Sacrificial Lamb – Part 1 (by Kenda)

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Summary:  Although Ben Cartwright knew his brother Daniel was not easy to get along with, the passing years had brought with them a nostalgic longing to reconnect with the family he’d left behind in Ohio. When word reaches Ben that Daniel has recently suffered difficult heartaches, he invites the man to spend the summer on the Ponderosa, never imagining the trouble Daniel’s presence would bring. In addition to Daniel’s visit that soon has Ben recalling why he’d never been close to his eldest sibling, is trouble from a neighbor bent on revenge. A summer Ben had been looking forward to, quickly changes to one that contains nothing but challenges, disagreements, and worries for his youngest son’s safety.  

Rated: T (57,115 words)

Sacrificial Lamb Series:

Part 1

Part 2

Sacrificial Lamb

Prologue

The man entered through the open front gates, the arched ironwork high above his head spelling, Reedsville Cemetery. He walked down the familiar stone-lined path, turning right when he reached the eighth row. He proceeded past headstones bearing names like Barton, and Riggs, and Olmstead, not stopping to pay his respects until he arrived at a large gray stone that declared Cartwright in deeply engraved letters.

Two smaller gray stones resided in front of the imposing one that staked out this family plot. The man took off his hat. Despite the canopy the branches of the maple trees created above him, the early spring sunshine warmed his shock of thick, gray hair. He hitched up his left trouser leg, so he could comfortably kneel in front of the first stone.

Clara Eustacia Cartwright
Beloved Wife and Mother
Born: January 16th, 1795
Died: February 12th, 1861

The man reached out a hand, running his fingers over his wife’s name, and then brushing them across the date of her death. God had taken her from him so recently, that even though he sought comfort from his Bible, the pain was still fresh. He bowed his head, his lips moving in silent prayer.

When he couldn’t bear to mourn his wife any longer, he stood, put his hat back on, and shuffled sideways a few steps. This time he didn’t kneel, though anyone who knew the man was now standing in front of his only son’s grave might wonder why the same respect wasn’t given to the deceased child, as had been given to the deceased wife.

Daniel Weston Cartwright Jr.
Born: March 23rd, 1841
Died: August 27th, 1860

The man stared at the gravestone and shook his head with reproach, just as he did each time he came here. Just as if his son was standing in front of him and could hear the admonishment in his tone, and see the disappointment in his deep brown eyes.

“I’ve forgiven you, Danny. The Bible says the Lord wants us to forgive, because the final Judgment belongs to Him. It pains me to think of where your judgment has left you. I warned you that you’d be cast out of Heaven if you didn’t repent for your sins and change your ways, but you wouldn’t listen. ‘Children, obey your parents, the Lord sayeth,’ but you didn’t obey me, did you, Danny? You didn’t obey me, and now, for all of eternity, you’ll pay the price for that disobedience.”

The man swiped at a sudden tear trickling a crooked path down his face, as he quoted Samuel, Chapter 12, Verse 9.

“Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes?”

The man shook his head a final time, then turned away from his son’s grave. He headed for the stone path that would lead him back to the front gates, all the while asking softly of his dead boy, “Why, Danny? I just wish you could have told me why you despised the word of the Lord. Why, son? Why? After all the guidance and teachings your mother and I gave you, why? How I prayed you could tell me why.”

Just like had been the case when his son was alive, Daniel Cartwright received no answers to his questions. He passed through the cemetery’s gates, crossed the street, and walked the six blocks to the heart of town, where he entered Cartwright General Store. He’d established the business forty years ago in this rolling valley hamlet of Reedsville, Ohio, and had prayed God would some day bless him with a son who’d run the store by his side. He’d thought his prayers were answered when Clara gave birth to Danny “late in life” as the expression went, but by the time the boy reached his teen years, it was apparent that Satan was working hard at convincing him to make other plans.

Chapter 1

Ben paid scant awareness to the steaming platters of food being set on the table behind him, as Hop Sing trotted between the kitchen and dining room carrying out supper. For the third time since Adam arrived home with the mail, Ben read through the letter from his brother John.

The man’s attention was barely drawn to the front door as it opened and closed. He did pay enough attention, however, to notice one son was missing. Without taking his eyes off the paper he held, Ben asked, “Where’s Little Joe?”

“Don’t know.” Hoss hung his hat on a peg and then unbuckled his gun belt. “Haven’t seen ‘im since he set off to mend that section of fence right after breakfast.”

Adam followed Hoss’s lead and hung up his hat; then placed his rolled up gun belt on the sideboard.

“And I didn’t see him town, so I’ll go out on a limb and say he didn’t sneak off to get in on a card game at the Bucket of Blood.”

Ben shot his oldest a look of reproach.

“What was that for?” Adam asked.

“For always assuming your youngest brother is up to no good.”

Adam laughed. “Pa, nine times out of ten he is.”

“Adam. . .”

“All right, all right. Allow me to refigure that. How about, five times out of ten he’s up to no good.”

“How about if you remember he’s only eighteen years old.”

Adam sat in the blue chair, while Hoss sank to the settee with a grateful sigh.

“I remember. You remind me of it often enough.”

“Then let me remind you of another thing.”

“What’s that?”

“That when you were eighteen, you were attending college in Boston.”

“What’s that have to do with Joe?”

“What it has to do with Joseph is this. Whatever mistakes or errors in judgment you made at eighteen, were made far away from the eyes of your family. Little Joe doesn’t have that luxury. Sometimes you need to be a bit more mindful of that before you decide to sentence him without a fair trial, so to speak.”

“What about Hoss?” Adam asked.

“What about him?”

“Yeah, what about me?” Hoss questioned in a tone that said he didn’t appreciate being drug into this discussion.

“You never mentioned his mistakes or errors in judgment when he was eighteen.”

Ben’s eyes twinkle and a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “That’s because he didn’t make any.”

Hoss grinned with self-satisfied pride. “That’s right, Adam. See there. I didn’t make none.”

Adam shook his head at the pair, but kept his peace. Joe’s occasional waywardness and penchant for trouble was often a source of dissension between father and eldest son. There was no point in stirring things up before they even knew if Joe’s tardiness was the result of some transgression. Besides, Pa would just tell Adam that someday he’d have children of his own, and when he did, he’d understand that the wise father praised his child’s strengths, rather than constantly reminded him of his weaknesses.

Just as Adam decided a change of subject was in order, Hoss made the change for him.

“Adam mentioned ya’ got a letter from Uncle John, Pa.”

Ben held up the letter. “I did.”

“Ya’ gonna read it to us after supper?”

Their father reading aloud letters from far-away family members was a tradition that dated so far back neither Adam nor Hoss could remember a time when it wasn’t done. Sometimes letters from Pa’s family had been many months old by the time they caught up to Pa and Adam on their journey west, but regardless, no matter how dated the news was, Pa always welcome those letters like they were treasured friends.

“I plan to, unless you boys are past the age where you find it entertaining to listen to your father read letters from people you’ve either never met, or barely remember.”

Hoss shrugged. “Don’t reckon I’m past that age. Always felt like I’ve kinda got to know my kinfolk through them there letters.”

“Same goes for me,” Adam said. “Besides, Hoss and I get a good laugh out of watching the way those letters put Joe to sleep like a newborn baby not five minutes after you start reading.”

“Yeah, that is kinda fun ta’ see now, ain’t it?”

“Especially when his head drops face-first into his dinner plate.”

“Your brother’s sudden fatigue isn’t a reflection of my reading skills, I hope.”

“I don’t think so, but I suppose you’d have to ask Joe to be certain.”

“Yes, well, perhaps I’ll do that before he gets a chance to close his eyes.”

“Better be quick about it, Pa, ‘cause as soon as Little Joe sees one a’ them letters come outta yer pocket, his eyes set ta’ droopin’.”

Ben smiled and shook his head. “Okay you two, that’s enough teasing at Little Joe’s expense when he’s not even here to defend himself.”

“Speakin’ of Little Joe bein’ here, I sure wish he’d hurry up. I’m hungry, and that food Hop Sing’s got on the table ain’t gonna stay hot all night.”

“We’ll wait a few more minutes,” Ben said, “then start without him if he still hasn’t arrived.”

Ben folded the letter and put it in his shirt pocket, frowning slightly as he did so.

“Something wrong, Pa?” Adam asked.

“Wrong?”

“You seemed. . .distracted when Hoss and I first walked in, and you just frowned when you put that letter away. Uncle John didn’t give you bad news, did he?”

“Not exactly bad news, no. Just. . .unsettling news, I suppose you’d call it.”

“Unsettling news?”

“John’s concerned about Daniel. Says he’s taking Clara’s death very hard.”

“She just passed on a couple months back, didn’t she?”

Ben nodded as he answered Hoss. “In February. And it was only a few months before Clara’s passing that he lost Danny.”

“Am I correct when I say he’s not completely alone. One of his daughters still lives with him, doesn’t she?” Adam questioned. “Esther?”

“No, Ruth,” Ben said.

“That’s right. Ruth. Esther’s the one who lives in Toledo. Her husband owns a textile mill.”

“Nah, that’s Miriam,” Hoss said. “Esther lives some place in Pennsylvania.”

“No,” Adam negated. “That’s Anna. Esther lives just outside Reedsville, not far from Uncle Daniel’s store. One of her boys works for Uncle Daniel. I think his name is Joshua.”

“Evidently you boys have paid pretty good attention to all these letters throughout the years.”

“Guess so,” Hoss said, “considering I never even met Uncle Dan’l or his family.”

“And considering you, Adam, probably barely remember playing with Daniel’s girls.”

“Barely is right,” Adam acknowledged. “You worked in his store for a few weeks when we were passing through Ohio, didn’t you?”

“Uh…yes. Yes, I did.”

“Not cut out to be a shopkeeper, Pa?” Hoss teased.

“No. . .no, not really,” Ben replied in a vague tone, as though there was more he could say about the short period of time he’d spent working for his eldest brother, but decided better of it. “Besides, my dream was to head west, not remain in Ohio.”

“But we were going to stay there for the winter,” Adam said as long-ago memories began to surface. “If I recall correctly, you’d enrolled me in the local schoolhouse. I remember being excited about the prospect of attending school with my cousins.” Adam made the kind of a face he might of as a five-year-old boy. “Even if they were girls.”

Hoss chuckled as Ben said, “Well. . .yes. . .yes, that was my intention, but my plans. . .my plans changed at the last minute. And it was a good thing they did, too.”

“Why’s that, Pa?”

Ben looked at his middle son. “Because if they hadn’t, you likely wouldn’t be sitting here with us. It was because I decided to travel on to Illinois, that I met your mother.”

“Sounds like a good reason to travel on to me.”

Ben smiled. “To me too, Hoss.” The man sobered again. “Now as to why I was distracted earlier. . .after reading John’s letter, I was mulling over the possibility of extending an invitation to–”

Before Ben could finish his sentence, the front door opened. The three men looked in that direction as Joe shuffled in with an arm gingerly wrapped around his ribs, and with his head bent so the brim of his hat hid his face.

“Joseph?”

Joe grimaced as he reluctantly lifted his head to meet his father’s gaze through the only eye that wasn’t swollen shut.

Ben shot out of his chair. “Joe! What happened?”

Hoss echoed his father’s words as he got to his feet and hurried around the settee.

“Little Joe, what happened? Who did this to ya’?”

Adam was the only one who remained seated. It wasn’t as though this was the first time Joe had come home beaten up, and it likely wouldn’t be the last time either.

As Pa and Hoss hustled Joe off to the kitchen to clean him up and inspect the damage, Adam sighed and pushed himself out of his chair. He traipsed along behind his family, all the while thinking; Leave it to Joe Cartwright to put an end to a perfectly fine discussion.

 

Chapter 2

Joe winced and jerked away from the white cloth soaked with some kind of liniment that stung like the dickens when his father dabbed it against the gash above his right eye.

“Joseph, this is the last time I’m going to tell you to hold still.”

Joe was tempted to challenge his father with, “Or you’re gonna do what?” but decided that, even though he was eighteen and a half years old, he wasn’t foolish enough to bait Pa. It was interesting to reach young adulthood and discover that, while you were long past the age of being put over your father’s knee, you had too much respect for him to smart off in a way that would have earned you a trip to the woodshed when you were twelve. . .and too much respect for him to test your theory that you were long past the age of being put over his knee.

Therefore, Joe steeled himself as the cloth that smelled like a mixture of alcohol and camphor was aimed for the gash again. While Joe endured his father’s ministrations to his cut and bruised face, Hoss felt along his ribcage. Joe jerked away again.

“Stop that!”

“Joseph!”

“I didn’t mean to move, Pa! Hoss tickled me.”

“I didn’t tickle ya’ on purpose. I’m just tryin’ to see if any a’ them ribs is broke.”

From where he stood leaning against the kitchen table, Adam quipped dryly, “An educated guess tells me that if your doctoring ‘tickled’ him, Hoss, then his ribs are fine.”

Joe glanced over his shoulder. “Yeah, listen to Adam, will ya’. My ribs are fine.”

Ben finally lost his patience with his youngest.

“Joseph, by the way you’re jumping around in that chair you can’t possibly be seriously injured.”

“I never said I was seriously injured.”

Ben sighed. “No, you didn’t, did you.” He handed the cloth to Hop Sing. “Rinse this, please. And you can throw this water out, too.”

Hop Sing took the cloth from his employer and picked up the washbowl that held water stained pink with Joe’s blood. After Hop Sing stepped outside, Ben looked down at the son still seated in front of him.

“All right, Little Joe, what’s this all about?”

“Two against one.”

“What?”

“It’s about two against one. If it’d been a fair fight, I could have taken either of ‘em with one hand tied behind my back.”

Adam cocked an amused eyebrow. “Oh, of that I have no doubt considering all that brawn you sport.”

Joe whipped around, half-standing. “You wanna go outside and–”

Ben placed a hand on Joe’s shoulder, urging him to the chair while throwing a warning glance at Adam that said, “Keep your comments to yourself, please.”

“No one’s going anywhere,” Ben declared. “Now would you kindly explain to your father what happened that caused you to arrive home in this condition.”

“Yeah, Joe, come on. Start explainin’. Supper’s gettin’ cold.”

“Not much to explain, really. It was the Dunn boys.”

“Paul and Charlie?” Ben questioned.

Joe nodded. Paul and Charlie were the two oldest amongst the eleven Dunn offspring, or the “Dung boys” as Paul and Charlie had often been called – much to their displeasure – back when Joe attended school with them.

“What happened?”

Joe broke his father’s gaze. “They showed up while I was fixing fence. . .started shootin’ their mouths off, saying some stuff I didn’t like. . .” Joe shrugged. “Then one thing led to another and. . .uh. . .well. . .um. . .”

“I think I understand,” Ben said before his son could further avoid his questions by employing stammered words and unfinished sentences. “You threw the first punch, didn’t you.”

“Not if it counts that Charlie shoved me before I hit him.”

“In my book it doesn’t count for a thing.”

Joe’s head shot up, fire burning from his eyes. “Then what was I supposed do?”

“Walk away.”

“Walk away! Pa–”

“Joe, I’ve told you time and time again that problems aren’t resolved with your fists.”

“I wasn’t trying to resolve a problem, I was trying to make them eat their words.”

“Words are just words, Joseph. They don’t mean anything unless you let them. You’re old enough to know that by now.”

“Not even when they said my father is a lying cheating scoundrel who only owns the Ponderosa ‘cause he probably stole it from someone?”

“Not even then.”

“Pa–”

“While I appreciate your quick defense of my good name, I don’t want to see that defense come at the risk of serious injury.”

“I already told you, I’m not seriously injured. It’s just a few cuts and bruises.”

“I realize that, but next time you might not be so lucky.”

Adam pushed himself away from the table. With a slight flick of his head, he motioned Hoss toward the side door.

“Come on. Let’s go have a nice friendly talk with Paul and Charlie. Make them realize that speaking ill of our father – and beating up our little brother – doesn’t set well with us. Maybe–”

“You’ll do no such thing,” Ben said, while Joe just buried his head in his hands and moaned at the prospect of his big brothers fighting his battles for him.

“Pa, come on. Let us head over there.”

“Yeah, Pa, what’s it gonna hurt? Like Adam said, we’ll just have a friendly sorta chat with them boys and–”

“No. Adam, Hoss, I mean it. You stay away from Paul and Charlie. I’ll ride over to the Dunn ranch tomorrow and talk to Jim. We’ve been neighbors a long time. There’s no reason for these hard feelings over nothing more than timber contracts.”

“Lucrative timber contracts,” Adam reminded his father. “Contracts that, until a few weeks ago, have gone to Dunn Timber Operations for the past fifteen years.”

“Lucrative or not, I realize Jim is disappointed that the Ponderosa was awarded the contracts, but the bids were handled fair and square.”

Joe lifted his face from his hands. “Not according to Paul and Charlie.”

“Then all the more reason for me to pay a visit to their father.”

“Pa, don’t do that,” Joe begged; the thought of his father fighting his battles as bad as the thought of Adam and Hoss doing so. “It’ll only make things worse.”

“It’s not going to make things worse. I’ve known Jim since before you were born. He and I should be able to talk this out. I won’t have those boys of his jumping one of my sons every time the notion strikes.”

Joe moaned with despair again, but no one paid him any mind as Hop Sing came in the door and ushered everyone toward the dining room by waving his hands like he was shooing a flock of chickens to the henhouse.

“Eat, eat, eat ‘fore food get cold! Hop Sing not cook all afternoon to have father and sons say food no good ‘cause cold!”

“I won’t be sayin’ that, Hop Sing,” Hoss assured. “Even if it is cold, I know it’ll still be good.”

“He’d think the food was still good if it got dumped on the barn floor before it was put on his plate,” Adam muttered to Joe.

“No kidding,” Joe agreed as he slipped into his chair, while Adam walked around to his place next to Hoss on the opposite side of the table.

When the meal had been eaten, the dessert plates cleaned of gingerbread cake, and second cups of coffee poured, Ben pulled his brother’s letter from his shirt pocket.

Joe wasn’t certain what his father meant when he teased, “Now, Joseph, I’d appreciate it if you could manage to stay awake while I read this.” Nor did Joe know why his brothers laughed so hard when he said, “Sure, Pa,” as though they doubted his ability to do what Pa requested.

When the laughter died down and his father began to read, Little Joe propped his left elbow up on the table and rested his chin in the palm of his hand. Despite his good intentions, Joe fought to keep his eyes from drooping as news of weather in Ohio, and what cousin was getting married in June, and what babies were born over the winter, and who had passed away in recent months, was relayed by Pa as he read Uncle John’s letter.

Chapter 3

“Little Joe. . .Joe . . . Joseph!”

A hand shaking his arm finally roused Joe.

“Uh. . .what?” The young man blushed when he realized he’d done just what he’d promised his father he wouldn’t. “Sorry, Pa.”

Joe tossed his smirking brothers a dirty look, then quickly returned his attention to his father when the man asked, “So, is it all right with you, Little Joe?”

“Is what all right?”

“What I was just discussing with your brothers.”

“Discussing?”

“About sending you to boarding school back East.”

“Should have done it years ago,” Adam bantered to Hoss.

“That’s what I was juz thinkin’. Years ago. Like when he was four.”

“Might have kept him out of a good deal of trouble.”

“Prob’ly would have. Not to mention how much easier we’da had it with no pesky little brother ta’ keep track a’.”

Joe glared at his siblings. “Oh, you two are real funny.”

Pa chuckled. “Perhaps this will teach you to stay awake the next time I read a letter from one of your uncles or aunts.”

“I wouldn’t go bettin’ any money on it, Pa.”

“Me neither.”

Joe looked at his father. “How much longer are you gonna let those two go on?”

“Not much longer at all, because I’d like an answer from you so I know whether to send a wire to your uncle Daniel.”

“A wire?”

“As I said to Adam and Hoss while you were. . .um. . .resting your eyes, I’d like to invite Daniel to spend some time with us. Your brothers think it’s a good idea.”

“Sure, why not?” Joe was quick to agree. “Whatever you wanna do, Pa. He’s your brother.”

“I haven’t seen him in many years. Not since Adam was five.”

“All the more reason to invite him,” Joe said.

Pa seemed to be mulling something over, as though he had more to share about his brother, but then appeared to change his mind.

“Yes, Joseph, you’re right.” Pa smiled as he passed Uncle John’s letter to Adam. “All the more reason to invite Daniel.”

Joe’s mind drifted as his father and brothers started talking about the various bits of news conveyed in John Cartwright’s letter. To Joe, most of the people mentioned were just names recorded in the family Bible. The only sibling of his father’s that he’d met was Aunt Dorcas, the sister born twelve months after Pa. When she and her family were on their way to homestead in Oregon, they’d spent a few weeks on the Ponderosa. Joe was eleven then, and enjoyed every moment of their stay. Aunt Dorcas loved to laugh, and she had a brood of nine kids who loved to laugh too – and three boys near Joe’s age who’d enjoyed nothing more than getting into mischief with him. When they finally moved on, Joe was sad to see them go, and for a long time afterwards pestered his pa about making a trip to Oregon to see Aunt Dorcas and her family. That trip never happened though, meaning seven years had now passed since Joe had seen the cousins he’d often wished lived within visiting distance of the Ponderosa.

As far as the remainder of Pa’s siblings went, Joe knew them only through the letters that sporadically arrived at the Virginia City post office. Uncle Daniel was his father’s oldest brother, born to Joseph Francis and Anna Leigh Weston Cartwright fourteen years before Pa. After Uncle Daniel, Grandma and Grandpa Cartwright buried six children, as Pa had noted in the Bible next to the names of the brothers and sisters he never knew.

Thomas died from the measles at the age of eight months. Next came Samuel, who lived to be three years old, then passed way from lockjaw after suffering a puncture wound from a rusty nail in the sole of his barefoot. Following Samuel was Virginia, who succumbed to diphtheria a week before her second birthday. Dying during that epidemic too, was five-month-old Ivy, who passed away two days after her older sister. A year after that came the twins, Francis Joseph and Fredrick Joseph, babies who arrived far too early and died just hours after they’d been born.

After the deaths of the twins, Grandpa and Grandma’s luck changed where their children were concerned. First, Anna Ellen arrived, called “Ellen” to distinguish her from her mother. Then in quick succession after Aunt Ellen came Lillian, John, Pa, Dorcas, and Adele. Based on things Pa had said over the years, Joe knew these six siblings were close during their growing up years. Playing together, fussing at one another, teasing, joking, pulling pranks, walking back and forth to school together, and sharing the workload of the daily chores on their parents’ farm in the Ohio Valley. Pa rarely mentioned Uncle Daniel whenever he spoke of his childhood, but Joe supposed that made sense, considering his father was only three years old when Uncle Dan married at age seventeen and left home.

As the talk around the supper table about far-away family members continued even after Hop Sing had cleared the dishes, Joe’s mind moved from relatives he didn’t know, to the neighbors he was well acquainted with, and the incident that occurred while he was mending fence.

