The Decision (by Mary S)

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Summary:  Joe meets a young woman and her family, and suspects she is in trouble. She is too frightened to ask for help so he decides to do what he can to help her anyway.

Rated: G   (20,950 words)

 

                                                                  The Decision

 

This story is dedicated to Libby Moore, the truest Little Joe fan I know, and the best traveling companion I ever had. Thanks for the ride Lib, and hope to have another slumber party with you, Vicki, Joy, and whoever else wants to join us in Lake Tahoe.

Chapter 1

Joseph Cartwright waited impatiently while the Mr. Cass searched the storeroom to fill his order. Joe’s impatience was a testimony to his youth, he had better things he could be doing rather than wasting his time here. His father and older brother were in Sacramento, and his oldest brother was at home. Once the supplies were loaded, he was free to do as he pleased. But for some reason this one little chore seemed to be taking forever.

 

“Sorry Little Joe,” the owner apologized. “I had a little trouble finding some of these things, got everything on the list though, here you go,” he said as he put the last of the items in the crate and pushed them toward him.

 

“Great thanks,” Joe said hastily and grabbed for the boxes. He was in such a rush to get out of the store, he turned and knocked the goods right out of the hands of a woman behind him.  He quickly dropped to his knees beside her.

 

“Ma’am I’m really sorry I wasn’t watching where I was going,” he said.

 

She was scrambling to pick up what he’d scattered and he set his boxes down beside him to help her. She had her head down and all he could see was the top of her bonnet. He could feel his cheeks burning with embarrassment, he wished she’d say something. When everything was retrieved they stood up together and Joe reached out to touch her hand.

 

“Ma’am I really am sorry,” he said.

 

She lifted her head ever so slightly and he still could barely see her face so he peeked under the brim. She quickly turned away but not before Joe saw the bruises and swollen eye.

 

“Excuse me,” she said as she brushed past him.

 

Joe stood stunned and slowly bent to pick the boxes up. A shadow fell on him as he stood back up and he looked up into the face of big man.

 

“Grace what’s taking so long?” the man demanded.

 

“I’ll be right there Nick,” the woman answered as she moved to the counter.

 

“What are you staring at boy?” the man snarled at Joe.

 

“Nuthin’,” he mumbled and pushed past the man eager to get outside. He stood just outside the door with his mind in a jumble and then walked down the steps and to the back of his buckboard. He pushed the last of the boxes in the back and climbed up on the seat. He lifted the reins but didn’t urge the horses on, instead he looked back toward the store. Remembering the man he decided to bring the wagon to the other side of the street. He pulled the horses up and felt his heart racing, it didn’t take any detective work to know the man was the one responsible for the woman’s condition, but Joe didn’t know why he was so disturbed by it.

 

The couple came out, the man clutching her arm way too hard, Joe thought. They climbed into a covered wagon loaded with supplies and Joe watched a small boy emerge behind the seats with a bundle that he carefully handed to the woman. Even from that distance Joe could see the movement and could tell it was a baby. He felt suddenly ill and turned away, slapping the reins and heading home.

 

All the way he kept thinking about these people that he knew nothing about. He told himself he would probably never see them again and that it didn’t matter, but for some reason it did matter. He couldn’t shake the image of the children no matter how hard he tried. He told himself to turn around and go to the saloon and just have a good time like he’d planned but he knew his good mood of this morning was gone.

 

He tried to tell himself that maybe they’d just had an accident on their way but he knew that wasn’t it either. Trying to distract himself from his thoughts Joe looked all around him. Everywhere he looked summer was alive and vibrant and yet it was as if a dark cloud had suddenly descended over his head.

 

When he reached the ranch house he drearily unharnessed the horses and set them loose in the corral and backed the buckboard into its place. He looked toward the corral at his paint mare and thought again about returning but realized they were probably long gone by now. Maybe it was best to just forget about the whole incident and go on like he’d never seen them.

 

He walked to the house and once inside hung his hat and coat up. He listened to the silence of the house and wished his father was home so he could talk to him about it. It was strange the way he could sense the absence of half his family as soon as he came inside.

 

“Joe is that you?” Adam called from the kitchen.

 

Their live-in cook, Hop Sing, was up at the logging camp doing the cooking for the crew up there since the camp cook had taken sick. Adam had been doing most of the cooking at home since then and seemed to be enjoying himself experimenting with the cookbooks Hop Sing kept in the kitchen. Joe would never admit it, but some of it hadn’t been half bad.

 

“Yeah it’s me,” he called back taking off his gun belt and then strolled into the kitchen following the pleasant aroma. Adam was standing by the stove as he suspected, stirring something, he smiled when Joe joined him.

 

Joe leaned over his shoulder and sniffed, “What is that?” he asked him making a face.

 

“Stew,” Adam said with a grin.

 

“Oh goody, how many bunnies you got in there?” Joe quipped slapping him on the back. He checked the cupboards for something to eat in the meantime, his stomach was growling with hunger.

 

“No, no, little brother this isn’t rabbit stew, it’s much better,” Adam assured him as he lifted the spoon to taste it. After sampling it he made little smacking noises and sighed.

 

“Now that’s heavenly, here try some,” he said cheerfully as he dipped the spoon and held it over the pot. Joe rolled his eyes and moved next to his brother for a sample. He made a show of savoring the taste, while Adam waited for his opinion. It was better than any he’d ever had before.

 

“Well?” Adam said watching him.

 

Joe gave him an exaggerated squint as if thinking about it.

 

“Well, it’s tolerable I guess.”

 

“Boy I swear, you’d rather eat rattlesnake fried in lard,” Adam retorted.

 

Joe smiled to himself and turned back to his search for food, found some cookies and took a handful as he sat on the counter to watch his brother. He was thinking of all the fun he could have teasing Adam about this new hobby but then thought better of it. Adam had been in a particularly good mood lately so why spoil it.

 

“So what’s new in town little brother?” Adam asked without taking his eyes off his project.

 

Joe chewed enough to speak, “I met a girl at the mercantile,” he said, glad for the chance to talk about it. Adam was real good about this kind of thing maybe he’d know what to do.

 

“No Joe, you misunderstood the question, I said what’s new?”

 

Joe frowned and slipped off the counter, “Oh, great I thought I could talk to you but I guess I was wrong,” he said and started to leave the kitchen.

 

Adam, surprised at his reaction, grabbed his arm, “Hey hold on a minute Joe I was only kidding,” he said catching his eye.

 

“Adam this is serious,” Joe said anxiously.

 

Adam turned and pulled the pot off the stove with some towels then gave his full attention to his brother.

 

“Okay I’m listening, what’s this all about?”

 

Joe moved back to the counter and took a deep breath, “There was this woman at the store, I kind’ve bumped into her and when I went to help her pick her things up I saw her face and …….”.  Joe felt the sick feeling in his stomach return and swallowed hard. “Her whole face was covered with bruises Adam, and her one eye was so swollen it was squeezed shut. Right after that her husband came in and I could tell right away he was the one who done it.”

 

Adam blew his breath out in a whistle, “I see, that’s rough kid but unfortunately it happens a lot. Some men seem to think they have the right to control their wives with physical violence.”

 

“Yeah, but it’s wrong.”

 

“Well Joe, I know that, and you know that but like I said there are men who are raised to think differently and what you saw is a result of that.”

 

Joe shook his head, “But somebody should do something to stop them, it isn’t right. And they had two little kids too, a boy and a baby, I bet he’s beating them up too?”

 

Adam frowned, “Joe you don’t know that, and you don’t even know who these people are.”

 

Joe dropped his eyes to the floor “Yeah I know but it still bothers me, I can’t stop thinking about them.”

 

Adam pulled himself up on the counter next to him, “I wondered why you came home so early” he said.  “Look I know it isn’t pleasant but you have to let it go. Even if we wanted to, there isn’t anything we could do about it. If you start internalizing things like this you’ll drive yourself crazy. With something like this it’s better not to get involved.”

 

Joe nodded but didn’t say anything, he thought he’d feel better if he told somebody, he didn’t.

 

Adam reached out and took the remaining cookies from him causing Joe’s head to come up.

 

“You’ll spoil your dinner, go on and wash up, we’ll be eating in about half an hour,” Adam explained.

 

Joe pushed off the counter, “Alright but save those cookies for me, that may be my only edible meal tonight.”

 

“Yeah, well you’ll think differently after tonight,” Adam said after him as Joe left the kitchen. He grabbed the towels to return the big pot to the stove and picked up the wooden spoon. While he stirred he thought about his young brother’s dilemma. He fervently hoped that Joe wouldn’t see the people again because it would only upset him further if he was right about what he saw.

 

He wondered what his father would say if he were here and how he would tell Joe to deal with it. Usually Adam could advise his brothers in his father’s absence but this wasn’t one of those times. And the fact was, there was nothing anyone could do about a situation like it, Adam knew, he’d seen it before and there usually was not a happy ending. Well, he thought, they had a hard day’s work ahead of them tomorrow, that would keep his mind off things for awhile. That and the fact that Joe was going to be doing the dishes tonight.

 

Chapter 2

 

Adam and Joe rode out to inspect the herd the next morning. Joe was merely riding along, he hadn’t even asked what they were doing he just went. He was quiet all the way out to the herd despite Adam’s efforts to create some kind of conversation. He was greatly relieved when Joe finally asked him a question about what they were doing

 

“What happened at your meeting with Milbank?”

 

Adam smiled with relief, “Well I’m glad you asked me that, he wants two hundred heifers if we’ve got them, he wants them delivered in three weeks.”

 

“Two hundred? I don’t suppose he’s gonna send any of his own drovers for this job?”

 

“Oh come on Joe, we’re talking about Mr. Milbank here.”

 

Joe frowned, “Yeah, I don’t know where Pa finds his friends sometimes.”

 

“Yeah well this is one friend I think will come to be known as a business associate. Besides he’s paying good money, top dollar as a matter of fact, so I took the offer, I know Pa will be pleased. Now we just have to make sure we have the heifers he wants so let’s get to counting and inspecting.”

 

Adam said and kicked his horse into a canter with Joe right behind him. Even though it was mostly a visual job, it still took most of the day of riding across the ranch checking the herds for just the right stock to make the trip. Mr. Milbank wanted young stock, but they had to be sturdy enough for the trip. They also had to be old enough to be herded easily to make the cowboy’s jobs a little easier.

 

Both men were worn out when they got back to the house that night. Once they saw to their horses they went inside and flopped onto the sofa and stared at the fireplace where the logs lay black and cold. Joe put his feet on the coffee table and closed his eyes.

 

“Pa don’t like you putting your feet up like that,” Adam commented.

 

“Yeah I know,” Joe said without opening his eyes.

 

Adam stared at his brother for a moment and then stretched his own feet out on the table. Hearing the thud, Joe picked his head up and looked curiously at Adam.

 

“Are you hungry?” Adam asked, the thought of going into the kitchen to prepare something didn’t really appeal to him.

 

“Not really, how about you?”

 

“Nah, not really, I’m more tired than anything. I could make us something quick after I rest a bit,” Adam offered.

 

“That’s fine with me, I’m too tired to get up,” Joe said and then a smile appeared on his face, “You’re lucky Hoss ain’t home.”

 

“Yeah I know I was thinking that myself, I thought they’d be home today.”

 

“Well Pa didn’t say for sure, so count your blessings,” Joe reminded him.

 

They soon fell into a comfortable silence as Adam felt himself drifting off. Joe was once again thinking of the woman and her children. It was strange but he felt as if he needed to see her again, to know that she was alright. Why was it he was so emotionally involved with these people he knew nothing about?

 

He was distracted from his daydreaming by the sound of Adam snoring next to him. He decided he wasn’t as tired as he thought and maybe it wouldn’t kill him to cook them up something to eat while Adam got some sleep.

 

Knowing he didn’t have much in the way of culinary talents he decided steak and eggs would do just fine. After finding what he needed he built up the fire in the stove and took the skillet down from the hook. Once the fire was going strong he soon had the eggs and steak crackling in the pan. It smelled good to him and he felt suddenly famished. All the time he watched and turned his dinner he was still thinking about those people. He remembered the woman’s name was Grace, and he remembered the children clearly. Even the man was easy to visualize, he was as big as Hoss but different somehow. Joe wasn’t sure if it was his physical appearance that was different or something else, but he remembered being afraid when he saw him.

