Heart of Stone (by mcfair_58)

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Summary:  A new school teacher comes to town and Adam and Hoss fear their little brother is growing too attached to her. Little do they know that the real danger is to their father. Will Ben’s heart break if he dares to love again, and what secrets does this mysterious woman hold?

Word count: 50,584

Rated: PG-13

 

A Heart of Stone

 

Prologue

 

Ben Cartwright came home late.

He was hot and sweaty, exasperated, and just about at the end of his tether.  It had been one long hard day.  A mine had opened recently, close enough to the settlement and offering ridiculously high wages, and it had drawn even some of his seasoned hands away. They were men used to the wide open spaces who would hate being in the dark and underground, but at the prices the Corabelle was paying, even a few short abortive weeks would be enough to set a man up for the winter.

The few short weeks he needed them desperately for the autumn cattle drive.

The rancher scowled as he removed his gloves and tossed them on the credenza.  He had Adam and Hoss, of course.  They were his good right hands.  So far he had not allowed Joseph to go.  The thirteen-year-old was on the cusp of being a man, but he was excitable and unpredictable and that was the one thing he did not need when it came to driving several thousand cattle to a fort in another territory.  This army contract would see them through the winter.

It had to go off without a hitch.

As Ben turned to enter the great room, ready for his chair and a glass of brandy, he realized he wasn’t alone.  Someone shifted and rose from the blue chair to the right of the hearth.  It wasn’t Adam as he suspected but Hoss, who came his way.

“Welcome home, Pa,” his son said.

“Thank you.  What are you doing up?  It’s late.  I would have thought you’d be in bed by now.”

“I gotta admit I thought about it,” his big teenage son said.  “I got a lot to do tomorrow.  So does Adam.  But we wanted to talk to you….”

“When Little Joe wasn’t around,” came a voice from near the dining table.

Ben looked from Hoss to Adam, who was emerging from the shadows.  Both of them.  Up late and wanting to talk about their little brother. This must be serious.

The older man sighed.

He was too tired for ‘serious’.

Ben moved to his chair and dropped into it.  “What has Joseph done now?”

“Pa.  It ain’t that,” Hoss said as he took a place on the settee across from him.  “Little Joe ain’t done nothin’ wrong.”

“Yet,” Adam added as he handed him a brandy.  Apparently that was what his oldest had been doing by the table – getting him a drink.  “I thought you might need it,” he added with a grin.

The older man took a sip.  “So what is it your brother hasn’t done – but might do?”

“Pa, Little Joe, he’s….  Well, he’s just a kid, but he’s….” Hoss started.

“He’s getting to be a big kid,” Adam finished for him and then added with a wry grin, “It’s hard to believe, but in a few years Joe will be a man.”

It was hard to believe.  Joseph had been four when his mother died.  It seemed like yesterday.

“And is there a problem with your little brother becoming a man…in a few years?”

Hoss and Adam were looking at each other.

“What aren’t you telling me?” he demanded.

“Now, Pa, keep your temper,” twenty-five year old Adam said and then winced as if he shouldn’t have.  “Sorry, sir, I meant any disrespect.  It’s just that, well, it’s hard to explain.”

“Mistah Hoss and Mistah Adam need to stop beating bush.  Tell father number three son in love!”

Ben didn’t know which startled him most – Hop Sing popping up out of nowhere or what his Chinese housekeeper had said.  He looked at his boys and then turned to the Asian man.

“Little Joe is in love?” As Hop Sing nodded, he turned back to his sons.  “The boy’s only thirteen.  He doesn’t know what love is!  No doubt it’s just a crush.”

“Oh, it’s a crush all right,” Adam sighed.

Hoss’ head bobbed up and down.  “Yes, sir.  That’s what it is.”

There was something they weren’t telling him.

“You both had crushes at that age.  Why is this any different?”

Adam ran a hand over his chin.  “Have you noticed, Pa, how lately Little Joe hasn’t been fighting you about going to school?”

The abrupt change of subject had his head reeling.  “What does that have to do with…this?”

“You know Miss Jones is away?”

Of course, he knew.  As a member of the school board he had approved her leave.

“Yes.”

“Have you seen her replacement?”

Actually, he hadn’t.  He’d been away when Mrs. Drummond arrived in town and hadn’t had time to make her acquaintance yet.

“No, I haven’t,” Ben admitted.  “But I’ve heard very good reports of her.  Is she giving your brother trouble over this crush of his?”  Perhaps Joseph had been acting up in school, or maybe even skipped it to be with this girl, whoever she was.

Could it be that Mrs. Drummond was even more old-school than Miss Jones?

But no, that made no sense.  As Adam said, Little Joe hadn’t fought going to school. In fact, the boy had been eager to leave the house in the mornings and often late to return.  Come to think of it, he’d taken extra time with his ablutions and worn his best suit today.

Oh.

“Pa,” his eldest said, confirming his suspicions, “Mrs. Drummond is Little Joe’s crush.”

The rancher adjusted his purchase on his chair.  “Yes, well, we’ve all had crushes on our teachers at one time or another. The fact that the woman is married….”

“She’s not.”

He looked at Adam.

“Well, at least not anymore. I checked.  She was widowed last year.  It’s why she sought a position out West.”

“…her age then….”

“Missy Drummond very young,” Hop Sing chimed in as he placed a tray with coffee and cake on the table before them.  “See her leaving mercantile.  She very young…very pretty.”

He looked at Hoss.

His son shrugged as he reached for a piece of cake.  “She’s in her twenties, Pa.”

“From what I hear, she’s in her early twenties,” Adam corrected.

Ben tried to recall if Mrs. Drummond had given her age on her application.

He couldn’t.

“She came highly recommended and is considered well qualified.”  He paused.  “Has she behaved improperly toward your brother?”

“Oh, heck no, Pa. We ain’t sayin’ that,” Hoss said, his mouth half-full.  He swallowed before continuing.  “It’s just that, well, like we said, Little Joe’s gettin’ older and you know how it is when you ain’t a man, but you ain’t a boy anymore.  You get certain….”  He glanced at Adam.  “…feelin’s.”

Adam wrinkled his nose.  “Urges, you might say.”

Good lord!

“Has your brother behaved improperly toward Mrs. Drummond then?  Is that what you’re telling me?”

“Not as I know,” Adam said.  “But Mrs. Carrington told me – ”

“Mrs. Carrington?  Cora’s mother?  How would she know?”

“She’s been helping out at the schoolhouse with the smaller children.  Hop Sing and I ran into her at the general store.  She mentioned that Little Joe had been coming to school early and leaving late.  She said he had been very helpful, but that she was concerned he was becoming too attached to Mrs. Drummond.”  Adam reached into his pocket and drew out a note.  “She gave me this to give to you.  It’s from Joe’s teacher.”

Ben looked at his son as he took the note.  “And just when were you going to get around to telling me about this?”

Adam looked sheepish.  “I knew you were tired, Pa.  I didn’t want you…going off half-cocked.  Remember, Joe hasn’t done anything wrong.”

The older man stared at the note.  Then he looked up the stairs toward his youngest’s room.

Yet.

 

 

 

ONE

 

“Pa, what’re you doing here?”

Ben jumped a bit.  He hadn’t expected to be discovered by his youngest standing, as he was, outside of the schoolhouse in the shade of a large tree.  He’d been waiting for Joseph to leave so he could talk to his teacher.

“Where did you come from, son?” he asked. The boy had come upon him from the rear, as if he had been in town instead of in the school.

Little Joe nodded toward the stack of books in his hands. “Dora asked me to go to the mercantile and see if these books had come in on the morning stage.”

Ben was glancing at the readers.  It took a moment.

“Dora?”

His son grinned.  “Mrs. Drummond.  She told us to call her Dora.  She said ‘Mrs. Drummond’ was her husband’s mother and she was too young and nice to be that old and crabby.”

“I…see….”

So much for decorum.

Ben held out his hand.  “Why don’t you give me the books?  I’ll take them in.”

Little Joe looked confused.  “Dora…Mrs. Drummond sent me on the errand, Pa.  She’s counting on me.  Don’t you think I oughta….”

“Your brothers are at the mercantile.  They’re ordering supplies for the drive.  I thought maybe you would like to help them.”

The boy’s wide green eyes lit up.  “Really?  You mean I can help?”  Little Joe paused as if he was afraid to ask.   Then he did.  “Does that mean you’re considering letting me go on the drive this year?”

Joseph would turn fourteen just about the time they set out.  If he had been any other man’s son, he would have already been on a drive.  He had to admit that he…coddled the boy just a bit.

After losing Marie….

“Do you think I should?” he asked.

The boy opened his mouth to recite a number of reasons why he should, but then closed it and nodded.  “I won’t let you down if you do, Pa,” he said.  “I promise.”

Ben placed a hand on his shoulder.  “I know you wouldn’t, son.  It’s just – ”

“Joseph?  Is that you?”

They both turned toward the schoolhouse.  The sun was setting and it cast the façade into darkness.  He could just see a slender figure moving into the doorway.

“Yes, Ma’am,” his son answered.

“Do you have the books?”

Ben stepped in front of the boy.  “He does, but I need Joseph to run an errand for me.  I’ll be bringing them in.”

The woman shifted slightly as if trying to see.  “Mister Cartwright, is it?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied as he took the books from his son.  “Ben Cartwright.  The school board sent me to check up on your progress.”

That wasn’t quite a lie, but it wasn’t exactly the truth either.

“So, that’s why you’re here,” Little Joe said.  “Mrs. Drummond isn’t in any kind of trouble, is she, Pa?  She’s just about the nicest teacher I ever had.”

The tone in the boy’s voice caught his attention.  “Just the nicest?”

His son’s smile was dreamy.  “She’s the prettiest too.”

“I see,” he said.

And he did.

 

The woman had her back to him when he entered the school.  The light was fading fast and the room was cast in shadows. Mrs. Drummond had yet to light a lamp.  Ben could see that she was a slender slip of a thing with a waist small enough for a man to circle with his hands.  Her hair, he thought, was a rich blonde and she wore it in a twist on the top of her head, secured with an ivory comb. She was dressed respectfully in a high-necked white blouse and deep red skirt.  A touch of gold glinted at her neck and flashed from her ears as she moved by the window.

“Thank you for coming, Mister Cartwright,” she said as she reached for the lamp that sat on a low table before the window. “I presume this is in response to the note I sent through Mrs. Carrington.”

“Yes.  My eldest son gave it to me last night.”

“Thank you for giving such prompt attention to the matter,” she said as she struck a match.  Its light cast her face even further into shadow.  “I am very fond of Joseph.  I wouldn’t want to see him get hurt.”

“His feelings you mean?”

She pivoted toward him.  The lamp was in her hand now.  He caught a glimpse of a lovely if slightly troubled face before it vanished into the dark.

“Of course,” she replied after a moment.  “What else would I mean?”

Ben cleared his throat.  “Your note seemed to indicate you were concerned about Joseph’s…attentions to you.  That they might be, well, improper.”

“Oh dear!”  The woman crossed to her desk and placed the lamp on it.  “Did it sound that dire?  Forgive me if it did.  Joseph has done nothing wrong.”  Mrs. Drummond sat down, just out of the circle of light.  “In fact, he has been nothing but a gentleman.  But you know how rumors begin.”  There was a tone in her voice indicating that she did.  “He’s been coming in early and leaving late and the other children have begun to talk.  It is only a matter of time before they say something to their parents that might be misconstrued.”  Joe’s teacher paused. “Mister Cartwright, will you please take a seat?  You are making me nervous.”

Ben started.  “Forgive me,” he said.  “Where would you like these books?”

“Just place them on one of the tables.”

He did so and then moved to take the chair she’d indicated, which was directly in front of her desk.

A moment later he laughed.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

“No,” he replied with a smile.  “It’s just that I feel like I’m the one who’s about to end up with his nose in the corner.”

The young woman laughed as well – a lovely lilting sound.  “From what your son has said, I have a feeling you might deserve it.”

He sobered instantly.  “What has Joseph told you?”

“I’m sorry.  That was out of place.”  She hesitated.  “It’s just that I’ve spent a good deal of time with Joseph and he seems at ease to speak with me.  He’s told me all about his brothers and your fine house and….”

“And me?”

“Yes.  Joseph loves and respects you, Mister Cartwright, but he also fears you.”

Ben swallowed.  “A boy should fear his father.”

“I agree.  If it is a healthy fear.  What I am speaking of is a fear of a different kind.  Joseph is afraid of failing to live up to your expectations.”

“How old are you?” he asked, his jaw tight.

“Are you indicating that I don’t know what I am talking about because I am young?” she countered quickly.  “I can assure you I do.”

“Just how old are you?”

“Twenty.”

Just about Hoss’ age.  Seven years older than his youngest son.

“I’m surprised, Mister Cartwright, to find you prone to hasty judgments.  I would have expected more considering all I have been told.”

He was trying very hard to control his temper. “Mrs. Drummond, you have held this position for how long now?  A few weeks?  And you claim to know my son better than I do??”

“This is not my first position, Mister Cartwright.  I have been teaching for just under five years.  I received my certificate when I was barely older than your son.  I also had  a father whom I loved dearly,  and I might add, who loved me the same, who was extremely demanding and -”

Ben rose from his chair.  “I am not demanding!”

And short-tempered.”

He’d been about to blow.  Drawing a deep breath, the rancher sought to calm himself.  “Mrs. Drummond, you came highly recommended.  I am not questioning your credentials.  What I am questioning is your right to interfere in my son’s -”

“Interfere?” she snapped.  “Mister Cartwright, being an educator is more than just teaching children to read and write.  It is investing yourself in them and always – always – looking out for their best interests. Joseph hungers for approval, sir, and in the end that will lead to nothing but trouble.  He will seek it – look for it in all the wrong places.  He….” The woman drew a breath and paused, as if she knew she had gone too far.  “Forgive me.  I have overstepped my bounds.  Your son is a very special boy.  I have grown quite fond of him and want only his best.”

Ben still had not seen her clearly, but he knew what kind of a woman she was.

He puffed out a breath and then said, more calmly.  “You are very passionate about your work.”

“I am passionate about my students.”  She thought a moment.  “Mister Cartwright -”

“Ben.”

“Ben.  Thank you.  I have been told that I have a gift for teaching.  Helping children to realize their full academic potential is very important to me, but that is not why I teach.  My own childhood was…troubled.  It is my desire to help others avoid the mistakes that I made.”

He actually smiled this time.  “You sound very old and wise.”

“I feel very old some days,” she admitted.  “Ben, I know you are a very busy man.  All I am asking is that you give Joseph a little more attention.  He needs reassurance. He needs to know that he is important, not only to you but to your work.”  The woman paused.  “But most of all, Joseph needs you to spend time with him.”

Ben fell silent.  It was as if someone had walked over his grave.

“Mister…Ben, are you all right?” Mrs. Drummond asked as she rounded the desk.

He nodded.  “What you just said.  My late wife.  She said the same thing just before….”

The late afternoon light flooding in the open door struck Joseph’s teacher fully for the first time.  As Hop Sing had said, she was very young and very pretty, but there was something else she was that he had failed to mention.

No wonder Joseph was attracted to her.

Dora Drummond, with her blonde hair, small-boned form, and strong, forceful personality, was a dead ringer for Little Joe’s mother.

 

“Hi, Little Joe.”

Adam had sent him back into the store to get something they’d left behind.  Joe was in the middle of reaching for it when that soft voice made him turn.  When he did, his hand brushed the fabric of Cora Lee Carrington’s finely boned ivory dress –

And her breast.

He went white as a sheet.

She just laughed.

“Cora, I’m….  Gosh, I’m sorry.”  A blush replaced the pallor.  “I didn’t mean to.  I….”

Cora leaned in so close he could smell the sugar-water in her hair.  “It’s okay, Little Joe.  I was hoping you would.”

Joe’s gaze went to the young man standing outside the mercantile talking to his brothers.  Cora was a month or two older than him.  Her brother Jenson was a few months older than Hoss.  Their pa was  the one who had just opened a mine outside of the settlement.  He called it the ‘Corabelle’.

Pa didn’t like him.

But then, Pa didn’t like Cora much either.

“You know, Little Joe, you’re just about the handsomest boy in school.  All the girls say so.”  She moved a little closer, so her hand was brushing his. “They say you’re the best kisser too.  Is that true?”

Now he wasn’t going to deny he’d kissed a few girls.  And he wouldn’t be surprised if he was the best kisser, even though he really didn’t have much of anything to compare himself to.  But he wasn’t about to kiss Cora.

Not with Jenson around.

“I gotta go, Cora.  My brothers are waiting,” Joe said as he reached for the package on the counter behind her.

“They aren’t paying any attention.  I told Jenson to keep them busy.”

Joe glanced out the window.  Sure enough, his brothers were moving way – with Jenson.  “You what?  Why?”

“So I could talk to you, silly,” Cora responded as she walked her gloved fingers up his chest to his chin.

“But your brother doesn’t like me.”  The nineteen-year-old had made that clear enough a few days before when he warned him to stay away from his sister.

“Oh, it isn’t that Jen doesn’t like you.  He just doesn’t trust you.”  Cora leaned in and lowered her voice.  This time her leg beneath her skirts brushed his thigh.  “He’s a man, after all.  Just like you.”

Being a man was all that mattered, really.  Joe wanted it so bad he could taste it.  Hoss and Adam were men and he wanted to be just like them.  He wanted to rope and ride and work the drives and be able to pull his own weight on the ranch.  That was the part of being a man he understood.

What was happening with his body at this moment was the part that scared the wits out of him.

“Hey there, Little Joe!  You got that package yet?”

Joe let out a long breath.  He’d never heard anything as sweet as his brother’s voice.

“Sure…sure do, Hoss,” he squeaked as he made a grab for it.  Once it was in hand, Joe tipped his hat to Cora and slipped around her.  “I gotta go.”

As he came abreast Hoss, the big man said, “Miss Cora, I plumb near forgot.  Your brother told me to tell you he’s waitin’ at the livery for you.”

Cora didn’t look too happy about it.  “Is that so?  Well, you can tell him he can wait until I am good and ready!”

Hoss smiled.  “Jenson said you’d say that, so he gave me another message for you.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, he said you was to come, ready or not, otherwise he’d be by to pick you up – and none too gently.”

And Joe thought he’d gone white before!

“Oh, very well,” Cora pouted.  “I was ready anyhow.”  Joe moved out of the way as the flirtatious girl started for the door.  She glanced at Hoss and then turned and gave him a teasing smile.  “See you later, Little Joe.  It was fun ‘running’ into you.”

Hoss watched her go and then looked down at him.  “You got anything you want to tell me?”

He was holding his hat in front of him – just in case.

“No.  I just want to go home.”

His brother nodded.  “Adam went to get Pa.”

“What? You mean Pa’s not back yet?”  Panic set in.  “Hoss, you don’t think he’s yelling at Mrs. Drummond, do you?  I mean, you know how Pa can get.  Maybe I oughta….”

“You oughta take it easy, little brother.  Pa’s on the school board.  They’s probably just disscussin’ her job.”  Hoss pinned him with his crystal blue eyes.  “There ain’t any other thing they’d be talkin’ about, is there?”

“Why are you lookin’ at me like that?  I haven’t done anything wrong!”

“That’s why I’m looking at you that way, little brother.  To make sure you don’t.”

 

“ah…hem….”

Hoss didn’t know whether to bust a gut laughin’ or shed a tear at the look on Little Joe’s face.  It was obvious little brother thought the man who had just arrived and was standin’ in the doorway was Pa and the poor kid had near fainted dead away with embarrassment.

The fact that it was older brother, Adam, didn’t help much.

“Pa’s on his way,” Adam said as his stepped into the mercantile, his eyes on Joe.  “Are you two ready?”

“I was ready yesterday!” Little Joe exclaimed as he started to work his way past.

Adam’s hand on his shoulder stopped him.  “Did you get that package?”

Joe glanced at the crook of his arm where it was anchored.  “Are you blind?  Of course, I got it!”

Older brother blinked.  “Well, pardon me for asking.”

“Here!  Take it if it’s so dang important!” little brother said, thrusting it at him.  “I got other things to do.”

As Joe bolted out the door, Adam let his feelings out in a whistle.  “What’s up with him?” he asked.

Hoss failed to hide his blushes.  ‘Up’ with him was sure enough the problem.

“Cora Carrington,” he said.

Adam’s look darkened.  They both knew the Carrington girl for what she was, a flirt – and trouble with a capital ‘T’.

“Working her wiles, eh?” older brother asked as he came alongside him.

Hoss pushed his hat back with two fingers.  “She’s workin’ somethin’ all right.  When I came in, she was mighty close to little brother and that boy’s cheeks were – ”

“Red as a fire engine.  I noticed.”  Adam folded his arms.  “I guess we knew this day would come.”

The big man blinked.  “What day?”

“Joe, well, you know….”  He paused.  “Becoming a…man.”

Hoss glanced out the window.  Little Joe was in the back of the wagon, propped up against the feed sacks with his hat pulled down over his eyes.  Most like he was pretending to be asleep to avoid talkin’ to Pa who was just pullin’ up alongside it on Buck.  The boy’s golden-brown curls were peekin’ out from under the flat black brim and blowin’ in the breeze.  All of a sudden the big man was filled with a kind of sadness – a melancholy, the doc would have said, like he’d lost somethin’ precious.

“I know,” Adam said softly as he placed a hand on his shoulder.  “I felt the same way about you, you big lug.”

Hoss stated.  “Me?  What do you mean, me?”

“Emily Sue Sallinger.  Or don’t you remember?”

He thought a moment and then blushed right up to his eyebrows.  “Oh.”

“How old were you?  Fifteen?”

“I don’t remember how old I was, but I can tell you I remember right well the talkin’ to I got.  That was the last time I ever tried somethin’ like that.”

And the last time you and Pa visited the woodshed, if I remember correctly.”

Hoss let out a little sigh.  “I was near as tall as Pa but that didn’t matter none.”

Adam looked out the door, into the fading light.  “I don’t think Joe’s headed for the woodshed, but I think – unless I am sadly mistaken – that it’s time for ‘that’ talk.”

The big man nodded.  “You think that Cora’s been puttin’ ideas in little brother’s head?  Maybe that’s why he’s, well, thinkin’ about Mrs. Drummond?”

“From what I understand, Dora Drummond is an attractive young woman.  I don’t think Cora has to put any ideas in Joe’s head.  I’m sure they are already there.”

Hoss nodded.  “You think Pa’s feelin’ like me – like his baby’s gone and grown up all of a sudden?”

Adam moved into the doorway.  He didn’t answer for a moment but stared at their father and brother who were talkin’.  Apparently Little Joe’s playin’ possum didn’t work.

“I imagine that’s among the things Pa is feeling,” Adam replied.

“What else do you think he’s feelin’?”

Big brother looked over his shoulder and grinned.

“Scared.”

 

Just as he was heading for the staircase and the safety of his bed, the words came that Joe had been dreading.

“Joseph, son, I think we need to talk.”

That was the last thing he wanted to do!

As his foot touched the bottom step, Joe managed a huge yawn.  “I’m awful tired, Pa.  Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”

His father was standing at the end of the dining table looking at him.  Just…looking at him.

“It could.  But I don’t think it should.”

What did a feller say to that?

“Did I do something wrong?”

“No,” Pa replied as he moved to the settee and sat down – and then patted the fabric beside him.  “No.  I just feel it’s time for a heart to heart, father to son.”

The good Lord help him!  The last time they’d had a ‘heart to heart’ he’d ended up apologizin’ to just about everyone in the settlement except the town drunk.

“I did do something wrong,” he moaned as he took a seat.

His father frowned.  “Joseph, no.  Not wrong.  Perhaps…inappropriate.”

That puzzled him mightily…for about five seconds.

Joe’s temper flared.  “Hoss told you, didn’t he?  Dang him!  Can’t a fellow have a little privacy?”

“Joseph!” his father said sternly.  “Mind your tongue – and your manners.  Your brother didn’t tell me anything.”  Pa paused and then added with that ‘look’.  “Should he have?”

Now he’d done it.

“…no, sir.”

“Would you like to?”

Joe wriggled his nose and swallowed.  “No…sir.”

“Let me put it another way.  Should you?”

His shoulders slumped.  “I don’t understand, Pa.”

“You don’t understand what?”

How should he put it?  How could he put it and not go to Hell?

Joe looked down at his fingers, which were working as quickly as his brain.  “Me.  I don’t understand…me.  It used to be, well, if a girl like Cora well…you know….”  He glanced at his father who didn’t look mad – yet.  “If a girl like Cora told me I was handsome and brushed up against me…where she did…I’d want to pop her in the nose.  But now, well…”  He could feel the color rising in his cheeks.  Joe drew in a big sigh and let it out as he met his father’s stare. “Poppin’ her in the nose ain’t…isn’t…exactly what I want to do.”

Pa remained silent a moment before saying, “You and I have discussed the birds and bees before.”

“I know where babies come from, if that’s what you mean.”  It was hard not to when you lived on a ranch where you bred cattle and horses.  Joe thought for a second and then added, “You mean that’s why I…?”  Panic set it.  “I don’t want to be a pa!”

His father laughed.  “I don’t want you to be a ‘pa’ either – for a very long time – but God’s first command to man was to be fruitful and multiply.”  At his look, his father added, “What I am saying, son, is that man is created with certain instincts.”

“How come I didn’t have them before?”

“Have you noticed any other changes?

He knew what his pa was talking about.  Adam and Hoss had mentioned it to him.  “I haven’t grown any taller.”

It was a disappointment to him.

“You will, son.”  His father smiled.  “You may not have noticed, but your shoulders are a little broader and your voice is a shade deeper.”

Maybe.  But there was another more important thing he’d noticed hadn’t grown.

“I don’t have any whiskers.”

“Your mother was very fair.  That will come later.”

“Adam said he had whiskers at five.”

His pa laughed.  “Well, not quite that early.  Your brother takes after me in that.  Hoss was nearly seventeen before he began to shave.”

Joe opened his mouth, but hesitated.  Something else had begun to grow but he didn’t know if he should mention it.  It wasn’t…proper.  And he’d begun to have problems that he couldn’t always keep under his hat.

“Pa, today when Cora…well…when she touched me…there…I….”  Joe swallowed.  “Am I going to Hell?”

His father looked at him with sympathy and then circled his shoulders with his arm.  “Joseph, you did nothing wrong.  You have no control over your body and its reactions. What you do have control over is your thoughts and actions.  Have you…done anything with Cora?”

Joe whistled.  “That hussy?  No way.”  Then he winced.  “Sorry, Pa.”

“Apology accepted – and expected.  I have taught you better than that.  You are to show respect to women at all times, no matter their behavior.  Is that understood?”

He nodded.

His father released him.  “Which brings me to the matter that I came discuss.  Joseph, look at me.”

He did.

“We need to talk about Mrs. Drummond.”

 

Ben watched his boy wither before him.  He wasn’t sure exactly what Joseph’s body language was telling him, but he had a feeling it was not what he wanted to hear.

“What about Dora…Mrs. Drummond?” Joe asked.

“I understand you have been arriving at school early and staying late to assist her.”

Joe’s aspect brightened.  “Yes, sir!  You taught us to be helpful and, bein’ new and all, Dora….”  His son winced.  “Mrs. Drummond’s needed a lot of help.”

“You desire to help, son, is admirable.  I am not disputing that.  It’s your…motivation that I am concerned about.”

“You mean…why I’m doing it?”

Ben nodded.

“Because you’d want me to.”  Joe paused.  “You would want me to, wouldn’t you?”

This was getting difficult.

“Yes, I would, but only if your motives were pure.”

That made the boy frown.  Joe wrinkled his nose and his dark eyebrows followed, forming a ‘v’ at the center – before they leapt for his hairline.

“Pa…you don’t think….  I mean, you don’t think I….”  His son’s face had gone beet-red.  “I mean I wouldn’t….  I couldn’t!”  Joseph paused and then added quite dramatically.  “Pa, for gosh sakes, I’m only thirteen!”

Like he didn’t know it.

Ben waited a moment and then asked quietly.  “So your feelings for Mrs. Drummond are just that of a school boy toward a gifted teacher?”

He gave him credit.  Joe thought a moment before replying.  “Well…I never felt this way about Miss Jones, but then she’s mean.”  His son’s eyes flicked to his face.  “Sorry Pa, but it’s true.  Cora…Mrs. Drummond is really nice.”

“She’s also very pretty.”

Joe swallowed.  “She sure is,” he admitted, a little dreamily.  “You know, Pa….  There’s something about her.  I don’t know what it is.  I just….”  The boy drew in a breath and let it out slowly.  “I just want to be around her.”

“Do you know why?”

Joe shrugged.  “Cause she’s nice I guess.”  Then he grinned.  “And pretty.”

Ben rose to his feet.  “Come with me, son.”

The boy didn’t move.  He stared at him.  “We’re not going to the woodshed, are we?”

The rancher sighed.  “No.  I just want you to come over to my desk with me.”

“Oh.  Sure thing, Pa.”

Ben led the way to his desk.  The top of it was bare at the moment, which was rather unusual.  A melancholy had seized him of late and he had removed Marie’s picture – along with the ones of his first wives – from it.  That beautiful face, with its gracious loving smile, and those green eyes with their spirit and fire had simply become too hard to look at.  As Joseph watched he sat down and opened the drawer and pulled the elegant silver frame from it and returned it to its place of honor.

“Come here, son,” he said gently.

Little Joe came around the back of his chair.  He halted just to the left of it.  While Joseph had a miniature portrait of his mother in his own room, its very nature limited the likeness to Marie.  The tabletop one he had showed her in her full glory.

“Pa….” his son breathed.

It took a moment for Ben to compose himself, after which he replied, “I know, son.  The likeness is startling.”  Shifting back in his chair, he studied his son a moment and then added, “Joseph, please, take a seat on the corner of the desk and listen to me.”

As his son complied, the older man went on.  “First of all, son – and I want you to hear this – I love you, but more than that, I trust you.  I know you will conduct yourself in a manner becoming a Cartwright where your teacher – or any young lady – is concerned.”

“And secondly?”

Ben’s eyes flicked to Marie’s portrait and back to her son.  “Secondly, I want you to think long and hard about just why you want to spend so much time with Mrs. Drummond.  She may look like your mother, Joseph, but she is not your mother.  It is unfair to your teacher to impose your feelings for your mother on her.  Do you understand?”

“I…don’t think that’s what I’m doing, Pa.”

“Just so it isn’t,” he said, rising.

“Pa?”

