raised an eyebrow. Ben handed him the note, and then got up from the desk without a word and went outside.

 

Hoss turned to Adam. “What happened?”

 

Adam looked up from the note. “He started a fight.”

 

Hoss whistled. “What’s gotten into that boy?”

 

“I don’t know, but he sure picked the worst time to start acting up. We have three different contracts to fill, and the herd to move…” Adam dropped the note on the desk. “He better not keep this up; I don’t care what the excuse is.”

 

*****

 

Little Joe sulked down to dinner a little late, and gingerly sat down and picked up his napkin.

 

“Have fun at school?” asked Adam.

 

Joe immediately glared at him. “Why don’t you be quiet?” he snapped.

 

“Joseph!” Ben said loudly.

 

Joe turned to Ben. “He started it!” he cried.

 

“That’s quite enough,” Ben said firmly, and both Adam and Joe knew not to pursue the issue. At least not now, thought Joe, glaring at the smug look on his eldest brother’s face.

 

A few moments of silence passed. After what Ben deemed a sufficient amount of time, he cleared his throat and picked up a letter from the table. Adam and Hoss looked up almost immediately, Joe a few moments later, still smarting from Adam’s comment. “I received a letter today, boys. It’s from an old…” Ben trailed off. The sender had been an old friend, but what he was now… Ben looked at the expectant faces of his sons. “It’s from Jack Trent.”

 

Ben watched as Hoss and Adam exchanged a look, but Joe just frowned.

 

“Who, Pa?” asked Joe.

 

Ben looked at him for a few moments. “You don’t remember him?” he asked.

 

“I don’t know,” he replied, genuinely confused by the reactions around him. “The name kinda sounds familiar. Did I ever meet him?”

 

Ben sighed at the puzzled frown on Joe’s face. “Yes…you were a child then.”

 

“Oh.” Joe shrugged. “I guess I was too little to remember that, huh?”

 

Ben looked at the piece of paper in front of him, and if he was avoiding addressing Joe’s question, he hid it quite well from everyone. Well, everyone except Adam, but Adam knew why he wasn’t continuing that discussion.

 

“He says…” Ben skimmed through the letter to find the relevant entry. “He says, ‘My business will take me into Virginia City for a few days, and if it’s no inconvenience to you or your sons, I would like to visit the Ponderosa sometime during my stay.’” Ben looked up. “I think that would be fine, don’t you boys?”

 

“Sure Pa,” said Hoss.

 

“That’s fine,” said Adam. “But are you sure it’s no inconvenience to you?”

 

Joe glanced from his father to his brother. He sensed something…some hidden meaning, and it made him curious. He listened closely as Ben answered.

 

“Of course not, Adam,” Ben said quietly. “I’ve been in touch with him somewhat, these past few years. It will actually be nice to see him in person, and maybe finish putting everything to rest.”

 

Joe frowned. It sounded like Adam knew what was going on. What had happened…what needed to be put to rest?

 

*****

 

“No!” Little Joe screamed, struggling up. He fought against the ropes binding his arms, only to discover that his covers had merely wrapped themselves around him in his sleep. He struggled out of the blankets and kicked them to the floor, then got up and went to his nightstand, where he splashed some water on his face.

 

The nightmare had been horrible, and yet vaguely familiar. Joe stood there for a couple of seconds, then decided to go downstairs and read for a little bit. There was no way he would get to sleep right away. Joe walked quietly to his door and reached for the handle. Just as he touched it, the door opened. Joe jumped and gasped, and the person on the other side gasped and swore mildly. “Adam?” whispered Joe.

 

“You scared me!” hissed Adam.

 

“Sorry…what did you want?”

 

“I though I heard you yell, I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

 

Joe shrugged. “I guess so.”

 

Adam looked at him for a couple of seconds, and then nodded. “Okay. Good night then.” He turned to go back down the hall.

 

“Adam?”

 

Adam turned back. “What?”

 

“Wait a minute. Come in.” As much as he had been angry with his brother earlier, he found that he really craved his presence right now. Joe held the door open so Adam could enter, and then he quietly shut it behind him. He walked over to his bed as Adam sat on a chair. “Adam…I had this really weird dream…and I don’t know…”

 

“What?”

 

Joe started to pace across the floor in front of Adam. “Well, there was this guy, and he was really mean. I was tied up somewhere, and he was standing in front of me with a knife. It was covered in blood, and the blood was dripping off and flooding the clearing. The fire was put out by it. The blood was rising, and I started to choke, and then I woke up. It was really weird, Adam.” Joe stopped, and then frowned at the look on Adam’s face. “What? What is it?”

 

Adam took a deep breath. “I guess this is an appropriate time,” he said quietly, and then looked up at Joe. “That…really happened, Joe. Not the flooding of course, but there was a man.”

 

“What are you talking about?”

 

“We had a ranch hand. You were about ten, and Pa was on a trip. The man hurt you, and I fired him. He kidnapped you and-“

 

“Took me to that clearing,” Joe interrupted quietly. “He said he killed Midnight.” Joe looked up at Adam. “This feels like a dream. It really happened?”

 

Adam nodded. “Do you remember anything else?”

 

Joe frowned. “He took me somewhere…I don’t remember where. It was a town. Adam, why didn’t I remember this?”

 

Adam sighed. “We don’t know, Joe. Very soon after we got you back you started having nightmares like the one you just described. Pretty soon after, you stopped talking about what had happened and when it was brought up you honestly didn’t remember it, Joe. We took you to a doctor in San Francisco. He said you probably pushed it out of your memory as a way of coping. We didn’t know if you’d ever remember what happened.”

 

Joe shook his head. “I can’t believe I just forgot it like that. Is there anything else?”

 

Adam shrugged. “I don’t know what all you remember. The ranch hand, Harker, left you in some town on the California coast, where Jack Trent found you. Jack brought you home. All you could talk about for days after was Jack. You…really looked up to him. And then you forgot him, when you forgot about Harker.”

 

“Jack’s coming to visit. Does he know?”

 

“That you didn’t remember? Yes. He and Pa have been writing these last five years, actually because of you. Pa was worried, and he wrote Jack about your memory loss. They’ve kept in touch ever since.”

 

“Oh.” Joe played with the button on his nightshirt for a few moments. “Why…why did no one tell me before?”

 

Adam shrugged. “It’s never come up before. We tried to talk to you about it, but you didn’t remember. It was hard. Pa finally decided not to pursue it…to let you just forget.”

 

“Were you going to tell me before he came?”

 

Adam shook his head. “I talked to Pa about it after dinner. We were going to see if you remembered anything when you saw him.”

 

Joe walked to the window. He couldn’t believe he had forgotten. Jack had saved his life…he remembered now. He had been taken by a friend of Harker’s and forced to work in a saloon. Jack had taken him out of there, bought him new clothes, and brought him home. Joe had grown attached to him in the four-day trip. Suddenly Joe turned back to Adam. “What you said to Pa tonight…something needed to be put to rest…what did you mean?”

 

Adam shrugged. Jack and Ben had been good friends years before Joe was even born…but they’d had a falling out. Not even Adam knew why, and Ben never mentioned it. “I don’t know all the details, Joe. I know Hoss and I were involved somehow, but I don’t remember what happened very well. After Jack brought you back, though, they started talking again. I don’t know if it made up for whatever happened between them, but I know Pa has said it’s a start.”

 

“Oh.” After a few minutes of silence, Joe turned back to Adam. “I think I’ll go back to bed now.”

 

Adam stood up. “All right. Good night, then.”

 

“Night, Adam.” Joe closed the door after him, and then went back to the bed and scooped his blankets off the floor. He threw them over the bed, and then climbed in. As Joe closed his eyes, he tried to remember more details of his kidnapping ordeal, but he couldn’t. Well, he decided, Jack Trent has some blanks to fill when he arrives.

 

*****

 

The next few days passed without incident, and by Friday Ben was hoping things were getting back to normal. Well, as normal as they could be. Joe had been acting really contrite the past few days, which Ben hoped meant that he was trying to do better. He was slightly afraid that it actually meant his youngest was up to no good, but as Joe hurried to the table Ben forced those suspicions out of his thoughts. “Morning, Pa,” Joe said.

 

“Good morning,” replied Ben, and watched in bewilderment as his youngest son hurriedly ate his breakfast. “Late for school?” he asked.

 

Joe finished drinking his milk and nodded. “I was going to try to get there a little early to talk with one of my friends,” he replied.

 

As Joe stood up, Adam couldn’t help but say, “When you say talk to your friend, you don’t mean beat up the Miller boy for the fight the other day?”

 

Joe stopped and stared at him. Billy Miller hadn’t been in school the last couple of days after the fight, but he was going to be there today. At least that’s what Becka Sylvester had heard from her pa. But that wasn’t why Joe was hurrying in, so he slowly shook his head. “No, Adam. Besides, I’m not anxious to get in trouble again anytime soon.” He turned and started for the door.

 

“Joe?” called Ben.

 

Joe stopped and turned back, to see Ben pointing at the schoolbooks on the table. “Oh, right,” he laughed. “I almost forgot.” He went back and picked up the books, and then glanced up as Hoss came in. “Bye, Hoss,” he said, and started out the door again.

 

“Don’t forget you have to come home right after school to help me move the herd,” Adam called. Joe’s answer was muffled, but by the tone of his voice Adam knew it had been sarcastic. He shook his head and looked at Ben.

 

Ben just shrugged and picked up his coffee. Sometimes there was no figuring out that boy.

 

*****

 

Joe looked down the street, nervously shifting his weight. All he needed was one of Ben or Adam’s friends to see him right now out of school, and say something when Adam came in later to pick up the supplies. Where was Andrew? It was 15 minutes past when they had agreed to meet. At first Joe hadn’t wanted to, especially after all the trouble he had been in, but then he realized a day of fishing and relaxing would probably be fun. Especially since he was being put to work as soon as he got home and all weekend, and he was going to be missing the fishing trip with his friends next weekend.

 

Joe opened the piece of paper he was holding and scanned the note again. It was perfect. He was very proud of it, actually. ‘Ms. Jones,’ it read. ‘Please excuse Joseph from class. He is sick with a stomach pain and will not be able to attend school today. Adam Cartwright.’

 

Joe sighed happily as he carefully placed the note in his pocket. Just sick enough to not be able to attend school, not serious enough to require a follow up visit from Ms. Jones, and well enough to be back in school on Monday with no questions asked. Now if only Andrew would hurry up so he could deliver the note and they could go. The longer he stood here, the more chances…

 

Suddenly Joe’s fears were realized as he spotted a familiar wagon come around the corner on the opposite end of the street. Joe ducked down the alley next to the mercantile and then peered around the corner. It was Adam. Joe looked behind him, and spotted a wagon covered with a cloth. He quickly slipped into the back of the wagon and under the cloth. He lay huddled under the fabric for some time, knowing that Adam would most likely be awhile and the last thing he wanted was to be caught.

 

The next thing he knew, he was being jolted awake. He quickly sat up and pulled the cloth away. To his shock he realized he had been asleep for some time- the wagon was now being driven through the desert. He turned and looked at the driver. There was one man in the seat. “Hey!” Joe called. “Hey, mister!”

 

The man turned and looked back in surprise, and then pulled the wagon to a stop. He jumped out of the seat and took hold of the boy’s shirt and pulled him to the ground. “What do you think you’re doing? Stupid little brat!”

 

Joe flinched as the man pulled his hand back as if to hit him, but he didn’t. “I’m sorry,” Joe said. “I didn’t mean to. I was hiding from someone…and I…guess I fell asleep.”

 

The man let go of his shirt. “What am I supposed to do with you now? I have to meet someone, and if I go back I’ll be late!”

 

Joe looked around. “Where are we?”

 

“Almost to Carson City,” the man replied.

 

Joe breathed a sigh of relief that they hadn’t been heading the other way out of Virginia City. “I live a few miles away. I can just walk from here; it’s not far. I’ll probably be able to get a ride with someone home.” Joe started to back away, but the man grabbed his shoulder. “Let go…” Joe tried to break away, but the man tightened his grip.

 

“What’s your name?” the man asked.

 

Joe frowned. “Joe Cartwright,” he answered rather sullenly.

 

There was a hint of a smile on the man’s face. “Well, Joe Cartwright, I don’t feel right just letting you wander through the desert by yourself. It’s dangerous out here. You come on with me to Carson City, and after I take care of my business we’ll come back and I’ll make sure you get home.”

 

Joe shook his head. “No, I can just walk, really…uhh,” he grunted as the man pushed him against the side of the wagon.

 

The man leaned close to him. “Listen kid, this isn’t up for discussion. I’m late for my meeting, now get in the wagon.”

 

“No,” Joe whispered, and then cleared his throat. “No,” he said again, louder.

 

The man reached past him and pulled something out of the wagon. “Don’t make me use this, because I will if I have to,” he said as he held a rope in front of Joe. “You have two choices- behave quietly in the front, or be tied up in the back.”

 

Joe looked at the length of coarse rope. “I’ll behave,” he muttered. “Why are you doing this?” Joe asked as he was pushed onto the seat in the front. “I don’t understand.”

 

The man laughed as he jumped into the wagon. “You ask a lot of questions, Joe Cartwright.”

 

*****

 

“But, Sheriff Drake!” Joe wailed.

 

The sheriff put his hands up. “Joe, as far as I can see this man’s done nothing wrong. The only thing you object to is not being allowed to walk home, which would have been a foolish thing to do as it was more than “a few” miles to the Ponderosa from what you described. The only person who’s done anything wrong as far as I can see is you; you’re just lucky that you didn’t catch a ride with someone who has a grudge against your family. As far as I’m concerned, that man is right decent- coming out here and offering to take you all the way back home. I’d take you home myself, so as not to put him out anymore and to see what your Pa would have to say, but I’ve got to stay here and keep order. From what your Pa tells me you’ve been quite a handful lately.”

 

Joe sullenly rolled his eyes and stood up. “That’s beside the point,” he muttered.

 

“Little Joe, I’m quite busy, now please go so I can get some work done.”

 

“But, sheriff…”

 

“If you’re done trying to get me thrown into jail, I’ve finished my business and we can go,” said someone from behind.

 

Joe turned to see the man leaning against the doorway, an amused expression on his face. The sheriff looked up. “Oh, don’t you mind Little Joe none, mister. He has quite an imagination, don’t you boy?”

 

Joe exhaled angrily through his clenched teeth as the man laughed along with the sheriff and then pushed Joe ahead of him out the door. Once they got outside, Joe twisted away from him. “Listen, I’m not coming back with you,” he said. “I’m going to wire my father and have him come get me.” He looked up at him, waiting to see his expression, to see if maybe he had been wrong. But when he saw the look on the man’s face, he knew he wasn’t.

 

“Like hell you will,” the man said. “You are going to come willingly, and with no more of this trying to alert the law shit. You see that woman?” Joe looked down the street, where a young mother had one child by the hand and another in her arms. “You open your mouth, and I’ll kill her.”

 

Joe looked back to him in shock. “No…no you wouldn’t…everyone would know you did it….”

 

The man was shaking his head. “No, they won’t. I’ll tell them that you tried for my gun, and it went off in the struggle. I’m pretty sure the sheriff would believe me.”

 

“No…”

 

“You do anything but listen to me, and I’ll kill her. Get in the wagon.”

 

“Don’t do this, don’t do this, it’s not…”

 

“Keep your mouth shut, and do as you’re told,” the man said as he tightly grabbed Joe’s arm and pushed him towards the wagon.

 

Joe felt dizzy and sick to his stomach as he sat down and the man hopped onto the seat next to him. As the wagon lurched forward, Joe frantically looked around to see if anyone had seen what happened, but there was no one. No one was paying any attention to the wagon with its unwilling passenger.

