The Ultimate Wound (by mcfair_58)

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Summary:  As Ben Cartwright seeks to comfort Little Joe after he is forced to kill his childhood friend, Sharp Tongue, the older man recalls the curious circumstances that brought the two boys, Indian and white,  together – circumstances that threatened his young son’s life then as surely as now. A WHN/WHI for season six’s ‘The Far Far Better Thing’.

Rated PG-13 for Western violence and brutality

Word count: 29,541

The Ultimate Wound

Prologue

“Where’s your brother?”

Ben Cartwright watched his middle son halt what he was doing.  Hoss was by the front door, taking off his coat.  His ten gallon hat was already on the rack.

“I take it you’re talkin’ about Little Joe?”

Adam had come home the night before dog-tired from supervising the branding. His oldest hadn’t made an appearance yet either, even though Hop Sing had given the ten minute warning for breakfast six minutes before.

“Yes, I’m talking about Joseph.”

Hoss straightened his collar even as he nodded toward the stairs.  “Little Joe’s still in bed, Pa. Said he wasn’t feelin’ so good.”  His son hesitated before adding, “After what happened yesterday, well, I figured I’d just leave him be.”

Ben looked toward the stairs as well.  “You checked on him this morning?”

Hoss nodded.  “I did, ‘fore I went out to check on Maisie’s new colt.”

The rancher hid his smile.  His huge son so loved small vulnerable things.  “How is the colt doing?”

The gentle giant beamed.  “Just great, Pa!  He’s one ornery little cuss. I weren’t so sure last night he was gonna make it, but he’s still with us.”

Still with us….

Ben ran a hand over his chin and blew out a sigh. Joe was still with them as well.

Thank God!

“You want me to go check on Little Joe again, sir?” Hoss asked.

He considered it a moment and then shook his head.  “I’ll go.  Why don’t you take your seat at the table?  Perhaps your presence will mollify Hop Sing’s indignation.”

Hoss snorted.  “I’ll tell him I’ll eat enough for four.  That should make him happy.”

“Make that three.”

They both turned to find Adam dressed and descending the stairs.  He’d caught his oldest and had a word with him before he headed up the night before.  All he had given him were the basics – Joe had been taken by the renegade Indians and been forced to kill one of them to save himself and the others.

“Good morning, son.  Did you sleep well?”

Adam had reached the floor.  He gave him a funny look.  “You didn’t hear him?”

Ben was puzzled.  “Hear who?”

“Joe.  He had a nightmare.”  His eldest pursed his lips.  “You might have called it a ‘lollapalooza’.”

The older man thought a moment.  When he’d finally dropped into bed, he’d been just about as exhausted as his youngest from the day’s events.  He must have slept through it.

And that was tantamount to sleeping through a hurricane!

“Did you wake him?”

Adam shook his head.  “I waited outside the door.  If it had gotten any worse, I would have, but….”  His son ran a hand along the back of his neck – a familiar gesture of unease shared by all his boys.  “Well, I didn’t want to embarrass him.”

So, there had been tears.

No wonder.

“Pa, I heard Joe mention Sharp Tongue.  Was he the renegade he had to kill?”

Ben nodded.  “Sadly, yes.  Your brother had no choice.  It was kill or be killed.”

Adam was looking back up the stairs.  “That had to be tough.”

“They was awful close when they was kids,” Hoss chimed in as he joined them.  “At least for that one year.”

‘Close’ being an operative word, Ben thought.

“Food get cold!  You stop yak-yak!  Come eat or Hop Sing throw it all out!” a sharp voice chided.

“I’ll go get Joe,” Hoss offered again as he headed for the staircase.

Ben caught him by the arm.  “No, son.  As I said, you go eat.  I’ll check on your brother. After what happened yesterday, it’s possible he’s really not feeling well.”

As he ascended the stairs, the older man reconsidered his words.  It was more than possible that Joseph was sick – it was a certainty.  His son was sick at heart.

After all, he had been forced to kill a friend.

 

Ben paused outside his youngest’s bedroom with his hand raised above the door.  Joseph was such a sensitive young man – so like his late mother.  He felt things deeply.  Where another man would weigh out a situation and take action and never look back, Joseph often agonized over the decisions he’d made, questioning whether or not they had been the right ones.  In the last two years the boy had been through a great deal.  From Seth Pruitt’s choice to end his soon-to-be father-in-law’s life and his request that Joseph lie for him, to his son’s own rather dubious handling of his fear of heights, the boy’s metal had been tested.  So far Little Joe’s character had come out as sterling.

Still, he knew his youngest boy questioned whether or not he was a man.

As he stood there, thinking, Ben heard a sound.  He leaned in a little closer and listened.  Yes, it was what he’d thought.

A sob.

Ben pursed his lips and considered his own choices and then rapped on the door.

“Joseph.  May I come in?”

Silence greeted him; a silence so long he thought his son might pretend to be asleep.  Then he heard it, a soft ‘yes’.  Opening the door, the older man stepped into the room to find his youngest boy was not in bed, but seated by the window.  Joseph was still in his night shirt.  The rosy light of dawn spilled in the window, highlighting the boy’s rampant curls and turning them to spun gold.  He had a book in his hands.  He couldn’t tell what the title was.

“Hoss said you were unwell, son.  How are you feeling?”

For a moment Little Joe didn’t stir.  When he turned to look at him, the rising light glinted off the unspent tears in his eyes.  He gave him a little smile.

“I’m okay, Pa.  Sorry if I worried you.”

“That was quite a fight you were in yesterday,” he said softly.  “I thought, perhaps….”

Joe looked at his left hand as he shifted it on the book.  There were scabs forming on his knuckles and the rest was swathed in bandages.  Underneath the bandages there were defensive cuts on his palms, just as there were on his arms and face – painful reminders of his one-time friend’s betrayal.

The boy suddenly looked sick.

Quickly crossing the room, Ben knelt beside his son.  He reached out to lay his hand on Joe’s knee.  “I’m sorry, Joseph.  I shouldn’t have said anything.”

The tears were flowing now.  “Pa, I….” Joe looked at him, stricken.  “Pa, why?”

Why?

How many times had he asked that question?  When Elizabeth died.  With Inger.  And, dear God, in such a grief-stricken voice when the Lord took Marie.

“Why…what, son?”

Why had Lucinda Melvaney gone off on her own?  Why had Sharp Tongue turned renegade?  Why had his childhood friend wanted to kill him?  Why had Joseph been forced to kill his childhood friend?

And the greatest question of all – why did God let it happen?

Joe sucked in air like a drowning man and let the breath out slowly.  “You know, Pa,” he began, “it really surprised me when I heard he was leading the renegades.”  Joe snorted.  “I mean, Sharp Tongue was always in trouble, but….”

And Sharp Tongue had gotten his young son into trouble as well.

Joseph’s fingers had knitted together and they were working against each other, expressing some of the tension he felt.  “What surprised me was that he didn’t remember what we’d meant to each other.”  Joe shot him a look.  “No, that he remembered and just didn’t…care.”

Ben rose from his kneeling position and took a seat on his son’s bed.  “It’s hard to judge any other man’s actions, son, without knowing his heart.”

“He hated me, Pa!  He hated me just because I was a white man!” Joe all but shouted.  His son winced as his fingers tightened into fists.  “Well, I was a white man back when we were boys and it didn’t seem to matter then.  Maybe it was just because I was always haulin’ his butt out of trouble.  Maybe he never…cared anything about me.  About whether I lived or died.”

“Son, men change.”

Joseph looked up sharply.  There was something in the boy’s eyes – he might have named it ‘fear’.

“I’m…scared, Pa,” he said, his voice sounding small and very young.  “I’m scared that I’ve changed too.  And not for the better.  How could I…?  How can a man kill…a friend?”

Ben thought a moment, giving the question it’s due.  He cleared his throat. “A man does what he has to do, son.  Just like you did when you and Sharp Tongue were boys.  It wasn’t easy being his friend, but you made the choice because you believed it was right.”

His son sniffed.  His lips twitched.  “You sure didn’t think it was right.”

It wasn’t that he hadn’t thought it was right.  It was that, like Joseph at this moment, he had been scared – scared by his young son’s choice to befriend a troubled Indian boy.

Joseph’s finely tuned moral compass – the one that he had instilled in him –  had nearly gotten him killed.

Twice.

 

 

ONE

“I don’t want your brother to hear this.  Do you understand?”

Little Joe Cartwright had been dawdling.  Breakfast was over and he’d gone back upstairs to get his school books and change his shirt since Pa said the one he had on was too threadbare to wear.  He couldn’t see it, but he hadn’t argued since it had been one of those mornings where his pa and older brothers – seventeen-year-old Hoss and twenty-three-year old Adam – were so caught up in discussing business at the table that he might as well not have existed.  At eleven he was too old to be considered a baby and left out of all the conversations, but too young to really care about Mister Hargreaves’ complaint about water rights, Mrs. Smith’s bellyachin’ about how the horses she’d bought from them were too ‘high-handed’, or the fact that the mine up near Reno Pa had bought a share in was in bad shape. That last one meant about an hour of older brother Adam showing off his college-educated smarts with charts, graphs, notations, and thousands if not hundreds of thousands of boring words.

This was something different.

Joe took a step back into the shadows that lined the upper hall.  Dropping his books and his bottom to the wood floor, he scooted as far forward as he thought was safe and then settled in so he could listen to whatever it was his pa had to say that he wasn’t supposed to hear.

“Pa,” Adam began as he dropped his red-checked napkin to the table, “I don’t agree.  You can’t protect the boy forever.  When I was his age – ”

“You were never Little Joe’s age,” Pa interrupted, his tone kind of funny and sad.

Older brother was frowning.  “Of course, I was.”

“No.”  Pa tossed his napkin down too.  “No, Adam, you weren’t.  You were forced to grow up far too quickly.  By eleven you were a man, burdened by man-size troubles and with man-size responsibilities.”  Joe watched as his pa’s gaze went to Hoss who was still eating.  Probably so he didn’t have to say anything.  “I regret it to this day.”

“Pa, it’s….”  Adam’s voice was quiet and kind of funny too.  “It’s okay.  I’m…okay. You did what you had to do.”

There was a pause and then Pa said, “Yes, and I don’t have to do that with your little brother.  Adam, we need to let Joe be a boy while he can be a boy.”

Joe scooted a little bit forward.  He sure wished everybody would get up from the table and move into the hearth area so he could see and hear better.

Hoss cleared his throat.  He put his napkin down too and glanced at Adam and then at their father.  “Sir, can I say somethin’?”

Hoss asked for permission ’cause he was still a ‘boy’ too.

“Go ahead, son,” Pa replied.

“I think….”  His giant of a brother cleared his throat.  “I think Adam’s right on this one.”

“Oh, you do?”

“Yes, sir.  I know you don’t want to scare the little scamp, but Little Joe, well, he…don’t always listen, Pa.  S’pose he decides to go off on his own and runs into them renegade Indians.”

Joe’s frown deepened.  He’d been frowning ’cause, for a minute there, it sounded like Hoss was telling on him.  It deepened because of what his brother said.

Renegade Indians!

Pa’d had some dealings with the Indians in the area. Mostly to keep the peace.  He’d taught him and his brothers to respect the natives and their ways – and to keep out of their way.  He’d only seen a few and that had been from a distance.  When Pa went to the Indian villages, he took old fancy-pants Adam with him since he was the oldest.  During another conversation a few days back that he wasn’t supposed to listen to, he’d heard his pa say that an Indian man was living in the settlement now and running the livery.  Pa thought it was great since Indians knew everything about horses there was to know.  The people in the settlement seemed to think otherwise.  Pa said there’d been trouble.  Someone had set fire to the livery one night, but it had been put out quick.  The Indian man was Paiute and he was called Captain Jack.  Pa said his name was really John Williams and he didn’t know where the ‘captain’ part came from.  Maybe he’d been in the wars.  Anyhow, Captain Jack just built that livery right back up and went back to work.  Joe shifted to find a more comfortable position.  His foot was going to sleep.  As he rubbed the circulation back into it he thought to himself that he sure hoped he got to meet Captain Jack one day.

Hearing his name brought Joe’s attention back to the present.

“Hoss, I agree.  Your brother doesn’t always listen – unless he’s not supposed to.  Joseph!  Come down here right now!”

Oops.

He almost stumbled on his way down the stairs because his foot was still all funny-like.  But then, maybe that was a good thing.  Maybe the fact that he was limping would help him when he got to the table and had to face his father.

Joe swallowed hard as he came to a stop.  From the way the three of them were staring at him, he kind of figured…not.

“Yes, Pa?”

His father was leaning back in his chair with his arms crossed.  Pa had that look on his face – the one where he arched one of those black eyebrows of his so high it brushed the silver hair above.

“Joseph?  What have I told you about eavesdropping?”

Now, he had a couple of choices.  He could say he hadn’t heard that he wasn’t supposed to hear what they were talking about.  But if that was true, he wouldn’t have been sittin’ in the shadows listening.  He could make up a story about how he was coming to the table and tripped and hurt his ankle and just happened to end up sitting at the top of the stairs when he heard his name and got curious.

Or he could fall on the mercy of the court.

Hanging his head down so the curls nearly brushed his nose, Little Joe Cartwright worked his magic.  Tears entered his eyes, he sniffed, and then he looked up and said –

“Sorry, Pa. I knew I shouldn’t have listened, but I just couldn’t help myself.”

Hoss always said that if Pa had been a block of ice, he wouldn’t have had a chance.

His father’s tone softened instantly.  “Son, come here,” he said.

“Yes, sir.”

That ‘sir’ was mighty important.

When he got to his father’s chair, his pa pulled him onto his knee.  “Joseph, I don’t want you to think that I think of you as a child.  There are simply some things that, at your age, are beyond your comprehension and understanding.  It’s a father’s role to protect his children.”  Pa paused and looked at Hoss and then – wow! – even at Adam.  “I didn’t want to unnecessarily frighten you.”

They were always doing that – all three of them – protecting him when he didn’t need protected.

Joe nodded as he knew was expected.  “I understand, sir.”

His pa smiled at that second ‘sir’.  “Since you are always with me or one of your brothers,” Pa paused to pin him with those deep brown eyes of his as if to say – ‘and you will always be with one of us.’  “I didn’t feel it was necessary to tell you what was happening.  As it is, since you chose to listen anyhow, I will now.  One of the ranch hands returned from the settlement last night with news that there is a renegade band of Paiutes in the area looking to cause trouble.”

Paiutes?

He’d been listening, but now he was paying attention.

“Joseph, these men as dangerous.  They hate white men and, while it may be true some have a cause for that hate, the things they are doing are unconscionable”

Joe blinked.  “They’re un-what -shunable?”

His pa laughed.  “They can’t be justified.”  A moment later the laughter died from his eyes.  “Joseph, you know the Jacksons who live on the other side of the settlement?”

The Jacksons were homesteaders.  Their son Billy was two levels above him at school.  His sister was still at home.  Billy didn’t come all the time, but he was there when the planting was done and the crops were harvested.

He nodded.

“They were…burned out.  Mister Jackson, son, he was killed.”

Terror gripped him. Death.  That…thing…that took his mama.  That…thing…no one could fight against and win no matter how strong or brave or smart they were.

“What about Billy?” he asked, his voice hushed.

“He survived.  So did his mother and sister.  Joseph, they’ve…left.  They packed up and went back to St. Louis.  Mrs. Jackson has family there.”

“Will they….”  He swallowed again as he looked from his father to Hoss and then at Adam, imagining finding one or all of them with arrows through their hearts.  “Will the Indians come here?”

His father drew in a deep breath.  “I can’t guarantee they won’t, but we’re not like the Jacksons.  We have dozens of strong, able men working for us.  But this is why it is important that you keep close to your brothers and me right now and don’t go off alone.  Do you understand?”

“I do, Pa.  I….”  Joe hesitated.  In his mind’s eye that picture – of his pa dead from an arrow – remained.  It wouldn’t go away.  And when he thought about it, he thought about how Billy must feel and how mad he must be and how Billy would want to hurt the Indians just as much as they hurt him, and how much he would want to too.  “I guess…well….  Maybe those people in town are right to be afraid of Captain Jack.”

His father looked surprised. “Joseph, I thought I had reared you better than that.”

“It’s an honest thought, Pa,” Adam said.  When Pa stared at him too, older brother added.  “I remember, after Inger…died, I felt the same way.  I couldn’t understand why anyone would trust an Indian.”

His pa nodded.  “It is honest.  “I’m sorry, Joseph.  I shouldn’t’ have reacted that way.”   Pa thought a moment.  “You remember that wild mustang we had.  The one that threw your brother?”

It had been a bad time.  It was right after Adam came home from college. The horse was a beauty with his sleek black coat and extra long mane and tail. The men called him a ‘widow maker’.  Adam thought he could break him and it ended up that that old horse broke him instead.  Adam nearly died.

“Yes, sir. I remember.”

“So do you think all horses are dangerous and should be killed?”

“Of course not.  That would be stupid!”  The words were out before he could stop them.  Joe slammed a hand over his mouth.  Pa didn’t like it when they used the word ‘stupid’.

His father let out a little sigh before continuing.  “So why, because a few Indians go renegade, would you fear them all?”

“I….  I don’t know,” he said.

“Ignorance, Joseph,” Pa said.  “It is one of the deadly sins – if not the deadliest.  It leads to all the others.”

He was thinking hard.  “You had that mustang put down, Pa.  Is that what you have to do with bad Indians?”

Adam did a little intake of breath.  Hoss was staring at him.

Joe winced.  “Did I say somethin’ wrong?”

“No, son.  It was just the ‘way’ you said it.  The law in the West can be harsh. It’s an untamed land and it often calls for quick and decisive action.  It would be preferable for men – renegades and outlaws – to be brought to justice through the courts, but it doesn’t always happen.  One day, civilized men will occupy this land and they will see that it happens.”

“Are we ‘civilized men’, Pa?” he asked.

“Yes, we are.  You and your brothers and me.  It is our duty to see that justice is upheld, that each man is given a chance to prove what he is made or – no matter the color of his skin or his beliefs.  Do you understand?”