Ben turned toward his youngest.  The boy was so young, but stood on the threshold of manhood.  He had taught him everything he knew, but each man had to make his own choices – had to choose his own path.  He worried more about Marie’s boy than he did his others.  Like his mother, Joseph was impulsive and a bit reckless, with a devil-may-care nature that had the power to make his knees go to jelly.  But at the same time Little Joe was loyal and true, with a heart for justice and a hatred of injustice.  Of all his boys Joseph was, at one and the same time, the most selfish and the most selfless.  But more than any of these qualities, Joseph had another that gave him pause.

The boy loved deeply – so deeply he left himself wide open to a hurt that might, one day, be his ruin.

“Er…Pa?”

Ben stirred.  “Yes, son?”

“Can I still help Mrs. Drummond if she asks me?”

The older man drew in a breath and held it.  What should his answer be?

A knock on the door extricated him from having to make it at that moment.

“I’ll get it!” Little Joe called and was off before he had time to say a word.

Ben followed more slowly.  He heard his son talking and then saw Joseph’s face as he turned into the room.  It was a mixture of apprehension and surprise.

Standing in the doorway with her traveling suit on was the subject of their conversation.

Dora Drummond.

 

 

 

TWO

 

“Thank you, Joseph,” Mrs. Drummond said as she followed his son into the house.

As he joined them, Ben looked out and saw a buggy – with no driver – parked in the yard.  “Did you come all this way by yourself?” he asked, just a bit astonished.

“Of course, I came by myself,” Joseph’s teacher replied, her tone a bit indignant.  “How else would I have come?”

He almost chuckled.  She was so young and so fierce.

“I thought perhaps you would have had an escort.  It’s a long way from the settlement to the Ponderosa.”

“I assume Joseph travels it every day,” she replied.

“He does.  But he’s a….”  Ben paused.

“Boy,” she finished for him.  Then, with the slightest smile, Dora Drummond added, “Why Ben, from your reply one might mistake you for a misogynist.”

“Or a gentleman,” a rich voice chimed in.

“Pa, I was just coming to get Little Joe when I saw we had company,” his eldest said as he stepped in the door.

Dora was speaking to Joseph, so her back was to Adam.  She turned as she was introduced.  “Adam, this is Dora Drummond.  Miss Jones’ replacement,” Ben said, and then waited.

“Pleased to meet you…Mrs. Drummond.”

It was only a beat he missed, but it was there.  Adam’s eyes met his over the young woman’s honey-colored head.

There was pain in them.

“And you, Mr. Cartwright.”

His son recovered quickly and grinned.  “Adam.  Please.”

Dora smiled as well.  The sight nearly took his breath away.

Thank goodness Joseph interrupted!

“”What’d you want me for, Adam?” he asked.

His brother reached over and cuffed him on his curly head.  “There’s a tack room waiting with your name written on it.”

“Ah, Pa….”  His youngest turned those green eyes – so like his mother’s – on him.  “I’m awful tired.  Do I have to?”

The boy was tired.  It had been a long tough day.  He almost gave in, but something stopped him.

Ben had a feeling Dora wanted to speak to him alone.

“Say, Joe, how about you and I do it together?” Adam suggested.

His eldest was a wonder.  They’d been together so long, it was as if he could read his mind.

“You…and me?” Joe squeaked.

Adam slung an arm over his brother’s slender shoulders.  “Sure, buddy.  That way we’ll have time to sneak a couple of pieces of that chocolate cake Hop Sing just baked out of the larder before he gets in from feeding the chickens.”

Using his strength, Adam directed Little Joe toward the door.  Once there, the boy turned back toward them.

“See you tomorrow morning, Mrs. Drummond.”

Dora smiled.  “I look forward to it.”

As the door closed behind his two sons, Ben made a motion and directed the young woman toward the hearth area.

“Won’t you sit down?” he asked.

“Thank you.  I am a little weary.”  As she positioned herself on his late wife’s settee and spread her crimson skirts about her, the young woman admitted, “It was a long ride out here.”

Ben sat across from her in his chair.  “And not too wise to make on your own.  You may well be able to take care of yourself, but this is not the city.  Between here and the settlement there are many dangers.  Most of them on two legs.”

“Yes, Papa,” she said, her lips twisting up at the ends.

The older man started and then laughed.  “Forgive me.  It’s a habit.”

“You have just the two sons, isn’t that right?”  She paused. “No, it’s three, isn’t it?”

“Three, yes.  Adam, Hoss, and Joseph,” he replied.  “Hoss should be in soon so you can meet him.”

“Hoss? I do remember Joseph mentioning that name.”  Dora scowled.  “If you forgive me, isn’t it a rather…extraordinary name for a man?”

“Well, my middle son is quite extraordinary.”

“As are all Cartwrights, it seems.”

Ben leaned back and observed her.  “I am sure you didn’t come all the way out here just to compliment us.”

The young woman paused.  She gnawed her lip a moment before replying.  It was yet another affection that reminded him of his late wife.

Marie had always done it before admitting she was wrong.

“I was quite out of turn when we spoke today.  I thought it over and realized I was projecting my own rather difficult relationship with my father onto you and Joseph.  I had no right to do that.  I don’t even know you.”

“I am sure you’ve heard about us in the town.”

Her eyes brightened.  “Oh yes.  ‘You’d best beware of Ben Cartwright’, I was told.  ‘He’s a hard man.  A tough, unbending man; unyielding as the rock the Sierras are comprised of.  Old Ben would as soon shoot you as look at you if you stepped onto his land without permission.'”  Dora raised her hands and opened them wide.  “Somehow, I seem to have managed to remain intact.”

Ben wasn’t sure whether to be amused or angered.

“What else do they say?”

Dora’s gaze went to the door through which Adam and Joseph had gone.   It came back to him.  “The only thing fiercer than Ben Cartwright’s anger is his love of his sons.”

He nodded.

That, at least, was true.

“So, you see, you are nothing like my father.  He never loved me.”

Her statement took him aback.  “I beg your pardon?”

The young woman frowned.  “Oh, there I go again!  I have been told that if I have one fault, it’s that I cannot seem to hold my tongue!”

“So you have only one?” he asked.

Dora laughed.  “That’s been found out,” she answered coyly.

He waited a moment and then said, “Tell me about your father – and about yourself as well.”

Joseph’s teacher stared at him for a moment and then rose to her feet and began to move about the room, flitting from here to there like a brilliant butterfly, never alighting for long.

“I was born in England,” she said.  “My father was a good but stern man. He lost his mother at a young age and was deeply scarred.  Marrying my mother saved him for a time – until she died.  After her death he became hard.  Impossible to please.  I…tried.  I wanted so to look after him and my younger siblings but, finally, I had to escape.  I came to America and married.”  Dora was near the staircase now.  She had paused at the bottom and was looking up.  The late afternoon light that coursed through the window above the dining table struck her, setting her golden-blonde hair afire, causing his heart to skip a beat.  She swung about to look at him just as Marie had often done.  “It was a mistake.”

“Your late husband?”

She held his gaze for a moment and then moved on to the table that held the brandy snifter and goblets.  As she ran her finger around the rim of one, she asked, “Have you ever studied the psychology of the brain, Ben?”

It was a new science. One Adam was fond of.

“I know of it.”

“Then you will know that we are bound to repeat our mistakes.  My husband was as rigid as my father.”  She paused, and then went on in a smaller voice.  “He was a  brutal man.”

Ben rose and went to her side.  As he looked down on her – small-boned, petite, beautiful as a May morning – something awoke within him.  Something he had not felt toward a woman since that day when Marie’s horse crushed her along with all his hopes for a happily married life.  He fought to beat it down, but it rose like a living thing.  He wanted to protect her.  He wanted to cherish her.

He wanted to love her.

He was an old fool.

“Ben?” she asked.

The rancher shook himself and took a step back.  “Did he harm you?”

“He tried, but then he…died.”

Ben locked his hands behind his back – out of temptation’s way.   “How did you come to be a teacher?”

She bit her lip, charmingly again.  “I…told a bit of a fib before.  I was nearly nineteen when I became a teacher.  This is only my second engagement.”  Dora batted her lashes as she looked up at him.  “Are you going to tell the school board?”

And have her dismissed?  Perhaps he should.

Lead me not into temptation.

“Joseph says you are an excellent teacher.  You have nothing to fear from me.”

She let out a sigh.  Her bosom rose and fell within the confines of the white lace blouse that masked it.

“Thank you.  Teaching is very important to me.  I hope….  It is my wish to help others avoid the mistakes I have made.”

“You said that before,” he commented.  “What ‘mistakes’ have you made?”

Tears welled in her eyes.  She shook her head.  “I won’t trouble you with them.  In fact, it’s best that I go.  I wanted to apologize and I have.  There is nothing to be gained by remaining any longer.”

As she turned, his hand shot out and caught her arm.

The touch was electric.

“It’s late.  It won’t be safe for you to travel back to the settlement alone.  You should stay the night.”

The look she shot him was almost comical.

“Oh. I…I…”

Ben smiled.  “I didn’t mean that like it sounded.  We have many guest rooms.  One right over here, if you prefer.”  He indicated the downstairs bedroom.  “My sons and I sleep on the second floor.”

“No.  I should go,” she said.

“Hop Sing can look after you.”

“Hop Sing?  Who’s that?”

“Hop Sing is me,” his cook’s sing-song voice chimed in.  “Hop Sing keep house for Mister Cartwright.  Look after boys.  Look after Missy Drummond too.”

As Dora turned to look at the Asian man – as Marie had done so many times – Ben felt the absence of a woman in the house strike him like a hand.

“Missy Dora velly pretty,” Hop Sing added with a wink.  “Also velly tired.  She should stay here.  Hop Sing fix her hot tea.  Make bed fresh while she drinks.”

The young woman seemed almost persuaded, but something stopped her.  “No.  I should go.  I don’t want to bring…be any trouble.”

“Mrs. Drummond,” Ben said, assuming a formal air, “there are five strong men in this household.  Not one of us is going to be comfortable with allowing a woman to travel alone the twenty miles back to the settlement in the dark.”

“Perhaps one of you could go with me?” she asked.  “I really should get back.  I have lessons to prepare for tomorrow.”

He had a sense that that was not the real reason she wanted to go, but it would have been ungentlemanly to push it.

“I’ll take you,” Ben said as he walked toward the rack by the door that held his hat and coat.

“Mistah Ben not go alone either!  Must come back home!  Highwaymen on road to town!  Bad men.  Indians too!”

“Hop Sing’s right, Pa.  How about I go with you?”

He had been unaware of his middle son’s presence.  Hoss was standing in the open doorway.  “That way you and me can ride back together and I can look out for you.”

He heard a light lilting laugh.  Ben looked down to find Dora smiling broadly.

“Touché!” she said.

 

The next morning started as most mornings did on a spread as large as the Ponderosa, with a huge breakfast prepared by Hop Sing during which his sons laughed and jibed and traded stories and then grew sober as he laid out the day’s needs.  Adam and Joseph were headed to town, his eldest to deal with business and his youngest to go to school.  After school the pair were to meet up and go by the mercantile to finish picking up the supplies they would need for the long haul to the fort.  He knew they would be late returning.  Most likely it would be after dark.  With Adam along he had little fear they would run into trouble.  His eldest son, if anything, was a little too responsible – which made Adam a perfect balance for his baby brother who was too easily distracted.

To put it mildly.

Hoss, in the meantime, would set about the chores that needed attending at home.  Even though preparation for the drive took most of their time and energy, there were still things that needed doing around the house – chopping wood so Hop Sing could cook, tending to the animals, and so on.  Not for the first time Ben regretted the loss of their men to the Carrington’s new mine.  His middle son’s talents were not necessarily wasted on daily chores, but he certainly could have used Hoss’ expertise elsewhere.

Ben glanced at his desk and then ran a hand over his chin and permitted himself a sigh.  Unfortunately, the mountain of paperwork piled on it would occupy him most of the morning.  The drive would take them over and through a number of different properties.  He’d had to secure permission not only to move thousands of cattle across these men’s land, but for the needed grazing and water rights. Most of the men involved were used to such drives and had readily agreed, understanding that the annual movement of bawling beasts lined their pockets as well as his, but there was one new rancher who had proven quite implacable. Of course, Mansfield’s parcel of land lay smack-dab in the middle of all the others.  The price he’d asked was outrageous and the last month had seen a series of letters – along with a few threats – flying between them.  Only recently one of his friends had ‘hinted’ that perhaps one of the mine owners in the area – a man who for some time had desired to see the Ponderosa fail – might be behind it.  Laying on the desk, waiting for his signature, was the final legal contract that would make the way clear for the drive.  The trouble was, the asking price was way beyond his budget at this moment.  He would have to put part of the land up against it in order to secure it.  Of course, if the drive went well, there would be no problem.  The cattle were fat and there were literally thousands of them.

But, if something went wrong….

“Pa?”

It was Adam.  He’d opened the door and stuck his head in.

“I thought you and Joseph had already left,” Ben said as he rose and moved toward him.

“We were about too when three men rode in.  I figured I had better ask their business.”

One could never be too careful living where they did – with what they had.

“And it was?”

“Looking for work.  The younger two have all the marks of ranch hands.  The oldest one said he’d handled the books in a mine before turning to ranching a couple of years back.”

He sensed something in Adam’s tone.  “Did you believe him?”

His son stepped in and closed the door behind him.  “I did.  It’s just, well, I sense there’s something else.  Something he isn’t telling.”

“Something you think would affect his working for us?”

Adam thought a moment and then shrugged.  “I don’t think so.  Who knows?  It may just turn out that he’s one of those men who keeps his own business close.”  A smile broke across his eldest’s face.  “I wouldn’t know anything about that.”

Ben laughed, but then sobered as a thought came to him.  “Where’s your brother?  Is he out there alone with those three?”

The look Adam gave him said it all.  “Little Joe’s with Hoss.  I told….”  His son paused.  “I asked him to stay in the barn until I got back.”

Relief flooded through him.  That was another thing one could never be too careful about.

The threat of kidnapping.

The rancher took a step forward and clapped a hand on his son’s shoulder.  “All right, then.  I’ll go deal with these men while you get going.  At this rate, Little Joe will be late for school.”

Adam met his look. “Did you talk to Joe about…you know?”

He nodded.  “I think the boy’s all right.  While he might have a slight crush on Dora Drummond, I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.  And as to the rest of it, Joseph has his head on straight.  Your brother is just at a hard age.  Everything will sort itself out in time.”

“So the next time Cora Carrington…bumps into him, you think he’ll be able to keep things under control?” Adam asked with a hint of a smile.

Ben considered it a moment and then said, with a hint of a smile himself.

“Maybe it’s time to buy your brother a bigger hat.”

 

The three men turned out to be a God-send and exactly what he needed, which gave Ben pause for only a moment.  Their stories were ordinary and consistent.  The two younger ones were brothers.  They were seasoned ranch hands as Adam had guessed, moving as ranch hands did from place to place to wherever there was work.  Though they were young – in their late twenties – they’d been at it since they’d been boys. Their parents had died in an Indian raid and while their younger siblings – all girls- had returned East to live with an aunt, they had chosen to set out on their own.  A week or so back they’d run into the third man, who was also drifting and looking for work.  The trio had hitched up for extra protection and, simply, for companionship.  The older man, whom he guessed to be about his own age, had worked on ranches – in fact, it seemed he had done just about everything in his life – but his knowledge and skill lay in numbers, figures, and paperwork.

Just like that pile waiting on his desk.

The younger pair were Matt and Lee, or Matthew and Levi, so named because of the Biblical pair.  They were twins in everything but age; small-boned and wiry, each with a head of curls that rivaled Joseph’s unruly mop, but the color was palomino-gold instead of chestnut-brown. Like his youngest they were enthusiastic and full of a restless energy – and goodness! they could talk.

The man the pair had connected with was as different from them as night was from day.  He was tall and broadly built, with straight brown hair graying ever so slightly at the temples. His eyes were brown as well, not so dark as Ben’s own, but dark enough it was hard to distinguish the pupil from the iris in the morning light. The man explained that he had been born in the East and spent a good portion of his life there working behind a desk.  One day he decided he had had enough and left it all behind and struck out for California.  Though he hadn’t made it to the Golden State yet, that was still his aim.  Along the way he had found work and an appreciation for each territory he passed through.  Nevada was his home now.

His name was Halbert Carton.

“Just call me Hal,” the big man said as he offered his hand.  “Halbert is a family name.”

‘”Hal, it is,” Ben said as he took it.  “I must say, you couldn’t have come along at a more opportune moment.  We’re short-handed due to the new mine opening.”

Matt shook his head.  “I can’t imagine what would draw a man down into a pit when he could be on the back of a horse with nothing but sun and sky above him.”

“Money,” Adam remarked as he came alongside them.  His eldest had gone to fetch his youngest brother.

“You couldn’t pay me enough money to work in a dark hole with tons of earth above me,” Lee said, his tone hushed.  “Ain’t no fortune worth bein’ buried alive.”

“Well, hopefully that doesn’t happen, in any of the mines,” Ben said as he turned.  He’d heard the door close.  Joseph was emerging from the barn, apple in hand – stolen, no doubt, from the supply Hoss kept as treats for the horses.

“And who might this be?” Hal asked.

Ben waited until Little Joe was beside him and then circled his son’s narrow shoulders with his arm.  “This is my youngest, Joseph.”  He nodded toward the man in black beside them.  “Adam, you’ve already met.  He’s my oldest.  Hoss is in the middle.  He’s in the barn working.”

“So you have three sons.  You are a wealthy man indeed,” Hal said.  “You and your wife must be proud.”

“Actually, my wife is dead,” Ben replied, feeling no need to explain further.  “It’s been the boys and me for quite a few years now.”

“I’m sorry for your loss, sir,” Hal said.

“Pa,” Joseph said, “Adam and me…and I, need to get going.  Is it all right if we leave?  I don’t want to miss half a day of class.”

This enthusiasm for school was new for his youngest.  He doubted it would continue once Miss Jones returned.

Turning to his oldest, the rancher opened his mouth, but Adam beat him to it.  “I have the lists and instructions, Pa, plus the envelope to go in the post.  I’ll see Mr. White this morning and then I’ll spend the afternoon recruiting.  Joe and I will finish up at the mercantile, get some supper, and then head home.”

Ever efficient.  That was Adam.

“Thank you, son.”

As the pair left, Hal remarked.  “They seem to be fine young men.  You must be proud of them.”

“As a peacock,” Ben quipped.

Hal puzzled a moment.  “There seems to be quite a few years between them.  The youngest is still in school?”

“Joseph will turn fourteen shortly.  He has a few more years.”

“Education is very important,” the newcomer said.  “It’s good to know that, even out here in the West, civilization continues in the form of a good school with a fine educator at its head.  I take it you have a certified schoolmaster?”

“We do.  Miss Jones came highly recommended.”

“Ah.  A woman.”

Did he sense a touch of censure in that tone?

“You don’t approve?”

“Oh, it’s really none of my business.  I just happen to think that men are better able to keep order in a classroom. These young women are often soft when it comes to discipline.”

“I don’t think Mrs. Drummond will have any trouble in that regard.”  The fiery young woman seemed more than able to hold her own.

“Mrs. Drummond?  I thought you said your son’s teacher was a…Miss Jones?”

“She is.  And trust me, Miss Jones has no trouble with discipline.  The students are all frightened of her!” He laughed.  “She’s away and Mrs. Drummond is substituting.”

“I see.  Well, as I said, it’s of no matter to me.”  Hal looked at his companions and then back to him. “Now, Mister Cartwright, since we are your employees – tell us what to do!”

Matt and Levi he sent into the barn to talk to Hoss.  Hal he took with him into the house.

Maybe he’d manage to climb that mountain of paperwork yet today!

 

 

 

THREE

 

Joe Cartwright glanced at the note laying open on his school desk.  It had been hand-delivered just after lunch by one of his former schoolmates who was old enough to have escaped classes and gotten a job.  The note was from Adam.  Older brother’s meeting had not gone as expected and he was going to be delayed.  In the note Adam asked him to wait at the school until four-thirty. If he hadn’t showed up by then, he was to head home on his own – without delay – so he would arrive before dark.  Adam was as bad as Pa when it came to thinking he was a kid. Sure, the road between the settlement and the Ponderosa could be dangerous with robbers and Indians and such, but he had a rifle fastened to his saddle and he knew how to use it.

He could take care of himself.

“Joseph.  Have you finished that task I assigned you?”

Joe started.  He’d been daydreaming.

School wasn’t out yet.

“No, ma’am.  Sorry I was….”  He grinned at the pretty blonde lady staring him down.  “I’ll just get that done now.”

He was good with numbers.  Better than his brothers and Pa thought.  Of course, he let them think that because he sure-as-shootin’ didn’t want to get stuck inside doing the books like stuffy old Adam.  Dora had given him a list of supplies needed for the schoolhouse and asked him to arrange the items in order of importance.  Then he was to compare the cost of the items to the budget the school board had set for the month and let her know how many of them she could get.  Miss Jones was a bit ‘Scotch’, as they said, when it came to buying things for the classroom.  Dora told him she was going to make sure it was well supplied before her short tenure was over.

Joe leaned his chin on his hand and watched the young blonde woman turn and walk back to her desk.  She was wearing that crimson skirt again today and another crisp white blouse.  The blouse was tucked in and held in place by a thick black belt that cinched her waist.

She sure was pretty.

“Must be nice bein’ the teacher’s pet,” a snide voice remarked from behind him.  “If that’s all you are.”

Joe closed his eyes, sighed, and then turned to face the other boy.

“Shut up, Wilson.”

I’m the top math student.  How come she gave you that assignment to you?”

The other boy was right.  Wilson was smart.

He was also a smart-ass.

“I bet it’s because Mrs. Drummond’s counting on it keeping you after school.  Maybe I’ll just come back and see what the two of you get up to behind closed doors.”

Joe was gripping the table like it was his temper he was holding.  His gaze moved to his teacher. Dora was at the other end of the classroom helping one of the little kids.  He, along with the older boys, sat toward the back.

“Maybe you should just knock and I’ll come out and we can talk about it,” Joe warned.

“Maybe I will.”  Wilson’s tone darkened.  “I got about a foot on you, Cartwright.  You better bring one of those older brothers of yours along.”

Wilson Smythe was new to town – well, kind of new.  He’d been in the settlement about a year and in school about half of that.  His Pa had lived in England and been a barrister there, so Wilson and his brothers thought they were a cut above everyone else.  Joe glanced toward the window and noted the angle of the sun.  Adam wouldn’t be at the school until four-thirty at the earliest.  Dora usually let them out about two-thirty.  He hadn’t promised her he’d stay after, but he imagined he would for an hour or so.

That gave him an hour to deal with Wilson.

“You bringin’ one of your brothers?” Joe countered.  Wilson had two just like him.

“Of course not.”

“Then I don’t figure I need one of mine.”  Joe leaned back in his chair.  “How about I meet you at the hanging tree at three-thirty?”  The so-called ‘hanging tree’ was a big old oak.  It had a skinned branch pale as a wrung neck reaching out over the water that was just about the right height for a noose.

Wilson thought a moment. Then he nodded.  “That works,” he said.  “Lookin’ forward to it.”

“Gentlemen.”

Joe blinked.  He hadn’t realized Dora had started for them.

“Yes, ma’am?” he gulped.

“I believe you both have your own work to attend to.  If you find the amount insufficient, I can always assign more.”

Wilson ducked his head and went back to his figures.

Joe stared at his teacher’s for a moment – figure, that was – and then did the same.

 

Adam Cartwright was one unhappy man.  While the autumn cattle drive would provide sufficient funds to get through the winter, more capital would be needed to continue with business the upcoming spring.  Pa’d bought a mine the year before.  It wasn’t a big mine and no silver had been found in it, but it contained enough good and useful ore for them to turn a tidy profit.  Pa had said just the week before that it should supply what was needed.  Adam sighed as he shifted his hat back on his head.  Pa was right  It should have and would have had John Carrington not come to the settlement with his seemingly bottomless purse and bought up just about every other mine in the area.  No one knew where his money came from.  It could have been, as the Englishman asserted, that he inherited it.  Carrington claimed descent from England’s kings.

The young man snorted.  He’d bet his last dollar it was a bastard line.

There was nothing, of course, to back up either of Carrington’s claims but his word.  He was known as a good judge of horseflesh but in truth, his talents lay in sizing up men.  Pa knew it and used him for it.  That’s why he’d been at the meeting and not Pa.

Simply put, he didn’t like or trust John Carrington.

The same went for his only daughter.

Adam glanced at the sky, noting the time, and began to move across the street.  He’d been standing on the porch of the saloon watching Cora ply her ‘wares’ to just about every young buck that walked past the mercantile.  He wished one or more of them would take her up on the offer.  Maybe then she’d leave Little Joe alone.

The tall black-haired man sighed.  No doubt that thought was as wishful as the one he’d had about an hour ago concerning her father selling his mining interests and moving out of the area.

It was only the beginning, he knew, of this kind of problem.  Joe was about to turn fourteen and was evidencing the signs of moving from boy to manhood.  Little brother had always been slighter and slightly shorter than the other boys his age – he knew Joe despaired of ever growing as tall as the three of them – and while he didn’t think Joe would ever grow quite that tall, the boy was sprouting up.  The problem was that, as he sprouted up, little brother was changing from an awkward pre-teen into a devilishly handsome teenager.  Joe had his mother’s looks – fair, sensitive, with enthralling green eyes and full lips that formed a perpetual pout.  Not to mention those curls!  Just the bait needed to attract every unattached female in the territory from eight to eighty.  The eight-year-olds wanted to hold his hand.  The eighty-year-olds wanted to pinch his cheek.  It was the ones in-between – the eighteen to twenty-eight year-olds – that he was worried about.

He could only guess just what they wanted to take hold of.

Adam sighed.  He remembered when he was at that stage.  He’d had a different kind of charm from his brother – an older, more sophisticated one – but he’d been just as much of a target for the ladies.  Fortunately, for Pa at least, he’d almost always been at the older man’s side.  When he was Joe’s age, they’d still been struggling and were just beginning to build what was known as the Ponderosa today.  He’d had little time – and even less opportunity – to get into trouble.

He adored the kid, but little brother was a magnet for it.

With a final glance at Cora Carrington, the tall man passed the mercantile and headed on down the street toward the schoolhouse.  It was a little early – around four o’clock – but he thought he’d head that way and maybe step into the building and listen for a few minutes before letting Joe know he was there.  He didn’t really suspect anything was going on, but now that he’d seen Dora Drummond, and noted her resemblance to Marie, his concern had ratcheted up a few notches.  Would Joe’s budding crush blossom into an unnatural attachment to the woman?  Would he cling to her as a surrogate for his mother?  Or, and this was the kicker, might Joe feel guilty about his adolescent attraction to a woman who looked like his mother and do something, well, stupid?  Knowing his kid brother, the latter scenario was the most likely.  It was like something out of a Shakespeare play.

Adam missed a step.

Unfortunately, the Bard had written far too many tragedies.

No.

No.  He was letting his imagination get the best of him.  Joe might be a little reckless at times – and a bit too ingenious for his own good – but he was a Cartwright and had a Cartwright’s head on his shoulders.  Adam grinned.  Even if there were times when he was sure all those curls somehow interfered with the boy’s thinking processes.

“Do you find something amusing, Mister Cartwright?” a light voice asked him.

He’d reached the schoolhouse without realizing it.  Dora Drummond was walking down the steps, carrying a stack of books.

It took him a moment to step back from her resemblance to Marie.  Then he said, “Good afternoon, Mrs. Drummond.  I’m here to get my brother.”

She looked slightly puzzled.  “Joseph?”

“Well,” he laughed, “that is the only brother I have who is attending school.”

The lovely woman laughed too.  “Of course.  How silly of me.”  As she reached the bottom of the steps, she said, “Joseph isn’t here.  He said he had a meeting to go to and would be back by the time you arrived.  He seemed to indicate you were aware of it?”

“Oh, he did…did he?”  So much for that sensible Cartwright head.  “Do you know where he went?”

“Not really, but….”  Dora thought a moment.  “I did glance out the window and see him heading into the trees to the west side of the building, which I thought was odd.  I thought perhaps…”  She blushed charmingly.  “Perhaps he…felt the call of nature?”

Adam laughed.  “Perhaps he did.  I have to admit I….”  He paused.  He had no idea why he felt he had to explain himself to this young woman.

“Yes?”

“There’s twelve years between Little Joe and me.  I’m afraid, I tend to think of him more as my child than as my brother at times.”

“I understand his mother died tragically.”  At his look, she shrugged.  “People talk.”

And others listen, he thought.  “Yes, Marie’s horse fell and she was pinned underneath.  Joe was only four when it happened.”  He paused.  “Mrs. Drummond….”

“Dora.  Please.”

He nodded.  “Dora.  Did my Pa happen to mention….?”

Those green eyes, so like his step-mother’s, were fastened on him.  “Mention what?”

“How much you – ”

Both of them pivoted toward the trees into which his brother had disappeared.

There had been a sharp cry for ‘help!’.

With a single glance the two of them came to the same conclusion and began to run.

 

Fifteen minutes before his brother arrived at the school, Little Joe had made up an excuse to leave and headed into the woods to meet Wilson Smythe to settle the matter of what the older boy had accused him of.  Wilson was right when he said he was a foot taller than him, but he wasn’t really worried about that. Hoss was more than a foot taller – and over one hundred pounds heavier – and he’d beaten him fair and square in a fight more than once.  His older brothers had made sure he knew how to use his smaller size and speed to win – and to survive.  One night they’d pulled him aside.  They’d both been so serious it had scared him.  Adam told him they wanted to make sure he understood about the kind of men who populated the West – hard men, criminals sometimes; miners and ranch hands and cowpokes who just liked to pick a fight or, sometimes, were looking for a boy to pick – and sell. Pa said he was an ‘attractive and sensitive’ young man.  Joe made a disgusted face as he parted  the brush in front of him and stepped out near the stream and the tall tree with the branch that overhung it.  Adam and Hoss had put it a different way.  They told him he was pretty as a girl.

Yuck.

“Took you long enough, Cartwright,” Wilson Smythe said as he stepped into view.

“Dor…Mrs. Drummond asked me to sort some books for her.  I couldn’t refuse without looking suspicious.”  Joe stopped in front of the other boy.  “I didn’t figure you wanted her to come looking for me.”

Wilson’s Pa didn’t hold with ‘fisticuffs’ as he called it.  He said the Smythes were civilized men and should be able to settle matters in a more ‘enlightened’ way.  Apparently none of his sons believed him. Or, at least, they didn’t listen to him. All three were known for taking on any and all comers.  Adam said Mister Carrington knew all about it and just pretended not to like it so he appeared ‘superior’ to what he called the ‘local yahoos’.

Him and his brothers being among them.