 

Joe sank into the seat and tried to think calmly. He had to wait until they were out of town before he tried to get away. He didn’t want to chance any innocent people getting hurt. He looked up at the man next to him. Why did the sheriff believe a total stranger, as opposed to the son of a friend? It didn’t make sense. Did he really think Joe was making it up? Would anyone have believed him? Joe didn’t try to be a troublemaker. Things just happened.

 

He was carefully watching the terrain. Up ahead there was brush by the side of the road, and bushes and rocks and trees. He took a deep breath, and then quickly leaned forward and started to jump off of the wagon. Before he could quite make it he felt himself being jerked back by his belt. “Let me go! Let go!” Joe yelled and tried to struggle away. The man quickly pulled the horses to a stop, and then pulled Joe into the back of the wagon. He forced him facedown onto the floor, and then pressed his gun against his head. “Don’t move, you hear me?” the man yelled, and then quickly and efficiently tied and gagged the boy. He threw the blanket over him, and then Joe felt the wagon jerk as they started moving again. Joe closed his eyes. He should have waited for a better time. He probably just blew the one chance he was going to get to get away.

 

If only he hadn’t hidden from Adam! Getting caught out of school wouldn’t have been half as bad as this. Maybe they’d realize he was missing soon, and then find out about the man from Sheriff Drake. Either that, or he’d have to wait until whatever demands in exchange for his freedom were fulfilled…and if the man intended to release him alive.

 

*****

 

Adam and Hoss looked up as they heard the sound of a horse approaching. Hoss frowned. “That don’t sound like Little Joe.”

 

“No it doesn’t. It sounds like a buggy,” replied Adam, and both of them stepped away from the storage house as the person rode into the yard.

 

“Why, it’s Ms. Jones,” said Hoss.

 

Abigail Jones pulled the buggy to a stop. “Hello,” she called out.

 

“Good day, ma’am,” they replied. “What brings you out here?” asked Adam.

 

“Well, I was a little concerned when Joseph didn’t show up for school today. We were having a math test, and I’m a little disappointed that he missed…” she trailed off as she saw the looks on their faces.

 

“He wasn’t in school?” said Adam. He took a deep breath, and then looked back to the woman. “Thank you for letting us know, ma’am. Would you care to come in?”

 

Abigail shook her head. “I’d best be going,” she said. “I’m sorry…I just wasn’t sure if he was sick, but now…”

 

Hoss looked up at her and sighed. “I don’t know what’s got into that younger brother of mine, Miss Jones. But don’t you worry about it none. Would you like me to ride back into town with you, ma’am?”

 

Abigail shook her head again. “No thank you, Hoss. I can make it just fine.”

 

Hoss and Adam watched her ride away, and then turned towards the house. They were both dreading telling Pa that Little Joe skipped school. He was sure to be hopping mad.

 

*****

 

Joe tugged on the ropes binding his hands in front of him to the tree, but as hard as he struggled he felt no give. He bit his lip and looked around him, but there was nothing helpful within reach. The man had left some time ago after tying him up, and now it was getting dark. Joe shuddered at the cold familiarity of it. The last time he had been tied in a clearing, he was ten years old and a crazy ranch hand with a knife had told him he killed his horse and left it for Adam and Hoss to find. He still couldn’t remember the details, though. Only what he had pried out of Adam the last few days.

 

Joe looked up as he heard voices, and then the man who had taken him and another man walked around the rocks. The other man was holding the reins of two saddle horses. “So is this the kid?” the man asked, and then as Joe looked away he laughed. “He don’t look like much, Matt…“

 

“Don’t use my name.”

 

The other man shrugged. “Don’t make much difference now, does it? He won’t be able to tell nobody either way.” He walked over to Joe and looked down at him. “My name’s Troy Wilkins. Who you gonna tell, kid?” When Joe didn’t look up or move he brutally kicked him in the side, and then chuckled as Joe grunted and bent over in pain.

 

Matt walked up to him. “Come on, get out of here,” he said.

 

The man shrugged. “Let us know when you get the money.” He turned and left the clearing.

 

Joe could tell Matt hadn’t moved, and after the pain in his side had lessened somewhat he looked up at him. Matt was standing next to him, watching him with his gun in his hand. “Why are you doing this?” Joe asked.

 

Matt laughed and crouched down next to him. “Why should you even ask that? The Cartwrights are known all throughout this territory as one of the wealthiest families. I’ll bet there are any number of men who would jump at a chance like this…but we got you first.” Matt laughed nastily and stood up and started to pack some supplies on the horses.

 

Joe watched him for a few moments, and then tried to think of a way out of this. He couldn’t believe the brazenness of the man. He actually talked to the sheriff! And still kidnapped him. Surely he would have realized people would be on the lookout for him? Why go through with it after that?

 

Joe tugged at the ropes again; not willing to believe there was no way out of this except as a bullet’s target. They didn’t budge, and his wrists were starting to feel raw. He looked up as the man finished tying down the last bundle to one of the horses and then walked over to Joe. “Where are you taking me?” he asked.

 

Matt ignored him and quickly untied the ropes. He took hold of the front of Joe’s shirt and shoved him to the ground, and then pressed his knee to his chest. Joe struggled to breathe, and looked up to find the man’s gun pointed at his head. “Kid, just shut up,” said Matt. “I don’t want to hear another word from you. Next time you open your mouth, I will give you a beating like you never had.” Matt waited a couple of seconds, and then released Joe. As soon as the pressure lifted, Joe struck out. The gun flew from Matt’s hand and landed a few yards away. Joe quickly scrambled up and ran for it. He grabbed the gun and whirled around, aiming it at Matt. Matt slowly stood up. “This isn’t going to do any good.”

 

Joe didn’t waver. “I’m not going anywhere with you. I’m going to take you into Virginia City and hand you over to the sheriff.”

 

Matt laughed. “You really think he’ll hold me? On what charge?”

 

“Kidnapping.”

 

Matt chuckled. “You think he’ll believe you? You’re just a kid…a kid who likes getting into trouble, if I guess right. And I’m sure the sheriff knows it too.”

 

Joe’s temper flared, but he managed to control it. He took a deep breath. “He’ll hold you.”

 

Matt shook his head. “This is ridiculous. Put down the gun now.”

 

Joe tightened his grip on the gun. “No. You’re coming with me.” He backed a little towards the horses.

 

Matt didn’t move. “I’m not going anywhere kid. So what are you going to do, shoot me?”

 

Joe bit his lip and glanced back. The horses were saddled and ready to go. He started to back towards them, while carefully watching his would-be kidnapper. Joe reached out and grabbed a knife from the saddle of one of the horses, then very neatly cut the reins. Matt made an angry noise and started to move towards him. As soon as he did, Joe pulled the trigger, and Matt stopped in his tracks, staring at the little bit of dust just in front of his foot that was kicked up by the bullet.

 

“Don’t move!” yelled Joe, and then he quickly backed up to the spooked horse and cut the girth. He watched as the saddle slipped to the ground, and then he turned and mounted the other horse. He tugged the reins free, and then without a backwards glance, he galloped away. Behind him he heard Matt swearing, and Joe chuckled to himself.

 

As he looked at the sky, he realized it would be night before he got back, and his family would probably be worried sick. Joe urged the horse on. He knew it would be hours until he got home now.

 

*****

 

Joe saw the front of the house, and he urged the horse into a gallop. “Pa!” he yelled. “Pa! Adam! Hoss!” He jumped off of the horse and stumbled towards the lit doorway of the ranch house, where he could see the silhouette of his father. He was swept into his father’s arms and held for a moment, but then to Joe’s surprise, Ben released him and gave his backside a few smacks. “Hey…what…?” Joe stuttered as Ben pulled him inside so he could shut the door. Joe saw his brothers then, standing a little ways away. Adam had a smug, the-little-boy-is-in-trouble look on his face that he had obviously been perfecting. Hoss looked worried, but at the same time disappointed. Joe was puzzled as to why they all seemed more angry than worried. He had just been kidnapped for goodness sake!

 

“Joseph Francis Cartwright!” yelled his father, and Joe turned to look at him. “Of all the stupid, hare-brained things…what were you thinking? Skipping school, disappearing for hours on end and worrying me and your brothers sick…what in heavens name were you thinking!”

 

Joe finally managed to break out of his stunned silence. “Pa, no! It wasn’t like that, I-”

 

“Joseph, go upstairs. I am very angry with you. I don’t want to see you the rest of the night.” Ben gave him a little push towards the stairs.

 

“Pa, wait! You don’t understand! I didn’t-“

 

“Joseph, I mean it.”

 

“It wasn’t my fault!”

 

“I don’t want to hear-“

 

But Joe continued on impulsively. “Pa, if you’d just be quiet long enough to let me explain!”

 

Suddenly and without quite thinking, Ben slapped Joe across the face. Joe stared at him for a moment, stunned, knowing he went too far with what he said; but also intensely hurt by his father’s unwillingness to listen. He turned and fled up the stairs.

 

Ben stared after him, surprised and angry with himself. He hadn’t meant to lose his temper. His hand was stinging, and he knew he had hit his son quite hard. “Damn it,” he hissed, and turned and stormed outside, his anger at his action almost bringing tears to his eyes.

 

*****

 

Joe heard footsteps stop outside his door, and he quickly closed his eyes and slowed his breathing. The door opened, and then after a few moments closed again, whomever it was deciding that he was indeed asleep. Joe slowly exhaled and rubbed his hand across his eyes to wipe away the tears that still lingered.

 

“Joe…”

 

Joe’s eyes flew open and with a terrified yell he sat up, staring at Adam. After a few seconds he managed to compose himself enough to yell at his brother. “What were you doing, scaring me like that?”

 

Adam was trying to keep from laughing. Joe’s expression had been priceless. “Sorry, Joe…I didn’t mean to scare…” Adam stopped laughing. He reached out and gently pulled Joe’s sleeve up the rest of the way. “What happened?” he asked, suddenly serious as he observed the angry red welts on the boy’s wrists.

 

“He tied me up,” Joe simply replied, and pulled away from Adam.

 

Adam reached out and grabbed his shoulders. “What do you mean? Who tied you up?”

 

“Let me go,” Joe mumbled, trying to pull away from his brother.

 

“Joe…what happened? Who tied you up?”

 

“You wouldn’t believe me anyway.” The effect of Joe’s sullen answer was ruined when his voice broke and he almost burst into tears again. He blinked a few times and bit his lip. Adam hadn’t let go of him, but his grip had softened. “A man tried to kidnap me.” Joe quickly told Adam about his ordeal, and rather to his surprise, his brother listened attentively and didn’t interrupt him once.

 

When Joe had finished, Adam stood up and gently tugged his arm. “Come on,” he said.

 

“Where?” asked Joe.

 

“We’re going to tell Pa.”

 

Joe pulled away from him. “No…”

 

Adam stared at him in surprise. “Joe! What…?”

 

Joe looked down and shrugged. “I’ll tell him all about it tomorrow. He was really mad tonight, Adam…” And then without even realizing he did it, Joe reached up and put his hand over the red handprint on his face.

 

Adam sighed. “He was just angry, Joe. He didn’t mean it.”

 

Joe shrugged and sat down on the edge of his bed again.

 

“Joe…he was worried sick. We all were…we thought something might have happened, and then when you showed up…”

 

“Yeah. Something did happen, and then when I showed up, Pa…” Joe looked down.

 

“He didn’t mean it.”

 

Joe rolled back onto the bed. “I’ll tell him tomorrow,” he said, and then pulled the pillow over his head.

 

Adam shook his head, and then went downstairs. His father was sitting in front if the fireplace, staring absentmindedly into the flames. Adam walked up to him and sat down beside him on the table. “He was kidnapped,” he said, and then waited until his father realized what he had said.

 

“What?”

 

“Some guy tried to kidnap him. He was tied up in the middle of nowhere all afternoon.” Adam shook his head, thinking about the choices his younger brother made. “He said he would have rather been caught out of school.”

 

“Is he all right?”

 

Adam looked up at Ben and nodded. “He’s got a couple of cuts and some bruises, but he’s fine. Shaken, but he’ll be all right. He…he said he’d tell you about it tomorrow.”

 

Ben frowned. “I don’t understand…”

 

Adam looked away. “You were pretty mad. He was upset that you were angry with him without listening to what he had to say.” Ben stood up and turned towards Adam.

 

“Do you blame me?” His voice was slightly raised in anger, but had he known that his youngest son had crept out of his room and could now hear every word that was being said from the landing, he would have been more careful. “The last two weeks have been nothing but trouble with that boy. If he had done what he was supposed to, he never would have gotten into this mess! Why can’t he ever listen?”

 

“I know Pa. But…he was really scared. I think he knows what he did-“

 

Ben and Adam looked up as a door was loudly slammed from upstairs. Ben realized what happened first, and he took the stairs in a hurry. “Joe?” he called as he neared his son’s room. He opened the door, but the room was empty. “Joe? Joe!” Ben went to the open window, just in time to see his son tear out of the yard on the horse he came in on. “Joseph!” he yelled, but Joe didn’t turn or stop, and within seconds the retreating hoof beats could no longer be heard.

 

Ben hurried downstairs and ran to the open front door, where Adam was standing. Adam looked back as Ben reached the opening. “Want me to go after him, Pa?”

 

Ben shook his head. He knew his son was probably headed to the grave of his mother to cool off, and usually he would let him have his time alone; but after almost losing him so recently, Ben found he couldn’t consider just letting his son go off by himself. What if the man who had tried to kidnap him was nearby? “I’ll go, Adam,” he said as he went past his son towards the barn. Why did it seam like Adam and Hoss had a much easier time during the transition from boy to man? Ben was beginning to feel completely powerless to help his son, and he wasn’t sure who felt more frustrated- he himself, who had no idea what to do anymore, or his son, who was lost and confused in a world where no one could help him.

 

*****

 

“Here ya go, son,” the shopkeeper said as he handed the parcel across the counter. Joe smiled absentmindedly at him, and then quickly left. He knew he was taking a risk going to the store, but he needed some supplies before his journey to…well, he wasn’t exactly sure where he was going yet, but he knew he had to get away for at least a few days. For everyone’s sake.

 

Joe started down the street, but stopped as he heard him name called. He turned to see one of his friends, Frank, coming towards him. Frank’s father ran the telegraph machine.

 

“Joe, this just came in for your father. My Pa saw you and said as long as you were here to give it to you.”

 

“Thanks,” Joe said as he took the envelope.

 

“I’ll see you later!” Frank ran back down the street, and Joe continued to where Midnight was around the corner. His horse had still been tethered at the edge of town where he had left him yesterday, so he switched him with the one he had taken from the man. At least now he couldn’t be accused of horse stealing. He tucked his package into one of the saddlebags, and then opened the telegram.

Sorry, will have to postpone trip. Will write later to explain.

Jack Trent.

 

Joe sighed. He had forgotten that Jack was to be at the Ponderosa for a visit, but now he wasn’t even coming at all. All the questions he had about what he had forgotten flooded his mind again, and he mounted his horse. At least now though, he would likely be back home before Jack came….

 

Joe froze as a thought struck him. No, it was too crazy, he couldn’t…but what if he could…? Joe looked at the telegram again. There it was; that was where he was going. “Oak Ridge, Arizona, here I come,” Joe whispered as he tucked the telegram into his pocket, and turned towards the east of town. Suddenly he felt adventurous, and bold, and not at all like a little kid getting his wrist slapped for nobody understanding him. He was off on an adventure…and nothing was going to stop him.

 

*****

 

“Are you sure?” Ben asked.

 

“Quite sure. Nobody’s seen him.”