It took a second or two.  “I think I do, Pa.  Miss Jones read to us out of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas. You’re talking about pre-judging, right?  Like people did with him because he was a negro.”

“Yes, son. That is exactly what I am talking about.  The Good Book calls on us not to judge any man.  He’ll be known by his fruits.”

He remember that reading too, by the preacher from the Bible.

“Now, young man, I think it’s time you got to school.  Hoss, will you see Joe into the settlement today?  One of your brothers will pick you up when class ends.”

He wanted to protest that he didn’t need anybody to ‘see’ him to school or home, but he’d argued it before and lost and with the renegades around, he knew it was pointless.  When his brothers dropped him off at the schoolhouse, the bigger boys made fun of him.

Of course, since he was small for his age, they made fun of him most of the time anyway.

“Yes, sir.”

His Pa slipped him off of his knee, ruffled his hair, and then gave him a little swat on the behind.  “Well, get going then, you young scamp!  I noticed you don’t have your books.”

Oops.  He’d left them at the top of the landing.

Joe looked at his pa.  That image was still there, though it was fading.  It was another thing the boys made fun of him for – how close he was with his pa.  Most of the time he didn’t care about that one, though their words could sting just like those Indian arrows he was imagining.  He had the best pa in the whole Nevada territory.

On an impulse, Joe flung his arms around his father’s neck.  “I love you, Pa,” he whispered in his ear, and then let go and headed for the stairs.

Somehow he knew it was gonna be a good – no, maybe one of the best days in his life!

 

 

TWO

“Joseph Francis Cartwright!”

‘Now’ what had he done wrong?

Joe turned his head from the window back into the schoolroom and to the schoolmarm who was standing a few feet away from his table.  “Yes, Miss Jones?”

“Though I can appreciate your cognizance of the lovely day outside, it would be best if you left the diaphanous clouds behind and returned your attention to your schoolbook.”

She always talked like that.  Like Adam.

“Yes, ma’am. Sorry, ma’am.”

A few minutes later Miss Jones was at his side again, only this time she wasn’t looking at him, she was looking at the door.  As he watched, she opened the chatelaine watch that was pinned to her pin-tucked white blouse and glanced at it.  As she snapped the gold lid shut, she announced.  “Children, may I have your attention!”

He listened right away since it meant he got to shut his schoolbook. It wasn’t that he didn’t like to learn – he did – but history wasn’t his best subject, unless it had to do with battles or soldiers or pirates and such.

All the other students – there were about twenty of them – turned to look at Miss Jones.

“I have an announcement to make,” she said.  Her voice kind of wobbled as she said it.  Joe wondered what was up.  “Today, we will be welcoming a new student.  His name is John Williams Junior.  I expect you to make him feel welcome.  He will be in the third reader.”

So that meant he was about his age, or maybe a little older.

When he managed to drag his attention back, Joe noticed Miss Jones was looking at him.  Then her eyes went on to George Parks.  George was in the third reader too even though he was nearly sixteen.  His pa owned a ranch on the end of town where the Jacksons lived.  George didn’t make it to school too much and that’s why he was behind.

Boy, he couldn’t wait for the day when he was old enough to stay on the ranch!

“Joseph.  George.  John will be at your table.  I expect you to welcome him.”

That made twice she’d said that.  Why the heck wouldn’t they?

A sound at the back of the schoolroom drew Joe’s attention away from his teacher.  As he looked a man came around the corner; past the little half-wall that cut off a straight view of the door.  One by one the students in the room turned and looked too and it went quiet. Real quiet.

The man who was standing there was an Indian.

Pa would have said he had a ‘good’ face; strong-boned, with large eyes dark as his pa’s and a thin straight mouth that looked like he meant business.  His skin was dark, like a man who’d seen a season in the desert, and his hair black as midnight.  He was dressed like a white man in a pale blue cotton shirt and dungarees.  Over the shirt he wore a corduroy coat the color of wheat.  Both were kind of old and threadbare in places.  He held himself tall and straight, just like Pa always told him to do.

When Joe looked back to Miss Jones, he found her moving toward the man.  “Mister Williams,” she said. “You are most welcome.  Come in.”  After she had stopped, she added, “Didn’t you bring John with you?”

The Indian removed his hat.  “Thank you, Miss Jones,” he said.  “John Junior will be along any moment.  I sent him to the store for a pad of paper and a pencil.”  He stopped and turned toward the door.  “I think I hear him now.”

A few seconds later a boy stepped into the room.  Joe noted instantly that he was skinny like him, but that was where the comparison ended.  John Junior was near as tall as Adam.  He had the same black hair as his pa and skin that was, maybe, a shade deeper.  His brows were just as black and they sat over a pair of hawk-like eyes the color of coffee.  His nose was a little broad at the end.  His thick lips were turned down.

Joe’s mouth curled up at one corner when he saw that.  So they had one more thing in common.  John Junior didn’t want to be in school either.

Miss Jones ignored the frown.  “John will be sitting at the first table on the right hand side with the other boys his age.”

“Thank you, Miss Jones, for having my son in your school,” the Indian said.

“A free education, sir, is guaranteed in this country to all men who seek it.”  Miss Jones moved a few feet closer to the pair.  “If John would care to have a seat?”  She turned and looked right at him. “Joseph, if you and your table would all scoot one seat to the right, please.”

She was gonna sit the Indian right next to him!

“Yes, ma’am,” Joe replied as he rose to his feet.  Then he turned to look at George who was beside him.  George hadn’t moved.  He was glaring at the Indians at the door.  “George,” Joe said softly, “you gotta move before I can.”

George looked like he’d taken a big bite of raw rhubarb.  As he stood up, the older boy muttered under his breath, “Be sure to take a bath and wash off the stink when you get home tonight, Cartwright.”

Joe scowled.  George didn’t always smell so good himself.

As his schoolmate picked up his books and moved over one chair, Joe did the same.  Then he turned and waited.  John Junior hadn’t moved.  He was glaring at all of them as hard as George had glared at him.  Joe’s lips curled up as he wondered if John was thinking he’d have to take a bath when he got home tonight to wash off their stink!

“Son,” Mister Williams said, “take your seat.”

Reluctantly, John Junior left his father’s side.  Joe noticed as he came toward him that John had really long legs.  It looked like he’d be a good runner.  When the Indian arrived at the end of their aisle, Joe held out his hand.

“Hi.  I’m Joe Cartwright.  Pleased to meet you.”

As John stared at his extended hand, Joe heard George remark in a whisper to the boy beside him, “You know what they say?  The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

Remembering the conversation he’d had with his father that morning, Joe persisted.  “You look like you’re about my age.  I’m looking forward to gettin’ to know you.”

Finally, John reached out and took his hand.  “The pleasure is all yours,” he growled.

It took him a second to realize he’d been insulted.

Joe fought back his temper.  “Well, then, I guess you just made my day,” he quipped as he took his seat.  A second later, Joe glanced at Miss Jones and then at the doorway.  It was empty.  Mister Williams had gone.  Turning back to John Junior, he said, “I think we better sit down.  Miss Jones is coming and she looks like she means business.”

The Indian boy glared at him for another moment before sitting down.  John put his pad and paper on the tabletop and then linked his fingers together in his lap and stared straight ahead.  ‘

So much for being friendly with the Indians.

With a sigh, Joe turned his attention to the front of the classroom where Miss Jones was standing.

“Now, ladies and gentlemen, let’s get back to what we came here for.”

And they did.

 

Ben didn’t tell his young son everything.  The raid on the Jackson homestead had not been the only one.   He was standing now, looking at what was left of the Campbell’s house and surrounding outbuildings.

There wasn’t much.

As he stood there, hands on hips, wondering what this was all about, Ben saw his oldest son round the end of the ruined stable and head his way.  As Adam reached his side, he noted how weary the boy looked.

“Any sign?” he asked.

Adam shook his head.  “Peth said…”  He paused to clear his throat.  “Peth said he’s afraid the renegades took Robbie.”

Pete was Pethric Curry Campbell and he was a friend of Adam’s.  Robbie, or Robert, was his little brother. The boy was only ten.  Peth’s mother and father were away and had left him in charge of his younger siblings.  The girl was dead.

“How is he feeling?”

Adam blew out a sigh before exploding.  “How do you ‘think‘ he’s feeling?  Like a failure!  Like he failed them.  Like….”  His son’s amber-green eyes moved to his face as his tone softened to one of despair.  “Like I’d feel if someone wiped out half my family on my watch.”

The renegades had swept in at twilight.  Peth’s younger siblings were already in bed.  He’d been out making a final check of their property before he turned in.  Martha, the little girl, had been dead before the fire started.  Robbie was missing.

Ben placed a hand on his son’s shoulder.  “There would have been nothing you could have done to prevent it, just as there was nothing Peth could do.  It’s not his fault and it wouldn’t have been yours either.”

“Words, Pa.  Those are good words, but they mean nothing!”  Adam sucked in a breath.  “I know we need to get back to work, but…I’d like to stay and keep up the hunt if you don’t mind.  At least until dark.”

Ben looked up.  Pethric was standing by the burned-out stable.  He was staring off into nothing.

“That’s fine, son.  Your friend needs you.  I sent their foreman to the settlement to find Robert Olin and bring him out here.  A report needs to be made to the territorial office.  If something doesn’t break soon, the army may need to be called in.  Why don’t you wait until Robert leaves?”  As he lifted his hand, the rancher added, “That way you can ride back together.”

“I’ll be okay, Pa,” his son protested mildly.

“As your favorite author said, ‘It is the bright day that brings forth the adder, and that craves wary walking’.”

Adam favored him with a half-smile.  “Okay, throw the Bard in my face,” he snorted.  Sobering quickly, he added, “You take care as well, Pa.  You’re alone.”

Hoss had gone to the settlement to pick up a few supplies and to fetch his younger brother.   It was after noon.  By the time big teen arrived, the school day would be all but over.

Ben nodded.  “Sage advice, son.  In fact, I’ll only be alone part of the way.  A few of the citizens are meeting at the Jackson place.  I intend to join them there to hear what they have to say.  I’m sure a few of us will be heading in the same direction.  So I should have company, at least to our border.”

Adam was staring at Pethric.  “I wonder…” he began.

“What, son?”

“How this is going to affect someone like Captain Jack.  Men are short-sighted.  Unable to see things clearly.  This could drive the Williams and other men like him out of the area.”

“Well, we’ll do our best to see that that doesn’t happen.”

Adam sighed.  “Sometimes the ‘best’ isn’t enough.  You remember, on the wagon train?  You tried to talk to them, but no one listened.”

It had been a terrible time.  Along with Inger, other women and children had been killed in the Indian raid.  The men of the train were hell-bent on vengeance.  He’d tried to talk them out of it, but they would have none of it and, as a result, a half-dozen innocent Indians lost their lives – as well as several of his fellow travelers.

“It will be different here, son,” he said.  “This is a settlement – nearly a town – with well-established men and women.  They have no reason to fear one or two hardworking families who just happen to have darker skin.”

His son snorted.  “No reason, Pa? Since when does prejudice need a reason?”

Ben pursed his lips.  He looked at the burnt-out remains of the Campbell homestead.

When indeed.

 

It was lunch break.  Since it was an early autumn day, the sun was shining and there was a warm breeze, making being outside better than being inside.  They’d been in school about a month and had about a month before the weather turned cold and the snow started to fly.  Once December came, that would be the end of classes.  In the Sierra it was hard, if not downright impossible, to make it anywhere once the deep snows fell.  He remembered one weekend where they got five feet dumped on them just like that!  Joe liked and hated winter.  One plus was no school.  Another was getting time to spend with his pa and brothers.  Of course, getting to spend time with his pa and brothers was a minus too if it ended up being too much time!  If the winter was a hard one, they might be snowed in for months and that meant they got on each other’s last nerve.  Right now Hop Sing was makin’ his lists and checking them twice and sending his older brothers back to town before they could say ‘howdy!’ for something he forgot that he was sure they would need.  Joe giggled.  ‘Might need’ would be putting it better.

Hop Sing had that darn larder so full he could climb the boxes and sacks like ladders right up to the ceiling!

Joe looked for a place to sit and eat his lunch in peace and found one beneath an old willow tree that was about three hundred feet out from the schoolhouse.  It was in his line of sight and he could hear Miss Jones when she called.  Adam said her high-pitched voice could ‘break glass’ and he thought that was about right.  He’d looked for John Williams when he headed out of the building, but the Indian boy was nowhere to be seen.  Considering he was an Indian and he was gonna have a hard time fitting in, he figured he’d probably lit out for home to eat.  Miss Jones didn’t like it when they did that ’cause of she said they were always late getting’ back, but she couldn’t stop it.  As he munched on his ham sandwich, Joe thought about what it would be like to be an Indian in a white man’s world.  He supposed it would be something like being a sheep herder among cattle men.  Men who raised beeves and drove them had no time for the ones who bred rams and ewes.  They said they destroyed the land and most often as not, drove them away.

He wondered if Mister Williams would get driven away some day – clear to the Pyramid Reservation, maybe.  The reservation wasn’t an official one yet.  It had been created by the President and some men didn’t respect what he’d ordered done.  Still, there were an awful lot of Paiutes who’d been sent there.  Since it wasn’t official, they didn’t have to stay.  Pa’d told him that was where Captain Jack was from, so that meant that John Junior had grown up there, at least part of his life.

Joe’d just pulled out a slice of Hop Sing’s pie when he heard a shout.  It was followed by laughter and then a lot of whooping and hollering.  He sighed as he put the slice down on the grass and turned to look into the woods behind him.  It was a familiar pattern.  One he knew too well.

On account of all the times he’d been bullied.

Stepping over the log he’d been sitting on, Joe headed into the trees.  It didn’t take long.  There was a little stream that meandered down the hill and behind the schoolhouse.  Him and his friends went down there sometimes to skip stones.  He’d just skidded down the hill and come to halt behind two trees planted in a thorn bush when he spotted them; George Eidersand the other older boy – they called him Whit – and John Williams Junior.  John was standing in the stream.  Water dripped from the Indian boy’s short black hair and his clothes were soaked through.  Joe couldn’t tell, but he thought John had a busted lip.

Anyhow, his fists were up.

He’d been in the same position with George and Whitt at the beginning of the school year.  They’d trounced him thoroughly and told him to ‘watch his step’.  He hadn’t told Pa about it, but he’d talked to Hoss.  Hoss said he should ignore them and they’d get tired of it soon enough.

It wasn’t soon enough for him, but Hoss was right.  In the end they got tired of callin’ him names and him sayin’ nothing and they left him alone.  His middle brother knew all about it.  People always made fun of Hoss.

That had gotten him into a few fights too.

Coming to a decision, Joe rounded the tree and shouted.  “What do you think you’re doing?”

George stiffened and then relaxed when he realized who he was.  “Givin’ the Injun a bath so’s you don’t go home stinkin’ like one, Cartwright, and get thrown out of that fancy ranch house of yours,” he sneered.

“Two against one ain’t fair,” Joe said as he moved a few steps forward.

“Fair’s only for white men,” Whitt replied.  “Not for Injuns.”

“My pa says the law is for everyone.  It doesn’t matter what color your skin is.”  Joe’s gaze flicked to John.  The Indian boy was watching him.

He was also scowling.

“You just come up out of the water, John,” he called.  “And you let him, George.  Miss Jones will be lookin’ for all of us.”

“Cartwright’s hidin’ behind a skirt.  What a surprise!” George remarked with a snort.  “Might as well be wearin’ one.”

He wasn’t hiding behind Miss Jones.  He was trying to keep this pair of idiots out of trouble.  God alone knew why!

Joe stifled a sigh.  Some men were just born a few sacks short of a full load.

“Look, George.  I’ve seen you.  It would have been your word against John’s before, but now he’s got me to back him up.  Your pa’s gonna be mighty riled if you get kicked out of school for fighting again.”  It had happened last year, after a particularly bad incident where a boy littler than him had been sent to the doctor after George finished ‘talking’ to him.  George was expelled for a month.

He came back even meaner.

“You’re gonna take an Injun’s side against your own kind?” Whitt demanded.

Joe met and held the Indian boy’s stare.  He thought of all the things his father had said, about prejudging and blaming every Indian for what a few had done.  Then he nodded.

“I sure am.  I like him better than I do you.”

Those were fighting words and he knew it.  Joe braced himself as George headed straight up the hill with steam blowing out of his ears. Whitt was by the stream, watching John Junior. Closing his eyes, Joe whispered a quick prayer.  The last time he’d made George this mad, he’d decided that his talents lay in running and not in fighting, and he had taken off lickety-split and made it back to the schoolhouse just as Hoss pulled up to get him.  This time he couldn’t run.

He couldn’t leave the Indian boy alone.

That was why he was sure glad to hear Miss Jones call out – real loud – like she was standing at the top of the hill looking right down it at them.

“Boys!  If you are down there, you come up here this instant!  One more minute and I am counting you all as tardy and sending notes home to your fathers!”

Joe hid his smile. George’s pa was fairly nice, or, at least he thought he was.  Whitt’s father was another matter.

“We better go, George,” the other boy said as he started up the hill.  “I don’t want another beating.”

George was practically nose-to-nose with him.  The older boy was at least four inches taller and probably weighed half-again as much as him, which put him over one hundred pounds.  George reached out and took him by the shirt, twisting the light gray fabric in his fingers.

“This is a warning, Cartwright.  You stick your nose in our business again and you’ll end up in trouble!”  George drew a breath and then shoved him so hard Joe fell backward, striking his head on the tree and falling into the thorn bush.  “You mark my word, Injun lover!”

As he sat there, dazed, George and Whitt made their way up the hill, leaving him and John Junior alone. The Indian remained where he was for several heartbeats and then moved to follow them.

Joe was biting back tears.  Some of the thorns had embedded themselves in his back and it hurt real bad.  He shifted, trying to pull free, but it only made it worse.  Due to that, it took him a minute to realize that John Junior had stopped at his side.

Pain made Joe’s temper short. “What’re you looking at?” he demanded.