 

“Hey what’cha doing?” Adam said suddenly at his shoulder, which caused Joe to nearly drop the skillet and everything in it.

 

Joe stared at him for a moment and then pulled himself together.  “Don’t do that dadburnit, I thought you were sleeping?”

 

“Yeah I was but the smell of steak and eggs woke me up, you didn’t have to do that you know?”

 

Joe’s face colored just a little, “Yeah I know, but it’s not your job any more than it’s mine, so there’s no reason I can’t do it. Get some plates out for me.”

 

Adam did as he asked, gathered utensils too and went to set the table. This was one time he was enjoying time alone with his youngest brother, they hadn’t had one single disagreement and were getting on well together. Which was a little unusual for them since they often clashed, mostly because of their age difference and the fact that they were both bullheaded their father was fond of saying.

 

“Hey Joe, grab a couple glasses will ya?” Adam called out to him.

 

Joe emerged from the kitchen only to find Adam missing. With a puzzled expression he placed the glasses near the plates and then went to the kitchen for the food. By the time he returned Adam was standing at the table with a bottle of Lafite in his hand.

 

“What are you doing with that?” Joe asked with an amused smile.

 

“Oh I just thought we could celebrate a little tonight.”

 

Joe took his seat and rested his elbows on the table.

 

“And how will you explain that particular absence to Pa, I’m curious to know?”

 

Adam opened the bottle and poured the wine into their glasses “You just leave that to me younger brother.”

 

Joe wasn’t about to question his older brother on this one so he lifted his glass while Adam did the same. They clinked them together and with a smile sampled the wine.

 

“Mmmmm good choice big brother,” Joe said admirably.

 

“Yes I do have a knack for that” Adam agreed setting his glass down.

 

“Well we all have to have a calling in life,” Joe said with a smirk as he cut into the juicy steak.

 

Several hours after Adam and Joe had gone to bed, the night silence was broken by the return of Ben and Hoss Cartwright. Ben was doing his best to move about as quietly as possible.

 

“Shhhhh keep it down, there’s no reason to wake up the boys,” Ben said in a hushed tone.

 

“I ain’t got no intention of waking ’em Pa, I just want to get to bed,” Hoss answered in the same tone. He moved to the chair by the stairs and removed his boots. Then with the boots in his hand he waved to his father and headed up the stairs.

 

Ben stood in the middle of the room and sighed happily, it was always a great pleasure to return home. One glance at the clock convinced him it was time to retire himself.  At the top of the stairs he could not resist a quick check on his sons. He pushed Adam’s door open finding him sound asleep on his back. His quilt lay on the floor, a result of Adam’s restlessness that carried over into his sleep. Ben replaced the blanket over his son and sat on the bed next to him. Adam stirred and blinked his eyes open, he looked at his father squinting.

 

“Hi Pa,” he said his voice thick with sleep.

 

“Hello Son, how’d things go with Jedidiah?” he asked.

 

Adam yawned and flung an arm over his head and closed his eyes again.

 

“Oh he said he’d give us ten dollars a head for two hundred heifers if we deliver them to his feeding station in three weeks,” Adam mumbled incoherently.

 

“Well that sounds fair, did you take the offer?” Ben asked him but Adam was already sound asleep again.

 

Ben touched his hair and with an affectionate smile said, “Never mind Son, we’ll discuss it tomorrow.”

 

He silently left the room for his next stop, Little Joe’s room. He was surprised to find him tossing about, lost in the throes of a nightmare. Ben rushed to light the lamp, keeping the flame low. He grasped Joe’s shoulders and he bolted up to a sitting position his eyes wide with fear. When recognition came to him he instantly relaxed.

 

“Pa, you’re home,” he said trembling ever so slightly.

 

“Yes I am, and it appears just in time, what was that all about son?” he asked with concern.

 

Joe rubbed his face roughly and faked a smile. “It was just a dream Pa, nothing to worry about.”

 

Ben took on a doubtful look, “Well I noticed that Joseph, but what was it about?”

 

Joe shook his head, “I don’t even remember Pa, what time is it anyway?” he said trying to change the subject.

 

“Well it’s after one son, we just got back a little while ago. I was just coming in to check on you, you sure you’re alright?” he asked putting a hand to Joe’s forehead.

 

Joe grinned sheepishly, “Yeah Pa I’m fine, you go on to bed I’ll see you in the morning.”

 

Ben eyed him suspiciously and then stood up straight. “Alright if you’re sure you’ll alright.”

 

Joe nodded his head, “I’m sure, I’m fine.”

 

Ben ruffled his hair, “Okay I’ll see you in the morning, goodnight son.”

 

Joe said goodnight as his father left the room and then lay back down only to stare at the ceiling, the dream coming back to him. He had dreamed of the woman being beaten by her husband and then watching the man turn on the children. In his dream he had to stand by powerless and watch the whole thing, unable to do anything to stop him. With a shudder he turned over on his side and squeezed his eyes shut.

 

Chapter 3

 

Ben was sitting at the table the next morning when his three sons came down. Noticing Hop Sing’s absence he’d taken it upon himself to prepare breakfast for the family. Despite very little sleep in the last few days, the return home made him feel revitalized.

 

Hoss and Adam came down together, Hoss walked to the table to sit down and Adam stopped at the chair by the stairs to pull his boots on. With that accomplished he stood up running his fingers through his hair and joined his father and brother.

 

“Well glad to have you back Pa, I see you made breakfast,” Adam stated as he seated himself and placed a napkin on his lap.

 

“Oh by the way, Shug got sick so Hop Sing went up there to take care of the men’s meals so Joe and I have been doing the cooking. Although if you want to take over that’s fine with me.”

 

“Well I’m sure we can manage for awhile on our own, we’ve done it before,” Ben commented as he filled his coffee cup and passed the pot on.

 

Their heads came up at the sound of Joe descending the stairs. He sat in the same chair Adam had used and pulled his boots on and then stood to button his shirt.

 

Adam watched him walk toward them.  “Isn’t that my shirt?” he asked as Joe took his seat.

 

“Yeah it’s yours, I couldn’t find any clean ones,” he said while filling his plate.

 

“Hey Joe you’re welcome to use one of mine if you need to,” Hoss offered.

 

Joe smiled at him and gave a short laugh, “Yeah okay Hoss, if I run out of nightshirts I’ll take you up on that.”

 

“It looks to me as if we all have some extra chores to do while Hop Sing is up at camp, including laundry,” Ben said.

 

His three sons made faces and looked at each other as if waiting for someone to volunteer. Ben watched with an amused smile and finished his meal in silence.

 

“Oh Pa I forgot to tell you Mr. Milbank agreed to two hundred head at ten dollars a head, so I shook on it. We have three weeks to make delivery. I’m gonna ride out today and sort them and then move them to the south pasture until we’re ready to move out,” Adam announced obviously pleased with himself.

 

“I know you already told me” Ben said without lifting his head.

 

Adam looked at his brothers somewhat puzzled, “I did, when?”

 

Ben looked up then, doing his best to contain his urge to grin.  “Last night, don’t you remember?” he said keeping his lips in an even line as he sipped his water. Adam again looked at his brothers as if they had something to do with this mystery. He looked at his father searchingly but Ben’s face was expressionless.

 

Adam dropped his eyes and pretended to concentrate on his meal. When he finished he turned to his brothers.  “I’ll see you fellas out by the herd, I’m gonna get on out there.”

 

Ben smiled as he watched him go then turned his attention to his other sons. He noticed Joe’s sullen expression.

 

“So how did things go while we were gone Joseph?”

 

Joe looked up from his plate, “Fine Pa, everything was fine.”

 

“Really, no problems, no arguments?”

 

Hoss looked from one to the other, Joe shook his head.

 

“No Sir, everything was great,” he said.

 

Ben filled his coffee cup again, looking pleased.

 

“Well good, you fellas better finish up and get on out there and help your brother.”

 

Hoss looked to his father, “Hey Pa, how did you know about Mr. Milbank?” he asked.

 

Ben smiled again, “Adam told me,” he said with a smile

 

Chapter 4

 

Grace Pratt watched her son John out the kitchen window of the cabin. He was doing his best to split firewood for his mother while his father was working, but the job was much too big for an eight year old. Nonetheless he was determined to get the job done and Grace felt a tug at her heart. She turned to look around the cabin, it was better than others they’d stayed in. With a sigh she told herself that this time things would be different, this time Nick would be satisfied with what they had and they wouldn’t have to move on again.

 

They were staying in a cabin offered to married couples on some ranches, and this was a large prosperous place. That she could tell when they rode up and met the owners, pleasant, amiable people. Their first day, Mrs. Kelly had come to welcome her with pies in hand and the two of them had sat for over an hour getting to know each other.

 

When Mrs. Kelly took note of her bruises, Grace had repeated the same story she’d told before, she’d taken a fall. There was the slight change of expression on Mrs. Kelly’s face that she was well accustomed to, and then gradual acceptance. The thought of her injuries brought a hand to her still tender cheek and once again she told herself, this time it will be different.

 

She wearily left the kitchen and went about putting away some more of their things, there was so much to do. There was a pounding on the door and Grace went to open it, only to find John wearing a proud grin, and his arms overflowing.

 

“Look Mama, I got us near enough firewood to last two or three days,” he exclaimed proudly.

 

“Oh John, you surely do, and a fine job you did.”

 

John went to the wood box and filled it, his small hands working quickly. “This is a fine place Mama, I sure hope we can stay awhile. Maybe after a time Papa might let me ride out and see the herd with him, and maybe this year he’ll see his way to let me help out with the branding.”

 

Grace looked at her son sadly, “Maybe John, we’ll see how things go, don’t count on anything right off though alright?”

 

John looked at his mother, and saw the sadness there. It was sadness that never seemed to go away, and it always left him feeling helpless. He knew his father was the cause but he didn’t know how to change things. All his life, his father had been prone to explosive fits of anger which his mother took the brunt of, and there was no predictability about them. John had suffered his father’s outbursts himself, and the truth was, he’d take a beating every day, rather than watch his mother being hurt. He sighed deeply and looked back at his mother.

 

“This year I’ll be able to ride all day if I have to,” he said softly and then turned back to his work.

 

“Yes Darling, maybe this time,” she said hopefully. Just then the baby woke from his nap, crying loudly.

 

“Mama I’ll get David” John offered as he jumped up from the floor and rushed to the small bed he shared with his brother. The baby stopped crying as soon as he saw John and pulled himself up to a sitting position and held his arms up to be lifted out.

 

“Hey you little dickens, what are you yellin’ about?” John scolded as he pulled the baby out and brought him to his mother who took the baby and cradled him in her arms as she settled in her rocking chair.

 

“Thank you John,” she said gratefully.

 

John sat himself at his mother’s feet while she fed the baby.

 

“What time do you think Papa will be home Ma?” he asked her.

 

“Oh I figure he’ll be here right at suppertime John.”

 

John grew quiet and pushed the toe of his boot against the rocking chair, “Mama if I can work this year we can save more money and maybe we can get our own place. That’s what Papa’s always wanted a place of our own, I bet that would make him right happy don’t you?”

 

Grace nodded slowly, listening to her son’s quiet rambling but thinking of other things. She was remembering better times, being a little girl, carefree and happy. Her mother had warned her about Nick, but Grace was in love. Her brothers tried to talk her out of marrying him but she only grew more determined. And when she realized they were right, it was too late. They were far from home, and she was about to have John. As time went on Nick’s outbursts grew worse, and now there was no way out.

 

But when she thought of the children, she dreamed of a better life for them. John was trying desperately to be a grownup to take care of her like his father should, but didn’t. The only time he seemed like a boy was when Nick was away for the day. When Nick was home, John did all he could to stay out of his way.

 

For John, life took on a bigger challenge, for now he had not only his mother to protect, but a little brother too. And he took these responsibilities very seriously, he would not let them down. Sometimes John hated his father, and those feelings left the boy confused. On the really bad days, he thought about killing his father, and his heart would fill with rage. He tried to remember if he had ever loved his father, but he couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t afraid of him.  When John looked at his mother again, she seemed lost in thought.

 

“What’re you thinking about Mama?” he asked.

 

She looked at her son as if she’d forgotten he was there, and then smiled, “Oh nothing John, listen would you do me a favor and fetch us some sweet water?”