Although Joe wouldn’t call Paul and Charlie Dunn good friends of his – not friends in the way Mitch and Tuck were friends – they’d been boys he’d chummed with now and again during his childhood, and boys who’d always joined in the various schoolyard games with him and his buddies. Paul – actually James Paul Dunn Jr. – was the oldest, and the same age as Joe. Charlie was a year younger. They’d both stopped attending Virginia City’s schoolhouse at the same time Joe had. When school resumed for the fall session the October Joe turned sixteen, he remained on the ranch as a full-time employee, rather than gathering up his slate and books and heading for town each morning. Likewise, Paul and Charlie began working full-time for their father that year as well. Only a very few boys in this part of the country continued their education past the age of fifteen or sixteen, those with plans of going on to college for the most part. As for the girls, there weren’t many of them still in school beyond their mid-teen years, either. If they didn’t get married, or stay home to help tend house and look after younger siblings, or perhaps go to work at one of the shops in Virginia City, then they got their teaching certificates and took a job at whatever schoolhouse in the area had a vacancy.

Since leaving school, Joe hadn’t seen Paul and Charlie on a regular basis. But when he had run into them in Virginia City or somewhere in the surrounding countryside, he’d always been friendly to them, and likewise, they’d been friendly to him. As far as Joe was concerned, there was no reason not to be. Or at least not until today. While Joe knew his father had been awarded timber contracts that for many years in the past went to Mr. Dunn, he’d never given it a thought that anyone in the Dunn family would hold a grudge over it. As Pa always said, business was business. You couldn’t let the ups and downs of timber contracts, and cattle prices, and unpredictable weather, and a neighbor’s good fortune versus your streak of bad luck, get in the way of the important things. The things a man should always be thankful for – mainly family, friends, a warm fire to come home to, food on the table, and good health.

Joe still wasn’t completely certain what had the Dunns in an uproar. His pa sure didn’t steal those contracts out from under Jim Dunn, as Paul and Charlie accused. His father had simply been able to underbid Mr. Dunn this year, plain and simple. Pa bid against Mr. Dunn plenty of other years and lost. To Joe’s way of thinking, the pendulum had simply swung in the other direction. It wasn’t like Mr. Dunn wouldn’t be able to feed his kids or keep a roof over their heads just because of the loss of these contracts. Like the Ponderosa, the Dunn Ranch was well diversified, with many ways for an income to be made each year. And unlike Pa, Mr. Dunn had eleven children and a wife to help him keep things going, meaning his annual payroll was smaller than Pa’s. Well, maybe the youngest two kids weren’t much help yet, but give it a couple of more years and they’d be old enough to gather eggs, fill the wood box, and help with chores like clearing the table and drying the dishes. Joe figured with eleven kids in the house there was always a pile of dishes needing to be dried. Especially if any of them kids ate as much as Hoss.

The more Joe thought about the dustup with Paul and Charlie this afternoon, the more he wanted to talk his father out of going to see Mr. Dunn. He was sure if Adam or Hoss had come home a little bruised and battered Pa wouldn’t go running over to confront Mr. Dunn about it. Not that Pa wouldn’t have been upset and concerned if either of his older sons arrived home in that condition, but for whatever reason, Pa still treated Joe like he was a little kid sometimes. Personally, Joe was of the opinion that if Pa would just let this incident die a quiet death, then things would blow over, the Dunns would eventually get past being sore losers, and the next time Joe encountered Paul and Charlie he’d likely buy them a beer, or vice versa, in way of saying, “Hey, no hard feelings.” Sure, it still got his temper riled to think of what those guys had said about Pa, and it made him angry that Pa didn’t understand why a few punches needed to be exchanged because of those damning words, but if Paul and Charlie were willing to let bygones be bygones, then so was Joe. After all, a man couldn’t have his father running to his defense every time he got in a little scuffle with the neighbors. Joe would be the laughing stock of the territory if Pa kept insisting on treating him like he was five years old.

Joe tuned back in to his family, waiting for the conversation to wind down. From the sounds of things, Adam and Hoss were looking forward to the proposed visit from Uncle Daniel. But then, Adam had met the man years ago, and Hoss had always been interested in family history. Not that Joe wasn’t interested in family history, but he couldn’t see the point in getting too excited over people who’d either been dead for years, or who he’d never met and probably never would. Joe concerned himself with the “here and now” – the people whose lives touched his directly. And currently, that meant Paul and Charlie Dunn, not some uncle who was probably a nice old man who’d come to visit with Pa for a few weeks and stay out of everyone’s way while he was here.

When there was finally a pause in the conversation, Joe took his opportunity to jump in.

“Pa, about that visit you’re plannin’ to make to Mr. Dunn. . .?”

“We’re talking about a visit from your uncle Daniel, Joseph.”

“I know, but I just wanted to say that I don’t think you should go talk to Mr. Dunn. If you’d give it some time, it’ll–”

Pa gave him an indulgent smile. “Little Joe, don’t worry. As I said, I’ve known Jim for many years now. I’ll take care of things.”

“But that’s just it! I don’t want you to. It might blow over quicker if–”

Before Joe could finish his sentence, Adam looked up from the letter he was reading.

“It sounds like the farm turned a good profit for Uncle John last year.”

“Sure does,” Hoss agreed. “I picture that apple orchard he talks about to be real pretty. A peaceful sorta place. Might be something I’d like to do. . .if I wasn’t a rancher, that is.”

Pa’s smile shifted from Joe to Hoss. “It’s as pretty as you imagine it to be, son. That part of Ohio is lush and green. The corn. . .why in a good year it’ll grow taller than you are.”

“No kiddin’, uh?”

“No, I’m not kidding at all. By the time harvest arrives each October the corn. . .”

Joe gave a quiet sigh and let his mind drift from the conversation once again. After all, there was no point in trying to participate if no one was going to pay attention to what he had to say.

Chapter 4

Although Ben Cartwright never doubted his youngest son’s word regarding what Joe said happened the previous afternoon between himself and the two eldest Dunn boys, if he’d had doubts, they would have been dispelled the moment he arrived on Dunn property.

As Buck approached the ranch yard, the younger children, who normally ran to greet Ben as if he were a beloved grandfather, scattered like chickens. As though Ben Cartwright was suddenly someone to be afraid of. The children that fell somewhere in the middle – between the ages of eleven and fourteen – threw scowls his way as they silently continued with their chores. None of the children offered to tether Buck, or see that he got a drink of water, or asked Ben if Buck needed some grain, which again, was unheard of when Ben stopped by. As he dismounted the horse, he caught sight of eight-year-old Timothy Dunn peering at him from around the corner of the barn. The boy had long admired Buck, and whenever Ben visited always managed to sweet-talk a ride for himself on the horse’s back, despite his father’s admonishment not to, “bother Mr. Cartwright with that foolishness.”

Ben held the reins toward the tow-headed youngster. “Hey there, Timmy. Would you like to see to Buck while I visit with your pa?”

Timmy appeared reluctant to seize an opportunity he’d never passed up before. Ben saw the child’s eyes flick to his older siblings, and he saw those siblings shake their heads “no.” The boy’s gaze traveled to Ben again. He gave a shake of his own head, then disappeared behind the barn.

Ben raised an eyebrow as he tethered Buck to the hitching post. If the children’s behavior was an indication of how he’d be received by their father, then maybe “talking this out” with Jim would prove more difficult than Ben had assumed.

Once Buck was secured, the man turned and walked toward the house. The Dunn home was probably the only one in Nevada styled after the flat-front two-story New England colonials Ben vividly recalled from the years he’d lived in Boston. Jim’s wife, Rilla, had been born and raised in Philadelphia. When Ben first met Jim, the man was a young bachelor content to live in not much more than a line shack, while staking claims on all the land he could. Then one day Rilla appeared on the scene, and a Virginia City preacher married the pair within an hour of the woman stepping off the stage. Rumor had it that she and Jim were first cousins once removed, or possibly second cousins twice removed, depending on who you talked to. Ben didn’t know if there was an ounce of truth to those rumors, and either way, the notion had never bothered him any.

Ben walked up the three steps that led to the wide porch that ran the length of the house. Unlike past visits, Rilla didn’t open the front door before Ben had a chance to knock. But then, maybe his arrival had gone undetected since the children hadn’t announced it, as was normally their habit.

Ben banged three times with the heavy brass knocker before the door was finally opened. It wasn’t a smiling Rilla who greeted him, but instead, the girl Jim hired from town who helped with the cooking and cleaning. Just like the children’s behavior was out of the ordinary, so was Rilla’s, as Ben couldn’t recall a time when she hadn’t been the one to welcome him into the house.

The girl nodded. “Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben removed his hat. “Good afternoon, Miss Henning. Is Mr. Dunn in?”

“Yes, Sir. He said to tell you he’s in his office.”

So Jim was well aware of his presence, yet had chosen to let his hired girl answer the door. That action alone revealed a lot to Ben.

Nan Henning reached for Ben’s hat. “I can take that for you, Sir.”

“Thank you.”

The girl hung Ben’s hat on the rack by the door.

“Would you like me to see you to Mr. Dunn’s office?”

Ben smiled. “That won’t be necessary. I know the way.”

“Then I’ll return to my work, unless there’s something I can get for you.”

“No, Miss Henning, nothing. You go ahead and do whatever it is you need to.”

“Yes, Sir.”

The girl moved off to Ben’s right, returning to the parlor where, judging by the mahogany-smudged rag sticking out from a pocket of her white apron, she’d been polishing furniture.

As Ben walked through the wide foyer that led to Jim’s office at the back of the house, he could hear Rilla’s voice coming from the kitchen. It was the gentle voice a woman uses when talking to small children, and Ben heard her say it was time to roll out the dough. It took him back many years, to when he’d enter the house after a long day of working outside and hear Marie talking to Little Joe in a similar tone as they made sugar cookies. He could picture Rilla doing the same with the youngest Dunn children, a boy and a girl who, by Ben’s best guess, were two and three years old now. He called out, “Hello, Rilla!” his voice echoing through the high-ceilinged dining room to his left, but he received no answer.

By the sudden silence in the kitchen, Ben knew the woman had heard him, but whether she was angry with him over the timber contracts, too, or had been instructed by her husband not to speak to him, Ben didn’t know. It seemed ridiculous that a grown woman felt she had to hide in the kitchen from him with her little ones as though he were here to pillage and plunder. Ben thought of walking through the dining room and going into the kitchen, but then decided against it. It would be of no benefit to put Rilla in an uncomfortable position, or upset the children with his presence.

Ben walked past the wide staircase that descended to the foyer from the upper level. He thought he saw a shadow move on the landing above, and was then certain his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him when he heard a door close softly, as though someone had been spying on him and had retreated to a bedroom.

The man shook his head at all these cockamamie actions on the part of a family – of neighbors – he’d always gotten along well with.

Jim glanced up from his work as his visitor knocked on the open door. He hesitated a moment, then stood from behind his desk.

James Paul Dunn Sr. was shorter than Ben by a couple of inches, but leaner, with a lankiness to his arms and legs that made him appear taller than he really was. Years spent squinting while working under the bright sun had caused fine lines to snake like narrow rivers from his light blue eyes. While Ben’s hair had been gray for years – thanks to Joseph’s many escapades, he often joked – Jim’s pale brown hair was just beginning to gray at the temples.

“Ben,” Jim nodded, while hitching up the trousers that didn’t need any hitching, because they hugged his narrow hips as though a tailor had fashioned them to his exact measurements. “Come in.”

Ben held out his hand, bridging the space across the desk and the open ledgers that sat atop it. “Hello, Jim.”

Jim hesitated again, then took the hand and shook it. When the handshake ended, he nodded to the chair Ben was standing beside.

“Have a seat.”

“Thank you.”

“Can I have Nan get you something?” Jim asked, surprising Ben with his hospitality. “Coffee? Refreshments of any kind?”

“No,” Ben shook his head. “No, thank you.”

Jim glanced toward the corner liquor cabinet nestled against the far wall.

“Can I pour you something stronger then?”

“No. I’m fine. Thanks.”

Jim sat down. When he didn’t say anything, Ben took the opportunity to study his neighbor. There was no doubt a degree of coolness radiated from the man, yet the offer of a seat, refreshments, and a drink, were in contrast to the way Ben had been greeted – or rather hadn’t been greeted – by the rest of the family. It left Ben confused as to what exactly was going on, and just what Jim had said to his wife and children about the contracts – if anything at all.

“I’m sorry that I don’t have much time to spare for visitors today, Ben. Did you come to see me for a specific reason?”

“I did, though I’m beginning to wonder if I made a wrong assumption.”

“A wrong assumption?”

“Yes,” Ben smiled with chagrin. “I thought there might be trouble brewing between you and I, but instead, I suddenly find myself wondering if the only trouble brewing here is between three head-strong young men.”

“Paul, Charlie, and Little Joe?”

Ben nodded.

“My boys told me about their run-in with Little Joe. Seems he said a few things that got them riled.”

Although Ben almost replied with, “From what Little Joe tells me, it was Paul and Charlie who did most of the talking,” at the last second he thought better of it. He didn’t by any means think Joe was lying to him, but during the heat of battle, facts were often misconstrued, overlooked, or just plain ignored.

Ben’s response would have made a diplomat proud.

“I’m sure things were said on both sides that shouldn’t have been, and that held little to no truth. You know how boys their ages are – swift to anger sometimes, while also swift to set aside all common sense.”

That got a chuckle out of Jim. “Yes, I well know how boys their ages are. And unlike you, I’m only starting down that road. You’re a lucky man, Ben.”

“How so?”

“You’re in the process of raising your last teenage boy, while I’m in the process of raising my first two, with five more boys coming up the pike.”

Ben’s eyes twinkled. “And I sure don’t envy you that.”

“No man in his right mind should,” Jim laughed.

Cautiously, Ben shifted the subject. “So, about those timber contracts. . .”

“As I explained to Paul and Charlie, business is business. Sometimes a man comes out the winner, and sometimes he doesn’t.”

“No hard feelings then?”

“No, Ben, no hard feelings at all.”

“Well, now, I’m glad to hear that. I don’t want problems between you and me. . . or between our boys, either,” Ben added, hoping he wouldn’t have to come right out and ask Jim to keep Paul and Charlie reined in a bit. Although Joe was no longer a little boy in need of his father’s protection, as Ben had said the previous evening in the kitchen, he wasn’t going to allow Paul and Charlie to jump him whenever the notion struck.

Fortunately, Ben didn’t have to put Joe’s pride at stake by being more specific.

“I’ll talk to Paul and Charlie,” Jim promised. “Until they can calm down some, it might be wise for them to steer clear of Little Joe.”

“And I’ll tell Joseph the same thing,” Ben said, while once again being diplomatic by not reminding Jim that Paul and Charlie were on Cartwright land when they’d had the run-in with Joe. Ben still wasn’t sure if they were just taking a shortcut and encountered Little Joe by chance, or if they’d been on the Ponderosa looking to cause trouble. Overall, it didn’t matter much now that he had Jim’s assurance it wouldn’t happen again.

Jim stood and walked around his desk. He clapped Ben on the arm.

“Come on, have a quick drink with me before you head out.”

“I thought you didn’t have the time for visitors.”

“I don’t, but for an old friend, I should always make time.”

Ben smiled as he walked with Jim to the round table that held a tray with glasses and a liquor decanter.

“I’m glad we were able to clear the air here this afternoon.”

Jim turned and smiled in return. “I’m glad, too, Ben.”

The lanky man had just handed Ben a glass when a child appeared in the doorway.

“Mr. Cartwright, can I please have a ride on Buck before you leave?”

“Timothy. . .” Jim admonished.

Ben laughed. “That’s all right, Jim.” He turned his attention to the boy. “You’re very welcome to have a ride on Buck, Timmy. As a matter of fact, I’m sure Buck would be disappointed if I left here without giving you a ride. Why don’t you go outside and unhitch him for me. I’ll be there in a minute.”

“Okay.” Over his shoulder, the boy called, “Thanks, Mr. Cartwright!” as he dashed out of the room.

Ben turned to Jim. “Good news sure travels fast around here.”

“As Rilla often says, little pitchers have big ears.”

“Although I haven’t had any “little pitchers” in a few years now, I well remember how true that is.”

Ben downed his drink and put the empty glass back on the tray.

“I don’t mean to hurry off, but I’d better go give Timmy that ride. I have to get into Virginia City before the telegraph office closes.”

Jim walked with Ben to the front door. “Not expecting bad news, I hope.”

“No, no. Nothing like that. I’m sending a wire to my oldest brother back in Ohio. The boys and I are inviting him to spend the summer on the Ponderosa.”

“Well now, I’m sure he’ll enjoy that.”

“I hope so. I haven’t seen him in twenty-five years. I’m looking forward to his visit. . .if he’ll come, that is.”

“He’d be a fool not to take advantage of a summer on the Ponderosa.”

“Maybe so, but if Daniel’s anything like he was as a young man, he’s pretty set in his ways.”

“Aren’t we all?”

Ben chuckled as he put on his hat. “I guess we are at that.”

As Jim opened the door, Ben said, “You don’t need to see me out. I know I interrupted your work. I’ll take Timmy for a short ride around the ranch yard if that’s okay with you, then be on my way.”

“Fine by me. Take care of yourself, Ben. And I’ll have that talk with Paul and Charlie before the day’s over.”

“And I’ll do the same with Joseph,” Ben promised.

The men bid one another goodbye; then Ben stepped out into a far more cheery atmosphere than the one that had greeted him when he arrived.

Chapter 5

Jim watched from the dining room windows until he saw Ben Cartwright ease Timmy from the saddle to the ground. The boy waved goodbye as Ben reined the horse around and headed for Virginia City.

The man looked to his left when he heard boot steps coming down the stairs. He headed for the foyer, meeting his oldest sons just as they arrived on the bottom step.

“Pa?” Charlie questioned. “We heard you and Cartwright laughing. Has something changed?”

Jim scowled. “No, nothing’s changed.”

“So that means. . .?” Paul asked.

“It means you continue to do what I told you to.”

“Make Ben Cartwright sorry that he stole those timber contracts from us?”

“Exactly, Paul,” Jim nodded. “Make Ben realize his mistake so he’s not foolish enough to repeat it come next year.”

Jim’s head turned briefly when he heard his wife walking from the kitchen.

“You boys go on outside now,” he hastily ordered his oldest sons, as though he wanted them busy doing something before Rilla could question why they were in the house in the middle of the afternoon. “There’s plenty of work that needs doin’.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Yes, Pa.”

As the door closed behind Paul and Charlie, Jim turned toward his wife and smiled. She had two-year-old Henry on her right hip, while three-year-old Nora clung to her left hand.

Jim chucked Henry under the chin and ran a hand over Nora’s blond head.

“So, these two little ones are finally letting Mama out of the kitchen, is that it?”

“That’s it,” Rilla agreed. “Our cookies are baked, and now it’s time for naps.”

The man stepped away from the stairs.

“Don’t allow me to stop progress, then.”

“Oh, don’t you worry, progress can’t be stopped where naps are concerned.” The woman paused with a foot on the first stair. “By the way, did I hear you and Ben laughing?”

“I suppose you might have.”

With a tentative note, Rilla asked, “Then. . . then everything’s okay between the two of you?”

Jim leaned forward and kissed his wife on the forehead, playfully brushing a dusting of flour from her nose. “Everything’s fine between us. That skirmish yesterday was just a misunderstanding where the boys were concerned.”

“Paul, Charlie, and Little Joe?”

“Yes.”

“Oh. Well, misunderstandings aren’t all that uncommon with young men their ages, now are they.”

“No, they’re not.”

The woman smiled. “I’m glad you and Ben were able to set things right. He’s been a good neighbor for so many years. I don’t like the thought of animosity existing between us and the Cartwrights over those timber contracts.”

“Neither do I.” Jim gave his youngest son a gentle tickle around his ribs, and his youngest daughter a kiss on the top of her head. “Go on now, get these two down for their naps, and you rest right along with them.”

“I don’t have time to rest. I need to bring the wash in from the line, and then start supper.”

“Nan can do that. That’s what we pay her for. You rest for a while. You look tired.”

“The mother of eleven children is always tired.”

“All the more reason for you to take a nap when the chance comes your way.”

“Then I suppose all the more reason for me not to refuse the offer, is that it?”

“That’s exactly it,” Jim agreed.

He watched with a fond smile as his wife ascended the stairs with the little ones, then turned toward his office when he could tell her footsteps had reached the nursery.

Rilla would never approve of the havoc he’d instructed Paul and Charlie to create, which was why Jim was determined that she never find out about it. Granted, she knew he’d been upset over the lost contracts, and he’d said some harsh things about Ben to Paul and Charlie at the dinner table on several occasions that Rilla and the younger children had heard – and that Rilla hadn’t approved of, though she hadn’t voiced her displeasure because she knew her place as his wife. Just like she hadn’t invited Ben into the kitchen today because she knew, without being told, that she was expected to support her husband, regardless of whether she agreed with him or not.

But all of that aside, it was better this way. Better if Rilla and the younger children thought that he’d patched things up with Ben. There was less of a chance of anyone – like Sheriff Coffee – finding out what Paul and Charlie were up to. And besides, Jim had told the boys not to hurt anyone. . .or at least not too badly. . .it was just mischief. The kind of mischief that young men are good at causing, and would leave Ben thinking that he had a cloud of bad luck hanging over his head where those timber deadlines were concerned. Maybe when next year rolled round, old Ben would realize that the contracts were better left to the Dunn Ranch.

Jim smiled as he glanced out his office window. Paul and Charlie were by the smokehouse with their heads together, no doubt coming up with some devilment directed at the Cartwrights that they didn’t want their siblings to overhear. Though his sons didn’t see him watching them, Jim nodded his approval.

Once Paul and Charlie are done having their fun, I have a feeling Ben won’t be so eager to steal those contracts from me again come next year.

As his sons bent over with laughter they could barely contain while slapping one another on the back, Jim chuckled quietly.

Nope, I don’t think Ben will want to so much as see another timber contract by the time the boys’ mischief has run its course.

The man sat down behind his desk and returned to working on his ledgers, making himself willfully ignorant to any schemes his sons might have in mind.

~ ~ ~

Nan Henning made sure the foyer was empty before passing through it. She’d been sitting on the floor in a far corner of the parlor, polishing Mrs. Dunn’s petite secretary’s desk, unable to be seen by anyone who didn’t enter the room – and especially not able to be seen by those who only lingered outside of it – including Mr. Dunn, Paul, and Charlie.

Although Mr. Dunn and his boys hadn’t exchanged any details, Nan wasn’t stupid. She knew Paul and Charlie had their father’s permission to cause whatever trouble they pleased for the Cartwrights. That was the thing about Mr. Dunn – he was sneaky. It was funny in a way, because that’s exactly what Nan heard Mr. Dunn accuse Mr. Cartwright of being one night while she was serving the family dinner. While Nan didn’t know if that accusation was true or not where Ben Cartwright was concerned, she did know it was true where James Dunn was concerned.

