Summary: A strange ranch hand develops an obsession with Joe
Rated: T (12,825 words)
The cowboy reined in his horse and looked at the imposing wooden house in front of him. It was even larger than he’d been led to believe and he figured that this Ben Cartwright must have as much money as everyone said he did. The yard of the house was full of activity and Chuck dismounted and looked around him, wondering who might be the best one to direct him. Suddenly a large man with a broad gap-toothed grin approached him. ‘Howdy,’ the man said. ‘Can I help ya?’
Chuck tipped his hat to the man. ‘Looking for the boss,’ he said.
The large man looked him up and down. ‘Looking for work huh?’
‘Maybe,’ said Chuck in a noncommittal tone. ‘Depends on how much they’re paying.’
The large man slapped him on the back and gave a loud laugh. ‘I reckon you’ll find the pay’s right,’ he said. ‘Depends on if ya can do the work though.’
‘I can measure up to anything,’ said Chuck defensively as he drew himself up to his full height. ‘I’ve done ranching before.’
‘Have ya?’ said the large man casually. ‘Don’t look like it.’ He held out his hand. ‘Hoss Cartwright’s the name.’
Chuck blinked a couple of times before shaking his hand. ‘One of the Cartwrights?’ he asked.
‘Sure enough,’ said Hoss, giving the man another gap-toothed smile. ‘You’d better store ya gear in the bunk house over there and pick out a horse if ya’re gonna ride with us today Chuck.’
‘Just like that?’ asked Chuck.
‘Just like that,’ said Hoss with another slap on the man’s back that almost knocked him off his feet. ‘Bert! Show this new guy where ta go, will ya?’
‘Over here,’ said Bert, sauntering over. ‘You can pick out a bunk later. That your horse?’
Chuck nodded. ‘Yep,’ he said, watching as Hoss walked away. ‘Is he always so easy-going?’
Bert sniffed and then grinned. ‘Yep,’ he said. ‘The most easy-going one of the bunch is Hoss. You’re lucky it weren’t the older brother over there that ya talked to first. He woulda quizzed ya until ya head spun from all his questions.’
Chuck looked over in the direction that Bert was pointing to where a man dressed in black was standing in the middle of a group of men. He seemed to giving directions, talking a lot and gesturing with his hands. Several of the men nodded and then mounted up and rode off.
‘What’s his name?’ asked Chuck.
‘Who? Oh … Adam. He’s the one ya gotta watch most round here. Eyes like a hawk that one. Keeps ya on ya toes all right.’ Bert spat on the ground. ‘Now let’s get ya a horse picked out and get ya started.’
‘I’ve got a horse,’ said Chuck.
Bert snorted. ‘Don’t look like that old nag’ll take ya far,’ he said. ‘Where ya get it anyways?’
‘Won it in a poker game,’ said Chuck defensively. ‘He gets me where I want to go.’
‘Mustn’t wanna get very far then,’ said Bert with a chuckle. ‘I think we can do better than that fer ya.’ He looked Chuck up and down. ‘Can ya ride? Don’t look like ya’ve done much in them clothes.’
‘I can ride fine,’ said Chuck, drawing himself up to his full height again. ‘If it’s any of your business.’
Bert raised an eyebrow. ‘Come on then,’ he said. ‘I’ll help ya find a horse.’
From the look that Bert gave Chuck, he figured that the man had worked out that he didn’t really fit in here. He really didn’t why that would be, considering that he’d done his best to get the right kind of clothes and taken great pains to develop the slow drawl that he’d heard around town that most of the cowhands here seemed to talk with. It was always like this though. No matter how much he tried to fit in to the places he ended up in, he always felt apart from others and ended up showing it. Chuck prayed silently that this wouldn’t be one of those times.
He was so sick and tired of moving on all the time … shifting his life from one place to another every time things got out of control. This time he was determined that it would all work out. This time he wouldn’t let it happen again. Even changing his name to fit in around here … he shuddered at the bastardisation of his name every time he heard himself being referred to as Chuck instead of Charles … was designed to help him look and sound like a true cowboy. As he followed Bert towards the corral, Chuck hoped with all his might that it would work out this time.
By the time he rode back into the front yard that evening, Chuck wasn’t so sure that he going to make it. His body ached with the supreme effort of keeping in the saddle all day and he practically groaned aloud as he slid down from his horse. ‘You’ll get used to it,’ said a jovial voice beside him and he turned to see Hoss grinning at him.
‘I’m OK,’ said Chuck haughtily.
‘Sure ya are,’ replied Hoss with a chuckle. ‘Look after him will ya Bert?’ He chuckled again as he walked towards the house.
‘Come on,’ said Bert. ‘I’ll show ya where ya bunk is.’ He led the way towards the bunkhouse and Chuck followed him.
‘What about my horse?’ he asked, dreading the thought of going back and tending to the animal, yet knowing that everyone was responsible for their own mount.
Bert grinned at him over his shoulder. ‘Reckon you’d fall over him if ya had ta tend to him now,’ he said. ‘I’ll do it fer ya just this once.’
‘Thanks,’ said Chuck, not knowing what else to say.
‘This here’s the new man Chuck,’ said Bert as they entered the bunkhouse. ‘That’s your bunk over there,’ he said, indicating a bottom bunk where someone had already put Chuck’s gear. ‘Reckon you’ll be needing it right away, huh? Get a bit of shut eye before supper if ya like.’
Chuck didn’t bother to argue, but simply eased his aching body down on the bunk and let out a sigh of relief. The other men laughed in amusement at the look on his face and he grinned back at them. ‘Guess I’m not quite as used to it as I thought,’ he said.
Chuck closed his eyes and allowed himself to sink down into the pillow, his body crying out as the weariness washed over him. He lay there for several minutes, wallowing in the sheer luxury of doing nothing before he opened his eyes again and observed the activity around him. There were several ranch hands sitting by the open doorway playing a game of cards and a younger man was shaving in front of a small mirror while he sang a lilting tune softly under his breath. He had taken off his shirt and his bronzed torso was finely muscled and lithe in the lamplight.
Chuck’s eyes became riveted on the young cowboy as he shaved, his thoughts a jumble of past experiences and regrets. Suddenly the young man turned and looked at him. ‘What you looking at?’ he demanded.
‘Nothing,’ replied Chuck, closing his eyes again. ‘Sorry.’ He drew a blanket up around his waist, draping it across himself in what he hoped was a casual manner as he turned his face to the wall.
It wasn’t for another two days that Chuck finally met the owner of The Ponderosa. Two days of hard work and rough riding that were beginning to take their toll on him as he became used to the rigours of ranch life.
‘So how’s it going young man?’ asked Ben Cartwright. ‘You’re the new hand around here I believe?’ He eyed the pale man up and down curiously. ‘You haven’t done much ranch work I take it?’
Chuck wondered who had been talking to the boss for him to know that. Ben Cartwright certainly looked like a man to be reckoned with and Chuck figured that he would have made it his business to find out about every hand on the ranch. ‘I’m doing OK,’ he said with a shrug.
‘Glad to hear it,’ said Ben, patting the man on the shoulder. ‘It’ll get easier you know.’ He gave Chuck a grin and then walked away to talk to his son Adam. Chuck watched the two men for a moment and then mounted up again. That Adam sure was a strange one, he thought as he rode out of the yard. Never seemed too keen on talking much, he observed. Chuck was good at observing people and things. He always had to be given his situation. Never could be too careful what people made you out to be … he’d learned that from bitter experience … and he’d learned to sit back and watch rather than become involved in relationships if he could help it. Apart from … he brushed those thoughts to the back of his mind. That wasn’t an option here …. not if he wanted this place to work out for him.
Chuck was confident now that it would work out here. The Cartwrights seemed good bosses … even if that Adam did seem a bit distant. Mr Cartwright and Hoss were friendly enough and the men would be fine as long as he remembered to be careful with them. As long as he kept his distance, Chuck was confident that he would be able to handle things.