 

John jumped up and took the pail from the sink and walked out the door. She watched him go, marveling at how tall he seemed to her. She couldn’t tell him what she’d been thinking about, she was surprised herself to be thinking about the young man who’d bumped into her at the store. She remembered his eyes, although she’d only looked briefly. She’d seen compassion in those eyes and pure sympathy. Who was he she wondered, and what must he have thought of her? Grace shook her head and looked back at her baby son, it didn’t matter if she saw him again. He couldn’t help even if he wanted to, they were trapped.

 

Another job, another town but still trapped. John came back inside and set the pail on the counter. He rejoined his mother and stood behind the rocking chair looking down at his baby brother.

 

“Maybe this time Mama, things will be better,” he said softly.

 

Chapter 5

 

The Cartwright brothers rode into town early in the morning and spent the day signing up men to help drive the cattle to Milbank’s feeding station. They had a table and sign set up outside the barber shop and by noon had signed up twelve men. They now sat discussing whether or not to take a break for lunch.

 

“I’d like to get at least twenty men,” Adam said “Why don’t we give it another couple hours.”

 

“A couple hours!” Hoss exclaimed, “Adam look here why don’t we take turns getting something to eat. You and Little Joe can stay here while I go on over to Sam’s and then when I get back one of you fellers can take your turn. I can’t wait any longer that’s for sure.”

 

Adam smiled knowingly, “Alright Hoss, we’ll all go over to the hotel together and have something to eat, then come back here,” he said and rose from his chair while his brothers did the same and helped take the table and chairs back inside the barber shop, thanking the barber for the use of them.

 

“Hey Clyde, thanks for the chairs, we’re gonna go to the hotel to get something to eat and then come back here for a couple more hours, is that alright?” Adam asked leaning inside the shop.

 

“That’s fine Adam, hey any of you boys need a trimming while you’re here?”

 

“Tell you what Clyde, we’ll send Little Joe in here when we get back okay?”

 

Clyde nodded as he turned his attention back to his customer and Adam turned to join his brothers. They stepped down off the walk and crossed the street and walked together to the hotel.  They were crossing the street at the same time that Mrs. Kelly and Grace Pratt were coming up the walk. Grace spotted Little Joe almost immediately and turned to her companion.

 

“Mrs. Kelly who is that young man over there?” she said indicating Joe.

 

“Why that’s Little Joe Cartwright, and those are his brothers with him. The Cartwrights are a fine family, their father owns a large part of the territory around Lake Tahoe.”

 

She suddenly called out before Grace could stop her.

 

“Oh boys, could you come over here for minute?”

 

Adam was the first to turn around and realizing that Mrs. Kelly was indeed talking to them, he crossed over with his brothers close behind. They all removed their hats before reaching the ladies.

 

“Mrs. Kelly how are you today?” Adam asked politely.

 

“I’m just fine Adam, I wanted you boys to meet Grace Pratt, her husband is one of our new hands.”

 

All three nodded at her in unison, but no one noticed Joe’s change of expression.

 

“Ma’am, I’m Adam Cartwright, and these are my brothers, Hoss and Little Joe.”

 

“Howdy Ma’am and welcome,” Hoss said and turned his attention to the children, “These your boys Ma’am?”

 

“Yes this is John and this is David” she said and adjusted the baby on her hip.

 

Grace smiled self-consciously and then her eyes went to Little Joe. He took her hand but was unable to speak as he eyes sought hers.

 

“I saw you at the mercantile didn’t I?” Grace asked already knowing the answer.

 

Joe nodded, aware of his brother’s looking at him but choosing to ignore them.

 

“How’s your father Adam, I haven’t seen him lately?” Mrs. Kelly asked.

 

“Oh he’s been away, he just returned from Sacramento about a week ago, I’ll tell him you were asking after him.”

 

“You do that, well we have to get back now, give Ben my best” Mrs. Kelly said and took Grace’s arm. Grace walked alongside her but couldn’t resist a look back. She’d seen it again in his eyes; that look of pure compassion. What a handsome young man he was, she thought.

 

Adam was walking in front of his brothers when Joe gripped his arm and pulled him up.

 

“Adam wait a minute,” he said. “That was her, the woman I told you about, remember?”

 

Adam looked up as the women turned the corner and then back at his brother.

 

“If you fellas wanna chit chat you go right ahead, I’m going on inside, I’ll see you in there,” Hoss said impatiently.

 

Adam looked in Hoss’ direction briefly and then turned back to Joe “You mean the woman who you thought had been beaten?”

 

“Yeah, that’s her.”

 

“Well Joe, she looked alright from what I could see, maybe it wasn’t what you thought.”

 

Joe frowned and shook his head.  “No Adam, I’m sure, I know what I saw.”

 

“Well Joe, if she’s out at the Kelly’s I don’t think you have anything to worry about. Maybe they were just down on their luck, but you heard yourself, her husband has a job now, I’m sure they’re fine.”

 

Joe looked back in the direction they’d gone, she did look very different. Maybe he’d imagined it after all.

 

“Come on Joe, let’s go get something to eat before Hoss cleans them out,” Adam said and put an arm around his shoulder and pulled him alongside him and on into the restaurant.

 

Hoss already had a table and they sat down to join him taking the napkins from around the silverware and placing them on their legs. Adam looked around for the waitress.

 

“Did you order anything?” Adam asked.

 

“No dadburnit, I wish she’d hurry up I’m about to faint dead away from hunger.”

 

Adam shook his head and looked over at Joe, his face was flushed and his eyes troubled. It was a look that always bothered Adam.  He leaned toward him and whispered, “Joe you gotta quit worrying about this, you’re gonna make yourself sick.”

 

“I know I’m trying but I can’t, all I can think about is those kids,” Joe said miserably.

 

They were interrupted by the arrival of the waitress, “What can I get for you gentlemen today?” she asked.

 

They placed their orders and then Adam looked again at his young brother.

 

“What’s wrong with you Little Joe, you’re looking plumb peaked,” Hoss declared noticing his ashen colored face.

 

“I think we’re working him too hard,” Adam said and gave Joe a wink which was rewarded with a halfhearted smile as Joe took the coffee pot the waitress had brought and filled his cup. He was relieved when Hoss and Adam started talking about the upcoming drive, it took their attention off of him.

 

Joe had other things on his mind, and it was probably better that his brothers didn’t know what he was planning. But he knew he had to see Grace again, he had to talk to her. He needed to hear from Grace herself, that she and the children were alright. Otherwise he knew, he would never have a moment’s peace again.

 

Chapter 6

 

Several weeks passed in which time Joe and his brothers left and returned from their cattle drive. After a couple days to recover from the trip, the brothers decided to venture in to town on Saturday. Joe had been thinking about Grace when he nearly ran into her and her sons while on his way to meet his brothers.

 

They faced each other in stunned silence, and Joe saw the new bruises on her face and the cut on her lip. He tried to look away but couldn’t. Nor could he think of anything to say.

 

“Excuse me Mr. Cartwright may I pass?” she said keeping her eyes low.

 

Joe swept his hat off, “Mrs. Pratt, could I help you with one of those boxes?” he offered.

 

“Oh no thank you Mr. Cartwright, we can manage.”

 

The little boy hitched his box up on his hip, “I’m strong enough to help my Mama just fine,” he said defiantly.

 

Joe knelt to the boy’s level to talk to him.

 

“I can see that, you take good care of your Ma don’t you son?”

 

“Yes sir, I sure do Mr. Cartwright.”

 

“I’m Joe, you just call me Joe.”

 

The boy smiled for the first time and looked up at his mother and brother.

 

Joe stood back up and faced her, ” Mrs. Pratt are you sure I can’t give you a hand, or help you out in any other way?”

 

Grace met his eyes, she knew than that he knew, and she struggled for an answer. Joe saw her glance nervously behind her and then back at him

 

“Really Mr. Cartwright we’re fine, I appreciate your offer but we really have to go.”

 

“Yes Ma’am but if there’s anything you need, you just ask.”

 

Grace was about to thank him again when she saw her husband approaching behind Joe. She caught her breath and began to tremble.

 

“Grace what in tarnation you doing, I been waiting for ten minutes?” he bellowed and glared at Joe.

 

Grace brushed past and as she did her husband shoved the boy ahead of him, “Get in the wagon!” he shouted.

 

“Hey you got no call to push the kid around like that,” Joe protested.

 

The man turned on Joe in a flash, “You got something to say to me boy?” he snarled his face now inches from Joe’s

 

Grace rushed toward them and grasped her husband’s arm.  “Nick no! Leave the boy alone please, let’s go,” she cried.  But her husband brushed her away and seized Joe by the throat and shoved him against the wall. Joe was completely defenseless as he struggled to free himself from the man’s iron grip.

 

Grace’s cries became mingled with Joe’s gasps for air. He felt himself losing consciousness and was about to give in to it when he heard a familiar voice.

 

“Let him go!”

 

Nick Pratt ignored the voice until he felt something jab him in the back.  “Look mister this kid’s been butting his nose in where it don’t belong, he’s got it coming to him, so why don’t you mind your own business.”

 

There was then the click of a gun being cocked.

 

“This is my business now I’m not going to tell you again, let him go.”

 

Pratt instantly let go and turned savagely to the source of the voice as Joe slipped to the ground. He was met with a cold angry stare with eyes that glared nearly as black as the hat on the man’s head  “Now back away from him mister,” another voice warned from Pratt’s right, he turned to face another man, whose size nearly matched his own, and found himself looking down the barrel of a rifle.

 

“You heard me back away,” the big man warned again.

 

Pratt backed up slowly trying to keep his eyes on both men. Hoss quickly moved forward and grabbed Joe’s arm, pulling him to his feet. He helped him across the street as Adam faced Pratt his eyes unwavering and full of rage.  “You ever touch my brother again, I’ll kill you,” he said and calmly backed off the walk with his gun still drawn. He didn’t holster it again until he was across the street and had joined his brothers in front of the Bucket of Blood.

 

Joe was sitting on a barrel, still breathing hard and holding his throat.

 

“You okay?” Adam asked him bending down to study his face.

 

“He’s shaking like a newborn calf Adam,” Hoss observed still holding on to his arm.

 

“I’m okay, I’m fine,” Joe insisted, but his face told another story.

 

Adam looked up and then back at Hoss.  “Listen why don’t we buy him a drink and then get him on home?”

 

Joe jumped to his feet, “If I want a drink I’ll get one, and I ain’t going home until I’m good and ready,” he said with great indignation.

 

Adam and Hoss exchanged doubtful glances, but in the end relented and joined Joe as he stood up and walked through the swinging doors. They sat together at a small round table, no one spoke for several minutes. Adam leaned back in his chair to glance around the inside of the bar for any familiar faces. Beau was at the piano playing a lively tune, and saloon girls were sitting amongst the patrons giving the men undivided attention. Once in awhile one of them would glance at the Cartwright brothers but they didn’t come over.

 

“I’m gonna get us some beer,” Hoss announced and left to go the bar.

 

Adam took the opportunity to question his young brother.

 

“That’s the woman isn’t it? The one you’ve been worrying yourself sick over.”

 

“Yeah that’s her, so what?”

 

“So what? Joe that man is three times as big as you, what are you trying to do get yourself killed?”

 

Joe looked up at his brother. “Look Adam, I know it’s none of my business, I know that’s between a husband and his wife and I should just stay out of it. I know all the reasons I should just leave it alone, but I can’t. That woman is scared and she needs someone to help her, and there’s no reason that you can tell me that makes it alright for those kids to live like that. I know it’s none of my affair but I can’t walk away from it.”

 

Adam was about to argue further but Hoss returned with their beers and set himself down. Adam was still glaring at Joe who was doing his best to ignore him, he grabbed the beer taking a huge swallow swishing it around in his mouth, purposely avoiding Adam’s eyes.

 

“What are you fellas arguing about anyway?” Hoss asked with exasperation.

 

Adam looked at Hoss briefly and then took a swallow from his own mug. He couldn’t be sure what if anything, Hoss had been told about the family and didn’t’ want to betray Joe’s trust.

 

“Let’s finish our beers and get on home,” Adam said dryly.

 

“Home? I thought we were going over to the dance. Look here Adam I done promised Bessie Sue I’d be there and I ain’t about to get her riled at me. You fellas wanna go home you go right ahead but I got me a dance to go to,” Hoss declared. He drained his glass and threw his brothers a disgusted look before stomping out of the bar.

 

Adam turned back to Joe, “Well, what d’ya want to do?”