“Dora,” Wilson repeated, not missing the slip.  “So you call her by her first name.  Figures.”

“What do you mean, ‘figures’?”

The other boy shrugged.  “Like father, like son.”

Joe bristled.  “You better say what you mean, Wilson, and soon.  Otherwise -”

“Otherwise what?”  Wilson loomed over him.  “You gonna beat me up, shrimp?”

He went toe to toe and chin to chest with the older, taller boy.  “You can count on it!”

Wilson eyed him for a moment.  “Adley told me what your brother said, about how your pa caused a scandal when he brought your ma to the settlement because she was the ‘wrong’ kind of a woman.”

Joe was getting hopping mad.  In fact, he was so mad he almost missed what Wilson said.  “Wait a minute.  What are you talking about?  Which brother?”

Wilson smirked.  “Which one do you think?”

He didn’t think either Hoss or Adam would have said anything bad about his ma.  But Wilson’s brother Adley was Adam’s age, so if one had….

“I don’t believe you.”

“Believe what you want. Adley said Adam said that people didn’t want your ma here.  He told Adley he agreed with them.”  The other boy sneered.  “So that means Adam doesn’t want you here either!”

Joe knew Wilson was baiting him, but he was so gosh-darn mad at Wilson – and Adam – and the world – that he was losing control.

Lost control.

“You take that back!” Joe shouted as his fingers formed into fists.

Wilson moved in closer.  He took a finger and punched him in the chest.  “Why don’t you make me, Little Joe?”

Joe’s lips twitched at one end and his nostrils flared.

“Maybe I just will.”

 

Adam quickly outpaced Joe’s teacher. Dora was young and quick, but hampered by her skirts and high-heeled boots. The cry had been loud – amplified, he’d decided, by the open area near the stream that ran at the back of the school property – and so that was where he was headed.  It was a favorite haunt of the boys in the settlement, mostly for fishing, but also as a proving ground.  The old oak tree that clung to its bank was an easy mark to find, and often set as a meeting point.

Most often, for trouble.

As he ran, Adam considered what might have happened.  His little brother was often the target for bullies due to his slender stature and late development.  Joe was almost fourteen, but could have been mistaken for a boy of twelve.  He and Hoss had done their best to toughen him up and had succeeded – on the outside.  He’d seen his little brother take on a boy nearly twice his size and emerge victorious – if battered – more than once.  The problem was, as tough as Joe was on the outside, he was vulnerable on the inside.  The boy felt things more deeply than anyone he had ever known, which left him open to trouble.  He’d tried to explain it to Pa when Pa was agonizing over the last poor choice his brother had made.  It was no one’s fault, but Joe was – to put it bluntly – damaged goods.  The blow had been struck the day his mother died and the wound was still festering and that left him angry.

And, as Hop Sing liked to put it, ‘A man in passion rides a mad horse.’

So, what Adam expected to find when he broke through the brush near the stream was his little brother standing with his fists in the air, breathing hard – most likely with a bloody nose and split lip – facing down some kid near his own age but twice his size.  He wasn’t disappointed.  Wilson Smythe was there, standing on the bank, staring at Little Joe.  What he didn’t expect to find was Wilson looking up – at his  older brothers who were perched on the sizeable limb that jutted out from the hanging tree, dangling his kid brother over the fast-running stream.

It took a second for him to decide what to do.  Shouting, he knew, might cause more harm than good.  He thought about firing off his pistol, but the result could have been the same – Little Joe, released in a moment of panic, to plunge into the rushing waters below.  Adam drew a long breath and held it.  He waited for his heart to stop pounding, and then moved forward until he was clearly visible.  Once in the open he stopped and stood there, saying not a word.

Let their own consciences shame them.

It was Adley who spoke first.  He was holding Joe’s left arm.  His younger brother, Darby, was holding the right one.

“Hey, there, Adam….”

Adam pushed his hat back on his head and looked up at the man on the branch – and Adley was a ‘man’.  He was twenty-four.  Barely a year younger than him.

“Would you care to explain to me what you’re doing?”

Joe was looking at him with those big green eyes.  There was a plea in them, but there was something else.

His brother was hopping mad.

“You know how it is, Adam.  Joe got smart with Wilson.  We were just teaching him a lesson.”

Adam ran a hand over his chin.  One eye narrowed.  “By threatening his life?”

Adley shifted his grip on Joe’s arm.

Joe panicked.

So did he, even if he didn’t show it.

“We weren’t gonna let him hit the water,” Darby said.  “Just scare him.”

The black-haired man eyed the distance between his brother and the stream, and noted the trajectory of his fall.

“Well, if that’s the case, I would suggest you change your position – and while you’re at it,” Adam’s voice took on new weight and purpose, “get Joe down here. Otherwise I might have to take matters into my own hands.  I believe there are rather severe consequences for attempted murder.”

He and Adley were friends – or, at least, they had been.  Like many young men still living under their father’s roof, Adley felt the need to prove himself and to be the ‘big man’.  No doubt he was trying to say something to his younger brothers by what he was doing.

Unfortunately, it was the wrong thing.

“What…what do you mean ‘murder’?” Darby stuttered.

“You can’t drown in a stream!” Wilson protested, speaking at last.

“No, but you can hit your head on a rock when you go into the water, or get tangled in something hidden underneath!”  His anger was growing at their stupidity.  “I am going to say this once, and only once.  You will get my brother down from there now and you will do it quickly and efficiently.  If one hair on that curly head of his is hurt, there will be hell to pay!”

Getting Joe ‘down’ wasn’t the easiest thing to do – mostly due to his brother.  Adley swung Joe up onto the branch and, of course, the kid took a swing at him, which caused Joe to lose his balance and almost plunge to the ground.  After clinging to the branch for several heartbeats, Joe rose up and pushed past – again, almost falling off.  Little brother clung to the trunk as he hurled a few…er…choice words at the brothers, and then …slowly…made his way to the earth under his own power.  Adley and Darby followed close behind.  He half-expected Joe to go for them when they landed, but realized pretty quickly that his brother was in no condition to do so.  Joe had gone white as chalk and was shaking like a leaf in a winter wind.

Adam waited until his brother met his gaze before asking, “You all right?”

Joe sucked in a breath to steady himself before nodding.

Adam nodded too.  “Okay,” he said more to himself than to Joe, before turning to face the Smythe brothers who had formed a united front.

“If your kid brother could learn to keep his mouth shut, none of this would have happened,” Adley said before he had a chance to speak.

Crossing the distance between them, Adam stopped in front of his sometimes ‘friend’.  “Let me get this straight.  You find it perfectly acceptable for a twenty-four-year old man….”  He glanced at Darby.  “…along with his twenty-two-year old brother, to take on a thirteen-year-old kid, overpower him, and then threaten his life by dangling him over a running stream?”

“We were just defending our kid brother,” Darby insisted.  “You’d have done the same.”

“Defending your kid brother?”  Adam eyed Wilson Smythe who had a few inches on him.  “Who happens to be a foot taller and a good thirty pounds heavier than my kid brother?  I take it the boy has some medical condition?”  His tone was biting.  “Perhaps the lack of a backbone?”

Adley held a hand to Wilson’s chest as the younger boy exploded.  “Your kid brother is crazy!  He went for me, I tell you!  If Adley and Darby hadn’t come along, it’d be me who was dead!”

He had to hold back his amusement.  The picture was something akin to an elephant pointing its finger at a mouse and crying ‘help!’

“Let it go, Adam.”

The black-haired man swung around to look at his kid brother – and it was his first real ‘look’ at him.  Joe was in far worse shape than Wilson.  He had obviously been roughed up before being dragged up into that tree.  No doubt by the spineless trio before him.

His temper flared.

“I will not let it go!  You could have been killed!”

Joe’s eyes were narrowed – partly because the one was swelling.  They shot to the brothers.  “I’m not afraid of them.”

Adam sucked in a sigh.  He stepped closer to his brother and lowered his voice.  “Well, you should be.  Joe, you’re a kid and they’re -”

“I know I’m a kid!  You tell me every day!”  Joe’s lips were trembling and there were tears in his eyes.  “Please, Adam, for me…let it go!  I just want to go home.”

He studied him.  Joe was still shaking and his color had yet to completely return.  In fact, he looked like he might keel over any minute.  He had a black eye, a split lip, and various cuts and bruises on his exposed skin.

Pa was going to have a cow.

Adam thought a moment and then nodded.  “You stay here,” he said as he turned back to the Smythes.

Joe caught his arm.  “What are you going to tell them?”

The tall man grinned.  “Tell them?  Nothing.  I’m just going to say goodbye.”

His steps were slow and measured.  Still, they brought him to the trio in seconds.

“I suppose Joe lied about what started this whole thing,” Wilson said before he could open his mouth.

“My little brother doesn’t lie.”  It was true.  Adam bit back a smile.  Of course, Joe did ‘prevaricate’ from time to time when it suited his purposes.

The older boy snorted.  “Right.  You Cartwrights are saints.  Everyone in the settlement knows it.”

“Wilson,” Adley warned.

“Look, I don’t know what you have against us,” Adam said, “but I would like to know what you believe instigated your disagreement.”

Wilson sneered.  “You did.”

“Me?”  Adam scoffed.  “I wasn’t even here.”

“Yeah, well, you just ask that kid brother of yours what happened when I told him what Adley said you – ”

Adley was frowning.  He turned and cuffed Wilson on the head.  “Shut up, you little idiot.”  Turning back, his sometimes-friend said, “Look, Adam, this was between two kids.  I’m sorry I let it get out of hand.  You know how it is – something looks right and you’re smack in the middle of it before you realize it’s wrong.”

“Like dangling a thirteen-year-old over a fast running stream?”

Adley stared him down.  “You have my apology.  If you want to make something more of it, that’s your business.  You know where I am.”  He turned to his brothers.  “Come on, we’re leaving.”

Adam opened his mouth to challenge them as they started to move away, but then thought better of it.  He did know where they lived and he would do something about it – after he got Little Joe home where he was safe and his cuts and bruises could be looked after.

Turning back, he was startled when he couldn’t find his brother.  Then, he realized he was on the ground.  Hastening over, he knelt at his side.

“Are you okay?”

Joe gave him a weak grin.  “Just resting.”

Adam waited a moment before asking, “Joe, how did this happen?  I understand you taking on Wilson – he’s about as irritating a human being as I have ever met – but how did Adley and Darby get involved?  Did you do something to make them mad?”

Joe’s demeanor changed in a heartbeat.  His nostrils flared and he shouted, “Yeah, that’s right!  It’s always the kid’s fault!  Go ahead and take their side!”

He stifled a sigh.  “I am not ‘taking their side’.  I’m asking you a question.”

Joe scrambled to his feet and began to push past him.  “Well, I don’t feel like answering it!  How’s that!?”

Adam caught his arm.  He winced as Joe let out a moan, indicating it was bruised.  “Listen, young man, you will not speak to me that way.”

“You’re not my pa!” Joe shot back.  “You can’t speak to me that way!”

“I may not be your pa, but I am your brother.  It scared me to death when I saw you hanging over the water!”

“I’d of thought it would have made you happy, Adam,” Joe snarled.  “You’d have been rid of me.  That’s what you want, isn’t it?  You don’t want me around!”

All the time they were exchanging verbal blows, Joe was wriggling and wiggling and trying to break free of his grip.

He held on more tightly.

“You little idiot!  Whatever gave you that idea?  You may vex me to the point of spitting nails, but I love you!”

“Yeah, right.  Tell me another one.”  Joe put up a mighty effort to break free.  “Now, let me go!  Let me go or I’ll -”

“You’ll what?” he snapped back.

His little brother snorted like a raging bull as he raised his arm and made a fist.  Knowing what was coming, Adam ducked, which in the end turned out to be both a good and bad thing.  Joe’s punch missed him.

But it hit Dora Drummond.

 

 

 

FOUR

 

“Mistah Ben come inside.  He stop worrying,” a voice said from behind him.

Ben closed his eyes and let out a sigh.  It was past suppertime.  He should have expected his long-time friend to seek him out.  Joseph and Adam were late, and if there was one thing sure as the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening, it was Hop Sing’s punctuality when it came to the four of them sitting down at the dinner table – together – to a hot, fresh meal.  It was true he was concerned that the boys were running behind, but worry wasn’t what had driven him outside.

It was his own guilty conscience.

Turning, he favored his housekeeper with a weary smile.  “I’m not worrying, really. A dozen things could have keep the boys in town longer than anticipated.  I…just needed a breath of fresh air.”

Hop Sing was giving him that look.

“Not think Mistah Cartwright worry about boys.”  The Asian man paused.  Then, with a smile, he added, “Missy Drummond is velly velly pretty.”

Ben snorted.  “Am I that transparent?”

“Mistah Ben been alone long time now.  Almost ten years.  It all right for him to notice pretty lady.”

Dora was more than pretty, she was beautiful, just as Marie had been.  As a man he couldn’t help but notice her slender figure, lush golden hair, and wide green eyes, dark as the heart of the forest.  But more than that he was drawn to the woman herself.  Dora was a woman and under twenty-five, but when she’d thought Joseph in need of her protection, there had been no hesitation in confronting him and telling him her mind.

Ben sighed again as he ran a hand over his chin.  “You’re right, Hop Sing.  There is nothing wrong with my noticing her, but….”

“You afraid you like her because she look like Missy Marie.”

“And acts like Marie!” he laughed.

Hop Sing nodded.  “Mistah Ben miss her very much.  Little Joe miss her very much too.”  His cook tapped his chest.  “Little boy have big hole here.  In heart.”

If the truth were known, he had a big hole in his heart as well.  He had loved both Adam and Hoss’ mothers fiercely – and missed them just as dearly – but there had been…something…about Marie.  He had loved her with a passion that, in ways, passed understanding.  He really had no business marrying her.  She was too young for him, for one thing, and had been quite unsuited for the West.  She’d done her best to fit in with the settler’s wives and daughters, with the members of the church congregation and so on, but for the most part she’d been alone.  Maybe that was a part of what drew him to Dora Drummond as well.  She had about her the same steel, but also the same fragility.  Like a bird, Marie could take wing and fly as high as the sky, but once caught and brought to ground, it took nothing to crush her.

Hop Sing’s voice had dropped in volume as if he didn’t want Hoss – who was sitting by the fire within, waiting on his brothers – to hear.  “Little boy need new mama.  Mistah Ben need new wife too.”

Ben glanced at the Asian man.  “So, apparently you’ve added matchmaking to your skills, old friend?”

“Hop Sing inscrutable,” his cook said, using the word so often employed by white men of the Chinese.  “Have many, many skills Mistah Ben only learn about when he have need to know.”

“Well, I’m not sure in this case that particular skill will be needed.  Dora is a lovely young woman, but she is that – young.  She’s just about the age Marie was when we met.  The trouble is this old man is fifteen years older!”  Ben shifted and headed for the door.  “Come on, Hop Sing, I imagine we’d better eat.  Something has kept Little Joe and Adam, and if I know Hoss, he’s about to faint away from hunger!”

He had just opened the door when a sound caught his attention – not horses’ hooves, but carriage wheels.  As they watched a smart black brougham rolled into the yard drawn by a team of horses.  There were two other horses tethered behind.

Adam and Little Joe’s.

The carriage halted and a man debarked.  Once on the ground he turned away and spoke to someone inside.  It took a second, but Ben recognized the man as Adam.  He waited for his youngest son to hop down on the other side.  When Joseph failed to appear, Ben started toward the rig.

It was at that point that Adam turned to face him.

“Hey, Pa.”

Ben’s eyes roamed the carriage and its surrounds.  Someone was inside, but he could tell by the silhouette that it was a woman.

“Where’s your brother?”

Adam winced.  His oldest ran a hand along the back of his neck and then let out a sigh.  “Well, Pa, it’s like this.  I sort of…lost him.”

“Lost him?  How could you lose your brother?”  Ben sucked in air as the seriousness of the situation struck him.  “You mean to tell me you left a thirteen-year-old boy out there,” he pointed to the wilderness surrounding them, “alone in the dark!?”

“Pa, it’s a long story -”

“Mister Cartwright – Ben – please don’t blame Adam.  I’m afraid it’s entirely my fault,” a woman’s voice remarked from inside the carriage.

Ben’s gaze shot to Adam – who winced again.  ‘Who?’ he mouthed.

His question was answered a moment later as Adam went to help the woman debark.  Her gloved hand appeared to grip one of the carriage struts.  Even though her face was partially masked by the raised hood of her cloak, he instantly knew it was Dora Drummond.

The mystery deepened.

“Pa?  What’s goin’ on?” a voice asked from behind him.

Ben glanced over his shoulder at Hoss and then raised a hand to ask for silence.  As his middle son nodded, he turned back to the school teacher who was now standing directly before him.

“I apologize, Ben, for the nuisance I am proving to be to your family.”

Again he looked at Adam – who was looking at the stars.

“Nuisance?”

“First our…confrontation regarding Joseph and then the rumors in the settlement, and now….”  Dora hesitated and then she lowered her hood – revealing a shiner worthy of a first place ribbon.

Adam came up behind her.

“Like I said, Pa, it’s a long story….”

 

He was going to Hell.   Well, maybe not to Hell, but at least to jail.  Whatever way you looked at it, Pa was going to disown him.

For Gosh sakes!  He’d hit a woman!!

Joe lowered his head into his hands, said ‘Ouch!”,and then fingered the darkening flesh around his left eye. As he did, shame flooded through him.  He didn’t see much before he’d bolted into the woods, but he saw Dora on the ground and saw the mark of his knuckles on her skin.  If only he hadn’t gotten so mad at Adam!  He’d felt like he could spit nails!  Pa was always telling him to look before he leapt and to think things through, but it just didn’t seem like that was something he could do.  When he got mad, something rose up inside him and took over.  It was like a bull seeing red.

Just like the red he saw on Dora’s cheek.

Joe shoved off the fallen log he was sitting on and started to walk again.  He sure wished he had his horse, but he’d left him behind at the schoolhouse.  Wilson had worked him over while his brothers held his arms, so he was stiff and sore.  He’d twisted and turned and fought to get free, kickin’ and makin’ contact a few times, but all that had done was get him kicked back, so he was limping as well.  Joe sniffed and ran a dirty sleeve under his nose.  He was fighting back tears as much from fatigue as from the fight.  Maybe fighting back was what got him into so much trouble.  He still shook when he thought about dangling over that stream!  The curly-haired boy reached up to touch the side of his head where it was sore.  Adley had hit him hard enough his teeth rattled and, before he could recover, the two older boys had thrust him up into the tree and over the side of that branch. He’d thought he was going to die.  Joe paused and sucked in a lungful of air to quiet his racing heart.

He’d really thought he was going to die.

As he continued to walk, he thrust his hands into his pockets.  He was about halfway home.  On foot that meant he had another three hours to go.  Joe glanced up at the moon and thought about how late that would make him.  His pa sure was going to be mad!  He’d have been even later if a fellow about Hoss’ age he knew hadn’t picked him up and given him a ride in his wagon.  He’d made up some story about meeting Adam at one of their line shacks to get the man to put him down in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night with no one in sight.  Otherwise, he’d have been deposited on the doorstep of the Ponderosa.  Joe’s hand went involuntarily to his backside.  He knew what would have happened next.  Pa would have opened the door, rushed out, and given him a big old hug. Then he would have given him that look –  the one that said without words, ‘I’m disappointed in you, young man’.  Then he would have scolded him in front of his smirking brothers and then –

Then he’d have been escorted to the woodshed.

After that, well, he probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day for a couple of weeks.

This time he deserved it.  He’d done a lot of stupid things in his life, but hitting a woman had to be about the dumbest one.  When he got home, he’d just march right up to his pa – who was sure to be in the red chair before the fire waiting on him – and take it like a man.  Joe’s pert nose twitched as he considered his father’s reaction.  Maybe he’d do that.  Or maybe he’d just bed down with the horses in the stable since they wouldn’t judge him and wait until morning to face the music.  Pa might be in a better mood after a few hours sleep.

If Pa slept….

Joe halted in mid-stride.

Maybe he’d just go to Mexico and hire on at some ranch there.

As he stood there in the dark with the stars blazing overhead, contemplating his very uncertain future, the curly-haired boy was startled by the sound of hoof-beats striking the hard packed earth of the path he walked.  A second later a rider appeared.  The man was bent over the neck of his horse and moving fast.  It was all Joe could do to get out of his way.  Just before the horse’s hooves would have struck him, he dove off the side of the road.  There was a moderate drop into a gully, which he managed to navigate without any trouble.

It was the tree that stopped his fall that caused the problem.

As he sat up, shaking and out of breath, Joe clutched his left arm to his side.  He’d heard the ‘snap!’ and he knew what had happened.  He also knew that his stubbornness was going to cost him more than a couple of raps with a razor strop.  Thinking of it all – the visit to Pa’s friend Paul, having his arm in a sling and being unable to do anything for himself for weeks, his pa mothering him, his brothers ribbing him, and Hop Sing yelling at him – everything finally took its toll.

Joe began to cry.

“Hello!  Hello!  You down there.  Can you hear me?  Are you all right?” a man’s voice cut into the night.

Joe shifted and looked up.  He tried to answer, but had to wait until the pain from his arm subsided before he could.

Sucking it in, he called back, “I’m okay. I hurt my arm.”

“Can you climb up by yourself?”

Joe looked at the side of the gully.  On a normal day he could have taken it in seconds.  Now, it looked about as daunting as climbing up Eagle’s Nest.

“I…I don’t think so.”

“You wait there, then.  I’ll be down in a moment.”

Joe snorted as he listened to the man moving about.  There wasn’t much else he could do!

It was maybe five minutes later when the sound of falling pebbles and rocks alerted him to the fact that the man was on his way.  Joe was sweating and feeling sick.  He knew it was from breaking his arm. Paul Martin called it ‘shock’, and while it couldn’t kill you, it could make you feel like you wanted to die.  That was too bad cause, if he died, he wouldn’t have to face his Pa.

At the moment, that sounded pretty good.

A hand on his shoulder alerted Joe to the fact that the man had arrived. It was dark and he couldn’t really see him but, from the sound of his voice and the way he moved, he thought he was older.

That and the fact that he called him ‘son’.

“Son, can you tell me what’s wrong?”

Joe winced as he shifted. “It’s my arm.  I think I broke it when I hit that old tree.”

“Let me see.”

The curly-haired boy drew in a breath and held it as the man rolled up his sleeve and felt along his arm.

“The skin’s not broken, that’s good,” he said. “However, I can feel a break. It’s going to need attention.”

Joe sucked in snot and asked, “Are you a doctor?”

There was a pause.  “No, but I studied to be one.”  The man turned and reached to his side and then – miraculously – produced a blanket that he threw over his shoulders and tucked in around him.  He turned again and came back with a flask.  As he unscrewed the cap, he said, “I hope your parents don’t mind,” and then he poured some liquid into the cap and handed it to him.

Joe sniffed it.  “Whoo-ee!” he said.  “That’s some powerful stuff.”

“The finest whiskey a man can buy,” the stranger replied with a laugh.  “Drink it down.  It will help with the pain.”

He’d had it before. When he was sick.  He didn’t like it.

“Do I have to?”

“Well, young man, it’s up to you.  We are going to have to get you out of this gulley, onto the road and onto my horse, and then to your home, which I assume is somewhere close?”

“About ten miles,” Joe said.  Thinking about it, he winced.  “It’s gonna hurt.”

“Yes, it is, which is why this almost-doctor prescribes a shot of strong medicine.”

Joe looked at the cap.  He wrinkled his nose and then opened his mouth and tossed it back and swallowed.

Then he began to cough.

“Goodness!  That was worthy of the most seasoned of sailors!” the man laughed as he wrapped an arm around him to steady him until he stopped coughing.  Every time he did, pain shot through his arm – well, through all of him.

By the time he was done, he felt exhausted.

“Now, we’ll just give it a few minutes to take hold, and then we’ll get you out of here.”

Joe fought it, but he felt so tired he gave in and leaned against the man’s shoulder like he would have his pa’s.  As the whiskey worked its magic, lessening the pain, he was able to think of something other than the pounding, throbbing ‘knife’ jabbing into his arm.

“You didn’t tell me your name,” he said, and then felt like he’d said something wrong.  “Sorry.  I meant, will you tell me your name?”

“First of all, let’s see if you are coherent. What’s yours?  Can you tell me?”

It took a second, which surprised him.  “Joe.  Joe Cartwright.”

“Good.  And where do you live?”

“On the Ponderosa. It’s a big spread.  Like I said, about ten miles east of here.”

“I’ve heard of it.”

Joe looked up.  The moon was behind the man.  He could see he had a head of wavy light-colored hair.  He couldn’t see his face.

“You have?” he asked.

The man laughed again.  “Everyone has heard of the Ponderosa.”

He guessed that was right.  Pa was an important man.

“Now, to answer your question, my name is Marcus, but my friends call me Mark.”

Joe was sliding down along the man’s arm. “What do your enemies call you?” he asked.

The stranger was silent a moment and then he let out a long, loud peal of laughter.  “Well, I suppose they just call me ‘cuss’.”

Joe laughed too, for a couple of seconds.

And then the lights went out.

 

Ben Cartwright ran a hand over his chin and straightened up in his chair by the fire.  He glanced at the clock, which had just struck one.  It had been a long night and would be longer still since Joseph had yet to return.  His brothers had gone out looking for him.  Adam felt especially bad, even though he had assured his eldest that he understood there was little he could have done to prevent his brother running off and disappearing.  Adam’s first priority had to have been Dora Drummond as she was a woman – and a city one at that.  He also understood her reluctance to go to the doctor in the settlement.  He was sure she was being sincere when she said she didn’t want any backlash against Joseph, but it was more than that.  She was young and beautiful and was probably feeling a bit of a backlash herself.  He knew how it had been for Marie.  She’d been just as spirited and within the first few weeks of their marriage had confronted a number of the local busybodies, telling them in no uncertain terms to mind their own business where she was concerned.  From his experience at the schoolhouse, he had a feeling Dora had done the same thing and – most likely – had received the same reception from the upstanding female citizens of the settlement.  She had jumped at his offer to stay at the Ponderosa overnight – after the obligatory refusal her sex and station demanded.  Before he left, Hoss had taken her up to one of the guest rooms.  Hop Sing had seen her settled in for the night.

She had to be exhausted.

Ben blew out a sigh.  He knew he was!

He’d wanted to go with the boys, but Adam had rightly insisted that one of them should remain at the house in case Joseph returned.  Not only would the boy feel more at ease but, with the rumors flying around the town – spread no doubt by the Smythe boys – it was best his youngest not be left alone, unchaperoned with the young woman in the house.  The whole thing was absurd, of course, but people would talk.  Joseph was a boy and Dora Drummond was a woman.

A very attractive and desirable woman.

The rancher shifted uncomfortably.  It was best not to entertain such thoughts.  Dora was young enough to be his daughter – younger than a daughter might have been.  He had no business being attracted to her and the fact that he was disturbed him.  He put it down to her resemblance to Marie.  She was beautiful and blonde and appeared to be made of the same mixture of satin and steel.  Ben rose to his feet and walked over to his desk where the portraits of his three wives had been returned to their proper places.  His New Orleans beauty was there, staring at him out of the sterling silver frame; a knowing smile on her lips.  Marie had been twenty-seven when she died and he, thirty-six.  He was forty-six now.  More than twenty years older than Joseph’s school teacher.

“Forty-six,” he breathed.  “And an old fool.”

“Little Joe still not home?” a soft, worried voice asked from behind him.

Ben turned to find his housekeeper standing beside the dining table.  “Hop Sing, I didn’t know you were still up.”

“Hop Sing no can sleep when number three son missing,” his housekeeper said as he moved into the great room.

“Mister Ben no can sleep either,” he echoed.  With a small laugh, the rancher added, “I wonder just how many hours of sleep that boy has cost me in fourteen years.”

“Thirteen years, eleven months,” Hop Sing replied without missing a beat.

They both had a good laugh.

“Would Mistah Ben like a cup of fresh coffee?”

He shook his head.  “I don’t want to put you to any trouble, old friend.”

“Coffee already made.  Hop Sing bring two cups.  We drink it together.  Stay up until Little Joe get home.”

Ben briefly touched his friend’s shoulder.  “Thank you.  That would be wonder….”  The rancher hesitated.  “Did you hear that?”

His housekeeper nodded.  “Horse come into yard.”

One horse, so it couldn’t be Adam and Hoss.  Joe’s horse was safely housed in the stable, so he doubted it was him either – unless his youngest had borrowed one from a neighbor.

Hop Sing’s head was cocked.  “Two voices,” he said.

Ben nodded.  “Well, the mystery won’t be solved by standing here,” he said as he headed for the door.  A moment later he gripped the latch and opened it onto a moonlit night.  A single horse stood in the yard before the house.  A man was standing beside it.  Someone was on the horse. Whoever it was, was bent forward as if in pain.  The man spoke to them as he reached up, seemingly to assist them in climbing off the horse.  Ben watched for a moment and then stepped into the yard.  As he approached, he called out, “Hello!  Is there anything we can do to help?  I – ”

The figure on the horse had turned to look at him.  A familiar set of lips formed a single word.

“Pa….”

And then Joseph began to slide off the horse.

The man beside the animal beat him to it.  He caught Little Joe about the waist and prevented him from falling, and then gently lowered his son to the ground.  Before he had him settled, the rancher was at his side, reaching for his son.

“Joseph,” he said softly as he touched the boy’s face.  It was battered and streaked with tears, mud, and blood.

It was one of the most beautiful sights he had ever seen.

The man who held his boy said, “I take it this is the Ponderosa?”

Ben turned toward him.  It was dark so he couldn’t see him clearly, but the stranger appeared to be around his age.  He was of average height and had light-colored hair and eyes, though the precise nature of the color eluded him.

“Yes,” he replied as he cleared a bit of bracken from his son’s curls.

“And you must be Ben Cartwright?  The boy’s father.”

“Yes.  Yes.  What happened?”  He had just noticed that his son’s arm was bound tightly to his side.  “Is Joseph hurt?”

“The humerus that runs from the shoulder to the scapula is broken,” the man said, his words and tone somewhat clinical.  “There was no puncture of the skin, thank God.”

Ben blinked.  “How?” he asked.

The other man’s smile was tolerant.  “I think it would be wise to get the boy into his bed where he is both safe and warm.  After that, I will be more than happy to fill you in.”

What was he thinking?

“You’re right.  Sorry.  I….”

“You are a worried father, drawn into the night to a scene you could not have anticipated.”