He heard a rider gallop into the yard and looked over his shoulder to see a boy of about sixteen on a pinto horse pull to a stop and dismount before the animal had even properly pulled up. He was young and lithe and his green eyes sparkled with a vitality that made Chuck swallow as he observed him. His hat fell backwards from his head and he pushed it back again … but not before Chuck had seen a curly head of chestnut locks that framed the delicate features of his face.
Chuck dragged his eyes from the fascinating youngster and turned to Bert who was riding beside him. ‘Who is that?’ he whispered.
Bert looked over his shoulder. ‘Youngest Cartwright,’ he said. ‘Goes by the name of Joe … most folks around here call him Little Joe but.’
Chuck swallowed again as he stared at the boy, knowing in an instant that things could never work out for him here now.
The next day was Sunday and Chuck welcomed it for the simple reason that he didn’t have to ride out again and stay all day in the saddle. He relished the sleep-in and didn’t even rise when everyone else did well after sunup. Instead he lay in bed, his tired mind mulling over things as he had done for most of the night. Sleep had not come easily to him and he revelled in the thought that he could take an afternoon sleep without being ridiculed. From what he’d heard, most of the men either slept the day away on a Sunday or spent it in town drinking, playing cards and visiting certain women who frequented the saloons there.
He’d forced himself to look interested when they’d invited him along, extolling the physical virtues of certain of these women and convinced himself that he’d done a fairly good job of it too. None of them would ever suspect that the reason he didn’t want to go in was because of his aching muscles and nothing more. He’d become good at looking interested when men talked in this way and prided himself on his deception.
By the time he finally made it outside, the sun was quite high in the sky and he figured that it was probably close to the noonday mealtime. He stroked his chin as he sat down on an upturned barrel and listened to a few of the men talking about this and that while he drank in the sunshine. ‘Where are the Cartwrights?’ he asked when there was a lull in the conversation. ‘They don’t seem to be around. Do they go into town with the men on a Sunday?’
‘Yep,’ said Bert. ‘Only not fer what the others do.’ He stretched lazily. ‘Mr Cartwright insists them boys of his goes ta church every week.’
‘You don’t say?’ murmured Chuck. Somehow it didn’t surprise him that Mr Cartwright was a God-fearing man. It didn’t surprise him, but it worried him somewhat. People who went to church disturbed him.
At that moment a buggy came around the corner of the barn. ‘Talk of the devil,’ said Bert, chuckling at his own pun on words. Chuck watched with interest as first Hoss and then Adam got down from the buggy, followed by Mr Cartwright. His eyes fixated on the youngest Cartwright as Little Joe jumped down from the vehicle with the exuberance that only youth can bring and grinned at his father. ‘Can I Pa?’ he asked, obviously continuing a conversation they’d been having in the buggy.
Chuck took the opportunity to take a long appraising look at the boy. He was dressed in a blue suit which accentuated his slim hips and his small waist, while showing off his shoulders which were beginning to show the muscles that continual hard work develops. He was, to Chuck’s eyes, perfection itself with his startling green eyes, curly hair and fine features. Chuck shifted a little on his seat as he listened to Mr Cartwright’s reply to the boy’s query.
‘Not until you’ve had some dinner young man.’
‘Yeah, but after then?’ cajoled Little Joe. ‘Please?’
‘All right,’ said his father as the boy grinned at him and then bounded towards the house. ‘But get changed first!’ he shouted. ‘You’re not going fishing in those clothes Joseph!’
‘That youngun can talk his Pa into anything,’ said Bert with a chuckle. ‘Got charm that’s for sure.’ Chuck thought about how true the man’s words were … although if he had know what sort of charm Chuck was thinking of, Bert would probably have been horrified.
‘Where do people usually fish around here?’ asked Chuck, trying to sound casual.
‘Down at the lake,’ replied Bert. ‘Just follow the trail down there.’ He pointed to a trail that led away from the house on the other side of the yard. ‘You a fisherman?’
‘Sure am,’ replied Chuck. ‘Anyone got a line I can borrow?’
‘In the tack room …. Help yaself,’ said Bert lazily and shut his eyes to sleep. ‘Have a good time.’
Chuck took one look at the house before standing up and going into the tack room.
Chuck looked at the fishhook in his hand and wondered what on earth he was supposed to put on it. Of course he knew that people usually hooked on worms to entice the fish to bite, but the very thought of it appalled him and he simply stared at the small metal hook as he considered what to do. Suddenly he heard a movement behind him and he quickly dropped his line into the water and sat back against the tree.
‘Oh,’ said a voice behind him. ‘I’m sorry … I didn’t know that anyone else was here.’
Chuck turned with exaggerated slowness and smiled slowly as Joe emerged from the bushes. ‘Hello,’ he said, noting that the boy had changed into an old pair of tan pants and a checked shirt that clung to his body just as much as the blue suit had. ‘That’s OK. I don’t mind sharing my fishing spot with you.’
‘Actually it’s my spot,’ said Joe with a grin. ‘But I don’t mind sharing either.’ To Chuck’s delight he sat down close beside him and stared at the fishing line in the water. ‘You’ve lost your bait,’ he said. ‘Want some more?’
‘Well how about that!’ exclaimed Chuck. ‘I hadn’t noticed. Darn fish must have taken it without me even knowing.’ He pulled in his line and watched as Joe pulled out a juicy worm out of a can he had placed by his side and baited his own hook without hesitation.
Joe motioned to the can. ‘Help yourself,’ he said in a friendly tone. Chuck hesitated, taken aback both by the close proximity of the boy and his revulsion of the wriggling worms in the can. He tentatively picked one up, his face showing his distaste of the squashy worm. Joe grinned at him as he reached over and took the worm, baiting the hook for him expertly. ‘You ain’t done much fishing huh?’ he asked with a grin as he held it out for Chuck.
‘Not a lot,’ admitted Chuck as he took the line and threw it quickly into the water. ‘Maybe you could teach me a thing or two?’ He thought about what he’d like to teach the youngster and his body reacted immediately to his brain. He shifted quickly so that he was sitting upright again.
‘Sure,’ said Joe with another grin at him. Chuck noted how the boy’s eyes lit up when he smiled and he smiled back at him. The youngster was truly delightful … it had been a long time since Chuck had seen anyone who intrigued him so much. ‘I do a lot of fishing,’ continued Joe. He gave Chuck an appraising stare. ‘You’re the new hand, aren’t you?’
‘Yes,’ said Chuck.
‘Joe Cartwright’s the name,’ said Joe in a friendly tone and held out his hand to Chuck. Chuck shook it and a thrill went through him as their palms met skin-to-skin.
‘Chuck Higgins,’ he said as he reluctantly withdrew his hand. ‘Please to meet you Joe Cartwright. Your Pa owns this place don’t he?’ He winced as he listened to the bad grammar that he forced himself to use.
‘Yep,’ said Joe in a casual fashion. ‘Where you from Chuck?’
Chuck hesitated. Where was he from? How could he possibly explain to this youngster where he was from? He was from so many places … so many different worlds … how could he choose just one? ‘I was born in Boston,’ he said finally, latching onto the one place that he identified with the most.
Joe’s eyes lit up. ‘Yeah?’ he said. ‘You have something in common with my brother Adam then. He was born there too. Spent a while at College there as well.’
Chuck instantly looked wary and had to force himself to maintain the casual tone in his voice. ‘Oh yes?’ he said.
Joe grinned at him happily. ‘I’ll tell him. He’ll probably be interested in talking to you about it. Adam likes all that city talk.’
‘You don’t, I take it?’
‘Who me? Heck no!’ Joe assured him. ‘I ain’t one for city life myself.’ He giggled … a sound that thrilled Chuck … as he added, ‘Not that I don’t appreciate some of them ladies you know.’ Joe looked at Chuck anxiously to see what his reaction to his statement was. ‘I mean … not that I … I just like the sound of em,’ he said quickly.
Chuck tried to restrain himself from laughing aloud at the boy’s statement. It was obvious from what he’d seen of this family that old man Cartwright wasn’t about to let this youngster off the leash in a big city and the boy was obviously far too young and naïve to live up to anything he might imagine himself capable of being or doing in a city. Still, the very thought of the boy being interested in women created a hollow feeling in Chuck and he stared at the water morosely as Joe chattered on.