 

Joe took his time finishing his beer, making Adam wait for his answer. “I don’t know about you but I’m going to the dance,” he said purposely and rose from his chair. His eyes never left Adam’s as he tucked his shirt in and pulled a string tie from his pocket and tied it around his collar. He finished and smiling he took his hat from the table and lightly placed and adjusted it on his head.

 

“Your new friend could show up there you know?” Adam said.

 

Joe looked at his brother with a look of sympathy and shook his head. He started to say something and changed his mind, if Adam wanted to hide that was his business, he left him sitting at the table.

 

Adam remained for a long time watching the activity around him and was soon joined by Lily, one of the saloon girls. Adam knew she liked him, she was always hinting about her attraction one way or another. He liked her well enough too but was well aware that she was interested in going beyond a friendship.

 

He smiled almost to himself as she gracefully sat herself across from him.  “Adam Cartwright, are you still here? Everyone else in town has already gone to the dance.”

 

“Well Lily as a matter of fact as soon as I finish my beer I’ll be going over there myself”

 

Lily feigned surprise. “You don’t say! Well I’ll be finished for the night in less than an hour, maybe I’ll see you over there, and if I’m lucky maybe you’ll honor me with a dance.”

 

“That would be a pleasure Miss Lily” Adam said as he stood up, pushed his chair in, and picked his hat up in one graceful motion. He tipped his hat to her and left the saloon pausing outside to feel the cool afternoon breeze on his face.

 

By the time he reached the town hall it was packed full of people. He checked his gun at the door and pressed through the crowd trying to catch a glimpse of his brothers.

 

He saw Joe enjoying a dance with the store owner’s daughter Sally. Usually Joe thoroughly enjoyed her company but on this day his mind wandered elsewhere. Sally was growing more and more frustrated with him. When the dance ended he escorted her to the punch bowl for refreshment   His eyes roved over the people and then came to rest again on Sally who was obviously annoyed with him.

 

“What’s wrong Sally?” Joe asked innocently.

 

“That’s what I’d like to know Little Joe, you’ve been a million miles away since you got here.”

 

Joe hadn’t realized his distraction was so pronounced until that moment and he struggled for an explanation that wouldn’t hurt her feelings.

 

“Sally it’s nothing really I’m just thinking about ranch problems that’s all.”

 

“Since when Joe, you usually come to these dances to get away from the ranch, and those are your words.”

 

“Yeah I know but this is different, you know contracts and stuff like that.”

 

Sally could not be placated though, “Well I see Walt Tucker over there and I’m sure he could keep his mind on me tonight. If you’ll excuse me Little Joe.”

 

Joe watched her walk off but her feelings of rejection seemed to have little meaning to him at that moment.

 

He saw Hoss approaching and turned back to the punch bowl hoping to avoid any uncomfortable questions.

 

“Hey Joe, ain’t this a great party?”

 

Joe looked up at his brother and grinned, “Hoss you think every party is a great party.”

 

Hoss contemplated this and then gave a short laugh and a wave of his hand.  “Yeah I reckon I do. Well I can’t hardly help it if I like to be around folks having a good time can I?  By the way, I seen Adam come in.”

 

“Oh Good,” Joe said with a frown, that’s all he needed now.

 

“Look here Little Joe, what are you two frettin’ about now?”

 

“We ain’t fretting about nothing Hoss, I just got things on my mind is all.”

 

“Yeah? I ain’t blind little brother, I seen how you was looking at that young lady, didn’t count on her having a husband though did you?”

 

Joe gave a frustrated shake of his head, “No it wasn’t like that Hoss, I knew she was married I just didn’t think he was in town.”

 

“Oh and I reckon if he hadn’t a been, it would’a been alright right?  No wonder Adam gets so dadburn…….”

 

“Hoss will ya shut up for a second, I’m trying to explain this to you,” Joe interrupted, his voice growing a little louder than he’d anticipated as he noticed the slight decrease in the level of voices and the eyes looking in his direction.

 

Embarrassed Joe turned his back on the guests, confused by his outburst Hoss did the same.

 

Joe took a moment to calm himself.  “Look I met her over a month ago at the mercantile, all beat up like she was today. Her husband’s the one doing it to her, I been trying to be a friend that’s all. Hoss you saw those little kids didn’t you?”

 

Hoss nodded miserably, remembering the frightened little boy he’d seen watching the incident with eyes wide as saucers.

 

“I had no notion what it was all about Joe.”

 

“Well you suppose next time you could ask me? Yeah and by the way thanks for letting me know what a high opinion you had of me, you’re getting as bad as Adam.”

 

Hoss looked at his younger brother and winced, “Sorry bout’ that Little Joe, I reckon I wasn’t thinking, I just seen the young lady and her husband and I thought……..”

 

“Yeah I know what you thought and I thought you had more faith in me than that.”

 

“Dadburnit Little Joe I said I was sorry.”

 

Joe was about to go on but suddenly changed his mind, picking on Hoss wasn’t going to help anything.

 

“I know you did, look forget it,” he said slapping him on the shoulder and brushing past him to look for someone to dance with.

 

Chapter 7

 

Nick Pratt did not let the incident in town go unaccounted for, in his mind he made Grace pay for it. Later when he stormed out of the house, John crept from his bed and crawled to his mother slumped on the floor by her bed.

 

His small hand reached for her, touching her hair. It was matted with blood and tears, and covered her face, her shoulders shook.

 

“Mama you okay?” he asked her his voice quivering with fear.

 

She stopped crying and picked her head up to look at her son through swollen eyes. Her injuries frightened the child even more as she regarded him with eyes dull and empty.

 

“Mama, let’s run away, he’s gone up to the barn now and he won’t be back till night fall. We could get a far piece by morning Mama, let’s get away from here.”

 

“We can’t John, I’ve no place to go and he’d only find us and bring us back and it would only be worse,” she said weakly.

 

“Mama how could it be worse?” the boy cried desperation creeping into his voice.

 

His mother did not look up or answer him, she kept her head down and began to cry again. John felt like crying himself but he didn’t. He went back to his own bed and crawled in next to his baby brother, wrapping his arms around the baby to try and quell his own trembling.

 

He was still awake when his father returned and he lay listening to the sounds of his mother putting a plate on the table and pouring him a cup of coffee. There were no words between them only the agonizing silence.

 

Several hours later after his parents had gone to sleep, John still lay listening to the silence until it was broken by his father’s loud snores. The boy slowly sat up and looked around the room, he’d made a decision hours before and quietly moved about the cabin collecting the things he would need. When he had packed a carpet bag he reached for his baby brother. As soon as he woke him the baby began to whine.

 

“Shhhhh quiet Davy, we’re going for a walk. Your big brother is going to find you a safe place to live.”

 

He collected the baby in his arms and the child went back to sleep on John’s shoulder as John wrapped a small blanket around the boy and picked up the carpet bag. He slipped out into the night without rousing his parents.

 

It was much darker then the boy anticipated but his fear of his father was greater than his fear of the darkness and he moved on, he knew the trail to town by heart and when he made it to the well-traveled road to town he stopped.

 

He shifted his brother to his other shoulder, he was tired and it was difficult to see where he was going. He wished he’d thought to bring a lantern with him but it was too late now. He looked again at the Virginia City sign and his attention was suddenly drawn to the one underneath it. He stared at it for several minutes and then getting a tight grip on the baby he took a deep breath and started forward.

 

The following morning the Cartwright brothers rode out to prepare their corrals for branding crews. In the late afternoon they stopped their work to take a break and have a drink. The three men sat on the back of the buckboard and passed a canteen of water around.

 

“We’re gonna need to make more posts, most of them on the other side are full of dry rot, too,” Hoss commented as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and passed the canteen to Adam.

 

Joe suddenly perked up and shushed his brothers, “Shhh listen did you hear that?”

 

His brothers looked at him and then looked in the direction of his attention, seeing nothing they looked back at Joe.

 

“What’d you hear Joe?” Hoss asked but Joe only waved him to silence and then they too heard the sound.

 

“What was that?” Adam said jumping down and moving toward the sound with his brothers close behind him. They walked for some time.

 

“That sounds like a baby” Adam said walking faster, Joe ran ahead of him and was the first to reach the children. They were at the base of a large tree by the lake, John holding his little brother who was crying irritably.

 

At first no one spoke, then John said meekly, “He’s hungry.”

 

Hoss reached down and took the baby, Joe reached down to help John to his feet.  “Aren’t you Grace’s boys?” he asked him.

 

John nodded, his head down.

 

“What are you two doing all the way out here by yourselves?” Adam queried.

 

“I reckon I run away,” John said simply.

 

Joe knelt before the boy and felt a chill run up his spine.

 

“What happened son?” Joe asked already knowing the answer.

 

The boy lifted his head and met Joe’s eyes. “It was my Pa, he beat my Mama up because of what happened in town. I tried to get her to leave with me but she wouldn’t go, she said we had no place to go and no one to help us. But Mr. Cartwright you said you’d help us if we needed it. If my Mama don’t want to leave that’s her problem but I ain’t staying no more. All you gotta do is give me a job and I can take care of my brother. I can ride and rope, work cattle near as good as any man you just try me.”

 

Joe stood up straight and looked helplessly at Adam.

 

Adam knew what he wanted him to say but he couldn’t.  “Joe we can’t keep them here, you know that.”

 

Joe knew but he’d hoped that Adam could come up with something. One look at Adam’s face told him he’d never back down, he’d do what he thought was right John saw the unyielding look too.  “Mister if you try to take us back I’ll just run off again. You don’t understand I have to, I don’t care what happens to me but I gotta take care of my little brother,” John declared meeting Adam’s gaze just as determined as before.

 

Then Joe saw it, something in Adam’s expression changed when the boy took his brother from Hoss, ready to run. Adam saw himself in that boy, still a child but forced by circumstances to grow up too fast and hard. The total feeling of hopelessness. Feeling responsible for a little brother when he could hardly be responsible for himself, trying to carry more weight than he could possibly manage.

 

The hard line left Adam’s jaw and he sighed heavily, “Alright kid we’ll take you to the Ponderosa and get your brother something to eat and try to figure out what to do when we get there.”

 

Joe nearly jumped for joy but he contained himself and walked the children to the wagon. Adam took Hoss’ arm as he passed, “Hoss listen do me a favor and ride into town and tell the Sheriff what’s happened. You might want to find Doc Martin and see if he can go out and check on the lady too.”

 

“Right Adam, I’ll see you fellas later,” he said and untied his horse from the wagon and rode away.

 

Adam walked back to the wagon knowing in his heart that the Sheriff would do nothing. Legally there was nothing to be done and Adam shuddered to think what his father would say. But he knew too he could not return the children now, all he needed was time to think.

 

And that he did, all the way back to the ranch while Joe sat next to him trying to console the baby. The baby cried most of the way there and was almost asleep when the wagon pulled into the yard. As soon as the wagon came to a stop, he started to wail again. The sound immediately brought Ben from his desk.

 

“What’s this?” Ben shouted over the child’s cries.

 

“Just a minute Pa, Joe take him in the kitchen and see if Hop Sing can get him some milk or something, you go with them,” Adam said putting a hand on the boy’s back as he passed.

 

Joe threw Adam a grateful glance and hurried off to the house with the boys in tow. When Adam looked up his father stood with legs apart and hands on his hips, his expression said it all.

 

“Well I’m waiting?”

 

Adam took his father’s arm and led him to the table on the porch, knowing he’d need to be sitting for this one.  “Look Pa, there’s a situation that’s been going on for some time that we didn’t tell you about.”

 

“That figures, next I suppose you’re going to tell me these boys belong to you,” Ben said sternly.

 

Adam was so shocked his mouth dropped open and he couldn’t find his voice for several seconds.  “What? No, no it’s nothing like that…..I..fo.. I mean we…found the boys out by the lake and they….Look maybe I better start from the beginning.”

 

Ben folded his arms across his chest and nodded his assent.

 

“Well you see last month while you were gone, Joe met this woman in town and she was all beat up. Well he thought her husband had done it but he had no proof. Then he found out that the family was staying at the Kelly place, and when he saw her again she had new injuries. Her husband is a big man and from all indications it was him doing the damage and Joe wanted to help her and her kids, that’s who the boys are.”

 

Adam took a deep breath before continuing, “Anyway I kept telling him he couldn’t get involved and then today we found the boys here on the ranch. The older boy John, says his Pa beat his mother up last night and he ran off with his brother, it looks like Joe was right all along.”