Nan had been employed by the man long enough now to have overheard things – and witnessed a few firsthand – that caused her to know he wasn’t always the honest, church-going Christian everyone thought him to be. And aside from that, when Mrs. Dunn wasn’t around he liked to pretend he’d accidentally bumped into Nan, and then take advantage of that “accident” to touch her in places he shouldn’t. Fortunately, Mrs. Dunn didn’t leave the ranch very often. If she did, Nan wouldn’t still be working here. But ever since her father was hurt in the mine and could no longer earn an income other than what little he made doing odd jobs around Virginia City, Nan had to help out in whatever way she could. As Ma said, a family of eight doesn’t survive on handouts. Ma worked too, at Mrs. Mason’s dress shop. Just last week, Mrs. Mason had promised Nan a job the next time she needed additional help. Nan hoped that opportunity would come soon so she could leave the employ of the Dunn ranch. Not only was Mr. Dunn inappropriate with Nan, but so was Charlie. She’d learned many ways to disappear when either of them was approaching, but her methods weren’t always foolproof.

After she’d put away the furniture polish and rag and started peeling potatoes for supper, Nan contemplated paying a visit to the Cartwright ranch. She didn’t know the Cartwrights very well, but she had attended school with Little Joe. She was two years younger than him, and like a lot of girls in Virginia City, Nan was sweet on him for a time, but had never told anyone of her feelings. Despite the fact that the Hennings were no match for the Cartwrights where social status was concerned, Little Joe had always been nice to her. She’d even liked it when he used to pull her pigtails at recess and call her Nanny Goat. He never pulled them too hard, and besides, you could tell he was just teasing her in a nice way, and not in a way that was cruel or mean.

Regardless of what Nan had felt for Joe Cartwright when she was a blushing schoolgirl, Ma always said it was best to stay out of the business of rich men. As Nan went about putting the potatoes on the stove to boil, then setting the table, and then hurrying out to the line to get the wash, she reminded herself that Ma was likely right. It wasn’t her place to get involved in Mr. Dunn’s feud with Mr. Cartwright. And besides, if Nan wanted to keep her job, she’d better go on pretending she hadn’t heard what Mr. Dunn said.

The girl wiped sweat off her brow as she faced five rows of clothes that needed to be taken down, put in baskets, hauled into the house, and then folded and put away. Her eyes slid sideways, where Charlie stood leaning against one side of the smokehouse leering at her with his arms crossed over his chest as though he was proud of himself for some reason.

Lordy, how she’d rejoice when the day came that Mrs. Mason offered her a job.

Chapter 6

Heavy boot steps trudging up the stairs announced her father’s impending arrival. Ruth Cartwright bustled around the kitchen, hurrying to get supper on the table. Her father had always been a demanding man, and had become even more demanding since her mother’s death in February. Or maybe it was just that with her mother gone now, Ruth’s father had no one else to bark his commands at but his oldest daughter.

I shouldn’t be so ungrateful, Ruth reminded herself as she ladled vegetable soup into the tureen. Children, honor thy parents sayeth the Lord.

Ruth had heard that so many times over the years that, like this evening, she often silently recited it without conscious thought. As she’d grown older, she’d come to realize she recited it the most when she was aggravated with her father.

It certainly hadn’t been Ruth’s plan to be the spinster daughter of Daniel and Clara Cartwright. She’d set her sights on marriage once – when she was younger, and thinner, and prettier, and still of childbearing age. But Papa had run her beau off, saying he didn’t approve of Jack Stevens. Exactly what Papa didn’t approve of regarding Jack, Ruth never knew. Papa claimed he didn’t have to explain these things to “a daughter.” Ruth hated it when he said that. It made her sound like. . .like. . .like some milk cow that was too dumb to know who she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.

And maybe she was dumb. After all, if she’d had Anna’s wits about her, she’d have moved far away long ago and lived her life out of the range of her father’s ever-watchful eye. And if she’d possessed Esther’s courage, she would have told Papa he had no right to run Jack off, and then gone after Jack and married him without her father’s blessing. Or if she’d at least had Miriam’s common sense, she would have figured out how to get her way with Papa, and make it seem like it was his idea. But she wasn’t one of her sisters. Instead, she was Ruth, the dutiful eldest daughter who’d never married, and now, at forty-eight years old, was destined to work in her father’s store, clean his house, wash his clothes, and cook his meals, until the day he died. It was a dreadful existence, really. As dreadful as the black dresses he insisted she wear because a “pious” woman shouldn’t be seen in bright colors. She wondered sometimes how her mother had lived this same existence for fifty years.

Ruth glanced up as the door opened and her father entered. They lived above the store, and had ever since her father purchased it some four decades ago. Before that, Papa worked in a general store over in Clancy that was owned by Ruth’s maternal grandfather. They’d lived in a tiny two-room house then, a few blocks from Grandfather Tucker’s store. Ruth wasn’t exactly sure what precipitated the move to Reedsville, but she did have strong memories of her father and grandfather arguing in loud voices, so she assumed that Papa’s “honor thy parents” command didn’t, in his opinion, extend to his in-laws.

Ruth’s father rolled his shirtsleeves up to his elbows and washed his hands in the bowl of fresh water on the washstand, and then dried off on the clean muslin towel folded neatly beside the bowl. He never voiced a word of appreciation for these conveniences Ruth, and her mother before her, always had ready for him. As though he thought that while Ruth worked a ten-hour day beside him in the store, elves, or fairies, or leprechauns, or some other magical woodland creatures, kept his household running in the orderly fashion he demanded.

As he sat at the table, he didn’t make a comment about the meal in front of him, but then he never did other than to complain about something lacking, like he did this evening.

“I don’t see any bread, Daughter.”

Ruth took a deep silent breath to keep from screaming. She hated being referred to in that manner. Sometimes she wanted to ask her father if he even knew her name.

“I haven’t gotten it on the table yet, Papa.”

“Can’t eat my soup without bread.”

“No, Papa,” was Ruth’s dutiful reply as she retrieved the breadbasket from the sideboard, all the while stifling the urge to say, “If you want bread with your soup, then walk to the sideboard and get it for yourself.”

While Papa bowed his head and said grace, Ruth bowed her head too, and silently asked God to forgive her for her spitefulness. She shouldn’t think such thoughts about Papa. After all, he provided her with a place to live, as well as with a job and an hourly wage. Of course, if he hadn’t run Jack off all those years ago she wouldn’t be dependant on her father, but there was no use dwelling on possibilities that had long since passed her by. Jack had likely married some other woman, and probably had a dozen children by now. Maybe even a few grandchildren, too.

When Papa said a grave and respectful, “Amen,” Ruth echoed it and raised her head. She waited while her father buttered his bread and filled his soup bowl from the tureen now sitting in the center of the table; then took her turn at filling her own bowl and taking a slice of bread from the basket.

The first half of the meal was eaten in silence. When Papa reached the point that his hunger was somewhat sated, he wiped his mouth with his napkin and looked at Ruth.

“I received a telegram from your uncle Benjamin today.”

“A telegram? I surely pray nothing’s wrong.”

“No. Nothing’s wrong. He’s invited me to spend the summer on that place of his. That ranch. What’s he call it? The. . .the. . .”

“Ponderosa,” Ruth supplied.

“That’s it. The Ponderosa. Well anyway, Benjamin invited me to spend the summer, but of course I’ll have to tell him no. Don’t understand what he was thinking in the first place. He knows I have a business to run.”

“I can run the business, Papa.”

There wasn’t even a startled “What!” issued from Ruth’s father. Instead, he simply raised an eyebrow and cast a doubtful glance at her.

“I can, Papa. I can run the store while you’re gone.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“Oh, but you should. You really should. You haven’t seen Uncle Ben in so many years now. Adam was what? Just a little boy of five or six when they stayed with us that summer.”

“Don’t remember how old he was.”

“He’s three years younger than Miriam if I recall correctly, so that means he must be about thirty now.”

“I suppose,” her father answered with disinterest as he reached for another piece of bread. “Can’t keep track of this one’s age or that one’s age. Just too many of ‘em.”

Ruth didn’t know if her father meant that he had too many nieces and nephews to keep track of, or too many children and grandchildren, or if it was a combination of both. Regardless, despite the years that had passed, she remembered Uncle Ben and Adam quite well.

Adam was a handsome, polite little boy, who seemed excited over the prospect of attending the local schoolhouse. Uncle Ben had enrolled him, and planned to wait out the winter right here, in his brother’s living quarters above the store. Ruth was a young woman at the time, and already employed by her father. Uncle Ben was a hard worker, as well as being friendly and gregarious with the customers. Ruth enjoyed working beside him. He made her laugh, something her father never attempted to do, and always seemed to disapprove of. Through Uncle Ben’s stories about his seafaring journeys, Ruth got a glimpse of the world beyond Reedsville. A world she longed to explore and be a part of. When he spoke of traveling west, a light came to his eyes that made Ruth envious of all the hope and unknown adventures that lay ahead of him. Granted, he was a widower who would be traveling with a young child, and the trip would be difficult and dangerous, but sometimes Ruth even daydreamed about what it would be like to go with him. She could take care of Adam on the journey, and do the cooking and washing, and see things and places she’d only heard of, and. . .and maybe even run across Jack Stevens somewhere between Ohio and wherever it was Uncle Ben decided to call home.

But that’s where her dream ended, because one day when Ruth was questioning Uncle Ben about his trip, Papa scolded in a stern voice, “Benjamin, can’t you see that you’re filling the girl’s head with foolish notions when you talk about this trip of yours? Instead of risking your life and your son’s life on some journey that will only bring you more heartache, you should praise the Lord for the opportunities He’s granted you and remain right here in Reedsville.”

Uncle Ben hadn’t looked very happy when Papa said that, and for just a moment, Ruth thought he might lose his temper with Papa, but then he gave a small smile and nodded.

“I won’t talk about my plans any further, Daniel. I appreciate the job you’ve given me, and the place here you’ve provided for Adam and me to stay.”

It wasn’t long afterwards that Uncle Ben moved on before Adam even got a chance to attend so much as one day of school. They certainly didn’t stay through the winter, as were Uncle Ben’s original plans. But exactly what made him decide to head west so abruptly, Ruth never knew. Maybe he didn’t like working for Papa any better than she did. Or maybe he just didn’t like being a shopkeeper. After all, he’d been a sailor, and was now a rancher. So maybe he liked being outdoors, rather than cooped up in a dimly lit stuffy store that smelled of molasses, tobacco, yard goods, kerosene and penny candy.

“And Hoss and Joseph,” Ruth said now, in an effort to further entice her father into traveling to Nevada. “You’ve never met them.”

“Hoss,” the man snorted between mouthfuls of soup. “What kind of a Christian name is that? I don’t know what Benjamin was thinking when that boy was born.”

“Oh, Papa, you know it’s just a nickname. His real name is Eric.”

“As if naming the boy for a Viking is any better. The Vikings worshiped false gods, you know.”

Ruth resisted the urge to shake her head at her father and his sanctimonious ways.

“At least Benjamin gave that third boy of his a good Christian name. Not to mention remembering to honor our father.”

“All the more reason for you to visit Uncle Ben.”

“Why would that be?”

“To meet Joseph. The young man named for Grandfather Cartwright.”

When her father didn’t reply, Ruth kept her peace. She knew if she were too enthusiastic about this potential visit, he’d grow suspicious as to the reasons why she was so eager to see him off.

As she stood to gather the dishes for washing, Ruth thought of how wonderful it would be to live alone for several months. To have the entire living quarters to herself. Something she’d never experienced in all her forty-eight years. To cook what and when she wanted to, or not to cook at all, in favor of buying her supper at the café down the street. Oh, how scandalous Papa would find that! A woman eating alone in a café. And black – Ruth would wear anything but black during the time Papa was away. And if she didn’t want to fill the washbowl with fresh water, and set a clean towel beside it three times a day, then she wouldn’t. She’d wash with the same water and use the same towel all day long. And if she didn’t take the notion to cook, and didn’t want to walk to the café, she’d just open a can of beans down in the store, and for desert, she’d have some licorice sticks and chocolate drops. She and Danny had done that when Papa and Mama spent a fortnight at Anna’s. They’d laughed and laughed as they sat on the store’s floor after closing, eating beans straight from the can, and then all the sweets their stomachs could hold.

Ruth swiped at her eyes as she thought of her fun-loving brother. She missed him so – more than she missed Mama, and probably more than she’d miss any of her sisters if they passed on before her. Oh, what a good time she and Danny would have had if Papa and Mama had gone away for an entire summer to visit Uncle Ben. It made Ruth’s heart swell with grief to think of all the good times she and Danny could have had, and it made her feel guilty too, because she hadn’t been brave enough to run off with him to New York City like he’d wanted her to. Maybe if she’d taken him up on his proposal – gotten him out of their father’s house – he’d still be alive.

Ruth’s thoughts turned to dark things as she glanced at her father. He was seated in his favorite chair, his feet propped up on the ottoman, while he read the Bible by the light that still spilled in through the window now that it was spring and the days were getting longer.

She was evil. She was pure evil for harboring the thoughts she did of a God-fearing man like her father. Satan must dwell within her. That must be the source of the suspicions she’d had ever since her father arrived home that horrible day last August and said Danny was dead.

Ruth turned back to her dishes, promising herself that she’d get down on her knees tonight and ask the Lord to forgive her for not honoring her father in the way the Bible commanded. Nonetheless, Ruth had a feeling that no amount of prayer would ever fully wipe away the doubts she harbored over the cause of Danny’s death.

Chapter 7

Daylight hung on longer now that spring had arrived, as though it, too, was just as happy as Joe Cartwright to see another long cold winter pass in favor of the coming summer months.

You might not be so welcoming of summer the first day the temperature hits a hundred degrees and you’re unloading a wagon full of feed sacks, or sweating your life away filling the mow with hay.

Joe chuckled at his thoughts as he rode toward the house in the gently fading light. When he was a kid, he loved summer. Mainly because he didn’t have school, and despite his chores on the ranch, could get some fishing in with Hoss or Mitch, and make trips to his favorite swimming hole with Tuck. Now that he was older and done with school for good, getting a day off to fish or swim was harder to come by. It wasn’t that he didn’t still manage to enjoy all the past times summer brought. It was just that his ability to do so was now limited by his responsibilities to the ranch and his family – responsibilities that had come when his father allowed him to quit attending school at the end of the spring session three years ago.

Joe wouldn’t have traded staying in school for unloading a wagon under the sweltering sun on any day, though admittedly, he still snuck off to take a quick dip in the swimming hole every now and again, just like he still got in some fishing with Hoss. Even Adam joined them on occasion, and it didn’t usually take too much persuading to get Pa to accompany his sons fishing on a hot Sunday afternoon that was just made for dangling a cane pole – and your bare feet – in a cold creek.

The sweet smells of wild lilac and the blooming white flowers of the plant called Mountain Misery because of the way it grew low to the ground in tangled vines of sticky leaves, washed over Joe as Cochise carefully made his way down a rocky slope. They weren’t far from Virginia City Road. Once they arrived there, the remainder of the trip home would pass quickly. Which was good, because Joe’s stomach growled with hunger. It had been hours since he’d eaten the lunch Hop Sing packed for him. Joe had left the house right after breakfast, and spent the day tracking a wolf pack that was raiding the young stock pastured on the banks of Kettle Creek. It was mid-afternoon before he’d finally found the wolves’ den. He hadn’t been foolish enough to enter it, but now that he’d located it, Joe and his brothers could determine the best way to put an end to the animals’ plundering assaults.

Dusky pink and gray light was all that was left of the late April sunshine that had warmed Joe’s back to the point he’d removed his blue jacket earlier in the afternoon, put it in one of his saddlebags, and rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt. Because of the fading light, Joe didn’t see the peril that lay ahead of him, nor did Cochise until the animal stumbled over the thin strand of wire strung low to the ground and secured around a couple of immature Bristlecone Pines.

The trees, though young, were nonetheless strong enough to keep the wire taunt, which was exactly the intention of those who put it there. Fortunately for Joe, the rough terrain meant Cochise wasn’t traveling beyond the speed of a slow and careful walk. That didn’t prevent Joe from tumbling over the horse’s neck, however. He landed hard on his right side, his hand automatically thrusting out to break his fall.

The only sound Joe made was a pain-filled, “Umph!” as he landed hard on the rocky ground. Without paying any heed to his own injuries, the young man immediately jumped to his feet, more concerned for his horse than for himself.

Joe cradled his wrist as he hurried to the animal. Cuts and scrapes from jagged rocks stung and burned Joe’s right hand and forearm, but he ignored the pain. He rubbed Cochise’s neck with his left hand, calming the startled animal.

“You’re okay, boy. It’s all right.” The young man bent down and inspected his horse’s front legs. “Just let me check you over for a minute.”

Joe bit his lip against the pain of what he suspected was a sprained wrist as he ran both hands up and down Cochise’s front legs, then his hind legs. When Joe was satisfied his mount had suffered no injury, he looked around for the source of the animal’s unsteady footing.

It took him a few seconds to see the wire neither he nor Cochise had spotted earlier. Joe took out his pocketknife and sliced the wire in half, then sliced each end from the trees. Wires, unlike Mountain Misery, didn’t just grow randomly on rocky slopes. Someone had put the wire here, though for what purpose, Joe didn’t know. He supposed this could be a man’s idea of a practical joke on some unsuspecting traveler, but from Joe’s experience as a practical joker, it wasn’t much fun to pull a stunt on a person and not be nearby to see the end result. Plus, this was the kind of stunt that could have left Joe or his horse seriously injured, so short of it being a careless schoolboy prank, Joe couldn’t imagine who would do such a thing.

Might be a wire someone rigged up for another reason and forgot to take down when he left the area, was Joe’s next thought. Maybe it was part of an animal snare or something. Maybe someone else is tryin’ to catch a few of those wolves.

Before Joe’s mind could travel to any other logical explanations for the wire left in his path, he heard laughter. The sound wasn’t close, or easy to pinpoint or identify, but instead, was distant and came from somewhere high above Joe’s head. The young man listened hard, finally concluding that the laughter was that of two men. Joe squinted, looking up into the rocks, brush, and pine trees that covered the area, but he didn’t see anyone. But then, he didn’t have to.

Paul and Charlie! It’s Paul and Charlie Dunn.

There was no point in Joe giving chase, because just as quickly as he heard the laughter it ended. Given the trap that had already been set for him, Joe wasn’t going to risk tracking Paul and Charlie in the growing darkness. Besides, by the time he caught up with them they’d likely be home sitting at the dining room table with their family, the picture of innocence as they ate supper. Which would only make Joe look like a fool when he pounded on the door and demanded they come out and settle things with him.

Dang it all anyway. I told Pa not to talk to Mr. Dunn. I told him it would only make things worse.

Joe folded up the wire and shoved it in a saddlebag. He winced as he climbed back on Cochise, the movement sending waves of pain shooting through his swollen wrist.

The young man kept an alert lookout for more traps. He didn’t relax his guard until he arrived at Virginia City Road. He then urged Cochise into a gallop, eager to get home to a warm meal for his hungry stomach, and a cold wrap-cloth for his throbbing wrist.

Chapter 8

Joe rode Cochise past his brothers, a scowl darkening his features beneath his black cowboy hat. Adam and Hoss looked up from the wheel they’d just mounted on a wagon, Adam calling into the barn, “You find those wolves?”

When Adam didn’t get an answer, he raised an eyebrow at Hoss.

“Someone came home in a bad mood.”

“Appears ta’ be the case,” Hoss agreed.

“Guess that means he didn’t locate the den.”

“Which juz goes to show ya’ that ya’ can’t send a boy ta’ do a man’s job.”

Joe shot out of the barn. Forgetting about his injured wrist, he grabbed a hunk of Hoss’s brown vest and drew his left hand back in balled up fist.

“Who’re you callin’ a boy?”

“Aw now dadburn it, Joe. I was only funnin’. Don’t go gettin’ yerself all riled up.”

Adam watched the pair with carefully concealed amusement. Hoss could snap Little Joe in half with one hand tied behind his back if he took a mind to. Not that he ever would take a mind to doing something like that to their younger brother. The Lord must have known what he was doing when he made Hoss so even-tempered and gentle, because otherwise Joe would have been knocked senseless at least three dozen times over the years.

“I’ve got every right to be riled when you call me a boy.” Joe turned toward Adam. “And when you assume things that aren’t true.”

“That means you found the den.”

Joe nodded. “That’s what it means.”

He grimaced as he released Hoss. He walked over to the horse trough and dunked his hand in the cold water.

“Now there’s a new way to cool off your hot head if I ever saw one.”

Joe glared at Adam but didn’t say anything.

Hoss walked toward the trough. “What’s wrong with that hand?”

“Nothin’.”

The big man wouldn’t take “Nothin’” for an answer. He grabbed Joe’s arm and lifted it from the water, Joe crying out with pain at the sudden movement.

“Sorry ‘bout that. It’s pretty swollen.”

“I know it’s swollen.” Joe jerked his arm from Hoss’s grasp. “It’s sprained.”

“Let me check and make sure it’s not broken.”

“It’s not broken.”

“Let me check,” Hoss insisted, advancing on his brother once more.

“I already told you it’s not broken!”

“Joseph!” came the shout from the front porch. “Let Hoss check that wrist.”

Joe glowered at his brother before complying with his father’s order. Ben crossed the ranch yard, arriving at Joe’s side just as Hoss said, “It’s only a sprain.”

“Gee, is there an echo around here? Seems to me I told you that not thirty seconds ago.”

Ben took his turn at inspecting his son’s swollen wrist and raw arm. “How’d this happen, Little Joe?”

“Cochise tripped in a gopher hole.”

“You must have been riding pretty fast for a gopher hole to send you sailing over his neck,” Adam commented.

“I didn’t sail,” Joe growled. “And I wasn’t riding fast. I lost my balance and fell.”

Knowing Joe’s penchant for speed when he was on Cochise, and remembering how Marie died, tempted Ben to warn his youngest son once again about not riding recklessly. But something in Joe’s face made Ben decide words of caution and rebuke could wait until morning. The boy had just arrived home after a long day. He needed to have his arm cleaned, his wrist wrapped, and then he needed to sit down to a hot supper. They all needed to sit down to a hot supper, as a matter of fact.

“Come on, son. I’ll help you get this arm cleaned and wrapped while your brothers see to Cochise.”

Joe twisted from his father’s grasp. “I can take care of it myself.”

“Joe! Joseph, wait! I’ll help–”

“I can take care of it myself, Pa! I don’t need your help.” Under his breath Joe mumbled, “You’ve already ‘helped’ enough by not listening to me in the first place when it came to the Dunns.”

Joe stomped across the ranch yard and entered the house. Adam could have predicted the slam of the front door that followed.

“Well, I’d say someone got up on the wrong side of the bed, except he was fine this morning.”

Ben turned to face his older sons. “He’s entitled to have a bad day now and again, just like any of the rest of us are. Evidently, that’s what this was.”

“Evidently,” Adam agreed dryly, knowing better than to argue with his father where Joe’s often-unpredictable moods were concerned. Pa would just defend the kid, and since it was getting late and they were all hungry, it was best not to get into a debate over Joe’s temper.

By the time Adam and Hoss entered the house, Joe’s arm had been cleaned and bandaged. Based on how professional the wrap-cloth looked, along with the smell of an herb poultice emanating from it, Adam suspected Joe accepted help from Hop Sing, but he didn’t ask and Joe didn’t offer.