‘You OK Chuck?’ asked Joe. ‘Something wrong?’
‘No, nothing’s wrong,’ said Chuck. ‘Just tired I guess.’
Joe grinned at him again. ‘Sundays are great for catching up, ain’t they?’ he said. ‘It’s my favourite day of the week cause we don’t have to work.’
Chuck nodded and was silent as he observed the boy beside him. He really was a very handsome young lad, he decided. Really too handsome for his own good probably. It disturbed him that some woman would probably get her hooks into him some day and …. Chuck sidled closer to Joe and smiled at him. ‘Show me how you do that,’ he said in a low voice as Joe began to bait his hook again. He leant forward so that their heads were nearly touching and drank in the fragrance of the youngster beside him. Joe concentrated on the fishhook in his hand as he speared the wriggling worm onto it and Chuck concentrated on Joe’s close proximity to himself. He leant forward even further until his face was almost resting in the boy’s curls …
‘So this is where you got to!’
Chuck turned reluctantly to face Adam Cartwright who was emerging from the bushes behind them. He drew back quickly from Joe and met the man’s dark appraising stare with one of his own, determined to hold the gaze to show that he wasn’t intimidated at all.
‘Oh, hi Adam,’ said Joe, unaware of the intensity of the stare between both men. ‘We was just talking bout you.’
‘Were you?’ said Adam in the dry way he had of talking. He sat down next to his brother and gave Chuck a hard stare. ‘Why?’
‘Chuck here comes from Boston,’ said Joe. ‘I was telling him that you do too.’
‘Really?’ said Adam, raising an eyebrow as he continued to stare at the man. ‘Isn’t that a co-incidence?’
Chuck forced a smile on his face, in spite of the feeling of intimidation that was creeping over him. There was something about Adam Cartwright that certainly made him feel uneasy … the penetrating look that the man gave him made him wither inside … and he tried desperately not to show his true feelings as he returned the stare with an open one of his own. ‘Yes,’ he said pleasantly. ‘It is, isn’t it?’
‘You gonna fish Adam?’ asked Joe from in between them as he threw his own line once again into the water. ‘You ain’t got your line.’
‘No,’ said Adam. ‘I’m not.’ He continued to stare at Chuck over the top of Joe’s head. ‘But I might just stay and take it easy while you do,’ he added.
Chuck smiled at the man, hating the smug look that came over Adam’s face. He didn’t miss the quick glance that the man gave him and reluctantly he edged away from Joe and stared once again morosely into the water.
Chuck smiled at Joe as they both tightened the cinches on their horses side by side. ‘Where are you off to today then?’ Chuck asked, willing the boy to say that he was riding with the men up to the North Section where he himself was headed.
‘South,’ said Joe. ‘I’m checking fence lines with Hoss all day.’
‘Oh,’ said Chuck, his heart sinking at the thought of another wasted day when he wouldn’t be able to watch the boy. Joe was fascinating to observe on horseback … he moved in such a fashion that Chuck could watch him all day. He reached over and placed his hand on top of Joe’s. ‘Let me help you with that,’ he said in a low voice as he took the cinch strap and tightened it.
‘Thanks,’ said Joe, grinning at him.
Chuck’s heart began to race as they stood there and he spoke despite his best intentions not to. ‘No trouble,’ he said softly. ‘Nothing’s too much trouble for you Joe.’
Joe’s grin became wider and he looked at Chuck in a friendly fashion before stepping away and pulling on his horse’s reins. He swung up into the saddle with a graceful style that made Chuck’s heart beat even faster and grinned down at him. ‘See ya later Chuck,’ he said as he turned away.
Chuck stood staring long after Joe had disappeared around the side of the barn, his mind racing. ‘Something wrong?’ He turned quickly to see Adam watching him intently.
‘No,’ he said, forcing a smile onto his face. ‘Just getting ready to ride out to work. Bye.’ He mounted up and rode off as well.
Adam continued to stare after the man for a moment and then turned towards the barn where his father was standing. ‘Pa?’ he said. ‘What do we know about that new man Chuck?’
‘What is there to know?’ asked Ben. ‘He just appeared one day and Hoss hired him. Doesn’t look to have done much ranch work, but he’s handling it OK. Why do you ask?’
Adam fingered his chin thoughtfully. ‘I’m not sure,’ he said. ‘He just seems …. unusual.’
‘Unusual? In what way?’
‘I can’t really put my finger on it,’ mused Adam thoughtfully. ‘I just get an uneasy feeling when I’m around him.’
‘Oh Adam!’ chuckled Ben. ‘You’re always too suspicious for your own good. The man hasn’t done anything wrong, has he?’
‘No,’ said Adam slowly. ‘He hasn’t actually done anything. It’s more …. his demeanour I suppose. Have you noticed how he seems to slink around everywhere like a cat? And he’s always hanging around Joe.’
‘Maybe Joe’s always hanging around him?’ said Ben. ‘You know how that boy loves to talk to people.’
‘Mmm … true. But …’ Adam stopped. ‘You’re probably right … it’s just my imagination. Still … I’m going to keep an eye on him.’
‘If you want,’ said his father. ‘Now are you going to work or are you going to stand here all day jawing?’
Adam smiled at his father. ‘Yes sir,’ he said with a mock salute. ‘I’ll be on my way sir.’
‘Don’t you give me any cheek,’ said Ben with a laugh. ‘Off you go!’ He watched as Adam mounted up and then turned back towards the house to face the dreaded books again.
Chuck stood beside the corral and watched Joe on the other side watching the activity inside the fence-line. The boy was extremely animated and Chuck was revelling in a chance to just observe him as he cheered on the riders. He couldn’t help but watch the youngster, mesmerised by the sight of him … yet even as he did was he was aware of not being obvious about it to anyone who was nearby. He’d been accused of watching like this far too often for his own good and he had no intention of it happening again. Instead, he pretended to watch the riders when in fact his mind and his eyes were full of the vivacious boy across the corral from him.
He needed moments like this, he’d decided. They were the food for his nightly dreams about Joe. The little snippets that he caught from him during the day satisfied him while he lay in bed at night and thought about the youngster. For now …. he thought mournfully. He knew that there would come a time when it wasn’t going to be enough …. when thoughts of the youngster wouldn’t satisfy him anymore and reluctantly he decided that when that happened it would be time to move on. He swallowed as the very thought of leaving this fascinating creature behind when he did go overwhelmed him and he knew at once that he wouldn’t have the strength to do it.
He walked around to the other side of the corral and looked up at Joe who was sitting on the top rung of the fence. ‘Good ride, wasn’t it?’ he said.
Joe looked down at him absently. ‘Huh?’
‘I said that it was a good ride,’ said Chuck.
‘Oh …. Yeah,’ said Joe, turning his attention towards the corral again.
Chuck tried again. ‘You’ll be riding in there some day,’ he said.
Joe looked down again. ‘You think so?’ he asked, delightedly.
‘I’m sure of it,’ said Chuck, placing his hand on Joe’s leg. ‘You’re a wonderful rider Joe. The way you move with a horse …’ he licked his lips. ‘Well sometimes it takes my breath away.’
Joe grinned at him. ‘Thanks,’ he said happily and then turned towards the corral again.
Chuck waited for a few moments in silence with his hand still on Joe’s leg. The youngster seemed to have forgotten that he was even there, so mesmerised was he with the activity inside the corral and Chuck stared at him as he stared at the horses. Suddenly he felt a movement next to him and he withdrew his hand quickly.
‘Haven’t you got work to do?’ asked Adam in a gruff voice.
‘I’m just watching the horses for a bit, replied Joe defensively. ‘Ain’t no harm in that is there?’
‘Not at all. As long as your chores are done,’ said Adam pointedly.
Joe sighed and scrambled down from the fence before sauntering off towards the barn. Chuck turned to go as well, but stopped when he felt the pressure of Adam’s hand on his shoulder. ‘I want a word with you,’ he said.