The Indian boy continued to stare.  Then he asked, “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why did you help me?  I am not like you.”

Joe was reaching around, trying to work the thorns out of his corduroy jacket and the shirt beneath, so he could stand up.  “You got a head and a body and  two legs and arms!” he snapped.   “And I’m supposin’ a brain, though letting those two get you alone kind of makes me wonder!”

“You are fierce, small one,” the Indian said.

“I ain’t so small!” he protested.  “You…help me get up and I’ll show you I ain’t!”

“You will hurt yourself moving that way,” John Junior said.

He stopped.  “What way?”

“You must pull a thorn out along the same path it entered.  Turn and look at me.”

Joe considered it a minute and then did as he said.

“This will hurt,” John warned.

He steeled himself.  “Just go ahead and do it – whatever it is!”

The Indian boy took hold of his shoulders. “Look into my eyes,” he ordered.

Joe lifted his head and met John Junior’s gaze. His eyes weren’t quite as black as his pa’s.  Their color was more like a grizzly’s pelt in winter – a rich brown with deep shadows.

“Go ahead and -”

Before the words were out, the Indian boy pulled him straight toward him, freeing him from the bush.

The pain took his breath away.

“Joseph Cartwright!  John Williams!  Are you two down there?”

Tears were streaming down his cheeks and he felt like passing out.  Biting his lip, Joe fought the pain and found enough air to answer her.

“We’re…coming, Miss Jones!”

“Are you all right?”

Joe looked at John Junior.  The Indian was shedding his lightweight jacket.  “Put this on,” John said as he held it out.

“How come?” he asked.

“A warrior does not speak of his marks of honor.”

John Junior was offering him a hand-up.  Joe took it.  He took the jacket too and pulled it on over his own.  He could feel blood running from the cuts on his back. With any luck, the second jacket would hide them and he could get home and change before anyone noticed.

Pa’d warned him about getting into fights.

“Thanks, John,” he said as the thin garment settled on his shoulders.  At the Indian boy’s look, he asked, “What?”

“That is not my name.”

Joe blinked.  “It’s not?  Then what is it?”

John Junior was staring at him.  “Perhaps, white man, one day I will tell you.”

There wasn’t any malice in his tone.  It was more like amusement.  Joe grinned.  “Well, maybe someday I’ll tell you what my middle name is.”  He made a face.  “I don’t claim it either.”

The Indian boy laughed.  “I like you Joe Cartwright,” he said as he held out his hand.

“Well, I like you too,” Joe said as he took it.  “Whatever your name is.”

 

 

THREE

Ben Cartwright looked up from what he was doing as his youngest sons rode into the yard.  The sight of the pair of them safe within the bosom of their home lightened his heart.  While Hoss, at seventeen, was big as any man – bigger than most, in fact – he was still a boy and had yet to grow into that discernment that often kept grown men safe.

It was all he had been able to do to keep from sending one of the men into town to escort them both home.

As they came abreast him, he noticed that his youngest was wearing a different jacket from the one he had sent him to school in.

“Joseph, what’s this?” he asked as he fingered the wheat-colored garment.

Little Joe ducked his head and then favored him with a grin.  “The new boy and I were foolin’ around down by the stream.  I…fell in.  He gave me his jacket since it was dry.”

He glanced at Hoss.  His middle boy gave him a small shake of the head, followed by a nod toward his brother.

So, later, he would find out what had happened.

“That was kind of him.  I didn’t know there was a new boy.  What’s his name?” Little Joe snorted, which was rather confusing.  “Son?”

“Sorry, Pa.  It’s just kind of funny.  Miss Jones said his name was John Williams Junior, but he told me that wasn’t his name.  So I ended up calling him ‘No-name’.”

“It’s Captain Jack’s boy, Pa,” Hoss said.  “You know how it is with Indians.”

Ben stared at his middle boy.  “No.  Tell me ‘how’ it is with Indians.”

“I didn’t mean no disrespect, Pa,” his middle boy was quick to say.  “I just meant that Indians keep their real name secret ’til they trust you.  Leastwise that’s what Adam told me.”

“Oh.  I guess it’s my turn to apologize.  You’re right.  An Indian’s name is a part of him, and most often earned and not given.”

“So what do they call them when they’re babies, Pa?” Little Joe asked as he slid down on the opposite side of his horse from him.  “No Baby-name?”

Ben laughed.  “They give their children a name, but it’s not for life.  Their adult name is the one they earn.  Whoa, whoa, son, where are you going?”

Little Joe had headed toward the house.  His son turned back to look at him. “I was gonna change my clothes, Pa.  They’re icky.”

“Where’s your hug for your old man?” he asked, a little hurt.

His youngest shook his head.  “Pa, you know I’m too old for that baby stuff,” the boy declared. Then, just about the time his heart was breaking, Joseph gave him a cocky smile.  “Fooled you!  You get it when I’m clean!”  And with that, Little Joe ran into the house.

Hoss let out a sigh as he watched him go and then swung down off of his horse.  As his son looped the reins over the rail, Ben asked him, “Is something wrong?”

Hoss shot a look at the front door.  “Somethin’, yeah.”

“To do with your brother?”

The big teen nodded.  “I think he got in a fight today, with George Eiders.”

“George?  That boy’s nearly as old as you – and tall as me!”

“I know, Pa.  But George has it in for Little Joe.  He always has.”

Ben shuddered as he thought of the other boy George Eiders had had it ‘in’ for.  He’d barely survived.

“I didn’t see any bruises,” he said, though, come to think of it, he had noted a few scratches on his son’s exposed skin that hadn’t been there that morning.  He’d put it off to boys’ roughhousing.

“He ain’t movin’ right, Pa.  Little Joe’s kind of…holding hisself up.  And then there’s that jacket.  He’s got his own on under it and he keeps pullin’ it down like he’s hidin’ somethin’.”

The rancher sighed.  “I suppose I should go in and talk to him.”

Hoss reached out a hand and placed it on his shoulder.  “Why don’t you let me, Pa?  Little Joe knows I know somethin’s wrong.”

“Why you and not me?”

Hoss pursed his lips and wrinkled his nose. “Meanin’ no disrespect, Pa, but Little Joe’s more likely to talk to me.  He’s gonna be afraid he’ll end up over your knee for fightin’ again.”

“As well he should.”

“Pa, Joe ain’t….”  Hoss paused and started again.  “He don’t ‘get’ into fights.  Little Joe gets pulled into them.  Oh, every now and then he starts one, but well, the boy don’t have it easy.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s always getting’ picked on.  Sometimes it’s cause we got more money than others.  Sometimes it ’cause of his size.  Other times, it’s well, ’cause he’s just about pretty as a girl.”  Hoss winced.  “And sometimes, it’s because of Mama.”

He knew about that – about the rumors that had spread like wildfire when he brought Marie home from New Orleans.

“Still, he can’t go through life settling things with his fists.”

“No, sir, but sometimes a man’s got to defend himself – if you know what I mean.”

He did, even if he didn’t like it.

Ben blew out his frustration.  “All right, you talk to him – first.  See if you can get him to admit what happened and – this is important – make sure he’s all right and doesn’t need any care.”

“Sure thing, Pa.  I’ll work that little squirt ’til he spills all the beans in his pot – right after I stable Chubb and Cadfan.”

“No, son.  You go ahead.  I’ll tend to the animals.”

“Thanks, Pa,” he said with a nod.  “I’m kind of worried about Little Joe too.  From the way he was squirmin’ in the saddle, I’m sure he’s got somethin’ he’s hidin’ under that borrowed jacket.”

Ben watched his son go and then turned his face up toward the sky and whispered, “Marie, my love, I miss you every day, but never more so than when I have to deal with that boy of yours!”

He heard her reply.  He’d heard it many times before she died.

My son, mon cher?  Have you looked in a mirror of late?’

Chuckling to himself, Ben untied Chubb and took hold of Cadfan’s reins and began to walk the pair to the barn.

Some things never changed.

 

Before he went upstairs, Hoss had gone into the kitchen and given Hop Sing a heads-up, figurin’ out Little Joe might need some doctorin’.  The little Chinese man ranted and raved for a minute and then walked off mutterin’ to himself about Cartwrights and foolishments. On his way out of the kitchen, he’d grabbed a couple of cuts of beef, a hunk of cheese, and two glasses of milk.  He was standing outside of his baby brother’s bedroom now, holding the tray in one hand so he could knock with the other.

“Little Joe, you in there?  Hop Sing sent up a snack.”

“Just…just a minute.”  That answer was followed by a lot of scramblin’, the sound of somethin’ fallin’, and then his brother’s footsteps.  A couple of seconds later the door opened and his brother’s curly head appeared.  Little Joe blinked.  “You really got a snack,” he said, surprised.

“Of course I do.  What’d you think, I was lyin’ to you?”

Joe backed off, opening his door wider.  “I thought Pa sent you up here to talk to me.”

“Well, he didn’t,” he replied, and that was the truth.  “I came all on my own.  You hungry?”

Little Joe’s eyes were on the cold cuts.  “I sure am!”

“Well, sit down on the bed then and we’ll get to it.”

Now, usually, his little brother would have skipped over to that bed and flung himself on it.  Instead, Joe moved slowly and sat down like a regular person.

Yep, somethin’ was definitely wrong.

“How many pieces did you bring?” Joe asked, eyeing the tray.

“Well, let’s see,” he said as he sat down.  “One, two…six. That’s one for you and five for me.”

“Hey!”

Hoss grinned.  “How about three for me and three for you?”

“Ah, you can have four.  I ain’t that hungry.”

Little Joe was never ‘that’ hungry’.  That’s why he was so gosh-darned little.

“I thank you, Mister Cartwright,” Hoss said as he handed the cuts to his brother and began to slice the cheese.  “Joe, I want to ask you somethin’.”

The smile faded on his brother’s face.  “What?”

“What’d you think of that Indian boy?  This was his first day, right?”

Joe nodded as he reached over and took a glass of milk.  “Yep.  And he was okay, I guess.”

“What’d the other kids think?”  He’d had a suspicion what had happened ever since Joe’d mentioned befriending the new boy.  “Did they like him?”

Little Joe shrugged.  He was wearing a milk mustache now and looked so dang cute!  “I don’t think any of them thought all that much about it.”  Joe paused.  “Exceptin’ maybe George and Whitt.”

George and Whitt.  Hoss suppressed a shudder.  If both of those toughs had gone for his brother at one time….  But then again, they couldn’t have.  Joe was here and he wasn’t a bruise from one end to the other.

“They didn’t like him.”

Joe’s jaw grew tight.  “They hated him, Hoss, and he didn’t do nothin’ to them.”

“Hated?  That’s a pretty strong word, Little Joe.  Maybe they were afraid of him.”

“Oh, no!”  His brother was shakin’ his head.  “If I hadn’t of come along they would’ve beat him bad….”  Little Joe drew a breath.  His green eyes shot to his face.  Joe scowled.  “And here I thought Adam was the sneaky one.”

Hoss reached out to lay a hand on his brother’s shoulder.  “You did a right good job, Little Joe, but I know you too well.  I know you’re hurtin’.”  He paused and then asked, “What happened?”

Joe put his glass on the tray and then scooted up on the bed so he could lean on the headboard.  He noticed how his brother was careful to position the feather pillow behind his back.  “It happened at lunchtime.  I went down to the old willow to eat and I heard them.”

Hoss moved off the bed and sat in the chair by it.  “What was they doin’?”

“They’d shoved John into the stream and were fixin’ to beat the daylights out of him,” Little Joe replied.  “I stopped them.  They…George didn’t like that much.”

“You stopped them big boys?  How?”

Joe shrugged.  “I just told them they were gonna get in trouble.  I knew Whitt’s father would beat him for fighting, so I reminded him.”

“And George?”

Joe looked crestfallen.  “George ain’t scared of nothin’.  If Miss Jones hadn’t called, I think he would have hurt John Junior.”

This was it.

“Did he hurt you, Little Joe?”

His brother’s body went rigid.  He shook his head.  “No.  Hoss, can’t we just forget it?  I mean, you won’t tell Pa I was fighting, will you?”

“Well, let’s see.  I’ll make you a bargain, how’s that?  I gotta tell Pa somethin’, but I don’t have to tell him you were fightin’.  Seems to me, anyhow, that all you was doin’ was stickin’ up for your new friend.”

“So what are you gonna tell him?”

“That depends on what you tell me.  I want to know the truth.  Are you hurtin’ anywhere?”

Tears began to silently stream down his brother’s face.  Little Joe sucked in air and nodded.  Hoss looked him over from head to toe and nothin’ was showin’, so the hurt had to be where the jacket had been.

“Is it your tummy?”

His brother shook his head ‘no’.

So it had to be his back.  Hoss stood up and moved to the other side of the bed where he sat down.  Leaning in, he took his baby brother’s shoulders in his hands and moved him away from the pillow. When he lifted his shirt, the teen sucked in air.  It looked like Joe’d been knifed a dozen times.

“Little Joe!  What happened?”

Joe let out a little sob and the words started tumbling out after it.  “George was gonna hurt John Junior so I told him he’d better not because I’d seen him and Whitt and I would tell their pas.  George got real mad and I think he would have walloped us both if Miss Jones hadn’t called.”  Joe winced and let out a little cry as he fingered the deepest of the wounds.  “George got real mad at me and before he went up the hill, he shoved me.  I hit my head and fell into the thorn bush.”

Hoss closed his eyes.  Thorns.  Thank God!

“Joe you gotta have Hop Sing look at these cuts.  Some of them are real deep.  They could get infected.”

Little Joe was shaking his head.  “No, Hoss.  I don’t want Pa to be disappointed in me.  I promised I wouldn’t fight anymore.  I….”

“Young man, I’m not disappointed in you.”

Both of their heads snapped toward the door.  He should have figured Pa would be outside listening.

“Hoss, why don’t you go down and assist Hop Sing and tell him to come up in about ten minutes?”

“Yes, sir,” he said as he rose from the bed.  Before he moved away, Hoss laid his hand on his brother’s curly head.  “You did good, punkin,” he said softly.  “Old Hoss is proud of you.”

At the door he passed his father.  The older man touched his shoulder as he did.  He mouthed ‘ thank you, son’ before moving into the room.

As he stepped into the hall, Hoss pulled the door to behind him.  His knees felt weak.  Since Little Joe had been born it had been his self-imposed duty to keep his brother safe, but the boy was getting bigger.  He couldn’t be with him all the time.

“I swear, I ain’t never gonna be a pa,” he muttered to himself and then disappeared down the stairs.

 

“Son, take your shirt off,” Ben said as he came to the side of his youngest’s bed.

Little Joe sniffed.  “Do I got to?”

“Yes, you have to.  That’s an order – and a request.”  As his son began to comply, he asked him, “Where is the shirt you wore to school?”

His son halted what he was doing. “Why?”

“Because, young man, I want to see it.  Now, where is it?”

“Under my dresser.”

“‘Under’ your dresser?”

“Yes, sir.  I knew you wouldn’t look there.”

Well, he certainly would from now on.

Moving to the boy’s dresser, Ben bent down and felt under it.  When he saw the state the garment was in when it was brought into the light, a little gasp escaped him.  The boy’s shirt was rent and covered with blood.

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Little Joe said as he finished pulling his clean shirt off.

“I will be the judge of that, young man.  Now, turn around.”

Ben nearly gasped again at the sight.  His son’s tender flesh was torn in half a dozen places.  Two of the gashes were very deep and already had light rings of red around them.

“Joseph!” he scolded.  “You should have told Miss Jones about this.”

“I…couldn’t, Pa.”

“And why not?” he asked, his tone heating up.

“No-name…John told me warriors don’t talk about their marks of honor.”

Ben blinked. “What?”

Little Joe looked at him over his shoulder. “He told me about when he lived on the reservation.  There were old warriors there who had really deep scars but none of them ever told how they got them. It was enough that they had them.”

He knew what the boy was talking about.  It was a sort of code of honor.

“Son, that doesn’t mean a man doesn’t ask for help when he needs it,” he replied with a sigh.  “It just means he doesn’t brag about his brave deeds.”

It was Little Joe’s turn to blink.  “Oh.  So it doesn’t mean I’m weak if I say my back hurts like h-”  His son stopped short.  More tears slid down his cheeks.  “It really hurts, Pa.”

“I imagine it does.  We’ll need to have the doctor look at those deeper gashes. They might already be infected.”

Joe sniffed.  “Am I gonna die?”

His poor young child.  Death was so present to him – far more present than it should have been at his tender age.

He ran a hand through his son’s curls.  “No, son, you’re not going to die.  But you might get sick and if taking care of your back can prevent that, then that’s what we should do.  Don’t you think?”

Little Joe nodded.  “Can we do it now?”

“Stubborn boy deserve pain.  It talk to him when he not talk to anyone else,” a sharp voice spoke from the doorway.

Ben hid his smile as he turned toward the door.  Hop Sing was standing in it, a tray laden with tiny unguent jars and bandages in his hands.  Hoss stood behind him with a steaming pot of water.

“Come in, Hop Sing.  Joseph was a little confused, but we’ve straightened that out.  Haven’t we, son?”  As Joe nodded, he moved closer to the Chinese man.  In a low voice, he added, “It appears there might be a little infection.”

“Hop Sing bring what boy need.  Hot water, bandages, many herbs.”

And tender loving care, Ben thought to himself.

“Well, then, for the time being, I will leave my youngest in your capable hands.”  Turning back, he added, “Little Joe, you do whatever Hop Sing tells you. I’ll be back up in a half hour or so to see how things are going.”

“Things go fine if stubborn boy does what he is told!” Hop Sing sniffed.

“I’ll be good, Pa,” Joe promised, his voice hesitant.  His son knew the cure could often be as painful as the injury.

Crossing back over to the boy, Ben took his son’s curly head in his hands and leaned down to plant a kiss on the top.  “I’m proud of you, son, for sticking up for what is right.”

His son sniffed back tears.  “Thanks, Pa. I kept rememberin’ what you said yesterday. George and Whitt don’t even know John and they hate him.  That ain’t right.”