Ben opened his mouth to reply.  The touch of fingers on his chin stopped him.  He looked down to find Joseph was awake.  His son’s rich green eyes were rimmed with red and filled with pain.  Joseph mumbled something that he missed, so he leaned in closer to hear.

“What was that, son?

“…sorry.”

Ben glanced at the other man who shrugged.  “What do you have to be sorry about, Joseph?”

“Dora…Mrs. Drummond…sorry….”

The stranger blinked.  “Mrs. Drummond?”

“My son’s teacher.”  As there was no need to fill the man in further, he turned back to his son.  “We’ll talk about that later.  For now, let’s just concentrate on getting you into the house and up the stairs to your bed.”

Little Joe nodded.  “Sounds…good, Pa.”

“Would you like me to carry him?”

“No, I can get him,” Ben replied as he slipped one arm under his son’s knees and wrapped the other around his shoulders.

“Take care.  It’s the left arm.  The break was bad,” the man said.

The rancher winced.

Of course, it was.

“I noticed the boy is left-handed,” the stranger went on.  “I hope you don’t mind.  I took the liberty to set it while he was unconscious.”  At his questioning look, he added, “I studied medicine before I decided to pursue other interests.  I’m in investments now.”

Ben visibly relaxed.  “Thank you.”  Looking at his son, he asked, “Well, Joseph, are you ready?”

He felt the boy tense.  Little Joe swallowed and then nodded, “Yes, sir.”

As gently as he could, Ben rose to his feet.  Joseph whimpered and leaned into his chest as the unavoidable pain shot through his arm. His son looked up at him, half-smiled, and went out.

“There’s no need to worry,” the stranger said as he followed them toward the house.  “Your young man has had quite the day.”

Beaten by the Smythe brothers.  Dangled over a tree branch in danger of his life.  Fighting with his brother and striking his teacher by accident.  Running away, and then – somehow – managing to break his arm.

Ben couldn’t help but chuckle.

Quite the day?

Yes.

But it was just an average one in the life of Joseph Francis Cartwright.

 

 

 

FIVE

 

Ben came down the stairs to find the stranger in the great room.  The man was standing by the fire, staring at the dying embers.  He had a steaming cup of coffee in his hand, so Hop Sing must have supplied him before heading up the stairs to sit with Joseph.  It was still difficult to say exactly what he looked like.  In the light of the fire, his hair appeared a golden-red, so he assumed it was actually a pale blond or white.  He was a man of moderate height – perhaps five foot nine or ten – and while he wasn’t brawny by any means appeared powerfully built, more like a miner than a businessman.  He was attired in a dark gray suit topped by a black cloak.

The stranger’s face, while not exactly what he would have called ‘kindly’, was open and welcoming as he turned to greet him.

“How is the boy?”

“Sleeping.”

“Did you give him the draught I left on the bedside table?”

Ben nodded.  “I sat with Joseph until he fell asleep.  Hop Sing is with him now.”

“Old habits die hard, I guess.  It’s a good thing I still keep a bag with me.”  The man placed his cup on the table before the fire.  “Now, since I know your son is safe and in capable hands, I will bid you farewell.”

The rancher was a bit startled.  “We have plenty of rooms. The least I can do is offer you a bed for what’s left of the night.”

“Thank you, but no.  I was on my way to meet a friend when I ran into your son.”   The stranger paused.  “That reminds me.  I’ve had no opportunity to tell you what occurred.”  He appeared chagrined.  “Once I have, you may choose to rescind that offer of a bed.”

Ben indicated the settee as he took a seat in his chair.  “Would you care to explain that last remark?”

The man nodded as he sat down.  “First of all, allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Marcus Burnell.  I am recently arrived in your country.”

He thought he’d noted a British accent.  “From England?”

“Cornwall.  My interests brought me first to America and then to the West.  There’s quite an opportunity for investments in the Nevada territory.  As I said, I was journeying to the settlement to meet a friend when I nearly ran your son down.”

“You…what?”

“The boy was walking in the middle of the road in the dark.  I was pressing my horse forward, with little caution, I fear.”  Marcus smiled.  “Rumors of highwaymen and the like, you know?  I barely saw the boy in time.  Unfortunately, when Joseph jumped out of the way, he rolled down a hill into a gullywhere he made the sudden and unhappy acquaintance of a large tree near the bottom.”

Ben closed his eyes for a moment to offset the image of his young son’s fall.  When he opened them, Marcus was watching him.

Closely.

“I hastened down to the lad and wrapped him in my saddle blanket and tended to him as best I could in such primitive conditions.  I offer you my apologies, sir.”

Ben shook his head.  “Joseph knows better than to walk on the road in the middle of the night.  You have nothing to apologize for.  I’m only grateful you had the knowledge to care for him.”  The older man let out a sigh.  “And you’re right.  He is left-handed.  If the break was bad and you hadn’t set his arm right away….”

“It was bad.  I imagine he’ll be in quite a bit of pain when he wakes up.  Do you have a family physician in the settlement?”

“We do.”

“If you like, I could carry a note to him.”

“Thank you.  Paul will want to see Little Joe as soon as possible.”  Ben eyed the man. “You’re sure I can’t convince you to stay?  We already have one guest. You’d be no trouble.”

“A guest?”

“My son’s teacher, Mrs. Drummond.  She had a…small mishap and is staying with us for a few days.”

Marcus thought a moment and then shook his head.  “My friend will be as concerned about me as you were about your son.”

The rancher glanced at the clock.  It was about to strike two.  “Will you at least let me rouse one of the hands and send him with you?”

Little Joe’s rescuer considered a moment and then nodded.  “Thank you.”

“It’s the least I can do.”

“Now, if you don’t mind – before I go – I’d like to thank Hop Sing for the coffee.”

Ben watched until his son’s rescuer entered the hallway leading into the kitchen and then rose to stoke the fire.  At that moment the front door burst open and his older sons stepped in.  Both were covered in trail dust and looked like they were on their last leg.

“Pa?” Hoss asked, concern narrowing his ice-blue eyes.  “We saw a strange horse outside.  Does it have something to do with Little Joe?”

“Did someone bring a message?” Adam asked.  “Is Joe okay?”

Ben held up his hands for silence. “Your brother is in his bed.  The horse belongs to the  man who brought him home.”

A grin spread across Hoss’ face bright enough to light the sky.  “Little Joe’s home?  Hot dog!  And he’s okay?”

Adam could always read him.  “What’s wrong, Pa?”

“Your brother had an accident.  His left arm is broken.”

His eldest paled.  “Pa, no.”

Ben crossed over to him.  “It’s not your fault, son.  Your brother was walking in the middle of the road when a man came along on his horse.  Joseph jumped out of the way and fell off the side into a gulley.  That’s when he broke his arm.  Marcus treated him and then brought him home.”

“Treated him?” Hoss asked.  “Is this Marcus feller a doctor?”

“Almost,” he replied.

Hoss was looking at the staircase.  “Pa….”

“Yes,” he replied in answer to his son’s unspoken question.  When Hoss looked puzzled, he smiled. “Didn’t you know I was a mind reader?”

Hoss chuckled.  “You sure are, Pa.  So it’s okay for me to go up and check on the little squirt?”

“Just be quiet.  The doctor…Marcus gave him a sleeping draught.  Rest is what your brother needs.”

“You comin’ with me, Adam?” Hoss asked as he headed for the stairs.

His older, pensive son shook his head.  “I’ll come up in a bit.  I want to talk to Pa first.”

Ben watched Hoss take the steps two at a time and vanish around the corner before glancing at his eldest boy and then at the tall case clock.  It had just struck quarter past two.

He certainly hoped Adam didn’t want to talk too long!

Even as the chime sounded, Marcus Burnell reappeared.  After introductions were made, the man said, “And now, Mister Cartwright, I must be on my way.”

“You’re not staying?” Adam asked.

Burnell laughed.  “Like father, like son.  I can’t stay, but I will return in a day or two to check on the lad if that is all right with you.”

“I’m sure Joseph would like to talk to you,” Ben replied.

“I’d like to talk to him too, under better circumstances.”  The stranger paused.  “Little Joe’s a brave lad, Mister Cartwright, and sorry for whatever he did that sent him out into the night.  I hope you won’t be too harsh with him.  Things could have turned out very differently.”

Ben had to admit that a trip to the woodshed had been in his future plans, but considering all Joseph had been through, it was doubtful it was going to happen.  Knowing Joe, his own conscience would punish him enough.  And Marcus was right.  That fall down the hill and into the gullycould have resulted in tragedy.

“I’ll take that into consideration,” he replied.

 

Adam closed the door behind Marcus Burnell and went to sit in his favorite blue chair by the fire.  He linked his hands between his knees and waited on his pa to return. The older man had gone to the kitchen to freshen his cup of coffee.  It was a Cartwright trait to be able to drink coffee and go straight to sleep.

Most likely it had more to do with their stubbornness than their constitution.

He noticed as his pa appeared and sat in his chair that the older man looked exhausted.  But then, he probably looked exhausted too.  They’d scoured the land for Joe, going nearly back to the settlement and then making their way slowly toward home.  They must have been behind Joe and his rescuer. That was the only reason he could think of that they hadn’t run into them.

“What is it you wanted to discuss, Adam?” his father asked before taking a sip.

“Pa, I know you said I wasn’t responsible for Little Joe running away….”

“And you’re not.”

Adam sighed.  “I think I am.  Joe was hopping mad and slightly incoherent when he went for me, but I got the distinct impression that it was something I said – or was supposed to have said – that set him off.”

“Do you think one of the Smythes lied to him?”

He considered it.  “They might have.  But I think if they did, there must have been a portion of the truth in it.  Joe’s got a short fuse, Pa, there’s no denying that, but he seldom goes off without reason.”  He hesitated.  “Maybe I said something he misunderstood.”

“Such as?”

The black-haired man let out a sigh as his little brother’s words echoed through his mind.  ‘I’d of thought it would have made you happy, Adam!  You’d have been rid of me.  That’s what you want, isn’t it?  You don’t want me around!’ 

“Joe thinks I hate him.”

“What?”

“He thinks I don’t want him around.  He told me so, just before he threw that punch.”

His father shook his head.  “Your brother knows you love him.”

“Does he, Pa?”  Adam sprang to his feet and began to pace.  “Joe and I knock heads more often than not. I’ve thought back over the last few days.  Something I said must have given him the wrong idea.  He really believes I wish he wasn’t here.”

“Did he say that?”

Adam nodded.

His father rose to his feet and came over to him.  Reaching out, he placed a hand on his shoulder.  “Son, you and your youngest brother are as different as night and day, but night and day together still make a whole.  Little Joe knows in his heart that you love him, but you might need to remind him now and then.”

The black-haired man thought a moment.  His lips twisted in a wry grin.  “I suppose I should be talking to Joe instead of you.”

Pa smiled too.  “I suppose you should.”

Adam glanced at the stairs.  “Is Hop Sing with him?”

“He’s keeping watch.”

“Maybe I’ll go up and relieve him.”

His father squeezed his shoulder.  “I think that would be a good idea.”

“Thanks, Pa.  I’m sorry I kept you up.”

The older man glanced at the clock as he lifted his hand.  It was nearly two-thirty.  “There are still a few hours of darkness left.  I’ll be fine.  Are you sure you don’t want to sleep first and then talk to your brother?”

Adam laughed.  “If I can sleep in the saddle, I can sleep in a chair.  That way I’ll be there when Joe wakes up.”

“Suit yourself.”  Pa started for the stairs.  At the bottom, he turned back.  “Are you coming?”

“I think I’ll grab a cup of coffee first.”

As the older man headed up the stairs, Adam headed for the kitchen.  Halfway there he turned and walked to the door instead.  Opening it, he stepped out into the crisp cool night.  He was deeply disturbed by what his brother had said and determined to get to the bottom of it, but getting Joe to open up would be, as Hop Sing put it, like pulling hen’s teeth.  When God handed out ‘stubborn’ to the Cartwrights, Little Joe got a double-portion.  Still, he had to try.

There was a mystery here and, obstinate little brother or not, he was determined to get to the bottom of it.

 

Joe Cartwright awoke to sunshine and the sound of birdsong – and the touch of a gentle hand on his cheek.  He lay there a moment, savoring the feeling and the memories it engendered, and then he opened his eyes and drew a sharp breath.  The morning light streaming in the window threw the woman’s face partially into shadow and backlit her blonde hair, burnishing it and turning it into a crown of gold.  She wore it up and swept away from her face, and held in place by a pair of ivory combs.  Joe blinked and looked again.  He couldn’t be seeing what he thought he was seeing.

Could he?

“Mama?”

The woman withdrew her hand and straightened up.  “No, Joseph, I’m not your mother.”

He knew the voice, but the lingering effects of sleep were still with him.  His brain was muddled.  “Are you sure?” he asked.

A light, lilting laugh competed with the vision before him for beauty.  “Yes, I’m sure.  Perhaps I should go get your father.”

Pa.  If she could ‘go get’ Pa, then he must have made it home.  But he had to make sure.

“Where…?”

The woman’s hand returned.  This time to his forehead.  “No fever, and yet you seem disoriented.”  As she lifted it, she said, “Your father is downstairs at the breakfast table with your brothers.  I was walking by and noticed poor Adam slumped over in a chair by your bedside.  I woke him and sent him down for food and coffee.”  She laughed again.  “It took some doing!  I can see you are not the only stubborn Cartwright in the family!”

Adam.  Adam was here…watching over him.  Adam who didn’t want him around.  Adam, who was gonna be twice as angry at him as he was before because of what he did, taking a swing at him and hitting Dora Drummond…instead…of….

Joe woke with a start as he realized just who it was he was talking to.  Instinct kicked in and he moved his left arm to brace himself and rear back, only to find it wouldn’t move and that the action brought excruciating pain.

It took thirty seconds, but his cry brought the family to the door.

“What happened?” Pa demanded in that voice he had – the one that could stampede a herd – as he stepped into the room.

Joe’s cheeks were red.  Dora had placed her arm around him to brace him as he coped with the pain that shot through him.  He was breathing hard and tears were rolling down his cheeks.

“Joseph woke up somewhat confused,” Dora replied, her tone just as sharp as Pa’s.  “He attempted to sit up using his injured arm.”

‘Injured arm’.  That’s right.  He’d rolled down that hill and run smack-dab into a tree.

Joe sucked in enough air to ask, “Mister…Burnell?”

“He brought you home, son,” Pa said as he left the door and crossed to the bed, revealing Adam and Hoss standing in the hallway.  “Mister Burnell has gone.  He said he would come back to see how you were doing in a few days.”

“He’s a…nice man…Pa.  He saved my…life.”  As he spoke Joe fought the tears, but it was a losing battle.  His arm was on fire and pain radiated all along it.  His gaze went to Dora who had risen and was standing close by, her bruised eye plainly visible.  “I…really…messed things up, didn’t…I?”

Pa sat on the bed and reached out to touch his cheek.  “Let’s just say you made a few poor choices.”

Joe relished the touch for a moment, before returning his gaze to his teacher. “I’m sorry.  I…didn’t mean to…”  He winced.  “…to hit you.”

Dora reached up to touch the skin beneath her eye.  “I don’t know,” she said as her lips curled with a smile, “I think it makes me look quite rakish. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Joe was still puzzling about that word – rakish – when Adam burst into laughter.  Hoss was looking puzzled too, but Pa got it.

“There’s nothing quite so attractive as a slightly dangerous woman,” Pa said and then seemed to instantly regret it.  Joe looked from one to the other – Pa to Dora – and he saw something there.  Pa liked her.

Maybe a lot.

And maybe because she looked a lot like his mama.

“Why, Mister Cartwright, you’ll have me believing the rumors I have heard about you,” she replied.

Joe looked back at his pa.

“And what rumors are those?” Pa asked.

“About the handsome devil-may-care former sailing man who came to the Wild West with the intention of taming it.”  Dora paused and then added softly, “And did.”

Joe was still looking at his pa.  The older man had gone about as red in the face as he was.

“Pa, if I could, I’d like to talk to Joe,” Adam said, interrupting, as he stepped into the room. “Thank you, Dora, for watching Little Joe while I freshened up, but I can take over now.”

“I don’t need no…”  Joe saw his father’s look.  “I don’t need…anyone…to watch over me. I’m fine!”   Of course, as he shouted those words a pain shot through his arm, nearly taking his breath away.  “I’m…fine…really….”

“We all know you’re fine, little brother, ‘fine’ as frog’s hair,” Hoss said as he followed Adam into the room.

“Joseph,” his father said, using his ‘I will brook no disobedience’ voice.  “You have to face the fact that your actions have caused you to be incapable of taking care of yourself for at least a month, if not longer.  Your arm is broken between the shoulder and elbow and will have to be kept immobile.”

Joe thought about it.  It was his left arm, of course, so that meant he couldn’t write or ride, or feed or dress himself, or…take care of other business.

“Damn,” he said softly.

As his father’s brows popped up to the ridge of his silver-gray hair, his brothers burst into laughter.  Dora was giving him that ‘school marm’ face, but her lips were quivering, so she wanted to laugh too.  Finally, Pa gave in and a big old guffaw bellowed out of him.

“Joseph, whatever am I going to do with you?” he asked as he ruffled the curls on his head.

Joe didn’t know about that, but he did know one thing – breaking his arm might be bad, but it sure-as-shootin’ had saved his backside from a tanning!

 

Adam settled in, linked his hands together, and looked at his little brother.

“You’re stuck, Joe.  You’re going to have to talk to me.”

Joe had turned his face into the pillow.  “I’m tired,” he muttered into it.  “Go away.”

“You just woke up.”

Joe’s head snapped toward him.  “So what?  Maybe I’m still tired!  I broke my arm for gosh sakes!”

Adam leaned back.

“Well, it seems your mouth is working fine.”

Joe buried his head again.  He was silent for a moment.

“Go away, Adam.  Please.”

He considered it, and dismissed the possibility just as quickly.  “My baby brother has told me that he thinks I don’t want him around and would prefer if he goes away.  Sorry, Joe, I’m not going to let that stand.”  The black-haired man drew in a breath and let it out slowly. “Whatever would make you say such a thing?”

There was a pause and then Joe turned to look at him. There were tears welling in his eyes.  “Because it’s true.  You never liked my mama and you don’t like me.”

Adam blinked.  How had Marie come into this?

“Where would you have gotten that idea?  Joe, I loved your mother.  I….”  Abruptly, his mind’s eye filled with the vision of Adley and Darby Smythe dangling Joe over that rushing stream.  “Good Lord,” he whispered.

Joe had painfully levered himself over onto his left side.  He was staring right at him.  “Good Lord…what?”

“Wilson Smythe.  He told you that, didn’t he?  That I hated Marie.”

Joe looked like a little boy who had been caught with a frog in his pocket in the middle of Sunday service.

“Why would you think that?”

“Because Wilson and his brothers are snakes.”

It was Joe’s turn to blink.  “That’s a mighty strong word, Adam.”

Well, he had a mighty strong reason for using it.  One his brother knew nothing about.  Adley had obviously used an earlier – and unwise – conversation to get back at him through Joe.

Adam sighed.

“Joe, listen to me, I never said I wanted your mother or you to go away.”  He fought to loosen his jaw, which had clenched in anger at the injustice his loose tongue had done to his brother – and his step-mother’s memory.  “I thought Adley was a friend.  One night…well….we had a little too much to drink.  He asked me about the,” Adam paused, this might hurt Joe as much as his earlier stupidity, “about the rumors about your mother.  I told him none of them were true.”

Joe had inched up a bit.  He was frowning. “What rumors?”

He’d known that was coming.

“It’s not important, Joe.  The old biddies in the town were jealous of your mother, of her beauty and charm, and the men were envious of Pa.  Marie turned heads everywhere she went.”  Like you will soon, he thought to himself.

Joe’s look had grown in intensity.  “What rumors?”

“Joe…”

“Adley said she wasn’t the right ‘kind’ of a woman, didn’t he?” he demanded.  “That Pa caused a ‘scandal’ bringing her out West.  That’s why you don’t want to be around me.  I’m…the wrong kind of brother!”

Joe had grunted in pain.  He was growing agitated and putting pressure on his broken arm. Drawing a breath,  Adam dared it – he placed a hand on his brother’s good arm to steady him.

“Joe.  Calm down!  You’ll hurt yourself.”

“What do you care?!”

“I do care, you little idiot!” he snapped back, losing his temper.  “For five years Marie was my mother too!  Joe, if you believe those rumors – if you repeat them – then you are the one defaming Marie!”

His brother’s nostrils were flared.  He’d been ready for a fight but, just as quickly, the bluster went out of him.  Joe dropped his head.  He was silent a moment.

“I’m sorry, Adam,” he said, sniffing.  “I can’t…I can’t think straight where Mama is concerned.”

Adam increased the strength behind the touch.  “Joe, all of your life there will be people who deliberately try to hurt you.  They’ll find where you’re weak and go for that spot as surely and savagely as a rabid wolf goes for the throat.”  He lifted his hand and leaned back in the chair.  “I know you and I don’t always…see eye to eye.  We’re years and worlds apart in many ways.  But I want you to know this….”  The black-haired man sucked in his male pride.  “I loved your mother as much as I love you.  I would never want you to go away.”  Adam met his brother’s gaze, which was guarded.  “Do you believe me?”

Joe bit his lip. Then he nodded.

“I need you to assure me of one other thing as well.”

“What’s that?”

“That you put no stock in what Wilson or his brothers said.”

His brother’s look was guarded.  “About Mama, you mean?”

He nodded.

Joe was silent a moment. “I suppose you want me to promise I won’t do anything to get back at them.”

“Or start a fight.  Yes.”  Adam waited.  “Well?”

His kid brother had a hard time making promises because his word meant so much to him.  It really did kill Joe if he broke one, or if he was caught in an outright lie.  So, most often, the little scamp would just clamp his lips shut, turn those brilliant green eyes to the floor, and say nothing.  His stubborn refusal to say anything had earned him more than one trip to the woodshed in his short life.  So, in order to cope with that, they’d found a way around it.

In other words, a nod was as good as a wink.

“I’m waiting.”

Joe was looking toward the window.  The morning light highlighted the tears in his eyes.  He sniffed in snot and then, deliberately, nodded his head.

Adam rose to his feet.  “Good.  Now, you get some rest.  I know you were telling the truth when you said you were tired.”

As he headed for the door, Joe called out to him, “Adam?”

He had his hand on the latch.  “Yes, Joe?”

“Do you…well….”

Adam frowned.  “Out with it.”

Joe’s expression was hilarious.  He looked excited and embarrassed and flat-out astonished all at one and the same time.

“Do you think Pa…well….  Do you think Pa is falling for Dora Drummond?”

Adam blinked.  He had never considered it.  “What makes you think that?”

“I don’t remember much about Mama,” Joe said quietly.  “But I remember how Pa looked at her.”

He ran a hand over his chin while thinking.  Then he laughed.  “I guess I’ll have to pay more attention.”

“She looks like mama.”

“Yes, she does, but she’s not Marie.  I only hope Pa can remember that.”

Joe was growing sleepy.  His words were slurring.  “Sure…would be funny…to have your teacher…as…your…ma….”

He was out.

Adam stepped into the hall and closed the door behind him.

Funny?  Yes, it would be that.

The black-haired man stopped at the top of the stairs and gazed down into the great room where the subjects of their conversation sat – twenty-year-old Dora Drummond and his forty-six-year old father.  He snorted as he began to descend.

Pa sure did love a scandal!

 

 

 

SIX

 

“I apologize again, Ben,” Dora Drummond was saying.  “It was not my intention to stir up trouble.”

Adam glanced at his pa as he took a seat.  Pa was in his chair and Dora was seated on Marie’s settee.  For a moment it took him aback, seeing her there.  She was not a dead ringer for his step-mother, but she was a living one.  Dora’s face was a bit wider than Marie’s, though just as heart-shaped.  Her hair might have been a shade or two darker.  It was hard to remember the exact tone.  She had the same wide green eyes, just like the ones his baby brother had inherited, and a pert mouth that tended to twist up at one end as if it knew a secret it was not about to tell.  Dora had a waist a man could circle with his hands and even though she was dressed modestly – which was one thing that differed from his step-mother’s flamboyant style – she was amply endowed.

All in all she was a stunning creature.

His father shifted forward in his chair to place his cup on the table before the fire.  He smiled as he leaned back.  “I’m afraid trouble seems to follow my youngest.  Joseph always seems to be in one scrape or another.”

“He’s an exceptional boy,” Joe’s teacher responded.  “Very loving and caring, and smart as well.  He’s been extremely helpful both with the younger children and to me.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that.  Miss Jones, well,” Pa sighed, “she always seems to find fault with my son’s attitude.”

“I’ve heard about Miss Jones. While I’m sure she is a most competent teacher, a boy such as Joseph needs a gentler hand than others, as well as needing to be challenged.  He’s very bright, Ben, but he doesn’t believe it.”

“What do you mean?”

She thought a moment.  “May I speak frankly?”

“By all means.”

Dora’s eyes flicked to him and then back to his father. “You have set the bar very high, you and your older sons.  Joseph doesn’t believe he has the capacity to reach it.”  As Pa bristled, she held up a hand to calm him.  “It’s not your fault.  There is something deep within him that drives him to prove himself.”

It was true.  He knew it, and Hoss knew it too.  He was pretty sure Pa was aware of it as well, but he tended to dismiss it, putting Joe’s quixotic moods down to his youth.

His father was frowning, but he was thinking too.  “Have I been too hard on him?”  Pa’s eyes flicked to him.  “Have I expected too much?”

“Pa,” Adam said, interrupting, “you don’t ask anything of Joe that you don’t ask of us – or yourself.”

“Don’t take me wrong.  Please.  You’re a wonderful man, Ben,” Dora said, and then blushed a bit.  “Forgive me.  That was forward.”

He looked from one to the other.  Pa’s face was as flushed as Joe’s teacher’s.

Maybe Joe was right.

Coming to a decision, Adam rose from his seat.  He wasn’t sure why – though after watching the pair of them together, he had a pretty good idea – but Pa had changed his mind and the two of them were heading out for the drive this morning.  “Well,” he said as he stood, “I should get to the morning chores.  I told Hoss I would take over Joe’s early ones today.”

As he moved away, his father asked, “Did you settle whatever it was between you and your brother?”

The black-haired man thought a moment.  “I think so.  Though, you know Joe, he’s pretty close-mouthed about what he’s feeling.”

“Really?” Dora seemed surprised.  “Joseph is very open about his feelings with me.”

Adam smiled. “Well, I can understand that.  If there’s one thing a Cartwright can’t refuse, it’s a beautiful woman.  Isn’t that right, Pa?”  When his father remained silent, he tried again. “Pa?”

“That’s right, son,” Pa said, a little abruptly.  Then he slapped his knees and rose.  “I think it’s time I get to my work as well.  That cattle drive isn’t going to happen on its own.  Dora, is there anything you need before we head out?”

She shook her head.  “Hop Sing is taking quite good care of me.  I will go up and visit with Joseph later, if that is all right.  We didn’t really get a chance to talk before.”

“I think it would do him a world of good,” Pa replied as he headed for the door.  “Adam, are you coming?”

“Yes, sir.”  As he turned to leave, he gave Joe’s young teacher a smile.  “I’ll miss seeing you tomorrow.  I’ve quite enjoyed your visit.”  The two of them had had some time to discuss literature, which he had found quite stimulating.  “Are you heading back to the settlement today?”

Dora’s hand went to her bruised cheek and eye.  “I think it would be wise to give this a day or two more to heal before I return.  I don’t want to cause any further talk.”

“You are more than welcome to stay as long as you like.  Hop Sing will look after you,” Pa said as he opened the door.  His voice was a little funny.  “Adam, I’ll be in the barn.”

And with that, the older man was gone.

Dora rose to her feet.  “Do you think I upset him by what I said?”

Adam turned to look at her.  The blush was on her cheeks and the golden light of the dawning day sat on her golden hair like a crown.

What she said?  No.

What she was?

Definitely.

 

Hoss Cartwright wiped his lips, clearing away the last drip of sarsaparilla from them.  It was too early for a beer, but he’d had a powerful thirst and so had gone to the mercantile and ordered up a tall glass and downed it in nearly one gulp.  He’d headed into the settlement early so he could get back in time to do Little Joe’s afternoon and evenin’ chores.  Adam was gonna cover the mornin’ ones.  Joe was old enough now that he was doin’ actual work and so, with him bein’ hurt, they really was one good man down.

He didn’t know who Pa had assigned the task of doin’ them for the duration of the drive, but they was gonna be growlin’ about it!

Turning so his back was to the counter, Hoss surveyed the people in the store. It was early so most of them was cowhands like him pickin’ up supplies, but there were a few strangers – city slickers by the look of them, come to the settlement no doubt to cash in on one of the mines or investments in it or some such thing.  It was beyond him why a man would want to sit in an office all day fiddlin’ with figures and amassin’ cash when he could be out under a clear blue sky, ridin’ the range and enjoyin’ the beauty of the world God created.  Brother Adam had some of that in him, though he loved the outdoors as well.  They was kind of waitin’ to see how little brother turned out.  Still, he was pretty sure Joe was just like him and it would take somethin’ with the strength of a grizzly to tear him away from the Ponderosa.

“Hi, Hoss.  Is Little Joe with you?”

No, and he was plain happy he wasn’t.

“Good mornin’, Miss Cora.  How are you today?”

Cora Carrington was all dolled up in her usual way.  She looked kind of like an ice cream float, all bundled in ruffles with her cheeks pinched so they was red as cherries.

“Why, thank you, Hoss, I’m fit as a fiddle!”  She looked around him.  “Did Little Joe come too?  I know we don’t have school, but….”

Apparently the news wasn’t around the town yet.  That was surprisin’ considerin’ how full of busy-bodies it was.

“No, Cora, Little Joe ain’t with me.  You see, well,” he winced, knowing what was coming, “he sort of had an accident -”

“An accident!  On no?  Is he all right?  Did he get hurt bad?  Is there something I can take him to make him feel better?  My Pa won’t care, I can buy anything in the store.”  She drew a breath.  “He isn’t going to die, is he?”

Hoss had turned around to face her.  “Miss Cora, now you simmer down.  Little Joe ain’t dyin’.  He just broke his arm.”

“Broke his arm?  Oh my poor baby,” she whined, “he must be in so much pain!”

Joe sure would be if he heard Cora call him her ‘poor baby’.

“He’s got a right load of pain to bear,” he said.  “The doc was out this mornin’ before I left.  He says Joe’ll be fine in about a month.”

“About a month?!  Why, Hoss, that’s such a long time!”  Cora batted her eyelashes and smiled.  “Can I come out to see him?  I’m sure a visit would make him feel so much better.”

Just about as much as a visit from that old grizzly, he bet.