 

Ben nodded his thanks to the ranch hand, who left to go back to the pasture. No one had seen his son since he left last night. Ben himself had searched for a good couple hours, but not finding him had assumed that Joe went somewhere where he knew he wouldn’t be found and would be back in the morning. When he didn’t show up, the other Cartwrights were worried, especially when Adam gave them all the details of Joe’s previous day.

 

“Adam and I are ready to go,” Hoss said as he came out of the house buckling his gun belt.

 

“You two be careful. Let me know if you find anything.” Ben wished that he was going with them too, but the herd still needed to be moved; plus, if Joe came back while they were looking for him, someone needed to let the others know.

 

Adam walked up to them from the barn. He took his gun belt from Hoss and strapped it on. “He probably is just somewhere around here still sulking. Don’t worry Pa, we’ll find him.”

 

Ben watched his sons as they rode out of the yard. He wanted to believe Adam’s words, but something was tugging at him and he was very afraid for Joe. He was dismayed at his last actions and words towards his son, and if it was his own behavior that had caused Joe to leave and something happened to him, Ben didn’t know how he would ever forgive himself.

 

*****

 

“Thanks anyway, mister,” Joe called. As he began to walk back down the street, he fought against the feelings of frustration that were starting to build. It had been a week since he left home, a day since he arrived here. He had spent the day wandering around, trying to ask questions without raising suspicions. He knew that in some places people value their privacy. He didn’t want to be hurt for asking the wrong person a question.

 

But even so, he had been genuinely confused by the answers he was receiving. How could no one in this town know who Jack Trent was? This is where the telegram came from, but it was like he didn’t exist. Everyone had responded his questions with a puzzled shake of the head, and “Never heard of him.” or, “Get the hell out of my shop.” Joe kicked at a pebble, and then watched as it bounced away.

 

“Robbers!”

 

“Get the sheriff!”

 

Joe looked up to where the shouts were coming from. Someone had just run yelling out of the bank up ahead, and already men were taking cover behind barrels and wagons, guns ready for when the robbers came out. Joe stood frozen for a moment, and then started to quickly turn away. If there was to be a gunfight, he would be in the middle of it right now. As he turned back, he bumped into a man standing behind him. “Sorry,” Joe murmured, and started to step aside. To his surprise, the man quickly put an arm out and caught him around the waist.

 

“Hey!” Joe yelped as the man pulled him close. As he tried to break out of his hold, he felt something hard jab him in the side.

 

The man leaned close to his ear. “Keep your mouth shut or I’ll kill you. Move,” he hissed as he pulled the teen down the alley in between the buildings.

 

The man kept the gun pressed hard in Joe’s ribcage as he dragged him behind the buildings to where five horses were tethered. The back of the bank was the next building over, and Joe could see several men behind it, cloths tied over the bottom parts of their faces to obscure them. The men saw Joe and his captor, and gestured towards the alley leading towards the street. Suddenly Joe realized their predicament. There was a large open space between the bank and the next building, offering a perfect shot from the street. Behind the bank was a building, but it had no entrance from the back. The robbers were trapped.

 

The men in front of the bank realized this too. “This is Sheriff Day. Give yourselves up, there’s no way out. Give up, and nobody gets hurt.”

 

“Wrong, sheriff!” the man holding Joe yelled. “Let us go, or someone will get hurt.”

 

“Nobody’s been hurt,” the sheriff called back. “Don’t turn this into a hangin’ crime.”

 

“I’ve got a kid here, and I’ll blow his head off if you don’t back off!” There was silence for a few moments, and the man holding Joe released him to shove him against the wall. He jabbed the gun roughly into Joe’s stomach, and it took everything Joe had to keep from collapsing on the ground doubled over. “Tell them,” the man said. “Tell them to do as I say, or I’ll kill you.”

 

Joe composed himself, then shook his head. “No. If you shoot me you have no insurance. I’m not helping you.”

 

The man muttered a couple of curse words, and then backhanded him so roughly that Joe was thrown to the ground. The man kicked him several times, and then pulled the half conscious boy up. He had to hold Joe with his arm around his waist to keep him on his feet as he pulled him into the opening between the buildings. “Sheriff, throw down your gun.”

 

The sheriff observed the boy, who had blood streaming from a split lip and dirt on his face and clothes. “Fine, you win,” he called. “Just leave the boy.”

 

The man laughed. “No way, we’re taking him with us. You give us a two day head start, and we’ll leave him somewhere along the way where you can find him.”

 

“There’s no need-“

 

“Throw down your guns!” the man yelled. With a glance at the other men near him, indicating they should do the same, the sheriff obeyed. The man holding Joe signaled the others, who ran from behind the bank to the waiting horses. The man slowly backed behind the building, and then handed Joe up to one of the other men who set him in front of him on the horse.

 

The men quickly left, and as the pounding of the horses’ hooves became too much for Joe’s aching head, he slipped into painless darkness, with no idea where they were headed or what was going to happen to him.

 

*****

 

Joe didn’t move as he heard someone walk up to him. He stayed where he had been for about the last hour since he woke up, slumped on the ground with his eyes closed, and hoped that the man would think he was still unconscious. Everything hurt, his head was pounding, and the ropes they had bound him with were so tight his hands and feet were almost numb.

 

“Get up kid. I know you’re awake.”

 

Joe didn’t move.

 

“I brought you some food. Come on, get up and eat.”

 

Joe slowly opened his eyes. He carefully rolled over, and the man helped sit upright against a rock. Joe looked up as the man knelt down in front of him holding a plate of food. “Why?” he asked.

 

The man looked at him in surprise. “Aren’t you hungry?”

 

Joe stared back evenly. “Of course I am. I was wondering why you’re feeding me if you’re just going to kill me.”

 

The man stared back at him, visibly unnerved by Joe’s calm manner. “Wh…what?”

 

“It makes no sense to give me food if you’re only going to kill me.”

 

The man tried to choke out an answer, and Joe watched with satisfaction as he miserably failed.

 

“Kid makes sense, Burton,” called one of the other men, the one who had so roughly grabbed Joe to be their hostage.

 

“Shut up, Skinner!” Burton snapped. “I already said, there’s no point in making him suffer needlessly.” The man looked apologetically at the boy in front of him, but Joe just stared stonily back.

 

“Even condemned men get a last meal,” said one of the other men, who coolly walked over to Burton and Joe.

 

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Joe said quietly. “Why should I be condemned?”

 

“Well,” the man started. “Seems to me you weren’t very cooperative with us, for one. Another thing is, you’re too valuable to that blasted sheriff now. You know our names, our faces. And I’m not keeping a little brat with us, especially one that is more trouble then he’s worth. You mean nothing to us, kid.” He turned away.

 

“You know what you’re doing,” Joe called to the man’s retreating back. “It’s coldhearted murder, plain and simple.” The man ignored him and went back to the fire where the others were.

 

Burton sighed, and after a moment held the plate up. Joe looked at him, and then wordlessly shook his head. It was all he could do to keep from bursting into tears. He had guessed what they had planned for him, but it was really hard to hear it being said like that. He had hoped that they would rethink it, and maybe keep him alive or just leave him somewhere. There was no chance of that now though; they had realized just how dangerous he was to them. The thing that hurt the most though was his family. They wouldn’t know what happened to him, or where he was. He wished he had sent some message to them from Oak Ridge. He wished he could see his father again.

 

“Kid…” Burton said, breaking Joe out of his thoughts. Joe looked up at him, and did his best to hide the feelings of pain and sadness that had almost betrayed him. “You should eat something…I mean, it might make you feel…I mean…you haven’t had anything all day, and…” Finally Burton trailed off, knowing there was nothing he could say or do anymore to help things. He stood up. “I’m sorry, kid,” he muttered. “I’m sorry this whole thing happened.”

 

Joe felt a tiny bit better as he watched the man walk away. At least one of them had a guilty conscience.

 

The night was long, and Joe hardly slept at all. The ground was damp and hard, and between that and the extreme discomfort from the ropes, it was impossible for him to fall or stay asleep very long. At least one man was up at all times, keeping watch, until it finally became light. Joe watched the men warily as they packed up their camp. He could tell it was going to happen this morning.

 

When the men were finished cleaning up the clearing and packing, one of them walked over to Joe and cut some of the ropes, but left his hands tied behind his back. He pulled him to his feet and led him to where the men were standing. “Alright Skinner, take him into the woods over there…”

 

“No, I’ll do it.”

 

He looked over at Burton. “You sure?”

 

The man nodded. “If it’s going to be done, at least the kid shouldn’t have to suffer.” The sick smile disappeared from Skinner’s face as Burton took Joe’s arm and pushed him away from the men towards the wooded area a little ways from their camp.

 

“That’s fine!” Skinner yelled after him. “At least his blood’s on your hands, not mine!”

 

Joe felt sick to his stomach. He was determined to die like a man, not begging or crying, but it was so hard. The child in him wanted to cry out, to plead for his life, but he knew it would be useless. He grunted as Burton tugged his arm. “Come on, struggle, kid,” the man hissed.

 

“What?”

 

“Struggle or I will blow your head off,” the man replied, and with a puzzled frown, Joe tried to pull away from him. The man jerked him back, not harshly though, and Joe twisted and succeeded in getting from him. He started to run, and made it a few steps away before he felt the man’s hands on him, and he tried to pull away, in vain. The man’s grip tightened, and as they neared the woods, the man hissed, “Yell or something. Really fight.”

 

Realization sank in, and Joe was filled with hope. “Don’t do it! Please don’t kill me!” he cried. He dug his feet in the ground, and after dragging him for a few steps, Burton wrapped an arm around his waist and carried him kicking and struggling towards the trees. “No! No! Please, don’t do it! Please! No-“ Joe’s cries were cut off as the man covered his mouth with his hand.

 

“Good boy,” Burton hissed in his ear as he dragged him into the edge of the woods. The other men could see them as Burton forced Joe to his knees. “Lie still until we leave,” the man hissed, and then pushed him facedown on the ground.

 

“Thank you,” Joe whispered.

 

“Just lie still until we leave,” Burton repeated, and then there was a loud gun blast. Joe couldn’t help but jump slightly at the loud noise, but he forced himself to relax and lie still as soon as it faded away. He felt Burton’s hand on his face as if checking his breathing, and then the man got up and left.

 

He heard the faint sound of the men talking, and then the sound of horses riding away. Joe was terrified that only some of them had left, and maybe someone else was waiting to see if he moved, if he was still alive; so he lay in the same spot for a while.

 

After he was quite sure that he hadn’t heard any noises for a while, he slowly turned his head and looked around. He was definitely alone.

 

Joe stumbled to his feet and started out of the woods. His hands were still tied behind his back, and he had no idea how he was going to get out of the ropes, or keep warm tonight.

 

Suddenly he came to a dead stop. Ahead were about four men on horses coming towards him. “No…” he whispered, but it was too late. They had seen him and were riding to intercept him. He turned and bolted back towards the woods, but tripped and fell in his haste. With his arms tied behind him, it was impossible to get up quickly, and within moments, the men had reached him and were pulling to his feet. “No, don’t do it!” Joe sobbed.

 

“Kid, it’s okay. We’ve been looking for you.”

 

Joe looked up at them then, and instead of the cruel faces of the bank robbers he discovered unfamiliar faces. “You have?”

 

Joe felt the ropes around his wrists fall away, and the men led him towards the clearing where the robbers stayed the previous night. “Get a fire going, and some food and coffee for the boy.”

 

Before long Joe was sitting on a comfortable bedroll, gratefully sipping the hot coffee after the meal and telling the men- the sheriff from Oak Ridge, his deputy, and two others from a nearby town- what had happened and everything he knew about the bank robbers. Joe finished, and then looked up at the sheriff. “Please, if you capture them, one of them did save my life.”

 

The sheriff nodded. “When we catch them, we’ll keep it in consideration.” He stood up and took the empty cup from Joe. “It’s late, and you’ve been through a lot today. Why don’t you get some sleep? Tomorrow I’ll send you back into town with one of the men, and you can contact your family. You live around here?”

 

Joe carefully avoided the man’s eyes as he shook his head. The sheriff frowned, and then asked, “They know where you’re at?” Joe shook his head again, and got settled under the blanket. The sheriff leaned close to him, and tapped his arm. “You be sure to wire your family when you get back to town, you hear me? This town ain’t no place for a runaway.”

 

Joe bit back an angry answer. He hadn’t thought of himself in regards to that term, and he didn’t like it. Runaways were little kids that left home to become a famous gunfighter or something stupid like that. He wasn’t like that.

 

Joe went to sleep that night with disconcerting thoughts about his true motives for leaving home.

 

*****

 

The next day Joe walked in the general store with the money the sheriff had given him to send the telegram, “To make sure it’s sent,” the sheriff had said, even though Joe protested that he had money. A little, at least. He walked over to the counter where a man was seated behind the telegraph machine. The man looked up. “What can I do for you, son?”

 

“I need to send a wire,” Joe replied.

 

“Certainly. Why don’t you write out the message you want to send on this paper? I’m waiting for another message to come in, so you’ll have to wait a few minutes.”

 

“Thank you sir,” Joe said as the man turned back to the machine. Joe wrote down the destination, but when he got to the message itself, he started and stopped a couple times, not sure exactly what he wanted to say. Finally he decided on, Pa, I am okay. I’m in Oak Ridge, Arizona. The sheriff is not allowing me to leave until he hears from you. Joe.

 

The message the man was waiting for started to come through, and Joe smiled slightly as he interpreted it. Frank had taught him some time ago how to read the dots and dashes and Joe was getting pretty good at it, which he was proud of. As he listened to the message though, the smile faded and his eyes grew wide. That was why no one here had heard of Jack Trent!

 

Joe missed a couple of words, but he understood the meaning of the message perfectly. It was from another town a few miles away, Spencer. Joe had come across several people from there. And the message was clear. It was signed Jack Trent, to be relayed to somewhere in California with a message about a wanted man.

 

He must relay his messages through here, Joe realized. But why…unless he didn’t want to be found. More and more questions about who Jack Trent really was kept appearing, and Joe was a little scared now. But still, he couldn’t have come all this way for nothing.

 

The man finished taking the message, sent a response that he received it, and then turned to Joe. “Now then,” he said. “What do you want to send?” Joe handed him the piece of paper, and the man let out a low whistle. “Virginia City? That’s pretty far to come on your own, son.” Joe just bit his lip and didn’t say anything as he handed the money to the man.

 

He turned and left, and then found his horse in the livery. “Sorry, Midnight,” Joe said. “I didn’t mean to get kidnapped again.” He saddled him, and then started away from Oak Ridge. It was best to leave before the sheriff got back and stopped him.

 

*****

 

“I’m looking for a man named Jack Trent,” Joe said. “You know him?” The first clue that he had stumbled onto something was the look the man from the livery gave him. His bored mask had very briefly been replaced with suspicion. The second clue was what he said- almost everybody he had asked before had just shook their heads and replied, ‘no’. Instead, he looked up at him and asked, “And why are you wanting to know that?”

 

Joe was filled with hope that maybe he had reached the end of his journey. “He’s an old friend of my father’s. I was just trying to find him, that’s all. Could you tell me where he’s at?”

 

The man finished giving Midnight hay, and he slid out of the stall and hooked the rope across the opening. “Sure kid,” he said as he turned and picked something up. When he turned back, Joe gasped and backed up a few steps upon seeing the metal rod in the man’s hands and the look on his face. “But first, you’re going to tell me why you’re looking for Jack.”

 

Joe put his hands in front of him protectively as the man started towards him. “No, wait, I didn’t mean to make trouble. Wait…”

 

“It’s too late for that, boy. Nobody comes looking for Jack Trent unless they mean some kind of trouble.” The man swung the rod at Joe. Joe jumped back to avoid getting hit, and he looked around in panic. On the other side of the barn were a bunch of tools.