“No, it isn’t,” he gently corrected.  “Now, you be a good boy and I will be back up to check on you before supper.  Your older brother came in right before I headed up and I need to talk to him.”

“Yes, sir.”

As he closed the door behind him, Ben let out a sigh.  Then he headed for the staircase and his oldest son.

 

Adam turned at the sound of footsteps on the stair.  When he saw it was his father, he rose from the settee and went to meet him.

“How’s Little Joe?” he asked.

“Hurting. Hurt.”  Pa ran a hand across his face.  “That boy. I never know whether to hug or to thrash him.”

“What did he do this time?”

“Got into a fight.”  At Adam’s look, his father held up a hand.  “He did it to defend John Williams’ boy.  It seems John has sent his son to school.”

“In the settlement?  An Indian boy at Miss Jones’ school?”

“Apparently so.”

Adam shook his head.  “That’s going to be trouble, Pa.”

His pa looked at him, slightly disappointed.  “So, you think they boy shouldn’t attend school because of his color?”

“I didn’t say that, sir.  I just said it would be trouble.”  Adam’s eyes flicked to the stairs.  “Has already been trouble.”

The older man sighed.  “Yes, I’m sure it will be.  Hopefully no more so than today.  Many in town have accepted Jack.  They will teach their children to accept his son.”

“And many haven’t.  You know that.”  Adam paused.  “Pa, when I was in the settlement there was talk of calling a meeting to discuss an ordinance that no Indians be allowed to live within the confines of the settlement.”

“What?”  Pa laughed.  “It’s not a town.  There are no ordinances.”

“Knowing how much some of the people there hate Indians, they may just draw up a committee to make it into one,” Adam replied.

“We have to remember, son.  Some of those people have good reason to…fear the native inhabitants of this country.”

“And some of the natives have every right to fear them.  You know that, Pa.”

“Yes, there have been atrocities on both sides.  But with this current trouble….”  Pa sighed.  “I’m afraid Jack Williams chose a bad time to try to introduce his son into an all-white school.”

“Would there ever be a good time?”

His father was contemplating his question when they were both startled by a knock on the door.  Pa’s eyebrows popped toward his hairline at the sound.

His did the same when he opened it.

Captain Jack, or John Williams, the livery owner, was standing outside.  A tall lean boy he could only assume was his son, was standing at his side.

“Jack,” Pa said in welcome.  “Come in.  I assume this is your son John?”

“Thank you,” the Indian man said.  “John greet Mister Cartwright.”

The boy nodded.  “Mister Cartwright.”

“And this is my oldest, Adam,” his father stated as he turned into the room.

“We’ve met once,” he said as he stepped forward to offer his hand.  “I came in with Sport.  His care was excellent.”

“You have a good eye for horse flesh,” Captain Jack said.

Adam glanced at his father.  “I come by it naturally.”

“Hey, Mister Williams!” Hoss called out as he came down the stairs and joined them.  “What brings you to the Ponderosa?”

“Pardon me a moment,” Pa said as he turned to the big teen.  “How is your brother?”

“Little Joe’s grouchin’ and complainin’, so he’s all right.”  Hoss paused.  “Hop Sing’s worried about one or two of those cuts.”

“I told him he should not have turned.”

It was John Junior who spoke.

When all three of them turned to look at him, the Indian boy’s father said, “This is why we have come. To see if the boy is all right.  My son told me what happened.”

Pa ran a hand along the back of his neck.  “Perhaps you could tell us then.  Joseph has been less than forthcoming in his explanation. It seems….” The older man’s eyes returned to the boy.  “It seems that Little Joe feels it is more honorable to remain silent.”

Captain Jack nodded.  “He will grow into a good, strong man.”

“Yes, well….”

The Indian man turned to his son.  “Speak.”

“There was a boy.  He came upon me as I spoke with Isha.  He told me ‘Injuns’ stink and said he would give me a long, slow bath.”  The boy’s eyes narrowed with anger.  “I promised him he would not.”

“Joseph said there were two boys,” Pa interjected.

John Junior nodded.  “One named George.  He was the first.  Another named Whitt.”  The Indian boy paused.  “I could not defeat them both.”

“So they ganged up on you,” Adam stated.

“That was when Little Joe came along. He told the bigger boys he would make trouble for them and they went away.”

“How did Joseph get hurt?” Pa asked.

“He had great honor.  He would not back down.  The bigger of the boys took him and threw him against a tree.  He struck it and then landed in the thorns.”  The Indian boy paused.  “I pulled him free and gave him my jacket to conceal his wounds.”

Pa’s eyes flicked to Hoss.  “Did Hop Sing check Joseph’s head?”

“Joe’s got a knot, Pa.  It ain’t a big one.”

“Your son is brave.  I honor him.”

After a pause, the boy’s father said, “My son, go to the wagon.  I would speak to Mister Cartwright alone.”

The boy bristled, but hid it quickly.  “Yes, father,” he said and was gone as if he had never been.

“Will you sit down?” Pa asked.

“No, I do not stay long.  My son would not understand my words and so I speak them when he cannot hear.  Too long did he live on the Paiute reservation among his mother’s people. Too many of the old warriors bent his ear.  Their ways cannot be his ways.  He must learn the white man’s. This is why I send him to the white man’s school.”

“His mother’s people?” Adam asked.

“Are you not Paiute?” Pa asked.

“My father was Paiute,” the livery owner replied. “My mother was of mixed blood.  Shoshone and white.”

His father nodded.  “And your son is ashamed of his white blood.”

“Yes, though little runs through his veins.  John takes his hatred of the white man and turns it on himself.  It is my hope – my prayer to Isha – that by living among the white men my son comes to see that they are not all the same.”  Captain jack turned his eyes to the stairs.  “Before I go, is there anything I can do for the brave one who stood up for my son though he did not know him?”

“Thank you for the offer, but we can see to the boy.  He’s not hurt too badly.”

“The next time you come to my livery, I will care for your horses for nothing.”  As Pa started to protest, he added, “It is my way to pay a debt.”

“Thank you, then.  We’ll be in sometime next week.”

“Until then, it is goodbye, Mister Cartwright and sons.”

The door closed and he was gone.

“Whew!” Hoss exclaimed.  “I mean, I know Captain Jack’s a good Indian, but….”

“A good man, son,” his father corrected.  “And one swimming upstream.”

Adam nodded.  “His son seems angry,” he remarked a second later.

“If the boy spent time with the old warriors, it’s not surprising.  Most of them were betrayed by white men at one time or another.”  Pa paused.  “I am a little concerned about Joseph befriending John and not just because of the threat of violence. As Captain Jack said, the old warriors ways are a thing of the past. It sounds like Jack’s boy embraces them nonetheless.”

“Little Joe’s got a good head on his shoulders, Pa.  He’ll be okay,” Hoss assured him.

His father didn’t look convinced and neither was he.

As the older man would have put it when he sailed the seas, ‘Look out, there be dragons ahead.’

 

 

FOUR

It had been a week since he’d been in school.  Pa’d refused to let him go until his back was healed.  They’d all come to the settlement today – it was Monday morning – to see the Paul Martin.  If pa’s friend, the doctor, said he was good to go, Hoss would take him over to the school and make sure he got into the building without any trouble.  He was kind of glad Hoss was taking him even though he’d said he wasn’t.  Hoss told him he was gonna stare George Eiders down and make it crystal clear that if he touched his little brother again, he was gonna pay big time for it.

Of course, Pa knew nothing about that.

They stopped first at Captain Jack’s livery to leave the horses there since Pa was gonna stay in town the whole time he was at school and pick him up afterward.  Pa had a meeting to go to.  It was with his lawyer.  The circuit judge was coming through soon and Pa said he had to work on preparing his ‘case’ against Mister Hargreaves. Hoss and Adam were gonna ride back out to the ranch and take care of what needed doing there while he was doing it.  Captain Jack told them that John Junior had already left for school and should be there by now.

When they reached Doctor Martin’s house, Pa rang the bell and then stepped back.  A few seconds later the doctor’s wife appeared at the door.  She was a pretty lady with a big smile.  Mrs. Martin chatted with Pa as they entered the house and went through it to the office.  As they reached the office, the doctor stepped out and greeted them.  After saying hello to Pa and Hoss, he turned to him.

“Well, young man, you’re looking chipper today,” Doctor Martin said as he tousled his hair. “How’s the back?”

He shot a look at his father.  Pa’d warned him not to lie.  “It hurts a little, sir, but it’s nothing I can’t stand.”

“My, my.  Honesty, and so early in the morning,” the physician laughed.   “Come on in, Little Joe. We’ll see what we can do about getting you to school today.”

A half-hour later, he was on his way.  The school wasn’t very far from the doctor’s house, so he and Hoss were walking.  The air was crisp.  Pa said it had the ‘smell’ of winter to it.  October was more than halfway gone, so he supposed he was right.

His birthday was in two weeks.

“Now, you remember what I told you, Little Joe. If there’s to be any fightin’, you leave it to me.”

“Hoss, I can’t just stand by and do nothing if George and Whitt -”

His brother stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.  “Yes, you can.  Those two are older and bigger and a whole lot meaner than you.  They could hurt you bad.”

“I’m not gonna let them hurt John Junior.  Hoss, I just can’t.  He doesn’t have anyone but me.”

His big brother sighed.  “You remember what I taught you?  About how to take on someone bigger than you are?”

He nodded.

“Look, Little Joe.  You gotta promise me you’ll do everything to avoid fightin’ them two that you can.  But if it comes to it and you cain’t do anythin’ else, well, I understand.”  Hoss paused.  “That don’t mean Pa will.  You’re gonna be in a heap of trouble if you start a fight.”

“I promise I won’t start one, Hoss.  Really, I do.  But if they come after me or John….”

“Then you give ’em what for, you hear?” Hoss said, giving his shoulder a squeeze. “Only you be sure to take care of yourself, Little Joe.  I don’t know what I’d do if somethin’ happened to you.”

He covered his brother’s hand with his own and squeezed back.  “I will. I promise.”

They had almost reached the schoolhouse.  School was already in session, so there was no one outside.  “You ready?” his brother asked.

He squared his shoulders and nodded.

“Pa will be waitin’ for you when the day’s done.  He said you was to wait for him by the shoe bench.”

The shoe bench was where all the girls sat down to put their shoes on, after walking to school without them, so’s they wouldn’t wear them out.

“Ah, Hoss. Do I have to?  The shoe bench?”

His brother laughed.  “One day, too soon I imagine, you’re gonna be beggin’ for a reason to sit on that there bench, little brother.  Now, you get goin’ and you mind yourself, you hear?”

Joe knew what was coming, so he ducked to the side just in time to avoid the swat to his rear.  “See you tonight at supper, Hoss!” he called back over his shoulder as he reached the steps and began to climb them.  “Tell Pa I’ll be over by the hitching post!”

The hitching post was maybe thirty feet from the bench, just past the mercantile and in front of an alley.  Pa couldn’t complain too much.  Hoss threw his hands in the air as if admitting defeat and then turned and began to jog back toward Doctor Martin’s.

Which left him alone.

Joe drew a deep breath and then stepped inside the schoolhouse.  When he cleared the back wall, he saw everyone had their heads down.  Math was usually first thing, so they were probably doing their sums.

“Joseph, how good to see you.  Come in and take your seat,” Miss Jones said when she saw him.

He removed his hat and hung it on a peg and then walked into the schoolroom.  As he did, George Eiders pivoted in his seat to look at him.  Whitt was on his right and his empty seat on George’s left.  John Junior was there.  Sitting in the aisle seat.  The Indian boy turned to look at him too and Joe noticed he had a black eye.  As he approached, John rose and moved into the passageway.  .

“Your level is on page sixty, Joseph,” Miss Jones said.  “If you would open your book.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said as he sat down.

Lunch was uneventful, and the rest of the day went pretty much the same.  He caught George and Whitt watching him, but neither one of them tried anything, even when he and John Junior wandered away so they could talk without people staring at them.  He kind of wondered about it, but decided maybe the two of them were too afraid of their fathers to try anything – or maybe they were too afraid of his father.  He knew Pa had gone to their houses even though he’d begged him not to.  Pa’d looked straight at him and told him that, if one of his sons had gone so far astray, he would want to know so he could set them right.  Of course, Pa meant talking to them and not hitting them.  One of the kids told him that Whitt’s pa had beat him so bad he hadn’t been able to sit down when he came back to school halfway through the week.  George had been beaten too, and Sally May Jones told him that George blamed the Indian boy and him for what happened and that he’d said he’d get them back one day.

One day soon.

And then, school was over and he was heading home with his pa.  The same thing happened on Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday.  By Friday, he’d decided Sally May must have heard wrong.  It had been a whole week and George and Whitt had done nothing worse than scowl and growl and call him and John Junior names.  They didn’t hurt much, though he’d had to hold John back one time when George called him a ‘Prairie nigger’.  ‘Injun lover’ was about the worst they could come up with to toss at him.  Joe had plenty he could have called them, but he bit his tongue.  It took some talking, but he finally convinced John that doin’ the same thing George and Whitt were doin’ would have made them no better than the boys who were bullying them.

During the week he’d gotten to know John Junior and he had to say that he liked him a lot better than most of the white boys at school.  It took some getting used to, but John was what Pa called ‘brutally honest’.  He didn’t pretend about anything.  He said what he believed.  John was kind of proud too, but in a good way.  John said that his people’s ways were better than the white man’s.  He told him that if a white boy had come to their tribe, he would have been accepted as one of their own.  No one would have been allowed to make fun of him or to hurt him.  The chiefs wouldn’t have allowed it.  Of course his pa would never have allowed it either.  Sadly, he couldn’t say the same about most of his pa’s friends.

The end of the last school day of the week found the two of them sitting on the shoe bench, waitin’ for his pa to come fetch him again.  John had run to the livery and back so his pa knew what he was doing.  They were talking quietly when a noise made Joe look up – right into George Eiders’ face.

“What’s the matter, Cartwright?  Afraid to wait on your pa on your own?”

Joe ignored him, like Hoss had taught him to.

A second later, a hand struck his shoulder, rocking him where he sat.  “Hey!  I’m talkin’ to you!”

“Well, I ain’t listenin’,” Joe replied.

“Go away, white boy, you are not wanted here,” John remarked as he rose to his feet.

“How come this white boy ain’t wanted and that one is?” George asked, nodding at him.

“Joe Cartwright is my friend.”

“You better watch out, Injun lover.  One of these days you’ll turn around and you won’t have any hair.”

Joe rose slowly to his feet.  “Look, George, my pa’s due any minute. Why don’t you save yourself some trouble and just go home?”

“Is the little baby gonna let his pa do his fightin’ for him?”

“I ain’t a baby and I’m not gonna fight you.”  Joe drew in a breath and then he added, “You’re not worth it.”

George shot a look at John Junior.  “And this dirty redskin is?”

“I’d take this ‘dirty redskin’ over you any day,” he shot back, even though he knew he shouldn’t.

George glared at him for a moment and then he said, “Whitt.”

Just…Whitt.

Ten seconds later he and John Junior were surrounded not by two, but by six tall, tough, older boys.

None of them looked happy.

“What’re you gonna do?” Joe demanded.  “Beat us up in broad daylight?”

George snorted.  “Of course not.  That’s what alleys are for.”

 

Ben Cartwright  puffed out a breath as he hurried along the boardwalk, leather satchel in hand.  He was running late.  Today’s meeting with the other ranchers had not gone well.  It was supposed to have been a civilized discussion about water rights, but ended up in a turmoil as the subject turned to the renegade Indians and then to the presence of Captain Jack and his son in the settlement.  Most of his neighbors were for driving the Williams out just because they were Indians.  One or two good men stood with him, insisting that Captain Jack had done nothing wrong and that the livery had never been so well maintained.  The loudest of the naysayers was Andrew Eiders, young George’s father.  He’d lived in Minnesota and lost family to the Sioux, including his first wife and sister who were captured and tortured before being killed.  For him there was no good Indian but one locked away on a reservation, and Andy made it quite clear that he would have just as soon seen them all dead.

No wonder George behaved as he did.

In the end, he’d had to excuse himself.  He was supposed to have met Joseph at two-thirty and it was almost quarter past three.  He didn’t want his young son to start wandering the streets in search of him.  While Little Joe was quite competent, the settlement was no place for a boy to wander alone.  One never knew what argument would blow out a saloon door and rush like a whirlwind down the street, tossing bullets as it went.  There were also a good many Chinese in residence now.  Most were honest men like Hop Sing and his father, but there were others, not so honest, who were rumored to deal in opium and human lives.  One day these mud-ridden and despair-driven streets would give way to a town they could be proud of.  But that was years off.

Perhaps decades.

As he rounded the corner, Ben’s eyes sought out the shoe bench and then the nearby hitching post.  His son was at neither. Joseph was reluctant, he knew, to wait at the bench even though it was a clear and easy meeting place – for fear of contamination by the beauties who occupied it, he supposed.  As of yet his youngest was mostly unaware of the effect he had on women.

He could only hope it continued that way for some time to come.

Halting by the hitching post, Ben looked in both directions.  Failing to find his son, he called out to him.  “Joseph!  Little Joe!  It’s your pa.  If you can hear my voice, answer me!”

Nothing.  There was nothing.

“Joseph?  I’m waiting.”

Still nothing.

Then, he heard it.  Quiet as the warm wind that walked the streets of the settlement.

“Pa….”

Ben held very still.  When the sound wasn’t repeated, he called again.  “Little Joe?”

“…here…Pa….”

“Joseph?  Where are you, boy?”

“Pa….help.”

Fear clutched his entrails, twisting them into a knot.  It had been a full week and nothing had happened.  A week and –

“Pa…we…need help.”

God, or the shift in the wind, brought him a direction this time.  Just as he started toward the alley, Ben heard his oldest son call out to him.  Adam had been at the meeting as well.

“Pa?  What’s wrong?”

“It’s your brother!”  And then, even though he had not seen his youngest yet, he added, “Go get Paul!”

Adam stared at him blankly for a moment, nodded, and then took off running.

Hoss arrived shortly thereafter.

“Pa?”