 

“And you brought them here? You know you have to take them back,” Ben said adamantly.

 

“I know but the baby was hungry and boy was worn out so I thought we could just bring them here until Hoss got back with the Sheriff and then maybe we could fi……”

 

Ben shook his head.   Adam you know as well as I there’s nothing the Sheriff can do in this situation. This is between a man and his wife, it’s nobody’s business but theirs.”

 

“Yeah Pa I know that and you know that, but you go and tell those kids that, and better yet, you tell Joe that there’s nothing he can do to help these kids,” Adam said briskly, pointing in the direction Joe had gone.

 

Touched by Adam’s distress Ben reached out and squeezed his arm.  “Adam I’m not trying to be callous here, just realistic. You know I sympathize with this family but what could we do? Unless this woman makes a decision to leave her husband we can’t do anything for her.”

 

“I know that,” Adam said his eyes downcast.

 

Ben sighed heavily.  “Well for now we’ll wait and see what Roy says when he gets here, why don’t we see if we can help Hop Sing with those boys,” he suggested.

 

“Alright,” Adam said resigned and followed his father inside as Ben put a comforting arm around his shoulder.

 

Chapter 8

 

It was nearly dark and Hoss had not returned. The baby slept peacefully upstairs, now content and his belly full. John however, was a study of anxiety. He tried to sit still but could not relax, he was afraid and watched the front door as if it would come to life at any moment. Ben watched the boy after several failed attempts to engage him in a game or a book. When Ben returned to his desk, he sat down and watched the boy from there. He felt a deep sense of regret for the boy and his family and fought with his conscience about what to do.

 

When he heard approaching hoofbeats he was almost relieved to be handing the problem over to Roy Coffee. He rose from his desk to open the door and was quickly joined by Adam and Joe just as Hoss and Roy entered the house.

 

“Evening Ben, boys,” Roy said cordially as he removed his hat.

 

“Evening Roy, I’m glad you could come out, we seem to have a bit of a problem here with a couple of wayward children. Come on in and sit down Roy,” Ben said putting a hand on his back and guiding him to the sofa. Roy sat down on the sofa joined by Hoss, Ben sat across from him while Adam and Joe made themselves comfortable on the hearth. John had seated himself on the stairs behind the railing to listen out of view of the others.

 

“Pa we run into kind’ve a problem when I got there,” Hoss explained.  “You see I went to see Roy and Pratt happened to be there telling him his sons were missing. I told him they were out here and that they run away from him, and probably a few things I shouldn’t a said but I couldn’t help myself. Anyway I reckon Pratt didn’t take too kindly to my opinion of him and he come at me.”

 

“That’s right Ben.” Roy added, “And when I tried to stop him he attacked me too, we had a time trying to contain him.”

 

Ben narrowed his eyes and his eyebrows came together.

 

“What are you saying Roy?”

 

“Well Ben what I’m saying is he got himself jailed for attacking an officer of the law, so he won’t be bothering you for a day or two, until I figure out what to charge him with.”

 

“You have him locked up?” Joe asked anxiously.

 

“Yes I do and I intend to keep him there for as long as possible let me tell you if I had m………….”

 

Joe jumped to his feet before Roy could finish his sentence and headed for the door. Ben stood up and followed him taking his arm, ” Joseph wait a minute where do you think you’re going?”

 

Joe hurriedly put on his gun belt securing the string around his leg.  “I’m going out to talk to Grace and hopefully to bring her back here.”

 

Ben looked to the others and then back at his son, “But Son, what could we do for her?”

 

“Look Pa, maybe the reason she never left the man is because she had nowhere to turn, well she does now. She can’t make it on her own and without some kind of help. And we can help her, she and the boys wouldn’t have to be afraid here and we could help them get a new start without any interference from him. Pa you told me many times that sometimes the best way to help someone in trouble is to simply hold out your hand until they have the strength to take it, well that’s what I intend to do. You have to let me go Pa, it’s the right thing to do you know it is.”

 

Ben saw the determination in his son’s eyes but it was the burning intensity of his gaze that he turned away from. To his surprise he found he could not meet it, which to Joe was consent and he quickly left the house.

 

He saddled his horse and rode out like a man possessed, eventually he slowed his horse and his mind became filled with scattered thoughts. What if she refused to come back with him, after all she barely knew him? What if Pratt got out and came after them, the law would be on his side? By the time he made it to the Kelly place he’d decided he would tell her the only way she would see her sons was if she came back to the ranch with him.

 

He stopped one of the hands as he rode into the yard.

 

“Hey friend could you tell me where the Pratt cabin is?”

 

The man stopped and pointed east, “It’s beyond that trail there and to the left, but there ain’t nobody there right now. There was some kind of ruckus last night at the cabin and Pratt hightailed it out of here this morning and ain’t been back. The missus is at the main house now with Mrs. Kelly, she was some upset from what I could see but I ain’t about to get involved in no married folks business if you know what I mean.”

 

“Yeah right, listen thanks for the information,” Joe said promptly and dismounted leading his horse to the tie rail and walking to the house. He hesitated at the door for just a second and then knocked. The door opened and revealed the Kelly’s live in housekeeper Margo. Joe whipped his hat off and held it against his chest.

 

“Evening Miss Margo, could I possibly have a word with Mrs. Kelly?”

 

“Yes yes, come in Joseph we have much problems in this house tonight, young lady very upset, her family disappear. There is evil in the stars tonight,” she muttered leading Joe into the parlor.

 

“Mrs. Kelly, Master Joseph wishes your audience,” she announced.

 

Mrs. Kelly came forward, but Joe could see Grace sitting in the overstuffed chair with her head in her hands crying.

 

“Little Joe what brings you out here at this time of night?”

 

“Mrs. Kelly I apologize for the hour but it’s really important, you see we have Mrs. Pratt’s children out at our place. They ran off last night, see their father…” Joe faltered, did he have the right to tell her.

 

“I know Joseph, I know all about her poor excuse for a husband, Mr. Kelly went to town to look for him. But I tell you if I had my way I’d tell him to leave well enough alone, that poor girl needs him like she needs the plaque, that no good……”

 

“Excuse Mrs. Kelly, I don’t mean to interrupt but the reason I came out here was to hopefully persuade Mrs. Pratt to come out to the ranch with me.”

 

“But Little Joe what about her husband?”

 

“Well that’s the other thing see Hoss and the Sheriff had a little run in with him in town and Roy has him locked up, so he won’t be bothering anyone for a little while. If I could just get her to come with me, I figure maybe I could help her realize how much better off she’d be without him.”

 

Mrs. Kelly looked toward the parlor.  “Oh Little Joe that’s very honorable but what would she do, how could she support herself. I would hate to see her wind up in some dingy dance hall just to feed herself and those sweet boys.”

 

Joe frowned, his hopes failing, he blew his breath out with frustration.

 

“Listen to me Little Joe, let’s go in there and talk Grace into going back with you. And you keep her there and tell Roy Coffee to do what he can to keep that ingrate in jail where he belongs for as long as possible. In the meantime I’m going to have a long talk with Mr. Kelly about making sure Pratt doesn’t ever return to this place again. And after she’s had some time you tell Grace that she is welcome to live here with us, she can work with Margo and we can let her and the boys stay in the cabin for as long as they want,” Mrs. Kelly said with new determination in her voice.

 

Joe resisted the impulse to throw his arms around her but he could feel his heart bursting. “That’s wonderful Mrs. Kelly, you are the greatest.”

 

Mrs. Kelly flushed and took Joe’s arm, “Thank you Joseph you are a flatterer aren’t you? Now let’s go talk to that young lady and give her her salvation, shall we?”

 

Joe followed Mrs. Kelly, his heart beating like a drum. He watched as she knelt before Grace Pratt and put her hands over Grace’s and spoke softly.

 

“Grace honey, Little Joe Cartwright is here and he’s found your boys, they’re safe and sound at his place.”

 

Grace looked up at Joe and he winced, her face was badly battered, worse then he’d seen before, and it was all he could do to keep from turning away.

 

“Why didn’t you bring them back? You have to bring them back, Nick is out looking for them and he’ll kill you if he finds out where they are,” she cried desperately.

 

Joe wanted to answer but Mrs. Kelly beat him to it, still talking in her soft, soothing tone.

 

“Grace listen to me, your husband is locked up in the Virginia City jail and that’s where he’ll be for awhile. I want you to go with Little Joe to the Ponderosa to see those boys of yours, I imagine they’re very frightened right now.”

 

“But what if Nick comes back?”

 

“Honey, he won’t be back, at least not for a few days. You need some time to rest and think, and I don’t know of a better place than the Ponderosa. Now you go with Little Joe tonight and tomorrow morning I’ll bring some of your things for you, alright?”

 

Grace clasped her hands together, Joe could see the trembling in them. There was so much he wanted to say to her, but something told him that it was best left to Mrs. Kelly.

 

Mrs. Kelly waited, never taking her eyes off of Grace.

 

“Grace this will all be for the best you’ll see, all I’m asking for you to do is to trust me now.”

 

They waited several agonizing minutes before Grace finally gave a barely visible nod. Mrs. Kelly looked up at Joe and also nodded slightly indicating to Joe to come forward.

 

Grace looked up at him with dull eyes, Joe simply held out his hand. There was doubt on her face, but when Joe smiled down at her, she was no longer afraid and she took his outstretched hand. He helped her to her feet and with he and Mrs. Kelly on either side of her they walked her outside to the porch.

 

“Wait here Joe and I’ll have Carlos hitch up a surrey for you to use,” Mrs. Kelly said and she moved off the porch, leaving Joe and Grace alone.

 

Joe didn’t know what to say, but he continued to hold her hand. Grace remained silent, seemingly staring off into space. Once in awhile Joe would feel a shudder run through her and it seemed to transfuse to him.

 

Mrs. Kelly returned moments later and rejoined them.

 

“I’ll pick up the surrey tomorrow when we bring her things over,” she related.

 

Presently Carlos appeared with the surrey and Joe helped Grace into the seat. As he walked around to the other side Mrs. Kelly moved to the side and rested her hands on Grace’s arm.

 

“Everything’s going to be alright Honey, you don’t have anything to worry about,” she told her then looking to Joe she said, “Little Joe you tell your father thank you for me.”

 

“Yes Ma’am I will, thank you for your help Mrs. Kelly.”

 

Mrs. Kelly nodded and stepped back as Joe slapped the reins urging the horse forward. They rode in silence all the way to the ranch, both of them finding a sense of comfort in the darkness. The lantern that hung from the surrey gave just enough light to guide their way, and it cast eerie shadows across their path.

 

When they finally got back to the ranch house, his father and brothers came out of the house. Joe helped Grace down and led her to the porch.

 

“Mrs. Pratt, you met my brothers before, this is my father Ben Cartwright.”

 

Ben stepped forward and took her hands, “Mrs. Kelly welcome, our home is yours for as long as you wish,” he said pleasantly.

 

Grace gazed at him with lifeless eyes, when suddenly John came bursting from the house shouting ecstatically.

 

“Mama, Mama!” He rushed past the Cartwright family and threw himself into his mother’s arms. She seemed to suddenly come to life and she knelt down and pulled him to her.

 

John pulled back and looked into his mother’s face, “Mama, we’re safe here, we’re gonna be alright now. I’m going to work here and I’m going to take care of you from now on Mama.”

 

All at once Grace began to weep and John held her to his small chest.  “It’s alright Mama, he won’t hurt you anymore,” he said in a very grown up voice.

 

Joe started to move forward, but Ben took his arm and motioned for them to go inside, giving them the privacy to grieve.

 

Chapter 9

 

Two children on the Ponderosa gave life a whole new meaning for the Cartwright family. Adjustments were made by everyone involved as Grace and the boys settled in.

 

The first day on the ranch Grace slept for twelve hours straight. Doctor Martin said it was exhaustion, so the others took over with the boys and let her sleep. Hop Sing fussed over her like a mother hen.

 

Ben was awakened on the third night by the baby’s cries and found Joe tiptoeing out of Grace’s room with David.

 

“Joseph what are you doing?” he asked as Joe quietly closed her door behind him.

 

Joe put his fingers to his lips.  “Shhhh Pa I don’t want to wake Grace, she needs her rest.”

 

The baby continued crying so Joe moved down the stairs with his father close behind. His attempts at quieting the child were not working, so Ben held out his hands.