 

Joe turned and started to run but the man caught up with him quickly and shoved him into one of the empty stalls. Joe got off the floor and backed up against the wall, then stared up at the man who was towering over him with the metal pipe in his hand. “You gonna talk?” the man said.

 

Joe’s heart was racing as the man lifted the pipe into the air. Just then the sound of men talking and horses hooves could be heard, and the man turned to see who had come in. As soon as he did, Joe bolted from the back of the stall and threw himself into the man. The man fell to the ground, and Joe turned and raced out of the barn.

 

“Stop him! Catch that boy!” he heard behind him as he ran. He ran until he thought his lungs were going to burst out of his chest, and then collapsed behind a building in between some crates. He put his head down and tried to calm his breathing. As soon as the roaring in his head cleared, he made a plan. Tonight, when it was dark, he was going to try to sneak into the barn and get Midnight. Then he was going home.

 

He’d had enough adventures on this trip to last him for years. In some ways he hated giving up when he was so close to finding Jack Trent, but if someone wanted to hurt him because of it, he’d rather just forget the whole thing. He had no idea what he was getting himself into when he started this trip, and now he’d much rather be back home.

 

Joe’s stomach growled, and he suddenly realized how hungry he was. He’d had a meal yesterday when the sheriff had found him, but before that… Joe frowned as he realized he couldn’t remember. It was before the robbers had captured him for sure. New plan, he decided. Find something to eat, get Midnight, then go home. Joe reached for his belt, but then a cold feeling overtook him. His money was still in the saddlebags back in the livery. “Damn it,” he hissed, and felt a little better. Well, maybe later tonight the man would leave the livery, and he could get Midnight and then go back to Oak Ridge to see if Pa replied to his message.

 

Unless… Joe looked down the alley. There were a couple of stores down the street. As much as his pride hated it, maybe he could do some work in exchange for a meal for one of them. And as long as he didn’t mention Jack Trent again, he would probably be fine.

 

*****

 

Joe walked slowly into the store and looked around for a moment before approaching the counter. He took a deep breath. “Excuse me, sir,” he said.

 

The man behind the counter looked up and Joe shrank back a little, half expecting to be yelled at, but instead the man smiled. “What can I do for you son?”

 

Joe licked his lips before answering. “I wondered if I could do some work for you in exchange for food.” Joe watched as the man frowned thoughtfully.

 

Finally he answered. “Well, son, I’m just about ready to close for the day, so there’s not a whole lot to do. But if you want, you can stay in one of the rooms upstairs tonight, and I’ll put you to work tomorrow. How’s that sound? A good day’s work for a night’s stay and a couple of meals?”

 

Joe thought for a moment, then smiled and nodded. “Yes, sir, thank you.” It was a larger town, and the livery was way on the other side. There was a chance he might accidentally see the man from the livery tomorrow, but the temptation of a bed and a meal was overpowering his fear at being discovered.

 

“Well, come on this way then.” The man led the way up the stairs in the back and down a hall. He opened a door on the left, and then went in and lit the lamp inside. Joe glanced over the little room. There was a bed, a chair, and a stand with a pitcher and basin on it. The only entrance was the door, and there wasn’t a window. It was nowhere near home, but it was better than what he had the last few weeks. “Thanks,” he said to the man.

 

The man didn’t reply as he left the room. He swung the door shut…and then Joe heard it lock. “Hey,” Joe called as he went to the door. He tugged on the handle, but it refused to give. “No! What are you doing? Let me out! Unlock the door!” Joe pounded on the door, but there was only silence from the other side. “Open the door, please! Don’t do this! Let me out!” Joe backed away from the door, panic starting to set in. He looked around the room again, but there was nothing; no other door or way out. He was trapped.

 

Joe turned and threw himself onto the bed. He was a prisoner now. He just hoped the man stayed true to his word and that he had only locked him in here for his own piece of mind. Joe tried not to think about any other reason for this.

 

After about a half an hour, he heard muffled voices outside, and the key in the lock. He stood up as the door swung open. The store owner came in, followed by the man from the livery and two others. “That’s him,” the man from the livery said, and the store owner walked out of the room, closing the door behind him without a glance back.

 

Joe backed up as the men started towards him. He quickly sized them up, and then went for the smallest one. He managed to get a few good punches in before one of them pinned him from behind and the two others quickly grabbed him.

 

“Over there,” one of them said, and they dragged the still kicking and fighting boy to the chair. It took two of them to hold him in place while the third one tightly tied his arms and legs to the chair, rendering him completely helpless. Joe bit his lip to keep from crying out as the man tightened the last knot and the rope dug into his still raw skin. “Still going to fight us, little boy?” one of them said.

 

The men laughed as Joe angrily pulled against the ropes. “Let me go,” Joe yelled as the men let go of him. “You can’t so this, you won’t get away with it! You better untie me right now; or-“ Joe was cut off as the man behind him suddenly, and quite harshly, pulled a cloth into his mouth. He held the ends of it, pulling it tight as Joe choked and gasped, struggling to even breathe.

 

One of the men leaned forward towards him. “Shut up,” he said slowly, and then turned and left the room. Joe tried to yell through the gag as he struggled against the ropes. The man behind him leaned up next to his ear. “Keep still,” he snapped, and jerked the gag tighter. Tears sprang to Joe’s eyes as he started choking on the cloth. The man loosened it after a moment, and Joe gasped for air.

 

The door opened, and Joe looked up as a man walked in. The expression on his face sent a shiver down Joe’s spine. He seemed…cold. There was no warmth or sympathy in his eyes. Joe wondered if he wouldn’t hesitate to kill him. Joe shrank back in the chair as the man slowly approached. “So,” he said, and his voice was like gravel. “This is the child who is so interested in Jack Trent. Care to tell us why, boy?” He waved his hand, and Joe’s gag fell away.

 

Joe gingerly licked his lips, and then choked out, “Please, he was an old friend of my father, Ben Cartwright. I just wanted to see him, that’s all. I didn’t mean to cause trouble. Just let me go, and I’ll leave. Please…” His voice died to a whisper as the man leaned close to him, placing his hands on his shoulders.

 

The man chuckled, and Joe hated the sound. “A very creative story,” he said, and then became serious. “Don’t play games with me, boy. I know why you’re here, and it’ll be a lot easier for you if you just tell the truth. Lie to me again, and I’ll have you beaten.”

 

Joe shook his head, terrified. “I’m not lying,” he whispered. The man looked at him for a moment, then straightened up and slapped him sharply. Joe couldn’t help but cry out at the suddenness of it, and tears sprang to his eyes.

 

The man grabbed his chin tightly, and forced him to look up at him. “Do you not understand me, boy?” he snapped. “Tell me who sent you!”

 

Joe tried to shake his head. “No…nobody sent me. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I came on my own. I just wanted to find Jack Tre-“ This time, Joe managed to hold back his cry as the man hit him. “Please,” he begged. “I didn’t mean to do anything wrong.”

 

The man laughed. “Oh, you did something wrong,” he said. “Lying to me is what you did wrong.”

 

“I’m not lying,” Joe protested, and cringed as was hit again and he felt a cut on his lip open, and tasted the blood in his mouth.

 

“Who sent you?” the man yelled in his face.

 

“I told you…nobody sent me!”

 

“Why were you looking for Jack Trent?”

 

“He knew my father a long time ago! He sent him a telegram…and I traced him here. I didn’t know what I was doing would cause trouble.”

 

“You’ll never see your father again if you don’t stop lying,” the man snapped.

 

“I’m not lying!” Joe yelled.

 

The man shrugged. “Fine,” he said angrily. “This isn’t hurting me any.” He grabbed a couple of cloths from one of the men, and tied one tightly over Joe’s mouth, and then one over his eyes.

 

Joe felt a cloth settle over his face, and he realized that the man had put a bag over his head as well. “No…” he tried to call through the fabric, but he could tell by the silence that answered his moan that they had already left.

 

*****

 

Joe heard the door open, and fought the urge to cry out. His heart started racing, his breath coming fast. There was no hiding or defending himself. They had come and gone many times during the night. Each time, they yelled at him, hit him, threatened him, hurt him…trying to make him tell them something he didn’t know. They didn’t believe him when he said he was telling the truth. Each time they left, they shoved the same gag back in his mouth, blindfolded him, and put the bag over his head.

 

He hadn’t slept at all. He was exhausted, and near breaking down. He just wanted it to end.

 

He felt the bag come off, and then the gag fell away but they left the blindfold on. This time though, the ropes loosened as well. The relief was short-lived as they tied his hands in front of him, and then tied his ankles together. He was pulled to his feet, and then pushed harshly. He fell to the floor, hitting his shoulder as he landed.

 

“Kid, this is your last chance.”

 

Joe shuddered at the familiar, hated voice.

 

“Tell the truth!” the man yelled, and then Joe felt a hard object, probably someone’s boot, hit him in the side.

 

“I’ve been telling the truth,” Joe gasped. “There’s nothing else to tell. Why won’t you believe me?”

 

There was silence for a few seconds. “Fine,” the man said. “Kill him.”

 

Joe held his breath as he heard footsteps come to a stop next to his head, and then he heard a gun cock.

 

“Wait. Let’s wait until morning and take him somewhere. That way we don’t have to worry about a body.”

 

“Fine with me,” said the person standing next to Joe, and then there was movement. Joe felt the cloth bag being forced over his head again, but he wasn’t gagged. The men spoke quietly for a few minutes, and then he heard them leave. When he was sure they were gone, he reached up and tried to pull the bag off. When it didn’t loosen, he felt around the edge until he found a knot. There was a string running through the end of the bag, pulled tight and knotted. He quickly tried to find the ends, to undo it. He just longed for fresh air; to enjoy it without pain, or being screamed at. He tugged at the knot, and then realized his fingers were quickly losing feeling. They had tied his wrists so tightly the circulation was being cut off. He hurriedly pulled at it, willing it to become undone; but then soon he realized it was hopeless. He couldn’t make his numb fingers undo the tiny knot. Joe sank to the floor.

 

Outside the open door, two of the three men who had been watching Joe struggle in vain quietly walked away where he wouldn’t be able to hear them.

 

“What are we going to do?”

 

“Tell Jack. Let’s let him decide.”

 

“What was the name of the person the kid mentioned? His father?”

 

“I don’t remember. It’s probably not that important anyhow.”

 

*****

 

“Sir, we got that kid who was asking questions about you.” Carl waited as the man finished writing. He always felt a little intimidated by him; not just because he was his boss, or that he had killed so many men. It was an air he had about him- you don’t mess with Jack Trent. Not if you expect to live to tell about it. Carl crossed his arms and leaned against the doorway.

 

Jack looked up. “Carl…”

 

“Yes, sir?”

 

“Please stop.”

 

“Sir?”

 

“You’re doing it again. It’s no secret that you admire me…lord knows why…but at least you can keep the monologue to yourself.”

 

Carl stood up and uncrossed his arms, looking quite sheepish. “Sorry,” he muttered.

 

“Tell me about the kid,” Jack said as he stood up and put the book in a nearby cabinet.

 

“Well, Pete’s been questioning him pretty roughly for the last couple hours. All he’s got out of him so far is that he was looking for you because you were an old friend of his father’s. No mention of the Messler family.”

 

Jack shrugged. “Well, I’m sure he wouldn’t just go blurting it out the second he got in trouble, otherwise they wouldn’t have sent him. Old friend, huh? What’s the kid’s name?”

 

Carl opened his mouth to answer, then paused. “Uhh…I’m not sure.”

 

Jack turned and stared at him. “You’re not sure?”

 

Carl shifted his weight. “Well…he mentioned it…but I don’t remember…”

 

Jack sighed and rolled his eyes as he finished putting away his writing materials. “Well what does he look like, then?”

 

“Well, he’s about thirteen years old, I think. He’s small, brown curly hair and…like, greenish eyes. Quite a pretty boy.”

 

Jack shook his head. “Doesn’t sound familiar. Where’s he at?”

 

“Harry’s got him in one of the rooms upstairs.”

 

Jack walked to the door. “Let’s go.”

 

They walked out into the alley and up the back staircase of the general store, then down the dark hall. “In here,” Carl said, and led the larger man into the room where the boy was tied up. Pete and one of the other men followed them in.

 

The boy lifted his head up as they entered. “Please…” he whispered hoarsely. “May I have some water?”

 

“No,” Pete answered gruffly as he and one of the other men pulled the boy up off the floor and pushed him into the chair. They untied his wrists, and then pulled his arms behind him over the chair back. The boy groaned, but didn’t struggle, and so the man didn’t tie him but merely held him there.

 

Pete pulled out his knife and cut the knot from the bag, and then pulled it away.

 

Jack walked closer to the boy, studying him carefully. His head was bowed, and he was slumped in the chair. In fact, it looked as though he would have fallen right out had the man not been holding him. Jack could tell he was exhausted. If they didn’t get an answer out of him now, they never would.

 

The boy, sensing that someone was in front of him, tensed as if expecting a blow, and Jack glanced back at Carl who shrugged. In some ways he would have commended his men for doing their jobs, no matter what; but he also felt a bit sorry for the kid. He was sickened at the thought that someone sent him here, possibly knowing what he would go through, and yet they chose to do this to a child.

 

Unless the kid was telling the truth.

 

Jack reached out and gently but firmly held the boy’s chin, then tipped his head back. “All right, let’s get to the bottom of this. No more playing around, no more lies,” Jack said.

 

The boy looked like he was fighting back tears behind the blindfold. “I’m not lying,” he whispered. “I wish I knew what you wanted to hear, and I’d tell you that, but I don’t know what you want.”

 

“I want the truth,” Jack replied. “Why were you looking for Jack Trent?”

 

The boy whimpered and his shoulders started to shake with sobs. “Please don’t hurt me anymore…”

 

Jack loosened his grip a little. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he said quietly. “Just tell me the truth. How did you know to come here?”

 

“The telegram….”

 

The boy’s voice was so low Jack could barely hear him. He leaned closer. “What?”

 

“I…I traced him here. This is where the telegram came from. It was relayed through another town.”

 

Jack mouth opened slightly. If the kid was telling the truth, he was pretty smart. Suddenly, a thought struck him. “What’s your name?” he asked, hoping he didn’t get the answer he was afraid he might.

 

“Cartwright…Joe Cartwright…”

 

Jack closed his eyes for a moment. Damn. He let go of the kid, and then untied the blindfold. The man behind the chair let go of his arms. “Get me some water,” he said to Carl. He knelt down in front of the boy, who was staring at him, fear and confusion in his eyes. “Here,” said Jack as Carl handed him a glass of water. He held it up for Joe, helping him drink.

 

Joe emptied the glass, and then said, “Are you Jack Trent?”

 

Jack nodded, and then quickly reached for the boy as his eyes closed and he fell off the chair. “Here…get him to the bed.”

 

“Is he really…? He was…?”

 

“Yes and yes. Damn it!” How was he ever going to explain this to Ben Cartwright?

 

*****

 

Joe slowly opened his eyes. He was lying face down on a bed. When he sat up he discovered he was in the same room as before, with the chair next to him and the ropes that had held him prisoner draped over the back. Joe gingerly touched his wrists. “Ouch,” he muttered grumpily. The ropes had created more cuts over the old ones, and they hurt pretty bad.

 

“You want to tell me why you went to so much trouble to worry your father?”

 

Joe looked behind him, startled, to see the man known as Jack Trent standing at the foot of the bed. He wasn’t quite as big as Joe remembered him, but Joe had been young then. He still had the same strong features and large build. Joe would have recognized him even if he hadn’t known who he was. “What?” Joe asked.