“Follow me!” Ben shouted as he entered the alley at a clip – only to skid to a halt at what he found.  Joe was crouching near the wall, reaching out toward the Indian boy who was on the ground.  It appeared John Junior was unconscious.  When his son heard him, Little Joe turned his face into the light and the sight of the boy nearly took his breath away.  Joseph had been beaten.  Badly.  Already his left eye had swollen shut.  Blood dripped from a split lip onto his ruined white shirt.  Little Joe blinked as if to clear his sight and then rose to his feet.  He took a limping step toward him; his lips opening and forming the word ‘Pa’.

And then he collapsed.

Hoss’ intake of breath was audible.  “I’m gonna kill ’em!” he heard him say.

Ben’s attention was torn between his two sons.  Every impulse propelled him toward Joseph’s small crumpled form, but sense made him turn to the boy’s giant of a brother first.

He had to stop him.

“Hoss.  I know you’re angry.”

“I ain’t angry, Pa,” Inger’s boy replied.  “I’m mad as a rattler on a spit!  I’m gotta go!  I gotta go get -”

He caught his son’s arm and shook him.  “Hoss.  I need you here!  Your brother needs you.  Later…”   Ben drew a breath to quell his own rising anger.  “…later we will deal with who did this.  Do you understand me?”

The big teen’s eyes were flooded with tears.  Hoss shuddered and then whispered, “But, Pa, Little Joe….”

Ben held his gaze for a moment and then loosed him and ran to his other son.  As he knelt beside the boy, he called over his shoulder, “Hoss, check John.  I sent Adam to fetch Paul.”

Hoss halted beside him on his way.  “You tell me how he is, Pa, quick as you can,” he breathed before moving on.

Ben closed his eyes as he placed his hand on Joseph’s shoulder and whispered a prayer.  Then he turned the boy over.

Gently touching his bruised cheek, he called him.  “Joseph. Can you hear me?  It’s Pa.”

There was no response.

Shifting his hand, the rancher laid it on his son’s chest.  Little Joe’s heartbeat was strong.  After assuring himself that his son’s life wasn’t in danger, Ben began to pass his hands over the boy’s frame.  There were bruises forming everywhere and several deep cuts on his visible skin.  The most concerning thing he noted was a gash on the boy’s head above the left ear that was bleeding.  From the ragged look of it, it appeared Joseph had been struck with something other than a fist.

“How’s Little Joe doin’, Pa?”

He looked up at Hoss.  “I think he’ll be all right.  John Junior?”

“He ain’t as beat up as Joe.  Looks like little brother was the one doin’ the fightin’.  I think maybe the Williams boy got shoved into the wall and hit his head.  He’s out like a light.”

A sudden movement made Ben look down.  True to form, Little Joe was stirring and trying to get up.

“Joseph, stay still, boy,” he ordered.

“Pa?”

“I’m here.  So’s your brother, and Paul is on his way.”

As Little Joe settled back, he rolled his eyes toward the wall. “…John?”

“Hoss says he’ll be all right.  He’s…better off than you, son.”

“They…would have killed…him…if I hadn’t….”  Joe licked his lips and frowned with pain.  “…ouch….”

“Hey, little brother,” Hoss said as he knelt by them.  “Looks like you remembered what me and Adam taught you.  You ain’t lookin’ too bad.”

Joe snorted.  “You should…see the other…guy….ouch.”

“Who was it, Little Joe?  Was it George Eiders?”

“Hoss,” Ben warned.

Joe swallowed and then lifted a hand to his throat.  Bruises were appearing on it as well.  “Sure…was.”

“Pa?”

Both of them swiveled to find Adam at the end of the alley.  Paul Martin, doctor’s bag in hand, was at his side.

Thank God.

 

“Joseph, no.  I don’t care how many times you plead, the answer is ‘no’.

His son was in his own bed now.  Joseph’s great green eyes were fixed on his face.  There were tears in them and that tore at his heart, but he had to remain firm.

Somehow he never thought it would be him laying the law down for his son ‘not’ to go to school.

“But, Pa….”  Joseph shifted his body painfully up, reinforcing his decision.  “John Junior will be all alone.”

“John Junior is not your responsibility, young man.”

Little Joe hung his head.  His son drew in a shuddering breath.  “Pa, I….”

The sight of the boy nearly did him in.  Joseph was battered and bruised from head to toe.  Paul said the blow to his head had been done with a branch or something of that nature.

He’d left word with Robert Olin that he needed to see him.

“Say what you want to say, son.”

“Pa, I don’t think you’re gonna like this, but….”

“Yes?”

Little Joe’s nose wrinkled and he winced as if expecting a blow.  “I…sir…I know what John Junior feels like.  I…”  His son sighed and looked at him.  “I get made fun of all the time.”

Ben frowned.  His son was sitting before him – his beautiful, brilliant, funny and fun-loving child.  Little Joe was smart as a whip, capable, and everything else he could have hoped for.

“What do they make fun of you about?”

“Because I ain’t…I’m not as big as the other boys my age.  Because….”  Joe’s eyes flicked to him.  “…they say I look like a girl.  Because my eyes are green and my hair is curly and because you have money and my ma isn’t my brothers’ ma and….”  Joe winced again. “Because of my ma.”

Ben drew in a breath.  “That’s a lot of ‘becauses’.”

Little Joe nodded that curly head.

He reached out to touch his son’s arm.  “Joseph, look at me.”

It took a second.  “Yes, sir,” the boy said as he complied.

“What does the fact that there are so many ‘becauses’ tell you?”

He thought a moment and then shrugged.  “That everything is wrong with me?”

Ben sighed.  “No, son, that everything is wrong with them.”  He squeezed his son’s fingers.  “Those boys – the ones who beat you and John Junior – it doesn’t matter who or what you are, they are simply looking for someone to hate.  With the Williams, it’s their race and the color of their skin.  With you, it has to do with the fact that you are more handsome and intelligent than both of them put together!”

His son’s eyes popped.  “Pa!”

Ben laughed as he released his hand. “Well, it’s true.  Joseph, some men are just mean.  Most likely, with George, it is because his father is impossible to please, though that doesn’t excuse the boy.  He’s old enough to make his own choices.”

Little Joe was thinking through everything he’d said.  He could see the wheels turning.

“Are you…are you gonna do somethin’ to George for what he did to John Junior…and me?”

There was fear in that tone.

“Yes, son.  Robert should be on his way here.”  Ben reached out and brushed the hair back from the bandage circling his son’s head.  It was already bleeding through.  “This cannot be let go.  You could have been killed.  As it is, you have a concussion – and a severe one.”

“My head hurts,” Little Joe confessed.

“I know it does.  Hop Sing is making you some tea.  That should help.”

“Pa?”

“Yes?”

“What will happen to George and Whitt?”

“They will be punished.”  He sounded more stern that he intended, but the truth was, he was very very angry.  “Joseph, what they did was wrong.  This is not just a childish brawl.  The…violence of the attack….  Son, they need help as much as you and John Junior.”

Joe blinked.  “Help?”

“Bad men start as bad boys, son.  Perhaps, with help, the path they choose can be a different one.”

His son nodded.  Then he said, “I still want to go back to school.”

The older man sighed.  “Little Joe, there are only a few weeks of school left before the holiday and winter sets in.  Paul says you need bed rest for at least one.  There is no point in going back.”

“I know, but I feel bad….”

“Maybe this will make you feel, better, little brother,” a cheerful voice announced from the open doorway.

They both turned to find Hoss standing in the hall – with a guest.

“I brought someone to see you, Little Joe.”

With that, John Williams Junior stepped out of the shadow of his large teenage son.  Ben stifled a sigh as the Indian boy moved into the room.  He wasn’t sure what he thought about this friendship.  The problem wasn’t that the boy was native.  He had no trouble with that, though the trouble that came along with it was another matter.  It was the boy himself.  John Junior was sullen.  There was a deep smoldering anger that shone out of the boy’s near-black eyes.  At times he felt it was aimed at him.  At other times, it seemed it was aimed at the entire white race.

However, none of that anger seemed to be aimed at Little Joe and that was why he had not put a stop to their friendship.

“John, come in,” Ben said as he rose from his chair.  “I am sure Joseph would rather visit with someone his own age than this old man.”

“Ah, Pa, you know that ain’t…isn’t true,” Little Joe protested with a smile.

“Anyhow, I have things to do, so I will leave you two to talk.”

“My father is downstairs, Mister Cartwright,” the Indian boy said.  “He would like to speak with you.”

That came as a bit of a surprise, though how he thought the boy got all the way out to the Ponderosa by himself, Ben didn’t know.

“Oh.  All right then.”  Turning back to his son, the rancher added with a wag of his finger, “Now, Joseph, don’t you tire yourself out.”

Little Joe  rolled his eyes as he knew he would.

Still laughing, Ben made his way down the stairs.

 

“You look as if you have been to battle,” John Junior said.

Joe snorted.  “You do too.  You just look like you won instead of lost.”

His friend had a black eye and he limped a bit as he moved over to the chair and sat down.  “You fought bravely.  Your wounds are your marks of honor,” John said.  The Indian boy paused and then he added softly, “Thank you for saving me.”

“You would have been okay if there hadn’t been so many of them,” Joe said quickly.

“As would you.”

He paused and then laughed.  “I guess so.  I guess we both did okay.”

John Junior stared hard at him for a moment.  “For what you did,” he said, “I would give you a gift.”

Joe looked at his friend’s hands.  They were empty.

“You don’t have to do that,” he said.

A slight smile curled the other boy’s lips.  “Why is it the white man finds it so hard to accept gifts?  Is it because he feels he must give one in return?”

“I…I don’t know,” Joe admitted.  “Maybe.”

“In this, the Indians ways are better.  A gift is given.  Nothing is expected in return.”

“Okay.”  He licked his lips. “So, you got a box hidden up your sleeve or something?”

John Junior shook his head.  “What I give would not fit in a box.  It is…a part of who I am.”

Joe was staring at him now.  He’d shifted his sore body forward so he was on the edge of the bed.  “Sounds important.”

“It is.  Little Joe Cartwright, I give you my name.  My real name.  It is Sharp Tongue.”

His eyes went wide.  “Wow.  Sharp Tongue.”  Joe paused.  He knew that Indians got their names later in life, for things they had done – or for what they were.  What he didn’t know was if it was polite to ask why.  “It sounds like a warrior’s name.”

John Junior – Sharp Tongue – nodded.  “My name was given to me by my mother’s father.  It comes from the snake white men call the rattler.”  He struck his chest with his fit.  “He told me that one day I must strike just as quickly and as surely!”

For a moment, watching his friend and seeing the look out of his eyes, Little Joe Cartwright felt a chasm open up between them – one he wasn’t sure could ever be crossed.  Then, just as quickly as it had come, the feeling was gone.

“Why are you called Joseph?”

Joe thought a moment.  He was called ‘Joseph’ because that was his Pa’s father’s name.  But there was another reason.

“Do you know the Bible?” he asked.

“It has been read to me.”

“Joseph is in there.  Pa says he was a strong man who held true through hardship.  He was betrayed by just about everybody – his brothers, a man he worked for – and yet, in the end he was the second most important man in Egypt.”  He paused.  “Pa says there is power in names.”

Sharp Tongue was watching him.  There was something in the depths of his friend’s black eyes that he couldn’t quite name – it might have been curiosity, or maybe, surprise.

The Indian boy held out his hand.  As he took it, Sharp Tongue shifted so their fingers were locked.

“You saved me, Joseph Cartwright.  We are now brothers,” he said.  “So long as I live, I will never betray you.”

 

Ben halted at the bottom of the staircase.  For a moment, he couldn’t find Captain Jack, but then he saw him seated at the dining table with Hoss.  Hop Sing had brought out a pot of fresh coffee and was pouring it.  The enticing scent carried over to where he was.

“Mister Cartwright come sit,” his Chinese housekeeper declared.  “Visit with guest.  Hop Sing bring chocolate cake.  Bake some for sick boy.”

He smiled. Joseph did love Hop Sing’s chocolate cake.

“Thank you,” he said as he came to the table and took his seat at its head.  “Jack, it’s good to see you and your boy.”

“How is your son?” the native man asked.

“Joseph will be fine.  He’s pretty badly beaten up and Paul is a bit worried about the concussion, but he’s been through worse before.”

“Little Joe always comes out on top,” Hoss said proudly.

“If not for him,” Jack Williams paused.  “My son could have been injured badly or killed.”

“I’m sorry it happened,” Ben said as Hop Sing placed a tray with three pieces of cake on it on the table.  “Jack, I -”

“No, it is I who am sorry.”  Their guest paused.  “Perhaps, I have been wrong.”

Ben nodded to Hop Sing as he filled his cup.  “Thank you, Hop Sing.”  As he brought the hot liquid to his lips and blew on it, he asked, “Wrong about what?”

“Putting my son in the white man’s school.”  Jack sighed.  “Trying to make my son into a white man.”

” I don’t think that’s what you are trying to do, is it?” Ben asked as he handed the native man his slice of cake.  “It seems to me that you are trying to prepare John Junior to live in the world to come.”

The livery owner nodded.  “Our people diminish and the white man increases.  We must live with him or not at all.”

His words were sad, but true.  “Do you think your son understands what you are trying to do?”

“My son is proud of his people and their ways.  He honors them.  For this, I cannot fault him.  But,” the Indian man  paused to choose his words, “he also has great pride that I fear in time will bring about his downfall.”

Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty sprit before a fall.

“He’s very young.  He has time to learn.”

As Hop Sing moved past with a tray laden with milk and two large slices of cake, headed for the staircase, the door opened and Ben heard Adam call out.

“Pa?  Are you here?”

“At the table, Adam.”

“I ran into Sheriff Olin in town and rode out with him.  I….”  Adam’s voice trailed off as he realized they had a guest.  “Mr. Williams.  Sorry, Pa, I didn’t know.”

“It’s fine, Adam.  Where’s Robert?”

“Right here, Ben,” the slender dark-haired man said as he appeared.  As he came to the table, the lawman nodded a greeting.  “Hoss, Captain Jack.”

“Take a seat, Robert.”

As he sat down, Robert asked, “How’s Little Joe?”

“Mending.”

“Do you think I can talk to him?”

Ben halted with his hand on the coffee pot.  “Is that necessary?”

Robert’s eyes flicked to the native man. “Jack and I already spoke.  His son said those older boys would have killed Little Joe if they could.  Your older son said the same thing when he found me and told me they had used a weapon to attack him.  That’s serious, Ben.”  Robert picked up the cup he had just filled. “Thanks.”

“It’s true,” Hoss assured him.  “Doc Martin thinks George Eiders took a branch to Little Joe’s head.”

“John Junior confirmed it was George who hit Joe.  Apparently Whitt was holding him while George did it.  Whitt’s the one who shoved John into the wall and knocked him out.”  Robert’s eyes flicked to Captain Jack.  “Your son expressed his fears that he would find Little Joe had been killed when he woke up.”

Ben started.  Even though he had had the same thought, having his fear confirmed was unnerving.

“What are you going to do about the Eiders boy?”

“Are you  both willing to press charges?” he asked.

As Ben nodded, Jack Williams said, “I am willing, but I do not think anyone will listen.”

“Sad to say, you’d be right about some of the men in the settlement, but with Ben backing you up, I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”  Robert put his cup down and rose.  “Now, Ben, if I could see Little Joe?”

He stood.  “I’ll come with you.”

“If you would send my son down, Mister Cartwright, we will go,” Captain Jack said as he did the same.

“You’re welcome to stay.”

“Hoss says you do not intend to send Little Joe back to school until the spring.”.

“That’s right.  Between the time needed for his recovery and the holidays, there’s little reason.  Adam can school him here at home.”

“I too think it would be wise to be away for some time.  I take my son to visit my people.  We will return in the spring.”

“That’s probably wise,” Robert agreed.  “Give things a little time to calm down.  I imagine the Eiders boy will get some time in a reformatory.  Whitt may get off with a strong reprimand.  His father is quite upset.  He’s warned the boy to stay away from George before.  Separating the two of them may be the best thing for him.”

“That’s what I told Joseph.  This is as much for those two boys as for him and John Junior.”

And speaking of John Junior, Ben looked up to see the boy descending the stairs.

“We go now, son,” Captain Jack said.  As the boy came to his side, he circled his shoulders with an arm.  John Junior did not look entirely comfortable.  “Thank you, Mister Cartwright.  I will see you in the spring, if not before.”

After the pair left, Ben turned to Robert Olin.

“Follow me.”

 

 

FIVE

“Hey, little brother!  You better slow down or you’re gonna break your neck!”  Hoss laughed as he watched his now twelve-year-old brother sprint down the steps two at a time like the house was on fire.  Turning to his older brother, the big teen added, “You know, Adam, I’m thinkin’ ol’ Joe here’s must have a little gal at that schoolhouse he’s been missin’ these last two months.”

“That or he’s developed a hunger for education during the winter,” Adam remarked wryly as he walked from the dining area into the common room.

“Boy not sit at table soon, give his food to pigs!” Hop Sing exclaimed.

Hoss was at the table working on his second round.  Adam had finished.  Little Joe was running late – as usual.  From the look of his kid brother, he’d spent extra time getting ready.  He was decked out in a white shirt with his older Sunday best suit pants and jacket. The deep blue color set off his green eyes and mounds of chestnut curls – which were combed a little over to one side.

“Will you two cut it out,” Joe said as he slid into his chair and reached for the bacon.  “Can’t a fellow want to look his best without there bein’ a reason for it?”

He exchanged a look with Adam.   They replied in tandem.

“No.”

“Sons.  Manners.”

All three of their heads turned toward the kitchen.  Pa was just coming out of it.  He’d gone in to check on somethin’ Hop Sing was concerned about.

Little Joe stiffened, brought his hands back, shifted in his chair, and then reached for his napkin.  Once it was on his lap, he asked, “Hoss, may I have the bacon please?”

Hoss hid his smile.  “Yes, you may, Joseph.  And you eat all you want.  You’re so skinny someone might mistake you for a pole and run a flag up you.”