Joe was quiet through dinner, his family unaware that anything was bothering him beyond a bad day that ended with Cochise stumbling in a gopher hole. He seemed to brighten up a bit after dessert, and in way of apologizing to Hoss for his earlier behavior, offered to play a game of checkers that turned into three games before they called it a night – Joe even letting his middle brother best him by making some careless moves that were so obvious Adam wondered how Hoss didn’t notice. But then again, maybe he did, and this was Hoss’s way of accepting Joe’s apology.

An hour later, the house was bathed in silence. Adam fell asleep while reading, his open book slipping from his hand and onto the mattress beside him. Hoss fell asleep wondering what Hop Sing would cook for breakfast the next morning. Ben fell asleep wondering when he’d get a response to the telegram he’d sent Daniel four days earlier, and Little Joe. . .well, Little Joe was awake until midnight, tossing and turning while wondering if this whole thing between himself, Paul and Charlie would have blown over quietly if only Pa hadn’t paid a visit to Mr. Dunn.

Chapter 9

“Daughter, I’ve prayed upon it quite heavily, and though it comes as a surprise to me, the Lord has commanded that I visit Benjamin.”

Ruth turned from the stove where she stood frying eggs, side pork, and potatoes for breakfast. She couldn’t have been more shocked had her father announced he was shedding his clothes and running naked down Main Street.

“Uncle Ben? You’re going to visit Uncle Ben?”

Daniel pulled a chair out from the kitchen table and sat down. “I believe that’s what I just said.”

Ruth fought to keep the glee from her voice. “When, Papa? When will you be leaving?”

“I’ll send a telegram to Benjamin today. After I receive his reply, I’ll make the travel arrangements.”

Ruth knew “travel arrangements,” meant Esther and her husband Burton would have to take Papa by buggy to the train station in Cincinnati. That would be a four-day journey, with stops at rooming houses along the way. From there, Papa would ride a train west to St. Joseph, Missouri. He’d likely have to change trains several times before reaching St. Joe, and once there he’d board a stagecoach for the last leg of his trip, which would be the lengthiest and most arduous part of his expedition.

A good daughter would try and keep him from taking this trip. After all, he was an old man now of sixty-seven. Although he’d always been hardy and hale, rarely catching so much as even a cold, let alone being felled by maladies common to men his age, he shouldn’t be traveling so far alone. Goodness knew what might happen. He could board the wrong train, or a wheel could fall off the stagecoach while it was traveling over the mountains, or Indians could raid, or outlaws could attack, or there were dozens of other tragedies that could befall her father during his travels that would encompass the many miles that separated Reedsville, Ohio from Virginia City, Nevada. But despite reminding herself of all this, Ruth didn’t care. She truly didn’t care, which meant she was either the worst daughter in the world, and the most unchristian-like woman who’d ever been born, or it meant that after all these years of living underneath the heavy oppression of her father’s rules, she was looking forward to breaking a few of those rules, and having the best summer she’d ever known in all of her forty-eight years.

If only Danny were here to share it with her.

As she’d done five days earlier when her father first mentioned Uncle Ben’s invitation, Ruth kept her excitement hidden as she finished cooking breakfast and then carried the platters of food to the table. After her father had said grace, Ruth didn’t even mind when he looked at her and grumbled, “Don’t see any biscuits, Daughter. I need biscuits with my breakfast.”

“Yes, Papa. I’m sorry. They’re still in the warmer. I’ll get them right away.”

And for a change, it didn’t bother her to jump up and retrieve the biscuits her father could have just as easily gotten for himself.

Ruth’s father shot her a stern look as she placed the plate of sourdough biscuits in front of him and sat back down.

“If you can’t even remember to put biscuits on the table, I have concerns about your ability to run the store while I’m gone. Perhaps I should reconsider–”

Gravely, Ruth said, “Oh, Papa, I don’t believe you should reconsider if the Lord Himself has commanded you to visit Uncle Ben.”

“Well. . .no. No, I can’t in good faith go against what the Lord has commanded.”

“No, you can’t. And you don’t need to worry about the store. Joshua will be here to assist me. We’ll get along fine.”

“You’ll have to do all the ordering.”

“I know, Papa. I’ve been doing it for years.”

“And you’ll have to negotiate prices for the fruits and vegetables George Taylor brings in each day.”

“I know. I’ve negotiated prices with Mr. Taylor many times.”

“And for the eggs the Widow Johnson sells us. Make certain they’re fresh.”

“I always do.”

“And you’ll have to keep the shelves dusted and stocked, and the floor swept, and the windows washed – I won’t be accused of having a dirty store, Daughter. And the sugar and flour bins must be kept full, and. . .”

Listening to her father go on and on with instructions between bites of his eggs as though she’d never been in the store before, instead of acknowledging that she’d worked there for thirty-two years, would have normally vexed Ruth. But today he could prattle on all he wanted to, telling her what she should and shouldn’t do, and she’d pretend to listen and take it all very seriously. She’d pretend to listen right up until the day he climbed in Esther’s buggy and she waved goodbye, if pretending to listen meant he’d ultimately be gone until autumn. Of course, thinking of Papa being gone meant also having to realize he’d eventually return, and with that return, all the freedom Ruth planned to enjoy during his absence would disappear as quickly as it had come. The thought of that caused a shroud of gray despair to settle over her like a thick fog she couldn’t fight her way out of. But then she saw Danny’s face in her mind, and he flashed an impish grin.

“Ruthie, you’re already fretting about Papa’s return? Gosh sakes alive but are you a crazy goose. Don’t worry about when he’s comin’ back. Do a jig because he’s leaving, and keep right on jigging for the both of us all summer long.”

Ruth fought not to laugh at the image of her and Danny dancing a jig because Papa was leaving. She could just imagine Danny doing that very thing the moment Papa was out of sight. If he were alive, he’d grab Ruth by the hands and twirl her ‘round and ‘round, his feet keeping a skilled rhythm that always made Ruth wonder how he could dance so well, given that Daniel Cartwright’s children had never been allowed to dance. Dancing went against what the Bible taught, according to Papa, and led to imbibing in alcohol, and carousing late at night with the wrong people, and all kinds of other sinful activities that would send a soul straight to the burning fires of hell.

About the time Daniel finished his eggs was also about the time that he appeared to run out of things to remind Ruth of when it came to taking charge of the store. He stood and headed for the door, going downstairs thirty minutes before opening like he’d been doing every day except Sunday for over forty years.

Ruth washed and dried the dishes, setting the tub of wash water on the sideboard when she was finished. She’d take it downstairs before the store opened and throw the dirty water out the back door. Danny used to do this job for Ruth or her mother each day, even though Papa would scowl and mumble, “Woman’s work,” as though no man should be so kind as to carry a heavy, awkward tub for his mother and sister.

Sometimes Ruth wondered where her father came by his ways. Uncle John was nothing like Papa, and neither was Uncle Ben from what she could recall. She remembered Aunt Dorcas as being full of fun and good-natured mischief, and as far as her father’s other sisters went, Ruth didn’t think any of them were very much like Papa, either. Unfortunately, in more recent years, she had seen her aunts Ellen, Lilly, and Addie only on rare occasions. Uncle John was the sole Cartwright relative that lived nearby who made an effort to have regular contact with Papa. Sometimes Ruth thought this was simply because Papa was some years older than his siblings, and seemed to hold himself apart from them – almost as though he’d been born into a completely different family, and had never bonded with the younger six who’d been “thick as thieves” during their childhood, as Uncle John was fond of saying. But despite Uncle John’s words about the friendship the younger children had shared that Papa hadn’t been a part of, sometimes Ruth wondered if Papa’s sisters found him just as disagreeable and judgmental as she did, and didn’t come calling for that reason.

Ruth went to her bedroom to remove her apron and tighten the pins that held her hair up. The living quarters above the store included one large room that served as kitchen, dining area, and parlor, and then four other rooms hidden away behind closed doors. A bedroom that her parents shared before Mama’s death, a water closet, a bedroom that Ruth shared with her sisters until one by one, they’d left home and she became the room’s only occupant, and the tiny bedroom – not much larger than a storage closet, really – that had belonged to Danny.

When she looked at herself in the mirror, all Ruth saw was a middle-aged woman of average height and build, with dull brown hair and a face that wouldn’t make a person passing her on the street take notice. Miriam had always been the pretty one, while Esther was the smart one, and Anna, with her beautiful singing voice and ability to play any song on the piano after hearing it only once, the talented one. Ruth – well, Ruth had always just been plain old Ruth. Not particularly talented, unless being an astute businesswoman counted, which in Papa’s opinion it didn’t. And she wasn’t pretty, and no one ever said she was smart, though deep down inside she thought she was because she knew she could run the store just as well as Papa did, if not better.

As she slipped some stray strands of hair back into their pins, she realized that the last time she’d felt attractive was when Jack Stevens came courting. Sometimes Ruth wondered if Papa had purposefully put an end to that courtship, not because he truly had anything against Jack, but because he was determined to have at least one of his daughters remain at home to take care of him and Mama in their old age. Possibly he saw that of all of his girls, Ruth’s spirit would be the easiest for him to break and then control. It made Ruth burn hot with anger when she thought that might be why Jack was run off, but too many years had passed for her to do anything about it now. When Danny was alive, his presence helped her get through times like this. Times when she wondered what her life would have been like if she’d left Papa’s home with Jack when she was nineteen.

Danny’s indomitable spirit couldn’t be broken by Papa, that was for certain, though Papa had tried to squash the boy’s infectious liveliness from the time Danny was a toddler. Sometimes Ruth thought that if Danny hadn’t been born, this house would never have known laughter. Her mother tried to keep Danny’s spirits at bay, too, though Ruth could always tell Mama’s heart wasn’t in her rebukes, and if she’d had her way, Danny would have been free to be the boy he was, instead of the boy Papa wanted him to be.

Ruth walked to her wardrobe, where she opened a drawer, shifted some undergarments aside, and pulled out a piece of folded parchment paper that had been secreted beneath her clothing. She smiled with fond memories as she read the title of the play on the paper’s front. It was the only play she’d ever attended. Like so many things that brought a person entertainment, Papa didn’t approve of plays, or those who acted in them, either.

The woman slowly let the paper fall open, seeing her brother’s name listed inside as the actor portraying the lead character. Oh, if Papa had ever found out about this he would have tanned Danny until the young man couldn’t sit down for a week. But despite Ruth’s warning about Papa’s ire, Danny couldn’t be detoured when the opportunity to act in the play came his way. He’d been forced to make up a lot of stories and do a lot of sneaking around in order to be at the rehearsals in Evanston, but an eighteen-year-old boy’s determination and desire can’t be easily thwarted. Or so Ruth learned as she, too, risked her father’s ire by backing up anything Danny said about where he was going and what he was doing.

The night of the play, Ruth and Danny said they were attending a revival held by a traveling preacher at a church in Evanston. Ruth held her breath, praying that Papa wouldn’t insist that he and Mama attend also. It was to Danny’s benefit that their mother’s health was failing by then, and a trip outside of Reedsville, even to a nearby town, was difficult for her. Papa elected to remain at home, telling Danny and Ruth he expected to hear what the preacher had to say word-for-word when they returned.

Ruth couldn’t remember when she’d had that much fun. She was so proud of Danny as he performed on stage in front of rows and rows of people. And afterwards, he treated her to dinner at a restaurant. That’s when he told Ruth he wanted to go to New York City and be an actor.

“And from there, Ruthie, I wanna travel all over! I wanna go to every big city and little town this country has to offer. I’ll tour with whatever troupe will accept me. And Europe and Asia, too. I wanna see them. Maybe even live in England for a few years. And you’ll travel right along with me.”

“Danny. . .Danny, Papa–”

“Forget about Papa for a change.”

“But he wants you to run the store. That’s what he’s always wanted.”

“And that’s never, for even one minute, been something I wanted. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if Papa was dead–”

“Danny! Don’t say something like that.”

“Well it’s true. And don’t sit there and act like I’ve just committed a bad sin, because you feel the same way.”

“Even if I do, I wouldn’t voice it. Honor thy parents sayeth–”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’ve heard it plenty a’ times. Look, Ruth, if Papa wasn’t around, and if it was just you and me, then sure, maybe running the store wouldn’t be so bad. But I can’t work for him. Besides, I want my own life, not the life that Daniel Cartwright’s had planned for me since before I was born.”

“He was happy when you were born, Danny.”

“Maybe so, but that must have been the last day he showed it, ‘cause I don’t ever remember Papa being happy.”

Ruth couldn’t argue that point with her brother. And that’s when he told her that he wanted her to come with him to New York. And that’s when Ruth was too afraid to defy their father by running off with her baby brother. It was a decision Ruth would never forgive herself for, because she couldn’t help but feel that Danny would still be alive if only he’d left home when he’d wanted to, instead of waiting around for her to find the courage to accompany him.

The woman hastily shoved the playbill beneath her undergarments when she heard a shout from the bottom of the stairs.

“Daughter! Daughter, come along! It’s time to open the store!”

“Yes, Papa!” Ruth shut the top drawer of the wardrobe, and then took off her apron and hastily hung it on a hook mounted to the back of her bedroom door. “I’m coming!”

As she held up the hem of her dress and raced down the stairs, Ruth heard her father mutter, “Don’t know how I’m going to leave you in charge of things all summer long if I can’t even trust you to open the store on time.”

Ruth didn’t bother to assure her father that she’d have the store open exactly at nine a.m. every Monday through Saturday, because it would do her no good. He’d just claim she had some other business sense lacking that he’d need to fret over while he was at Uncle Ben’s. Therefore, Ruth ignored the man’s mutterings, pasted a smile on her face that hid all she felt inside, and welcomed their first customer of the day with a cheery, “Good morning, Mrs. Donaldson. What may I get for you today?”

Although Ruth scolded herself for it, she couldn’t help but sing a silent ditty of joy when, early that afternoon, her father walked down the street to the telegraph office and sent the wire to Uncle Ben that said he’d accept the invitation of a summer-long visit to the Ponderosa.

Chapter 10

Daniel’s body swayed side to side in perfect – and bumpy – rhythm with the traveling stagecoach. They were crossing the Great Basin Desert, headed northwest toward Virginia City. Daniel was the only passenger on this barren part of the trip. At nightfall, there’d be a layover at a station, and then tomorrow morning Daniel would board a new stage with fresh horses. If all went as planned, he’d arrive in Virginia City at noon on Friday. He’d be able to wire Benjamin of his pending arrival on Thursday evening, when the stage stopped in Carson City and Daniel took a room at a hotel. He wasn’t certain how that telegram would get out to Benjamin’s ranch given that it wouldn’t reach the Virginia City telegraph office until after dark, but the stage driver had told him not to fret. He seemed to know Benjamin, and said, “Mr. Cartwright’s got hisself a big operation. Him, or one a’ his boys, or one a’ their hands will likely as not be in town when the telegraph arrives.”

“After dark?” Daniel said, as though he couldn’t imagine what decent men would be doing in town once night fell.

The driver chuckled as he stood leaning against the stage while giving the horses a short rest.

“There’s plenty ta’ do in Virginia City after dark. Between the miners and the cowboys, it’s a town that don’t see much sleep.” The driver winked at him. “She’s got herself lots a’ places that do a mighty good business once the sun goes down, if you git my meanin’.”

Daniel did get the driver’s meaning, and didn’t approve of the picture it left in his mind. Reedsville was a small, quiet town that didn’t cotton to nightlife. Or at least not a nightlife that didn’t require deceit and sneaking about like Danny had done in order to engage in it.

The man’s thoughts were heavily burdened by his deceased son as the coach traveled across the vast expanse of desert with its low-growing shrubbery that stretched for miles in some places. The names of the foliage were unfamiliar to Daniel – Big Sagebrush, Blackbrush, Shadscale, and Mormon-tea. For the most part, it all looked the same to him, though he supposed if a person lived in this part of the country as long as Benjamin had, identification of the various types of desert brush was second nature.

“So much promise,” Daniel muttered as he gazed out a window, recalling how he felt the day Danny was born. After the births of four daughters, as well as five babies of unknown sex Clara hadn’t been able to carry beyond the early weeks of pregnancy, Daniel had thought the boy was truly a blessing from the Lord, in the same way the Lord blessed Abraham and Sarah with a son in their old age.

In a few short years, though, Daniel began to think that Danny wasn’t a blessing after all, but instead a child who’d been sent by God to test his faith. The test of faith went as far back as to when the boy was no more than two or three, and couldn’t seem to sit still or behave himself in church. Clara defended Danny by saying little boys were different from little girls – filled with liveliness and curiosity they couldn’t contain. Well, as Danny found out, that liveliness and curiosity could be contained at least to some degree with a razor strap.

The test of Daniel’s faith continued when Danny was six and seven, and came home from school crying because the other boys teased him for being a “sissy.” Well, he was a sissy, and Daniel saw it as plain as the nose on his face. Danny was always daydreaming, reciting prose, and dressing up in castoff clothes he called “costumes,” while play-acting scenes from the pretend world he seemed to enjoy dwelling in. If he couldn’t get his hands on some piece of fiction to read and memorize, then he made up stories and performed them for Esther’s children until Daniel caught him at it one too many times and put a stop to that activity. No son of his was going to indulge in such foolishness – dressing up in costumes and prancing around on a stage he’d fashioned from milk crates he’d turned upside down and lined up in a row. If Danny wanted to memorize something, then he’d do well to memorize the Bible. Or so Daniel told him as the razor strap bit the boy’s backside.

By the time Danny was eleven, the teasing had stopped, replaced by the other boys laying in wait for him on his way to and from school. Danny would invariably arrive home with a black eye or bloody nose on those days. By the time the boy was twelve, Daniel pulled him out of the local schoolhouse and let Clara finish educating him at home. It was the best solution anyway, because it allowed the boy to work in the store on more than just Saturdays. The business was to be his one day. That had always been Daniel’s plan, despite the fact that Ruth was the child who seemed to have a natural inclination for running the store. Nonetheless, owning a business wasn’t meant for women, unless it was a dress shop or some such thing, and even then, no doubt a man was behind her providing the cash flow and common sense it took to make a store profitable.

Daniel’s mind drifted from his own son to his brother’s sons. He’d never met Eric or Joseph, and Adam had been a young boy the last time he’d seen him. Regardless, Adam was the kind of boy Daniel wanted. Quiet, intelligent, well behaved, and looked up to and respected by the other boys he’d made friends with during the short time he and Benjamin stayed in Reedsville. After his troubles with Danny, the man was curious to see how Benjamin’s boys had turned out. Perhaps this was why God commanded him to make this trip – to see if Benjamin was doing right by the Lord. To see if he was doing good works with the gifts God had granted him, including the greatest gifts of all – three sons. Gifts Daniel would have envied his brother had envy not been a sin.

As the sun began to set, Daniel spotted the layover station as a brown dot in the distance. He bowed his head right there in the stagecoach, thanking the Lord for another day of safety, and asking for the wisdom to guide Benjamin in any way his youngest brother might need him to.

Chapter 11

Little Joe Cartwright couldn’t think of anything worse on a Friday morning than waiting around Virginia City for a stage to arrive while dressed in his Sunday best. Not that being dressed in his Sunday best was Joe’s idea, mind you. Pa made that request of his sons during breakfast. If it had been up to Joe, ordinary work trousers, boots, and shirt would have served this occasion just fine.

It was the kind of June day just made for breaking horses – and then made for sneaking off to a fishing hole with Hoss later in the afternoon. But there wouldn’t be an opportunity for fishing today. Or at least the youngest Cartwright didn’t think so, unless Uncle Daniel proved to be more of an outdoorsman than Joe expected.

He didn’t know much about his uncle, other than he was sixty-seven and a shopkeeper all of his adult life. Therefore, Joe pictured a wizened old man, pale, bleary eyed, and stooped at the shoulders, who had no business traveling from Ohio to Nevada by himself. It’d be a wonder if he hadn’t climbed off the stage at a stop somewhere along the journey and forgotten to get back on, or if he didn’t drop dead the moment he set foot on Virginia City soil. Back when Uncle Daniel wired he was coming for the summer, Joe tried to tell Pa that he didn’t think an old man should travel so far by himself. But Pa had just laughed, as though he knew something about Uncle Daniel that Joe didn’t. Given Pa hadn’t seen Uncle Daniel in twenty-five years, Joe wasn’t certain how that was possible, but to question his father further would have been considered disrespectful.

“So, Joseph,” Pa teased the day of the wire’s arrival when the family was gathered in the great room after supper, “how soon are you planning on keeping your own feeble old pa from traveling alone?”

“I didn’t say you were feeble. Just Uncle Daniel.”

“And what makes you think he’s feeble?”

“He’s close to seventy years old for one thing.”

“Age doesn’t necessarily define the man, son.”

“I suppose not,” Joe reluctantly conceded, “but he’s been a shopkeeper all his life.”

“And that means what?”

“Well. . .you know. That. . .that. . .”

“That he’s weak?”

“Well, not weak exactly but. . .uh. . .well. . .um–”

“Kinda scrawny and puny, Pa,” Hoss supplied in way of helping his little brother out. “Ain’t that what ya’ mean, Little Joe?”

“Yeah. That’s it. That’s what I mean.”

Pa laughed again while winking at Adam. However, he didn’t explain what he found so amusing about Joe’s assessment of the uncle he’d never met, and Joe decided to let the subject drop. He knew more teasing would come his way if he didn’t. Besides, Pa’s perspective regarding old men was likely a little off plumb. Not that Pa was old per se, but in Joe’s opinion, he was headed in that direction.

Because waiting wasn’t one of Joe’s strong suits, he hit upon a productive way to spend his time between when they arrived in town, and when Uncle Daniel’s stage was due.

“I’ll be back in a little while,” Joe said, as he and his brothers stood outside the bank. Pa was inside the building transacting some kind of lengthy business that required him to meet with the bank’s president.

“Where you goin’?” Hoss asked in a tone that indicated he had no desire to stand around waiting, either.

“Just gonna help a friend.”

Adam arched an eyebrow. “Help a friend?”

“Yeah. I promised Reba I’d help her move to a new room the next time I was in town.”

“Joe, Pa said we’re all supposed to be here when Uncle Daniel arrives,” Adam reminded.

“I’ll be here. It’ll be another hour before the stage comes in. Maybe two, if Pete’s drivin’ and he goes slow on account of his rheumatism.”

“But if you’re delayed–”

“I won’t be delayed. How much stuff can Reba have? The rooms are furnished. It’s just a matter of moving some dresses, and hat boxes, and female notions, and stuff like that.”

“Nonetheless, I don’t think today is the day to risk being late. Or to have to explain to your father in front of the brother he hasn’t seen in twenty-five years, that you were held up while helping a saloon girl move to the new residence where she’ll be entertaining gentlemen callers after-hours.”

“Pa likes Reba.”

“Pa is friendly to Reba when we go in the Silver Dollar, yes. Just like he’s friendly to any man or woman who waits on him in a store, bank, or saloon. But–”

“Adam, if you’d quit jawin’ at me, I coulda’ been gone and back by now.”

“But,” Adam continued as though his little brother hadn’t interrupted him, “all I’m saying is that I don’t think you want to upset Pa today, regardless of how. . .um. . .noble your reasons are.”