“Pa ain’t allowin’ any visitors right now,” he told her and he supposed it was true though Pa hadn’t said so.  “Little Joe needs his rest.” At her dejected look, he added, “Maybe you can come out the beginnin’ of next week.”

A smile broke on Miss Cora’s face like the sun over the Sierras.  As she turned to tell her mother, who had just come out of the back room, Hoss sighed.

He wondered what he’d have to do to make it up to Little Joe when he found out he was the one done the invitin’!

“Hoss!  How’re you doin’, boy?   How’s that little brother of yours?”

The big man turned to find Roy Coffee approaching him.  “Hey, there Deputy Roy!  Little Joe’s doin’ fine.  The doc says he’s gotta stay in bed for a few days.”

“Your Pa said the break was pretty bad.”

Hoss tossed a look over his shoulder. Thank goodness Miss Cora weren’t listenin’!

“Yeah.  Joe ain’t gonna be able to use that arm for a month or so.”  Hoss paused.  “Pa said you was gonna talk to Mr. Smythe.  Did you?”

Roy nodded.  “He was none too happy with those boys of his.  Said he brought them up better.”

“Did he do anythin’, you know, to make sure they don’t try nothin’ like that again?”

Roy placed his thumbs behind his gun belt and rocked back on his heels. “He sure did!  Them two older boys of his are sittin’ in my jail right now!”

Hoss winced.  He’d been hopin’ whatever Mr. Smythe did, it wasn’t too harsh.  He hated to think of it addin’ fuel to the fire and maybe settin’ Adley and his brothers on Little Joe’s tail.

“In jail?” he asked, swallowing over his fear.

“Yes, sir-ee!  He wanted them two older boys tried for attempted murder, but I talked him down to a charge of  threatenin’ bodily harm to a minor.  Kept them overnight in my jail.”

“What about Wilson?”

“That boy ain’t gonna sit down for a month of Sundays!” Roy chuckled.

Hoss blew out a breath.

Great.  Just…great.

“Now I ain’t questionin’ the law, you understand, but don’t you think maybe a night in jail’s a little harsh, Deputy Roy?  I mean, well, boys will be boys…”  He winced again. “Right?”

“If you think danglin’ that little brother of yours over a rushin’ stream from a height of twenty feet is youthful hi-jinks, boy,” Roy scolded, “then you got another ‘think’ comin’!  That ain’t the way the law sees it.”

Adam told him Joe could have died.  That had scared him right enough.  But it was the fear of what those two would do when they got out of jail that scared him even more.

Maybe those three.

“I’m sorry, sir, I just -”  Hoss paused.  Behind him there was the sound of raised voices.  He turned along with Roy to see two cowhands – both of which worked for them – backin’ one of them city slickers into a corner.  Hoss exchanged a glance with the lawman.

“You try first, boy,” Deputy Roy said. “You got five minutes.”

Hoss nodded and then strode across the store.  Laying a hand on the shoulder of each man, he hauled them back and away from the older man they had pinned in the corner. He was of an average height with pale wavy blond hair.  His eyes were pale too, like a wolf’s.  One of the men had hold of the collar of his dark gray suit.

“Jim, you let that there man go,” he ordered.

Jim Mitchell was an old hand who’d been with the family since he’d been Joe’s age.  He was between Pa and Adam now.  Jim was a peaceable man – unless you riled him – and boy, did he look riled!

Jim shot him a look.  “Maybe I will and maybe I won’t.”

“Jim….”

“You ain’t our boss, boy!” Lee Osborne snarled.  Lee was younger than Jim and a whole lot meaner.  “Ain’t no teener gonna tell us what to do!”

Hoss drew a breath and let it out in a sigh.  He was two months shy of twenty and big enough to throw both of them into the next territory, but he was still a ‘boy’.

“Lee, I don’t think I was talkin’ to you,” he said softly.  “I’d like to hear what Jim has to say.”

The city slicker was lookin’ from him to Jim and then to Lee.  He was fairly calm if a mite nervous.

“This man,” Jim answered, shaking the stranger’s collar, “was spreadin’ rumors about your Pa.  Ain’t no way I’m gonna take that lyin’ down!”

Hoss looked at the man.  “That true, mister?”

“I…I wasn’t spreading rumors.  I was merely asking questions.”

Hoss looked at Jim and Lee.  They was fit to be tied.

“What questions?”

“He was implyin’ your Pa’s, well…”  Jim frowned.  “He was implyin’ that there’s somethin’…indecent…between your Pa and Miss Drummond.”

What was he thinkin’ a moment before about the town’s busybodies?

Hoss pinned the man with a stare.  “Is that what you was doin’, mister?”

“By no means!  I was merely inquiring as to the reason Miss Drummond was to be found at the Ponderosa.”

“What business is it of yours?”

The man looked at Jim.  “If your…friend…here will release me, I would be more than happy to discuss it over a cup of coffee or tea, young man.”

“This ‘young man’ is the son of the man you’re slanderin’!” Jim shot back.

“Yeah!” Lee grunted.

The man looked him up and down.  He appeared a bit surprised.

“Slander?” he replied a moment later.  “For Heaven’s sake!  All I asked was if Mr. Cartwright had a personal interest in Miss Drummond.”

Hoss was tryin’ hard to set aside his…dislike…of city slickers.  The man seemed sincere enough.  Maybe if he could get him to himself, he could find out what was goin’ on.

“Jim. Lee.  Now you listen to me.  I’m right proud of you for standin’ up for Pa, but I gotta tell you that Deputy Coffee’s over there by the counter and he gave me five minutes to knock some sense into your thick heads before he comes over here and hauls you off to a cell.  Seems to me since this is about my pa, that you can let me handle it.”

Jim and Lee as one looked over their shoulders.

Roy Coffee waved back.

“Well,” Jim said as he released the man’s collar, “I guess since you’re here, Hoss, we can let you take care of it.”

Hoss turned to the other man. “Lee?”

Lee was more fired up than Jim.  He’d been in a hard place when their pa took a chance on him.  Of course, that ‘hard place’ made it even more unlikely that he wanted to end up in Roy’s jail.

“Okay,” Lee agreed as he punched the man’s chest with a finger.  “But I better not hear that you’ve been smearin’ Mister Cartwright’s good name again.  If you do, jail or no jail, I’ll come for you.”

The stranger blinked.  “Completely understood.”

Hoss watched the pair go and then turned back to the city slicker.  He noted his hat on the floor and picked it up as he said, “Sorry about that.”

“No.  Really.  It is rousing to find there is a man who inspires such loyalty in his men.”  The stranger took his hat and placed it on his head.  “You are, I take it, one of Mister Cartwright’s sons?”

Hoss held out his hand.  As the other man shook it, he said, “Yeah, the middle one.  Everyone calls me ‘Hoss’.”

“I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Hoss.  Thank you for rescuin’ me from those two ruffians.”

He laughed.  “Jim and Lee?  They ain’t no ruffians.  Like you said, they’re just loyal to Pa.”

“I apologize if my inquiries were taken as slander.  I intended no such thing.  I have been sent here by the Eastern school board to inquire after Mrs. Drummond’s welfare and, when I found she was at the home of an older man, well, I suppose I assumed that…perhaps…there was something amiss.”

“Amiss??”  Hoss shook his head. “No, sir.  Mrs. Drummond just had herself a little..accident.  She’s at our house restin’ up.”

“And why is she at your domicile in particular?”

The big man winced.  “Well, you see, my little brother was kind of the cause of her accident.  He accidentally punched her in the eye.  Pa felt responsible and thought he should take her in until she got better.”  Hoss let out a sigh.  “Jim and Lee got cause to be a little riled.  There’s a lot of old biddies…busybodies in this place like to spread rumors. We was kind of hopin’ to keep them from findin’ out about what happened with Joe.”

“Joe?”

“My little brother.”

“I see.”

The way he said it pretty much said he didn’t.

“I tell you what,” Hoss said, “I got one thing to do and then I’m headin’ back to the ranch. Why don’t you come with me?  You can talk to Mrs. Drummond and see for yourself that she’s all right.”

“Is your father home?”

“No, sir.  He and my older brother most likely have headed out now with most of the men.  We got us a cattle drive comin’ up shortly and there’s lots to do.”

“Ah, well, I am certain an audience alone with Mrs. Drummond will allay any and all of my fears.  I accept your offer, young man.  Where should I meet you?”

“You stayin’ at the Reisin House?”

It was the nicest place in the settlement and it kind of fit.

“Yes, I am.”

“I’ll come fetch you then, in about an hour.”

“Excellent.  Until then.”

The pale-haired man tipped his hat as he headed for the door.  Just as he reached it, Hoss realized he had forgotten one thing.

“Hey, mister!” he called.

The man turned back.

“Yes?”

“I didn’t get your name.”

The older man smiled.  “Oh yes, it’s Marcus.

Marcus Smith.”

 

“Joseph?”

Joe Cartwright started guiltily.  He was supposed to be in bed.  He wasn’t.  He was up and dressed – if you could call it that, considering he’d had to do it right-handed – and standing by the window looking out on the world he was to be cut off from for the next month or more.  Pa and Adam had left a couple of hours back, heading out for the autumn drive.  Almost all the hands had gone with them.  It’d be just him and Hoss and a couple of the older men left at the ranch tonight – and then Hoss would take off for the drive tomorrow.  Joe sighed.  He’d almost talked his pa into letting him go this year.  Now, because he’d been stupid and broken his arm, even if Pa had said ‘yes’, he couldn’t have gone.  Instead he was stuck at home like some wet-behind-the-ears kid, where he’d be forced to help Hop Sing boil potatoes and feed the chickens while his older brothers and pa slept out under the stars and wrangled a thousand steers.

He wanted to die.

“Joseph?” a light feminine voice called.  “May I come in?”

Joe sighed.  He wanted to die for that too – for hitting his teacher.

Could a feller die twice?

Stifling another sigh, he turned toward the door.  “Sure.”

As it swung open, Dora appeared.  Her gaze went first to the empty bed and then to him. “I see you are feeling better,” she said as she entered the room.

That was it.  No ‘you get back into that bed, young man, and pronto!’

Joe smiled.  “Yeah, a little.”

“Does your arm hurt?”

He shrugged.  “A little.  How about your eye?”

She laughed as she touched the bruised skin.  “A little.”

“We’re sure a pair, aren’t we?” he asked as he moved to sit on his bed.

Dora didn’t sit.  She moved around his room, running her fingers over the back of a chair; touching the Indian weapons on the wall.  She was kind of like a bird, flitting from place to place.

When she said nothing, he asked, “Are you okay?”

His teacher halted and turned to look at him.  “Joseph…”

“Joe.  Please.  Mostly only Pa calls me ‘Joseph’ and that’s usually when he’s mad.”

“Joe, it is then.  Joe, I…”  She shook her head.  “No.  I shouldn’t. You’re a child.”

That stung.

“I’m almost fourteen!” he protested.

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to….” Dora drew in a breath, held it a moment, and then dissolved into tears.  “Oh!  I’ve made a mess of everything!”

Mindful of his arm, Joe rose to his feet and crossed to where she stood.  He hesitated, and then took her hand in his good one.  “Dora, what’s wrong?  Can you tell me?”

“I shouldn’t.  If he….”  Dora paused and then squeezed his hand before releasing it.  “No.  I didn’t come up here to tell you my tale of woes.  I came to see how you were doing.”

Joe wasn’t going to be put off.  “Who’s ‘he’?”

“It’s nothing.”

He studied her a moment.  She sure was pretty – and sad.  “You know what my pa told me?” he asked.

“What?”

“That when a woman says something is ‘nothing’, it means it’s really something.”

Dora laughed. “Your father is a wise man.”

“I think so.  Now, are you going to tell me what’s wrong or not?”

His teacher sat down in the chair by the window.   As she spoke, her fingers plucked at her crimson skirts.  “Joseph…Joe…when I was very young – just a little older than you are – I made a mistake.  My father was…challenging.  No matter what I did, it seemed I would never be good enough.  It  made me angry and, one day, I ran away.”

Joe couldn’t imagine leaving home, though he had run away a few times.  Each time someone had come to bring him back.  He wondered if anyone had done that for Dora.

“Where did you go?” he asked as he took a seat.

“I came to America.  I thought I could look out for myself.”  She turned her face from him and lowered her head.  “I was wrong.  I ended up on the streets.”

Joe knew about what happened to women who had no one to protect them.  He’d seen them in San Francisco.

“Did you have to….”

She looked up quickly.  “No!  Yes.  But, not as you think.  I met a man.  He was much older than me. He took me in and – at first – treated me like a daughter.  He paid for my education.  One day he asked me to marry him.”

Joe shifted his arm and cupped his elbow with his hand.  Truth to tell, it was aching something fierce.  “Did you?”

“Yes.  I thought I loved him.  He was …kind to me.  But then, he changed.”

“Changed how?”

The look she gave him told him just about everything.

“He was not kind.”

“So you left him.” Joe shrugged at her surprised look.  He’d figured out pretty quickly that she’d lied when she said her husband was dead.  He’d heard of other women doing that in order to get away from a bad situation.  “It’s what I would have done.  Does he know where you are?”

Dora blanched.  “Dear Lord, I hope not!  He’s a powerful man with many connections both here and in the Old World.  I came out West, hoping to leave him behind, but….”

“What makes you think you haven’t?”

The beautiful woman rose to her feet and began to pace.  “I don’t know.  It’s just a feeling.  Maybe, more of a fear.  There’s no reason to believe he knows where I am.  It’s just, well, there was another time he almost…caught…up to me.  There was a man who….” Dora stopped.  She turned to look at him.  “I don’t want to bring any more trouble to your family.  I should go.  The trouble is, I don’t want to.  Joe, I hope….  I don’t know what your feelings would be about it, but think I’m falling….”

“You’re in love with my pa, aren’t you?” he asked and then laughed at her startled expression. “You’d be kind of crazy not to be.  Pa’s the best there is.”

“It doesn’t…bother you?”

“Heck, no.  Pa deserves to be happy.”  Joe wrinkled his face.  “Even though it would be kind of funny to have my teacher as my mama.”

“Your father loved your mother deeply, didn’t he?”

Joe’s eyes welled with tears.  He sniffed and nodded.  It was hard to look at her, but he didn’t dare let that show.  He’d wished for so long that God would send his mama back to Earth.  He knew Dora wasn’t her, but she looked so much like her and was so much like he remembered.  She even smelled the same.

“He sure did,” he managed at last.  “Pa’s got a big heart.  He loved Adam and Hoss’ mamas too.  And I think…maybe…Pa’s falling in love with you too.”

Hope lit her eyes.  It was a beautiful thing to see.  Dora came to his side and reached out to touch his cheek.  It sent a kind of thrill through him.  Not like the one he got when Cora Carrington brushed up against him, but something even better.  Joe’s gaze went past his teacher to the portrait of his mama that sat on his dresser.  Shadows masked it.  He felt a little guilty knowing some of his feelings were because the two pretty ladies looked so much alike.

It was almost like Mama had come home.

Dora lifted her hand and stepped back to look at him.  “You are looking rather pale, young man,” she said in her school teacher voice, “I think we need to get some nourishment into you.  Hop Sing made a lovely breakfast and there were plenty of leftovers.  What do you say?  Shall we repair to the kitchen and ask for a plate?”

Beg was more like it, he knew.

“Pa ain’t gonna be happy if I go downstairs,” he said, indicating his arm.  “You know what the doc said.”

“Well, your father isn’t here.  I’ll take full responsibility.”  Dora paused.  “And it’s ‘isn’t’.”

Joe laughed as they headed for the door.  Life sure wouldn’t be dull if Dora ended up staying.

It was still fairly early in the day and the morning light was streaming in the big windows above the dining room table.  It shown down on his chair and the plate filled with steaming hot food that sat before it.  As they halted, dumbfounded, Hop Sing appeared.  After a few choice words in Mandarin – letting him know in no uncertain terms that he was late and lucky there was anything left – the Asian man told him to sit down.  As he handed him a napkin, Hop Sing explained that he had been upstairs delivering clean linens to the bedrooms and heard them talking.

“Thank you, Hop Sing!” Joe said as he took his place.  A moment later his enthusiasm waned as he reached for his fork and gasped in pain.  “Dang it!” Joe swore softly as he gripped the cloth binding his arm.  “I forgot.  I can’t feed myself!”

“I’ll help you,” Dora said.  As she reached for the utensil, she turned toward the door.  A sound coming from outside the house had caught her attention.  “What was that?”

“Probably Hoss coming home,” Joe said as he slipped his right hand in, picked up his fork, and tried to spear a sausage.  “Pa told me before he and Adam left that he’d sent middle brother into the settlement for some last minute supplies.”

“I see.  Oh, Joe!”  Dora was laughing.  “You poor thing!  Let me do that.”

The sausage was on the floor.

Too bad they didn’t have a dog.

As Dora bent to retrieve it, the front door opened and Hoss blew in with a great big, “Good mornin’ to you all!  I see I made it in time for breakfast.”

“Too late for breakfast  Too early for lunch!” Hop Sing declared.  “Little Joe need to keep up strength.  Serve food for him. Not for older brother!”

“Well, now, Hop Sing, don’t you think I need to keep up my strength too?” Hoss countered as he hung his hat on the rack.  Then, seeing him, he added, “Jo-seph, dang your ornery hide!  Ain’t you supposed to be in bed?”

“I’m fine,” Joe protested.  “Everything works but my arm.”  As he spoke, a man followed Hoss into the house.  He was of medium height, blond, and wearing a dark gray suit.  Joe recognized him instantly as Marcus Burnell, the man who had helped him on the road.  “Hey, Mr. Burnell!  I was hoping I’d get to see you again.”

Hoss had made a beeline for the table.  His giant of a brother halted at his words and turned back to look at the other man.  “Burnell?  I thought you said your name was Smith.”

Dora was standing beside him.  Joe heard her sharp intake of breath.

The man had come closer.  He was smiling.  “Why don’t you tell them my name, my dear?”

The beautiful woman’s hand was on her throat.  She choked at first and then managed to stammer out.   “Marc…Marcus…Drummond.”

Marcus whoever-he-was reached into his coat and drew out a pistol and pointed it at them.

“I thank you, gentlemen, for the fine care you have given my wife, but your hospitality has come to an end.  I’ve come to take the strumpet home.”

 

 

 

SEVEN

 

“Here, Pa.  I brought you a fresh cup of coffee.”

Adam stood waiting.  They’d made the choice to come to the settlement before heading out for the drive. As it turned out, there were a few last minute details that had to be seen to.  Since it was close to noon by the time they finished, they’d decided to have lunch at the Reisen House.  In other words, they’d opted to enjoy one last moment of civilization before enduring a month or more of dirt, dust, and dung.  His father had a group of papers in his hand.  When he’d left to refresh their coffee, Pa had been perusing them.

Now he seemed to be simply staring at them.

“Pa?”

The older man started and gave him a sheepish grin.  “Sorry, son.  I was thinking.”

“Obviously,” Adam replied with a little chuckle as he handed him his cup.  “About what?  Somehow I don’t think a beef contract with the army warrants that kind of concentration.”

His father let the papers fall to the table and scooted his chair back.  “No, I wasn’t thinking about the contract.”

Adam sat down and took a sip.  He relished the warm liquid as it slid down his throat before asking – all innocence.  “Were you thinking about Dora Drummond?”

His father nearly spit his coffee out.  Pa took a napkin and wiped his chin.  “Is it that obvious?”

Adam nodded.  “Pretty much.”

The older man turned and looked out the window.  “I’m an old fool,” he said.

“Any man who takes notice of a beautiful woman is a fool,” Adam replied, his tone gentle.

His father looked at him and laughed.  “True.  Too true.”

The two of them sat in silence for several heartbeats – his pa looking out the window, him, sipping his coffee, before Pa spoke again.

“She has a lot of spunk,” he said at last.

That was a theme with Pa – women with spirit. From what he’d been told – and the little he could remember – all of Pa’s wives had been strong, intelligent women who thought nothing of going toe-to-toe with his equally intelligent, determined and, at times, dominating father.

Especially his second step-mother.

Adam hesitated, and then plunged in.  “Pa, the fact that Dora looks so much like Marie.  Do you think -”

His father sighed as he turned toward him.  “I know.  It complicates things.  Not only for me, but for Joseph.  Your brother already has strong feelings for her.”  Pa chuckled.  “Thank God, not the kind of feelings we were concerned about!  Still, the boy is already attached.  If I would…take the chance…and something were to go amiss, I am afraid it would shatter him.”

He considered his words carefully before speaking.  “Pa, do you remember the first talk we had after Inger died?”

His father blinked.  “You do?  You were barely eight.”

“I do.”

———-

He had just put Hoss down to sleep for the night.  Around them the wagon train was a flurry of motion – men shouting, guns going off in frightened hands; women weeping. He, himself, had been exhausted beyond tears.  He was also confused.  Less than two years before his father had told him how God had blessed them with this beautiful, caring woman; how God had provided him with a mother and then, gifted him with a brother.  They were a family – happy, healthy, blessed.

And then, came the Indian raid.

He’d pressed himself as far as he could into the corner of the wagon and wrapped his arms around his body, wanting to disappear, before Pa returned and climbed in the back.  It took the older man a moment to find him.  His father looked at him and then came to sit at his side.  For several minutes they sat in silent commiseration and then, his father spoke.

“Ask your questions.”

His emotions had been at war within him – fear, grief, loss, but most of all anger.  “Why, Pa?  Why?  Why would God let this happen?” he’d all but shouted.  “I thought God was supposed to be good and He’s not!  Why did He let Inger die?”

Adam remembered his father knitting his hands together and raising them under his chin.  Pa remained that way for some time before speaking.

“All of your questions are honest, Adam.  I asked them myself when your mother died.”

That had cooled his rage a bit.  “You…did?”

Pa turned to look at him.  “Son.  Do you remember what I was like two years ago?”

He’d quaked a bit at that one.  Once Inger had become his ma, his pa had changed.  He was no longer the angry man who yelled at him and often disappeared for hours.

Inger was gone now – would that man return?

He nodded.

“When your mother died, I asked those questions and didn’t get any answers – at least none I liked.  I grew angry at life – at the world – but most of all, at God.  I spent each day merely surviving, waiting and looking for the next disaster.  I grew hard and mean.  My heart turned to stone, son.  It took Inger to turn it back into a heart of flesh.”

“But, Pa….”  Adam recalled how his small body had trembled as he let his pain out in two shuddering words.  “…Inger’s…gone.”

Pa had remained silent for a heartbeat, and then reached out to brush a lock of hair from his forehead.  “In some ways, son, she is.  But in other ways she will always be with us.”

“H…how?”

In his mind’s eye, he could see his pa.  The older man had moved his hand so it lay over his heart.  “Through her kindness and gentle but firm goodness, Inger melted ‘this’ heart of stone.  In the brief time I had her, she taught me to risk love again.”

“Risk love, Pa?  What does that mean?  Isn’t love a good thing?”

He could still feel the weight of his father’s hand on his head.  “Love is a very good thing, Adam, but it is a risk.  You have to take a chance to love.  It is easier to close yourself off to hurt – to become stone – but in the end, stone cannot breathe.  It does not live.  It merely is.  God gave Inger to me to teach me that.”

“Pa, will you ever take that chance again?”

The older man had smiled.  “God willing.”

“What if she dies too?”

———-

Adam glanced at his father – today – sitting with his chin on his hand, staring at the street beyond the window.

Out of the mouths of babes.

“Do you remember what you told me, Pa?”

His father nodded.  “A heart of stone cannot hurt, because it cannot feel.  A heart of flesh can.  And because it can feel, it can be hurt.  Every man has to make his choice as to which he will have.  For me, I chose to live.”

“And to love.”  Adam waited a moment.  “Pa, if you are in love with Dora Drummond, you have to take the chance.”

His father turned to look at him.  “When did you get to be so wise?”

He chuckled.  “I’ve had a good teacher.”

Pa reached out to touch his hand – a very intimate move where he was concerned.  “I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve told you how proud I am of the man you’ve become.  I am.”  The older man paused.  “And thank you, son.”

Adam  blinked.

Joe wasn’t the only one in the family who could shed tears.

 

“Now, Mister – whoever you are – you just put that gun down!” Hoss demanded as he faced down Marcus Smith…or Burnell..or Drummond…or whoever the heck he was.  “I’m sure we can settle this peaceable like.”

Marcus looked his brother up and down, sizing up his power and strength.  “I appreciate the thought, young man, but I have no intention of allowing you to overpower me.  I know what you are capable of.”

“Now, why would I want to do that?”  Hoss paused.  “Unless you’re intendin’ on takin’ Mrs. Drummond against her will.”

Joe was standing now.  With his right hand, he reached out to take hold of Dora’s.  “It’ll be okay,” he whispered, hoping to calm her.  “Hoss won’t let anything bad happen to us.”

The look Dora gave him was one without hope.

“Young man.”

Joe turned toward the door.  Mister Burnell – Marcus Drummond – was waving the gun at him.

“You will kindly move away from my wife’s side.”

Joe looked at his teacher and deliberately stepped right in front of her.

“No.”

“Joseph!” his brother warned.

“No, Hoss.  I’m not leaving Dora.  I’m the reason she’s here.  It ain’t right.”

“Little Joe should listen to wise brother,” Hop Sing spoke from close behind him.

Dora said the same thing.  “Joe, go to Hoss.”

He shook his head.

The bad man snorted.  “I was told all about the Cartwright chivalry during my inquiries.  It’s a fine trait, but one that could well prove fatal.  How many knights do you suppose went to their graves early?  And all for the sake of a feckless, faithless woman.”

Joe planted his feet.  “You’ll have to go through me to get her.”

Drummond snorted.  “It will be my pleasure, young man.  But first we must see to your two protectors.  You!  Chink!  Come out here where I can see you.”

Joe winced at the slur.  His fingers formed fists.  He was about to say something when he caught Hoss’ eye.  His brother was shaking his head.

“Name no ‘Chink’!” Hop Sing stated plainly as he came around the table to stand before them. “Name Hop Sing!”

“Forgive me.  Hop Sing,” Marcus replied mockingly as he reached for something inside his suit coat.  A second later a length of rope appeared in his hand.  “Now, Hop Sing, you will go over to the chair by the fire and sit down.  And you – Hoss – take this rope and bind him.”

Hop Sing exchanged a glance with Hoss before complying. Middle brother nodded and then caught the rope that the bad man threw and did what he was told.

As Hoss turned back to look at Marcus, Dora’s husband turned his gun on him. “Now, you!” he ordered.

Hoss raised his hands in surrender. “Okay.  Okay.  You just leave my little brother out of it.”  He pinned Marcus with a warning glare. “You hurt one curly hair on Little Joe’s head and I promise you, I will chase you to Hell and back.”

“No doubt,” Drummond snorted.  “Now, get moving.”

Joe remained where he was, in front of Dora, as Marcus followed Hoss to Pa’s chair and started to tie his hands.  As he did, he considered his options.  Pa had left a few men guarding the house.  They would have let Marcus into the yard since he had been their guest.  Maybe one of them was outside right now.  If he sprinted for the door, opened it, and yelled for ‘help!”, they might be able to get out of this.

Joe looked again.  Marcus was bending to tie Hoss’ feet.

Dora seemed to sense that he was up to something a second before he moved.  Her whisper was fierce.

“Joseph, no!”

It was too late.  He was already halfway to the door.  As he reached it, Joe glanced back.  Marcus Drummond had turned.  The bad man could see what he was doing, but he wasn’t doing anything.  Fear gripped him.  Maybe Marcus had wanted him to bolt.  Maybe he was looking for an excuse to shoot him.

Anyhow, it was too late to stop now.

Joe took hold of the latch with his right hand, lost it, and then caught it again.  He swung the door open and started to shout.

A hand over his mouth stopped him.

As their new ranch-hand wrapped an arm around his chest and drew him back into the room, Joe gasped and stars appeared before his eyes.  The man paid no attention to his broken arm – in fact, it seemed like he targeted it.

“Just like you thought, Marc,” Halbert Carton said.  “This one’s a little jack-rabbit.”

“Do you have everything ready?”

As Carton nodded, Joe began to squirm. “Let me go!” he mumbled through Hal’s fingers.

“What do you want I should do with this one?”

Marcus had turned his attention to Dora.  She’d backed into the dining room and placed the table between them.  “Bind him. Throw him in the back of the wagon.  He’s our insurance that we make it out of here.”

Joe grew quiet as he looked at the prospect of kidnapping.  He knew most people who were kidnapped never made it home.

The news had the opposite effect on Hoss.  With his hands tied behind his back, he rose to his feet and took a step forward.  Marcus hadn’t had time to finish tying them before Hal came in the door.

“You ain’t takin’ Little Joe nowhere!” he proclaimed.  “You want someone, you take me!”

Drummond turned to look at him.  His tone was snide.  “I believe it would be wiser to take the mouse over the mountain.”

Hoss glared at him, and then he began to move.

That’s when a shot rang out.

Joe stared with disbelief at the smoking gun in Halbert Carton’s hand.

“You idiot!” Marcus snarled.  “If you’ve killed him….”

Carton shrugged.  “I figured it will give whoever finds out this one is missing somethin’ to do.”

Drummond thought a moment.  He sneered as he looked at Hoss laying on the floor, a pool of blood slowly spreading out from his side.

“Well done.”

Joe exploded with anger.  “If you’ve killed my brother, I swear I will kill you!  I’ll tear you apart, I’ll -”  He gasped.  Hal had taken hold of his arm near the break and was applying pressure.

“You ain’t gonna do nothin’, boy!”  The pressure increased.  “You’re practically useless as it is – except for fleecin’ your old man.”

“Joseph, stop struggling!”  Dora ordered as she came around the end of the table.  She turned to the bad man.  “Marcus, please, let the boy alone. I promise I will come quietly.”

“Just like the last time, my dear?” he scoffed.  “I don’t think so.  I think we need insurance that Ben Cartwright will not attempt to stop us.  The boy comes.”

Dora was so sad and so beautiful.  It was like his ma was standing there, needing his help.  Joe looked at Hoss who was real still, at Hop Sing who was struggling to break free, and then back to his teacher.  He knew – somehow – he had to find the strength to rescue them all.

Summoning it, Joe twisted in Hal’s grip and raised his leg to take him where it hurt.

That was before Hal took hold of his arm and twisted.

There was a ‘snap!’

And the world went black.

 

“Pa?  Is something wrong?”