 

“You shouldn’t have come here,” replied Jack as he walked around and sat in the chair next to the bed. “Does your father know you’re here?”

 

Joe looked away from him and shook his head.

 

“Of course he doesn’t. I received a telegram this morning. If I had received it yesterday, none of this would have happened. ‘Youngest son Joseph ran away. Last in Oak Ridge. If contacts you please inform.’ What do you think of that?” Joe shrugged, unable to meet Jack’s eyes. Jack stood up then, and angrily kicked the chair across the room. “Ran away! That’s what this says, that you ran away. Why did you come here? You thought I would help you do something like that?” When Joe didn’t say anything, Jack leaned over him. “Answer me.”

 

Joe shrugged. “I just…I don’t know. I needed to get away and it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

 

“And now?”

 

Joe looked up at him. “Now I’m just tired and hungry and I want to go home. I don’t care that much about knowing what happened five years ago.”

 

“Five years ago…? Is that what this is about?” Jack ran his hand over his face and took a deep breath. He looked at Joe again, but instead of a stupid, rebellious teenager making a huge mistake, he saw an unsure, frightened ten year old reaching out for help. Suddenly he seemed to understand and he closed his eyes. “Joe,” he said. He opened his eyes and retrieved the chair and set it down next to the bed again. He sat down and stared at the boy for a few moments. “I thought you didn’t remember what happened.”

 

Joe shook his head. “I didn’t. I had a nightmare, and Adam said I used to have them all the time before. He told me what happened, and I remembered some of it. I…had hoped you could tell me the rest. I didn’t mean to forget you,” Joe finished quietly.

 

“I know.” Jack paused before continuing, “But you shouldn’t have come here.”

 

Joe bit his lip. “I know,” he whispered.

 

“What else happened?”

 

Joe glanced up. “What?”

 

“You wouldn’t come all this way to reminisce about old times. Plus you said you needed to get away. Get away from what?”

 

Joe shrugged. “My family. I’m sick of being treated like a kid. They expect me to act like an adult, but they treat me like a child. I’m tired of getting into trouble for things they’re allowed to do, especially Adam. He thinks he knows better than anyone else, and that he’s so perfect.”

 

Jack frowned thoughtfully. “I see. You don’t want to be treated like a child.”

 

“No.”

 

“Then why are you acting like one?”

 

Joe looked up at him, anger flushing his face. “What?” he snapped.

 

“Come on. When’s the last time Adam ran away?”

 

“That’s different!”

 

“How?”

 

Joe stood up, right in front of him. “I did not run away! I’m not some stupid little kid, packing a cloth full of sandwiches and crying back home at night. I can take care of myself!”

 

“Great job you’ve been doing so far.”

 

“I’m never allowed to do what I want, say what I want, go where I want!”

 

“What and where do you exactly want to go?”

 

“Anywhere! I’m sick of being told what to do! I want to make my own decisions!”

 

“I see.” Jack stood up, and he towered over the boy, but Joe didn’t move. Jack had to admire his tenacity; to back up would be admitting defeat, something he was sure the young man in front of him wouldn’t do. “Making your own decisions involves more than just coming and going when you want to. You have to think how your actions affect others, and what’s the best thing to do overall. You can’t just pull this ‘child’ card whenever you want to, and then expect people to want to treat you like an adult. It doesn’t work that way. If you want to be treated like an adult, you’ve got to act like one. All the time. Not just when it’s convenient. Being an adult also means taking responsibility for what you’ve done. Do you know what you’ve done?” Joe glared at him, but didn’t answer. Jack pushed him none too gently back onto the bed. “I have things to do. I want you to think about every single person you’ve affected by doing this, both positively and negatively, and what you think I ought to do.”

 

Jack turned and left the room, and Joe glared at the closed door. “What?” he said out loud, and then flopped back onto the bed. He closed his eyes. Jack was going to come back and expect an answer. Well, positives first, he decided. Himself…he got to explore the world a bit. Well…at least Arizona. He got to prove to himself that he could survive on his own, and…he had some time away from his family.

 

His family. Pa had to be worried. No, that wasn’t a positive. He received Joe’s message, so he was less worried… Joe shook his head. That really wasn’t a positive either. Positive effect on his family…

 

After a few minutes of thinking, Joe couldn’t come up with a good answer. He decided to come back to them. Jack Trent… Joe frowned. He couldn’t think of a positive effect on Jack either. Joe knew he must have been busy, which is why he couldn’t come visit; but now he had to worry about Joe.

 

Joe sat up as he suddenly realized the list of negative effects this journey had had on all of those around him far outweighed the positives. If he hadn’t been in Oak Ridge, the sheriff might have had an easier time catching the bank robbers. They wouldn’t have had a hostage. Jack’s men…they spend hours interrogating him, and even though Joe found it difficult to admit, he had put them too through a lot of trouble too.

 

There were a lot of people he had hurt. For the first time since he left, Joe felt guilty for what he had done. He hadn’t meant to cause trouble, but there it was. He single-handedly made a whole lot of people’s lives difficult. But what could he do now?

 

*****

 

The door swung open, and Joe looked expectantly at the man who came in. “Come on, follow me,” the man said. Joe got up and walked to the door. “My name’s Carl. You’re Joe, right?” Joe nodded. Carl led the way down the hall and outside the back of the store, and then down an alley behind the buildings. He opened one of the doors, and then walked in and waited until Joe had entered before closing it. It was dark, and Joe could hardly see in front of him. The man gently tugged his arm, and then led him a few yards from the door.

 

Joe followed Carl into a narrow, dimly lit room. “Here he is,” he heard, and it took a couple of seconds until Joe saw Jack’s face among the other men.

 

“Come here, kid.” Joe followed Jack to one of the walls, where Jack carefully pulled away a panel. “Look,” he said.

 

When Joe went forward, he saw that he was looking through a small glass pane into a saloon. There were countless men playing cards and faro, drinking, and passed out, drunk. There were women in short dresses flirting with the more sober men. “Where is this?” Joe asked.

 

“The Ocean’s Breath,” replied Jack. “It’s just a bit farther down the street from the mercantile.”

 

“You have connections everywhere,” Joe breathed.

 

“The whole town. All of my men know every single person in this town. It took years to do this; to set up this town to look so normal that no one passing through would suspect anything. My men know every person who should be here…and every one that shouldn’t.” Jack pointed past him towards one of the tables. “You see that man there? The serious, well-dressed one?” Joe nodded. The man Jack pointed out was sitting at one of the tables closest to the bar. He had a drink in front of him, but looked like he hadn’t touched it. “He’s waiting for someone.”

 

Joe turned around. “Who?”

 

“Jack Trent. That man would pay fifty thousand dollars if he knew where I was. See that other man?” Joe looked as Jack pointed to a man at another table. “He would kill me the second he laid eyes on me. And that one, with the brown hat and the red neck scarf, has hired three men to kill me. All of them are dead now.”

 

Joe turned back to Jack.

 

“These people…they watch, constantly, for me. If anyone whispers the name Jack Trent, they know.” Jack put his hands on Joe’s shoulders. “And all it took was one stupid kid to lead them right to me. You were probably followed the whole way here. It’s not safe for me here anymore. You don’t realize what the stakes are, kid.”

 

Jack turned away and poured himself a whiskey. Joe wished he could just sink into the ground; or take all this back, and just have done what he was supposed to do to begin with. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly.

 

Jack turned back angrily. “You’re sorry? You’re sorry! You know how many men out there want to kill me?”

 

Joe looked down, trying to think of a way to undo what he did. Suddenly a thought struck him, and he looked up. “What if you were dead?” he asked.

 

One of the other men stood up. “You caused this mess,” he said. “Don’t try to fix what you know nothing about.”

 

“Wait,” said Jack. He looked thoughtfully at Joe. “He did cause this mess. Let’s see how he would get out of it.”

 

Joe was suddenly self-conscious as he felt the eyes of all the men in the room on him. “Well,” he started. “If you let them think Jack Trent’s dead, then they would have no reason to stay around here. It could give you some time.”

 

One of the men laughed. “Sure. We’ll just walk out of the general store and shout it on the streets. ‘Jack Trent’s dead. You can all go home now’.” The other men laughed.

 

Joe moved in front of the man. “No, not like that,” he said angrily, wishing they took him seriously. “You could let it slip. Or…if there’s someone they know to be involved with Jack Trent. They could get it from him.”

 

Joe felt hands on his shoulders and he was tugged away. He turned to see Jack. “There’s only one problem, kid. They know I’m here because a fifteen-year-old kid was asking questions about me. You. And I’m not going to hand you over to them. You don’t know the stakes.”

 

“Then tell me,” Joe replied, but Jack shook his head and turned to one of the other men. “Please…” Joe said. “You’re right, I caused this mess. Let me do something about it.” This was the first time he that could remember taking responsibility for something he had done wrong. He thought about all the times that he had implicated Hoss, wrongly or not, in the things he did; but Hoss took it. Whether Pa knew or not, he never let on; but he never punished Hoss in the same way as he did Joe.

 

Jack looked thoughtfully at him. “I like your idea, kid.” He turned to the others. “If they thought that I was dead, and that you all were just keeping my…legend…alive, for your own purposes, it might work. Not for very long, of course, but for a little while. At least it would buy us some time.”

 

Pete frowned and gestured at Joe. “But how are you going to give them the kid?”

 

“Oh no! No, no, no, no…we’re not going to give them the kid.” Jack laughed. “Hell no. You know what his father would say to that?” Jack shook his head. “No…” he said once more, and looked at Joe. “But you can help us, I think. You agreed to work for Harry before, at the mercantile. You think you could do that still?”

 

Joe nodded, a little puzzled. “Sure…I guess so…”

 

“Good. I want you to keep your eyes and ears open. These men will be everywhere. I’m sure they won’t know that you are the kid who was looking for me. There are several boys your age or so who live here. One more won’t draw any suspicion.”

 

Joe smiled. “Sure. What do you want me to do?”

 

“Just…observe. If anyone asks you about me, you never heard of me. Play dumb. Listen for anything that could help us…um, names. Names of these men, or people they talk about. Where they’re from, what they’re looking for. Anything. But,” Jack warned. “Keep your mouth shut. Observe and remember. Every evening when you’re done I’ll want a full report from you. And try not to write anything down, or at least if you do, keep it in a safe place. There’s nothing worse than being caught with incriminating evidence you can’t explain away.”

 

“Yes sir. I’ll only observe.”

 

“Good. And one more thing…if you get yourself in trouble, my men might not be able to do a whole lot about it, so be careful. They won’t compromise themselves.”

 

Joe nodded. “I’ll be careful.”

 

Jack smiled and slapped him on the back. “Excellent! Now all we have to do is figure out a way to leak that Jack Trent is dead in a convincing way.” He turned to the others, but then he paused and looked back at Joe. “I suddenly thought of something…are you hungry?” Joe nodded, and Jack realized from the look on his face that he must not have eaten in days. “Okay, first we’ll go get some food. Mary’s restaurant is open now, and we have our own room in the back.”

 

Joe smiled and followed him out of the back room of the saloon. At least now he felt a little better.

 

*****

 

Joe kept his list under the counter at the mercantile, and only made notes when he was completely alone and if he was afraid that he wouldn’t remember something. A few days went by, and more and more strangers showed up. There were about fifteen or sixteen men here, Jack’s men estimated, and from information they obtained and from Joe, they had managed to put names on most of the faces.

 

Today there were two new ones, and Joe was carefully watching them. They looked like cowhands. One was dark, one fair. They didn’t ask anyone questions, but they had been hanging outside the mercantile, listening to others. The fair-haired one was outside talking to Harry right now, while the other had come in and was poking around the store. Joe wondered if they suspected he was the boy who had been looking for Jack.

 

Joe turned from the shelf he had been dusting, to see the dark-haired cowboy staring at him from the other end of the counter. The man looked startled, but then tried to smile. “I’m uh…looking for a couple of blankets,” he said.

 

“Over here,” Joe replied, and then walked past him and around the corner where he pointed to the shelf.

 

“Thanks,” the man muttered as Joe turned away.

 

Joe smiled to himself and started back towards the front of the store. He had only taken a couple of steps when a familiar voice from outside store made him stop in his tracks.

 

“Howdy there,” he heard his brother say. “I’m looking for a 15 year old boy who was in Oak Ridge a couple days ago. He might have been with a man named Jack Trent. Have you seen him?” Joe squeezed his eyes shut as he strained to hear Harry’s muffled answer to Hoss. Suddenly a hand closed over his mouth, and Joe was pushed into the back room behind the counter before he realized what was happening.

 

The dark haired cowboy pulled him around, and then shoved him into the wall. Joe looked up at him as the man leaned close to him. “Where is he?” the man said. He pulled Joe a couple of inches from the wall, and then slammed him into it again. “Where is he?” he said louder.

 

Joe struggled for breath, the wind having been knocked out of him. “Let me go,” he gasped. “I don’t know who you mean…”

 

The man looked up as his companion came into the room. “The old man just told the other one he didn’t know the kid. Or who Jack Trent was,” he said.

 

The dark haired man looked back to Joe. “He knows. He’s lying,” he said. “Tell me the truth! Where is he?” Joe’s response was to look away, prompting the man to slam him into the wall again. “Where is he?” he yelled, and when Joe still didn’t answer he pulled him away from the wall. “Let’s go,” he said, and two men grabbed Joe’s arms and started to drag him toward the back door to the alley.

 

“Wait, what are you doing?” Joe gasped.

 

“You’re going to tell us about Trent, if we have to beat it out of you,” the dark haired man said.

 

Joe spotted movement behind a couple of crates, and he knew he wasn’t alone. Still, there was not a whole lot anyone else could do. Jack had said if he got into trouble, it would be up to him to get out of it. “Wait,” Joe said. “I’ll tell you. Let me go, I’ll tell you.”

 

The man turned and grabbed Joe’s arms, and the other man stood behind him. “Tell me,” the man snapped. “Where is he?”

 

Joe looked down and swallowed. He hoped the nervousness he felt didn’t show too much. For once in his life, he was glad he was so good at lying. “He’s dead,” he said quietly.

 

“I don’t believe you,” the man replied. “Tell the truth, or I’ll kill you.”

 

Joe looked up at him. “That is the truth. Jack Trent has been dead for months. His men have been keeping his name alive.”

 

The grip loosened a bit on Joe’s arms. “Why?” the man asked. “It doesn’t sound right.”

 

Joe shrugged. “You’re all afraid of him, of the legend surrounding his name. By thinking Jack’s still alive, criminals like you have to be careful.”

 

The man chuckled, and then backhanded Joe roughly. “Watch your mouth,” he growled. He thought for a moment. “Why did you tell me? Don’t you work for them too?”

 

This was why Adam always said stupid men with guns were dangerous. “Because you just threatened to kill me,” he said sarcastically, but then hoped the man didn’t hit him again. That had really hurt. Suddenly a better reason popped into his head. “I’m being held here against my will. I don’t owe them anything; least of all a beating for a dead man who means nothing to me.”

 

“Then why are you wandering around free?”

 

“I’m working in the mercantile so I can eat, and not be tied up all day long.” Joe snapped, and then shuddered; and actually that was real, as he thought of the long hours in the room upstairs.

 

The dark haired man released Joe, and then looked at the other man. “So Jack’s dead?” he said. “No wonder we haven’t seen a trace of him in the last couple months.”

 

“And you’re not telling anyone that either.” All of them turned to see two of Jack’s men step out from behind the crates, guns pointed. “We’ve been working really hard to make people think he’s still alive,” one of them continued. The man looked at Joe. “We’ll take care of you later. I hope you like water, ‘cuz that’s where you’ll be spending the rest of your soon-to-be short life.”