“I won’t upset him. I’ll be back in plenty a’ time.”

“Joe–”

“I’ll be back, Adam,” Joe promised, then hurried off down the sidewalk toward the Silver Dollar before his oldest brother could make a grab for his arm.

~ ~ ~

With envy in his eyes, Hoss watched his little brother head toward the saloon. For two bits, he’d have followed Joe. However, Hoss wasn’t one to throw caution to the wind. He had no desire to incur his father’s wrath on this day when they were all expected to make a good first impression on Uncle Daniel.

Hoss looked at Adam. “How come ya’ didn’t stop him?”

Adam leaned sideways against a timber supporting the overhead roof. He crossed his arms against his chest and gave a smug grin.

“Hey, the kid’s eighteen now, as he keeps reminding us. Old enough to make his own decisions, as we’ve heard him say numerous times since last October. So, if the lamb is willing to go to the slaughter, that’s his choice.”

“Yeah, but for some reason I gotta feelin’ Pa’s gonna blame us for lettin’ him leave.”

“Oh, Pa’ll blame us all right, but that won’t last long.”

“No?”

“No,” Adam assured. “Pa’ll be so mad at Joe if he shows up after the stage arrives, that he’ll forget all about being angry with you and me.”

A slow grin spread over Hoss’s face. “Yeah, guess yer right about that, now ain’t ya.”

“You bet I am.”

“And it’ll be kinda fun watchin’ the fireworks when Pa explodes, won’t it?”

“That’s just what I was thinking.”

Hoss leaned against the post opposite his brother and pulled the brim of his hat low on his forehead. “And here I was just sayin’ to myself that there ain’t much in the way of entertainment in this town on a Friday morning when all a fella’s got to do with his time is wait for a stage.”

“Well now, brother, maybe we can count on Joe to raise the entertainment factor for us.”

“Maybe we can,” Hoss agreed, while not feeling a bit a guilty over the trouble potentially awaiting Little Joe. If it were serious trouble, Hoss would go after him and haul him back. But this was the kind of “learnin’ a lesson” trouble that wouldn’t really do anyone no harm, other than the harm it did to Joe’s eardrums when Pa hollered loud enough to make it rain. Therefore, Hoss figured the kid deserved whatever came his way for defying their father, and then for not listening to Adam when he cautioned against it.

The brothers remained where they were, dutifully waiting for their father. Every now and then they’d glance toward the Silver Dollar, while making bets with one another as to just how long it would be after the stage arrived before Little Joe showed up. It wasn’t the most fun Hoss had ever engaged it, but it did provide a portion of that entertainment he was hankering for.

Chapter 12

It didn’t take long for Little Joe to discover how foolish his rhetorical question to Adam of, “How much stuff can Reba have?” had been. Like he’d told his brothers, he didn’t have to move any furniture for the woman, but between her piles of dresses, hats, shoes, jewelry boxes, notions, and the feminine “delicate items” Joe had far more knowledge of than his father was aware of, it took the young man more time than he’d anticipated. Fortunately, Reba was relocating only two doors down from her old room. Had she been moving to a new saloon altogether, it would have taken Joe the better part of the morning to get the job accomplished.

As Joe hung the last of the dresses in the wardrobe, Reba turned from the bureau where she’d been putting away undergarments.

“Thanks, Little Joe. I really appreciate all you’ve done for me.”

“I didn’t do that much other than move two tons a’ dresses and three tons a’ hats.”

“Hey now, a gal can’t have too many ways to look pretty for a man.”

“So I’ve just finished learning.”

The red headed woman sauntered over to Joe with an exaggerated sway of her hips. She looked up at him and winked, while seductively fiddling with the black string tie around his neck.

“Is there any. . .uh. . .special way, you’d like me to extend my thanks, Mr. Cartwright?”

A sly smile touched Joe’s lips. “Well, Ma’am, now that you mention it, I can think of several ways, but unfortunately, I don’t have the time.”

“A pity.” The woman let Joe’s tie drop from her fingers and returned to unpacking her delicates. “After all, you’re considered one of the best catches in town.”

Joe knew Reba was just teasing him. He’d never shown an interest in her that went beyond friendship, and vice versa. Besides, among other things he knew that he kept a closely guarded secret, was that Adam bedded Reba every now and again. When it came to his oldest brother, potential blackmail material was hard to come by. Therefore, Joe wasn’t going to jeopardize it by sleeping with the woman himself. If he did, and then Reba ever told Adam. . .well, it would destroy this ace Joe carried around in his back pocket, so to speak. Besides, where saloon girls were concerned, Iris captivated Joe’s fancy. It was safer that way. Adam wasn’t interested in Iris.

“I’m one of the best catches in town, huh?”

“That’s the rumor.” She turned and winked at Joe again. “Of course, I wouldn’t know, considering you’ve never asked me to entertain–”

Before the woman could finish her sentence, a boy of about ten appeared in the open doorway. Mismatched gingham patches were stitched on both knees of the trousers that hung a good three inches above his ankles, holes dotted his shirt, and his face carried a week’s worth of dirt.

“You Joe Cartwright?”

“Yeah.”

The disheveled kid’s chest heaved and out, as though he’d been running. He held up a quarter. “Yer brothers sent me to find ya. Said ya’ need to hurry.”

“Oh shit. The stage!” Joe grabbed his hat and suit coat off of Reba’s bed. “Pardon my language, Ma’am.”

Reba laughed. “Don’t you worry about that none, Little Joe. I’ve heard enough salty language in my day to make milk curdle.”

Joe jammed his hat on his head and shrugged into his coat with a quick “Bye!” called over his shoulder to Reba.

“Bye, Joe! And thanks again!”

The boy led the way to the back stairs. “Follow me! Yer brothers said to meet ‘em in the alley.”

Joe raced after the boy, galloping down the steps. If Adam and Hoss were trying to keep him out of hot water with Pa, then it made sense that they’d want him to come out the back door of the Silver Dollar. Pa might see him if he exited from the front of the saloon. But by exiting into the alley, Joe could arrive at the stage drop-off from any direction. Now all he had to do was come up with a plausible story as to why he was late.

Something to do with old ladies, Joe thought as he barged out the door behind his young messenger. If I say I had to do an errand for an old woman, there’s no way Pa can be mad at me. The Widow Ferguson! That’s it. I’ll say she asked me to carry her packages home from the general store. I’ll say she asked me in for a piece of pie, and that I didn’t want to be impolite by telling her no. I’ll say–”

Before Joe could perfect the rest of his story, a fist slammed into his face. He flew back against a wall of the Silver Dollar with an “uff!” He caught a brief glimpse of his attackers as they swarmed him like bees to a hive. They were all scruffy and dirty – a gang of miners’ kids who lived out at the camps and didn’t attend school, and not a one of them over twelve. Nonetheless, Joe didn’t stand a chance against eight boys who’d been paid to beat him up. Nine, if you included the messenger clawing at Joe’s suit jacket in a determined effort to strip him of it and run off with it.

Perhaps if Joe hadn’t initially been concerned about hurting the boys, he could have fended them off long enough to reach the street. But by the time he realized these hooligans had no reservations about hurting him, Joe had already been driven to his knees and was trying to defend himself against the fists pummeling his back, face, and chest.

As his suit jacket gave way to the boy set on owning it, something hard and solid whacked the side of Joe’s head. The young man saw stars for a few seconds, then saw nothing as his body crumpled to the ground amidst hoops and hollers of victory.

Chapter 13

Ben Cartwright exited the bank, squinting as the June sun assaulted his eyes. His stomach rumbled and gnawed toward his backbone. It was almost noon. Ben thought of the meal Hop Sing would have waiting for them when they arrived. A beef roast, two roasted chickens, potatoes, peas, carrots, baked beans, apple butter, corn bread, cherry pie, peach pie, strawberry pie, and a half dozen other items Ben requested, much of it grown or raised right on the Ponderosa. Come to think of it, if Hoss had managed to make a few requests of his own, then numerous additional foods would accompany their meal. That was all right, though. It would make supper an easier affair for their Chinese houseman. Platters laden with leftovers that everyone could pick and choose from would be fine for the evening meal. But for today’s lunch, the first meal upon Daniel’s arrival, Ben wanted nothing less than a spread normally reserved for a dozen guests at Sunday dinner.

Though he hadn’t voiced it to his sons, and thought he’d done a good job of hiding it as well, Ben was a bit uneasy over the impending visit of his eldest brother. As a boy, Ben hadn’t really known Daniel. He couldn’t remember Daniel living with them in Ma and Pa’s farmhouse. After Daniel married Clara when Ben was just three years old, he lived nearby and worked in his father in-law’s store. Ben was certain his brother must have visited home from time to time, and dimly recalled some Christmas dinners with Daniel and Clara present, and later on, little Ruth, too. But his memories of these gatherings weren’t especially clear. Maybe the lack of memories surrounding Daniel were because Ben was a young boy then; busy, and active, and full of mischief – off somewhere catching frogs with John, or playing tricks on his sisters, or cutting hay with Pa, and not paying any mind to the brother fourteen years his senior, who’d always seemed like a grown man to Ben. In truth, what few clear childhood memories Ben did possess of Daniel revolved around stern looks and even sterner admonishments. At even the young age of twenty, Daniel seemed to think children should be seen and not heard, and couldn’t cotton to the lively personalities of his younger siblings.

Pa used to tease Ma and say Daniel was all Weston and no Cartwright. Ma would grow offended, but soon Pa had her smiling again. From what Ben had grown up hearing, Ma’s people were pious folks who believed no good came of fun and laughter. Pa always said that if Ma hadn’t married him, she’d have been just like her kin – all sour and disagreeable, like an apple left too long in the fruit cellar. Ma always protested those words, but never with much vigor, which lead Ben to conclude that Ma’s people were far different from the boisterous, fun-loving Joseph Cartwright she’d fallen in love with.

For the brief time Ben had spent with Daniel as an adult living in his brother’s home and working in his store, he found the man a critical taskmaster. Without being asked for his opinions, he freely gave Ben advice on raising Adam, though Ben never thought it sounded much like advice. Instead, it always sounded like orders Ben was supposed to follow without question. Daniel treated him the same way in the store, not giving Ben credit for being an intelligent, twenty-eight year old man who’d already seen and done more in his life than Daniel would ever think of doing. Instead, it was, “Do this,” and “Do that,” and “Is that the best you can do, Benjamin?” as though he were an eight-year-old who wasn’t smart enough to know how to stack canned goods or sweep a floor.

Ben hadn’t much liked the way Daniel treated Ruth, either. And then when the day came that Daniel decided Ben should re-marry, and when he spoke of knowing a young widow in Reedsville with four children who would make Ben a “fine, Christian wife,” Ben knew he had to take Adam and move on. If he’d stayed out the winter as he’d originally planned, he’d have had cross words with his brother, and he was determined not to do so. He felt that a rift between himself and Daniel would be a dishonor to their father’s memory. The man who had adored his children, and was always ready to laugh, or pull a prank, or instigate a little spur-of-the-moment fun, had died three years earlier. Upon Pa’s death, John and his ever-expanding young family moved onto the farm with Ma. John ran the farm, and would continue to do so following Ma’s death, which came a few months after Ben reached Nevada with Adam and little Hoss.

Over the years, Ben had mellowed where thoughts of his oldest brother were concerned, and assumed Daniel might have mellowed with age, too. Granted, Daniel’s letters were still filled with dire warnings of “fire and brimstone” if a good Christian life wasn’t led. But Ben ignored most of his brother’s ranting, often not even reading it to the boys, knowing that Daniel would always be a “Weston,” as Pa would say. And besides, Ben felt he’d lived that good Christian life Daniel often spoke of, and had raised his boys with a combination of moral guidance gleaned from both his mother and the Bible, things he’d learned at his father’s knee, and admittedly too, things he’d learned by the seat of his pants. Especially where Little Joe was concerned. Although Joe was his mother’s child in so many ways, he was also his Grandpa Cartwright’s grandson; there was little doubt about that.

As far as his invitation of an extended visit to Daniel went, Ben supposed that had come from sentiment. After all, none of the children of Joseph and Anna Cartwright were getting any younger. Someday in the not-too-distant-future the family circle would further be broken by death. Lately, Ben found himself longing to see Ellen, Lilly, John, Dorcas, and Addie again. Funny how his longings had never extended to Daniel until he’d received that letter from John, in which John expressed his concerns for their eldest brother.

Now, Ben found himself both apprehensive, as well as eager, for Daniel’s arrival. He smiled at the sons who were waiting for him.

“Any sign of the stage yet?”

“Not yet, Pa, but I reckon it’ll be comin’ along soon.”

“Should be,” Adam agreed. He dug out his pocket watch. “It’s five minutes to twelve.”

“Well, then,” Ben smiled, “unless Pete’s driving, the stage should be right on time.” Looking around, he suddenly realized one son wasn’t in the nearby vicinity.

“Where’s Little Joe?”

As he slipped his watch back into a pocket of his black suit coat, Adam said, “Funny you should ask that, Pa.”

Hoss pasted a false grin on his face. “Yeah, funny you should ask.”

“I don’t think it’s funny. Now where’s your brother?”

“He said he had to help a friend move,” Adam supplied.

“A friend?”

“Reba.”

“Who’s Reba?”

“One a’ the little gals at the Silver Dollar.”

“You let your brother leave to help a saloon girl move after I specifically told you boys to wait right here!”

“Well now uh. . .ya’ see, Pa, we didn’t exactly let Little Joe leave. He just. . .did,” Hoss finished weakly.”

“Oh, he just did, did he? And you two couldn’t stop him, is that it?” Ben turned to Adam, thrusting a finger into his chest. “You, who outweighs him by thirty pounds,” Ben faced Hoss, “and you, who outweighs him by well over one hundred pounds.”

“It wasn’t exactly about stopping him, Pa.”

Ben arched an eyebrow at his oldest son. “It wasn’t?”

“No. It was about teaching him a lesson.”

Ben’s lips tightened in a familiar way that made Hoss give a regret-filled grimace.

“It seems to me that if any lessons need to be taught in this family, I’m the one who should be teaching them. As for you two. . .” Ben shook his head in exasperation. There was no time for a lecture. “Never mind. I’ll go find your brother myself. You wait right here, and I do mean right here on this very spot, until I get–”

The sidewalk trembled beneath Ben’s boots. He turned as the rumble of horses’ hooves announced the stage coach’s arrival before it could be seen. As the stage rounded a corner and came into view, he mumbled, “Wonderful. Just wonderful.”

Ben plastered a smile on his face, gathered the two sons who were present by putting an arm around each of their shoulders, and stepped forward to greet the brother he hadn’t seen in over two decades – all the while hoping Little Joe would show up before Daniel got off the stage.

Chapter 14

“Little Joe. . .? Little Joe. . .?” The young woman glanced over her shoulder to make certain no one was watching her from the mouth of the alley. When she’d determined she was still alone, she turned back to the man she was crouched beside and shook his arm again. “Little Joe. Little Joe, wake up.”

Joe moaned as his head rolled back and forth in the dirt.

“Little Joe? Little Joe, wake up.”

Eyes blinked heavy and reluctantly, as if Joe were being awoken from a deep sleep he didn’t want to leave.

“Little Joe?”

He looked up at her, eyes bleary with confusion, as though he had no idea who she was. And maybe he didn’t. After all, they hadn’t been in school together for a couple of years now, and a vast parade of other girls had caught and held his fancy in the time since they’d sat across the aisle from one another in Miss Jones’ classroom.

She glanced over her shoulder again. When she turned back to her old schoolmate, awareness shone from his bruised face.

“Nan?”

“I can’t stay long. I left Timmy in the general store picking out candy with Nora and Henry. If I don’t get back there soon, they’ll come looking for me.”

By the puzzlement on his face, Nan could tell Joe didn’t understand why she spoke in a rushed, nervous whisper. She glanced over her shoulder again before whispering a confession to Joe.

“It was Paul and Charlie.”

Little Joe grimaced as he pushed himself up on his elbows. “Paul and Charlie what?”

“They were the ones who paid those boys to beat you up.”

Joe voiced his muddled thoughts in a one-word question. “Boys. . .?”

“The boys from the mining camps.”

Nan’s explanation, though succinct, seemed to be all Joe needed to bring forth memories of the events in the alley.

“How do you know that?”

“I just do. Working for the Dunns I. . .I hear things sometimes that I’m not supposed to. Now come on, let me help you to your feet.”

Nan sat the woven basket she was carrying on the ground, grasped Joe’s arm, and helped him stand. He swayed back and forth a moment, making Nan fear he was going to lose consciousness again. When he finally steadied, she asked, “Do you need me to get Doc Martin?”

“Naw.” The battered young man gave a terse shake of his head while wiping blood from both corners of his mouth, and then taking his cowboy hat from Nan. “I’ve been hurt worse bustin’ broncs.”

“I’ve got to get along then. I can’t let the children find me with you. Or Paul or Charlie, either.”

Joe grasped her arm. “But–”

Nan wriggled from his hold. “I can’t tell you any more than I already have. That’s all I know. And. . .and please, Little Joe, don’t tell anyone it was me that tipped you off about Paul and Charlie hiring those boys.”

She hated the fear she heard in her voice. If she really wanted to do the right thing, she’d be willing to go to Sheriff Coffee and report what she knew. But she needed her job. And besides, Mr. Dunn was an important man around these parts, and she was just Nan Henning, the daughter of a crippled, unemployed miner. If the sheriff didn’t believe her, Mr. Dunn could make things even more miserable for Nan and her family than they already were.

Despite his addled brain, Joe must have heard the fear too, or maybe he saw it on her face. Either way, he didn’t hesitate when he promised, “I won’t mention your name to a soul.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much.”

He offered her a grin made lopsided by his puffy lower lip. “Hey, it should be me thanking you, not the other way around.”

She picked up her shopping basket. “I have to go. Will you be okay?”

“I’ll be fine. Make sure the coast is clear, then be on your way. I’ll wait a couple minutes before leaving after you.”

Nan nodded. She gave Little Joe one last grateful look for his understanding, then hurried to the mouth of the alley where she cautiously peered out and viewed the street. When she didn’t see any signs of Paul or Charlie, she slipped from the alley to the sidewalk in one smooth motion and headed toward the general store.

~ ~ ~

Currently, Joe Cartwright didn’t have time to dwell on what Nan revealed. He did as he promised, waiting in the alley while she walked to the store. As soon as she had safely entered, Joe would hurry on his way. If he were lucky, Pete would be driving the stage, meaning Joe still had thirty minutes to make good use of. Not to do with what he wanted to, however, which was to track Paul and Charlie down and give them a taste of their own medicine. Instead, Joe would make a stop at Soo Ling’s bathhouse, where he could pay a nickel for some warm water and soap to wash his face with, and then he’d head to Keegan’s Gentlemen’s Shop for a new suit coat and a white shirt that wasn’t bloodstained. The hooligans who jumped him had taken his wallet, but Pa ran an account at Keegan’s, therefore Joe could get what he needed despite his lack of funds. As far as the cuts and bruises on his face went – and though Joe couldn’t see them, he had no doubt they were there by the way his flesh stung, and by how much it hurt to move his mouth – he’d tell Pa that the Widow Ferguson asked him to carry some things to the upper story of her house, and that he’d tripped on a rickety step and tumbled down the stairs.

But, as the old saying went, “The best laid plans. . .” The incoming stage flew by the alley where Joe remained hidden from view. He waited a few minutes, hoping his uncle had missed the connection to Virginia City. When he finally worked up the nerve to peer out at the town, Joe saw his brothers loading luggage into the buggy, and saw a barrel-chested man with a thick shock of gray hair standing beside Pa. A man who could have been Pa’s identical twin, had it not been for their age difference.

For just a moment, Joe thought of fleeing in the opposite direction, but as another old saying went that Pa often used, “When all else fails, I always catch the pig at the trough.” So, since Joe would have to show up at home eventually and own up to his tardiness where Uncle Daniel’s arrival was concerned, he figured he might as well face his father’s wrath now and get it over with.

The young man straightened, winced at the way that movement bit into his sore ribs, counted to ten in order to brace himself for the tongue lashing that was to come, then stepped onto the sidewalk and headed towards his family.

Chapter 15

The initial moment of greeting was an awkward, stumble-footed dance. Ben let his arms slip from his sons’ shoulders, and stepped forward to hug his brother. Daniel seemed startled by this display of affection, then for a brief second acted like he was going to return it, before changing his mind and thrusting his right hand at Ben.

“Benjamin.”

Ben dropped his arms. If Daniel had been John, they’d be locked in an embrace not even Hoss’s strength could break. But this was Daniel, not John, and Ben wasn’t surprised by the man’s rebuff.

Ben gripped the hand held out to him, pumped it with enthusiasm, and smiled with a warmth that came through in his voice.

“Daniel, it’s good to see you.”

“It’s good to see you too, Benjamin. Thank you for the invitation.”

“No need for thanks. The boys and I are just happy to see you had a safe journey.”

“It was the will of the Lord.”

“Yes. . .yes, I’m sure it was.”

Remembering quite well how Daniel could carry on for hours about the “will of the Lord,” made Ben decide to keep the conversation moving. He turned, facing his sons.

“Daniel, you remember Adam. Though I imagine he’s changed some since the last time you saw him.”

Daniel appraised Adam from head to toe. Ben was proud of his eldest son, standing there so straight and dignified in his black Sunday suit.

Ben’s brother nodded his approval, as though Adam passed his inspection. He offered his hand to his nephew.

“Adam. You appear to have grown into a fine man.”

“Thank you, Sir. You look well.”

“For a man of my years, I am well. The Lord will decide when my time on earth is through.”

Adam cast an amused glance at his father while replying to his uncle, “Uh. . .yes. Yes, the Lord has a plan for all of us, doesn’t he.”

“Yes, he does, Adam.” Daniel turned to Ben. “It appears that you’ve raised the boys with the Lord close their hearts.”

“I have,” Ben nodded. He veered the conversation off-course once more, directing Daniel’s attention to his middle son. “And this strapping young fellow is my son Hoss.”

Just like he’d done with Adam, Daniel appraised Hoss from head to toe – though it took considerably longer for his eyes to travel Hoss’s height and girth. Hoss shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, a sure sign to Ben that the scrutiny made him nervous.

Ben let out a breath he didn’t even realize he’d been holding when Daniel finally extended his hand to Hoss.

“I’ll call you Eric, young man. I fear the good Lord doesn’t cotton to nicknames.”

“Uh. . .yes, sir. That’ll be fine, Uncle Dan’el. Eric is just dandy by me.”

Daniel dropped Hoss’s hand and looked around. “And Joseph? Where’s your youngest, Benjamin?”

“He’s. . .um. . .helping a friend here in town with. . .with some things.”

“What kind of things? The Lord’s work, I pray.”

Ben shot Adam and Hoss a glare when one of them stifled a snicker by coughing, and the other one did the same by clearing his throat.

“It’s a. . .uh. . .goodwill gesture on Little Joe’s part, yes. He’ll be along soon.” Ben hurried to deflect this subject. “Let’s get your luggage and load it onto the buggy. If Little Joe’s not back by the time we’ve got it secured, I’ll send the boys for him.”