 

“Here give him to me,” he said and Joe willingly complied.

 

Ben held him against his shoulder as he continued to cry. He tried several different positions.

 

Joe watched him closely.  “He’s probably sick from the cookie Hoss gave him tonight, what do we do?”

 

Ben began to walk around with him, bouncing him a little against his shoulder.  “Why don’t you get him some milk?”

 

Joe rushed to the kitchen and nearly collided with Hop Sing.

 

“I hear baby cry, have bottel for baby,” he said handing it to Ben. “But baby not hungry, you give him to Hop Sing.”

 

Ben hesitated for a second then handed the baby over and watched Hop Sing scurry off to the kitchen.

 

Joe winked at his father, sure Hop Sing would give in to defeat but some ten minutes later the crying stopped. Joe looked quizzically at his father, Ben only shrugged. Hop Sing soon emerged from the kitchen with a now quiet child.

 

“Baby drink milk now,” he said and handed him to Ben.

 

“How’d you do that?” Joe chirped

 

“Chinese remedy, old family secret. It work for baby Little Joe, it work for baby David too,” he said and with a beaming smile returned to his room.

 

Ben sat down with the baby while Joe slumped on the sofa to watch his father feed him. While David drank his milk Ben talked to him in a quiet singsong voice, much the same as he’d used with his own sons when they were children.

 

Ben marveled at the tiny hands and fingers, he studied each tiny digit with wonder. Had his son’s fingers been so small? He couldn’t remember, but they must’ve been. He wondered how much of their babyhood he’d missed because of his drive to build his dream. But he realized he had been there for them when it really mattered, and they were all fine young men that almost everyone in the territory respected, he must’ve done something right with them.

 

Ben layed his head back against the chair and began to hum a soft song. He reflected on his sons, remembering them as children, seeing them clearly in his mind. And when he closed his eyes he could hear the echo of their voices.

 

“Pa!” Joe called, startling his father from his dream state.

 

“What is it Joe?”

 

“What were you thinking about? You had a smile on your face a mile wide,” Joe quipped.

 

“You just never mind, you best get on to bed, it’s hard enough getting you up in the morning.”

 

Joe begrudgingly rose from the couch and mumbled, “Yes sir” and dragged himself up the stairs. He passed Grace on the landing and smiled as he went by and she returned one of her own.

 

Ben did not hear her come down so she sat on the bottom step and watched him with her son. Within moments silent tears fell from her eyes. She had never known or seen gentleness such as she witnessed. And for the first time she began to have hope, maybe there was someone who could truly love her and the boys. Someone who could make them feel cherished and valued, maybe she could leave Nick and start anew, somewhere somehow.

 

Grace gave a small sniffle and Ben looked up at her.

 

“Why Grace, I didn’t see you there. I hope you don’t mind Joseph took the baby from your room because he didn’t want to wake you when he was crying.”

 

Grace smiled and sniffed again, Ben could not see her tears in the darkness.  “It’s alright Mr. Cartwright, I was so tired I didn’t hear him, I hope he isn’t disturbing everyone.”

 

“No of course not, the boys love having them around, although they’re a little awkward with the baby.  They are learning though.”

 

“They’ll make wonderful fathers someday,” Grace commented.

 

Ben stood up carefully and brought the sleeping baby to his mother. She got to her feet to take him into her arms and as she did she looked into Ben’s eyes for the first time since her arrival.

 

“Thank you Mr. Cartwright, for everything,” she said quietly and then soundlessly padded up the stairs with her sleeping son.

 

Chapter 10

 

Ben and Adam sat on the porch in the evening waiting for Hoss and Joe to return from a day at the lake with Grace and the boys. It was a pleasant evening with a light breeze that caused the nearby trees to sway ever so slightly and created a whistling sound barely audible.

 

Ben’s attention was on his eldest son though, he’d been very quiet since the boys arrived and Ben wasn’t sure why. He seemed to genuinely enjoy playing with them and taking John out with him on his rides around the ranch, so he was sure he wasn’t resentful of the boys or Grace.

 

“Grace and the boys have settled in nicely haven’t they?” Ben said deciding to get to the bottom of Adam’s mood.

 

“Yeah, I guess they have,” Adam answered mechanically.

 

“That John is something else isn’t he? Always wants to work, can’t seem to get enough of the horses and the ranch and all that goes with it. Funny thing is I’ve never seen the boy play, he’s like a grownup in a small package.”

 

“Maybe he doesn’t know how to play,” Adam said, his voice calm and indifferent, but Ben was instantly on the alert and caught the bitterness in his tone, and he looked again at his son, closely this time.

 

Adam was sitting on the bench with his back against the table, his long legs extended in front of him and crossed at the ankles. He had his arms folded across his chest and was looking down at nothing in particular. It was the expression on his face that bothered his father the most. When Adam caught him looking his face turned ashen and he looked away. He felt his pulse beating in his neck and the burning of his cheeks. As if in rescue, the sound of an approaching horse could be heard and Ben was quickly distracted. When Adam saw who was approaching he instantly got to his feet, it was Nick Pratt.

 

The big man savagely pulled his horse up and Ben tried not to look at the thick white lather on the horse’s neck. Why would he treat his animals any differently than his family? Ben reminded himself.

 

“What do you want Pratt?” Ben shouted before he had a chance to dismount.

 

Adam slipped behind his father and went into the house, sensing impending danger he retrieved a shotgun and then went to stand just inside the door where he could keep an eye on things.

 

“You know what I want Cartwright, I want my family. You ain’t got no right to keep them here. Now you tell Grace to get her sorry hide out here, we’re moving on.”

 

“She isn’t here Pratt and even if she were, she wouldn’t be going anywhere with you. You’re on your own now so I suggest you hit the trail and make it as far away from this territory as that poor horse can carry you. Our town has seen the last we want of you. And if you ever come back on my place again you may have to be carried off on the back of your horse, now move on.”

 

Pratt began to swing his leg up off his horse when Ben’s warning stopped him. “Pratt you move another inch and my son will blow you right out of the saddle.”

 

Pratt looked past Ben and caught sight of Adam sighting the shotgun right at him, he settled himself back in the saddle.

 

“You can’t do this Cartwright, you got no right” he barked again.

 

Ben didn’t bother to answer him, he just stood his ground and glared at the man until he sharply turned his horse and galloped off.

 

Ben breathed a sigh of relief and threw up a quick prayer that Hoss and Joe, wouldn’t encounter Pratt on the trail. He turned to say something to Adam, but he was gone.

 

He moved back to the table on the porch and picked up the book Adam had been reading earlier. The words on the page seemed to run together because his mind was on his son and not on the written word. He was unaware of how much time passed when he finally heard the sound of a wagon returning.

 

Hoss drove the team into the yard as Ben strode down the steps. The faces of Grace and her family were radiant and happy, it was a pleasure to see.

 

“Mr. Cartwright, look at what I caught today,” John exclaimed holding up a string of fish with pride.

 

“My oh my will you look at that!” Ben said sounding quite awe struck. “I dare say John you are becoming a fisherman to be reckoned with.”

 

“That’s for dang sure Pa,” Hoss agreed as he and Joe unloaded their things from the wagon.

 

Grace approached Ben with the baby in her arms. “Oh Mr. Cartwright, it’s so beautiful out there, we didn’t want to leave, we simply have to go again, all of us together.”

 

“Well then we shall, what do you say boys?” Ben asked enthusiastically.

 

“Let’s go on Sunday, after church,” John shouted.

 

“We’ll see John, listen young man would you do me a favor and take your fish inside while I have a talk with your Mama?”

 

Fear crept into the young boy’s eyes, “Did I do something wrong Mr. Cartwright?”

 

Ben suddenly realized the implication of his tone and broke into a broad smile.  “Of course not John, your mother and I just need to discuss something now you run along and take care of those fish of yours.”

 

“Yes sir,” the boy said and dutifully walked to the kitchen, Hoss walked in close beside him. Joe sensing his father wanted to have her attention, reached for the baby.

 

“Here Mrs. Pratt, I’ll take him and see if I can get him to sleep for you.”

 

Grace’s every fiber was on alert as she looked at Ben, something was wrong she could feel it.

 

“What’s happened? Is Nick out of jail, is he coming here?” she asked him, Ben took her arm and led her to the porch. She sat down reluctantly and waited. Ben cleared his throat at length, wishing he didn’t have to take away her sense of security.

 

“Nick is out, and he was here” Ben said and let the information sink in, knowing full well the impact it would have. Grace’s face turned white and she wrung her hands much as she’d done the first few days.

 

“Grace you have to realize, it doesn’t change anything. If you want to stay here then that’s what you’ll do. He can’t hurt you or the boys, but only as long as you’re here.”

 

“But Mr. Cartwright I can’t stay here forever, and he’ll be back, and he’ll continue to come back until he gets what he wants, you don’t know him.”

 

“And he doesn’t know me or the boys, he’s not only out matched by determination but he’s also out numbered. Grace he may indeed try again and again, but sooner or later he’ll wear down and move on, I promise you that.”

 

Grace’s mind was in a turmoil, she was afraid for herself but also for the Cartwrights. She didn’t know what to do and she began to tremble. Ben moved to her side and put his arms around her and pulled her against him.

 

“You’re safe here, you’re all safe. I promise you he will never hurt you again as long as I’m alive,” Ben promised her and Grace began to weep.

 

Chapter 11

 

As the weeks passed Grace and her sons found a sense of peace they didn’t know existed. As time went on Grace seemed to open up more and more, Ben called it blossoming. The children too seemed to change day to day. The baby delighted every one with his new accomplishments and it was a captive audience that applauded his first steps. Grace watched the Cartwright family and became more and more convinced that she would never ever go back to Nick, he was no good for her or the children. Her dilemma was how and when to strike out on her own. And when she allowed herself to consider this prospect, she became frightened.

 

She sat on the porch one evening darning clothes with Hop Sing by her side, and watched Adam patiently teach John the proper way to make a loop in his rope. Adam moved slowly and spoke calmly to the boy who copied his every move as closely as he could.

 

“That’s it John, now fold it over and grab it here,” Adam said watching the boy.  “Okay now shake out your loop.”

 

John bit his lip with concentration as he made a loop to match the size of Adam’s. Adam smiled when John looked up at him and then began to swing his loop, John did the same.

 

“Okay now there’s our target, you don’t really have to throw it hard, just take aim and lob it over the target,” he said and demonstrated it with ease.

 

John watched with fascination as his own loop sailed over the makeshift calf, he grinned at Adam with pride. “I did it, let’s try it from my horse.”

 

Adam coiled his rope up and chuckled. “Well let’s not rush it, why don’t you practice on that thing for awhile alright?”

 

John frowned but pulled his rope in. “Alright Adam, eight out of ten and I can do it from my horse though okay?”

 

“Okay it’s a deal but you have to practice an awful lot before you’re ready to go after moving targets so be patient.”

 

John threw a few more loops with Adam watching, then satisfied, Adam joined Grace and Hop Sing on the porch.

 

“You’re a wonderful teacher Adam,” Grace commented as he sat down.

 

“Well thank you Grace, he’s got a lot of potential.”

 

“Mr. Adam he teach Mr. Hoss and Little Joe same way, ” Hop Sing said watching the boy make another successful catch.

 

“Well actually Pa taught me first and I just passed it on. I tell you that boy sure wants to be a rancher though, he absorbs everything we tell him, and he’s a hard worker, you should be proud of him Grace.”

 

Grace looked at her son with attentive eyes, he somehow seemed different, almost younger than before, and yet very sure of himself, confident.

 

“I am Adam, he’s a good boy,” she said softly.

 

“And he eat like Cartlight boys, he will be big boy in no time,” Hop Sing added.  “I have to make supper now Missy Grace you finish up these please.”

 

Grace smiled pleasantly, “Alright Hop Sing, I can finish up.”

 

Hop Sing left them alone as he hurried to his kitchen, Adam took the chair he vacated and sat down, picking up the sewing he’d left behind. He studied what Hop Sing had been doing and then took up where he’d left off.

 

Grace watched with interest and smiled secretly to herself.

 

“I mentioned something to John about maybe starting school with the other children, he got real upset with me,” Grace said creating conversation.

 

Adam didn’t look up as he spoke.   Well I can understand that, he wouldn’t fit in with the other boys.”

 

Grace put her sewing down in her lap. “Really why do you say that Adam?”