Chuck forced a smile onto his face. ‘Yes?’ he asked politely.
‘What exactly are you up to?’ asked Adam, giving the man a penetrating look.
‘Just watching as well,’ said Chuck innocently.
‘That’s not what I meant and you know it,’ replied Adam. ‘Why are you always hanging around my brother the way you are?’
Chuck’s eyes widened with apparent surprise. ‘Not sure what you mean,’ he said. ‘The boy and I just happened to be watching together. No law against that, is there?’
‘No,’ replied Adam in a measured tone. ‘No law against it of course. Just that you seem to be wherever Joe is lately.’
Chuck raised his hands in supposed indignation. ‘So what?’ he asked in a defensive tone.
Adam took a step towards him. ‘So I want you to leave the boy alone,’ he said. ‘Or else you might find yourself packing your bags to leave. Do I make myself clear?’
‘Vividly,’ said Chuck tersely. ‘Will there be anything else?’ Adam shook his head and Chuck sauntered away, taking care to go in the opposite direction to Joe. So it had begun again! He knew that it wouldn’t take long now that someone had noticed once again that his behaviour wasn’t quite … Chuck searched his brain for a word to describe the way people viewed him, but couldn’t come up with anything. All he knew was that others viewed him differently and that was always when the trouble started. Unfortunate that it had to be Adam Cartwright who noticed it first though. Unfortunate because he had power here to make Chuck’s life difficult … or even worse, to force him to go.
Chuck’s mind flitted back to Joe again. No, he knew that he couldn’t give up his obsession with the youngster and he couldn’t leave this place where he had the opportunity to watch him every day. He’d have to get the boy away from under the watchful eye of his older brother, and he’d have to do it quickly before things became too difficult to handle.
‘You sent them together?’ asked Adam. ‘I told you that the man spends too much time with Joe as it is!’
‘Adam don’t be ridiculous,’ replied his father calmly. ‘The supplies needed to be fetched and Chuck was the obvious one to get them. You know that he’s not much use to us out there in the North Section.’
‘Then sack him!’ said Adam angrily. ‘Why send him to town with Joe?’
‘I just told you. He was the obvious choice and Joseph needed a haircut, so I thought I’d kill two birds so to speak.’
‘That kid will never get a haircut without one of us in there making sure that he does,’ muttered Adam.
‘I’ve threatened to haul him back in there if he doesn’t,’ said Ben sternly. ‘He’ll get one all right.’
‘I still think that you shouldn’t have sent them together,’ said Adam. ‘I might ride in and see …’
‘You’ll do nothing of the kind,’ said Ben sternly. ‘You have work to do.’
Adam thumped his fist on his father’s desk and marched outside, anger pounding in his brain. He really didn’t know why, but that Chuck Higgins made his blood boil and he just wished that he could convince his father that his fears weren’t unfounded. The problem was, of course, that he really didn’t have any reason to think of the man badly … apart from his apparent obsession with Joe. He wondered why a man of Chuck’s age would be bothered hanging around with a kid like Joe. Something niggled at the back of his brain, but it refused to come to the surface and he shook his head slowly as he reluctantly turned towards his horse and began to mount up.
Chuck couldn’t believe his luck that morning when Mr Cartwright had told him to accompany Joe to town. Here he had been searching his brain for an excuse to be alone with the boy and his own father had made it so easy for him. Joe had wanted to ride his horse in, but luckily his father had convinced him to go on the buckboard with Chuck and the man had spent a good hour revelling in the closeness of the two of them as they sat on the small seat together.
He’d never had so much of an opportunity to listen to Joe before and what he heard he liked. The youngster had a quick wit and wasn’t at all backward in using it, much to Chuck’s delight. Soon, Joe began moaning about the haircut that he was being forced to have. ‘Don’t see why I need ta have it cut anyways,’ he whined. ‘I like it long.’
‘It suits you long,’ said Chuck. He reached up and fingered a couple of the small curls that nestled around the nape of Joe’s neck and an involuntary shiver ran down his spine at the touch. Joe shrugged the man’s hand off impatiently.
‘I think so,’ he said, oblivious to Chuck’s demeanour. ‘But Pa always makes me have it short.’
‘It’s beautiful hair,’ said Chuck in a low voice. He reached over and touched it again, running his hand through the curls at the back.
Joe gave him a puzzled look before pulling away from him. ‘Yeah …’ he mumbled. ‘Thanks.’ He looked into the distance, shielding his eyes from the sun as the town came into view in the distance. ‘We’ll be there soon,’ he said. ‘If we don’t take too long with the supplies we could get a drink.’ He shot the man a sideways glance. ‘I wouldn’t tell my Pa if you didn’t.’
‘It’s a deal,’ said Chuck with a laugh.
Joe grinned at him. ‘Great!’ he said. ‘And if we’re lucky we might be able to steal a kiss or two from Rosie. She’ll be in the saloon today and she’s right good kisser. I’ll introduce you if ya like.’
Chuck’s expression turned to a frown. ‘That won’t be necessary,’ he said shortly. ‘On second thoughts I don’t think we’ll have time to visit the saloon after all.’
Joe’s face fell. ‘How come?’ he said. ‘You just said that we would.’
‘I changed my mind,’ said Chuck firmly. ‘It’s not good for you to go around kissing … women … anyway.’
‘Ain’t no harm in it,’ declared Joe.
‘There are other pleasurable things in life besides kissing women,’ said Chuck, giving the boy a long look.
‘Yeah?’ said Joe, really interested now. ‘Like what?’
‘Like the touch of a silken thigh against your own,’ said Chuck suggestively.
Joe swallowed and blushed. ‘Yeah,’ he said, obviously embarrassed. ‘I guess so.’
Chuck smiled at him. ‘And the delicious feel of naked flesh against naked flesh.’
Joe’s eyes popped open as he looked at the man in surprise. ‘I … reckon … so,’ he said feebly. There was silence for a moment. ‘I … um ….’ Joe blushed again and looked away.
‘I hope I didn’t embarrass you Joe,’ said Chuck.
‘Oh no,’ said Joe, a trifle too casual to be genuine. ‘I know all bout that stuff.’
‘I see,’ said Chuck. ‘Well then maybe …’
‘I’ll get out here,’ interrupted Joe as they came around into Main Street. ‘I’ll meet ya down at the Mercantile when I’ve had my haircut. OK?’
‘Fine,’ said Chuck, pulling to a stop and watching the youngster as he bounded off. The boy just didn’t get it, he decided. He’d have to make it easier for them both. With a determined look on his face he turned the buckboard towards the saloon.
‘I’ve got something for us to enjoy on the way home,’ said Chuck as Joe climbed up into the buckboard again.
Chuck pulled a bottle of whiskey out of the brown paper bag and held it up. ‘This,’ he said. ‘I thought you sounded a bit disappointed when I said that we weren’t going to the saloon, so I got this for us to enjoy on the way home.’
Joe looked uncertain. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Well I was really talking bout a beer Chuck. I don’t usually drink …’
Now don’t tell me that you don’t like whiskey,’ said Chuck, taking the cork out of the bottle with his teeth. ‘I thought you were grown up.’
‘I am grown up,’ said Joe defensively. ‘I just don’t …’
‘Good,’ said Chuck, handing him the bottle. ‘You go first then.’
Joe took a swig of the whiskey, trying not to show his distaste of the liquid as it burned his throat. Chuck watched carefully and shook his head as Joe offered the bottle to him. ‘I’ll have some when we get well out of town,’ he said. ‘You take your time with it.’ He looked at the boy with a calculating stare, wondering how long it would be before the effects of the alcohol combined with the drug that he’d mixed in with it worked. He found out soon enough as Joe’s eyes began to glaze over and he began to talk rapidly.
‘Don’t know … I don’t know … why ….’ He said as he ran his fingers through his newly shorn hair. ‘Don’t know.’
‘Don’t know what?’ asked Chuck with a small smile. ‘Have some more whiskey.’