 

Joe hoped he was pale as he stepped away from the two outlaws and sank to the floor next to the wall. He put his head down as shots rang out, and then looked up to see one of the outlaws dead on the floor, and the other one running out the door in back. One of the men started after him, while the other one, Carl, put his gun away and went to Joe. “Great job kid, just great!” he said as he helped Joe to his feet.

 

The other man came back in. “He’s gone. He’ll spread the word. Good job kid; we couldn’t have done it better if we planned it that way.” Joe couldn’t help but smile as the men led him to the back stairs. “Just go up to your room and wait there. You’d better lay low. We’re going to tell Jack what happened.”

 

“Yes sir,” Joe replied, and went up the stairs to the room that was given to him. It was a different room than the first one he had been in, and he was very grateful for that. This one had a window. Joe flopped onto the bed and stared at the ceiling. Suddenly he sat up with a gasp. Hoss! Where was Hoss? Joe started to go to the door, but then stopped and sat down again. It would be too dangerous on the street for him now. He’d just have to wait until Jack’s men came and ask them where his brother was.

 

*****

 

Joe heard the door to his room open, but he didn’t move from his spot on the darkened roof. After a couple of seconds the person realized the window was open, and Joe heard him walk to it. He glanced over to see Jack climbing out onto the roof to join him. “Hi,” Joe said.

 

Jack snorted. “Hi yourself. I’m not sure whether to congratulate you or to beat the crap out of you.”

 

Joe looked at him with surprise. “What do you mean?” he asked.

 

“I told you to stay out of trouble and not put yourself in danger, and if anyone asks about me, you’ve never heard of me. Then, the first time anyone shows any interest, you tell them I’m dead! All you had to do was tell them you never heard of me, but you go and say I’m dead!”

 

Joe felt confused. “But…”

 

Jack laughed. “It was brilliant! Just brilliant! But if I tell you it was brilliant, you’ll think you have free reign to do whatever you want, which is why I think I should beat you senseless instead.” Jack looked at Joe, who had a puzzled half-smile on his face. Jack slowly shook his head. “Congratulations kid. Excellent job.”

 

Joe grinned at him. “Thanks,” he whispered.

 

Jack laughed. “You’re going to be impossible to live with now, I can tell.”

 

Joe laughed too, and then leaned back on the roof. The stars were bright and clear, and there wasn’t a cloud to be seen. “What happens now?” he asked.

 

“Well, sooner or later someone’s going to realize I’m not dead. But until then I’m going to enjoy it. Although, this town won’t be safe anymore. Word is out that I was here last and it’s crawling with killers. That man that grabbed you in the store had a bounty on his head of 10,000 dollars. He killed eight different men, women, and children.”

 

“Wow,” Joe whispered. And then a cold shiver went down his spine and he looked up at Jack. “He’s killed children? He would have killed me then…”

 

“Probably, if Carl and Silas hadn’t been there.”

 

Joe sighed. “Hopefully the last time,” he murmured.

 

“What?”

 

Joe shook his head. “Nothing…I just…hope this is the last time I come this close to death again.”

 

“How many times have you almost died?” Jack asked, sitting up a little in surprise.

 

Joe frowned. “Let me see…one…two…three…three? I think three…Unless you want to count your men, and then it might be four. But only if you want to count how many people wanted to kill me, and not how many times someone threatened or pointed a gun at me.”

 

Jack’s mouth was open. “I hope you mean in your life,” he finally said.

 

“No, the past two weeks.” Joe looked up at him. “What?”

 

Jack shook his head and looked away. “Your father’s never going to let you off the ranch again.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Never mind.”

 

Joe shrugged, but then sat up. “What about Hoss?”

 

“Your brother? Well, Harry very kindly informed him that he sent you packing back to Oak Ridge. After he told him that Jack Trent’s name was a dangerous one to use. We didn’t want your brother getting into the same mess as you, spreading my name all over.” Jack pulled out a pouch of tobacco and started making a cigarette.

 

“Where is he now?”

 

“He got a room at the hotel to stay the night, and then go back to Oak Ridge tomorrow. You can see him later if you like, but he’s going to have to leave tomorrow by himself to keep up appearances.”

 

Joe nodded. “What about you? How are you getting out?”

 

Joe put the tobacco away and then lit the cigarette, taking a long slow puff on it before glancing over at Joe. “I don’t know yet. Until this whole thing exploded I was planning on taking you back home in a couple days, but plans change. Now your brother’s here so it’s up to you.”

 

“It’s safer for just the two of us to travel, isn’t it? People would think we were father and son.”

 

Jack looked at him for a couple of seconds and then nodded. “It wouldn’t need any explanation. The less of a story you have to make up, the less someone could tell if you’re lying. With us traveling it’s pretty obvious what they would think; no one would bother asking.” Jack stood up. “But like I said, it’s up to you.”

 

“I started this whole thing, and I want to finish it. I told you that before. Hoss being here doesn’t change that.” Joe got up and followed Jack back into the room, grimacing at how stiff and numb his bottom was. The roof wasn’t exactly the most comfortable place to mull.

 

*****

 

Hoss sighed and settled into bed. His patience was starting to grow thin in regards to his little brother. Back and forth, from one town to the next…when he caught up with him, watch out.

 

Just then a knock sounded on the door, and Hoss groaned and rolled out of bed. He opened the door to an unfamiliar face. “What can I do for ya?” he asked.

 

“You Hoss Cartwright?” the man replied.

 

“That’s right.”

 

“I’ve got information about your brother. Get dressed and meet me in room 308 in fifteen minutes.”

 

“Hang on there, what a minute…” Hoss protested, but the man was gone. He shut the door and quickly threw his clothes on, and then buckled his gunbelt over his hips. He opened the door, and crept down the hall and then up the stairs. He paused at the top, listening for any unusual sounds or movements, but there was nothing.

 

How had the man known his name, unless Joe had given it to him? What if Joe was in trouble? All of these questions ran through his head as Hoss neared room 308. He stopped outside, then gently knocked on the door, his hand resting on his gun in case he needed it. The door swung open, and a man stepped aside. “Come in.” Hoss hesitated, as he couldn’t see very far into the room, but then he set his jaw and stepped in.

 

“Hoss!” he heard, and he turned to see his younger brother seated on a chair in the corner of the room. Hoss glanced around to see two other men in the room. “Joe, are you all right?” he asked, not sure at all as to what was going on.

 

Joe stood up and went to him, smiling. “Of course I am!” he exclaimed, and then threw his arms around his brother.

 

Hoss returned the hug, and then held him at arm’s length. “You know I’ve been searching for a week for you? Pa’s worried sick, we all were…I ought to…” Hoss stared at the stricken look on boy’s face for a moment, and then pulled him into a bear hug. “Dadburn it, little brother. You beat everything. Are you sure you’re okay? Where did you get them bruises?” Hoss pulled him away again to inspect his face.

 

“I’m fine. I’ll explain those later. Hoss,” Joe turned to one of the men, but before he could introduce him Hoss recognized him.

 

“Jack Trent,” said Hoss, and reached out to shake his hand. “I hope this youngen’ hasn’t been too much trouble for ya,” he grinned, putting his arm around Joe’s shoulders.

 

Jack snorted. “Don’t get me started.”

 

Hoss read the expression on his face, and then released Joe so he could face him. “Joe, you been causing trouble here?”

 

“Yeah,” Joe sighed. “But look, I want to make it right. We have a plan.”

 

“What plan is that?” asked Hoss, as one of the men pulled a chair up for him and he sat down.

 

“Well,” Joe glanced at Jack, who gave him a barely discernable nod. “Jack’s got people looking for him. And it’s my fault. I led them here without meaning to. But we figured if I travel with Jack back to Virginia City, it would be less conspicuous than only Jack or a couple of his men traveling with him. They shouldn’t be looking for me, Hoss.”

 

Hoss pondered what Joe had just said. “So you mean you want to travel back to the Ponderosa by yourself? Just you and Jack? Joe…I’m not sure if…”

 

“Hoss, please! You’ve got to let me!” Joe threw himself onto his knees on the floor in front of him, but looked up, startled, as the men in the room just barely contained laughter.

 

“Sorry, Joe,” said Hoss, chuckling. “You just get so dramatic, it’s hard to take you seriously sometimes.”

 

Joe glared at him and stood up. “Fine,” he snapped, and started out of the room.

 

Hoss watched as Jack neatly intercepted him. “How are you going to prove your point from the hall?” Jack murmured, and then released Joe and left. Joe watched as the other man followed him out, and then he turned back to Hoss.

 

Joe took a deep breath and sat down on the bed across from his brother. “Hoss,” he said. “I…I really messed up here. I put Jack’s life in danger, and I want to make that right. If I go with him, it’ll be safer for him than if I don’t.”

 

“Joe…I’m not sure how Pa would like it.”

 

“Well I’m sure he hasn’t liked any of it so far, so one more thing isn’t going to make a difference.”

 

Hoss rolled his eyes.

 

“Please Hoss…I have to do this.”

 

“Why? You have nothin’ to prove. Are you sure someone else didn’t force you into it?”

 

“Hoss, this is my decision. Nobody pushed me into it. And, I’ve got something to prove. I’ve got something to prove to myself Hoss- that I’m not a little kid who gets into trouble and then expects someone else to bail me out. I’ve been thinkin’ a lot…I’ve never…taken responsibilities that were mine.”

 

Hoss snorted. “That’s for sure. I can’t count the number of times Adam and me had to do your chores, or the times…sorry,” he said, realizing he interrupted his brother and he probably wouldn’t be all that happy.

 

“No, you’re right, Hoss. And I’m sorry.”

 

“You are?”

 

“Yeah. And I’m sorry for getting you in trouble all those times.”

 

Hoss stared at him, puzzled. “Are you feeling okay?”

 

Joe stood up, exasperated. “I’m fine.”

 

Hoss sighed. He couldn’t tell if Joe meant it, or if he was just trying to get Hoss to agree with him. As soon as he thought that though, he felt bad. Hoss looked at him, and then shook his head. Their father would be less than pleased, but… “All right Joe. But you’d better be serious about this.” Hoss was surprised by the look that came over Joe’s face just then; a look of…was it?…responsibility? Could he really have grown up that much in the last two weeks?

 

“Thanks Hoss,” Joe smiled, and then went to the door to find Jack and let him know. They had to plan this out carefully now…

 

*****

 

Joe came back with the firewood, and put it in a pile in the little clearing he had made. As he started to stack the wood, he heard someone coming and looked back. Jack walked out of the woods with two rabbits. “How’s this?” he said.

 

“Great!” grinned Joe, and worked on getting the fire going while Jack skinned the animals. He thought about Hoss, and wondered how the plan was going. His brother was supposed to go back to Oak Ridge and wire their father that there was no sign of Joe, then start back for the Ponderosa, but by a different route than Joe and Jack. Once he got far enough away he was going to send a wire that he had found Joe, and they’d both be home soon. Joe sighed happily as flames started to spread over the wood.

 

“Good job. Here,” Jack said, and handed him a stick with the raw meat on it to cook.

 

After they had eaten and it was getting dark, Joe turned to Jack. “What exactly do you do?” he asked. Before, he would have been terrified to ask, but he figured with everything they’d been through Jack might actually tell him.

 

Jack looked thoughtfully at him, and then said, “You really want to know?” Joe nodded. “Well…I’m a bounty hunter, of sorts. People pay me to catch outlaws, rustlers…business partners who took the profits and left for Mexico…things like that.”

 

“So people pay you to catch criminals?”

 

Jack smiled slightly. “Not…exactly. The highest bidder pays me to do what they want. If the business partner who took the money is willing to make it worth my while, I’m willing to look the other way. I know who to help. And they help me in return. The problem is, it often comes down to loyalties. I know who not to hurt for my benefit, but the other side gets mad. That’s why I have so many people after me. I have a bounty, of sorts, on my own head, put there by the people I double-crossed or turned away.” Jack shrugged. “Part of the territory I suppose.”

 

Joe frowned as he poked a stick into the fire, watching the little sparks dance. “I thought you worked with the law, though…”

 

“Some of the law-men I’m really close with. I bring them criminals and a split of my share, and they do me favors. I’m not ashamed of it. It’s a good life until people start shooting at you. Your father never cared for my work.”

 

“Why did you decide to do it?”

 

“Sometimes you just don’t care. But then it turns into a struggle to survive, and if you stop what you’re doing, you die. So you keep going. And you tell yourself you love it. Eventually you do. But at what price…” Jack trailed off and stared into the fire for some time.

 

Joe watched him. He could tell there was something else behind Jack’s explanation, but the man chose to keep it to himself. “How…how did you meet my father?”

 

Jack looked back up and frowned thoughtfully. “A little kid ran into me.” He thought back to what he could remember. It all started with a poker game…

 

 

 

“Hey mister, you interested in a game of poker?”

 

The man who had spoken backed up slightly as the larger man put his beer down. After a few moments, the large man tossed a coin on the bar, and, without a glance back, left the saloon. The other man was left staring after him, a little startled and very unnerved. “No, thank you would have been fine,” he muttered as he went back to the table to tell the others about the unfriendly stranger.

 

Jack Trent paused outside the saloon to light a cigarette, and then he walked down the street, not looking at anyone he passed. Not wanting to be part of anyone else’s life. He knew he was an intimidating man. He knew that he was angry. It scared people. Kept them away. And he was perfectly satisfied with that.

 

He came to a space between two buildings, and just as he started to walk by, a small object plowed into him and bounced onto the ground. Jack stared down at the object; a small boy, with dark hair and dark eyes. A street kid. Jack looked up as three bigger boys ran around the corner, but seeing him, turned and ran away down the street. Jack turned his attention back to the child on the ground, who was still sitting in the same place staring up at him. Jack snorted and walked around him. Stupid kids, he thought as he turned up his collar and continued down the street. But then, something made him stop and look back. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it… there was something sort of wrong.

 

Jack tried to shake the feeling off, and he reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple of coins. He tossed them on the ground in front of the boy, who had stood up and was looking at him. To Jack’s surprise, the kid stared at the money in the dirt for a moment, before bending down and picking it up. When he straightened, there were tears on his cheeks.

 

“Thanks, mister,” he said quietly.

 

Jack watched as the kid turned and started down the street. Suddenly Jack knew what was wrong. He was scared. Most of them were, but they never showed it. They were defiant, and brazen. He shrugged, and started to turn away, but something in the back of his mind was screaming out at him. Don’t let him go! Not this kid…Jack shook his head. Since when did he care about anyone else? Cordelia would have helped him. Jack froze for a moment, then slowly turned back. “Hey, kid.”

 

The boy turned and looked at him, and Jack sighed. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he muttered as he walked up to the kid. He looked at him, not quite sure what to say. The boy was unremarkable, except for those dark eyes. He looked to be about six years old. His clothes were dirty, yet not as dirty as they should have been if he lived on the street. The whole thing was wrong. Jack saw the boy holding his hand out. “What’s that?” he said, a little harsher than he realized when he saw the child cringe.

 

“Did you…want it back?” the boy whispered, and opened his hand to display the few coins, not really enough to buy anything.

 

Something snapped inside of Jack then. Who was this child, that he just made him feel smaller and less worthy than an insect? Part of him wanted to hit the child, and force him to go away so he wouldn’t be haunted by those eyes and the handful of pocket change. But the other part, the one where her memory was still alive, wouldn’t let him do that. Jack swallowed back his anger; the anger at his own actions, and at the boy for so innocently calling them out. He reached out and knocked the money out of the boy’s hand, and then grabbed the child’s arm and led him down the street.