Hoss and Adam got their uncle’s trunk and travel bag from the top of the stagecoach. Hoss hauled the trunk on one shoulder, while Adam carried the bag. They placed the items in the open space behind the buggy’s seat.

If Daniel had been John, Ben could have further stalled for time by taking his brother to one of the saloons for a drink. But then, if Daniel were John, no stalling would be necessary, because John wouldn’t have been bothered by Little Joe’s tardiness, nor held Ben’s parenting skills in judgment because of it.

But, since Ben couldn’t take the tea-totaling Daniel for a drink, and since he felt like he was being judged as they stood under the hot sun waiting for his youngest son, he was just about to send Adam and Hoss in search of their brother when he spotted Joe walking toward them.

Oh no, Ben moaned inwardly as his son drew closer and he got a good look at him. Joseph, not today. Not today of all days! How am I ever going to explain to Daniel that you got into a brawl over a saloon girl?

Ben took a deep breath, resisting the urge to strangle his youngest when the battered, bruised, and bloodied Joe tried to offer a contrite smile with his split lips while stammering, “Uh…hi, Pa. Sorry—Um, sorry I’m late.”

Chapter 16

Joe stood with his head bent, risking a wary glance every now and again at the faces around him. Adam’s own head was bent as he hid his smile from Pa. No doubt big brother was garnering a great deal of amusement from Joe’s predicament. At least in Hoss’s gaze Joe found sympathy. No, there was no hint of amusement there, just a look that said, “Aw, shucks, Little Joe, why’d ya’ have ta’ go and start things off on the wrong foot with Uncle Dan’el? Ya’ really got Pa riled with this stunt.”

Joe knew he had his father riled, because even though he wouldn’t risk meeting Pa’s eyes, he could feel the man’s heavy gaze boring into him, just like he could feel his Uncle Daniel’s gaze of disapproval, as though he’d already decided that Joe didn’t live up to his expectations.

Well, Joe didn’t much care if he didn’t gain the approval of a man he’d never met, though he knew better than to voice those thoughts. Besides, he had other things on his mind right now, and none of them had to do with making a good impression on an uncle who, as far as Joe knew, his father had never been very close to anyway.

Joe had to hand it to Pa. He set his anger aside, didn’t ask any questions of Joe in front of their visitor that might potentially tarnish the Cartwright name, and slipped an arm around Joe’s shoulders. Granted, the hand that rested on his upper arm squeezed with just a little too much force, but nonetheless, Pa managed a smile while introducing with good humor, “If you haven’t come to the conclusion on your own by now, Daniel, this young scallywag, who evidently left his pocket watch at home today, is my son Joseph. Little Joe, your uncle Daniel.”

Joe extended a hand to the man. “Hello, Sir. Nice to meet you.”

Uncle Daniel gave a curt nod. He ignored the offer of Joe’s hand, to instead aim a directive at Pa.

“Evidently this one needs a good strapping to set him on the right path, Benjamin.”

Joe cast a sideways glance at his father when the hand gripping his arm loosened and gave a light pat.

“Oh now, I don’t think that’ll be necessary. Joseph knows what path I expect him to walk.”

“Yes, Benjamin, he may well know what path you expect him to walk, but the question being, is he traveling that path, or only fooling you into thinking he is?”

Before Pa could answer, Uncle Daniel turned and headed for the buggy. Joe felt his father’s chest expand as he took a deep breath, and then heard him let it out slowly. For reasons he couldn’t identify, Joe didn’t think that deep breath had anything to do with his transgressions, but instead, had something to do with Uncle Daniel. He was more certain of it when Pa patted his arm one more time before releasing him, and then said in his best host voice, “Come on, boys, let’s get your uncle out to the Ponderosa. He’s probably hungry and looking forward to a good meal.”

As Pa climbed into the buggy and took the horse’s reins, Joe and his brothers walked to where their mounts were tied to a hitching post in front of the bank. Adam’s cheerful, “Thanks, little brother,” made Joe scowl.

“Thanks for what?”

“Before you showed up looking like you’ve been on the losing side of a saloon brawl, Pa was giving Hoss and me the what for over your absence. It’s always nice to know that we can count on you to get entangled in the kind of trouble that’ll make Pa forget why he was angry with us.”

Hoss patted Joe’s back. “Yep, little brother, I gotta agree with Adam on that one. It sure is handy to have you come along at just the right time and get Pa all in a lather.”

“Glad I could be of help,” Joe mumbled as his brothers chuckled quietly, while their father called, “Boys, hurry it up there!”

“Coming, Pa,” Adam responded with a humorous lilt to his voice, only to be echoed by Hoss’s dutiful but equally light, “Yes, Sir.”

Joe knew they were still making fun of him, but given he was already on shaky ground with Pa, the young man decided it was best to leave his brothers to their teasing and concentrate on being an obedient son for the rest of the day.

He got in his saddle with one smooth leap, then allowed Cochise to follow Sport until they were riding alongside Uncle Daniel, while Hoss rode on the opposite side of the buggy, Chub keeping an easy pace beside Pa.

Soon, they were headed toward the Ponderosa on Virginia City Road. Pa, Adam and Hoss eagerly pointed out various sights to Uncle Daniel as they traveled. Joe’s attention, however, was far removed from his family’s conversation with their visitor as he rode in silence, his mind mulling over recent events.

Chapter 17

As Cochise trotted beside the buggy, Joe pondered what Nan had told him. So Paul and Charlie Dunn paid those camp kids to beat him up. Joe probably would have never reached that conclusion on his own. Or at least not for several days. If Nan hadn’t tipped him off, he would have thought he was the victim of nothing other than a robbery. It wasn’t unheard of for gangs of miners’ boys to cause trouble in town. Roy Coffee tried to keep their devilment at bay, but the sheriff and his deputy could only be in so many places at one time. That fact left a good deal of Virginia City and her citizens as fair game for the undisciplined boys with nothing better to do than cause mischief.

But from what Nan said, Joe hadn’t been the victim of a robbery. Oh sure, his suit jacket had been stolen along with his wallet, but more than likely those boys wouldn’t have been lying in wait for him if Paul and Charlie hadn’t paid them for their efforts. Joe thought back to other incidents in recent weeks. Odd happenings hadn’t ended the April evening Cochise stumbled over that wire. One day in early May, when Joe was marking a stand of trees for cutting, Cochise disappeared. Joe had left the horse tied up beneath a grove of Ponderosa Pines while he worked. When he took a break at noon and went to get his lunch from his saddlebags, the horse was gone.

At first, Joe wondered if he hadn’t tied the horse securely, but just as quickly as that thought came to him the young man negated it. He knew he hadn’t been careless with his horse, and besides, even if Cochise did somehow loosen his reins from the branch Joe had looped them around, the horse wouldn’t wander far. He was too well trained, and too loyal to his master, to go running off like a skittish colt.

Joe trekked three miles that day before finding his horse. It hadn’t been difficult to track the animal, but then, Joe didn’t suppose Paul and Charlie intended for it to be difficult, as opposed to just being aggravating. Any questions Joe had in his mind regarding how Cochise managed to wander off were answered when he found the animal standing beside a fence, his reins tied around a rail. Unless Cochise had acquired a new talent, a person, or better put, two persons, were involved in his disappearance.

But since he hadn’t seen or heard anyone, Joe couldn’t prove that, so he didn’t say anything about the incident to his father or brothers. Then, two weeks after that, Joe was working in the same area mending fences. He didn’t have Cochise with him that day, but rather a wagon loaded with tools. When he’d come back to the wagon bed after taking a short walk at lunchtime to loosen his sore back muscles, a hammer was missing. And not just any hammer, but Adam’s favorite hammer. How someone could have a favorite hammer Joe still didn’t know, but he sure heard about it the next day when Adam went to get that hammer from the barn and couldn’t find it.

“Have either of you seen my favorite hammer?”

Joe had been in the ranch yard with Hoss, helping his brother replace some warped boards on a horse trough.

“Nope, Adam, ain’t seen it,” Hoss said from where he knelt beside the trough, his back to the barn. He held up the hammer he was using. “This’n ain’t the one you like. Joe, didn’t you have that hammer a’ Adam’s in the toolbox yesterday when you headed out to mend fence?”

“I didn’t know Adam had a hammer. I thought every hammer around this place was free for the using.”

“They are free for the using,” Adam said. “But they’re also free for the returning. So where is it?”

What Joe wanted to say that day was, “Probably somewhere on the Dunn ranch.” But to do that would have precipitated a discussion the young man didn’t want to have with his brothers, because ultimately they would have told their father about the trouble Paul and Charlie were still giving Joe.

“I don’t know where it’s at.”

“How can you not know where it’s at? You either used it yesterday and brought it home, or you didn’t. Now which is it?”

“I used it, but it never came home with me.”

“And just how did that happen?”

“I. . .I guess I musta’ lost it.”

“Lost it? Joe, you’re eighteen not eight. How do you lose a hammer?”

“I don’t know! I just did, okay! It wasn’t like I meant to. And besides, it’s just a hammer. There’s at least six more like it hanging in the barn. Grab one of those!”

“I don’t want to grab one of those. I want the one you lost!”

“Well if I could give it you I would, but I can’t.”

“You know, if you paid attention to what you’re doing and were more responsible–”

Joe took a step toward his oldest brother. “I do pay attention to what I’m doing, and I am respons–”

“Hey, now, fellas,” Hoss placated while standing. “It’s just a hammer.”

“My favorite hammer.”

“I heard ya’ the first time, Adam. An’ just as soon as Little Joe an’ me are done fixin’ this trough we’ll take a ride out to where he was workin’ yesterday and look around for it. But in the meantime, if ya’ need to use a hammer, then like Joe said, there’s a buncha them right there in the barn.”

“Oh, never mind,” Adam huffed as he turned for the barn. “Sending the two of you to look for a hammer just means that much more work doesn’t get done around this place today. Joe probably planned it that way so you could take a side trip to a fishing hole.”

If Joe hadn’t been in a bad mood to begin with that morning, he would have found Adam’s remark funny, and then would have suggested to Hoss that they do just what big brother said and go fishing. But he didn’t suggest a trip to the fishing hole, because he was growing weary of Paul and Charlie Dunn and their high jinks, and was preoccupied trying to figure out a way to put a stop to their shenanigans without involving his family. Obviously, Joe hadn’t come up with any bright ideas, given that the Dunns had hired those kids to beat him up today.

Without realizing it, Joe scowled as he rode beside the buggy thinking of Paul and Charlie. It was interesting, in an ironic sort of way, as to how life worked sometimes. For two months, Joe hadn’t wanted to tell his father of the Dunn boys’ harassment. But now, when he was beginning to think it might be prudent to talk to Pa, the opportunity wasn’t readily at hand due to the presence of their visitor.

Joe gave a quiet sigh of resignation. His mind was so far removed from what was going on around him that he barely noticed when they arrived in the ranch yard, or the smells of roast beef and chicken wafting from the house that made his stomach growl.

Chapter 18

Daniel remained attentive to his brother and two oldest nephews during the trip to the ranch, while still managing to focus a good deal of his attention on Benjamin’s youngest son. This one was trouble, just like Danny had been. Daniel could spot it a mile away, even when it didn’t arrive beaten up and bloodstained. Those were just the outward signs. Daniel was well aware of this, because Danny had come home more than once looking just like Joseph did now.

The boy’s silence, which was most certainly an indication of idle daydreaming, was another sign, along with that scowl that came and went from his face. The good Lord only knew what evil was churning in that mind of his, just like the good Lord only knew what evil was churning in Danny’s mind until He saw fit to reveal those thoughts to Daniel.

This boy. . .Joseph. . .he reminded Daniel of his son in numerous ways. Although Benjamin had mentioned in his letters over the years that Joseph strongly resembled his mother, Daniel could plainly see the boy possessed Cartwright features, too, just like Danny had possessed various Cartwright features. Joseph was built like Danny – slight and wiry. That’s how Pa had been built, and John was built that way as well. As for where Daniel and Benjamin got their larger, broader builds – they took after the Weston side of the family in that regard.

Then there was the dark curly hair that Benjamin should hold this boy down and take a razor to – well, that was Pa’s hair. Pa always wore his hair far too long and unruly. And whenever he did finally allow Ma to cut it, he never let her give him a proper trim, not even when he was an old man and looked downright foolish with that bushy head of curly hair gone stone white with age, and grown to his shoulders.

John had Pa’s curly hair, though it had more gray in it now days than the dark brown of his youth. Danny had inherited Pa’s curly hair also, though he’d been blond like his mother, and Daniel barely allowed those curls to spring to life before demanding they be cut off.

And then there were the eyes. Joseph and Danny both had their Grandfather Cartwright’s eyes. Maybe Joseph’s mother’s eyes were green as well, that Daniel didn’t know. Regardless, Pa’s eyes had been green, and so were Ellen’s, John’s, and Adele’s, as were Danny’s. Joseph’s eyes reminded him of theirs. And most especially of Danny’s. As though behind the light in those eyes he had a secret he was keeping from Benjamin, just like Danny had kept secrets.

Now Daniel knew why the Lord had sent him to visit Benjamin. His brother might not realize it yet, or he might be refusing to realize it, but he needed help with his youngest son. Joseph needed the Lord’s salvation, and Daniel would do everything in his power to gain the boy that salvation before he met the same fate Danny had. The fate of a sinner damned to the fires of hell for all eternity.

As Benjamin, Adam and Eric continued to tell him all about the Ponderosa as they rode into the ranch yard, Daniel said a silent prayer, asking the Lord to help him cast out the demon residing within young Joseph.

Chapter 19

“Amen.”

“Amen,” Pa, Adam and Hoss echoed respectfully, though Joe swore Adam’s “Amen” sounded more like, “Praise the Lord this prayer’s finally come to an end,” and Hoss’s sounded more like, “Praise the Lord that we can finally eat.”

Joe’s “Amen,” came on the heels of his family’s, because his uncle’s long-winded thanksgiving had lulled him into a light doze that he hoped no one was aware of. By the piercing gaze Uncle Daniel cast upon him from the end of the table opposite of Pa’s chair, Joe had a feeling his little nap hadn’t gone unnoticed.

As platters of food were passed and plates filled, Uncle Daniel seemed pleased with the spread Hop Sing had prepared, because several times he complimented Pa on the skills of his “Chinaman.” Joe didn’t let that phrase bother him the first time, especially because his father courteously and smoothly corrected Uncle Daniel by saying, “Yes, we’re lucky to have Hop Sing. He’s been with us since before Little Joe was born. I don’t know what we’d do without him.”

However, by the fourth time throughout the course of the meal that Uncle Daniel referred to Hop Sing as “the Chinaman,” and even called Hop Sing that as though it were his proper name, Joe was silently seething. He glanced over at Hoss and Adam, neither of whom seemed bothered by it. But then, Adam was good at hiding his feelings, and Hoss was probably too intent on filling his plate with his fourth helping of food to pay any mind to the way Uncle Daniel was subtly insulting Hop Sing, and the way he stubbornly refused to adhere to Pa’s polite corrections. Not even when Pa’s voice held a hint of exasperation while he emphasized their houseman’s name – “Yes, Hop Sing is quite the cook,” – in his most recent attempt to get his brother to understand that no one in this household ever referred to Hop Sing as “the Chinaman,” as though he were a possession and not a person.

While they ate, Pa inquired about family members and friends “back home” in Ohio. Uncle Daniel didn’t seem nearly as interested in talking about these old connections he shared with his brother as Pa was. With a good deal of rudeness, Joe thought, considering how much Pa was enjoying the reminiscing, Uncle Daniel changed the subject. How they got from Cousin Ginny and her problems with failing eyesight, and Aunt Lillian’s newest grandbaby, and Pa’s memories of the nice old man who had owned the dry goods store when he was a boy, to the “Good Lord,” Joe didn’t know. Not that Joe had any strong objections to religion as a topic of conversation at the dinner table, but here on the Ponderosa, that tended to be a discussion reserved for a lazy Sunday afternoon, when Adam and Pa debated the preacher’s sermon, with Hoss and Joe only half-listening while playing checkers.

Joe’s mind drifted as Uncle Daniel rambled on. Adam and Hoss appeared to be daydreaming too, once they determined this topic wasn’t going to die out soon. Uncle Daniel was like a traveling sideshow evangelist. Full of theatrical enthusiasm where God was concerned; yet having no idea when to put an end to his preaching and let his congregation savor his message.

Joe smiled a little as he glanced at his father. He could tell by Pa’s expression that he was thinking the same thing, though he managed to keep his attention on Daniel and act as though this was the first time in all his fifty-three years that he’d heard the Good Word.

“And just what is it that you find so amusing about the Lord, Joseph?”

Joe’s felt his face grow hot under his uncle’s scrutiny. Just his luck. Adam and Hoss were woolgathering same as him, but he was the one Uncle Daniel chose to call on it.

“Uh. . .nothing, Sir.”

“Well, it must have been something, with the way you were sitting there smiling as though you harbor some kind of a secret.”

“Perhaps Little Joe was just appreciating your good preaching, Daniel,” Pa said.

Joe threw his father a grateful look. “Yeah. . .yeah, that’s what I was doing.”

Uncle Daniel didn’t respond. His eyes lingered on Joe a moment longer before he finally broke his gaze.

Boy, I bet this guy was a barrel of laughs as a pa, Joe thought, feeling sorry for Danny and his sisters, while at the same time feeling grateful that he’d been born to Ben Cartwright, and not Daniel Cartwright.

“Do you know the meaning of your name, Joseph?”

Joe had foolishly thought his uncle’s attention had shifted from him. He let his forkful of mashed potatoes drop back to his plate.

“Pardon?”

“I asked if you know the meaning of your name.”

“The meaning of my name? Well. . .I know I’m named for Pa’s father, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“No, that’s not what I’m asking. I mean the Biblical meaning. He shall add. Joseph means, ‘He Shall Add.’ ”

“Oh. Oh. . .well, no. I didn’t know that. Thanks. . .uh thanks for tellin’ me.”

“So, Joseph, just what have you added to this family?”

Hoss jumped in before Joe got a chance to reply.

“Oh, that’s a right easy one ta’ answer, Uncle Dan’el. He’s added a whole passel a’ trouble.”

“Yes, and a wagon load of annoyances,” Adam contributed.

“Not to mention a big ole list a’ pretty little gals just lined up and waitin’ for him to ask ‘em for their hands in marriage.”

“And speaking of pretty little gals, there’s that angry father over in Placerville just hoping to lay eyes on Joe again in order to–”

“Boys, that’s enough,” Pa admonished. Normally, he’d let Adam and Hoss have their fun, but Joe sensed that Pa knew Uncle Daniel wouldn’t recognize good natured humor if it bit him on the rump of his britches – or exaggerated brotherly joshing, either.

Once Adam and Hoss had quieted down, Uncle Daniel asked again, “Joseph, you didn’t answer me. What have you added to this family?”

Thankfully, Pa jumped in before Joe had to formulate a reply, because based on how his temper was rising, Joe was certain that whatever he said, it wouldn’t be considered an appropriate remark for a visiting relative.

“Joseph’s added much to this family, Daniel, just by being my son. He’s added more than I ever want to think of living without, just like all my sons have.” Pa stood. “Now, why don’t we choose our dessert from all those pies Hop Sing has on the sideboard, then carry it and our coffee out to the table on the front porch. After we’re done eating, I’ll take you for a walk around the ranch yard – show you the outbuildings and garden.”

Joe’s father laid a hand on his shoulder as he passed by. Joe wasn’t certain if that gesture was nothing more than a show of affection, or if it was Pa’s way of telling him not to let Uncle Daniel get under his skin. Either way, Joe didn’t rush to join his family in picking out a piece of pie. He would have been happy to remain in the house and out of his uncle’s line of vision, but knew he had no choice but to head to the porch when he heard his father call, “Joe, get your dessert and come join us, son!”

“Yes, Pa!” Joe answered, because no matter how much Pa might disapprove of Uncle Daniel’s ways, he would also expect Joe to be polite and accommodating for the duration of the old man’s visit.

Joe grabbed a dish that held a large slice of peach pie while mumbling, “Boy, I bet Cousin Ruth is sure glad this old guy’s here, and not at home with her.”

He jumped when Hop Sing startled him from behind. “Hop Sing think Cousin Ruth happy girl too, Little Joe.”

Joe laughed at the wink Hop Sing shot him before disappearing into the kitchen with an armload of dirty plates.

If nothing else, Little Joe arrived on the front porch in a better mood than he’d been in at the dinner table. Thankfully, he was able to remain out of Uncle Daniel’s view by leaning against the house while he ate, and then he and his brothers were excused by Pa to take care of whatever ranch duties needed attending to. Joe was never so happy to fill several hours by chopping wood for Hop Sing, mucking horse stalls, and straightening the tack room, as he was that afternoon.

Chapter 20

The remainder of the day passed uneventfully. So uneventfully, that when Joe was lying in bed late that night unable to sleep, he found himself once again puzzling over the ironies of life.

When they’d gotten home with Uncle Daniel that afternoon, Pa pulled Joe aside and told him to change into a clean shirt and have his face tended to by Hop Sing. Joe did as his father requested, arriving at the table clean and looking fairly unscathed, other than the bruises on his face that he couldn’t do anything to hide. But the odd thing about all this – or rather the puzzling ironic thing – was that Pa never asked Joe how he’d come by those bruises in the first place. Granted, that wasn’t an inquiry Pa would have made in front of Uncle Daniel, but knowing Pa, if he were determined to get answers, he’d have carved out some private time with Joe. But Pa didn’t do that, nor did he knock on Joe’s door after everyone retired for the night, as Joe expected him to. If private time wasn’t to be had during the day, then surely after the house was quiet and Uncle Daniel was asleep in the guest room on the main floor, as he was now, then Pa would have wanted to talk to Joe about his transgressions in Virginia City.

And so, this was just another oddity in the winding path Joe was traveling lately. Or maybe better put, the winding path the Dunns continually seemed to be leading him down. Weeks back, when he’d tangled with Paul and Charlie for the first time and arrived home bruised and battered, Joe hadn’t wanted his father’s ministrations. Now, he’d have welcomed those paternal ministrations he’d shunned, and willingly taken any stern admonishments that came his way, too, for not remaining with his brothers at the stage stop, just for the opportunity to speak with Pa about the pranks that were escalating to a level Joe wasn’t prepared for. But evidently Pa thought Joe had gotten caught up in a saloon brawl that morning, and for whatever reason, maybe due to Uncle Daniel’s presence, had chosen not to pursue the matter further.

At any other time, Joe would have thanked his lucky stars that he’d gotten off so easily. But this time. . .well, this time Joe would have paid to be on the receiving end of Ben Cartwright’s anger, just to have the chance to talk to Pa.

Chapter 21

“Little Joe! Joseph, get a move on! Day’s a wastin’!”

“Coming, Pa!”

Little Joe hurried out of his room, tucking his shirttails into his pants as he trotted down the stairs. He’d overslept, but not because he’d snuck out his window and spent the night gambling in Virginia City. He’d overslept because he’d tossed and turned until after two a.m., trying to come up with a solution to Paul and Charlie’s harassment.