Joe took another swig and smiled. ‘It kinda … grows on ya don’t it?’ he giggled. ‘Don’t know … know why I hadta …’ he ran his fingers through his hair again. ‘It was fine …. before …’ he made a snipping movement with his fingers, giggled again and then slumped sideways on the seat.
Chuck pulled the horses to a halt and took the bottle of whiskey before it toppled over the edge of the seat and propped Joe up beside him. ‘Here,’ he said, holding the bottle to the boy’s lips. ‘Have a bit more.’
Joe looked at him with a dazed expression and opened his lips to do as he was told. ‘Don’t know….’ he murmured.
Chuck put down the bottle and held the youngster close to him as Joe drank. He took a quick drink himself and then put the bottle on the seat next to them both before tightening his grip on the boy. Beside him, Joe giggled and closed his eyes as he relaxed back against Chuck.
Chuck pulled Joe towards him and slid him down from the buckboard seat. The youngster’s head lolled to one side and he gave Chuck a lopsided grin. ‘Didn’t want … no haircut,’ he whispered into the man’s ear as Chuck tried to stand him on his feet.
‘I know,’ said Chuck soothingly as the youngster swayed against him. He looked over to the house where Ben Cartwright was standing with his hands on his hips and beckoned to him. ‘Mr Cartwright!’ he called. ‘I need your help.’
Ben strode towards them his eyes fixed on the young man propped up against Chuck’s side. ‘What on earth has gone on here?’ he demanded, catching Joe as he was about to fall.
Chuck shrugged. ‘I found him like this in town,’ he said. ‘When he didn’t meet me as planned I went looking for him and found him in the alleyway beside the saloon.’
Ben sniffed his son. ‘Whiskey,’ he said and then shook Joe slightly. ‘What do you have to say for yourself Joseph?’
Joe looked at his father miserably. ‘I … I’m gonna be sick Pa,’ he said and promptly threw up on his father’s boots.
Ben shook his head as he put his arm around his son’s waist and turned towards the house. ‘Thank you,’ he said to Chuck over his shoulder. ‘I’m sorry he was so much trouble for you.’ He shook Joe again. ‘We’ll talk once you’re sober young man,’ he said sternly. ‘And I don’t think you’re going to enjoy our discussion.’ He led his son into the house, while Chuck stared after them. After a few moments he turned and began to unload the supplies.
Chuck watched as Joe walked slowly to the barn and sat down on an upturned barrel next to the water trough. ‘You get it from your Pa yesterday?’ he asked as he sidled towards the young man.
Joe nodded miserably. ‘Sure did,’ he said. ‘Funny thing is that I never even drink whiskey. Don’t know why I started all of a sudden.’ He rubbed his temples. ‘I’ve got a whopper of a headache,’ he said mournfully.
Chuck nodded sympathetically. ‘I suppose you have,’ he said, sitting down beside him and put his hand on his shoulder. ‘It’ll get better in a while … take my word for it.’ He put his arm around Joe’s shoulder and the youngster shrugged it off causing Chuck to frown. ‘How about you and me take off and do some fishing?’ he suggested.
‘No,’ said Joe, easing himself across to the other side of the barrel away from Chuck. For some reason that he couldn’t quite put his finger on, he felt uncomfortable with the man so close. ‘I’d better not. Pa has grounded me to the front yard and he’d be real angry if I took off. After yesterday I don’t dare.’
Chuck lifted an eyebrow. ‘Well if you’re scared of your Pa …’ he shrugged his shoulders.
‘I ain’t scared of my Pa!’ declared Joe. ‘I just think I shouldn’t go is all.’
Chuck laughed. ‘You’re handsome boy when you’re angry Joe,’ he said, leaning towards him.
Joe stood up and took a step backwards. ‘I gotta go now,’ he said. ‘I’ve got chores to do.’ He walked swiftly into the barn, nearing knocking into Adam in the process. ‘Sorry,’ he said abruptly.
Adam held onto his young brother by the shoulders. ‘Hold on there,’ he said. ‘Slow down Joe.’ He gave the boy a puzzled look, noting his flushed face. ‘What’s the matter?’ he asked.
Joe shook his head. ‘Nuthin,’ he replied evasively.
Adam glanced over his brother’s shoulder at the man who was still sitting on the barrel outside. ‘Is he annoying you?’ he said. ‘Did he do anything?’
Joe shrugged off his brother’s hands. ‘No,’ he said. ‘He’s just … I dunno …. strange. I feel kinda sorry for him Adam.’
‘Why on earth would you feel sorry for him?’ asked Adam.
Joe scrunched up his nose and looked thoughtful. ‘I dunno,’ he admitted. ‘I just do. He’s kinda sad in a way. Keeps to himself so much and seems like he don’t know how to talk to people. He’s … I dunno …. different.’
‘I know what you mean, but you seem to get on OK with him,’ said Adam.
Joe shook his head. ‘He just seems to hang around me a lot that’s all. I dunno why.’
Adam thought for a moment. ‘Does that worry you?’ Joe shrugged. ‘I can get rid of him if you want me to.’
Joe shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I don’t wanna make him lose his job over it. Just leave it alone Adam.’ He walked over to one of the stalls and picked up a pitchfork. Adam continued to stare thoughtfully at the man outside in silence.
Chuck looked over at Joe who had bent down to pick up another log and place it on the chopping block before lifting his axe yet again. His eyes widened as he watched the youngster’s back, his shirt sticking to his torso with the sweat that came from his exertions. He swallowed twice and traced a line around the edge of his mouth before glancing at the house uneasily. He had seen old man Cartwright ride out this afternoon to join Adam and Hoss in the North Pasture, but even knowing that there were no other Cartwrights around didn’t allay the uneasiness that descended upon him as he approached the boy. He’d been through this too many times before not to have some reservations about what he was doing, but even as his mind told him to stop his emotions took over and he kept walking.
‘Hot day, ain’t it?’ he drawled, hating himself for the way in which he was talking.
Joe looked over his shoulder, momentarily stopping his chopping. ‘Oh hi,’ he said. ‘Yeah … sure is.’
Chuck sat down on the edge of the porch and watched as Joe continued to chop. The boy really was well developed, even if he was on the thin side. His shoulders were already broad and his torso …. Chuck shook his head slightly and the movement made Joe glance over to him. ‘Ain’t you got any work to do?’ he asked. ‘Pa and Adam ain’t ever pleased if someone ain’t pulling their weight round here.’
‘I’ve finished,’ lied Chuck. ‘Need to wait until Bert brings back that wire before we can get going again.’ Joe shrugged and continued to work, wishing that the man would go away. There was something about the way he looked at him that made him feel uncomfortable, although he couldn’t put his finger on why. ‘You want a drink?’ asked Chuck. ‘I’ll get you some water … you sure look like you could use some.’
‘Thanks,’ said Joe as he continued to work. ‘But I can …’ He stopped as Chuck held out a canteen towards him. ‘OK … thanks.’ He took a swig of the water and wrinkled his nose at the taste of it. ‘Tastes like you could do with some fresh in there,’ he said as he wiped his mouth. ‘It tastes off.’
Chuck put the canteen to his own lips and pretended to take a mouthful. ‘Tastes all right to me,’ he said. ‘Here … try again.’ He held it out to Joe and watched with great satisfaction as the youngster took a deep swallow.
Joe made another face. ‘I reckon it’s off,’ he said as he handed the canteen back. ‘If I were you I’d …’ He stopped put a hand on his forehead as a dizzy spell over came him.
‘You all right?’ asked Chuck, replacing the stopped on the canteen firmly.
‘Mmm,’ Joe put down his axe and swayed slightly. ‘I just feel a bit funny is all.’ He took a deep breath as the world began to swirl around him. ‘Maybe I’d better ….’ He reached out to steady himself and Chuck stepped forward and grabbed hold of him.
‘Steady on there,’ he said in a concerned tone. ‘Just lean on me.’
Joe did as he was told and Chuck thrilled to the touch of the youngster. ‘You must have overdone it in the hot sun,’ he said as he slung Joe’s arm over his shoulder. ‘Come on over here near the barn and sit down.’