Joe made a face as he took hold of the plate.  “You better be careful, older brother or someone,” Little Joe waggled his expressive eyebrows, “might just mistake you for a mountain and take a pick to you looking for gold!”

The bacon nearly ended up on the ceiling.

“Boys, boys,” Pa said, stifling his own laughter, “eat your breakfast and get on your way.  Little Joe doesn’t want to be late for the first day of the spring session.”

After that they settled into eatin’.  Little Joe was the last to leave the table.  Pa was sendin’ him to town with them, though the older man had finally given in and said, since Joe was twelve, that he was old enough to ride to and from school on his own.  Today, though, him and Adam had business in town so the three of them was gonna ride in together – him drivin’ the wagon and Adam and Joe on their horses.  Little Joe was gonna ride home on his own.

Maybe that’s why he was so duded up.

“Joseph,” Pa called just as they reached the door.  “I want a word with you before you go.”  The older man looked at him. “Hoss, I want you to listen to this as well.”

“Yes, sir,” they both replied and headed over to where Pa stood before the hearth – Joe a little more reluctantly than him.

He watched as their father took Joe by the arm and then reached up to brush the curls on his forehead in the opposite direction.

“Does it still hurt, son?”

They’d had a time of it that winter.  Soon after John Williams and his son left, the first snow flew cuttin’ them off from the settlement and just about everythin’ else.  Joe’s cut had gotten infected and he’d been pretty sick.  It had left a scar, which would fade in time, but for a young buck like Joe who took pride in his appearance, it left him self-conscious about his looks.  They’d talked about it and he reminded baby brother of what John Junior – Sharp Tongue, he guessed – had told him earlier about marks of honor.  But Joe just couldn’t see it that way.

Of course, when it showed, Pa fussed more too.

“I’m okay, Pa,” Joe said trying to shrug loose.

“What is it you wanted to say, Pa?” Hoss asked.

“This will be the first trip to the settlement for you boys since the snow flew.  As you know, I was there last week.  I stopped in to talk with Robert Olin and he told me George Eiders was back in town.”

He didn’t have to be touchin’ his little brother to know that every muscle in Little Joe’s body had just gone rigid.

“B…back?  I thought he got six months!”

George had been sent to one of them boy’s reformatories.  It was up near Reno and was owned and operated by a minister and his son.  There’s been a hearin’ and George had pleaded guilty to attackin’ both Joe and Sharp Tongue.  ‘Cause of his age, he was let off pretty easy.  He got six months at that there school with the possibility of time off for good behavior.

Hard to imagine George bein’ that good!

Their pa was starin’ hard a Joe.  He placed a hand on his shoulder and directed him toward the settee.  “Come sit down, son.”

“But, Pa, I gotta get to school  I’ll be late.”

“Miss Jones is aware of the situation as you need to be.  She’ll understand.”

Little Joe glanced at him as he moved past.  The look out of those green eyes of his was somewhere between mortified and just plain sick.

“Why’d you wait to tell me ’til now, Pa?” Joe asked as he took a seat.

“Why?  Look at you.  You’re trembling like a leaf,” their father sighed.  “What good would it have done to let you worry for a week or more?”

Joe sucked in a breath.  “I…guess so.”

“What happened, Pa?” Hoss asked as he sat on the edge of the hearth.  “How come George got sprung so soon?”

“Well, apparently Andrew Eiders has connections in the Reno area.  He and his family lived there for a while.  He pulled some strings and called in a few favors and since George’s behavior had been exemplary, the circuit judge honored Andy’s request to bring his son home.”

“But Pa, Little Joe….  George could’ve killed him, hittin’ him with that branch.”

Pa sighed.  “But he didn’t.”  Their father’s eyes moved to his little brother who was sitting very still, his head down and his hands hanging between his knees.  “Such is the way of the law.  We have to abide by it even when it seems grossly unfair, else there would be anarchy.”  The older man reached out to catch Little Joe’s chin in his fingers and lifted his head.  “George is not allowed to return to school, but that doesn’t mean you might not see him in town.  If you do, young man, you are to avoid making contact with him at all costs.”

“What if George makes contact with me – or with Sharp Tongue?” Joe asked, his tone slightly challenging.

“It would be best, son – and I mean this for both of you – if you kept your distance from John Junior as well, other than when you are at school.”

“But Pa, he’s my friend!  And you taught me friends take care of one another!”

Hoss drew in a breath.  Pa sure was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

“I know I did, son, and I meant it.  And that’s not to say that your friend is not welcome here.  It would just be wise not to be – ”

“Seen with an Indian in town?” Joe snapped.  His tone smacked of disrespect.

Amazingly, Pa let it go.

“There is no perfect solution, Little Joe.  I’m your father and you are my son and your safety has to come first for me.  Can you understand that?”  It took a moment, but Joe nodded.  “We have no idea if George will try to start anything. If he is wise, he will not.  His freedom hangs on his good behavior.  The judge made it clear that if he caused any more trouble, he would be sent away again – and this time to prison.”

George had been underage when he hurt Little Joe but, like his little brother, had turned a year older over the winter and would now be considered an adult at sixteen.

“Joseph?”

Little Joe was silent a moment and then he said, “Pa, I promise I will do my best to avoid George and if I can’t avoid him, do my best to keep from getting into a fight.  I promise too that I’ll…well, I’ll try to keep to the school yard when I’m with Sharp Tongue.”  Hoss watched his father visibly relax and then tense at his brother’s next words.  “But Pa, if George tries to hurt Sharp Tongue again, well, I can’t promise to stand by and watch my friend take a beating and do nothin’ about it.”

He saw their father’s eyes flick to Joe’s hairline.  Paul had warned Pa that if Little Joe took another blow there, it could be bad.

Real bad.

“Joseph….”

At that moment, the front door opened and Adam poked his head in.  “Are you two slowpokes about ready?” he asked.  “I need to make that meeting.”

Joseph was on his feet.  He stood right in front of Pa and looked down at him.  “Sir, I mean no disrespect, but you taught me – us – that a man has to stand up for what is right, no matter the cost.  And,” Little Joe paused, “you taught us that nothin’ surprises God and that His ways are wiser and higher than ours.  I’m asking you, Pa, to trust God…and to trust me.”

He and Adam exchanged a surprised look.  Little brother sure was growin’ up!

Hoss watched their father draw in a deep breath and then rise to his feet.  He placed one hand to each side of Joe’s head, on his shoulders.  Then, with a shade of a smile, he asked little brother, “Since when did you grow so wise?”

Joe turned and glanced at him and Adam, before turning back to Pa.  “I got three great examples.  What more do I need?”

 

The ride into the settlement was fairly sober.  Usually little brother would be chattering up a storm.  Today he was silent as the bits of snow that clung to the land.  He and Hoss had tried to drum up a little conversation along the way, even pushing the kid a bit to get him riled, but Little Joe would simmer and then sputter out like a kettle with too little water left to boil.  So, in the end, he and Hoss fell to talking business and Joe trailed along behind.

For the trip Hoss drove the wagon and he and Joe were riding.  Little Joe’s legs had stretched a bit over the winter and so he’d left Cadfan behind and moved on to a fourteen and a half hand horse. The kid was such a natural, he’d approached his new ride – a black he named Thunder Cloud – told the horse what he was going to do and then swung up into the saddle without putting his foot into the stirrup.  Adam shook his head and smiled.

It made his old bones groan just to think about doing that!

“So you think you finally got the information to shut old Mister Hargreaves up?” Hoss asked from his seat on the wagon.

“The boundaries are clear.  I think he thought he could take advantage of the remote location and maybe Pa just wouldn’t notice.  His case is pretty thin,” he replied.

“Sure has cost you and Pa a lot of time and money, not to mention thinkin’ to deal with it, ain’t it?”

“Well,” Adam laughed, “thoughts I have plenty of and to spare.”  He sobered quickly.  “Time?  That’s another matter.  It won’t be long before the spring drive and we need that water free and clear for the cattle.”

“How long you think this meeting will take?”

He rolled his eyes.  “Too long.  Whenever a meeting takes place in one of the saloons, there’s an hour of drinking before and two after.  I’ll be all day.  Why?”

Hoss lowered his voice as he tossed a look over his shoulder.  “You really think we oughta let Little Joe ride home alone what with George Eiders bein’ back in town?”

He didn’t turn because he knew Joe would realize they were talking about him.  “No, I don’t.  Do you think you can finish loading the wagon and doing what you have to do by the time school lets out?”

“Sure, I can, but you know Joe, he’ll have a conniption fit if he knows I’m nursemaidin’ him.”

Adam grinned.

“Well, then, I guess you better not let him know it.”

“If you two old ladies don’t quit gabbin’, I ain’t never gonna get to school,” Little Joe remarked as he came up alongside them.  “There’s only a few miles left, I’m going ahead.”

And without another word, baby brother did just that, pulling out in front of them and letting Thunder’s long legs bear him forward fast as the lightning that would have accompanied his namesake.

“That critter’s a force of nature,” Hoss remarked with a whistle.

“Which?  Joe or the horse?”

Middle brother chuckled.  “I ain’t too sure.  Both, maybe.”

“You know everything Joe told Pa was right,” he replied.

“Yeah, but everythin’ Pa told Little Joe was right too.  Adam, I don’t trust that George Eiders.  He’s just plain mean.”

“A bad seed, you mean?  I tend to agree, though his experience in the reformatory might have frightened him enough to make him go straight.”

“Or made him mad enough to come back meanin’ to get even with Joe and Sharp Tongue,” his brother said.  “It ain’t like someone like George to let that go.  A bully ain’t no better than his reputation and Little Joe’s the one who got away.”

“All the more reason for you to follow Joe home – as surreptitiously as possible.”

“Adam, Pa don’t pay me enough to understand them ten dollar words of yours.”

He laughed.  “Sorry.  Just keep to the shadows and don’t let Little Joe hear the wheels creaking.”

That I can do.   Now’s how’s about we see how fast we can get to town?  I got a lot of work to do for school’s out and you can get to that meeting and spend a little time sweet talking old Viney before it starts.”

Viney was the current Madame at the Bucket of Blood.  She was a good old soul who had been hard-used by life and really was worth talking to.

“I don’t think Pa would be too happy with Viney as a daughter-in-law,” he snorted.

“Maybe not, but you know what they say?”

Adam looked at his brother.  “No. What do they say?”

“Desperate times call for desperate measures!” Hoss chortled and then put leather to horse hide and sent the wagon flying toward the settlement.

Adam followed a little more slower – but not much.

 

School had already begun when Joe pulled up out front.  He dismounted, gave Thunder a treat and a stern talking to about waiting patiently for him, and then headed for the schoolhouse.  He did his best not to look around on the way in.  Partly because he didn’t want to appear afraid and partly because he was afraid that he’d catch sight of George Eiders watching him.  Several of the ladies of the town were strolling past and they greeted him, giving him a smile and telling him how handsome he looked.  He didn’t know what the big deal was.  He dressed up because it was the first day of school, that was all.  A fellow had to give the right impression.  His pa was an important man and he wanted to do him proud.  Looking like some hayseed or drifter wasn’t gonna do that.

Besides, who knew what new girls might be attending class this session.

As he reached the schoolhouse door, Joe heard Miss Jones talking.  She was giving an overview of what they would learn from now until the end of the school year.  It was March and there was still a chance some of them might be cut off by late falls of snow, so she usually gave them the whole syllabus upfront so they could study at home if that happened.  It was three whole months before the summer would come and he would be free to stay on the ranch and help his brothers all day long, every day.

He could hardly wait.

“Joseph, I’m so pleased you could join us,” Miss Jones remarked as he rounded the corner.  Quickly his eyes scanned the room.  No George, just as promised.  But there was no Sharp Tongue, or John Junior, either.  He had to remember not to use John’s Indian name at school.  It had been a gift to him.  He’d asked Sharp tongue if he could share it with his family and he’d said that was all right, but he wasn’t supposed to share it with anyone else.  It would be funny to call him ‘John’ again, that was if he showed up.

“Please take your usual seat, Joseph.”

That was next to Whitt who was already there.

“Yes, Ma’am,” he mumbled as he made his way up the aisle.  After he’d taken his seat, Whitt leaned in and held out his hand.

“No hard feelings, Cartwright.  Okay?”

He stared at it a moment before taking his hand and shaking it.  “Okay.”

“All George ever did was get me in trouble. I -.”

“Boys, your conversation will keep for lunch.”

They both sat up straight and faced forward.   “Yes, Ma’am.”

The morning went quickly.  Part of it was devoted to getting to know one another for the first time and again.  There was a new girl and she was sweet as honey with pale skin, eyes that were almost purple, and long black hair.  Her name was Ceridwen and she was from the country of Wales originally.  Her pa was one of the men come out to work in the growing mining industry.  Joe sat up a little taller when she looked at him and decided he’d seek her out when they went to lunch and introduce himself.  Just, well….

Just in case.

It was about an hour later that he got the chance.  Ceridwen was sitting all by herself under a tree eating her lunch.

“You look a little lonely,” he said as he came to stand before her.

She looked up startled, and then smiled. “Joe, isn’t it?”

He nodded.  Not ‘Little’ Joe.  That was refreshing.

“Joe Cartwright.  My pa’s a rancher.  We’ve got a spread about twenty miles out.”

“You mean you ride all that way through the wilderness everyday to come into the settlement?”   Her amethyst eyes were wide.  “What about highwaymen and…Indians?”

“Mind if I sit down?”

She shrugged.  When he sat down, he was careful to keep a respectable distance between them.  “We don’t really have highwaymen since we don’t have any highways,” he laughed.  “And the Indians aren’t so bad once you get to know them.”

“Do you know them?” she asked, and she asked it like she was surprised he was still alive since he did.

“A few.  My pa knows more.  If you’re new to town you might not know that the livery is owned by an Indian.  His name’s Captain Jack.”

“Where I come from there weren’t any Indians.  They were all driven west of the Mississippi years ago.  My father says good riddance to bad rubbish.”

Suddenly, Ceridwen wasn’t quite as pretty anymore. “How come he says that?”

“Because it’ true!” she proclaimed.  “His grandmother was scalped by an Indian during a raid.  His father and little brother were killed.  My Da says – ”

“The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” Joe intoned.

“You don’t agree?”

Joe ran a hand along the back of his neck. “Well, no, not exactly, I -”

Ceridwen had gone pale; her little plump lips forming a round ‘O’.

“Joseph Cartwright, I am pleased to see you again.”

Joe closed his eyes and drew in a breath.  “Sharp…John,” he said.

“Is…this a friend of yours?” the girl demanded.

He wondered if Pa would be pleased or upset with his answer.  “Yes, this is my friend.  His name is John Williams.”

The girl looked Sharp Tongue up and down in a second – and dismissed him just as quickly.  “I wasn’t aware savages had real names.”  Snapping her lunch box shut, Ceridwen took a step toward the schoolhouse.  “Are you coming, Joe?” she asked.

It was an invitation – an invitation to be her friend but at the cost of betraying his other friend.

“No,” he said with only a slight hesitation.  “John and I haven’t seen each other for a couple of months.  We need to catch up.”

The girl looked at Sharp Tongue and then back to him.  “My father says a man is known by the company he keeps.  Good day, Mister Cartwright!”

As she walked away, he sighed.

“Do not mourn, my friend,” the Indian boy said.  “She is pretty, but she is too small to work hard or bear children easily.”

Joe blinked.  “Bear children…John, Sharp Tongue…I’m only twelve!”

“In my mother’s tribe you would be a man, as I am now a man.”

“Well, I don’t know about ‘in your mother’s tribe’, but Pa tells me in our world I got a few years to go.”

“When I leave, you should come with me.”

Joe had been starting toward the schoolhouse – the bell was ringing – when he halted and turned back. “When you leave?  Where are you going?”

Sharp Tongue made a dismissive gesture with his hand.  “This is not for me, the white man’s school and the white man’s ways.  As soon as the cold winds are no more I leave to join my mother’s people.”

“You’re gonna live on the reservation again?”

The Indian boy shook his head.  “I will go there and join with my Paiute brothers and we will go into the mountains and live.”  Sharp Tongue looked directly at him.  “Come with me and you can be a warrior too.”

Joe hesitated, trying to figure out how to put it.  “Thanks, but…no thanks.  I don’t want to be a warrior.  I want to be a rancher like my pa.  He said one day he may put me in charge of the horses since I’m so good with them.”

“A white man’s promise,” Sharp Tongue sniffed.

“I’m a white man,” Joe replied.

His friend looked him up and down, his eyes lingering on his face as their gazes met.  Then, without another word, Sharp Tongue walked straight toward the schoolhouse and up the steps and disappeared inside.

Joe continued to stand there for a moment, thinking about what had just happened and what it meant, and then he did the same.

Once inside the school Joe took his seat, with Whitt on one side and Sharp Tongue on the other.  They were doing arithmetic sums when a man entered at the back and walked up to Miss Jones and handed her a note.  She read it with a little frown and then looked directly at him and said, “Joseph, if you would come to my desk, please?”

Sharp Tongue rose to let him out.  When he got to the desk, Joe asked, “What is it, Ma’am?”

“It seems something has happened to your older brother.  He’s at the doctor’s office.”

His stomach sank.  “Does it say if it’s Hoss or Adam?”

She looked again. “Just your ‘older brother’ and that he is at Doc Hickman’s.  There is no indication of which one.”  His teacher eyed him with sympathy.  “Do you want me to send one of the other children with you?”

“I will go.”

Joe hadn’t heard Sharp Tongue approach.  He was standing just behind him.

“That is quite generous of you, John, but -”

“They will have need of a wagon.  My father has many.”

“Oh.”  Her gaze returned to him.  “Joseph?”

Joe looked at his friend.  Sharp Tongue couldn’t know that Hoss had brought their own wagon into town that morning.  Still, if Hoss was really hurt and he couldn’t find Adam, he was gonna need help getting him home.

“I’d like that, Ma’am.  That is, if John could come with me.”

As they exited the building, Sharp Tongue caught his arm and said, “It is a trap.”

Joe frowned.  “What’s a trap?  One of my brothers getting hurt?”