Everyone was seated at the table when Joe arrived. His own rear end had barely touched his chair before Uncle Daniel said, “The shiftless man goes hungry.”

“Pardon?” Pa questioned.

“Proverbs chapter 19, verse 15, Benjamin. ‘Laziness brings on deep sleep, and the shiftless man goes hungry.’ If this one were mine, he’d pay for his tardiness with no breakfast this morning.”

By the look on Pa’s face, Joe would have bet a week’s wages he was thinking, “Well, this one isn’t yours, Daniel. He’s mine.”

But Joe would have also bet a week’s wages that even if Pa were thinking that, he wouldn’t say it considering Uncle Daniel was a guest. And he didn’t. Instead, he informed his brother, “All of my sons put in a full day’s work on this ranch six days out of seven. Therefore, in this household, no one starts his day on an empty stomach.” Pa’s eyes shifted to Joe in mild rebuke. “Not even those who arrive late to the breakfast table.”

“Sorry, Pa.”

Pa nodded, as if to say all was forgiven, but don’t let it happen again. And especially not while your uncle is here.

With the way Joe’s luck was running where Uncle Daniel was concerned, it had to be him who made the next blunder as well. He reached his fork out and stabbed two flapjacks off the platter in front of him. They hung in mid-air, halfway between the platter and Joe’s plate, when Uncle Daniel asked, “You don’t thank the Lord for the bounty He’s provided before you eat, boy?”

Joe wanted to say, “Actually, Uncle Daniel, with the exception of before we eat Sunday dinner, or when the preacher is visiting, or on Christmas Day, no, we don’t.”

Oh, how he wanted to say it, and by the gleam in Adam’s eyes, Joe had a feeling his older brother wanted to say it too. But both of them kept their mouths shut – Adam, because he knew when it was prudent to hold his tongue, and Joe because he figured he owed his father a bundle of thanks for the endless number of ways Pa had come to his defense since Uncle Daniel’s arrival. The least Joe could do in return was keep his temper in check and his smart remarks to himself. Though what the heck, it would be fun to share some of them with Hoss later.

A mere movement of Pa’s head prompted Joe to shake his flapjacks back onto the platter. Pa never answered Daniel directly about the issue of prayer before every meal. However, he made a request.

“Daniel, would you please offer the blessing this morning.”

Joe dutifully bowed his head, wondering if the man would finish his lengthy blessing by noon, or if they’d just be able to thank the Lord for lunch as well, and eat both meals at the same time.

Hoss must have been wondering the same thing, because as soon as Uncle Daniel said, “Amen,” he tagged on a hasty, “Amen,” of his own and grabbed the bowl of scrambled eggs. He hurried to scoop a pile onto his plate, as though if he started eating Uncle Daniel couldn’t decide he’d forgotten to praise God for something and start praying all over again.

Joe retrieved his flapjacks, then passed the platter to Pa. The young man decided the best way to stay out of trouble with Uncle Daniel was by passing platters of food, filling his plate, eating, and then hightailing it out of the house as soon as Pa indicated it was time to start the working portion of this day.

Conversation buzzed around Joe that he didn’t pay much attention to. He was too busy concentrating on not saying or doing the wrong thing in front of Uncle Daniel. So far, it seemed likeeverything he’d done was wrong in the man’s opinion. Not that Joe Cartwright was one to put much stock in the opinions of others – not even the opinions of visiting uncles. But out of respect for his father, Joe wanted to, at the very least, not draw any more of the man’s ire.

Joe thought things were going pretty good in that regard, too, until Uncle Daniel held up his cup.

“Chinaman, more coffee.”

Joe glared at his uncle, though the man didn’t appear to notice as he watched Hop Sing refill his cup.

“Thank you, Chinaman.”

“His name’s Hop Sing.”

Uncle Daniel cast a dark gaze on Joe. “What was that, Joseph?”

“Hop Sing. Pa told you three times yesterday that his name is Hop Sing.”

Joe’s tone was sharper than it should have been, especially coming from an eighteen-year-old speaking to an elder, but he didn’t care.

From across the table, Hoss winced, and Adam gave a slight shake of his head. With just that small movement, Joe knew his oldest brother was saying, “Just let it be, Joe. Let Pa handle Uncle Daniel.”

Pa’s, “Joseph,” wasn’t loud or angry, just a firm, no nonsense warning that told Joe impertinence toward his uncle wouldn’t be tolerated.

Unfortunately, Pa didn’t convey that same message to his brother, who also needed to be told to keep his mouth shut as far as Joe was concerned. Purposefully ignorant of Joe’s feelings for Hop Sing, the place the houseman held within the structure of the Cartwright family, or the fact that Hop Sing was still standing in the dining room, Uncle Daniel asked, “Do you know what the Bible says about the yellow race, Joseph?”

Joe saw Adam’s eyes roll upward, as if he knew Uncle Daniel had just fired a round Joe would be determined to answer. At the same time, Joe felt a nudge against his shin. The large boot belonged to Hoss, who was undoubtedly telling Joe not to rise to the bait.

But Joe ignored the eye roll and the foot, as well as the way his father cleared his throat in warning. He laid his utensils down, rested his arms on the table, and met his uncle’s cold stare with one of his own.

“No, Uncle Daniel, I don’t know what the Bible says about the yellow race, but I do know that it says we’re to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. I don’t believe it says anything about sorting our neighbors out by color before we extend that love.”

Pa’s, “Joseph!” came just ahead of Uncle Daniel’s, “Are you going to allow this kind of impertinence, Benjamin?”

Pa gave Joe a heavy scowl. Yet the sigh accompanying that scowl seemed to convey that Pa’s patience was wearing thin with not only his youngest son, but with his oldest brother as well.

“Joseph, help Hop Sing clean up the kitchen, then meet your brothers outside.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Oh, and I think you owe your uncle an apology.”

Joe didn’t think he owed anyone an apology. If any apologizing was done, he thought it should be Uncle Daniel apologizing to Hop Sing. But the trouble refusing to apologize would cause wasn’t worth the effort. Or at least not right now. As Adam had always told him, you have to pick your battles wisely. If Uncle Daniel stayed until the end of summer as planned, Joe had a feeling he and the man would engage in a few more skirmishes before the stage left for Ohio.

Joe’s, “Sorry,” was mumbled, and he wouldn’t look at the man when he said it, but Pa let it ride.

“Now go help Hop Sing.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Joe didn’t consider helping Hop Sing in the kitchen to be punishment, and he doubted his father considered it so either. He figured Pa thought this was the best place for him to cool down while staying clear of Uncle Daniel for a while. Besides, he could eat his breakfast in here just as well as he could eat it in the dining room, and the atmosphere was sure a lot more hospitable as he shared the small kitchen table with Hop Sing.

“Little Joe keep big mouth shut,” Hop Sing ordered quietly. “No get in trouble with Number One Uncle for Hop Sing.”

“I don’t care about any trouble I might get into. He’s not gonna spend the next three months calling you Chinaman if I have anything to say about it.”

“Hop Sing been call worse. Beside, as Honorable Father tell you many time, words just words. Mean nothing unless hotheaded boy let them.”

Joe would have kept on arguing with Hop Sing in the whispered voices they were using, but he quieted to listen to the conversation drifting in from the dining room.

“Is sending Joseph off to do woman’s work really an appropriate punishment, Benjamin? I was thinking more along the lines of a good thrashing followed by a day of hard labor. That’s what the boy needs in order to make him into a respectable man.”

Joe strained to hear his father’s reply.

“There’s no such thing as woman’s work on the Ponderosa. Just work that needs doing, and sometimes that includes any one of us assisting Hop Sing. And as for a hard day of labor, Little Joe is no stranger to those.”

“And the thrashing?”

“Joseph is my son, Daniel. I’ll decide on punishment when and if punishment is necessary. He apologized to you and was sent from the table. That’s enough for now.”

“Humph. Hardly, in my opinion.”

“Well, you’re entitled to that opinion, just like I’m entitled to one of my own. Boys, let’s get the day started. Adam, why don’t you help Uncle Daniel saddle a horse. He’ll be spending the day with me. Joseph! Finish up in the kitchen, then help Hoss load the wagon!”

“Yes, Sir!” Joe called back, hurrying to shovel the remainder of his breakfast into his mouth. He pumped water into the sink for Hop Sing, then turned to the stove to remove pots and pans that needed washing.

“Go,” Hop Sing instructed, taking a pan from Joe’s hands. “Help Mr. Hoss like Father say — and stay far ‘way from Number One Uncle.”

“But I oughta’ at least clear the dining room table. Pa sent me in here to help you, not to finish my breakfast.”

“I tell father you help if he ask. Now go.”

Joe playfully pouted. “Hop Sing, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you were tryin’ to get rid of me.”

“Get rid you, yes. That what Hop Sing try do. Every time father help Hop Sing, or send boys help Hop Sing, dishes get broke, supper get burnt, and kitchen get dirty. Hop Sing no need that kind help.”

Joe laughed while scampering out of the kitchen when one end of a dishtowel smacked against the hind portion of his britches.

His merriment died as he entered the great room to see his father standing in front of the fireplace with his hands spread on the mantel, staring down at the cold logs.

Joe assumed he was in for one heck of a lecture if he let his presence be known. If he were smart, he’d pluck his hat and gun belt from the sideboard and sneak out of the house. But either he didn’t possess a lick of sense, as Adam sometimes said, or his desire to talk to his father about the Dunns outweighed any trouble he was in for being rude to Uncle Daniel.

“Uh. . .um. . .Pa? Pa, I. . .I need to talk to you about–”

“Joseph, let’s just lay what happened this morning to rest. Your uncle. . .well, his manners aren’t always what they should be.” Pa turned from the fireplace to face Joe and hold up a stern finger. “But that’s no excuse for you to practice bad manners too, young man.”

“No, Sir. I know it’s not, and I’m sorry. But, Pa, what I really wanted to talk to you about is yesterday.”

“Yesterday?”

“What happened in town. Why I was late–”

“Benjamin!” Came the call from the front porch. “I’m ready! The Good Lord doesn’t cotton to shiftlessness in the father anymore than he cottons to it from the son.”

“Shiftless,” Pa grimaced. “I’ll show him shiftless…”

Pa suddenly seemed to remember Joe was standing there. He gave his son a weak smile.

“Come along, Little Joe. You’d better help Hoss while I take your uncle with me for the day.”

“Okay. But before we leave, I’d really like to talk to you about yesterday. About why I got beat–”

“Benjamin! Benjamin, are you coming?”

“On my way, Daniel!”

Pa jammed his hat on his head and was still buckling his gun belt as he stepped outside. He glanced over his shoulder at Joe.

“I’m sorry, Joe. What is it you need to talk to me about?”

Joe glanced at Uncle Daniel, who was waiting a few feet from Pa.

“Uh. . .um. . .nothing. Nothing, Pa. It’ll. . .it’ll keep for a better time.”

If Pa was going to form a reply, it was cut short by Uncle Daniel, who was now marching across the ranch yard toward the horse Adam had saddled for him.

“Come along, Benjamin. We’re already losing daylight.”

Adam leaned against a porch support post wearing a sly smile as their father passed by.

“I’d say it’s going to be a long summer, wouldn’t you, Pa?”

As Uncle Daniel bellowed again, “Benjamin!” Pa took a deep breath, mumbling, “Yes, Adam, a long summer. A very long summer,” before hurrying to catch up with his brother and climb on Buck.

After his father and uncle rode away, Joe helped Hoss load the wagon with supplies. As Adam set off to check a stand of timber, Hoss and Joe set off in the opposite direction to spend the day restocking line shacks. By the time they returned home that evening, everyone else was present and supper was ready.

To Pa’s credit, he did remember that Joe wanted to talk to him. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to remember what the subject matter was, or that Joe had tried to speak with him privately.

Pa reached for a dinner roll as Joe passed the basket to him. “Oh, Little Joe, you wanted to speak to me about something this morning,”

“Uh. . .” Joe’s eyes shifted uncomfortably from person to person. He wouldn’t have necessarily objected to having this conversation in front of Adam and Hoss, but he wasn’t going to have it in front of Uncle Daniel. “Uh. . . it’s not important, Pa. It’ll keep.”

Once again, Joe felt Uncle Daniel’s piercing gaze boring into him in a way he’d yet to see it bore into Adam or Hoss.

“Only thing that “keeps,” young man, are secrets. Are you keeping secrets from your father? Benjamin, you’d be wise to find out what this boy doesn’t want to tell you.”

Adam gracefully saved both his father and brother from having to respond by asking Uncle Daniel about the overhead costs of running a general store. Uncle Daniel quickly warmed to the subject, while Pa cast his oldest son a grateful look.

Joe didn’t give anyone grateful looks. Instead, he returned to eating his supper in silence.

Adam was right. This was going to be one long summer. One very long summer indeed.

Chapter 22

If Joe Cartwright and his cousin Ruth were granted the opportunity to meet, they’d have found themselves kindred spirits where their opinions of Daniel were concerned.

Although it was surely sinful to entertain such thoughts, Ruth was glad that her father was on the Ponderosa for the summer, and not at home with her. Running the store with the assistance of her nephew Joshua made work enjoyable.

Just like Ruth had always known, she was quite capable of managing the business. Even without Papa present to bark orders, the shelves got dusted, the floor got swept, the windows got washed, and the purchasing and ordering got done. Ruth had no problem making certain she bought only fresh eggs from the Widow Johnson, nor did she have any challenges negotiating fruit and vegetable prices with Mr. Taylor. Actually, she’d secured even better prices from Mr. Taylor than Papa did. Ruth didn’t know why, though she assumed it might be because she treated Mr. Taylor with respect, and always greeted him with a smile and warm, “Hello, Mr. Taylor,” and ended their transaction with a “Thank you, Mr. Taylor,” and “Have a nice day, Sir.” None of which George Taylor had ever heard from her father in all the thirty some years he’d done business with him.

Joshua wasn’t as much fun as Danny, but then, he wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as Papa, either. He was only fourteen. A shy, quiet boy who, with Papa away, seemed to be opening up more and more each day, like a flower blossoming under the new atmosphere of sunshine Ruth brought to the store. Esther and her husband planned that Joshua would clerk for Papa full-time after the upcoming school year ended. Whether that’s what Joshua wanted, Ruth didn’t know, though an educated guess told her the teenager wasn’t given a choice in the matter. She hated to see him forced into a line of work against his will as Danny had been. She hoped an opportunity to discuss this with him would arise, but for now, Ruth kept her peace. She couldn’t have Joshua saying anything to Esther, for fear Esther would tell Papa that Ruth tried to thwart the plans laid out for the boy’s future. Possibly as the summer wore on, Ruth would grow to feel she could confide in Joshua, and he in her, in the same way she and Danny had confided in one another.

“Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a fence post in my eye,” as Danny used to say whenever they exchanged secrets.

For the time being, Ruth put thoughts of Joshua’s future to the back of her mind. When she wasn’t running the store, she enjoyed her freedom from cooking and ate her supper at the Reedsville Café four nights out of seven. And on the nights she didn’t eat there, she sometimes did what she and Danny would have – ate beans from the can, and then had chocolate drops and licorice sticks for dessert. She’d even had two dresses made that weren’t black. One was pale blue and white, and the other was pink. When she wore them to work, several customers complimented Ruth on her new style, something Papa would have found scandalous, but Ruth didn’t care. She didn’t know what she’d do with the dresses when Papa returned – hide them under her bed perhaps, or in the back of her wardrobe. What she wanted to do was gain the courage to wear them in front of him, and tell him that she didn’t give a hoot what opinions he held about a woman dressed in brightly colored clothing. But without Danny here, she didn’t know if she could find that courage. She kept hoping that by the end of the summer she’d be a different woman from the one Papa said goodbye to in the spring. A stronger woman. A woman able to stand up to her father.

Even with her father far away, Ruth still kept the living quarters neat and tidy, as her mother taught her to do from the time she was a little girl. Of course, back then Ruth thought she’d someday employ these skills in her own home, for her husband and children. She never imagined herself a spinster left alone to take care of her disagreeable, widowed father. Nonetheless, dusting and sweeping and straightening up still needed to be done. Or at least those daily chores had to be done in order for Ruth to feel comfortable in her home.

Before the store opened one morning, Ruth went from room to room, raising windows to let the summer breeze in. She carried a feather duster in a pocket of her apron, running it over furniture, shelves, and knickknacks as she traveled. In another pocket she carried lilac scented sachets. She’d purchased three-dozen of them from Mrs. McCarthy, and had already sold fourteen. Papa would have never considered buying “foolish female notions,” but Papa wasn’t here to do the purchasing, Ruth was. Of course, she’d have to remove the sachets from his dresser drawers before he came home, but for now, she opened two of those drawers and slipped a sachet in each one, thinking of how much her mother would have enjoyed the delicate, sweet smelling lace pillows if only Papa had allowed her some small pleasures now and again.

Ruth crouched down and pulled open the bottom drawer. She removed her father’s winter sweaters in order to place a sachet in one corner of the drawer, when a bound black book slipped out from the clothing. At first, Ruth thought it was a Bible. But upon closer inspection she didn’t see the words ‘Holy Bible’ embossed on the book’s cover, and besides, Papa wouldn’t have left his Bible behind when packing for his trip to Uncle Ben’s.

Ruth absently put the sachet back in her pocket and set the sweaters on the floor. She stood, moving backwards to sit on the edge of her father’s bed. She shouldn’t be nosy, but it was hard to resist the urge to peek at the book when hidden treasures in this home were so rare to run across.

She should have shut the book as soon as she realized it was her father’s journal. That voice inside Ruth that often reminded her she was a sinner, was reminding her of that very fact right now, as she willfully violated her father’s privacy. However, forgoing the temptation to discover something about her father – something personal that might finally give Ruth a glimpse of his inner thoughts and feelings – was impossible.

Initially, Ruth was disappointed with the book’s contents. Based upon the date on the first page, her father started this journal the same year he purchased the store. The majority of recordings were dry and fact-based. Papa wrote of the weather, and what he had to pay for a barrel of flour, and what profit he made on that same barrel over the weeks as he sold it to customers pound by pound. On Sundays, Papa recorded much of the preacher’s sermon, printing Bible chapter and verse numbers he evidently felt tied into the sermon in some fashion or another. Knowing Papa, these were verses he thought the preacher was negligent in making use of on that particular Sunday.

It took a few minutes of reading before Ruth finally came to that “something personal” she’d been searching for. She smiled as she read what her father wrote on the day Danny was born.

~ ~ ~

Though we are no longer young, the Lord has seen fit to bless Clara and I with a son. At this moment, I know how Abraham felt when God said to him, “As for Sarah, your wife, I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

Abraham, at one hundred years of age, was so grateful to the Lord for this miracle of a baby boy, born to him by ninety-year-old Sarah. Clara and I aren’t as advanced in years as Abraham and Sarah, but we are both well past the age where we thought another child possible. I dared not hope the child would be a boy, but God answered my prayers in this regard, and Daniel Weston Cartwright Jr. was born this morning as the first rays of sun lit the March sky.

~ ~ ~

Ruth might have been envious of the eloquent way her father spoke of Danny, but how could a woman be jealous of a brother who’d brought her so much joy, and who’d lit up an otherwise bleak life?

Ruth kept on reading. Papa’s happiness over Danny’s birth was written of numerous times during the first year of the boy’s life, but then the tone of the entries regarding Danny began to change, and soon Papa wrote only of the challenges he had with the child.

Challenges, Ruth thought with disgust. If you call running, and playing, and shouting, and getting dirty, and giggling over some silly rhyme he’d made up or song he’d overheard, challenges. Personally, I call it allowing a little boy to be just that – a little boy.

But for some reason, Danny’s childhood seemed to frighten Papa. Maybe it was because, after raising four girls, he didn’t know how to father an active boy. Or maybe Danny’s personality differed so from Papa’s, that he couldn’t even reflect back on the memories of his own childhood and recall what it was like to be a boy.

I bet Uncle Ben knows all about raising boys. It’s a shame we didn’t live nearer to him, or him to us. Maybe things wouldn’t have been so difficult for Danny if he’d grown up playing with Hoss and Little Joe, and if he’d had Uncle Ben and Adam to turn to for guidance, instead of a father who stubbornly refused to guide him down any path other than the one Papa had preordained for him.

Ruth continued reading, paying no attention to the time. The journal contained hurtful things, too. Things that didn’t come as a surprise to Ruth, but yet, things that had never been spoken of aloud.

~ ~ ~

Ruth is a plain, dull girl, not blessed with the fair features of her sister Miriam, nor with the many talents of Anna, nor the intelligence of Esther. She will live her life here at home, taking care of her mother and me as we age, like a dutiful daughter should.

~ ~ ~

And so, as Ruth long suspected might be the case, her life, like Danny’s, had been preordained by her father. She flipped through the pages of the journal, skimming passage after passage. Jack Stevens wasn’t mentioned, but the woman had little doubt that if her father had mentioned him, he would have said he’d run Jack off on purpose so his plans for Ruth’s future couldn’t be derailed.

As she progressed through the book, Ruth once again found many notations that didn’t extend beyond the recording of the day’s weather, a Bible passage, or how much it cost Papa to have his hair cut by the barber down the street.

And he thinks I’m dull. If I ever kept a journal, I’d surely write about things more interesting than rain, sunshine, and the three-cent increase in the price of a haircut.

Ruth shook her head with disappointment when she came to additional passages about Danny. These were written more recently – during the last two years of the young man’s life. How little Papa knew about his own child. About his only son. How little he appreciated the gifts and talents Danny was born with.

~ ~ ~

Concerns for my son’s salvation are never far from my mind, and weigh heavy on my heart. The boy is a daydreamer and keeps secrets. His head is filled with evil thoughts. I see things in Danny that are inspired by the presence of Satan. I get on my knees each night and pray that the Good Lord will cleanse Danny, or instruct me on how I’m to do the cleansing.

~ ~ ~

Ruth read further, knowing full well she shouldn’t, but unable to stop herself as page after page, a story was told. A story so unimaginable that she couldn’t shut the journal, put it away, and pretend she’d never seen it like she wanted to.

By the time she was done reading, Ruth couldn’t catch her breath. She sat there crying and gasping, her heart pounding in her chest. Papa had been wrong. It wasn’t Danny who harbored secrets. It was Papa himself who harbored them. Terrible, awful secrets that Ruth now knew had taken Danny from them. No, there wasn’t a written confession, but Ruth wasn’t nearly as dumb and dull as her father thought. She could easily read between the lines.

Before Ruth could think further, a voice called from the bottom of the stairs.

“Aunt Ruth! Aunt Ruth, it’s time to open the store!”

When Ruth didn’t answer her nephew, he started climbing the stairs.

“Aunt Ruth! Aunt Ruth, are you all right?”

Ruth grabbed the bedpost and pulled herself to her feet with a trembling hand.

“I’m. . .I’m. . .,” Ruth paused to gather her wits and swallow the tears clogging her throat. “I’m fine, Joshua! I. . .I’ve been cleaning and lost track of time. Please open the store. I’ll be down in a few minutes!”

“Okay!”