Ben Cartwright had reined in his mount and was sitting in the fork of the road.  One path led to the high country where their men waited, and the other back to the ranch.  He’d had Buck’s nose pointed north when something caused him to pause.  All of his life he’d had a natural intuition.  It was part of what had made him the man he was.  He could sense when someone was less – or more – than they seemed, and that had helped him to make the choices that built an empire.  More often than not, he’d been able to predict the outcome of a business venture, which had allowed him to avoid the pitfalls that had taken other men down.  It had aided him as a seaman as well, helping him to sense disaster when it was on the horizon.

He sensed it now.

Adam sidled up on Sport alongside him.  “Did you forget something at the house?”

Ben puffed out a little sigh.  He had forgotten something – to tell Joseph goodbye and that he loved him.  The boy had been curled up, fast asleep, when they left.  It was a little thing but it had bothered him a great deal.

Was that it?

“A penny for your thoughts,” his son quipped.

Ben stirred and turned toward him.  “I’m an old fool,” he said with chagrin, repeating his oft used phrase.

“Well, maybe a middle-aged one,” Adam answered with a smile.  “Can’t get Little Joe out of your head?”

He’d shared his feelings with his eldest son.  There were times that brought a kind of guilt too.   From the time Inger died, he and Adam had been more friends – equals even – than father and son.  He’d thrust man-size responsibility on the boy and Adam had shouldered it without complaint.  It had made him into the man he was today – solid, reliable, serious and sober and, in many ways, alone. Ben turned and looked along the road to home.  Everything he should have been able to give Adam, he’d given to Joseph and it had formed the boy as well.  Joseph knew he was loved.  He felt safe and secure and, if the truth be known, just a little bit entitled.

“Why don’t you go on back, Pa,” his son suggested.  “I can go ahead and get things started.  It’s not like we’re going to leave today.”

Adam was right. There was quite a lot of preparatory work to complete before they could begin to drive the beeves. It would take a couple of days.  His presence was needed, but not necessary.

“Your brother keeps telling me he’s old enough to look out for himself,” he said, thinking of his last conversation with the soon-to-be fourteen-year-old.  “I’m not sure I’ll be welcomed with open arms….”  Ben’s words drifted off.  He had heard the sound of a buggy coming up behind them.

Turning, he saw it was Paul Martin.

“Ben!” Paul called out as he arrived.  “I thought you would be long gone by now.”

“Morning, Doctor Martin,” Adam said.  “What brings you out this way?”

“What else?  That young scallywag of a brother of yours.  I was on my way to the Kellys and thought I would check in on Little Joe and see how his arm is healing.”

His son’s lips quirked and a dimple appeared.  “God moves in a mysterious way,” he quipped.

Paul was looking from one of them to the other.  “Am I missing something?” he asked.

“No.  Pa was just heading back to the house.  He…forgot something important.  Now you two can travel together.”  Adam pulled on the reins and turned his horse’s nose toward the north.  “I’ll get things started at the drive camp and see you tonight, Pa.”

Two hours home and back, and then another four or five west and north to the camp.  That sounded about right.

Ben nodded.  “Thank you, son.”

Adam flashed a grin and gave him a smart salute, and was on his way.

“That’s quite a young man you’ve reared there, Ben,” Paul said.

He knew it.  He was proud of Adam.

Just as he was proud of all his sons.

“How’s that youngest one of yours doing?”

Ben looked toward home.  As he did that feeling – his ‘intuition’ – made his stomach roll.

Picking up the reins and kicking Buck into gear, the rancher replied.

“Let’s go and find out.”

 

When he first come to America, men most unkind to Hop Sing.  No one want him.  All say, ‘Chink go home!’.  All but Mistah Ben Cartwright who take him under his wing, give him a place to live and important work to do, and trust him enough to run his house.  Ancestors decide to be kind to Hop Sing because in Hop Sing a deep stream of need runs.  Mother, Father not understand, but accept God’s wisdom and put him in charge of large household with many brothers and sisters.  Too soon all grown – all fly away – and he left with empty nest.

Nest filled now by Mistah Ben’s three sons.

The Asian man leaned his head back on the rich blue velvet of Mistah Adam’s favorite chair and let out a sigh.  When he first come to Ponderosa, Missy Marie in charge.  She understand what it is to have people use cruel names and say untrue things.  Even before Little Joe come, they become friends.  After number three son born, they share care of Mistah Ben’s boys.  When Missy fall from horse he go to see her.  Take herbs to ease her pain.  When Mistah Ben out of room she make him promise to look out for all her men.  Mostly she worried for little ones, for number two and three sons.  Little Joe not quite five and Hoss only ten.  Little Joe too young to understand.  Only know Missy Marie has gone away.  Her death harder for Hoss.

Hardest for Hoss.

Hop Sing close his eyes and then open them and look at still form on the floor, laying in a spreading pool of blood.  He try everything to free self, but nothing work.  Bad man who took Missy Dora and Little Joe make sure he cannot escape – tie him up, gag him.  Make sure he cannot help number two son.  Boy’s mothers look down on him from Heaven.  He hear their voices scolding him.  Both sad, but Missy Marie angry.  She angry that he break promise.

Hop Sing angry too.  Angry at man who does such a thing – who shoots a boy and leaves him to die.

If Mistah Hoss die, man die too.

This he swear.

“Uhnnn…nnnn.”

Hop Sing sit up and look at boy on floor.  Hoss not move much, but his fingers claw at carpet.

Mistah Hoss alive!

“…Pa…?”

He so want to answer, but cannot.  Pa not here.  Only Hop Sing here and Hop Sing cannot help.

Boy turn head to look at him.  He confused at first but blinks away confusion to ask, “Are they…gone?”

Hop Sing not sure who he mean, but everyone gone so he nods.

“Dang it!” boy swears softly and then – though Hop Sing most certain this not wise – boy sits up.  Hoss’ side red as carpet he lays on.  Boy’s eyes go wide.  “I been…shot!”

Perhaps boy still confused.

Hop Sing sucks in air as boy rises and almost falls down.  Watches him grip chair arm to remain standing.  Then, slowly, Hoss makes way to Hop Sing’s side.  He watches blood slip between precious boy’s fingers as he moves.  Wound is bad.  Bullet still in side.

Much danger.

Boy lean on chair.  It shift under his weight.  Soon fingers are on Hop Sing’s wrist. “Them knots is tied…awful tight, Hop Sing.  I ain’t…sure I can….”  Hoss pauses.  Then boy laughs – just a little.  “I’ll have to…remember to thank Adam…when I see him.”  Hop Sing’s eyes follow Hoss as he reaches for pile of letters and letter opener laying on top.

Minute later Hop Sing free.

“Mistah Hoss sit down in brother’s chair.  Hop Sing go get bandages and water!”

Boy remain on feet.  Shake his head.  “I gotta go…after Little Joe.”

“Number two son go nowhere but to bed.  Not good if little brother come home to find big brother dead!”

Hoss stares at hand.  Blood running through his fingers.

“I ain’t gonna die….”  He swallowed.  “Am I?”

“Boy do what Hop Sing say, everything be all right.  First, you sit down.”  Wound bad.  Hop Sing draw breath and make promise he may not keep.  “Boy not die.  He get better.  Go find little brother.”

Mistah Hoss’ eyes close.  “Punkin needs…me…Hop Sing.  He’s gotta be…so scared.”

Blood continue to flow down side as boy falls asleep.

Hop Sing scared too.

 

Little Joe Cartwright slowly opened his eyes.  For a moment there was nothing, and then pain slammed into him.  It was as if there was nothing in the world but his left arm.  It pounded and throbbed and burned at one and the same time, bringing tears to his eyes and causing him to suck in air.  A moan rose in his throat and fought to escape his lips, but he bit it back, unsure of where he was and who was nearby.  Through heavily lidded eyes, he surveyed what ground he could see.  There were tall grasses in front of him.  Beyond them the late afternoon sun glinted off an unseen body of water.  He could make out horses’ legs, about a dozen of them, and the tall wheels of a wagon painted red.  By the wagon there was a man and, beside him, a woman.

They were arguing.

Joe closed his eyes and fought the pain.  It pounded in his ears, deafening him and making it hard to hear what the man and woman were saying. He was pretty sure the woman was Dora and that meant the man was Marcus Drummond.

Her not-so-dead husband.

Grown-ups were hard to understand.  They had all kinds of rules and regulations and spent most of their lives breaking them.  His pa had taught him it wasn’t right to lie, but he’d heard him lie.  The last time was when Pa went to town to confront a man who had accused him of stealing a piece of his land.  Pa told the three of them that he was going to supper at the Riesen House when he was really gonna meet the man there and call him out.  Adam caught wind of what was going on and they all showed up for supper dressed in their Sunday best.

Pa was right mad.

Later, he’d asked him about it and Pa said that sometimes, in order to protect someone, a man had to ‘bend’ the truth.  He wondered if that was what Dora had been doing – bending the truth to protect someone.

What she was saying now certainly made it sound like it.

“I will not!” Dora exclaimed.  “I will never tell you where he is!”

“Not even if young Mister Cartwright has to pay the price for your stubborn refusal?”

“Marcus, no!  You leave him out of this!”

The bad man snorted.  “I am afraid, my dear, that it is your fault that he is ‘in’ it to begin with.  It was your choice to run from me as well as your choice to come to this place.  Did you really think I wouldn’t find you?”

She stammered.  “I…I’d hoped you wouldn’t.”

“Hope, my dear, is as insubstantial and fickle as a woman.”  Joe tensed as the man moved toward Dora and reached for her.  “You loved me once as I love you now.”

She pulled away.  “You don’t know what love is!  To you it is all about possession.  Marcus, one cannot love if one is not free to love.”

“Ah, but there you are wrong.  Love is all about ‘possession’.  I possess you, my dear, as I possess that young man.  I can and will do anything I want with the pair of you.”

“Let Little Joe go, Marcus! I beg you.  I will go with you, do what you want….”

“What I want is for you to tell me where he is.”

Joe’s attention was slipping  The pain was all but overwhelming.  He closed his eyes against it and fought drifting away.

“No,” Dora answered.

There was a pause.  Joe winked out during it.  When he came back to himself, there were a pair of boots blocking his view.  Suddenly, without warning, fingers caught his curls and pulled his head up so sharply it almost made him black out again.

“Life is about balance, my dear. We need to even things out.  As it stands, you have two boys and I have none.  You need to choose.”  Joe gasped as the snub nose of a city slicker’s pistol made contact with the skin behind his ear.

“Which one will it be?”

 

 

 

EIGHT

 

On the way to the ranch Ben came across a group of his men whom he found lollygagging – or so they themselves said – on the way to join up with the others for the drive.  They’d set up a makeshift camp about five miles outside the ranch along the side of the road.  Upon questioning them, he found that one of the men had injured himself on a bale of wire.  It was typical he’d made no complaint.  In the end it turned out to be a good thing he and the doctor had come across them as Paul said the cowboy’s cuts evidenced the early markers of infection.  As a thank you for treating the man’s wounds, the hands invited them to stay for supper.  They had to eat, so he accepted.  Three-quarters of an hour later they were on their way again having enjoyed both the food and company.

Or at least he’d pretended to enjoy it.

Ben knew he was pushing it.  He could hear the wheels of Paul’s surrey grinding behind him as the doctor and the elegant vehicle struggled to keep up.  Something gnawed at the handsome, silver-haired man. Something deep in his gut twisted, if not like a knife, then like a pair of fingers prodding and poking that could not be ignored.  He’d hated to rush Paul.  Doctor’s seldom found time to stop and enjoy themselves, but it was all he had been able to do to sit still for that forty-five minutes.

He had to get home.

In the end he pulled into the yard alone.  Directing Buck to the hitching rail, the rancher slid off the horse, tethered it loosely, and headed for the door.  He didn’t know what he expected to find when he stepped into the house – trouble of some kind, he supposed.

It certainly was not Hop Sing on his hands and knees in the middle of the floor mopping up a pool of blood.

Slowly, as if carrying a heavy weight, his cook and friend rose to his feet.  Hop Sing glanced at the red rag in his hand and then looked at him.

So sorry Hop Sing not have time to clean all before Mister Cartwright come.  This no way for man to find his home.”

He was, he supposed, gaping like an idiot.

“Hop Sing…what?”

The Asian man hesitated.  “Much to tell.  Many bad things….”

“Ben?  Good Lord!  What’s happened?”

The rancher pivoted to find Paul standing in the open doorway.  The physician must have flown like the wind.  Ben started to reply, but found he couldn’t.

“Hop Sing?”

Hop Sing looked sick.  “Bad men come.  Threaten Missy Dora and Little Joe.  Mister Hoss try to protect little brother.”

It took a second.  “Try?”

“Who’s hurt, Hop Sing?  Is it Joe?” Paul demanded as he crossed the room.  His old friend knew the route to his youngest’s room all too well.

“It not Mistah Joe,” Hop Sing replied.  “Mistah Hoss shot.  Hop Sing do best he can to -”

“Shot?” Ben was reeling. “Hoss has been shot?”

His cook nodded.

“Good Lord!” Ben exclaimed as he moved past him and headed for the stairs.

Hop Sing’s hand on his arm stopped him. “Mistah Cartwright need to listen to Hop Sing.  There is more.”

For some unknown reason an image flashed in Ben’s mind’s eye – his youngest, laying on his bed.  Little Joe was wearing his Sunday best.  His eyes were closed and his hands were folded across his chest. His son was handsome as ever and completely at peace.

And quite dead.

He actually took a step backward as if struck.

“Joe…Joseph?”

“Bad men take number three son and Missy Drummond with them.”

The rancher gripped his friend’s arm for strength. “Was he hurt?”

Hop Sing’s face grew dark.  “Bad man hurt Little Joe’s arm second time.  Bring much pain.”

“Why did they -”

“Ben!”

He pivoted sharply toward the stairs.  Paul was standing at the top.

“I need you up here.  Now!” his friend declared and then disappeared.

The rancher took them two at a time.  When he arrived at his middle son’s room, he was relieved to find that Hoss was not laid out as he had feared his brother might be, but was fighting Paul Martin to get out of the bed.

“Tell…your son…to stay put.  I need to…examine that wound!” Paul snapped.

Hoss was weak, he could tell, though even in his weakened state he was almost too much for Paul to handle.  The boy was pale.  Sweat covered his exposed skin and he was breathing hard.  Quickly crossing to the bed, Ben placed a hand on his middle boy’s shoulder.

“Son, stop fighting the doctor!  You’re hurt.”

Hoss’ blue eyes shot to his face.  Pain shone from them – a deeper pain than the physical one his son was feeling.

“Pa!  I…cain’t.  Them bad men they…they took Little Joe and Miss Drummond!  Pa…you should have seen him.  Little Joe wasn’t…gonna let them take her….”  Hoss sucked in air and winced.  “Pa, Joe ain’t…gonna quit!  They’re…gonna hurt…him worse….”

“Ben, he needs to calm down!” Paul warned.  “That wound is open and the bullet’s still in there.  He could bleed to death!”

The rancher glanced down.  His middle son’s side was red.

“Hoss, I’m here now.  I’ll take care of Little Joe,” Ben said softly.  “You have to take care of yourself.  You know Joe would want you to.”

At his words the boy calmed some.  “You’re gonna go…after Little Joe, ain’t you…Pa?  Don’t you mind…about me.”

Ben shot Paul a glance.  The physician had a needle in his hand.  “I’ll go, son.  As soon as I can.”

Hoss’ hand gripped his shirt.  “You gotta…go now, Pa!  Them men, they was…right mean fellers!  They hurt Joe.  You gotta – ”  Hoss sucked in air as the needle entered his skin.  “What’s…that for?” he demanded.

“It will help you sleep,” he said as he lowered him to the bed.

The boy blinked.  He was fighting it.  “Pa, where’s Adam?  Is he…with you?  He’ll want to know…about Little Joe….”

“I’ll tell him.  Don’t you worry.  Now, shh….”

As the boy gave in and went out, Ben looked at Paul.  “How bad is it?”

The physician was shifting items in his medical bag, looking for something.  He glanced his way. “Bad enough.  He’s lost a lot of blood.  I’m going to need help closing the wound.”

Ben swallowed over his fear and guilt – fear for both his sons and guilt that he had to choose the needs of one over the other.

“Can Hop Sing help you?”

Paul snapped his bag shut and came to his side.  “Hoss told me about Little Joe.  I think it’s best you get on the trail of the men who took him.  The boy’s system is already weakened from the break to his arm.”

“What about Hoss?”

“Hop Sing has nearly as much experience mending these boys of yours as I do.   The two of us can manage without you.”

“Hop Sing bring plenty hot water and bandages,” the Asian man said from the doorway.  “Herbs for poultice too.”

Paul grinned.  “See what I mean?”

Ben eyed his sleeping son and returned his hand to his forehead.  “He’s hot.”

“Yes, but not so hot we need to worry – yet,” his friend replied.  “You get going, Ben.  Find that youngest boy of yours.  We’ll be fine.”

He wasn’t convinced.  “Is Hoss in any danger?”

The doctor looked him straight in the eye.  “Baring anything inside I can’t predict or infection setting in, it should be pretty straight-forward.  We need to get the bullet out first.”

He hesitated.  Life was so uncertain.

A hand came down on his shoulder.  “Ben, I know you love your sons equally.  They know it too.  But Joe is a boy.  He needs you.”

“Hoss is a boy too.”

“No…I…ain’t….” a sleepy voice said.  “…go…find…Joe….”

They both looked at the bed.

Paul laughed. “There.  You have your marching orders.”

He chuckled too.  “I guess I do.  Take care of him, Paul.”

The physician nodded.

“Like he was my own.”

 

Adam Cartwright had paused to relieve himself.  After a trip into the trees, he’d made the journey to the small stream meandering through them to refill his canteen and then decided to refresh his soul by sitting down and soaking up the beauty of the land before moving on to the drive camp.  If he had to be honest, four or five weeks of riding guard on a milling, bawling, and sometimes brawling herd of cattle was not his idea of good time.  He knew his brothers – Joe especially – found the prospect exciting.  Joe wasn’t old enough yet to work the drive, due to the danger that thousand head of cattle engendered, but his little brother looked forward with relish to the day when he could.  Marie’s son was a natural born cowboy.  One day the ranch would be Little Joe’s and he would make it flourish.  Hoss was a cowboy too, though in his own way middle brother was more like him.  He was a bit of a philosopher.  Hoss often waxed poetic about the beauty of the land; about the trees and wild grasslands, the hot desert sun and the cool, calm of a desert night.  He agreed.  There was much to be said for the West.  His father and brothers loved it. He loved it too.

Just not as much.

Since the other day when he’d recalled the trip that brought them to the Ponderosa, the black-haired man had felt uneasy.  He wasn’t sure why.  Maybe it was just the remembrance of things past.  It was hard to think of Inger.  He’d loved her deeply and had her so short a time.  Or, perhaps, it was the trip itself.  It didn’t do to dwell on it.  The privations and hardships the men and women on the wagon train had suffered were the stuff of legend.  Such events made some men, but destroyed more.  He’d seen what avid need, fear, and greed could drive a man to.  It was an eternal question as to what drew men to the path they chose.  Some men – like his father – could see the worst and still manage to believe in the best.  Others took the worst into them.  It changed them.  Made them hard.

Men like Adley Smythe.

Adam took a sip from his canteen and then dangled it over his knee.  When he’d first met the oldest of the Smythe siblings, he thought he’d found a kindred spirit.  Adley loved literature nearly as much as he did.  They’d spent hours debating a nuance in one of Shakespeare’s quatrains and had nearly come to blows over the meaning of ‘to be or not to be’.  That was why it had shocked him to find his friend dangling his kid brother over a stream.

Even though it shouldn’t have.

Adley had changed.  His father was a demanding man and, of late, he had been putting more and more responsibility on his eldest son’s shoulders.  The men in Mr. Smythe’s family were not long-lived and the elder Smythe was certain he would pass soon. That meant Adley would have to run their place.  The problem was, Adley wanted nothing to do with ranching.  Like him, nursemaiding stinking, sweating cattle was not his choice of trade.  The difference was, instead of letting his pa know his feelings, or acquiescing and quietly accepting his fate, Adley had decided that the best way to keep from running the Crooked Pine Ranch was to destroy it.  Oh, he’d deny it, but it was true.  It was what had come between them.   He’d caught Adley and Darby one night riding hard as thunder away from the family’s barn.  It was on fire. Adley had claimed they were going for help.

He knew better.

What was it, he wondered, that took a perfectly honest man and  turned him into a criminal? Was it some defect in his character?  The Greeks seemed to think so.  They believed each man had a tragic flaw in his character.  Whether it be greed, pride, cowardice, ambition, or even self-sacrifice, ultimately this flaw would bring about his downfall.

Adam snorted.  If each man had a tragic flaw, he knew what his little brother’s was.

Aplomb!

Adley, on the other hand, was as unsure of himself as Little Joe was certain.

He’d tried to talk to him but his friend wouldn’t listen, and so they’d drifted apart.  He feared – no, he knew that one day Adley would do something that would ruin him.  He hadn’t seen him for nearly a month.  Not until that day when he caught him threatening little Joe’s life.

Adam took another swig of water and then capped his canteen.  Rising, he headed toward the spot where his mount was ground-tethered and waiting.  It would take a few more hours to reach the camp.  He expected he’d make it there sometime around seven.

Barring anything unforeseen.

 

He didn’t know which way to go.

Ben Cartwright stood, hands on hips, surveying the hard-packed earth that formed the yard in front of his house.  A working ranch was a poor place to look for sign.  The ground was trampled with the marks of multiple horses’ hooves, along with both wagon and carriage wheels. Discerning which was the pair of horses he needed to follow was a difficult if not impossible task.  Hoss could have done it, but Hoss was unconscious.  Paul had the bullet out and the prognosis was good, but it would be some time before his middle boy would be out of bed.

Ben’s jaw clenched even as his fingers tightened into fists.  It would be up to him to find Marcus and Halbert Carton.

Carton.  The new hand who had betrayed him.

It took a moment, but he shook off his rage.  He’d deal with Carton when he found him, along with Marcus Drummond.  Kneeling, the rancher began to search again.  He knew the prints of his son’s horses hooves as well as his own.  He was looking for something different; something out of place – as out of place as the men who had invaded his home and taken his youngest son and the beautiful Dora Drummond with them.

Hop Sing said Marcus claimed to be her husband.

Ben knew it could be true.  There were many young women who came West to escape the life they had chosen, or been forced to live back East.  It was a part of the appeal of a place like the Nevada Territory – the opportunity to disappear, to reinvent one’s self.  The trouble was, the past was not often so easily abandoned.  Its shadow was long and felt, not only by the one it sought, but by any unfortunate enough to lay in its path.

Like his son.

Like him.

He loved her.  He knew it was foolish and knew it was too soon, but he did.  Perhaps it was Dora’s resemblance to Marie – in fact, he knew it was – but it was also the young woman herself.  The rancher couldn’t help but smile as he recalled how she had gone toe to toe with him when she thought Joseph’s welfare under threat.  Not only was Dora beautiful, she had a great heart.  Her feelings ran deep as the waters of Lake Tahoe.  Of course, if he was honest with himself, there was also an air of danger about her; of a desperate need.  That need had attracted him to Marie and it had done the same for Dora.  He wanted to protect her, to rescue her….

To keep her safe.

Rising to his feet, Ben moved a few paces to the left and began to look again.  As he did, he heard the thunder of horses’ hooves.  They brought him to a standstill and he waited until the riders entered the yard.  He knew them both and was surprised to see them together, at least at this place and time.

“Roy,” he said as he approached the pair.  The other man was John Smythe, the father of the boys who had threatened Joseph.  “John.  What brings you two out here so late in the day?”

The lawman glanced at his companion and then slipped from his horse’s back.  Walking over, the deputy tipped his hat.  “How are you doin’, Ben?”

He hesitated to mention what was going on, at least at this stage in the game.  “I’ve been better,” he admitted.

“Somethin’ wrong?”

“Why don’t you tell me why you’re here, Roy.  You and John.”

Roy nodded as he reached into his pocket and drew out a piece of paper.  “You seen hide or hair of this feller, Ben?”

He looked at the poster.  The man in the sketch was Marcus Burnell or rather, Marcus Drummond if Hop Sing knew what he was talking about.

“I’ve seen him.”

“When, Ben?  Was he here?” John Smythe asked as he dismounted.

“Why?  What is this all about?”

“Seems this man is right bad news, Ben,” Roy said.  “He’s wanted for a list of crimes long as my arm on both sides of the Mississippi.  The thinkin’ is he’s come to this area to pull off some kind of a job.”

Ben looked at his neighbor. John had sounded a bit desperate.  “What does this have to do with you?”

“Sadly, Ben, I have reason to believe my son Adley may be mixed up with this man.  I found some papers in his room indicating he’d been in contact with him.”  John scowled.  “I was hoping Adam would be here and I could talk to him. They’ve been friends.  I thought maybe he would know something.”

The operative word there was ‘been’.  Adam had expressed his concerns about Adley as well.

“Why would your son do such a thing?”

“Adley is angry.  Heaven knows about what!  I think the boy would do anything he could to ruin me, including ruin himself.”

“I know that look, Ben,” Roy said.  “What aren’t you telling me?”

The deputy had been watching him.  They were old friends, Roy and him, and the lawman could read him like a book.

“This man,” he indicated the poster, “was here a few days back.  He called himself Marcus Burnell and he brought Joseph home.  The boy had run away from his brother.  Burnell almost ran him down.”

“Is Little Joe okay?” Roy asked. “What ain’t you tellin’ me?”

Ben hesitated – long enough for Roy to know something was terribly wrong.

“Why don’t the two of you come inside?  Hop Sing can fix us some coffee while I fill you in.”

 

Fifteen minutes later, after he’d told his tale, Ben sat looking at his hands and fearing for his son.

Apparently Marcus Burnell had a number of names. No one knew which was the real one.  He was, or had been, first a medical student and then a respected businessman in New York City, specializing in handling the investments of some of the state’s wealthier residents.  This, of course, granted him access not only to those investments, but to the homes of their owners.  At first he had been careful.  Only an item went missing here and there.  Then whole estates were looted, always by a group of men who seemed to have prior knowledge of the property that allowed them to slip in quickly and disappear before the law arrived. Marcus managed to keep well out of it until one of the men mentioned his name and then the chase was on. The Pinkertons were called in and they managed to track him into New England where he disappeared.

That had been five  years before.

In time the law forgot about Marcus, or at least placed his file in a desk and closed the drawer.  The insurance companies compensated their clients for their losses and life went on.  It appeared, after his dalliance with crime, that Marcus had gone straight.  He changed his name to Drummond, settled in upper state Maine, married, and fathered a child.

Dora’s child.

According to Roy that was why she left him.  Thievery was in Marcus’ blood.  It didn’t take him long to return to his crooked ways and when Dora found out about it, she declared she was leaving and taking the boy with her.  He refused to let her go and so she ran – to the West where, no doubt, she thought she would be safe…and free.  Sadly, the brute saw his beautiful young wife and infant son as nothing more than another of his possessions – like the goods he had stolen and hoarded.

Dora was his and she would remain his, no matter what.

Dora’s full name was Pandora Jennings Drummond – a fact that had brought a fleeting smile to Ben’s lips as he considered the box of trouble her presence had opened in their lives.  She was a teacher.  Dora was actually twenty-four and had taught several years before setting the vocation aside to become a mother.  The Pinkerton agents sought her out and questioned her.  Roy thought, most likely, that was what had spurred her into taking action.  She told them she feared for both her and her young son’s life.

She had seen to it that no one knew where the boy was.

“Them Pinkertons, they think the man don’t really care about her, Ben.  He just wants the boy.  They was planning on using him as bait before she up and run.”

“Use a child as bait?”  The thought was disgusting.

“They was right desperate, Ben.  Somethin’s changed.  This Marcus, well, he’s grown mean.”  Roy held his gaze.  “He’s killed at least once and they’re afeared he’ll kill again.”

“He surrounds himself with local men, Ben,” John chimed in, “so he has access to the names of the men he can fleece.  I think Adley met him when he traveled to Ohio to visit his mother’s uncle.  He made some vague reference to a man offering him a job while he was there.  I’m worried about him, Ben.  I think….”  The other man sighed.  “I am fairly sure that Adley is involved.”

Ben looked from John to Roy.  He hadn’t told them yet.  He hadn’t wanted to.

Somehow, it made it all too real.

The rancher ran a hand over his face before speaking.  “He has them, Roy.  Marcus Drummond has them.”

“Has who, Ben?”

“Dora Drummond and…Little Joe.  Dear God!  He has Joseph!”  Ben rose and began to pace.  “Marcus broke into the house while Adam and I were gone.  He…shot Hoss and kidnapped Little Joe and his teacher.  Hal Carton, my new hand, was in it with him.  I imagine he’s the one who told Marcus that Dora was here.”

Roy jumped to his feet.  “Daggone it, Ben!  Why didn’t you tell me before?  We got to raise us up a posse!”

Why hadn’t he told him?  That was precisely why he hadn’t told him.

“Roy, no.  Let me handle this.  You know how a posse can be.”

His friend’s gaze was as steely as the badge on his vest.  “Ben, it’s the law.”

“Then give me a day.  Just one day, Roy!  That’s my son out there, along with a beautiful young mother.  Please, let me try to find them first.”

“I’ll go with you, Ben, to find Little Joe,” John Smythe said.  “I..I just pray to God I’m wrong, and that I won’t find my son with that man.”

Roy turned to look at his neighbor.  “And what if you do?” he asked.  “What will you do then?”

John looked ill – but he also looked determined.

“Whatever I have to.”

 

Adam Cartwright stared at his horse where Sport rested in the middle of the road and sighed.  It was at times like this that he completely understood the irony of Voltaire’s Candide with Doctor Panglos’ theory that everything happened for the best in this best of all possible worlds.  His father, of course, with his belief in the Abrahamic universe would concur with Panglos, if for a different reason.  Pa would remind him that God was in control and, therefore, everything that happened had a reason and a purpose and he simply had to trust in it and look for it and he would find it.  Pa would also say that God worked all things together for the good of those who loved Him and kept His commandments.

Adam rocked his hat back on his head.  Somehow being stranded in the middle of nowhere with a horse that had thrown a shoe did not feel like things were working toward his ‘good’.

He and Sport had been moving along at a good clip when the animal suddenly came up lame.  Part of the hoof wall was missing and a remaining nail had irritated the already tender flesh.  As it was, he was going to have to let Sport rest and then walk him back to the ranch.  He supposed, if he was lucky, he’d run into Pa along the way.  But then that theory was built on the supposition that Pa’s ‘gut’ feeling had been wrong and everything had been fine when the older man got to the Ponderosa.

This was Little Joe they were talking about.