‘No,’ said Joe feebly. ‘I’m OK.’
‘You don’t look OK,’ said Chuck firmly. ‘Just come with me.’
Joe shook his head as they walked over to the barn together. ‘I’ll … go into the house,’ he said.
‘Just sit down here,’ replied Chuck, ignoring him. He sat Joe down on an upturned barrel just inside the door of the barn and reached down to pull out a bottle which was placed near it. He pulled the stopped off the top and held it to Joe’s lips, forcing him to drink.
Joe spluttered as he pushed the bottle away from his mouth. ‘What …’ he said groggily. ‘That’s … whiskey …’
‘It’ll do you good,’ said Chuck in a low voice and pulled the boy closer to him. ‘Just relax and it’ll do you good.’ He grinned at Joe who slumped against his chest with a sigh.
‘What do you have to say for yourself?’ asked Ben angrily as he glared at the boy in front of him. ‘This is twice in one week that you’ve been the worse for drink Joseph and I won’t stand for it!’
Joe gave his father a puzzled look. ‘Gee I dunno Pa,’ he said.
‘You don’t know!’ thundered Ben, pointing his finger at the youngster. ‘Where did you get the whiskey from?’
Joe shrugged his shoulders. ‘I dunno,’ he said. ‘I don’t remember what happened.’ He massaged his temples slowly.
Ben gave his son an intense look. ‘You don’t remember?’ he said.
Joe shook his head mournfully. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I honestly don’t Pa. One minute I was chopping wood and the next … the next I remember I was sitting outside the barn.’ He gave his father a puzzled look. ‘Maybe I blacked out or something.’
‘Well if you blacked out, then how did you get to the barn?’ asked Ben.
Joe shrugged again. ‘I dunno,’ he said.
Ben shook his head. ‘Joseph this has got to stop. Do you understand me?’ Joe nodded his head, still massaging his temples. ‘Have you got a headache?’ asked his father in a quieter tone.
‘Yeah … something awful Pa,’ said Joe.
‘Well you’d better go upstairs and lie down then, but you’re restricted to the front yard again when you come down. Understand?’
‘Yes sir,’ Joe sighed.
Ben watched thoughtfully as his son climbed the stairs slowly.
Joe looked up uneasily as Chuck entered the barn. ‘I thought you were with the others?’ he said.
‘I was,’ said Chuck easily. ‘Only I had to come back for some fencing wire. Funny how we forgot it.’ He chuckled to himself happily. Funny how it was the one thing that Chuck himself had forgotten to put in the buckboard and how he had volunteered to be the one to go back and get it. He couldn’t resist when he had realised this morning that Joe would be back at the ranch by himself again. It seemed that fate was with him … or against him depending on the way he wanted to look at it … keeping the boy available to him all these times.
‘It’ll be in the tack room I guess,’ said Joe, stepping away from the man. He had no intention of being near him, as lately he’d been decidedly agitated around him for no apparent reason. ‘You’d better hurry up and get back there before Adam gets angry.’
Chuck put his hands on his hips as he stared at Joe, showing no intention of getting the wire. ‘It sounds to me like you’re scared of that brother of yours,’ he said in a mocking tone.
Joe gave Chuck a startled look. ‘That’s stupid,’ he said angrily. ‘I am not scared of my brother. Why would I be?’
‘Oh I don’t know,’ said Chuck leaning against the wall of the stall which Joe was raking out. ‘Just seems to me that every time he says to do something everyone around here jumps that’s all. Especially you.’ He cocked his head sideways, the defensive look on Joe’s face irritating him as he studied the boy.
‘Everyone does what Adam tells em too cause he’s one of the bosses round here,’ said Joe.
‘And you’re not?’
Joe frowned. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Not yet. I reckon I’ll be in charge of something when I get older and know …. well …. more things I guess.’
‘So in the meantime you let your brother boss you around?’ said Chuck.
Joe shook his head. ‘Why don’t you just get back to work?’ he said irritably. He didn’t know where this conversation was leading to and he didn’t really care …. The man was annoying him with his funny looks and strange words. He tried to walk past him out of the stall, but Chuck grabbed him by the arm and pulled him back again. ‘Let me go,’ he said, shaking the man’s grasp off him. ‘Get back to work.’
‘I thought you weren’t the boss?’ asked Chuck with an amused expression on his face. ‘Besides … you and I have things to talk about Joe.’ He gave the boy a gentle smile, but Joe only continued to frown at him.
‘I ain’t got nothing to talk about with you,’ he said. ‘I’m getting back to work even if you’re not.’ He tried to push past Chuck again, but the man pushed him back again and he fell against the wooden stall and hit his head. ‘Ow!’ he said as he slid down to the hay-covered floor. ‘What did ya do that for?’ He looked up at Chuck, dazed for a moment and Chuck swallowed at the look of the unfocussed green eyes below him.
He bent down to help Joe to his feet, but instead of pulling him up suddenly pushed him back again and hit his head several times on the wooden stall behind them until Joe’s eyes shut. ‘I’m sorry Joe,’ he said softly. ‘But you make it so hard for me you know.’ He stroked the boy’s face gently as he stared at his perfect features. ‘You’re so much nicer when you don’t know I’m here,’ he murmured as he slid down next to the boy and began to pat his face.
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’
Chuck looked over his shoulder to see Adam standing behind him, his hands on his hips and his eyes blazing with fury. He drew back from the unconscious youngster on the ground and tried to shield Adam’s view of him with his own body. ‘I found him like this,’ he said. ‘I … was trying to help him.’
‘Liar!’ Adam spat the word out like a bullet. He pushed Chuck to one side and gazed down at his younger brother before bending over him to straighten up his clothing. He slapped Joe several times on the cheek. ‘Joe! Joe! Can you hear me?’
Joe murmured softly under his breath and half-opened his eyes to look up at Adam with a disconnected look before closing them again. Adam straightened up and glared at Chuck again. ‘I asked you what the hell you were doing?’ he shouted.
‘I told you … I was helping the boy,’ replied Chuck, taking a step back from the blazing eyes that were fixated upon him. ‘I came along only …’
‘Shut up!’ shouted Adam. ‘You shut up before I shut you up permanently!’ He took a step towards Chuck, his fists clenching and unclenching. ‘You … get your things from the bunkhouse now,’ he said in a more controlled tone. ‘By the time I get back to the house you’d better be gone … or I’ll have you charged!’
Chuck glared back at him. ‘Charged?’ he said in a mocking tone. ‘Charged with what? I was just helping the boy.’
‘Get out of here!’ Adam shouted, taking a step towards the other man. He stared at Chuck for a full minute before Chuck averted his gaze and began to walk away. Adam waited until he was on his horse before turning back towards Joe and pulling him up by the shoulders. ‘Let’s get you into the house buddy,’ he said.
‘But what exactly was he doing?’ asked Ben as he wiped Joe’s forehead with a wet cloth.
‘That’s the problem Pa, I don’t really know. All I know is that he must have knocked Joe out with something. Look at him.’ Ben looked. Joe was obviously still out of it, mumbling something under his breath and rolling his head from side to side. His eyes were half-open and unfocussed. ‘Do you think that this is what happened the last two times?’ asked Adam anxiously.
‘The last two times?’
‘When he came home … you know …. We thought he was drunk, but maybe it was more.’
‘I don’t know,’ said Ben, continuing to wipe Joe’s face. ‘I don’t know what to think. Joe? Can you hear me son?’
Joe gave his father another unfocussed look. ‘Pa?’ he said softly. ‘Pa?’ His eyes fluttered shut again and he gave a small sigh.
‘Well one thing’s for sure,’ said Ben. ‘You did the right thing getting rid of that man. I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you sooner Adam.’
‘I’ve checked the bunk house,’ said Adam. ‘He’s cleaned out his things and he’s gone. What are you going to tell Joe when he wakes up?’
Ben shook his head. ‘I’m not sure,’ he said. ‘I’ll wait and see what he remembers first. If it’s like the last two times though, it won’t be much.’ He gave his youngest son a worried look.