 

The boy let out a little gasp, but didn’t say anything or struggle. Jack was confused by it. It was as though the child knew he wasn’t going to hurt him in any way. As he thought about it, he realized he couldn’t hurt the boy, even if he wanted to. That tiny hand, holding out the coins… Anything that he did now would make him feel even less of a man- no, less of a person.

 

Jack tugged the boy into one of the buildings, a restaurant, and led him to a table in the back corner. The child just sat across from him, staring at him. Jack didn’t say anything. He normally didn’t speak that much, but now…he didn’t know what to say.

 

“Hello there!” a woman greeted them. “What can I get you two gentlemen?”

 

Jack glanced at her, and she shrank back a bit at the look on his face. He looked back to the boy, and then said, “Two orders of fried chicken, biscuits, and…whatever vegetable you have.”

 

“We have fried mushrooms or buttered green beans today.”

 

Jack had watched the slight expression change on the boy’s face, so he replied, “Green beans.”

 

“Coming right up,” she mumbled, and then hurried to another table.

 

The boy was still staring at him, but after a few moments he frowned. “Why do you do that?”

 

“Do what?”

 

“Make people afraid of you?”

 

Jack stared thoughtfully for a moment. “I don’t know,” he finally said. “I don’t like people.”

 

“Then why are you buying me food?” he said quietly.

 

“I don’t know.” And he honestly didn’t.

 

The boy looked around the restaurant for a few seconds. Finally he turned back. “My name’s Adam Cartwright,” he said. When the Jack didn’t answer, he asked, “What’s yours?”

 

Jack thought of a few responses, but finally said, “Jack.” Why wasn’t this kid afraid of him? Not that he wanted to scare him or anything like that, but he was puzzled as to how well, even though he was so young, he was able to read him. “What happened to your parents?”

 

The boy looked down, and Jack could see tears well in his eyes. “My ma’s dead. And my other ma was killed by Indians. I can’t find my Pa and Hoss.”

 

“Okay,” Jack replied. Two mothers? He shook his head. “How long since you couldn’t find them?”

 

Adam shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s been days and days. Maybe weeks. Or months.”

 

Jack rolled his eyes. Of course kids have no sense of time. “How do you know he didn’t just leave you?” he asked, and realized he shouldn’t have asked that, but it was too late. Suddenly a sharp pain shot through his shin and he gasped. He found himself staring into furious eyes.

 

“Never,” Adam said, his voice intense. “My father would never leave me. I’m sure he’s looking as hard as he can right now, and…and…” His voice started to break, and he looked away.

 

Jack rubbed his leg where the boy had kicked him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Adam. You’re right, I’m sure he’s looking for you. It’s a big city.” His words surprised him, as he had never really cared how other people felt about things he said.

 

The woman came back with their meals, and Adam dug into his. Jack looked up at her. “Could I get milk for the boy, coffee for me?” She nodded and went away to get their drinks. Jack watched as Adam ate. He probably hadn’t eaten in days. “Hey slow down,” Jack said. “It’ll be there. You don’t want to get sick.”

 

Adam nodded, and reluctantly slowed his eating. Jack sighed as he watched him, and then started on his own meal. Why did I get involved, he thought. He was in for a long few days, and even longer if they couldn’t find the boy’s father. What happens then?

 

*****

 

The next couple of days went by quickly for Jack; endless days of asking questions, searching the streets, and listening to the child cry quietly at night in the hotel room. He never cried in front of Jack, though. Jack suspected if he knew he could hear him he wouldn’t cry at all.

 

Adam was a quiet child, but when Jack started to ask him more questions about his family and life, the child opened up. He told him all about his mother, whom he couldn’t remember, and his stepmother, whom he obviously had loved. His brother was named Eric but Adam insisted that they call him Hoss, so his parents did. Hoss is what his uncle wanted him named. Hoss was a baby, and Adam was six. They were heading towards California.

 

The one person whom Adam rarely talked about though, was his father; yet Jack could tell the boy loved him very much. Jack finally came to the conclusion that he didn’t talk about him because he loved him so much; but when he thought about that more, he didn’t really understand how he came to that conclusion. He was able to understand a lot about Adam’s father, though, just from the way Adam talked about the people around him and his outlook on life. His father must be a strong man.

 

The boy hadn’t been able to remember which hotel he had stayed at with his family, so from hotel to rooming house they went, asking again and again.

 

The were walking towards the next hotel, when Adam exclaimed, “This one! I know it is!”

 

Instead of being excited, Jack sighed. “Kid, you’ve said that about six hotels so far.”

 

Adam turned back and glared at him. “But I know it’s this one. I recognize that-“

 

“Right, let’s just see,” Jack interrupted. He strode into the hotel, with Adam following, a rather hurt look on his face. “Hi there, is there a Ben Cartwright registered here by any chance?”

 

The man behind the desk consulted his register. “Let’s see…Cartwright…ah. He checked out two days ago.”

 

“What?” said Jack in surprise. Jack glanced down at the boy, before asking, “Did he leave an address, a way to get in contact with him, anything?”

 

“Not that I’m aware of, sir.”

 

Jack watched as the boy turned and ran outside. He nodded his thanks at the man, and then walked out of the hotel. Not seeing Adam immediately outside, he started down the street. It took a couple minutes of searching, but finally he found him huddled next to a building, his head in his arms. Jack sighed, and then crouched down in front of him. “Look, kid,” he said, gently holding the child’s shoulders. “We’ll find him.”

 

Adam looked up. “You’re wrong,” he whispered.

 

Jack closed his eyes, and tried to come up with some sort of response. Why did I get involved, he thought, for about the hundredth time. “Adam-“

 

“I know you’re wrong! He couldn’t have left me; he couldn’t have! He’s my Pa, and…and…” Adam broke down and started to cry. “You’re wrong! You’re wrong!”

 

Jack reached out and held the child. “I know,” he whispered in his ear. “I was wrong, Adam. I know he wouldn’t have left you.”

 

“How?” Adam asked, his voice muffled in Jack’s shoulder.

 

“Because, no one who cares as much for you as your Pa obviously does could ever just leave.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

Jack looked down at the boy, who had pulled away so he could see his face. “I mean, that no one who took as much time as your father did, to raise you right, to give you everything you needed, and everything he had… Believe me…when you love a person that much, you don’t just leave.”

 

Adam looked uncertain. “Then why did he check out?”

 

Jack could see the hurt, the doubts in his eyes, and just then he realized how cruel his words had been. The kid was only six. He believed what people told him. And Jack…Jack had introduced doubts and pain into his already aching heart. He never would have doubted if it wasn’t for me, Jack realized. How cold; how callous he had become. He had his own hurts…but he had no right to inflict them upon this innocent child. Jack put his hand out and brushed the hair out of Adam’s eyes. “I don’t know why. But I’m sure there’s a good reason. Let’s go get some lunch, and then ask around some of the places here and see if anybody’s seen him.”

 

Adam nodded, and let Jack help him up.

 

*****

 

Ben Cartwright walked down the street, his infant in his arms. The rest of the party had moved on, and Ben couldn’t afford to remain here any longer. He had spent the last few days looking for work in the area, so he could stay nearby in case anyone spotted Adam. The guilt was starting to eat away at him; what kind of father loses his son?

 

Ben walked into the hotel. The clerk was in the backroom, which gave him time to pull the slip of paper with his current location out of his pocket. He looked up as the manager came out.

 

“Mr. Cartwright! Someone was just here asking for you! Seth, Seth come out here!”

 

The clerk came out of the backroom. “Mr. Cartwright! A man was just in here about an hour ago, looking for you. I didn’t know where you had gone though, so I merely told him you checked out.”

 

Ben felt like his heart was going to explode out of his chest; it was beating so hard. “Please…did my son…? Was my son with him?”

 

Seth frowned. “I’m not sure what your son looks like…but he did have a boy with him. A dark-haired lad about seven, I think. He was quite upset when I said you had checked out.”

 

“Adam,” Ben breathed. It had to be. He handed the note to the manager. “If they come back, please give them that note.” He turned to Seth. “Do you know where they went?”

 

The clerk shook his head. “No, the boy ran out and then the man left after him. I’m not sure where they were going.”

 

The manager put the note behind the desk. “Don’t worry though, Mr. Cartwright. If they come back, we’ll be sure to let you know.”

 

“Thank you,” Ben said, and then hurried out. They were here not too long ago…maybe they still were.

 

*****

 

Jack handed the man the money for the meal, and then he stood up. Adam didn’t move from his chair. He had eaten lunch, but only with a lot of prodding and coaxing from Jack. Jack sighed and picked him up. He swallowed as the child put his head on his shoulder, but forced himself to relax. No one had ever shown this much trust in him before, and it made him feel different. Partly uncomfortable, yet at the same time…bigger. If that made any sense.

 

He walked out of the restaurant, and started down the street. What was he going to do now? He had to leave here in a week, and as much as he enjoyed the child’s company, he surely couldn’t take him with him. First of all the child probably wouldn’t go; secondly, it would be too dangerous for the boy.

 

He really wasn’t paying too much attention to the people around him, but a man caught his eye. He was farther down the street, and he had just exited the hotel where the boy’s father had stayed. He looked worried and sleep deprived…and he had a baby in his arms. He started to walk down the street away from Jack and Adam.

 

Jack increased the pace of his steps. The man was pausing to talk to people along the way, so Jack was catching up to him. The man was talking to a woman, who started to shake her head until she noticed Jack. She just looked at him, and after a moment the man turned and looked too. His mouth fell open, and he started towards them. “Adam?”

 

The child stiffened in Jack’s arms, and Jack stopped to set him down. “Pa?” the boy said as he turned.

 

“Adam? Adam!” the man rushed towards them and swept the boy into a hug. The baby was jostled and started to cry, but the man didn’t notice. “Adam, my son…” he gasped, and then just held him.

 

Adam was crying, and his little arms were wrapped around his father. “Pa,” he sobbed into his shirt.

 

“It’s all right son, don’t cry…it’s okay.” Finally Ben looked up at the man standing in front of them. “How can I ever thank you?” he said, his arm around his son.

 

Jack shook his head with a sarcastic smile. “You can’t,” he answered. “Jack Trent.”

 

“I’m Ben Cartwright,” Ben replied. “Thank you so much for bringing my son back to me.” Ben squeezed Adam’s shoulders, and the boy smiled up at him.

 

Jack wished he could tell him how grateful he was that he had found Adam, and what the days of companionship with the boy had meant to him. How he had become cold and hardened to the world and its problems, but having another person, a young and defenseless person to care for had changed things a little. Finally he took a deep breath. “I have a lot to thank you for too…but it doesn’t matter. I’d best be on my way.”

 

Jack turned, but behind him he heard, “No! Wait, Jack!” He looked back to find Adam’s little hand gripping his holster. He turned and crouched in front of him, and the boy’s hands moved to his shoulders. “Please, you can’t just leave like that.”

 

Jack chuckled. “How do you want me to leave?”

 

The child blinked a few times and looked back at Ben. “Pa…?”

 

Ben moved forward. “You’re welcome to join us for supper tonight. I would like to talk to the man who brought my son back.”

 

Jack looked at the little boy in front of him. He knew that every little bit mattered to settlers during these cross-country moves, especially to a man with two small children to feed. Yet the man had asked. And Jack wanted to learn more about him as well. “All right,” he said, and Adam grinned. He shook his head with a smile. What if I hadn’t gotten involved?

 

 

 

“So that’s how you met my father?” Joe asked.

 

Jack nodded. “We became pretty close friends. I went with them to California, and your father eventually bought property in the Nevada Territory, where the Ponderosa is now. I went back and visited about every year or so.”

 

“Why did you stop being friends?”

 

Jack shook his head. “That’s a story for another night,” he said, and put a couple of logs on the dying fire. “Go on to sleep now.”

 

Joe pulled open his bedroll and lay down. He looked up at the stars, which were bright and clear. Before too long, he was asleep.

 

Jack stayed awake for a mush longer time, thoughtfully smoking a cigarette. He hadn’t thought of Cordelia in awhile. He forced himself not to think of her. There was work to be done, and brooding about the past wouldn’t help things. You can’t change the past. Not any of it.

 

*****

 

The next few days went by fairly quickly, and Joe was surprised that the return trip to the Ponderosa was going so much faster than his trip away from it. As much as Joe wanted to slow down, though, Jack wouldn’t let him. He suspected Jack knew he wasn’t looking forward to facing his oldest brother and father, but he wasn’t letting him shirk away from it.

 

Over the course of the days, Jack told Joe further about his friendship with the Cartwrights, until finally he came to the point in his story that involved the end of good feelings between them.

 

Jack had grown silent after telling Joe about celebrating Adam’s tenth birthday at the Ponderosa, and Joe was trying to think of something to say when the man looked up at him. “You really want to hear the rest?”

 

Joe nodded. “I think so,” he said quietly. What could be so horrible that Jack hesitated to tell him?

 

Jack nodded. “All right then. It’s not that it’s anything terrible, it’s just…it wasn’t a good ending to all those years. Some of those years were the best in my life,” he said quietly, and Joe wondered if he meant to say that out loud. “We were in San Francisco. I was in town on business; your father was buying some land north of where the Ponderosa was back then.”

 

 

 

 

Ben looked out the door behind him for the third time, an angry frown darkening his face. He looked back at the banker. “I’m sorry, could you excuse me…?”

 

The banker nodded, and Ben got up and went out of the office. He came to a stop, towering over his two bickering sons. “What’s going on here?” he hissed. “You are in a bank…can’t you manage to behave yourselves for ten minutes?”

 

Adam did his best not to glare back at him. There was no use in asking for a spanking. “Pa, Hoss won’t quit it. And it’s been more than ten minutes,” he finished darkly, immediately forgetting his resolve to not provoke his father.

 

Ben angrily took a deep breath, and looked at the clock intending to argue that point, but when he saw how much time had passed, he was genuinely surprised. The frown faded from his face, and he looked back down at his sons. “I suppose you’re right, Adam.”

 

Adam’s mouth fell open. He had expected a talking to with a promise of punishment later, not acknowledgement. “Uh…what…?”

 

Ben smiled slightly. “Here,” he said, taking some money out of his pocket. “Why don’t you take your brother to the general store, and both of you get some candy.”

 

Adam smiled and happily took the money, then grabbed his brother’s hand and tugged him out of the chair.

 

“Stay together,” Ben said as they left. He watched them start down the street, before turning and going back into the manager’s office.

 

*****

 

“Why’s Pa mad?” asked Hoss, happily eating some of the taffy Adam had bought.

 

Adam shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. Their father had been short-tempered since they arrived in the city it seemed. Last night, Adam heard Pa and Jack arguing about something after he was supposed to be asleep, and all day today Pa had been cross. Adam didn’t really understand what they had been quarreling about, but he didn’t like it. Pa had said Jack took too many risks, and thought what he was doing was dangerous. They had talked about more, but Adam didn’t remember what they had said. He only remembered what their raised voices had sounded like.

 

“Look!” Hoss called. Adam looked across the street to see Jack walking down a path between two buildings. “Come on,” said Hoss, and started to run across the street.

 

Adam ran after him and quickly caught up. “Hoss, Pa said we were supposed to stay together!”

 

“Oh, well come on,” replied the four year old, and Adam rolled his eyes and followed him. They walked down the little alleyway, which led into a bigger alley running behind all the buildings. Hoss started walking along the path, but Adam hurried to catch up to him. “Hoss, I don’t see Jack. I don’t think we’re supposed to be here. Let’s go.” Just as he finished, a door in one of the buildings opened. Adam quickly scanned the alley, and then pulled Hoss behind a pile of boxes, crouching down so they wouldn’t be seen. “Hush, Hoss,” Adam warned.

 

They could here a couple of men talking as they got near the boxes. “I still say we oughta just blow up the safe,” one of them said.