Anyhow, there was nothing for it but to walk Sport off the road and let him rest a while before beginning their journey.  He felt kind of tired himself and thought he’d enjoy a short siesta before heading home. It didn’t take long to get settled.  Sport seemed happy to take a break and began munching on sweet grass the moment he had him tethered.  He’d scouted around and picked a soft spot for his nap in a small glade just far enough off the road to remain hidden, but close enough to watch it.  One could never be too careful when alone in the West.  Lying down, Adam carefully placed his pistol beside him and then pulled his black hat over his eyes and went to sleep.

Only to be abruptly awakened a short time later by two voices raised in anger.

After shaking off the lethargy of the nap, Adam palmed his pistol and rose to his feet.  Sport snorted at him, but he issued the two-fingered command for silence and his horse fell silent.  Cautiously, the black-haired man worked his way through the trees, heading in the direction opposite the road, and was surprised to find not a pair of strangers as he had expected, but Adley and Darby Smythe.

They were having quite a row.

“I don’t understand you anymore!” Darby shouted.  “I thought you wanted Pa to pull up stakes and head back East so you didn’t have to run the ranch.  The tricks I get, but this…this….”  The younger man swallowed hard.  “It’s wrong, Ad, just plain wrong.”

“Pa’s never going to give up.  He’s the most bull-headed, stubborn, obstinate old goat I’ve ever met!  I thought…. Well, I thought wrong.  It’s me that’s got to go and this is how I’m going.”  Adley paused.  “It costs money to cross the country and start over.  Lots of money.”

Adam shifted forward in the greenery.  The night was dark with the exception of a few stars winking overhead.  He couldn’t see them yet, but he could tell by the strength of their voices that he was close.

“Other people’s money!  Ad, that money belongs to our friends -”

“To our Pa’s friends!  To men like Ben Cartwright who have so much they can throw it away.”

Adam halted to draw a breath.  He was so close he could hear Adley trampling the grass underfoot as he paced.

The elder Smythe went on.  “Or give it away, if it’ll get him what he wants,” he added with a snort.

A snort.

Like something he’d just said was amusing.

For the first time fear raised the hackles on the back of Adam’s neck.

“Adley, what are you talking about?”

He could see them now, if dimly.  Tall lean Adley with his pale hair and hawk-like eyes of blue.  Darby, who was shorter and thicker and had auburn hair like their mother.  They were standing in the middle of an open glade, squared off like a pair of pugilists waiting for the fight to begin.

“Adley, you answer me!”

Adley was looking to the East, as if thinking.  Finally, he shook his head.  “You’re just a kid.  Go home, Darby.”

“I’m twenty-two.  I am not a kid!  I need you to tell me what this is all about.”

Again, Adley paused. When he replied, his tone had softened – you might have even said it was sad.  “Look, Darby, I’m sorry.  The West just isn’t for me and I need a way out.  It may not be the best way, but I’m taking it.  I….  I don’t want you involved.  You gotta go home.”

Adam took that softening as his cue.  Rising to his feet, he pushed the branches that masked him aside and stepped into the clearing.  It took a second for his presence to register.  He’d caught them completely off-guard.

Unfortunately, something else caught him off-guard.

That would have been the gun that came down on the back of his head putting out the lights.

 

 

NINE

 

Joe opened his eyes on a world that was a watercolor blur.  It took a moment for it to settle into something resembling reality and, when it did, there was a face in the mix with a pair of wide green eyes. They were watching him with worry.

A hand touched his cheek.

“Little Joe, can you hear me?” the woman asked.

Joe blinked.  He swallowed and tried, and then tried again before he could .  “Sure….”

The woman looked away and back.  “Keep your voice down.  Hopefully they’ll think you’re still asleep.”

She was becoming clearer now – a beautiful young woman with a heart-shaped face and wide green eyes surrounded by a halo of golden-blonde hair.

Joe reached up to touch a curl.  “Mama?”

The woman winced, as if she had been struck.  Her hand caught his.  “No, Joseph…Little Joe.  It’s Dora, just as before.  Dora Drummond.”

And with that it all came back – Marcus Burnell or Drummond, Halbert Carton…Hoss…the gun going off….

His brother’s blood on the floor!

Joe shot up like a ball coming out of a cannon.

“Hoss!”

Dora caught him and pressed him back down.  He realized then that his head was in her lap.  Her hand moved to his chest and she whispered, fiercely, “Be quiet!  You don’t want -”

“Is he awake?” a gruff voice demanded.

“No!  I told you he’s feverish.  He cried out is all.”

A rough hand took hold of his good arm and shook him.  Fortunately, he’d been smart enough to clamp his eyes shut when Dora scolded him.

“How do I know he isn’t playing possum?”  The man paused.  “It’s not like I can trust you to be honest with me, my dear.”

He’d heard that voice before.

It was Marcus…whoever.

Dora’s hand tightened on his chest.  “Marcus, if you know anything about me, you know this one thing – I would die to protect this child or any other from you!”

The man crouched beside them.  It about drove him nuts, but Joe managed to keep his eyes shut and his breathing rapid and uneven.

That last part wasn’t much of an effort.

Marcus reached across him. He supposed he had taken hold of Dora’s chin.

“And if you know one thing about me, my dear, it is that I keep my promises.  You will lead me to our son or I will kill this boy – and I will make you watch!”

“I thought you wanted to extort his father!” Dora snapped back, her voice trembling.  “You’ll get nothing if you kill him!”

Marcus laughed as he rose to his feet.  “Money isn’t everything,” he tossed over his shoulder as he walked away.

There was a moment of silence and then Dora said, “I am so sorry I brought this trouble on your house.”

Joe opened one eye.  Marcus was on the other side of the camp and no one was paying attention to them, so he opened the other one too.  “Who is he?” he asked, and then added softly, “and who are you – really?”

She started at that and then sighed.  “I guess I deserve that, though the truth is not so far from what you’ve been told.”

“Is your name Drummond?”

She nodded.  “Yes.  Sadly.  I was born Pandora Jennings and that was my name until I made the mistake of marrying that horrible man!”

Joe twisted to look, wincing as he did at the pain that shot through his broken arm.  Marcus was seated by the wagon, eating.

“How’d you meet?”

Dora shifted a bit so she held him a little less tightly.  “I really am a teacher.  What I told your father is the truth.  I was born in England and came to America when young.  I first taught in a small school house in Maine.  After I received my certificate, I moved to one of the bigger cities and that was my mistake.”  She looked toward the fire.  “It was where I met Marcus.”

“He seems kind of old for you,” Joe said lazily and then realized what he had said.  “Sorry.”

She laughed softly.  “It’s all right.  I have always been attracted to older men.”

“Like Pa?”

That was another ‘oops’.

Dora looked again to make sure no one was watching them.  “Yes, like your father.  He’s the kind of man I thought I had married – strong, capable, a bit forceful perhaps, and protective.”  She shuddered.  “How wrong I was.”

“Pa’s like that,” Joe said.  “He’s great.”

“I’m sure he is.”  Dora paused.  “Marcus was protective, but protective of his own interests.  All too soon I found out what he was up to.  He’d been in trouble in other states and was in hiding.  It didn’t take him too long to pick up where he left off.   By the time we’d been married three years he was swindling his clients again.  I found out about it and left him.”

“And took your little boy with you?”

Pain tightened her jaw and creased her forehead.  She nodded but said nothing.

“What’s his name?”

Dora drew in a breath and let the name out with it.  “Josiah.”

Joe smiled.  “That’s a good name.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Where is he?”

The beautiful woman stiffened at that and glanced again toward the fire.  After a moment she answered, “I don’t know.”

Joe blinked.  “Really?”

Dora nodded again.  “Really.  I feared Marcus would find me and force the location out of me.  I had one of my sisters in England arrange for an adoptive family.”  His teacher looked down at him.  “Joe, it isn’t that I won’t – I can’t tell Marcus what he wants to know.”

Which meant he was dead.

Tears were streaming down her cheeks.  Dora looked so lost, so forlorn – and so beautiful that Joe felt something stirring within him.  It wasn’t those feelings he knew his older brothers were worried about.  Oh, he’d had them for his pretty young teacher when he first met her.  These were deeper feelings; feelings of grief for a loss he could not understand and of gladness for this new chance.  Feelings that rocked him to his core and told him that, no matter what, this woman would survive and she would be reunited with her child.

If he was gonna die anyhow, he was sure-as-shootin’ gonna make it count for something!

“Joe, close your eyes.”

Dora’s hand returned to his forehead as a man spoke. “Marcus sent some water over for the kid,” a voice he recognized as Halbert Carton’s said.

“I didn’t know he cared!” Dora huffed as she took it.

“He don’t.  Marcus just don’t want the kid to die before he kills him,” he sneered.

Drops of water struck his face.  Dora was shaking.

“It’s okay,” he whispered as the man walked away.

After a moment, his teacher responded, “Here, take a bit of this.”

For some reason, he didn’t want to.  “Nah,” he said.

A second later he was startled as Dora’s lips brushed his forehead.  She made a funny little noise and then lifted his head. “That’s an order, young man,” she said sternly.

He wrinkled his nose a bit, but did as he was told.  Surprisingly, the water felt cold as it went down.

“I wasn’t lying,” she said.

“About what?” Joe asked, thinking she meant her husband.

“You have a fever.  It’s not too high now, but you need to keep drinking.”

“I just broke my arm,” he said as he licked his lips.  “I’m not sick.”

“You let me decide that, young man,” she said in her best school teacher voice. Then, she blessed him with a smile. “Your father will chide me if he finds you in less than the best condition when he rescues us.”

That was right.

Pa.

Pa was coming.

Maybe he would live to see another day.

 

The new day had dawned.  After traveling for several hours, they’d stopped to rest the horses and take a bite of food, though Ben was chomping at the bit as surely as the pack mule they’d brought with them to get moving again.  The rancher ran a hand over his face and then drew in a breath and let it out to calm himself.  The sturdy animal’s worth was found in the work it did.

His was in his sons.

At least Adam was safe.  His eldest would be at the campsite, preparing for the drive and waiting on him to show.  The preparations would keep him busy enough that the boy should stay put.  Ben turned and looked back toward home.  He’d hated to leave Hoss.  It gave him some peace to know that Paul said he would stay until he was sure the boy was out of danger.  The operation had gone well and Hoss had been resting peacefully when they left, but there was always the threat of infection and that worried him.

Though he was the most worried about Little Joe.

From what Roy had told him of Marcus Drummond, or whatever his real name was, the man had started off as a high-class criminal who kept his hands clean, but had descended of late into a hands-on thief who enjoyed killing. Who knew what changed a man?  Perhaps it was thwarted ambitions, unreached dreams, or perhaps, it was simply a sinful nature that nurtured instead of fought its natural tendencies.  Every man wanted what every man wanted – his own way.  Each sinful heart longed for comfort and ease when the Lord’s Word promised a man would have to struggle – to work hard and pull his worth from the land.  He was no different.  Given no restraint he would take what he desired and not care who was hurt in the process.  Such men were Marcus Drummond and Halbert Carton.

And they had his son.

“We’ll find him, Ben.  I promise you that.”

The rancher started.  He turned with a laugh.  “Roy, you startled me.”

“Quietest boots in the West,” his friend said.  “You thinkin’ about Little Joe?”

“That, and other things,” he admitted.

“Drummond?”

They called him that, though they really had no idea what his name was.  “Yes, and what makes a man into a monster.”

“Not gettin’ what he wants and thinkin’ it’s okay to take it,” the lawman said, putting it succinctly.

“Is it so simple?”

“Pretty much.  You know, Ben, bein’ a lawman you spend most of your time lookin’ at the underside of the rock.  It ain’t pretty.”  Roy paused. “But then there’s men like you – and John over there – who keep my faith in man goin’ in spite of what I find there.”

Ben nodded.  “What caused you to choose to be a lawman, Roy?”

The other man looked away for a moment.  It was as if his eyes were fixed on some unseen goal.  “To right wrongs, I suppose,” he said at last.  A moment later Roy turned back and added with a wry grin, “To make sure them men who think about nothin’ and no one but themselves don’t get what they want.”

“I’m ready to go, Ben,” John Smythe said as he joined them.

Ben wondered if John had heard what Roy said.  Sadly, it seemed his eldest was heading down the same path as Drummond and Carton.

“I appreciate you coming along, John.”

“It’s the least I could do.”  John paused.  “Darby told me about the incident with Little Joe at the stream.  I can’t tell you how sorry I am my boys were involved in that.”

Some would say, ‘boys will be boys’, but he didn’t believe that.  Ben’s jaw went tight.  He nodded.

John was looking past him.  “I hate to think of your boy out there, Ben.  It’s bad enough those men took him, but with a broken arm….”

As with Hoss, the rancher knew his son’s danger lay in infection, though the break had not torn the skin, thank the Lord!  Ben winced as he remembered Hoss’ description of how Halbert Carton had roughly handled his sick boy, twisting his arm and making Joseph pass out.

Ben growled.

If he ever got hold of that man, Carton would understand what rough handling was!

A hand caught his shoulder.  “Now, Ben, don’t you be thinkin’ about takin’ the law into your own hands.”

Law?  No.  He wasn’t thinking about the law.

He was thinking about justice.

 

Joe woke again. This time he was laying on the ground.  He was also alone.  Puzzled, he used his right hand to prop his aching arm and shifted slightly so he could look toward the fire.

There was no one in sight.

With a twist of his lips and a shift of his thick brows, Joe turned over onto his back and laid there staring up at the leaves above his head and the sun blazing above them.  He supposed by the angle that it was a couple of hours ’til noon.  It was a hot day and he was sweating, which made it seem kind of strange that he was also cold.

Really cold.  In fact, his teeth were chattering.

“Damn,” Joe breathed and then looked around just in case his pa had chosen that moment to rescue him.

He did have a fever.

It took about everything that was in him, but Joe worked and worked until he was upright and leaning against the trunk of the tree.  Since no one was around, he figured it didn’t matter anymore whether he was asleep or not.  Once he was in place he began to pluck at his shirt sleeve. Since Hal had manhandled him, he hadn’t looked at his arm.  He was sure he remembered hearing a ‘snap!’ right before he passed out and the way it was hurting, he was thinkin’ something had happened when he did.  The first thing his fingers encountered was a thin crust of something and then, the tip of a bone.

No wonder the thing hurt like hell!

Joe sat there a moment and then began to panic.  This was his dominant arm, as Doc Martin called it. The one he would have to use the rest of his life.  If it got worse…if it didn’t heal right….  The curly-haired boy swallowed over his fear.  He couldn’t imagine having to learn to do everything over again with his right hand, even peein’.

Which reminded him, he really had to go.

Joe glanced down at his feet.  They were unbound, as were his hands.  Dora must have done a good job of convincing the bad men that he was sick as a dog and couldn’t run away.  Of course, he couldn’t run away since he didn’t know where she was and he wasn’t about to leave her alone with a man who was willing to use killing him as leverage to get his own son back.  Talk about a dog.

No, that wasn’t fair to the dog….

Joe rose to his feet and stumbled back into the trees where he did his business.  Once in the nest of darkness, the impulse to run became almost overwhelming.  Since Dora didn’t know where her boy was she couldn’t tell Drummond, and that pretty much was the same thing as puttin’ him up against a wall and lettin’ the soldiers go at it.  Still, he couldn’t leave her.  His pa had taught him better.  A man had certain duties to perform and one of the highest was making sure that no harm came to a woman, even at the cost of his own life.  Besides that, she looked like his mama.

He couldn’t let her die again.

As Joe stood there in the darkness thinking, he heard sounds in the camp.  It had only been a few minutes, so he figured it was Drummond coming back.  The impulse struck him again to run, but then he heard Dora crying and he knew he couldn’t do it.

Quick as he could, Joe slipped back under the tree and laid down and pretended to sleep.

“I should kill him right now!” Marcus snarled.  “It would serve you right!”

“Marcus, no!  No!  I’m sorry.  I won’t do it again.”

Joe heard the crack of a hand on a cheek, so loud it made him start.  “You had better not or I will blow the boy’s brains out in front of you,” Marcus said.  “I can live without his father’s money.”

Joe wondered what Dora’d been thinking.  Obviously she had tried to run.

She was sobbing.  Her next words were hard to catch.  “…God.  What…I done?”  Joe opened an eye to see that she was clawing at the bad man’s shoulder, reaching back the way they had come.  “Let…go!  I won’t run.  I…help!”

Was she calling for help, or did she want to help someone?

A moment later Joe got his answer.  Adley Smythe and Halbert Carton emerged from the trees. They were dragging someone between them.

Joe sucked in a breath and cursed again.

It was Adam.

 

They’d found his son’s horse.  It was tethered in a small glade just off the side of the road.  Adam’s belongings were still there.  Even his hat.

Ben was still shaking.

“Now, Ben, don’t you go thinkin’ the worst. The boy might just be off huntin’.”

Boy.  Adam was twenty-five, but Roy was right.  He was a boy.

His boy.

“No,” he said as calmly as he could.  “Adam was due at the drive camp.  He wouldn’t have taken off hunting.”   That was something Joseph would have done, and maybe pulled his middle brother into the scheme along with him.  But not Adam.  Not sturdy, sensible, reliable Adam.  Ben’s eyes went to the black hat where it lay upright on the grass.  “Something has happened.”

John Smythe was kneeling, looking at the ground.  John was a civilized man, but he had lived in the West long enough to learn what it took to stay alive.  “If it did, it didn’t happen here.  There are no signs of a struggle,” he said.

Thank God for that!

“Can you tell which way he went?” Ben asked as he joined him.

John nodded.  “Through the trees.  He wasn’t taking care to not leave signs.  You can take some comfort in that.”

Ben bent to examine the trail.  The other man was right.  It looked like Adam had simply risen and decided to take a walk in the trees – without his gear.

“Ain’t no weapon here,” Roy said as he came from Sport’s side.  “So he’s armed.”

The only thing he could imagine was that Adam had seen – or heard – something that had made him leave his camp and enter the woodland.

Was it too much to hope that it had to do with Joseph?

They’d been following Marcus Drummond’s trail.  A short ways back it had veered off into the trees.  He’d thought they should continue to follow it, but Roy had decided that it would be better to come around the bend and approach from the other side in order to take the villain unawares.

As he always told his sons – there was a reason and a purpose for everything.

“Might be Adam saw somethin’ had to do with Little Joe and Mrs. Drummond,” Roy said, confirming his thoughts.  “That’s good.”

Was it?  If so, all three of his sons were in danger.

Roy gave him ‘that’ look.  “Now, Ben, that oldest boy of yours, he can take care of himself.  I ain’t never seen anyone can think a thing through like Adam and figger out the end before actin’.

That was usually the case.  But if Joseph was threatened….

“So, what do we do now?” he asked, feeling at a bit of a loss.  “If Adam is following Drummond and we storm in, that could put him in danger.”

Or worse if he had been taken.

“I say we go slow, but we go,” Roy replied.  “We can’t help your boys – either of them – standin’ here by the road jawin’ about it.”

Ben looked ahead.  “So, first we need to discover what drew Adam into the trees, and then what he did about it.”

“That’s right.”

John had risen and was looking into those trees. “I pray my son has no part in this,” he said, his tone hushed.

“Adley’s a good boy,” Roy replied.  “He’s just young and young’uns think they know best.”  The lawman grinned.  “They just ain’t lived long enough to learn better.”

Ben’s gaze followed the other man’s. He knew what John was thinking.

They both just prayed their sons lived long enough to learn.

 

Joe held his breath as his older brother was dragged over to where he lay and dropped on the ground like a sack of potatoes.  Adam didn’t make a sound as he hit.  He was still pretending to be out himself, so he couldn’t turn to look, but he thought there was blood on the side of his brother’s head.  Actually, turning at all was becoming a problem.  Since he had pulled his shirt away and discovered the bone sticking through the skin, he’d felt pretty sick.  Maybe it was just his thinking, but it seemed to him that his arm hurt more now than ever.  He knew his fever was hovering near high though, for the moment, it was more of an inconvenience than anything else.  His thinking was clear at least.

He knew they were in a lot of trouble.

The curly-haired boy shifted slightly and looked to his right.  After Adam had been hauled into the clearing, Dora had been hauled out of it.  Marcus had a tent pitched and he’d seen him drag her into it.  For a while they’d been shouting and then it had gone quiet.

Real quiet.

He was afraid for his teacher even more than he was afraid for Adam or himself.  He was just a kid.  If he died his family would be sad, but they’d go on without him almost like he’d never been.  After all any chores a thirteen-year-old did could be done by just about anybody.  Joe’s gaze flicked to his brother.  Adam was a little different.  Pa needed older brother more than him.  Still, there were plenty of ranch hands that could do Adam’s job too.

Dora was a mother.  Somewhere out there she had a child that needed her.  From the sound of it her son had been just about the age he was when his mama died when she gave him up.  Dora didn’t die, but to that little boy, he guessed it was just about the same thing.  If he could give his life up to put them back together, he’d do it.

Pa’d be mad and a little bit sad, but he’d forgive him in time.

A slight moan turned his attention back to his brother.  Adam was stirring.  He’d shifted a bit and his fingers were digging into the ground.  Thankful as he was that older brother was alive, Joe was also scared about what the bad men would do to him when they realized it.

“Adam.  Shh.  Keep still,” he whispered.

His brother blinked again as if confused.  Still, it seemed he understood.  After that, the only thing that moved was his eyes.  When they lit on him Joe saw something he seldom saw.

Tears.

“Joe…thank God…” he breathed.

“I’m happy to see you too,” he whispered back.

“Dora?”

Joe looked toward the tent.  “Here.  She’s with Marcus.”

“Adley?”

Joe frowned.  He’d been pretty sure that was who he’d seen draggin’ Adam in with Hal Carton.  “Standing guard.”

“Idiot,” Adam growled as he shifted a bit to free his hand.  It was bound by the wrist to the other and trapped under him.  He was probably losing circulation.  Big brother’s feet were tied as well.

Apparently Marcus really didn’t think he was a threat.

“Help me sit up, Joe.”

“Are you sure?” he whispered back.  “They’ll know we’re awake.”

“We have to…wake up…sometime. My hands….”

They were a funny color.

Joe let out a sigh as he shifted – gingerly – and levered himself up using only his right arm.  He stopped for a second, waiting for the stars to vanish, and then reached out to brace Adam as his older brother sat up and placed his back against the tree.

“Thanks.”

“No problem.”

Adam was staring at him.  “Really?  You don’t look so good.”

Joe started to snap back that he could say the same thing about him, but then he realized that would have been stupid.  He’d been tossed into a gulley, broken his arm, been manhandled and had his arm broken a second time; then been made to sleep on the ground and manhandled again.

He was sure he looked awful.

“I bet I wouldn’t have to worry about Cora Carrington wanting to kiss me now,” he quipped.

“Oh, I don’t know, Joe. Women have this thing about wounded men.  I’ve never understood it.  They think it’s..well…attractive somehow.”

Chalk up another reason to avoid the fairer sex.

“I’ll just break Cora’s arm in two places and see how she likes it,” he replied with a sigh.

Two places?”

Oops.

He was in for it now.

“Hal kind of…broke it again…when I tried to get away.”

“Bad as the first time?”

Adam was pinning him with his hazel stare.

Joe shrugged.  “Kind of…worse.  The bone’s exposed.”

His brother looked him up and down.  “No wonder you’re shivering.  Come in closer.  Lean against me.  If they won’t give us blankets, at least you can absorb some of my warmth.”

Shivering?  He hadn’t realized until that moment that he was.

Maybe that’s why he felt sick.

Joe hesitated, and then – like the little boy he had been – snuggled into his brother’s side.  Immediately it hit him how cold he’d been feeling.

“This is like when I was a kid, isn’t it?”

Adam snorted and lifted one eyebrow.  “Except I can’t put my arm around you and you can’t lock me in a stranglehold.”

Joe laughed as he leaned his head on his brother’s shoulder. “Yeah, I did that, didn’t I?  Near choked you to death a couple of times to hear Pa tell it.”  Joe paused.  A longing filled his heart and entered his voice as he dropped it in pitch.  “Adam, is Pa coming?”

“I’m sure he is.  We parted at the fork and Pa went home while I headed for the camp.  He had one of his ‘feelings’.”

None of them understood it.  Pa seemed to know when they were in trouble and needed him.

And boy, did they need him!

Adam was looking toward the tent.  “Joe, I need you to make me a promise.”

Somehow he knew he wasn’t going to like this.  “What?”

“If the opportunity arises, I want you to run.”

“And leave you, older brother?  No way.”

“Joe, look, I can take care of myself.”

“You’ve obviously done a good job so far,” he snapped back.

“If you aren’t the orneriest, most aggravating -”

“Keep the compliments comin’.”

“Joe, they hit me on the head.  That’s all.  You….”  Adam grimaced.  “You need to take care of that arm.  You don’t want to be lamed for life.”

Dread coursed through him as surely as the chills he was feeling.  “I…I can’t leave Dora.”

“I’ll take care of Dora.  You take care of your -”

Adam stopped.  Someone had kicked his boot.

“Now, isn’t this cozy?  The Cartwright brothers all snug in each other’s arms.”

 

 

 

TEN

 

He had expected Marcus Burnell, but the smug voice belonged to Adley Smythe.  Adam watched his little brother’s body go rigid.  Joe had bristled at the insult just as Adley knew he would and would have said something provocative if not for his terse warning whisper.

“Joe.  No.”

Adley was standing, looming over them.  He held his rifle loosely in his left hand.

“Oh, that’s right,” he said.  “I remember the last time we spoke, you told me you had to protect the little brat or your pa’d disown you.”

Adam held his breath.  He didn’t look at Joe, but he willed his younger brother to recognize a lie that was meant to hurt him.

“We talked about choices, Adley.  Looks like you’ve made a few poor ones lately.”

“I’ve made my choice.  I’m a man now.”  Adley jabbed the thumb of his free hand into his chest.  “I’m looking out number one.  Not my brothers and not my pa.  Me.”

“I see.  You’re a man now because you’ve joined up with a villain who would kidnap a child and threaten a woman.”  He tried to control it, but his face twitched.  “Obviously I am mistaken in my idea of what it takes to make a man.  Somehow I would have put those down as the acts of a coward.”

The black-haired man braced himself as a fire of unrighteous indignation lit Adley’s eyes.  He knew there would be a pay-back.

He just hadn’t expected it to be directed at Joe.

His brother screamed as Adley took hold of Little Joe’s broken left arm and hauled him roughly to his feet.  Joe began to pant hard and tears streamed down his cheeks as he fought to keep his footing.

“Is this how you show you’re a man?” Adam demanded as tears kissed his own eyes.  He was bound and  – damn it – helpless!  “Untie me!  Take me on!”

His one-time friend snorted and then glanced over his shoulder at the tent.  Adam followed his gaze and saw Marcus Burnell emerge shoving Dora Drummond before him.  Joe’s teacher was disheveled and obviously in distress. She looked their way and a sob escaped her just before she was forced onto the back of a horse.

This was not good.

Joe was still dangling from Adley’s grip.  He was pale as a palomino’s winter coat and lathered as one pressed too hard in the summer.  Even so, there was still fire in him – and he didn’t mean the fever.  Joe had become agitated when he saw the way Dora was being treated and had begun to struggle to escape.

“Joe.  No!  Calm down,” he ordered.  “Calm down now!”

Adley had a good grip on Joe’s injured arm.  Just about where the break was.  He was sure the blond man was going to snap it in half.  Instead his former friend swung his rifle up in an arc and took Joe in the back of the head and dropped his kid brother to the ground.

Joe fell without a sound and lay still.

It was at that moment that Marcus Burnell chose to approach them.  He paused briefly by Joe’s silent form and toed him with his boot, and then came to stand over him.

“What do I have to do for you to leave Joe alone?” Adam asked without preamble.

“I suppose I could give you time with Dora to try to persuade her to tell me what I want to know, but it would be pointless.”  He glanced at Joe.  “The only leverage I have is the boy.  He goes with us.”

“How is my brother ‘leverage’?”

Marcus knelt before him.  “Dora has something I want.  She wants the boy alive.  In order to keep him that way, she needs to give it to me.  I have told her she has until midnight.”

Adam licked his lips.  God.  That meant Joe had – maybe – nine hours.

“Can I get it for you?  Or can I give you something in its place?  Money?  Land?  I have both.”

The villain’s lips curled with a sneer.  “Would your father take land or money for a son?  I think not.”

“A son?”

“My child.  Dora took him from me and she will tell me where he is or she will watch her precious Joseph torn apart in front of her.”

Adam swallowed hard over a rising fear.  “You’d do that to a thirteen-year-old boy?”

“I would do it to anyone who stood in my way,” Marcus replied as he rose to his feet.  “Adley, pick up the boy.  Bring him!”

Joe stirred and groaned as Adley lifted him.  For a moment his brother’s eyes opened and his lips moved.  They’d done it many times in the semi-dark.  He knew what his brother said without sound.

‘It’s okay, Adam.  It’s worth it.’

He had never been so proud.

Or so terrified.

Halbert Carton had come to Adley’s side.  At Brunell’s command, he took Joe from him and headed for the red wagon Dora’s horse was tethered to.  Adley remained behind, staring daggers at him as if, somehow, he represented everything he hated in a man.

In other words, everything he wasn’t.

Adley kicked the bottom of his boot. “What do I do with the high and mighty Adam Cartwright?”

Marcus glanced over his shoulder at him and dismissed him as if he were nothing.

“Kill him.”

 

They were close.

They’d followed Adam’s trail on foot to an area where it was obvious that some sort of altercation had taken place.  From that point three men had ridden off in two different directions – two going on and one going alone toward the Ponderosa.  John had volunteered to follow that one while he and Roy set off after the pair.  One of their horses was overburdened, as if it carried either one very large man or two seated together.  Ben had thought it out and come to two possible conclusions.  If Adam was all right and had found his brother, then the heavy horse must be bearing the pair of them – even though it was going in the wrong direction.  If – Heaven forfend – Adam had been overtaken and injured, then he was most likely the extra burden the horse bore.  Either way he felt compelled to follow the trail of the two horses, wherever it took him.  Roy had scratched his head when he informed him of his choice.  He supposed it only made sense to follow the horse that was headed for his ranch, but that intuition he had – that ‘gut feeling’ – told him otherwise.

“I don’t think they’re all that far off, Ben,” the lawman said as he approached.

“Oh?  Why?”

Roy winked.  “You ain’t the only one what’s got an intuition about these things.”

Ben chuckled.  “I suppose you’re right.”

“What’s yours telling you right now?”

The rancher looked to the west, the way the two horses had gone.  The sun was beginning to set.  Darkness would be upon them soon.  “That we’re running out of time.”