‘I don’t remember Pa,’ said Joe as he massaged his temples. ‘I dunno what’s going on with me lately.’ He gave his father a worried look. ‘Was I drinking again?’
‘No,’ replied Ben as he propped another pillow behind Joe’s head. ‘Not this time.’
Joe sighed. ‘I guess I’m grounded again,’ he said mournfully. ‘Seems like I’ll never get out of that front yard.’
Ben hid his smile from his son as he replied. ‘No you’re not grounded,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t your fault.’
Joe looked confused. ‘Then whose fault was it?’ he asked.
Ben hesitated. ‘Do you remember Chuck being there with you?’
‘No. What was he doing there?’
Ben looked over at Adam. ‘I’m not … that is … I think he was knocked you out Joe. Maybe he’s been drugging you at times as well … we’re not sure.’
Joe sat up straight and looked directly at his father. ‘Drugging me? Then I wasn’t drinking them other times?’
Ben shook his head. ‘I’m not sure about that. Probably a combination of the drug and alcohol.’
‘But I don’t understand … why? Why would he do something like that?’
‘I’m … not exactly sure son. He’s a strange man. That’s all I know.’
Joe made a face. ‘Sure is,’ he agreed. ‘I reckon he was gonna hold me as a hostage or something huh?’
Adam shot a look at his father. ‘Well … maybe,’ said Ben evasively. ‘But you don’t have to worry about that any more. He’s packed his bags and gone … and you, young man, have to get some sleep, all right?’
‘OK,’ said Joe, lying down again. ‘Seems a shame that Chuck turned out like that though. I feel sorry for him.’
Ben said nothing, but raised an eyebrow at Adam, who returned the look with one of his own.
Chuck sat by the side of the trail and glared at his reflection in the creek. Why had he allowed this to happen? Why had it all fallen apart again? It seemed like every time his life was getting on track again, something like this happened and it all fell apart again. He supposed that he only had himself to blame …. Why had he gone after the boy when he knew that it would all fall apart like this? It always did.
He sighed as he thought about the fact that now he’d have to go on and find somewhere else to earn his keep. Somewhere far away from here. He didn’t trust that Adam Cartwright to keep things to himself, for Chuck could tell that the man was one determined character and would do anything to keep him away from his brother now. He sighed again as a vision of Joe’s face came into his mind. How could he bear going away from that fascinating creature? Something inside him told him that he just had to see Joe one last time.
Joe looked up at the slight sound behind him. He turned quickly, scanning the barn for anything that might have made the noise, but saw nothing. He shook his head as he went back to raking the hay again, cursing himself inwardly for feeling as he did. Why was it that he was so jumpy lately? Pa said that it was to be expected after what he’d been through … but that was the problem. What exactly was it that he had been through? No one seemed to know … or if they did they certainly weren’t telling him. It was very frustrating not being able to know exactly what had gone on … Pa had said that Chuck had been drugging him. Why? Joe didn’t have the slightest memory of it, so how did Pa even know? Every time he’d asked him, his father had said not to worry about it, but Joe did. Why had Chuck drugged him and why hadn’t he kept him a prisoner if he was going to be a hostage? It just didn’t make sense to him at all.
One thing was certain though …. He was very glad that Adam had finally told the man to pack his bags and leave. He’d been feeling very uncomfortable with him around here lately and not having to wonder where he was and put up with his endless staring was a huge relief. It wasn’t that he hadn’t liked him …. More pitied him than anything he supposed … but it was nice not to have to have him around anymore.
Joe turned quickly at the sound of the soft voice behind him. He swallowed as he saw Chuck standing there leaning on the wooden stall watching him in that certain way that he had. He frowned. ‘My brother Adam told you to get off our ranch,’ he said. ‘Why are you here?’
Chuck took a step forward. ‘I came to see you,’ he said in a low voice. ‘I thought you might be missing me.’
‘No,’ said Joe.
‘Well I’ve been missing you,’ continued Chuck with a smile. ‘I’ve been missing you a lot.’
‘You’d better get out of here,’ said Joe firmly. ‘Before I get someone here to throw you out!’
‘Now you know very well that there’s no one around,’ said Chuck with a smile. ‘I watched everyone ride out this morning and leave you here by yourself. There’s no one around except that Chinese cook … and I don’t think that he’ll disturb us, do you?’
Joe held the rake in front of him as he backed towards the side of the stall. For some reason he felt very uneasy with this man and he wanted nothing more than to get rid of him. ‘Well I’m telling you to get off The Ponderosa,’ he said firmly.
‘Now don’t be like that,’ said Chuck, taking another step forward. ‘You used to be so friendly to me. Think back to all the good times we had together.’
Joe was silent for a moment before replying. I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he said. ‘We only worked together a few times … and then there was that day we was fishing down by the lake. It was nothing special.’
‘Oh but it was special for me,’ said Chuck, taking another step forward. ‘You’re very special Joe. So special that I had to make sure that you and I had some good times together.’ He smiled at the boy. ‘I remember them even if you don’t.’
Joe took a step towards the barn door. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he said. ‘Now you’d better get going before I have you thrown out of here.’
Chuck put his hands on Joe’s shoulders to stop him. ‘There’s no one to throw me out,’ he said, looking into the youngster’s eyes. ‘Besides …. I thought that you and I could have some time together. Wouldn’t you like that?’
‘No I wouldn’t!’ said Joe angrily, shaking off the man’s touch. ‘Leave me alone!’
Chuck stared at Joe. ‘You’re a very handsome boy Joe,’ he said in a low voice. ‘Very handsome.’ Joe stared at him, with an appalled expression on his face. ‘You’re so very ….’ Chuck bent his head so that his face was close to Joe’s and Joe slapped him back again. Chuck put his hand to his reddening cheek and glared at the youngster angrily. ‘What did you do that for?’ he spat.
‘You get out of here and leave me alone!’ shouted Joe. ‘Just leave me alone!’
Chuck grabbed hold of Joe’s shoulders again and pushed him back against the wall of the barn. ‘What is the matter with you?’ he shouted. ‘You liked it before!’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about!’ shouted Joe, trying to wriggle out of the man’s grasp. ‘Get out of here!’
‘You don’t know what I’m talking about?’ yelled Chuck, his face going red. ‘I’ll show you what I’m talking about!’ He puled Joe towards him and stroked his face tenderly with one hand while tracing a line down the youngster’s side towards his hip with the other.
‘Let me go!’ shouted Joe, beginning to panic. ‘Get your hands off me!’
‘Get your hands off my brother!’ shouted a voice behind them and Chuck turned quickly to see Adam standing behind them, his gun pointed in his direction. ‘I said get them off him!’ Adam shouted again.
Chuck’s eyes widened and he hesitated long enough for Joe to pull himself out of his grasp and step away from him. ‘Joe,’ said Chuck, with a smile as he turned back towards the boy who was cowering away from him. ‘Don’t be like this. Don’t listen to your brother. Come back over here and I’ll show you …’
‘You shut up!’ shouted Joe, putting his hands over his ears and closing his eyes. ‘Just shut up! I hate you!’
Chuck’s eyes widened at the boy’s words and his face crumpled in dismay. ‘You don’t mean that,’ he said in a miserable voice. ‘You can’t hate me.’
‘Yes I do,’ said Joe, opening his eyes again. ‘I hate you! Stay away from me!’ He took a step towards his brother, but hesitated as Chuck pulled out his gun and held it up.
‘Put that down!’ ordered Adam sternly. ‘Drop it!’
Chuck gave Joe a sad smile. ‘I would have done anything for you Joe,’ he whispered. ‘Anything.’ He turned the barrel of the gun so that it was pointing into his own mouth and then with eyes transfixed upon Joe’s appalled green ones, he pulled the trigger and fell backwards, his blood spurting onto Joe’s boots and splattering onto the walls around them.
There was silence for a full minute while both Adam and Joe looked at the man at their feet. Slowly, Joe’s eyes travelled from him to his brother standing across from him. ‘Adam,’ he said softly, tears springing to his eyes.