“Perhaps he is hurt. Perhaps he is not.”  The Indian boy looked down the road.  “Perhaps George Eiders is waiting for you.”

He hadn’t thought of that.  “You think so?”

“Where is this Doc Hickman’s?” his friend asked.

“On C street.”

“We will go,” Sharp Tongue said, “but we will go as the mountain cat does, with silent steps.”

 

It didn’t take long, though they had to make their way through the mid-afternoon traffic and past the people who stopped and gawked at them, as well as one of the school board members who thought they were playing hooky.  Joe had just about convinced himself that Sharp Tongue was right and the whole thing was a ruse, when they came around a corner and he saw Adam stepping out of Doc  Hickman’s place.

“Adam!  Are you okay?” Joe called out as they approached.

His older brother came out of a frown when he looked at him.  His smile was one of relief.  “Joe, thank God!  I was afraid….”

“Afraid of what?”

Adam sucked in air.  “Hoss has a broken leg.  The wagon rolled backward and pinned him to the wall.”

Joe’s brown brows leaped toward his hair.  “The wagon got loose?  How?”

“Hoss was out back of the mercantile loading.  No one saw anything.  It’s a bad break and the Doc’s got him drugged, so he can’t tell.”  Adam’s gaze flicked to his Indian friend and back to him.  “Maybe it was just some drunk who leaned on it, or a fluke, but…”

“But what?”

Adam came over to him and placed a hand on his shoulder.  “Doc Hickman’s rooms are full after that fight last night.  He wants Hoss taken home where he can rest more comfortably.”  His brother chewed his lip for a moment.  “I can’t leave the settlement without concluding the meeting.  It’s too critical right now.  Even coming here was hard.  Joe, can you get Hoss home?”

“Sure I can, Adam.  I’d do anything for Hoss!”

His brother was looking at Sharp Tongue again.  “John, you better head on home too.”

The Indian boy shook his head.  “No.  I owe a life debt to Little Joe.  I will go with him and protect him and his brother.”

Adam scowled at the word ‘protect’.  “There’s no reason to suspect any danger.  Or any reason to suspect that George was behind this.  Actually, George’s father Andrew is in the meeting and he said George had gone to visit friends up near Reno.”

Joe let out a relieved sigh at that.  It was hard not to think….

“I can’t lift Hoss up into the wagon by myself, Adam.  You know that.”

“Jim from the mercantile will help.  He’s nearly as big as middle brother.  The sooner I get back to the meeting and get done what I have to do, the sooner I can follow you.  I sent a rider out ahead of you two to alert Pa and Hop Sing.”

“We’ll be okay, Adam.  The horses know their way and there’s two of us.  That’s one to drive and one to keep watch.”

Still, Adam hesitated.  “If there was any other way….”

“Hey, big brother, remember?  I was gonna ride home alone after school today anyhow.  I’ll just be doing it in a wagon rather than on Black Thunder.  Sharp Tongue can ride him.”

“All right.  I’ll tell the Doc and then send Jim over.”  Adam reached out then to cup the back of his head in his hand.  “You be careful, you hear me?  Don’t take any chances.”

As he nodded, his brother stepped back into the doctor’s office.

“Shish,” Joe blew out.  “You’d think I was driving the wagon over the mountains to San Francisco and facing down a shipload of Barbary Coast pirates!”

“There are many miles between here and the Ponderosa,” Sharp Tongue said as he turned his face into the sun.

“Not you too!”

“Valor lies in the defense, and the promise of victory in the attack,” his friend replied.  Then, the Indian boy reached into his boot and withdrew a long, deadly-looking knife with a beaded handle.

“What are you going to do with that?” Joe asked, his voice trembling slightly.

Sharp Tongue sneered.

“Count coup!”

 

 

SIX

It was almost funny, how out of it middle brother was, or it would have been if it hadn’t been obvious that Hoss was in pain in spite of what the Doc had given him to knock him out.  The runaway wagon had struck both of his legs just above the knee, breaking one and badly bruising the other.  It had been about all Jim from the mercantile, along with him and Sharp Tongue and his pa, could do to get Hoss into the back of their wagon.  Captain Jack had come along at just the right time.  He’d given his son permission to ride out to the Ponderosa with them and told his friend he could stay the night and then ride into the settlement with him in the morning for school.  They were about halfway home, right about where the road forked, with one part heading for the Ponderosa and the other away from it.  It was a hilly area with a lot of brush and tall clustered trees.  There was a bend in the road just past the trees that you couldn’t see around until you were right on top of it.

Gripping the reins more tightly, Joe rose up a little off the wagon seat and looked as far to the left and right as he could.  Adam and Hoss had taught him to always be alert as he turned the bend.  Not only could someone be laying in wait, but another wagon might be speeding along in the opposite direction and before you knew it, you could meet it head on.

Hoss was hurt bad enough he didn’t want to take a chance on hurting him more.

As the wagon pivoted sharply around the bend, Joe let out a little sigh of relief.  The way was clear on the other side.  No horses.  No riders.  No one standing in the middle of the road with a gun pointed at him.

No.

Just someone hidden in the brush firing one off.

A bullet whizzed over his head, making Joe duck.  It was high enough he knew it hadn’t been meant to hit him, but it had its effect.  The horses, even though well-trained by his pa and his brothers, started, and then bolted and began to run.  Glancing over his shoulder Joe noted that Hoss was being tossed from side to side.  The big teen groaned as the erratic action of the wagon brought him back from wherever the Doc’s powerful drugs had taken him to a painful reality.

Sharp Tongue and Black Thunder were gone.

Turning his attention to the matter at hand, Joe hauled back on the reins with all his strength.  It was all he could do to keep the wagon from tilting over and spilling both him and Hoss out.  They rode on two wheels for a short time before slamming down onto the side of the trail on all fours.  The wagon rolled another hundred feet or so before he was able to bring both it and the horses – and himself – to a shaking, sweating stop.  Looking down, Joe noted the rawhide from the reins had burnt into his palms, bringing blood to the surface to mingle with the perspiration.  He had just reached up to push a batch of sodden curls out of his eyes when a voice alerted him to the fact that, while the bullet might not have been aimed at him, it had had his name on it nevertheless.

“I see your Injun friend turned tail and run, Cartwright.  I always knew he was a coward.”

Joe closed his eyes.  Then he opened them and looked toward the road.

George Eiders was sitting on his horse smack dab in the middle of it.

“Little Joe…?  What is…it?  How come…we…stopped?”

Pivoting in his seat, Joe placed a hand on his wounded brother’ shoulder.  “It’s okay, Hoss.  The horses spooked.  I got it under control,” he told him.

Hoss’ eyes were already closing.  “Who….?”

Joe swallowed over his fear.  “It’s just someone I go to school with.  He’s….”  His eyes shot back to George who was sneering like the cat that got the canary.  “He’s…gonna help.”  Lifting his hand, he prepared to leave the wagon.  “I’ll be back in a minute.  You go back to sleep.”

His brother’s muttered ‘okay’ rang in his ears as Joe walked the fifty or so paces to George’s horse. The older boy had not dismounted, but was looking down at him.

Mustering every ounce of courage he had – real and pretend – Joe asked, “So I guess this means you’re looking for a one way pass to prison?”

It was a stupid thing to say.  He knew it.  He just couldn’t help it.

The older boy stared at him, cussed, and then the toe of George’s boot caught him under the chin and sent him sprawling in the dust.

“I’m gonna kill you, Cartwright,” he growled.  “You and that Injun friend of yours.”

He didn’t yell it.  George was calm.  His words quiet.

Quiet as a rattler in the grass.

“You and what army?” Joe demanded as he spit out dirt and rose to his feet.  “I don’t see anyone here but you and me.”

George linked his hands over his saddle horn and leaned forward.  “That’s ’cause you ain’t looking, Little Joe.”

As his foe spoke, the nearby grasses rustled and three more boys appeared. Well, Joe thought of them as ‘boys’ since he’d known them in school, but they were closer to Hoss’ age now.  Almost men.

Joe licked his lips.  He knew a beating was coming – and probably a bad one.

“Look, can we take this somewhere else?” he almost begged, his eyes moving from George to the wagon that held his injured brother.  He didn’t want Hoss involved in this.

George sneered.  “Too bad about your brother’s ‘accident’.  Ain’t it Eddie?”

One of the other boys came close on his big bay.  Eddie was a year younger than Hoss, so that made him seventeen.  He’d dropped out of school the year before and been working in the mines.

He looked solid as a brick house.

As the older boy slipped off his horse, he snorted.  “Too bad that stupid lump of a brother of yours never learned how to set a brake on a wagon.”

Joe’s fingers curled into fists.  There was something deep down inside him – an anger that he had to wrassle with all the time.  Pa said God gave it to him, and kept tellin’ him that if he tamed it, it would make him into a better man.  He knew it was true.  The proudest stallions made the best mounts once their will had been bent to good.

Unfortunately, the mustang in him was still pretty wild.

“You come down off those horses and we’ll just see who’s still standing at the end,” Joe snarled.

“Oh, I’ll come down, Cartwright, but not here.  Like you said, we’re gonna take this elsewhere.”  George nodded his head toward the boy on the bay.  “You just mount up behind Eddie and we’ll get going.”

Eddie sidled his horse over closer and held out a hand.  Joe disdained it and swung up behind the bigger boy with no help.  As they rode away, his gaze went to the wagon where his older brother lay sleeping.  Joe whispered a quick prayer for Hoss’ protection before turning his eyes to the brush and trees lining the road.   He didn’t believe Sharp Tongue had deserted him.  His friend was out there…somewhere…watching and waiting to make his move.

Joe closed his eyes as they began to jog up a hill.  He just wished he knew what that move was.  Pa’d explained what ‘counting coup’ was before.  It was an act of bravery against an enemy.  It could range all the way from ridin’ your pony into an enemy camp and ridin’ back out safe, to killing him and taking his scalp.  In his mind’s eyes he couldn’t help but see that beaded knife, glinting in the sun.

If it came down to it, could he do it?

Could he fight his friend to keep him from killing George?

 

Adam let out a curse with nearly every hammer blow of his horse’s hooves on the hard packed dirt of the road.  The meeting had taken longer than he’d hoped.  The men had discussed it and agreed to wait for his return and, while he’d been away, had fallen into drinking and gambling. They’d been less than cooperative when he’d suggested they get back to business.  Of course, the fact that everyone had a drink or two in them – other than him – did ultimately work in his favor once the negotiations began.  Still, the almost two hour delay had him shaking in his boots.  It would have been a little less than an hour if he hadn’t gone to the livery to reclaim his mount and found Captain Jack out roaming the streets looking for the animals who had been housed there.

Someone had sneaked into the building and released them.

By the time he found Sport – who had wandered, or been led away with a few of the other horses to a place ripe with budding sweet grass – he’d lost that second hour.  When he got back to the livery, Captain Jack had a tale to tell him.  Even though Andrew Eiders had said his son was away, the town drunk – who’d been sleeping out back of the stable – told Jack he’d seen five boys leaving the livery and the description of one of them fit Andrews’ unmanageable son, George, to the proverbial ‘T’.

It seemed Hoss’ accident was no accident after all.

And so he had set out from the settlement, pushing his mount as hard as he could go.  He’d covered about eight miles in record time when he had to let Sport rest.  Ever since then he’d been moving at a slower, but fairly steady clip.  He was about halfway home.  The bend in the road was just before him.

As was their wagon.

Adam hauled back on the reins, halting his mount, and stared at the abandoned vehicle.  It was half-on and half-off the road, with its offside wheels buried in the dirt.  The horses that had been hitched to it were munching on the grass that was budding with new life.

Of Joe, his horse Black Thunder, and his friend Sharp Tongue, there was nary a sight.

Slowing his mount to a walk, Adam scanned the road underneath his feet for signs as he approached.  It was clear several horses had trampled the fledgling green growth that was just beginning to cover it.  Puzzled, the black-haired man dismounted and had just knelt to examine some of the tracks when a low moan brought his head up and sent him running toward what he had thought was an empty wagon.

“Good God!  Hoss!!” he exclaimed as he saw his teenage brother attempting to lift himself out of the bed.  “Stay put!”

Hoss turned a tear-streaked face on him.  “Adam?  Adam!  They got Little Joe!  You gotta go after him!”

He put a hand on his wounded brother’s shoulder and gently pushed him back down.  “They?  Who?  You mean George?”

“And Eddie Carver and Jake Morrow and….”  Hoss sucked in air as he shifted his broken leg. Tears spilled down his slightly reddened cheeks.  “There was four of them and only one Little Joe.”  Hoss pushed back, shoving him away.  “Dammit, Adam!  Go!”

Adam’s gaze returned to the path.  He hadn’t had time to look closely.  “Did you see which way they went?”

Hoss ran his sleeve over his eyes.  “I tried, Adam.  Joe…he….”  Those blue eyes were awash with tears.  “Little brother told me everythin’ was all right, and then he was gone.”

“What about Sharp Tongue?” he asked, squinting and looking at the high scrub that might hold anything from a man to a mountain lion.  “He was with you?  Right?”

His brother nodded.  “I was pretty out of…it.”  He grimaced before going on.  “I heard Joe talkin’ to George.  Sharp Tongue was gone by then.  Adam?”

“Yeah?”

“What d’ya you think they’re gonna do to Little Joe?”

He didn’t want to think about what might happen to their little brother.  The only thing that gave him a bit of hope was the fact that George was looking at a prison sentence if he did anything too drastic.  That should be enough to deter the older boy from brutalizing Joe the way he had before.

Should.

“Make him pay for daring to befriend an Indian boy, I imagine,” he replied tight-lipped.  “Beat him up – and Sharp Tongue if they have him.”

“George neat kilt Little Joe last autumn, Adam.”

He nodded.  “But he didn’t.  Joe managed to hold his own.”

“Against two of them.   There’s four this time.  Could be more.”

“He knows he’ll go to prison.  George knows that.  He can’t be that stupid.”

Hoss gripped his arm.  “Adam, you ain’t like…well…everybody else.  You got what you call ‘control’.  I….”  His brother paused.  “I tell you, Adam, if I got my hands on George right now, I wouldn’t have none of that there control.  I’d break him in two.”  His tone softened.  “And Little Joe, well….  Well, he beat George.  He made him look bad.  George is gonna be awful….”

Not mad.

Livid.

Adam chewed his lip for a moment.  “I hate to leave you alone….”

“I’ll be fine.  I got my gun,” he said, patting his side.

Would that Hoss had had the wherewithal to use it when George came calling.  But then, middle brother had most likely been unconscious.  He could see it in the big teen’s eyes that he felt he had failed Little Joe.

“Someone is bound to come along, Hoss.  Send them to Sheriff Olin or Deputy Coffee first, and then send someone to tell Pa what’s happened.”

“You goin’ after them?”

Yes, he was.  Though what he would do when faced with four teenage boys bent on brutalizing his kid brother he didn’t know.

Could he kill one of them if he had to?

 

Any hope of rescue had been dashed when he rode into what was obviously a well-established camp on the back of Eddie Carver’s horse.  Sharp Tongue was already there; his face a mass of bruises and blood.  Joe noted a gash in his friend’s right-hand pants’ leg.  Blood had soaked the cloth through, indicating that the knife the Indian boy had intended to use on his enemies had been turned on him.  In fact, the teen who was standing guard over Sharp Tongue had the knife tucked behind his leather belt.  As Eddie drew his horse to a halt, his friend looked up and straight at him.

Sharp Tongue was shamed.

Without asking permission, Joe slipped from the horse’s back and headed straight for him.

“You know, Cartwright, I’m beginning’ to wonder if there ain’t somethin’ between you and that Injun that just ain’t right,” George remarked snidely.

Joe stopped, his muscles tensed, and then ignored the insult and kept moving.

“Just don’t seem right, a white man takin’ such an interest in an Injun,” the bully went on as he dismounted.  “But then I heard you like ’em dark and red.  Eddie here told me about you and old Winnemucca’s girl.”

Sarah was a friend.  He’d met her when he’d gone with his Pa to the Indian’s camp.

Again, Joe started forward without responding.

“You better stop and talk to me, Cartwright, or I’ll tell Jim to use that knife.”

Joe closed his eyes for a second and blew out a breath.  Then, he pivoted on his heel.  “My name is Joe,” he said, “or did you forget that Parks?”

“Oh, I didn’t forget,” the older boy replied as he came close and towered over him.  “Little Joe.”

“I’m bigger and better than you’ll ever be,” Joe countered sharply, his eyes dropping deliberately below George’s belt, “in a lot of ways and places.”

He waited for the punch.  Instead, he got derisive laughter.

“Maybe we’ll just strip you down and see what you got, Cartwright,” the bully warned.

“Let me go!  I will fight you!  Another will not fight my battles!”

Joe turned to find Sharp Tongue was on his feet – barely – and shouting.  It was obvious his friend had been weakened by the loss of blood.

Joe turned back to George and said, slowly and clearly, “You leave him out of this.  This is between you and me.”

All six feet and nearly two hundred pounds of George was eyeing him with astonishment.  “I’ll break you in two, Cartwright.”

He straightened up.  “Maybe.  And maybe I’ll break you!”

Behind him Sharp Tongue fought like a puma.  “NO!” the Indian boy cried.  “I am the warrior!”

Joe gnawed his li.  It was hard, but he did it.  He asked, “Can I talk to him?”

“Your Injun?”

“Yeah, my Injun.  Can I talk to him?”

George thought about it a second and then shrugged.  “Hell if I care.”

Joe gave him a tight nod.  “Thanks.”  Then he walked to Sharp tongue’s side.  Even though he was all too aware that there were five pairs of hostile eyes fixed on him, Joe reached out to place a hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “Sharp Tongue is my brother.  This is true?” he asked.

The Indian boy stopped fighting.  He nodded.

“You are hurt.  You cannot fight.”  When he started to protest, Joe went on.  “Does the mountain lion attack when it is weak from hunger or loss of blood?  Or does it wisely seek shelter and heal until it is strong enough to win?”

Sharp Tongue was staring at him.  He said nothing.