 

Adam’s head came up and he looked at her with a look of surprise, he hadn’t meant to say what he did.  “Oh uh, what I meant was………..” he hedged then and cursed himself.

 

There was an awkward silence and Grace looked back at her son. “You understand him don’t you Adam?”

 

Adam’s eyes went to John too. “Yes I guess I do, in a way that I can’t really explain. I never had to deal with the terror he has, but the feeling different, I know how that is.”

 

Grace nodded, she didn’t question that, somehow she had known they had something in common.

 

“Didn’t you go to school when you were a boy Adam?”

 

Adam smiled as he resumed his sewing project.  “Well I don’t think you could really call it that, it was nothing more than a compilation of children from mining families. Pa used to drag me up to that camp, saying it was for my own good.”

 

“You didn’t like it?”

 

“Well it wasn’t really a matter of liking it, it was just that I already knew most of what she was teaching. My father taught me most of what I knew by the time I was John’s age. As a matter of fact I was reading a lot of Pa’s books by that time and helping him figure out the ranch ledgers too. When we were building this house I did the measuring for beams and such, you can’t get much more of an education than that.”

 

“But you must’ve enjoyed playing with the other children,” Grace questioned.

 

But Adam shook his head.  “I never was one for playing much, I mean Hoss and I did exploring and stuff, but I remember watching those children play as you call it, and wondering why I didn’t feel the need to join them. It seemed so immature to me and I didn’t know how to relate to what they were doing, I felt different, so I mostly kept to myself.”

 

Grace found herself staring at him, his head was bent over his work and dark lashes covered his eyes but she could almost sense a certain kind of sadness in his voice.

 

“It must’ve been lonely for you” she said quietly, she saw movement from the corner of her eye and saw Ben standing there listening, she wasn’t sure what to do.

 

“No, not really, I mean I could go anywhere in books, and I loved growing up on the ranch, and besides with Hoss and Little Joe around it was never what you would call quiet around here.”

 

Grace laughed and when she looked up again Ben was gone. She felt strange as if she was part of something dishonest.

 

Adam felt suddenly stifled and stood up. “I think I’m gonna go for a ride,” he said and walked off the porch.

 

“Where you going Adam?” John asked hurriedly coiling his rope.

 

“I’m just going for a ride kid, I’ll be right back.”

 

“Can’t I go with you?” John asked hopefully.

 

“Not this time cowboy, you just keep practicing.”

 

He untied his horse and rode off with the eyes of Grace and her son burning into his back

 

Chapter 12

 

Grace announced to Ben that she’d decided to leave Nick once and for all. It was after a glorious day at the lake with the Cartwrights that she told them of her decision.

 

“I have an Aunt in Kansas and I thought maybe I could write her about coming out there. Lord knows I haven’t seen her in almost ten years but I’m sure Nick wouldn’t bother to look for us there. Knowing him he probably doesn’t remember her, much less where she lives.”

 

Ben cleared his throat. “Well Grace there’s no need for you to leave the territory, see the thing is Mrs. Kelly would like you to come stay with her, as her housekeeper.”

 

“Her housekeeper? Why she has Margo, when did she tell you this?”

 

“Well the truth is she told Little Joe the night he came to get you, but she reconfirmed it to me just about a week ago, she’s just waiting for you to accept the offer. And she said she spoke to Margo and she loves the idea of having help, she’s very fond of you you know, the whole family is.”

 

Grace flushed, she had no idea.  “What about Nick Mr. Cartwright, he may come back?”

 

“Grace I know the Kelly’s will make sure he doesn’t bother you again, you’ll be very happy there and the boys will appreciate being able to keep in touch with your sons.”

 

Grace looked thoughtful for several minutes.  “Well Mr. Cartwright I’d still like to write to my sister if you don’t mind, I should look into all my possible options, and would like to see her again so much. Perhaps the boys and I could just visit for awhile, until I’m sure what we’ll do.”

 

Ben sighed, “Well that’s your decision Grace but of course there’s no hurry, you take your time,” he said patting her hand and leaving her to think things through.

 

Less than a week later Joe came riding up to the house at a full gallop. Adam and Hoss were busy repairing floor boards on a buckboard and looked up as the dust settled.

 

“What in tarnation you riding in like that for, the south forty on fire or something?” Hoss asked waving his arms at the dust threatening to settle around him

 

Joe threw a rein over the tie rail and approached his brothers, standing before them with his hands on his hips.

 

“No worse, guess what I just heard?”

 

Adam stood up straight and wiped his pants off, “Okay what gives?”

 

“I was just in town and Dutch told me that he heard Nick Pratt is working on the Hastings place, he never left.”

 

Adam and Hoss exchanged glances.  “Well Joe there’s nothing we can do about that he’s free to work where he wants.”

 

“Yeah but don’t you see, he’s less than twenty miles from here, if Grace finds out, there’s no way she’s gonna stay on. She’ll move to Kansas sure as shooting now.”

 

Hoss sat down on the firewood pile and shook his head.

 

“You know if he is gonna hang around it might be the best thing for her to leave. Who wants to live having to look over their shoulders all the time?”

 

“Well I don’t know about you but I don’t want them to leave,” Joe nearly shouted.  “I think we should get the townspeople together and run him out, we don’t need his kind around here.”

 

“Joe we ain’t gonna turn into vigilantes over him, he might move on after the fall gathering anyhow, he’s temporary help this time of year,” Hoss told him.

 

“Yeah well what if he hires on permanent then what?”

 

Adam shook his head.  “Joe look none of this is our decision to begin with, and I’m not sure I’d keep this from Grace anyway. I think we should tell her the truth and leave it up to her.”

 

“There’s no need, I already know the truth,” Grace’s voice said from behind them. “Look boys, I appreciate your wanting to protect us, but the children and I will have to stand on our own feet sooner or later. And you’re right Adam I don’t want them living in fear, but I won’t stoop to his level either by running him out of town.”

 

“What are you going to do then?” Adam asked her.

 

“Grace look, you and the boys can just stay here?” Joe said briskly.

 

“Oh Joe, I know what you’re trying to do but we’d be prisoners here as much as anywhere else.  I think our only choice will be to go to Kansas,” Grace stated sadly and she left them to have a talk with John about their future.

 

Chapter 13

 

While Grace waited anxiously for word from her sister, the Cartwrights went about their routine as usual. Summer was coming to an end so there were many chores that had to be done before winter. After many days of rain, the most pressing chore was getting their yearly crops in.

 

Adam, Hoss, and Joe spent most of the day gathering their hay crop into lozenges so it could dry. By midday it was unbearably hot and the boys stopped to take a break. Joe grabbed a canteen and took a giant swig of water but quickly spit it out again.

 

“Ahhh it’s almost hot, I’m gonna go get us some water from the stream,” he said rising to get his horse.

 

“Well hurry up about it little brother my mouth feels like i ate a wooly sock” Hoss griped.

 

“I’ll be right back,” Joe said over his shoulder as he kicked Cochise into motion.

 

Adam sat down next to Hoss as Joe rode off. “I hate how this stuff itches,” he commented as he scratched his arms.

 

“Yeah me too, why do you reckon Pa don’t keep some men on to handle this nasty little job.”

 

“Are you kidding, and rob us of this pleasure?” Adam mocked.

 

Joe in the meantime rode up to the fast flowing stream and dismounted almost tasting the water before he knelt at the bank. He filled the canteens slowly, taking the time to look around him. There was no sign of the coming fall yet and it was hard to believe August was nearly over. He took a long drink from one of the canteens and then bent to refill when he was suddenly jerked to his feet. He found himself looking up into the face of Nick Pratt.

 

“Hey boy, remember me?” Pratt snarled tightening his grip on Joe’s collar.

 

Joe dropped the canteens and felt his stomach drop with them, his eyes went in the direction of his brothers.

 

“Don’t even think about yelling out kid, or I’ll silence you for good, got it.”

 

Joe didn’t bother to answer him, but he flinched from the man’s withering stare.

 

“Relax kid, I don’t want to kill you, I just want you to deliver a message to my ever loving wife.”

 

Adam and Hoss waited for some time before they began to wonder about their brother’s whereabouts.

 

“Now where do you suppose our little brother got off to?” Adam said casually.

 

“You reckon he went home for water?” Hoss asked.

 

Adam looked at his younger brother and was suddenly filled with dread.  “No not likely, come on let’s go look for him.”

 

“Now Adam ain’t we gonna look foolish checking up on him?”

 

Adam didn’t respond and was already on his horse and riding off before Hoss got up. He caught up with Adam down by the stream and within minutes they spotted Cochise standing by the bank. Adam and Hoss dismounted and seconds later saw Joe being pummeled by Pratt. Pratt heard them coming and took off running, he was on his horse and off with Hoss close behind him Adam dropped to the ground beside his brother and felt for a pulse, he breathed a quick sigh of relief and then slowly rolled him over.

 

“Hey Joe, wake up can you hear me?” Adam called, he felt anger creeping into his gut at the sight of his battered face.

 

Joe slowly came awake and immediately tried to sit up.

 

“Hey hold on, take it easy.”

 

“Where’s Hoss?” Joe asked putting a hand to his swollen cheek.

 

“He went after Pratt, don’t worry he’ll catch him.”

 

Joe felt himself begin to waver and leaned back against his brother.

 

“He said it was a message for Grace, Adam we gotta make sure Grace don’t find out about this.”

 

Adam gave a short laugh.  “I hate to tell you this Buddy but it’s gonna be real hard for her not to notice.”

 

Joe glared at Adam through squinted eyes,  “We’ll tell her I got into a fight in town or something, anything.”

 

Adam shook his head,  “Come on Joe, Grace isn’t stupid, she’s gonna know exactly what happened as soon as she sees you.”

 

“Well take me to town then, I don’t want her to see me,” Joe demanded but nearly passed out from the outburst.

 

“Sorry kid, but I better get you home,” Adam said pulling him to his feet. Joe groaned from the pressure against his ribs and tried to shake the fog from his head.  “You think you can get on your horse?” Adam asked him.

 

Before Joe could answer Hoss came riding up.  “He got clean away Adam, how is he?”

 

“I’m alright stop talking about me like I ain’t here,” Joe grumbled trying to find the stirrup with his foot . “I’m gonna ride into town, don’t say anything to Grace.”

 

Adam looked at Hoss and shook his head, still holding on to Joe’s waist as he fumbled with the stirrup. “Hoss do me a favor and see if you can fetch the doc.”

 

“I’m going into town to see the Sheriff anyway Adam, I’ll be back real quick like. Can you get him home alright?”

 

Joe whirled around angrily.  “I ain’t going home and don’t you say nothing to Grace you hear?”  He turned back to his horse and finally succeeded in placing his foot. He pulled himself into the saddle with gritted teeth and once seated turned to his brothers with a triumphant grin.

 

Hoss smiled at Adam and turned toward town, he knew Adam would handle it.

 

Adam watched Joe pick up his reins and pull them up.

 

“Well you ready?” Adam asked him.

 

“Just lead the way older brother,” Joe told him confidently.

 

Adam smiled to himself and went to get his horse, only to find Joe barely holding on when he returned.

 

“Okay buckaroo, let’s go,” Adam said reaching for Joe’s reins as he struggled to sit back up.

 

“You’re taking me to town right?”

 

“Yep I promise,” Adam said. With that Joe collapsed against Cochise’s neck, he didn’t hear Adam add, “Sometime, but not today.”

 

Chapter 14

 

Joe lay sleeping under the cloud of a sedative after Doc Martin’s departure. He had a couple cracked ribs and a bad concussion according to the doctor, but there was no serious damage. His only advice to Ben was to keep him in bed for about a week.

 

Ben sat silently at his side by the bed reading a book with ears perked for any sound from his son. Grace had been told the truth and she had retreated to her room with the boys upon hearing of the assault. Ben knew she was devastated about what had happened to Joe, but he assured her it didn’t change anything, he only hoped she believed he did not hold her responsible.

 

Ben turned when he heard the door click open and saw it was Adam.

 

“How’s he doing?” he asked his father in a whisper.

 

“Resting comfortably, he’s gonna be sore for awhile.”

 

“The crazy little cuss wanted to hide in town so Grace wouldn’t find out about it,” Adam told him as he slumped in a chair next to his father. “He was bound and determined to go too.”

 

“Well he does have a stubborn streak,” Ben commented without lifting his eyes from the book.

 

Adam threw his leg over the arm of the chair and grinned, “I wonder where he gets that from?”