Adam took two steps forwards and pulled his brother towards him. ‘It’s all right now buddy,’ he said softly. ‘It’s over … It’s all over.’
‘He’s not going to like it Ben, but it has to be done,’ said Doctor Paul Martin firmly. ‘Perhaps you should talk to him about it first and try to calm him down?’
Ben looked across at Joe who was staring blankly at the ceiling as he lay in bed. ‘I’ll try,’ he said. He walked over to the bed and sat down on the edge of it, taking Joe’s hand in his and stroking it lightly. He noticed that his son tried to withdraw his hand immediately, but he held onto it firmly. ‘Joe?’ he said.
Joe looked over at his father with a blank expression on his face. ‘Yeah?’ he said.
‘Joe the doctor needs to look you over now.’ Ben noticed the wary look that came over his son’s face as soon as the words were spoken.
‘No,’ Joe replied, turning away his face. ‘He don’t need to. I’m fine.’
‘Yes he does need to son. You’re not fine … at least we don’t that for sure yet. Just relax and let the doctor check you out.’ Ben took hold of Joe’s shoulders and pushed him back onto the pillow, but Joe struggled to sit up again.
‘No!’ he said firmly. ‘Leave me alone! Don’t touch me!’
‘Joseph, it’s only me,’ said Ben gently. ‘The doctor …’
‘You tell him to stay away from me1’ shouted Joe. ‘He ain’t gonna touch me like … like he did!’
Ben looked over at Paul. ‘Paul,’ he said. ‘Perhaps it might be better if we waited.’
Paul shook his head. ‘No,’ he said firmly. ‘This has to be done Ben … and the sooner the better. You hold onto him for me.’ He approached the bed, rolling up his sleeves as he did so.
Ben struggled to hold Joe down, murmuring to him all the time. ‘Joe, just relax son. The doctor is trying to help you. Just relax.’
‘No!’ Joe screamed out his protest over and over again, while Ben and the doctor struggled to contain him. Downstairs, Hoss and Adam looked at each over morosely as they sat together in front of the fireplace.
Ben watched Joe out of the corner of his eye as he placed the tray down on the dresser next to the bed, noting the sullen expression on his son’s face. ‘Well,’ he said, trying to sound jovial as he sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at Joe. ‘I hope you’re hungry. Hop Sing insisted on a sandwich as well as soup.’
Joe ignored his father’s comment. ‘Why did you let him touch me like that?’ he said.
‘Who? Doc Martin?’ replied Ben, knowing full well what his son’s response would be.
‘Yes Doc Martin,’ said Joe angrily. ‘I wasn’t hurt. He didn’t need to touch me like that.’
Ben put his hand on his son’s shoulder, but Joe pushed it away angrily. ‘Son we weren’t sure exactly what Chuck did to you,’ Ben explained patiently. ‘He had you under his influence three times to my knowledge and Paul needed to make sure that you were … well, that he hadn’t hurt you.’
‘I told you he didn’t!’ declared Joe.
‘Joseph, you don’t remember what happened those times. You said so yourself.’ Joe folded his arms and said nothing as he stared angrily in front of him. ‘Son, I’m only trying to help you,’ continued Ben.
‘Then tell that Doctor not to come back here,’ said Joe angrily. ‘I don’t need him. Chuck …’ his voice trailed away.
Ben looked at Joe anxiously. ‘What?’ he asked.
Joe lay back and rolled over in the bed so that he was facing the wall. ‘Nuthin,’ he murmured. ‘Can I get out of bed now? I don’t see why I have to stay here.’
‘You can get up in the morning for breakfast,’ said Ben. ‘A bit of a rest will do you good.’ He hesitated and then put his hand on Joe’s shoulder again, only to have it shrugged off again. ‘Do you want to talk about what happened?’ There was silence. ‘Joseph?’
‘No.’ Ben turned to leave the room, but stopped as he heard Joe roll over in the bed again. ‘Pa?’
Ben turned. ‘Yes son?’
‘He kept saying how good looking I was.’
Ben sat down n the edge of the bed. ‘Yes?’
‘And …’ Joe swallowed. ‘It wasn’t my fault … don’t know why he kept liking me so much … and … you know.’
Ben nodded his head. ‘You are a very good looking young man Joe.’ He frowned as Joe shuddered slightly under the covers. ‘What is it?’ he asked. Ben knew how proud his youngest son was of his appearance. In fact, there had been times when he’d been worried that Joe would develop into quite a dandy. To see his son shrink away from a compliment like this worried him immensely. ‘You should be proud of who you are,’ he added.
Joe turned away. ‘Not if it makes people like him carry on like that!’ he spat out. ‘Why couldn’t I be ugly? Then it would never have happened!’
In other circumstances Ben would have seen a funny side to the youngster’s remark, but looking at Joe’s face as the words came tumbling out only served to make him more anxious than ever. ‘Joseph I want you to listen to me,’ he said firmly. ‘You are a very good-looking young man and that’s all there is to it. Just because … that man … decided to use that fact against you has nothing to do with you at all. Don’t let it affect how you are with other people now.’ Joe was silent and after a minute Ben patted him on the shoulder. ‘Well you think about what I’ve said son,’ he said as he stood up. ‘I’ll be up to see you later.’ Joe continued to frown at the wall as his father left the room.
‘Nice to see you up and around again,’ said Adam pleasantly as Joe appeared on the front porch beside him the next morning. ‘How do you feel?’
‘I’m fine,’ said Joe in an irritated tone. ‘I wish everyone would stop looking at me like I was sick or something.’
‘Well you did take a nasty blow on the head there,’ said Adam, unruffled. ‘You didn’t look too good when I found you and you were out for quite some time.’
Joe looked slightly embarrassed. ‘Yeah. Well thanks,’ he said.
‘For …. you know … coming in when you did.’
‘I guess we were both just lucky that I came back,’ said Adam in measured tones. He didn’t know how much Joe remembered of what had happened and he and his father had decided that any conversations about the event should be led by Joe. Adam didn’t want to say the wrong thing and let onto the youngster anything that he mightn’t be able to handle. ‘Anyway,’ he said. ‘He’s gone for good now.’
Joe looked distressed. ‘It was horrible,’ he said with a shudder. ‘I never want to see anything like that again.’
Adam put his hand on his younger brother’s shoulder. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘It’s not the sort of thing that you ever want to remember seeing. Just try to put it out of your mind … that’s the best way.’
Joe nodded. ‘I still don’t understand,’ he said. ‘He was …. well … real strange.’
‘Yes,’ said Adam carefully. He waited.
Joe shrugged. ‘I guess we’ll never know why,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘I guess you’re right Adam. It’s best to just try and forget it.’ He shuddered again. ‘Where did … I mean … did someone get rid of him? I mean … his .. body?’
‘Hoss took it into town yesterday,’ said Adam. ‘He’ll be buried today.’
‘Good.’ There was silence between the brothers for a few moments. ‘Well I guess I’d better get to work,’ said Joe finally.
‘You take it easy this morning,’ said Adam as they walked over to the barn together.
Joe nodded. ‘Sure,’ he said. He walked into the barn and left his brother standing by himself in the front yard.
‘Boss?’ said a voice behind Adam and he turned to see Bert standing there. ‘What you want done with these things?’
Adam looked at the saddlebags which the man was holding out. ‘What are they?’ he asked.
‘Chuck’s things,’ said Bert. ‘What you want me to do with them?’
Adam gave an involuntary shudder. ‘Get rid of them,’ he said. ‘Burn them.’
Bert looked surprised. ‘Burn em?’ he asked. ‘But they’s mighty fine saddlebags. He’s got some good shirts and stuff in there too. Some of the boys might …’
‘I said to burn them!’ said Adam firmly. ‘No one is to have any of that … any of his things. Understand?’
Bert scratched his head. ‘If you say so boss,’ he said. ‘I’ll burn em all right. Seems a shame though.’ He walked away, muttering to himself and shaking his head.
Adam watched him go with anger in his heart. ‘Burn them,’ he said half to himself and then turned towards the barn and followed Joe inside.
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