“This is my fight today.  Another day, the fight will be yours.”  Joe drew in a breath.  “There will come a day when Sharp Tongue will save my life as I have saved his.”

“Two times.  Two times, Joe Cartwright, you have saved me,” the Indian boy said softly.

Joe nodded.  A slight smile curled his lips as he looked over his shoulder at George Andrews’ giant form.

“You can count on my callin’ you on both counts,” he replied.

“I pray for you, Joe Cartwright.  Isa will be with you.”

As the curly-haired boy turned back to face his opponent, Joe thought to himself…

He certainly hoped so.

 

He’d had to dismount and continue on foot.  Adam was afraid he would alert the boys to his coming.

Earlier, he’d spied Little Joe on the back of Eddie Carver’s horse as they topped the rise and the unlikely pair headed down into what he guessed was some sort of camp.  If George Eiders was with Eddie – and he was sure he was – he must have lied to his father about going away.  He was sure the senior Eiders had no idea that his son was anywhere near the settlement, or that George intended to make Little Joe pay for besting him before.  It still amazed him that the teen was willing to take the chance – that George would chance going to prison just to beat Little Joe up.  But then George Eiders had all the earmarks of a boy turning into a man-gone-wrong.  He was boastful, which equaled insecure, and self-serving; the kind of boy who would grow into a man who took what he wanted and damned the consequences.  Perhaps a stay in prison was what he needed.

But not at the cost of his little brother’s life.

Adam slowed his progress as he came to the top of the rise, not wanting to give away his presence.  Unfortunately, it was too late.  Just as he reached for his weapon, two pairs of hand gripped his arms and the barrel of a pistol was placed under his chin.

“Come on, Cartwright,” Eddie Carver said with one devilish dimple showing.

“You can watch.”

 

At least George had taken him on alone.

Or at least, so far.

Eddie and one of the other boys had disappeared as the first fists flew.  That left Jim watching Sharp Tongue and one other besides him and George in the camp.  His friend was on the ground now, barely conscious. The boys who had taken them had done nothing to stop his leg wound bleeding.  He supposed if Sharp Tongue died, they could always claim they’d found him beaten and wounded and he had bled out before they could do anything to help.

No one would question someone doing that to an Indian.

He was another matter, he supposed.  Although, unless someone saw them, there would be nothing to link George to his beating and maybe death other than idle talk and speculation.  At the moment he was hoping for the former outcome of the fight.  Already his ribs were aching and his head was ringing from several punches that had barely landed.  He kept hearing Paul Martin’s words in his ear about not hitting his head again.  Hoss and Adam had trained him well when it came to taking on a bigger opponent.  Most of his advantage lay in his speed and some of it in his smaller size.  Adam had caught his arm one time and made him watch as a stallion was brought down by a mad hornet it had nearly stepped on.

“Move in  Sting hard.  And then get the hell out while you can,” his oldest brother had said.

So far he’d been doing that.  George was as bloodied as he was and probably just as sore.  The problem was the other two boys had started to laugh and jeer at the older boy.

That stallion had been scared.

George wasn’t scared, he was just plain mad. 

Joe held completely still as the older boy wiped blood from his mouth with the back of his bruised and battered hand and then bent and picked up a wrist-thick branch covered with rough bark that was lying near his feet.  George rapped the branch against his palm several times as he started forward.

“I knew you were a bully, Parks, but I never thought you were a coward!” a familiar voice called out sharply.  The sentence was followed by a small cry.

Pivoting on his heel, Joe saw his brother Adam at the edge of the camp.  Adam’s hazel-brown eyes locked on his green ones as Jim and Eddie – who held him – jerked him to a halt.  It didn’t stop him.  Adam continued forward, stopping only when Eddie pressed the barrel of his pistol into his brother’s wine-colored shirt.

“You gonna kill me, George?  Does prison really look that good?” Adam managed to get out before Jim slapped him hard.

“A man don’t get no more time for two murders than for one,” George growled.

He saw Adam go white.  Not out of fear for himself, he knew that.  Adam wasn’t afraid of death.

Adam was afraid for him.

“George think about what you are doing -”

George swung toward his brother so fast it made Joe’s head spin.  “Don’t you think I have?!  I aim to have me what I want and there’s plenty of men gonna stand in my way.  Imagine what my reputation will be when I kill me two Cartwrights!”

“Joe’s a child!” his older brother countered, his voice choking.  “You know what they do in prisons to child killers!”

“I don’t aim to go to prison, Adam.  The West is a hard place.  Men die every day.”  George sneered.  “Boys too.  Some desperado came along and killed you two, probably for travelin’ with an Injun.  Ain’t nothin’ puts me here but your eyeballs.”

And Sharp Tongue’s.

So George meant to kill them all.

It was up to him.  He had to take him down.

Joe swallowed over his fear.  The older boy wasn’t paying any attention.

Now was as good a time as any.

 

He’d been told he was good at poker.  This was the supreme test.

Adam kept his face neutral as he watched his little brother charge toward what could very well prove to be his death.  Little Joe curled up and hurled his body at George Eiders and struck the older boy just above the knees, taking him down.

For a moment there was silence and then George bellowed like a maddened bull and the fight was on.

Joe did everything they’d had taught him – ducking and diving, spinning and darting, moving in to land a punch and then dancing out of the way – but his little brother was growing weary.  George managed to land a few blows, the last one on the left side of Joe’s head where he had already been struck several months before.  Where Joe’s steps had been sure, now they were staggering.

It was only a matter of time.

Though it nearly killed him, Adam remained where he was, allowing Eddie and his cohort to think they had him under control.  While he had to admit the feeling of the barrel pressed into his ribs was rather intimidating, he was pretty sure the pair holding him weren’t as invested as George and doubted they were willing to kill anyone in cold blood.  The pair were, however, thoroughly enjoying seeing his baby brother get what he deserved for daring to befriend an Indian boy.  With that thought, Adam’s gaze flicked to the unmoving form on the ground.  He’d nearly forgotten about Sharp Tongue.  Sadly, dead or alive, there was nothing he could do to help Captain Jack’s son.

But he could help his brother.

The sound of another strike and a grunt brought Adam’s attention back to the fight.  George had landed another blow, this time to Little Joe’s mid-section.  His brother was holding his stomach and staggering back.  Their eyes locked as Joe fell to his knees.

And George Eiders went in for the kill.

The gun in his side be damned!

With the speed of a rattler striking, Adam took hold of his captor’s wrist and thrust the weapon up and away from his body.  As the gun discharged – startling both of them – the black-haired man rounded and struck out with his foot, taking Eddie Carver in the knee.  A grim, satisfied smile twitched across Adam’s handsome face as he heard bone snap.

It died just as quickly as a weak voice called his name.

“Adam….”

Spinning back, he found Joe sprawled in the dirt.  George Parks’ larger body covered him.

There was blood everywhere.

Good Lord!

Adam all but slid down the remainder of the hill that separated them.  As he came to rest at his brother’s side, he took hold of his shoulder and shook him.

“Joe!  Little Joe!”

“Get…get him…off me, Adam…” Joe pleaded.

A longer look showed him where the blood was coming from.  Not – thank God! – from Joe, but from a hole in George Parks’ lower side.

A hole occasioned by the bullet that went wild.

Adam sucked in a breath and held it as he pressed two fingers against the base of the older boy’s throat.  He closed his eyes at what he found – reckoning his repugnance at the death of a child with the justice of God’s judgment – and then shoved the lifeless body off of his twelve-year-old brother and gathered the trembling boy in his arms.

It was a minute – maybe more – before Joe managed to ask.  “…Sharp Tongue?”

Adam’s eyes went to the Indian boy who lay across the camp from them.  Captain Jack’s boy was stirring.  Other than Sharp Tongue and the two of them, the camp was empty.  George’s companions had deserted, leaving their erstwhile leader to his unknown fate without a second thought.

“Sharp Tongue’s all right,” he said as he placed a hand on his brother’s curls.

“What about…George?”

He shifted his gaze to the body of Andrew Eiders’ son that lay cooling beside them.  “George won’t ever bother either of you again.”

“Is he…dead?”  Joe jerked back to look at him.  When he nodded, his small brother began to panic.  “Did I…?  I didn’t, did I…?”

“Joe, look at me.  Little Joe!”  Adam took hold of his brother’s chin and held it firmly between his fingers, forcing him to do as he said.  “All you did was defend yourself.  If there’s anyone to blame, it’s me.  That boy may have fired the gun, but I was holding his hand.”

Joe buried his head in his shirt.  After a moment he asked, his voice fading with fatigue, “Will you…will you go to jail?”

Adam pulled him into an even tighter embrace.  Pressing his lips to the top of the boy’s head, he whispered, “Don’t worry.  It’s all right, Joe.”

Yes, it was all right.  Even if he went to jail.

A life imprisoned would be far preferable to the living hell he would have occupied had he let his baby brother die.

 

Ben Cartwright shook his head as he quietly closed the door to his youngest son’s bedroom.  It had been quite a day!

He’d headed for the settlement the moment word came that Hoss had been injured.  Halfway there, he ran into the messenger his middle son had sent to tell him about Little Joe’s capture and his older brother’s mission to save him.  Traveling on, he’d just reached the wagon and found Hoss when a single shot rang out – followed quickly by the thunder of a dozen hooves and several white-faced older boys on horseback flying over the top of the rise as if the Old Nick himself was hard on their heels.

The rancher turned and glanced down the hallway toward his oldest son’s door.  He would never forget what he saw when he topped that same rise and looked down at the boys’ camp – Adam, sitting at its heart, cradling his little brother’s still form to his breast.

Both of them covered in blood.

The blood, it turned out, came from George Eiders whose body lay close by, already growing cold.  He’d feared at first that Adam had killed him and been relieved when he found out he had not.  Though his oldest boy had been forced to kill before, killing a child….

And that was what George had been, an angry, foolish child who had paid for his imprudence with his life.

It was hard to fathom such unwarranted hatred in a lad as young as George Eiders had been.  Like the Biblical Cain, the boy had everything – a comfortable life, a loving family; a hope for the future – but it wasn’t enough.  George wanted more.

And ended with nothing.

Joseph, poor thing, had passed out.  Once he convinced Adam to surrender his unconscious brother, he’d lifted his boy and carried him to the wagon and placed him in the back with Hoss.  His eldest came after him, supporting Captain Jack’s boy who was in little better shape.  After putting John Junior in the back with the other invalids, they’d started for the Ponderosa.

The procession home was slow, silent, and solemn as they all reflected on the fallen nature of man.

With a sigh, Ben headed for the stair.  At the bottom, he found Adam sitting alone in the great room.

“Has Robert gone?” he asked.

Adam nodded.  “Yes.”

The lawman had come out to question his oldest concerning George’s death.

“Was he satisfied?” he asked, hopeful.

“I think so.  Eddie and the others backed me up.”

Robert had caught the other boys.  He found them not too many miles away cowering in a cave, no more dangerous than a snake with its head cut off.

Walking over to his eldest, Ben placed a hand on his shoulder.  “It’s not your fault, son, that the boy is dead.  George brought it on himself.”

“God, he was young, Pa.”  Adam leaned back.  “Younger than Hoss.”

Ben took a seat on the hearthstones.  He paused and then said softly, “And your brother is even younger.”

Adam’s keen gaze flicked to him and then flew up the stairs.  “How is Joe?”

“Sleeping.  Finally.”

“And Sharp Tongue”

Ben sucked in air.  “Awake.  Ready to go.”  He paused.  “That boy.  I don’t know.  I see….”

“Something of George in him,” Adam finished for him.

It startled him, but then he realized his son was right.  “Yes.  He’s angry. Very angry.  And at white men in general.”

“What about Little Joe?”

Ben rose and walked to the bottom of the staircase. “He seems to make…an exception where your brother is concerned.  I’m….”

Adam rose and came to join him.  “You’re glad he’s going away.”

Captain Jack had been out and was due back any time.  He and the boy were leaving the area.  Jack had not stated where they were going and the truth was, he didn’t really care.

Just so long as John Junior, or Sharp Tongue, and the threat he posed were out of his young son’s life forever.

“Does Joe know?” his son asked.

“I told him,” he replied.  “I’m not sure if he was upset or relieved.  You know that boy.”

“He’ll make a heck of a poker player on day,” Adam quipped and then, at his look, laughed.  “When heck freezes over, that is.”

It felt good to laugh.

 

Upstairs, a long lean figure clothed in buckskins stood soldier-straight at the end of Little Joe Cartwright’s bed.  As Sharp Tongue watched his white friend sleep a myriad of emotions flashed across his darkly handsome face.  Among them were gratitude and loyalty, but these were quickly overshadowed by dishonor and a deep burning hatred that the Indian boy longed to embrace.  Among his mother’s people there were warriors who would have gladly – and with no hesitation – slit the white boy’s throat and claimed his curly scalp. These were the men he admired.  They owed the white man nothing.  In many ways, he was the same.  He would not hesitate to cut the throats of the other men in this house or of any they employed.  But this one was different and it was that difference that bound them together.

It was that difference that brought him shame.

One day.  One day he would repay the life debt he owed.

And then, Sharp Tongue, Paiute warrior, would be free.

 

 

Epilogue

Adam Cartwright halted his progress down the steps, book in hand.  He’d gone into his young brother’s room to check on him and found him missing.  The book on the empty chair by the window had intrigued him.  He’d been surprised to find it was the one the Melvaney girl had brought into the house, written by Dickens.  Pa’d told him how the girl had compared Joe to its hero, Sidney Carton, shortly after Joe had been forced to kill Sharp Tongue.

From the looks of his brother, the comparison was not sitting easy.

Little Joe was standing, poised with his hands on the poker, staring into the fire; his lean form tense.  At the sound of his approach his little brother stirred.  Joe sniffed and then turned to look at him and favored him with a sheepish smile.

“Hey, brother.”

“Hey, yourself,” he said as he finished his descent.  As his gaze fell on the rumpled blanket on the settee, Adam said, his tone soft, “Up early, or never been to bed?”

Joe shrugged.  “I slept a couple of hours.  Sort of.”

“Hop Sing cover you with the blanket?” he asked with a smile.

His brother snorted.  “Even tucked it in around my feet.”  Joe shook his head.  “How’s he know to wake up in the middle of the night and do that?”

The black-haired man eyed his brother for a moment before answering.  “Love.”

Joe stared at him.  Then he sat heavily on the hearth.  “I don’t think I know what love is.”

Adam took a seat on the settee opposite him. “This have to do with Sharp Tongue?”

“How’d you…?”  His brother noted the book and then rolled his eyes.  “Pa.”

“Yeah, ‘Pa’.  Not tattling,” he replied as he settled in.  “Just keeping tabs.”

“Adam….”

“Yes?”

“Have you ever…I mean…have you ever had to kill someone you…loved?”

The question took him a little off-guard.  He knew his brother and Captain Jack’s son had been close.

But, love?

“No, Joe, I don’t think I have.  I’m sorry you had to.”

“It was, well….”  His brother sighed.  “I didn’t love him like I do you and Hoss, but, I mean, we were brothers in a way and brothers love one another. I guess I don’t….”

“Don’t what, Joe?”

His brother turned toward the fire again.  It’s waning light cast his striking profile in shadow.  “How can a brother just…stop bein’ a brother?”

Adam’s thoughts, unbidden, flew to Clay Stafford –  Joe’s ‘other’ half-brother.  He knew Joe thought Clay had ‘stopped’ being his brother when he left; stopped loving him.  In fact, it was Clay’s love for Joe that had driven him away.

“Joe, I….”

His brother looked straight at him.  “Could I ever do something that would make you stop loving me, Adam?  Could I?”

The plea was so earnest – so heartfelt – it nearly unmanned him.

“No, Joe.  There is nothing you could do that would make me stop loving you.”

The word were quick and sure.

And honest.

Joe, on the other hand, was frowning. Thinking it through.

That was Joe.

Putting down the book, he went to sit by him.  Locking his hands together between his knees, Adam turned and looked at the kid, noting the unspent tears in his brother’s eyes.

“I think Sharp Tongue did love you, Joe. I think he thought of himself as your brother, at least when you were young.  But he couldn’t see past the one thing that separated you.”

“Which was?”

“The color of your skin.”

Joe snorted.  “It’s just skin, Adam.  It’s not what makes a man.”

Ah, that the world could be as wise as Joseph Francis Cartwright.

He was reminded of another famous speech spoken, not by a character of Dickens, but one of the Bard’s. A speech from ‘The Merchant of Venice’.

‘Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?

Reaching out, Adam placed his hand over his brother’s.  For a moment they sat in silence, remembering that day long before when Little Joe and Sharp Tongue had met as boys, and considering all that had happened since.

Finally he said, his word soft, “Sharp Tongue is free now, Joe.  The boy he was would want you to be free too.”

A single tear slipped down his brother’s cheek.  He nodded.

“Thanks, Adam.”

Lifting his arm, the black-haired man circled his brother’s shoulders and gave them a squeeze.

“What else are big brothers for?”

 

 

6 thoughts on “The Ultimate Wound (by mcfair_58)”

  1. Amazing!!!! I did not remember this episode and your story made me watch it again. It is wonderful how it made much more sense after your prequel! Fabulous!

  2. I enjoyed this take on what might have come before and after the episode. And I love that Adam was part of it all! 😊

    1. Amazing!!!! I did not remember this episode and your story made me watch it again. It is wonderful how it made much more sense after your pequei! Fabulous!

  3. A multi-layered story with many lessons revealed throughout. Among other passages I liked Joe’s comments about listening to Adam’s “boring words,” and the analogy comparing the taming of his anger to become a better person with that of a stallion’s demeanor after being saddle broke. From a few lines of dialogue in the episode you fashioned a memorable backstory rich with emotion and truths that will remain with me any time I view it.

  4. A powerful story. Lovely job filling in the background to one of my favorite episodes. I like the young Joe you showed us, with his loyalty and stubbornness and courage. I especially liked his response to the Welsh girl–knowing older Joe as we do, that scene spoke volumes about his character. It makes the climax in the episode itself that much more poignant. Nicely done!

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