His friend sobered.  “I’m feeling it too, Ben.  I think we’d best get a move on. There’s no telling what -”

They’d both heard it.  A gun shot.

And not all that far away.

They waited, listening for another one.  When it didn’t come, Roy said, “I think we’d best go see who’s doin’ the shootin’.”

He agreed, though fear rooted him to the spot.

“Ben, we don’t know as it’s got anythin’ to do with your boys.”

That was true.  But there was no reason to believe it didn’t either.

Roy was halfway to his horse.  “You comin’?” he called over his shoulder.

He was coming.  He had to.

No matter what he found.

It was tough going through the trees.  The branches stung them as they passed.  Ben supposed they should have used more care, but the sound of that shot ringing in his ears made him throw all caution to the wind.  Somehow he knew it had to do with his missing sons – with one or the other or both.  They had been following the trail of the men who took Joseph when they crossed Adam’s path.  The boy would not desert his brother.  Either Little Joe and Adam were together or Adam was on Joe’s trail and that meant both of them were in peril.  Unbidden Ben’s thoughts returned to the Ponderosa and his middle son.  He had no way of knowing if Hoss was better or worse, or even alive.  Infection could have set it.  Fever could have taken him.  The same went for Joseph with his broken arm.  If something had happened to reinjure it….  Ben closed his eyes and sought his center.  All he could do was pray and trust – and continue to pray.  The rancher did it as his horse cut through the dense undergrowth of the woodland, his lips moving constantly

His last words as ever ‘Thy will be done’.

It was some twenty minutes later when they broke through the trees and entered a clearing.  At first, he could see nothing.  The angle of the dying sun cast long black shadows on the earth.  Then, Roy noted the wagon tracks and the footprint left by a tent hastily raised and removed.  There was a fire nearby, burned out, as well as a few pans and other items scattered around it.

And a body bound to the trunk of a tree.

Roy saw Adam first and let out a startled cry.  Ben did the same as he raced to the tree and the black and wine-clad form slumped beneath it.  Just shy of it, he halted, petrified.  This was Elizabeth’s baby boy; his firstborn; the son he had cherished and loved for twenty-five years.  He couldn’t be….

A groan.  Eyelids fluttering.

He wasn’t!

Ben fell to his knees beside his son’s crumpled figure.  He reached out to touch his face.  “Adam?”

The boy’s hazel eyes opened.  There was confusion in them, but clarity as well.

“Pa?”  He wet his lips. “Is it…really you?”

Relief washed over him, nearly unmanning him.  “Yes, son.  It’s me.”  As he spoke, Ben began to run his hands over the boy’s form.  He stopped when he encountered something wet near his waist.

“Are you shot?”

Adam nodded slowly.  “…why?” he asked.

Why had he been shot?

“I don’t know, son.  You’ll have to tell me why.”

“No.”  The boy arched backward so his side was stretched, revealing a gaping hole in his wine-colored shirt.  “Why…didn’t he kill me?”  Adam looked straight at him.  “He could have…killed me, Pa.”

“Who, son?  Who was it?”

If possible, the boy looked to be in even more pain.  His eyes flicked to Roy who had come to crouch at their side and was – as he should have been – undoing the ropes that held Adam bound to the tree.

“It was Adley Smythe, wasn’t it, boy?” the lawman asked.  At his frown, he added, “I recognized the print of the horse that John followed, Ben.  I imagine he did too.  It was Darby’s.”

Adley’s brother.

Dear Lord, was there to be no end to tragedy today?

Adam was nodding.  “Said he was going to…kill me…but shot to the side.  Hit me, but…missed.  Marcus….”

“Marcus Drummond?”

Adam looked confused.  “Burnell.  He…took…he took Joe.  Pa,” the boy sucked in air as Roy began to probe his side, “Little Joe’s…hurt.”

“The bullet ain’t in there, Ben.  It’s a clean wound.  I’ll go get some water and bandages.”

“NO!” Adam shouted, startling them both.  “No!  You…have to go…after Joe.”  The boy’s eyelids fluttered as his eyes rolled up.  “Marcus said…kill Joe…midnight,” he whispered just before he passed out.

Ben looked up to the sky.  It was, perhaps, six hours until midnight.

He had six hours left to save his son.

“You suppose Mrs. Drummond is with Little Joe?” Roy asked as he rose to his feet.

He was sure she was.  Everything that had happened was centered on that young woman, as surely as the sun was the center of the universe. Ben rose and looked to the west.  She was there…with his son.

It was his solemn duty to save them both.

 

“Marcus, I’m telling you the truth!  I don’t know where the boy is!”

Joe slowly woke to what was going on around him.  He was in the back of the red wagon.  Dora was standing beside it, pleading with Marcus Drummond.

The bad man sneered.  “I certainly hope your memory improves in the next few hours, my dear, otherwise young Mister Cartwright will pay the price.”

“Joe has nothing to do with this.  Please, Marcus, let him go!”

“On the contrary, he has everything to do with this.  After all, if you had your way, you’d be the boy’s new mother.”

There was anger in his tone.  Real anger.

“Whatever gave you that idea?” Dora asked, her voice trembling.

“I asked around in the settlement.  You made your feelings quite clear, especially to the lady running the pie shop.  Beth, I think it was?”

Beth Riley was a bit of a gossip, or so Pa said.  He liked her real well, but Pa said she liked to ‘spread tales’ from time to time.

“Marcus, I….”

He came closer to Dora, until he loomed over her smaller form.  “Don’t you for one minute think I have forgotten Ohio.  You sought a protector there and look what happened.”

Dora gasped. “That was you?!”

“Accidents happen – and they can happen again.”

“You leave Ben alone!”

“I will – when you tell me where Josiah is.”

His teacher stood her ground for a few seconds and then dropped her head.  Her tone, when she spoke, was pleading.  “Marcus, I am telling you the truth.  I can’t tell you where the boy is because I don’t know! I left it to my sister to find a suitable home for him.  He could be anywhere.  I have no idea!”

Marcus looked his way.  “Well, that’s too bad for young Joseph then, isn’t it?  Due to your selfishness, I would say he has about five hours to live.”

My selfishness?!”

“I told you when you spoke of leaving that, if you did, I would make your life a living hell.  I gave you everything you needed – a fine home, elegant clothing, expensive things….”

“Everything but love.”

“I love you!”

“Marcus,” Dora said, tears in her voice and eyes, “you don’t know the meaning of the word.”

Joe was drifting in and out as he listened to them talk.  He felt hot and cold all at one and the same time, but there was something else he felt as he lay there  – determined to make an end to Marcus Drummond.  Pa had taught them that to kill wasn’t right, but he’d also had to admit there were times when it was the only way, like when David slew Goliath.  As he lay there, Joe began to mouth the words he had heard in Sunday school.

‘In you, O LORD, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; deliver me in your righteousness. Turn your ear to me, come quickly to my rescue; be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me. Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name lead and guide me.’

Joe sucked in strength and girded himself with the belief that he could make a difference.

And then he looked for a time to act.

 

Ben glanced at the mountains to the west.  The sun was setting behind them and he was running out of time.  According to Adam, Marcus Drummond had given Dora until midnight to tell him where she had hidden their child or he would kill Joseph.  His eldest son had been left, tethered to that tree as the villain drove away with his brother.  Adam had heard Dora pleading with Marcus, telling him she had no idea where the boy was.  He hoped it was a lie.

Otherwise, Joseph was doomed.

He was astride Buck, heading though the trees; his direction chosen by his father’s intuition and powered by his faith in the goodness of God.  Didn’t it say in Joshua, ‘Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go’?  Ben believed that as surely as he believed the next breath would keep him alive.  God would not desert him.

Just as God would not allow his youngest son to die at the hands of a madman.

 

“Boy, now you just lean back.  You ain’t goin’ nowhere in the condition you’re in.”

Adam didn’t care what ‘condition’ he was in – Pa needed him.

Little Joe needed him.

“Get…out of my…way,” he pronounced as he fought against the lawman’s grip.

“Now, son, you ain’t thinkin’ clearly,” Roy Coffee said.  “Your Pa’s already worried enough about Hoss back home and that little brother of yours.  He don’t need to worry about you too!”

He knew it was true.  Just as he knew there was nothing he could do to stop himself.

“Roy, I have to…go.”

“And do what?  Get yourself killed?”

“Help,” he gasped.  “Have to…help Joe.”

“Son, your brother’s life is out of our hands.  We done all we can and it ain’t been enough.” At his look, Roy went on.  “I don’t like to admit it, boy, but there are times when a man – no matter how determined he is –  just ain’t enough.”  The lawman looked to the west.  “No matter how much you want to, son, you cain’t stop the sun from sinkin’.  Adam, there just ain’t any time left.”

He knew Roy was right and yet, to admit it, was to admit defeat.  Joe was out of time.

It was nearly midnight.

“Your Pa will find him,” Roy said with a confidence he didn’t feel.

“How can you be sure?” he demanded.

Roy rose to his feet.  He pointed toward the mountains.  “Them,” he said softly, “from whence comes my help.”

 

Adley had come to the wagon and lifted him from it.  It didn’t take much acting, but Joe pretended he was unable to raise his head as he was lowered to the ground.  His body was tired – so tired he wanted to give up.  But he couldn’t.

Not until Dora was safe to go back to her son.

Only half-faking it, Joe leaned his head against the side of the wagon and panted as if he was on his last legs.  He would have just let Marcus kill him if he’d thought that would do any good.  He knew it wouldn’t.  So long as the bad man had Dora in his power, he would use her to get to his son.  Dora had to get away.

He had to give her the opportunity to get away.

As he clung there, swinging, Joe’s thoughts turned to his brother.  He had no idea if Adam was alive or dead.  He’d gone out like a light when Adley hit him and when he woke up, Adam was nowhere to be found.  He hoped Marcus had left him tied under the tree for their pa to find, but he had his doubts.  So this was for Adam too,

He’d be damned if he didn’t make both their deaths count.

“The time is up, my dear,” Marcus pronounced as he drew his pistol.  “Midnight is upon us.  You have one final chance to tell me what I want to know.”

Marcus-whoever was standing, pointing the weapon at Dora.  He was flanked on one side by Adley Smythe and on the other, by Hal Carton.  Carton looked like he was having a grand time.  On the other hand, Adley looked about as sick as he felt.

“Maybe she can’t, Marcus,” Adley dared to suggest.  “Maybe, after all, she’s telling the truth.”

“Are you losing your nerve?” the bad man shot back.  “If so, maybe I should dispatch you as well.”

“I just don’t see how killing a kid is going to do any good,” Wilson’s brother protested as his gaze moved to him.  “Little Joe will be…dead and you still won’t have your son.”

Marcus’ eyes were on Dora.  She was crying.

“What I will have is satisfaction.”

“You’ll have…what you want in spite of what it costs,” Adley stated, his voice flat as a farmer’s field.  “Is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes.”

Joe flinched as the bad man’s pistol pivoted toward him.

“And in the end, that is all that counts.”

 

Ben could hear voices in the trees before him.  He halted Buck and slid from his horse’s back in one swift movement.  All thoughts of Adam and Hoss, Roy, and even Dora Drummond were gone.  He had only one focus and that was his youngest son. With the swiftness and sureness of an avenging angel, the rancher began to run.  He could hear Marcus Drummond prattling on.  There was another man talking.  It might have been Adley Smythe.  He was shouting something.  Dora was there too, shouting out a name.

Shouting out, “Joe!  Joe!”

Ben increased his pace.  His courageous young son was doing something brave, he knew.  Something brave and stupid that could end his life.  He’d brought them up well, his sons.  He’d instilled in them a sense of nobility; an understanding of sacrifice.

He was a fool.

Suddenly, there were three shots.  One.  Two. Three.

Then, silence.

Ben halted.  He drew his own weapon and began to run.

As he broke through the trees he was confronted by a sight he’d hoped never to see – a young woman screaming for all she was worth, surrounded by a sea of men’s bodies.

One of them was Little Joe’s.

 

Adam Cartwright was not a man who normally knew fear, but he was afraid to open his eyes.  Half-conscious, he had listened to Roy Coffee’s gasp of surprise and to his father’s low-voiced reply.  The older man’s tone was laced with grief.

His little brother was dead.  He knew it.

And it was his fault.

If he hadn’t made Joe angry, baby brother would never have taken off on his own.  If Joe hadn’t taken off alone, he would never have encountered Marcus Drummond in the woods.  Drummond wouldn’t have found out that his wife was a guest at the Ponderosa and the madman would never have come after her, shooting Hoss and kidnapping and murdering Joe.  Adam winced.  Halbert Carton had taunted him about shooting Hoss and left it open-ended as to whether or not middle brother had survived.

He wouldn’t survive.

Not without the two of them.

A touch on his shoulder sought to rouse him.  He fought it.  Fought it hard.

“Son, it’s time to wake up.”

It was Pa.  How could Pa sound so…normal?

“…no….”

For a moment, Pa said nothing. Then, “Why don’t you try?”

A hand touched his face.  It was hot.

“Hey, older brother.  You’d do just about…anything to get out of a…cattle drive, wouldn’t you?”

It couldn’t be.

Could it?

“Joe?”

The hot hand gripped his fingers.  “Yeah, it’s me.  We…both made it.”

It took effort – and a fair amount of willpower – to open his eyes, but he did it and found his little brother grinning at him.  Either Joe was telling the truth or they were both in Heaven.

But then, if that was the case, Pa was there too!

“…how?” he asked.

Joe turned to look at Pa.  It was Pa who answered.

“Adley.  Son, it was Adley. Without that boy….”

He sensed something in his father’s voice.  “He’s…dead…isn’t he?”

Pa cleared his throat.  “Your brother,” he glanced at Joe, who ducked his head, “decided to rush Marcus Drummond.  It was his intention to make a way for Dora to escape.  Marcus’ gun went off and took your brother in the forehead.”

He could see it now – the lightly stained bandage corralling Joe’s mutinous curls.

“When I came upon the scene,” Pa said, drawing in a breath, “I thought your brother was dead.  I thought everyone was dead except Dora….”

“Marcus was gonna finish me off,” Joe said.  “Adley shot him before he could.”

“And then Marcus shot Adley?”

Joe nodded.  He looked sick.

Pa didn’t miss it.  “Young man, it’s time for you to go back to your own bed.”

Bed?  He hadn’t noticed.  Adam’s gaze strayed about the familiar room  He was in his own bed.

They were home.

“Hoss?” he asked.

“Recovering nicely,” a familiar voice answered.  Paul Martin shook his head as he came to the end of the bed and looked down at him.  “Tough and tenacious as a desert dog, all of you.”

“And blessed,” he added softly.

“Three times blessed,” his pa agreed as he took hold of Little Joe’s shoulders, lifted him from the chair, and directed him toward the door.  As he passed through it, Pa said, “I’ll be back as soon as I have this young scamp settled.”

Adam was silent a moment and then he asked the physician.  “What about Dora?”

“She’s here.  She’s traumatized to say the least.”  The older man thought a moment.  “I don’t think the truth has dawned on her yet.”

“The truth?”

Paul smiled. “That she’s free.”

 

It was after midnight – most likely nearer three – when Ben came down the stairs.  A full day had passed since that horrific moment when he thought he had lost his youngest son.  He’d checked on his boys and then come downstairs for a snack but found, after all, that he didn’t have the stomach for it.  So, instead, he made his way toward his leather chair; his steps dogged by ‘what ifs’ and ‘what could have beens’.  It was only as he sat down that he realized he wasn’t alone.

“Who is she?” a soft voice asked.  It came from the alcove where his desk was – where three silver frames sat as shrines to his former life and wives.

Rising, Ben crossed over to the desk.  Silver moonlight spilled in through the open window. It struck the young woman, turning Dora Drummond’s blonde hair to weathered bronze.

He took the photo from her.  “Marie.  Joseph’s mother.”

“She’s beautiful,” she said.

“I know,” he replied as he replaced the frame.  “So are you.”

“I’d like to believe you mean that.”

He reached out and caught her hand in his.  It was so small, so fragile.

So like Marie’s.

“I do.  What can I do to prove it to you?”

Dora hesitated and then she leaned in, resting her forehead on his chest.  “It seems to me we can never be certain.  Is it me you love, or the memory of her?”

He felt the need to be honest.  Lies would get him nowhere.  She was a perceptive woman.  “Would it be so bad if it was both?”

Dora remained where she was for a moment and then pushed away.  She glanced at the frames on the desk and then at the open window.

“I’m not certain that I know what love is,” she began.  “I had a young girl’s fancy, but that died when Marcus…changed.  In the beginning he was kind, but he grew cruel.”  She hesitated. “There was another man.  I didn’t know.  Marcus…killed him.”

“Good Lord!”

“He was a lot like you, Ben.  He was strong and kind and gentle with me.  I think I loved him.”  She lifted her head and looked at him.  “Like I think I love you.”

“But you’re not sure.”

She smiled…briefly.  “I’m not sure why I love you.  Because you are strong and kind and gentle, and that is what I need, or because that is what you are.”  She hesitated.  “Because I love you…or I love your sons.”

“Can’t you love us all?” he asked with a frown.

“I do.  I do love you all.”  Dora laughed.  “But I think I love Little Joe most of all.”

“It’s hard not to love that little scamp,” he admitted.

“And he almost…died because of me.  That’s something I cannot forgive myself.”

“But Little Joe didn’t.”  He approached her.  “Joseph’s alive.  You’re alive.  I’m alive.  God has given us all a second chance.”

Her eyes welled with tears and she turned away.

“You are thinking of your own son.”

She nodded.  “He must hate me.”

“He longs for you as Joseph longs for his mother.  He doesn’t hate you.”

“Can you be so sure?” she snapped.

Ben studied her a moment.  “You need to find him.  You need to go.”

She nodded.  Then she took his hands in her own.  “I have to.  Once I have found him….”

He hesitated, and then drew her in close.  As his hand caressed her silken soft hair, he asked, “Will you come back?”

“I will,” she promised.

He knew it was a promise she would break.

 

 

 

EPILOGUE

 

Ben Cartwright removed his black hat and nodded his head as John Smythe, his wife, and his remaining two sons passed by.  His own sons did the same.  All three had insisted on coming to town for Adley’s memorial service and he hadn’t fought them.  The grief John Smythe felt was palpable.  The only saving grace was that the blow had not been entirely unexpected.  The horse John followed that day had been ridden by his younger son, Darby, as they suspected.  Darby had confessed everything.  John knew that Adley’s life was over.  His oldest boy had been a party to a kidnapping and attempted murder at the very least.  Prison awaited him.  Perhaps a hanging.

 

God, in his unfathomable wisdom, had been kind.

 

Ben turned to look at his own boys who were clustered together.  It had been two weeks since the events that brought about Adley’s demise.  Time had moved at a snail’s pace as he dealt with his son’s injuries and the needs of a cattle drive he could not attend.  Thankfully, several of his neighbors had stepped up and offered to take over for him, knowing he would not leave home. In that time each of his sons’ wounds had healed – though they were far from well.  Hoss was pale and still ‘off his feed’ as Hop Sing liked to say.  The boy had lost weight and was quieter than usual.  The week following Adley’s death had been hard on him.  Just as Hoss began to recover, he had to face the possibility that he might lose both his brothers.  Man’s bane – the inevitable infection – had set in.  Adam’s wound, though not dangerous in itself, had become contaminated.  That, coupled with the boy’s head wound and exhaustion, was more than enough to bring him low.  Joseph….  Ben turned to look at his youngest who sat propped up in the buggy, watching with solemn eyes the procession of mourners as they made their way to the graveyard where the Smythe boy had already been interred.  Adley’s parents had waited to have the service until relatives could arrive from another state.  He was glad they did.  Joseph needed this and, until today, he would not have allowed the boy out of bed.

 

He hadn’t known about the second break in Joseph’s arm until Dora told him.  Ben closed his eyes as he recalled the horrendous moment when he burst through the trees to find her surrounded by a circle of men’s splayed out forms, his young son’s included.  It had happened in a heartbeat, she said.  Marcus was looking at her, waving his pistol and threatening to kill Little Joe.  Joseph – dear brave, foolhardy Joseph – chose that moment to rush the man.  The gun went off.  The boy was struck a glancing blow on the forehead and went down from the impact.  It was then that Adley Smythe did his father proud.  He stepped in and took the madman down – but not before Marcus had time to fire a second shot, killing him instantly.  Like the coward he was, Halbert Carton turned tail and ran when he saw the carnage.  He didn’t make it far.  Roy quickly caught up to Hal and he was sitting in the Carson City jail awaiting trial at this moment.

He was…lucky…he was sitting in the Carson City jail.

For him, that moment was burned into his memory as surely as the path of the bullet was burned into his young son’s flesh.  He’d frozen for an instant – it was one of the things he ‘d had to forgive himself for – before rushing to Little Joe’s side and dropping to his knees.  When he lifted the boy, Joe moaned and his eyelashes fluttered, and then he cried out in pain.  Panicked, he’d searched his son’s slender form for another wound.  A hand on his had stopped him.  Dora had touched his face and then Joseph’s, and then carefully spread what was left of the fabric of Little Joe’s shirt aside and shown him the filthy tip of the bone.  Like Adam, infection turned out to be his son’s worst enemy.  The fever was high and lasted nearly a week.  If Hoss was a shadow of his former self, Joseph was barely a whisper.  Paul said it would take time, but both would be fine.  The physician had said as well that it would be months and would take dogged determination for Joseph to regain complete use of his left arm.

He knew his son.  He had no doubt Little Joe would succeed.

“Pa?”

Ben started and then turned toward his eldest son.  “Yes, Adam?”

Adam didn’t say anything, but inclined his head toward the stage depot.  A young woman with golden-blonde hair was standing before it, traveling case in hand, looking their way.

It was time to say goodbye.

 

Adam watched his father walk away and then turned toward the mercantile.  Hoss had gone to get them a couple of sarsaparillas. Little Joe wasn’t looking too good and he’d thought maybe the sweet liquid would help.  When it came down to it, none of them should have made the trip to town – over twenty miles of rough road – but especially Joe who was both bone-weary and weary at heart.  Baby brother felt things deeply – too deeply at times.  So much had happened – Dora’s arrival, the revelation of her secrets, Marcus Brunell’s evil, and Adley Smythe’s death.  The last was the hardest.  Adley died saving Joe and Joe was having a hard time accepting that.  Since winter was coming, Joe’d asked Pa if he could be done with school for the fall session.  Pa had hesitated, but agreed.  It wasn’t that little brother was hiding.  Not Joe.  He was a fighter.

He just needed time to rest.

And think.

Taking hold of the rig’s side, Adam lifted himself up and took a seat in the carriage beside his brother.  Joe was hanging onto one of the crossbars with his right hand and staring off into the distance.  His left hand was trapped; bound to his side along with his arm to prevent movement.

“Hey, buddy,” he said, not knowing what else to say.

Joe’s lips twitched.  He didn’t look at him.  “Hey, Adam.”

It would either be a slap or a scowl, but he asked anyway.  “How are you doing?”

His brother sucked in air and let it out slowly before answering. “I don’t know.”

Well, that was honest.

“Can you tell me about it?”

Joe’s fingers played with the bar for a moment before he turned and looked at him. “I don’t understand.”

“Understand what?”

His brother’s gaze went to the trail of mourners headed for the cemetery at the edge of town.  “Adley.  Why he did what he did.”

Save him, he wondered, or nearly kill him?

Adam nodded.  “Men are complicated, Joe.  It’s not easy to understand them.”

“But, he was willing to….”  Joe winced.  “…kill you and yet he saved me.  He could have let Marcus Drummond kill me too.”

“Joe, look at me.”  When his brother did as he asked, he said softly, “Adley saved me too.”

“Huh?  He shot you!”

The black-haired man chuckled.  “He shot the tree.  He was just a bad shot and hit me in the side by accident.”

Joe was blinking.  “Now I really don’t understand.”

Adam leaned back in the carriage seat.  He understood Adley to some degree.  His friend had been dissatisfied with the lot life handed him.  He wanted something more than the day to day drudgery of a ranch and being his father’s son.  Sadly, he had not been strong enough to make a way for himself.  Instead, he had taken the easy way out.

When his turn came, he would face it like a man.

“You remember the day I found Adley and Darby dangling you over that stream?  You were mad at me for something I’d said.”

“That don’t matter now.”

“Eh, ‘doesn’t’, Joe.  You start talking like Hoss and Pa will make you go back to school.”  He shifted so he could look his brother in the eye.  “Anyhow, I was saying….”

“Wilson was just being a jerk.”

“Yes, he was.  Still, it was true.  I did say those things.”  His brother looked crushed, but he plowed ahead.  “Adley and I had had a few shots of whiskey – being the big men, you know?  We were down by the river goofing off -.”

Joe was astonished.  “You goof off?”

“From time to time,” he laughed.  “That’s what this is about, Joe.  I’m only human. Adley was only human. We make mistakes and we regret them.”

His brother’s eyes flashed. “Did you really say you thought my mother was the ‘wrong’ kind of woman?”

“No.  I said that was what other people thought.  Adley had heard things and he was asking me if they were true.  Wilson turned it all around.”

“Why do people talk about Mama?”

There was a stab of pain there deep as the wound to Joe’s arm.  Adam’s gaze strayed to the stage depot where his father was standing, speaking with Dora Drummond.  “Because people talk.  They are dissatisfied with their own lives, so they live them out through others.”

Joe hadn’t missed where he was looking. “I really liked her.”

“I know.  I did too.  But the time’s not right.”

“I hope she can find her son.”

Adam nodded.  “There’s one more thing, Joe, I need to say to you.”

His brother looked wary.  “What’s that?”

“I did not tell Adley that I wanted to be rid of you.  I would never tell anyone that.  You know that, right?”

Joe made a face.  “Of course, I know that.  Who’d want to get rid of me?  I’m perfect, after all.”

Before he could finish spluttering, a soft voice spoke from the side of the carriage. “Here’s your sarsaparilla, Little Joe. I hope you don’t mind that I brought it instead of Hoss.”

Joe looked at him and then looked down.  Cora Carrington was standing on the street with a bottle in her hand, oozing coquettish charm.

Baby brother swallowed hard and looked at him.

Nope.  This was one rescue he was not going to make.

 

“So this is goodbye?” Ben asked.

Dora was dressed in traveling clothes and had several small valises at her feet.  She’d seen him coming.  He’d noticed how she eyed the door of the coach as if she might escape and hide.  True to her nature, she stood her ground and greeted him.

The young woman nodded.  “Sad to say.”

“What about the school?”

“I spoke to the board.  With the winter coming on, they made the decision to suspend classes since Miss Jones has asked to remain where she is until the spring.”

Curious that he had not been called to that meeting.

“Your teaching certificate?”

A wry smile twisted her lips.  “Intact, if somewhat tarnished.”

Ben noted several people watching them.  He took her hand and drew her away from the street and to a bench nestled in the shadows.  Once they were seated, he asked, “Why….”

“Why didn’t I simply tell the truth?”  Dora sighed.  “I have been running and hiding and…lying…for so long, Ben, I think….  I think maybe I forgot how.”

“What about this other man?  Did he know the truth?”

She started and then closed her eyes.  “Dear Lord, Ben, that could have been you.”

“What happened?”

“I thought I had eluded Marcus.  I was living in another state.  I’d changed my name.  I…fell in love, or at least I thought I did.  Paul was a lot like you.  Strong, determined.  He wanted to protect me.”  She paused.  “They found him drowned.  I had no idea it was Marcus.”

“Good Lord!”

“Friends helped me to get away, but apparently he tracked me down.  I don’t think it was so much for me, though Marcus said it was, but he was determined to find Josiah.”

“And you really don’t know where the boy is?”

“No.  I have written my sister.” A smile lit her face, making it even more beautiful.  “But I will soon!”

He’d offered her money to help her with the search, but she’d turned him down.  She’d secured another teaching assignment in California and said she could make it without him.

He wondered if he could make it without her.  Losing her was like losing Marie all over again.

No, that wasn’t fair.  It was Dora he was losing and it hurt like hell.

She was standing up.  Ben looked.  The stage coach driver was loading passengers’ luggage onto the top.

“I have to go,” she said.

He knew she did, though he didn’t want her to.  “I’ll walk with you.”

A hand on his chest stopped him. “No, let’s say goodbye here out of the public eye.”  A second later she raised up on tiptoe to kiss him.  It was a passionate kiss, one that had something of  ‘fare well’ in it, instead of ‘goodbye’.

And then, she was gone.

“You okay, Pa?” a soft voice asked from behind him.  He hadn’t heard him come up, but Adam was there as always to be his prop.  He didn’t know what he would do when the boy chose to pursue his own dream one day.

Learn to stand on his own, he supposed.

Casting an arm around the Adam’s shoulders, Ben said, “Never better, son.  Now, let’s round up those brothers of yours and go home.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Author: mcfair_58

Welcome and thank you to any and all who read my fan fiction. I have written over a period of 20 years for Star Wars, Blakes 7, Nightwing and the New Titans, Daniel Boone, The Young Rebels (1970s), Robin of Sherwood and Doctor Who. I am currently focusing on Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie. I am an historic interpreter, artist, doll restoration artist, and independent author.

If you like my fan fiction please check out my original historical and fantasy novels on Amazon and Barnes and Noble under Marla Fair.

I am also an artist. You can check out my art here: https://marlafair.wixsite.com/coloredpencilart and on Facebook. Marla Fair Renderings can found at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1661610394059740/

You can find most of my older fan fiction archived at: https://marlafair.wixsite.com/marlafairfanfiction

Thanks again for reading!

11 thoughts on “Heart of Stone (by mcfair_58)

  1. Really great story, plenty of action with lots of twists in it. Jus loved how you portrayed little Joe. This one story I know I will visit and reread again, I enjoyed it that much.

  2. A amazing story. I couldn’t stop eve though longer than I”m used to. Joe at thirteen was an incredible character creation. I just love that kid. Te entire family was spot on! Loved Dora and she sure set the family on a run. Just loved this escape and I will visit your website. A highly recommended read. Judi

    1. Thank you for your lovely review and kind words. I love writing prequels and I have to admit little Little Joe is my favorite! As a note, my website has changed. Check out my profile for the new info.

  3. You are a very gifted story weaver. The characters come to life , imperfections included. It makes them all the more real and relateable. Also, the way you use the variable ages to support different understandings and viewpoints of situations and how each family member reconciles with events in their lives. And the intense love they feel for one another. Even though your story ended, it didn’t really. Subtle hints of changes to come. Thank you for making a gray afternoon bright with a story that drew me in and held me until finished.

    1. Thank you for your very kind and gracious review. Everything you mentioned is what I aim for in my writing! I am glad I was able to brighten your afternoon. 🙂

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