 

That got Ben’s attention and he raised an eyebrow as he regarded his eldest son. “Yes, well it would seem one of my sons got more than his share of it.”

 

Ben smiled as Adam looked at him oddly and dropped his eyes, there was an amused smile on his face. Ben put his book down on his lap and continued to watch Adam for a moment.

 

“Adam there was something I wanted to talk to you about,” he said after a pause.

 

Adam looked up at him, his face still flushed. “What’s that Pa?”

 

“Well son I have a confession to make, I heard you and Grace talking the other day, and frankly something you said has been bothering me a great deal.”

 

Adam shifted his weight nervously and tried to remember what he’d said. What could he have said
that would make his father upset he wondered.

 

“Well it was what you said about feeling different as a boy, you never told me that.”

 

“Oh that, well that was just talk Pa, besides that doesn’t mean I wasn’t happy when I was a kid, I was.”

 

Ben looked at him with discerning eyes.  “Were you Adam? I didn’t make things easy for you, as a matter of fact, looking back it must’ve been downright awful for you.”

 

“Pa I’m really sorry I said anything, the last thing I want is for you to feel guilty about the past. I was a kid then, it was a long time ago, it’s okay now.”

 

Ben shook his head slowly.  “No son that’s my point, you never did have much of a childhood and I guess I never realized that you might resent me for that.”

 

“My God Pa, I don’t, that’s crazy, you couldn’t help things being the way they were, don’t ever think that,” Adam said irritably sitting straight up in the chair.

 

“I thank you for that Adam, but I do honestly wish things could’ve been different for you, easier perhaps. I did and still do want the very best for you, always remember that,” Ben said looking right at him.

 

Adam looked up and his heart was filled with regret.  “I know that Pa, I’ve always known that.”

 

“Good,” Ben said with a nod and a small smile.

 

Just then Joe began to move restlessly under the covers and Ben concentrated his attention on him. Adam rose from his chair and moved over beside his father as Ben sat on the edge of the bed and put a hand to Joe’s shoulder.

 

“Easy son you’re alright, you’re home safe and sound now,” Ben explained as he struggled to open his eyes.

 

“Home?” he cried trying to sit up, but Ben held him firm.  “Pa I told Adam to take me to town, if Grace finds out ……..”

 

“Joseph, you were too weak to make it to town, now Adam did the right thing bringing you here. Grace and the boys will be fine don’t you worry. Now I want you to rest, you’re not to get up you hear me?”

 

Joe relaxed and looked at his older brother.  “Did you tell her what happened?” Adam looked to his father.

 

“Yes, she knows son, she was right here when Adam carried you in so it wasn’t hard to figure out. Roy has some men looking for him so don’t worry.”

 

“What about Grace, what’s she gonna do now?” Joe asked fearfully.

 

“I don’t know Joseph, let’s not worry about that now alright, we’ll talk about it tomorrow, Paul said you’re supposed to rest.”

 

Joe lay back on his pillow and closed his eyes.  “I do have a real bad headache, listen tell Grace I want to talk to her in the morning okay?”

 

“Alright I’ll tell her, you just rest now,” Ben ordered as he pulled the covers back over his chest. He watched until he thought Joe was asleep and then looked up at Adam.

 

“We’ll have to take turns keeping an eye on him tonight.”

 

Adam nodded not taking his eyes off his brother, knowing Joe, he might just try to go after Pratt.

 

“I’ll stay with him now if you want to get some rest,” Adam offered.

 

Ben looked back at his youngest for a moment.  “Well alright, but you wake me up if Hoss comes back with any word okay?”

 

“Sure Pa, I will,” Adam promised and seated himself on the bed next to his brother. Ben gave a long sigh and left them to catch up on some much needed sleep.

 

Chapter 15

 

Joe shook himself awake from a loud distracting sound that seemed to rattle in his head. When he could see clearly, he found Hoss fast asleep in the chair next to him, snoring loudly. Joe smiled fondly at his big brother and moved to sit up. Pain instantly shot through his head and he rubbed his temples.

 

He waited for the pain to subside and attempted to stand up which only caused another wave of pain. With great care he managed to dress himself halfway and get down the hall to Grace’s room. He knocked quietly so as not to wake his father and brothers, but there was no answer. Suspiciously he opened the door and pushed it slowly open. It was still barely morning and it took a moment to see the room clearly, but not long for him to realize that all Grace’s things were gone. He pushed off from the door jam and moved to the room the boys had shared, it too was empty. Full of anger and fear Joe moved down the stairs and searched there for any sign of them. He was having a difficult time staying conscious but he ignored the throbbing in his head and kept moving. He went back to his room where Hoss still slept soundly and finished dressing, throwing a shirt over his taped ribs and grabbing his boots on the way out. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs long enough to put them on and then went quickly out to the barn to saddle his horse.

 

In the barn, he stopped several times to avoid passing out and wondered at this strange inability to stay upright. He rode out of the yard as fast as he dared and kept up the pace until he reached the crossroads. He had thought to go to the Kelly’s but after thinking about it, realized where she might have gone, to the Hasting’s place.

 

Adam woke with a start just as the sun came up. He was still wearing his work clothes from the day before and realized he must’ve fallen asleep on the bed right after Hoss relieved him the night before.

 

He stood up and stretched his arms and legs and then strode down the hall to his brother’s room. He stopped short when he found Joe’s bed empty and then went to check on Grace and the boys. Finding them gone he stood frozen in the hall, his mind racing. Without bothering to wake the others he rushed out to the barn for his horse.

 

Joe rode onto the Hastings’ place barely conscious, clinging to Cochise’s neck as wave after wave of pain vibrated through his head.

 

“Little Joe what are you doing here so early in the morning?” a voice asked him.

 

Joe knew the voice but couldn’t seem to focus. “Mr. Hastings’ I’m looking for Pratt, is he here?”

 

“Yeah, he just got back this morning, his wife and sons showed up here almost at the same time, they’re up in the marriage house on top of the hill yonder,” Mr. Hastings explained.

 

“You alright Little Joe, you don’t look so good?”

 

Joe pushed himself up and forced a smile.  “I’m fine Mr. Hastings, I’ll see you later,” he said as he rode up the hill.

 

He was less than a mile from the house when he heard the screams and cries of a child. He rushed forward and slid from his horse cursing his inability to function normally.

 

He had just stepped onto the porch when he heard the gun blast. His hands trembled as he pulled his gun from its holster and kicked the door opened.

 

He shook his head clear, and saw Grace sobbing into her hands and the cries of the children, John’s eyes were wide with terror. And then Joe’s eyes fell on Pratt who was sprawled on the floor, a pool of blood beginning at his side. Joe moved toward Grace and picked the rifle up from the floor. He holstered his gun and reached out gently for Grace’s arm. It took what seemed an eternity for her to remove her hands from her face and reveal the new bruises and cuts.

 

“He was going to hurt the boys Little Joe, he went after the boys…..I couldn’t let him hurt the boys could I?”

 

Joe felt sick to his stomach as he reached to put his arm around her, he barely heard the footsteps as Hastings’ men rushed into the cabin, the floor was falling out from under him as he faced Mr.Hastings.

 

Grace trembled against him and began to whimper incoherently.

 

“He attacked me when I was helping Grace pack her things,” Joe said indicating the bags against the wall.  “She was trying to leave him and he attacked me, I had to do it, it was self-defense.”

 

People were rushing in around him and he wasn’t aware of Grace and the boys being hustled from the room and to the main house.

 

“No great loss I reckon Little Joe, he was a bad one. I’ll send one of my men into town for the Sheriff and the undertaker, you best get on home, my wife will take care of the missus and her children.”

 

Hastings left and Joe found himself standing before his brother Adam. Adam looked into his eyes and for some reason it made Joe feel like breaking down and crying.

 

“He was already dead when you got here wasn’t he Joe?” Adam said quietly.

 

Joe willed himself to meet Adam’s stare.  “No I shot him in self-defense, just like I said,” he insisted but he knew Adam knew the truth.

 

“Alright Joe, I guess it doesn’t matter,” Adam said just as Joe was assaulted with a furious wave of pain that threw him into darkness in his brother’s arms.

 

Chapter 16

 

Joe stood with Grace and her sons in front of the stage office waiting. Grace and the boys were going to Kansas, to live with her sister and her family. Joe felt several emotions as they waited, he had so much he wanted her to know.

 

He looked up the road for the hundredth time and then at Grace.

 

“The stage will be along any time now Joe,” Grace said quietly.

 

“Grace, I really am sorry about everything, I just wanted to help,” Joe told her.

 

Grace looked at him and saw the regret on his face. She felt so strongly for him, he was so mixed up between man and boy that she never knew how to react to him.

 

“Oh Joe, you did help, more than anyone else ever did. You gave us hope when I didn’t think it possible. Don’t ever blame yourself for what happened,” she said.  “You know Joe I’ve always believed that things happen as they should and it isn’t up to us to question why or how. And none of it will really make any sense to us until we’re old and looking back and that’s when we know, it was meant to be.”

 

“I didn’t want him to die, I just wanted him to leave you alone,” Joe said weakly.

 

“That’s all I wanted too Joe, but he couldn’t leave us alone, I don’t know why, he just couldn’t. I took his abuse for so many years that I lost count of the bruises I wore, but going after the boys, hitting John, that was the last straw Joe. Maybe it was murder, I’m not sure, but it’s a decision I will have to live with for the rest of my life. To tell you the truth, right now I’m not one bit sorry I pulled that trigger, not one bit.”

 

“You had every right to protect the children Grace, it’s what any mother would do, even against their own husband,” Joe said looking off in the distance for the cloud of dust that would come.

 

“Be happy now Grace, you’ve done your time in hell, just be happy and make the boys happy now.”

 

Soon the sound of hooves and the rattle of chains could be heard as the stage made its way into town and stopped before them. Joe watched the horses fight the bit and bob their heads as they stamped their feet. His stomach was doing flip flops and could never remember feeling so helpless in his life.

 

“Come on John, let’s get on the stage,” Grace called as Joe helped load her bags on the stage.

 

Grace gave him a quick peck on the cheek and hugged him awkwardly.  “Thank you Joe, thank you for our freedom. I’ll remember you all my life,” she said and climbed on the stage with the baby held tightly in her arms.

 

Joe looked down to see John before him waiting.  “Good bye Joe and thanks for taking care of us,” he said and held out his hand.

 

Joe shook his hand and said, “Now don’t forget you come back in the spring and sign on with the branding crew okay?”

 

John beamed up at him. “I sure will Joe and I’ll practice every day just like Adam taught me, you’ll see when I come back, I’ll pick off any calf you point out next year, you just wait and see.”

 

Joe impulsively hugged the boy and then nudged him toward the stage.  “You best get going John you’re Mama’s waiting,” he said.

 

John nodded and turned to board the stage, once seated Joe could see all three faces looking at him. He saw Grace’s lips form the words ‘thank you’ just before the stage pulled out.

 

“They’ll be alright now son,” Ben said as he moved in alongside him and put an arm around his shoulder.

 

“I couldn’t give her what I wanted to Pa, I just wanted to give her and the boys peace, and I couldn’t.”

 

“Joseph, you did more for her than anyone, and she knows that.”

 

“I know Pa, but it’s not enough, she’ll never have peace now, not ever.”

 

Ben watched the cloud of dust disappear and looked at his young son.  “But Joe you did give her freedom, and sometimes that is just as valuable. Peace is something each of us has to find on our own, maybe you gave her a chance to find it now.”

 

Joe dropped his head and stared at the ground, he had been so sure he failed her. That in his effort to help her he had only made things much worse. But what his father said made him feel a little better.  “I hope so Pa,” he said softly.

 

“What d’ya say we get on home and have some supper?” Ben said squeezing his shoulder.

 

Joe’s face broke into a big smile.  “Sounds good to me Pa,” he said and together they walked to their horses, got on, and rode in the wake of the trail left by the stage carrying Grace and her sons to a new life.

 

The End

 

Hey All – it’s been years since I’ve written any new fanfic stories but I wanted to thank you all for the really nice compliments I’ve received about my stories. The first one I wrote when I was fourteen called The Ties that Bind, once I finished that I couldn’t seem to stop writing them. I’m glad I reached a point in life where I was able to share them and that people enjoy them.

Sorry it took so long to respond to your comments, nowadays life gets in the way.

November, 2017

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Author: MaryS

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