 

“Yeah, and bring every person in the city running?” replied another.

 

“We don’t have to use that much explosive,” answered the first.

 

“Look you two,” said a third person. “We don’t have to use any explosive if we can get this plan to work.”

 

“Yeah…if. We blew up the safe in the bank in Williams Flats…nobody heard that.”

 

“Shut up about blowing up the safe!” snapped the third person, and Adam heard them moving farther down the alley. He looked at the child next to him. “They’re robbing the bank,” he hissed in his ear.

 

Hoss looked up at him with huge eyes. And then his mouth opened. Adam’s reflexes were slow, and even as he put his hand out, Hoss was saying loudly, “What?”

 

Adam’s hand clamped over his mouth. “Shhh!” he whispered urgently, but it was too late.

 

A few seconds later two of the men walked around the boxes. “What have we got here?” one of them said, and grabbed Adam’s arm and dragged him into the open.

 

The other man grabbed Hoss. “What are we going to do with them?”

 

“Let us go! You won’t get away with this!” Adam struggled against the man holding him, who muttered, “Be quite,” and then pushed him into the building they had just came out of.

 

“Let’s take them upstairs, and then see what Bill has to say about it.” Adam looked back as the man started pushing him up a flight of stairs. One of the other men was carrying Hoss after them, and Adam’s heart skipped a beat as he saw the terrified look on the child’s face. “Move,” the man behind him muttered, and nudged him to go faster.

 

They came to the top of the stairs and entered a hall, and the man in front of them opened the first door and led them in. It was a plain hotel room, Adam realized. There were two beds and a chair and a nightstand, and that was all. The man behind Adam picked him up and tossed him on the bed farthest from the door, and the other man set Hoss down beside him. All three men moved to the far corner of the room, where they began to talk quietly, occasionally glancing at the two children.

 

Adam held Hoss close as the child started to cry. “Hush, Hoss. It’ll be okay,” he whispered.

 

“I want Pa!” the boy cried, and Adam hugged him tighter.

 

After a couple of minutes, one of the men left the room. The other two walked over to the children, and one of them leaned over them and snapped, “Shut up, kid! Enough of that blubbering!” They turned to leave.

 

Hoss was startled, and only started to cry harder. The man turned back and grabbed him away from Adam, and even as Adam was scrambling off the bed, he had started to spank the frightened child. “I said be quiet- ow!” the man yelped as Adam kicked him.

 

“Let go of my brother,” Adam yelled. The man dumped the child back onto the bed, and Hoss crawled away and cowered against the headboard, tears running down his face. Adam glared at the man as he turned to him.

 

“I’ll teach you to kick me,” the man growled, and pulled off his belt.

 

Adam’s eyes grew wide, and he backed away as the man advanced towards him, holding the folded belt in his hand. He looked at Hoss, and then clenched his jaw, determined to take it like a man for his brother. “Don’t look Hoss,” he cried, and then the man pulled him under his arm. He sharply inhaled at the first hit, and did his best not to cry out. The man had only hit him a few times when he stopped, and Adam was pulled away from his abuser and lifted into someone’s arms. He turned to the person holding him, and immediately recognized Jack Trent.

 

Jack stared at the two men. “So you’ve got nothing better to do than hurt kids, huh? No bank to rob in the near future, anything like that?”

 

The men squirmed at his biting words. One of them started to mutter some sort of explanation, but Jack just snapped, “Get out,” and the two men hurriedly exited. Jack set Adam down. “Are you all right?”

 

Hoss jumped off the bed and ran to Adam, who held him tightly. “What’s going to happen to us?”

 

Jack sat down on the bed. “Nothing, okay? You’re going to be…it’ll be okay. Don’t worry.”

 

“Can we go now?” Adam asked. Jack put his hands over his face for a few moments, and when he pulled them away Adam was scared at the expression on his face. “Jack?” he whimpered.

 

Jack closed his eyes, as if the sight of Adam and his baby brother was painful to him. “Don’t ask me that,” he said. “Look, I…I don’t run things here…I…can’t do anything right now. I’ll talk to the person in charge, okay?”

 

“Jack…please…” whispered Adam, but the man stood up suddenly and left the room.

 

Outside in the hall, Jack slammed his fist into the wall. Damn it! Damn! What now? He needed to set those kids free…but Bill…Bill wouldn’t let them go until after the robbery had taken place. And if Jack did anything or said anything that indicated that he knew who those kids were, their lives would be in danger. Bill would kill them, and then demand a ransom. And if Jack didn’t want to be found out, he would have to go along with it. He’d never go along with murdering children, but if he protested to holding them, Bill would know that he wasn’t who he said he was and his own life would be in danger. What help would he be to them then? I should have listened to Ben, he thought to himself. Bill Rivers is not to be messed with.

 

Jack went back into the room, where Adam and Hoss were curled up on the bed. Adam was whispering to Hoss, but when he noticed Jack and looked up, the look was accusing and angry. Jack quickly sat down next to them. “Listen to me,” he said, holding Adam’s shoulder. “Don’t tell anyone your names, or who your father is, you hear me?” A terrified look came over Adam’s face, and he hugged Hoss closer. “Don’t talk to anyone, don’t say anything, understand?” Adam nodded, and as Jack started to leave again he put his hand out and grabbed his sleeve.

 

“Jack…are we in danger?” he whispered, quite simply thought Jack. The man glanced at the door as the handle turned, and then nodded. The door swung open, revealing a mean-looking unshaven man.

 

The man walked into the room, barely acknowledging the children. “Red tells me our problem is solved.”

 

Jack smiled, even though he felt as though his stomach was tied in ten knots. “Oh really?” he replied to the man known as Bill.

 

Bill looked then at the kids, who put their heads down and huddled closer together. “We have hostages. No one is going to shoot at us if we have kids. We’ll get in with the kids, get the money, and then leave as we planned.”

 

Jack hesitated. “I don’t know about that. I mean they’re kids, Bill…”

 

“Exactly,” the man replied, and then went to the other side of the room and picked up a hat that had been on the table. “Make sure they don’t get away.”

 

 

 

“Wait,” interrupted Joe. “You used my brothers as hostages?”

 

Jack nodded. “It’s not something I’m proud of. I just…I made a pretty big mistake. My plan was to turn on Bill in the middle of the robbery. He had a pretty big bounty on his head, and I knew a lot about his contacts and methods. I’d worked my way into his trust so I could get all that information. But with your brothers there, there was no way I wanted to risk their lives.”

 

“So you went ahead with the robbery?”

 

Jack sighed. “Yeah. We did the robbery. Bill wanted to kill the kids, but I talked him out of it. Instead, we left them locked in a room at the bank and we took off. From what I understand, they were found a few hours later, unharmed.”

 

“Was that the same bank where my father was doing business?”

 

Jack nodded again.

 

Joe understood now. Both his brother’s lives had been jeopardized, and so had the Ponderosa by what Jack had done. No wonder his father had been so angry with him. Joe watched as Jack stood up. “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” he said, and then left the lit clearing. Joe felt incredibly sad. He wished things hadn’t happened like they had. So many years of anger and hurt. At least now his father and Jack were on better terms. Even if Jack was still doing the same work he did years ago. Joe hoped his father wouldn’t be angry at Jack for what had happened, or what Joe had done.

 

Thinking about that made Joe dread going home even more. What if this trip only served to ruin the rebuilt friendship between the two men? Joe didn’t think he could live with himself if that happened.

 

*****

 

Adam glanced out the window, and noticed the horses coming in. He hurried down the hall to his father’s room. “They’re here, Pa,” he said. “Do you need anything?”

 

Ben put the book down he’d been trying to read without success. “No…but, Adam…don’t tell Joe what happened to me, all right? I don’t…want him to feel guilty for this.”

 

Adam took in his father, with his leg bandaged under the covers, the bullet wound healing, finally. It had been a rough week, but a couple days ago his father’s fever had broken and the doctor said the infection was going away. “But it is sort of his fault, Pa.” They had tracked down the man who had first kidnapped the youngest Cartwright, fearing perhaps he had something to do with Joe’s disappearance. The man had resisted arrest, and in the scuffle, shot and wounded Ben. It had been a nasty wound; the bullet hitting and shattering part of the bone in Ben’s upper thigh.

 

“Adam, let’s see what your brother has to say for himself.”

 

Adam nodded, and then left to find his brother and Jack Trent.

 

Downstairs, Joe heard someone coming down the stairs and he turned, expecting to see Ben, but instead it was Adam who came down to greet them. Joe was disappointed. In all the scenarios he imagined, coming home like this wasn’t what he had pictured.

 

“Jack! Hello, it’s good to see you again,” Adam shook Jack’s hand warmly.

 

“Thank you, Adam. Glad to finally arrive.” Jack saw Adam’s gaze turn to Joe, and he released Adam’s hand and quietly moved away to let the brothers have some time.

 

Joe took a deep breath and stood in front of Adam. Even though he felt about six inches tall under his brother’s gaze, he did his best to stand up straight and look him in the eye.

 

The effort wasn’t overlooked or wasted on the elder Cartwright. Adam waited a few moments. “So,” he finally said. “You decided to come back.”

 

Joe’s gaze faltered for a moment, but just as quickly it returned and he squared his shoulders. He knew what he had to say, even though he hated admitting he was wrong. Pushing aside his feelings of dread and anger, in anticipation of what Adam was going to say in reply, he took a deep breath. “Adam,” he said, his voice softer and quieter than he wished it to be. He cleared his throat. “I was wrong to leave here like I did. I know there’s nothing I can say or do to take that back, and all the trouble and worry I caused you and Pa and Hoss. But I am sorry. I was acting very childish, and…I was wrong…” Joe’s voice faltered, but he took a deep breath and tried again. “If you could…see it in your heart…to forgive me, Adam…” He trailed off and looked up at his brother.

 

Adam knew it had taken a lot for Joe to say what he had just said. His apologies were at most casual words tossed out to soothe their father’s or Adam’s anger; they were hardly ever well thought out and sincere. Adam stood there, looking down at his younger brother so desperately wanting his forgiveness and understanding. As many times as Adam was angry and frustrated with him, especially over the past few weeks, he found that he could forgive him for doing what he did; almost what Adam did once, although at least when Adam went off to school he did so with his father’s blessing and a little more maturity. But he had come back like Joe was now- more grown up. He had seen that the world was a hard, unforgiving place; very unlike a family’s love and patience. The world has no patience for children. Adam gazed down at his brother. Yes, he was proud of him. Proud that instead of coming back like a little child, crying and wounded and expecting sympathy, he had come back taking responsibilities for his wrongs and asking forgiveness. Hoss had arrived yesterday, and had filled them in on what Joe had done in Arizona as well. And now, Adam could tell that Joe had come back more a man.

 

Adam smiled at him. “Welcome home, Joe.”

 

Joe’s face broke out in a huge grin, and he reached forward to Adam, who warmly embraced him. “Thanks, Adam,” he whispered.

 

Adam released him then, and placed his arm around his shoulders and led him upstairs, quietly explaining that their father had been injured but he was much better now.

 

*****

 

After dinner that evening, Joe, Adam, Hoss, and Jack had moved into Ben’s bedroom, as the doctor had confined the elder Cartwright to his bed despite his protests. There, Joe recounted everything that had happened to him on his trip. Well, almost everything. He left out a few of the details of his treatment at first by Jack’s men. He was worried that Ben might take it badly, even though it had hardly been their fault that they didn’t know he was coming.

 

Finally, he looked at Ben. “Jack told me what happened, all those years ago.”

 

Ben nodded. “Your brothers have known some of it for awhile.”

 

Joe looked at Jack. “Did anything else happen, after Hoss and Adam were rescued?”

 

Jack looked a little uncomfortable with the question. “No,” he said. “Just a note that I left, but that’s all.”

 

Ben looked puzzled. “A note?”

 

Jack nodded. “At the hotel.”

 

 

 

 

“Look,” said Jack. “When Ben Cartwright checks out, can you make sure he gets this?” Jack slid an envelope across the counter and two dollars into the man’s hand.

 

The owner looked up at him and smiled. “Yes, sir, I’ll leave it right here and be sure he gets it.” He put the envelope on the left hand side of the desk next to the ledger, where he would be sure to see it when the Cartwrights checked out.

 

Jack nodded his thanks and left the hotel. Not two minutes later, a boy ran into the room. “Mr. Gibson!” he yelled.

 

Gibson sighed. He had just hired the boy last week, and he wasn’t working out very well. He was easily excited, and very forgetful. “Yes, Todd,” he sighed.

 

“It’s the singer lady…she’s fainted! She’s out cold in the restaurant, sir!”

 

Gibson stared at him for a moment, completely aghast. Then he took a deep breath and sprang into action. “Todd, watch the desk. I’m going to go to the dining room.” Gibson hurriedly left the desk and went across the hall into the next room.

 

Todd grumbled, but took his assigned post behind the desk. A couple of minutes later a tall brown-haired man with two children came to the desk. “I’m checking out,” the man said.

 

Todd slid the ledger to him, and watched as he signed it before taking it back and looking at the name. Todd looked up. “Thank you Mr. Cartwright. I hope you had a nice stay.”

 

Ben Cartwright didn’t answer; he just picked up his bag in one arm and his smallest child in the other, and then went outside to wait for the stage.

 

A half an hour later, Gibson came back into the room. “Thank you, Todd,” he said. “Everything is fine now, you can go.”

 

Todd got up from the desk, grumbling slightly at having missed all the excitement. He was stopped in the doorway by Gibson’s exclamation. He turned back. “Sir?”

 

“Mr. Cartwright…he checked out and you didn’t give him his message.”

 

“What message? I checked the box, there was nothing.”

 

“No, no. This one.” Gibson held up the envelope…that had ‘Ben Cartwright’ written on the other side. He looked at the letter and sighed. “Maybe the other fellow will come back to see if he got it, and I can explain the mix up.” Gibson placed the envelope on the shelf behind the desk.

 

The letter remained there for about a week, until it was knocked off the shelf accidentally by Todd, who was having a clumsy day. He was fired soon after that, and the letter was forgotten until much later when Gibson’s new wife was loudly scolding his lack of cleaning skills and happened to sweep it from under the counter. She looked at it for about a second, then not deeming it to be anything of importance, tossed it into the fireplace with the rest of the old newspapers, letters, and dime novels she found.

 

 

 

 

“I never knew you left a note,” Ben said.

 

“I never knew you didn’t get it,” Jack replied.

 

The two men sat quietly for a few moments, thinking about all the misunderstandings and bad decisions that had hurt their friendship. Finally, Jack took a deep breath. “Well,” he said. “The past is behind us.”

 

Ben nodded. “And there’s a very bright future ahead.”

 

Jack grinned, and he warmly shook Ben’s hand. “You remember the time when Hoss found that barn cat?”

 

Ben rolled his eyes. “The meanest thing in the world and more trouble than it was worth. But I couldn’t get him to get rid of the thing. This cat,” he said, turning to his sons. “It had a missing eye and a torn ear, and it was the orneriest thing you ever came across. There was one time…”

 

The stories, laughter and memories continued far into the night. Finally, Joe could hardly keep his eyes open any longer, so Hoss coaxed him out of the room and into bed. Adam bid the two men goodnight, and as he left them, he glanced back. So many memories of his childhood came back, of his father and Jack enjoying each other’s company in the firelight at night, talking of things only they knew about.

 

Adam smiled and shut the door.

 

The End

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Author: Camera Chic

3 thoughts on “Friends and Strangers (by Camera Chic)

  1. Crikey! What a past. Joe’s more like Adam than he ever knew.

    I’m happy to know the background between Ben and Jack. A wonderful follow-up story.

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