When she heard boot steps descending the stairs to the store, the woman shut the journal, shoved it in-between her father’s sweaters, and returned them to the drawer. She had no idea what to do with the information she’d obtained. All she had to go on were the suspicions she’d harbored for months, and now an old man’s recordings in a journal. Who would believe her? Certainly not her sisters. And even if they did, none of them would want to cause trouble for Papa.

Uncle John? Maybe he’d listen to Ruth, but it was doubtful he’d have any suggestions about what she could do without evidence. And as for the town constable. . .well, he wouldn’t believe her either, because Papa was a well-respected member of the community, and a deacon at the First Church of Christ.

In comparison, who was she, other than Ruth Cartwright, a homely spinster who relied on her father for employment and a place to live? Maybe they’d all think she was angry with Papa for her lot in life and was trying to seek revenge against him. Or maybe they’d think her accusations were nothing but the ramblings of a middle aged woman made “addled in the head” by the female changes her body was undergoing. Ruth had heard such things whispered about other women. Women who up and left their husbands without so much as a goodbye, and were never seen from again. Or women who committed suicide for reasons no one could fathom. Or women like Mrs. Bolling, who’d sat on her front porch and cried every day from the time she turned fifty, until her husband finally committed her to the state sanitarium. Women had few legal rights, and even fewer ways to execute those rights. Ruth didn’t want to end up in a sanitarium because no one believed the conclusions she’d reached about Danny’s death.

Ruth untied her apron, using a corner of it to swab the tears running down her face. With a fierce determination she didn’t know she possessed, she gazed at the wooden cross hanging on the wall above her parents’ bed and spoke aloud to the empty room.

“You always told us we’d eventually have to pay for our sins, Papa. But you never mentioned paying for your own sins, as though you were above God’s judgment. But you’re not. You’re not above His judgment, and someday you’ll find that out. Someday you’ll find that out, and when you do, it’ll be far too late for repentance.”

The woman picked up the hem of her dress and fled the room. When she arrived in the store ten minutes later, all traces of her tears were gone, and no one could have guessed what she’d learned by the reading the pages of a hidden journal as she greeted George Taylor with a smile.

Chapter 23

“Amen.”

Amens echoed around the table. Even Joe had learned not to be tardy with his “Amen,” during the three weeks since his uncle arrived on the Ponderosa. Not that Joe hadn’t thought of purposely delaying his amen until about five minutes after the blessing just to get the old man’s goat, or not saying it at all for that matter. But Joe’s respect for his father kept his devilish side in check. Besides, it had become apparent Uncle Daniel was a harsh judge of character, and that Pa tried hard to please him in order to avoid that judgment.

It amused Joe to see his father thrust into the role of “little brother.” He could tell it rankled Pa to be treated by Uncle Daniel as though he was ten years old. Joe silently laughed each time he witnessed that treatment, knowing someday he’d remind his father of these moments, when Joe had a complaint about Adam being bossy, or Hoss being overprotective, and Pa brushed it off by saying, “Joseph, your brothers are just doing what all good older brothers do. They’re watching out for you.” Joe was just itching for the opportunity to come back with, “Just like Uncle Daniel was watching out for you, huh, Pa?”

Unlike Pa, Joe generally encountered Uncle Daniel’s prickly ways only at breakfast and supper. Pa kept the man with him on most days, finding things for Uncle Daniel to do or learn to do. That was the one area in which Joe held admiration for his uncle. Daniel wasn’t afraid of hard work, and for a man of his years, was willing to take on any task asked of him.

When business affairs required Pa to take leave of his brother, he put the man in Adam’s care. Neither Adam nor Hoss seemed to find Uncle Daniel as disagreeable as Joe did. But then, Adam was too polite and proper to speak ill of their uncle, and Hoss was too good hearted to say any unkind words about the man.

“Don’t you think he’s an ornery ol’ cuss?” Joe had asked his middle brother just three days earlier as they rode through brush and scrub trees looking for strays.

“Aw, Joe, he ain’t so bad. Ya’ just gotta git to know him.”

“I’ve already gotten to know him all I want to. I’m tired of him always starin’ at me, as though he’s waiting for me to make a mistake.”

“What kinda mistake?”

“Like not bein’ able to give him the chapter and verse of some Bible passage, or not bein’ able to tell him what the preacher’s message was this past Sunday. He’s sittin’ in church same as me. Why the heck does the old coot need me to repeat the sermon?”

“Some folks is just like that, I reckon. You know, real outward about their ties to God.”

“He can be as outward as he wants, but I don’t know why he’s always callin’ on me for answers like I’m a kid in school who didn’t study my lessons. Have you ever noticed that? He doesn’t pick on you or Adam a lick.”

“ ‘Cause me and Adam don’t deserve to be picked on. We done know our lessons.”

Hoss laughed after he said that, and laughed even harder when Joe didn’t find it nearly as funny as he did. When his merriment abated, he said, “Ya’ know what yer problem is, little brother?”

“What?”

“Ya’ take Uncle Dan’el too seriously. Don’t let his ways git under yer skin. Come September he’ll be gone, and I’d say it’s a long-shot he’ll ever visit these parts again, given his age and all them miles between here and Ohio.”

“Praise the Lord for small favors.”

“Better not let Pa hear ya’ say that.”

“Oh, I think Pa’s said it more than once since Uncle Daniel got here, just not in front of us.”

“Well now. . .ya’ might be right about that. He is kinda hard on Pa. But still, you know how Pa feels when it comes to bein’ polite and respectful to houseguests. Even the ones who are a bit on the cantankerous side.”

“Yeah, I know how Pa feels. Why do you think I haven’t told the old codger to jump off a cliff yet?”

“Figured you was learnin’ to practice that restraint Adam’s always tellin’ ya’ would be to yer benefit.”

“Then, Brother, you should think again.”

“And so should you, ‘cause Pa won’t cotton to you tellin’ his brother to jump off a cliff.”

“I suppose not — ‘cause Pa probably wants the first chance to say it.”

“Joe!”

Joe laughed at the admonishment.

“Come on. Let’s get back to work and forget about Uncle Daniel for a while. Supper time’ll roll around soon enough, and no doubt he’ll be askin’ me to recite somethin’ from the Bible, or wanna know what I did when I was in town this morning, or accuse me of “harboring secrets,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.”

“Me and Adam always have thought ya’ was a sneaky little bugger.”

“With two nosy older brothers like you, a guy’s gotta be sneaky in order to have a moment’s peace.”

“More like in order to git hisself in the kinda trouble he don’t want his pa to know nothin’ of.”

“There’s that too, Hoss.” Joe waggled his eyebrows and shot his brother a mischievous grin. “There’s that too.”

Today, however, Joe wasn’t being sneaky, or getting into trouble. All he’d done so far was his morning chores, and then attended church with his family.

Now that the amens were said, platters of food circulated the dining room table. Joe breathed easy when it appeared his uncle was intent on rehashing the Sunday service, as opposed to asking Joe to rehash it.

As the man droned on, Joe’s mind drifted to the dance he’d attended the previous evening in Virginia City. He could usually count on his brothers tagging along with him. More than likely Pa put them up to it in an effort to keep Joe out of that trouble Hoss spoke of the other day. But on this particular Saturday night, Adam accepted an invitation to dine at the home of an old friend, and Pa sent Hoss to the Carter ranch. A broken leg had Abe Carter laid up. Hoss spent the day doing a long list of neglected chores, then stayed on for supper at Mrs. Carter’s insistence. Joe figured Mrs. Carter regretted that invitation once she saw how much food Hoss could pack away, but if nothing else, his appetite probably provided the five Carter children with some much needed entertainment.

For reasons Joe couldn’t explain, he hadn’t been drawn to the crowd of young women he usually danced with on Saturday nights. He hadn’t asked Grace Thompson to write his name on her dance card. He hadn’t kicked up his heels with Rachel Davis when the fiddler played the Virginia Reel. He hadn’t tried to hold Jenny Parsons so close that her bosoms rose and fell against his chest with each breath she took while they waltzed in a circle around the floor, nor had he tried to dance Amanda Evans right out the door and behind the barn where. . .well, where things went on that neither Amanda’s father, nor Joe’s, would approve of. Instead, Joe’s eyes fell on the girl standing by herself in a far corner. He wondered if Nan Henning always attended these Saturday night dances. If she did, he’d never noticed her before.

He approached her, not hindered by any other young man trying to get his name on Nan’s dance card. Nan didn’t even have a dance card tied to her wrist with a ribbon like the other girls did, as though she didn’t expect anyone to ask her. Joe supposed most guys would consider Nan plain, and he guessed she was. Or at least a fella wasn’t immediately drawn to her face or figure. But there was something about her – something Joe had never noticed before. A demeanor that spoke of quiet confidence and determination. A demeanor that spoke of a girl who was no stranger to hard work, but also didn’t complain about what she had to do in order to put food on her family’s table.

Nan seemed startled when he’d first come to stand in front of her. Joe wondered if she still feared her employment with the Dunns would be in jeopardy if she were seen with him. He looked around, not spotting Paul or Charlie anywhere.

When he turned back to face Nan, Little Joe’s voice held a tinge of shyness that surprised him.

“Hi.”

Nan’s response was equally as shy. “Hi.”

They both laughed then, as if realizing they’d known one another going all the way back to their early years at Virginia City’s schoolhouse. Therefore, shyness on either of their parts was just plain loco.

“Listen, I’m sorry I haven’t had a chance to say a proper thank you for the way you helped me in that alley.”

“No thanks are necessary.”

“Well now, Miss,” Joe said with a playful, gallant air, “that’s where I think you’re wrong.”

Nan smiled, her eyes twinkling with amusement. “All right, Sir, then thank away.”

Joe laughed again. As the sound of a fiddle, banjo, guitar, and mouth harp swelled around them, Joe sobered.

“Thank you. Who knows how long I would have laid there if you hadn’t come along. And thanks for telling me–”

Wariness lit the girl’s eyes. “I didn’t tell you anything.”

“Thanks for telling me to watch my step,” Joe finished, giving her a wink. “I appreciate it.”

“I. . .I wish I could have done more. . .helped more, but I couldn’t, Little Joe.” The girl’s eyes flicked around the dance hall, making certain no one was eavesdropping on their conversation. “My job–”

“I understand.”

“And. . .and things are okay?”

Joe smiled. “Things are fine.”

“No more trouble?”

“Nope. No more trouble.”

And Joe was telling Nan the truth. He hadn’t experienced problems of any kind since that day in the alley. Which was also why he hadn’t made further attempts to speak with his father about the Dunns. Hopefully, Paul and Charlie had gotten the anger out of their systems over those lost timber contracts.

As the music changed tempo and slowed, Joe asked, “How about a turn around the dance floor?”

“The dance floor?”

“Yeah. Come on.”

“I. . .I’m not a very good dancer. Or at least I don’t think I am.”

“You don’t think you are?”

Her eyes dropped to the floor as she shook her head.

“I. . .no one’s ever asked me to dance before.”

“Well all the more reason to say yes, then. You don’t know what you’re missin’.”

“I–”

Joe slipped a hand into one of hers. “Come on. I’ll teach you.”

“Little Joe – Little Joe, wait.”

“Wait for what? If we wait too long this song’ll be over.”

“Your. . .your pa might not approve.”

“My pa? What makes you say something like that?”

“I’m just the Dunns’ house girl. I’m not someone – someone from an important family like Jenny Parsons is.”

“Those kinda things don’t matter to my pa. And besides, he didn’t ask you to dance with him, now did he? It was me who did the askin’.”

Nan smiled at his joke. “Well, if you’re sure.”

“The only thing I’m sure about, Nan Henning, is that if we don’t get to dancin’ pretty soon you’ll be gettin’ you’re first lesson with no music. Won’t be long and the fellas’ll be takin’ a break.”

“All right, all right,” she finally agreed with a laugh, letting Joe take her out to the dance floor.

Joe didn’t pay any mind to the girls who stared and whispered that night. Girls who were likely angry with him for dancing with Nan Henning five more times, then walking her home. He didn’t try to kiss her as he stood outside the front door of the small home her parents rented on the south side of Virginia City. They talked for a few minutes about their school days and things going on around town, then Joe said a shy, “Good night, Nan. Thanks for the dances,” as though he wasn’t certain if this was the start of a friendship, or something more serious.

Nan didn’t pretend to trip on the hem of her dress and then fall into his chest with the hopes of stealing a kiss as Grace Thompson always did, nor did she stand there looking up at him with big old calf eyes and lips parted invitingly as Rachel Davis did. He actually liked it that all she did was say, “Good night, Little Joe,” in return, and, “Thank you for this evening. I had a lot of fun.”

After he’d seen Nan safely into her home, Joe caught up with Tuck and Mitch. They teased him a little about dancing with Nan, but they didn’t speak ill of her. Just voiced their surprise at Joe’s choice of partners – Tuck even said it was the first lick of sense Joe had ever shown where a girl was concerned, and Mitch said he thought Nan was a real nice gal.

Little Joe stayed in town that night longer than Adam or Hoss would have let him. That was the nice thing about being there without them – and about hooking up with Tuck and Mitch. No need to go home too early on a Saturday night. Especially not if there was a chance that Uncle Daniel was still awake.

The house was quiet when Joe slipped in the front door at one-thirty on Sunday morning. Without making a sound, Joe removed his gun belt and set it on the sideboard. He blew out the lamp that Pa left lit for him. His brothers’ horses were in their stalls, so the lamp didn’t need to continue glowing for any other Cartwright son.

He bent and took his boots off, then carried them in his left hand as he silently walked to the stairs. Joe was halfway to the second story when he thought he heard a soft “click” behind him, as though a door had been closed. He turned, but didn’t see anyone. After a few seconds Joe shrugged, then continued to his room.

Joe’s mind was still focused on the previous evening when a voice boomed from the end of the table.

“Speaking of the devil’s evils. Joseph, what had you out until after one a.m. on a Sunday morning?”

Joe looked at his uncle. Evidently, the recounting of the Sunday sermon had come to an end. As the man glowered at him, Joe was once again tempted to give an answer sure to rile the old man.

A girl, a few beers, a shot of whiskey, and a hand of poker, Uncle Daniel. That’s what had me out until after one on a Sunday morning.

“Uh. . .I went to a dance.”

“I told your father I don’t approve of dances.”

“Nonetheless,” Pa said from the opposite end of the table, “Little Joe had my permission to attend, Daniel.”

“And did you ask him what he did there? Or why he arrived home at such a late hour?”

“If I thought it was necessary, I would. But I don’t see any reason to.”

“Then evidently I must do your job for you, Benjamin.”

“Daniel…”

Joe heard the warning tone in his father’s voice. As though he was on the verge of telling his brother he was growing weary of the man’s interference.

For as much as Joe wanted to see that happen, at the same time he didn’t want his father and uncle exchanging words because of him. As Hoss had said, come September Uncle Daniel would be gone, and Pa would probably never see him again. Regardless of Daniel’s difficult personality, he was still Pa’s brother, and Joe didn’t want his father to someday have regrets about this visit.

“It’s okay, Pa,” Joe assured. He turned to his uncle. “I danced at the dance. That’s what I did.”

“And who did you dance with?”

“Just…just a girl.”

Why Joe couldn’t bring himself to say Nan’s name he wasn’t sure. He supposed because he didn’t want to put up with the teasing he’d get from his brothers. Not that it would be mean spirited teasing. They’d say similar things to what Tuck and Mitch had said, and Pa would say something like, “Well, now, Nan Henning. She’s a nice girl, Joseph.”

And she was a nice girl. It was just that this was one of the first times in Joe’s life that he had something private. Something one of his brothers didn’t already know about. And since he was confused about his feelings for Nan – were they real, or were they steeped in gratitude over the way she’d helped in the alley, or had he felt sorry for her standing all alone in the corner last night, or were they based on old school chum camaraderie – he didn’t want to try and explain them to his family. It was bad enough that he couldn’t sort them out. He sure didn’t need to get all red in the face and tongue-tied over a girl that, first and foremost, he hoped would be his friend.

“And did this girl have a name?”

Joe looked at his plate. “I. . .I suppose she did.”

“Well, what is it?” Uncle Daniel demanded.

“Yeah, Joe, come on,” Hoss said, “what is it?” He winked at Adam. “Bet it was that new little gal Joe’s had his eye on. What’s her name? Lenora?”

“Leona,” Adam supplied. “Leona Merriweather.”

“Well, Joseph,” Uncle Daniel questioned, “is it this Leona Merriweather your brothers speak of?”

Joe mumbled, “Only if I’ve takin’ to squirin’ seventy year old women around town.”

Over Adam’s and Hoss’s laughter, Uncle Daniel said, “What was that, boy? Speak up. There’s no reason to mumble if you’re walking a righteous path.”

Joe looked to his father for help. Thankfully, Pa remembered what it was like to be a young man who had the right not to tell his family every detail of his life.

“Adam. Hoss. That’s enough. Same goes for you, Daniel. Little Joe deserves some privacy. If he doesn’t want to tell us who he danced with last night, then he doesn’t have to.”

Uncle Daniel shook his head. “You’re making a mistake where this boy is concerned, Benjamin.”

Pa raised in eyebrow. “Then it’s my mistake to make, not yours. Now please pass that fried chicken around the table again, Adam. I could use another helping.”

Joe thought his father could likely use a stiff drink to go along with his chicken, but Pa didn’t voice it, so Joe refrained from suggesting it.

Chapter 24

Daniel’s eyes followed Joseph as the boy walked out the door with his brothers. Soon, he heard horseshoes clanging against metal stakes. He didn’t disapprove of horseshoes per say, as long as no gambling was involved. However, he did disapprove of this game being played on the Sabbath. He’d said as much to Benjamin on several occasions, but there was little use in bringing it up again. Benjamin was a church-going man, but wasn’t committed to the Lord in the manner he should be. This is what Daniel feared would come of life in the West. It made him doubly thankful that he’d put an end to Ruth’s foolish notions of heading west with her Uncle Ben all those years ago.

As Benjamin sat in his chair reading the newspaper he’d purchased after church, Daniel sat in the chair opposite him with his open Bible in his lap. He’d tried to read, but found himself unable to concentrate. He wished Benjamin could see all the troubles that lay ahead with Joseph, troubles that would bring with them a shame so deep and painful that Benjamin would never want to speak the boy’s name again. Those evasive answers Joseph gave – he’d “danced” at the dance, and with “a girl” who apparently had no name. These were the kinds of answers Danny had given, until the day arrived when Daniel found out there was no girl, and that Danny had gotten quite skilled at lying and dishonoring the Lord.

Daniel pondered how to broach the subject of Joseph with his brother. Thus far, he’d had little success at pointing out the error of Benjamin’s ways when it came to the raising of Joseph. Whenever it seemed as though the Lord laid an opportunity forth, as he’d done today during lunch when Daniel questioned the boy as to why he’d arrived home so late, the devil seemed to work equally as hard at making certain Benjamin remained willfully ignorant to Joseph’s wrong doings. This had happened time and time again since Daniel arrived. From the very first day when the boy came to the stage late and in a deplorable condition, to the way he paid scant attention in church each Sunday, to the nights he came home long after everyone else was in bed, to the answers to questions that weren’t really answers at all, but instead just vague double talk that Benjamin accepted without further inquiry.

Benjamin was stubborn. And if the devil was at work blinding him to Joseph’s evils, then that stubbornness would prevail. But all the stubbornness in the world couldn’t stand up against the Lord. So as his brother continued to read the Territorial Enterprise as though he possessed not a care in the world, Daniel silently prayed that the right opportunity would come along to open Benjamin’s eyes before it was too late, and Joseph was condemned to the fires of hell for all eternity, just like Danny had been.

Chapter 25

Joe waded through the fast-flowing stream, water sloshing over his boots and soaking the hems of his trousers. The stream was wide enough and deep enough in places to harbor the dangers of a river each spring when it filled with melting snow from mountain runoffs. During the summer months, this was one of several sources the Cartwrights depended upon to provide water for their cattle. Thanks to some industrious beavers, this particular water source was now dammed. Adam spotted the pesky critters’ handiwork earlier in the week, but didn’t have the time to tear apart their barrier of sticks, leaves, and branches. Or at least that’s what Adam claimed when he assigned Joe this particular task on Thursday morning.

Joe took the lunch Hop Sing packed for him and headed off toward the high country after breakfast. It was close to ten when he finally reached the dam. He sat on Cochise shaking his head while surveying the mess. Adam hadn’t been fibbing when he said he didn’t have the time to deal with it. It would take the better part of the day to clear the stream.

The young man worked for over two hours, stopping only long enough to remove his hat, shirt and gun belt, and to take a few swigs of water from his canteen. Tearing apart the massive barrier was like unlocking pieces of a puzzle. If you pulled on the wrong branch, you got nothing for your efforts but a sore back. Joe found himself forced to start at the top and work down, taking the dam apart in the reverse order the beavers built it. Except as time went on and Joe realized how tight the interlocking branches fit together, he began to wonder if this dam had been built by beavers at all. He straightened and stood back, studying it. Given the amount of time he’d already put in, he hadn’t made much headway. And unlike other dams he’d torn apart, he couldn’t seem to grab onto any branch in the middle, give it a good tug, and have a portion of the structure tumble apart.

“Those beavers either had a blueprint,” Joe mumbled as he subtly glanced around, “or a couple of beavers by the last name of Dunn have been hard at work causin’ trouble again.”

Joe kept his stance casual and loose, as though he was resting for a few minutes. He listened, but didn’t hear anything other than water trickling across rocks in the creek bed. Cochise was tied off to Joe’s left, out of the sun and minus his saddle. Considering Joe figured he’d be here until late in the afternoon, he’d taken the saddle and blanket off his horse. The saddlebags that held his lunch were sitting on the ground beside the saddle, as was his canteen. His stomach growled; reminding him it was past noon. But for the moment, Joe was more interested in taking a stroll than he was in eating.

Neither his eyesight nor hearing revealed anyone in the area. Nonetheless, Joe continued walking, doing his best to act nonchalant while remaining vigilant.

I’m gonna feel like seven ways a fool if it was just beavers that built this dam.

Despite that thought, Joe continued his surveillance. Which, unbeknownst to him, was exactly what Paul and Charlie Dunn wanted him to do. Joe was so intent on observing the land around him, that he wasn’t paying any attention to the land below him. Without warning, that land gave way, and Joe disappeared from view as though the ground had just swallowed him whole.

Chapter 26

Ben sank to the chair behind his desk, the cushioned upholstery hugging his aching back. It had been a long day. He and Daniel spent the morning getting supplies in Virginia City, and the afternoon sorting cattle. Now Ben needed to get caught up on paperwork before the boys arrived home from hither and yon for supper. He pulled out a ledger and pencil, only half listening to his brother.

“I want to thank you for making the time to show me Lake Tahoe today. She’s a fine example of the beauty of God’s work.”

“Yes, she is,” Ben agreed, his attention already absorbed in his bookwork. “The boys and I have enjoyed many happy hours on her shores. We’ve eaten a fair number of picnic lunches there, and fished there more times than I can recall. And it was on the shore we visited today where I taught all three of them to swim.”

“She’d be the perfect host for a repentance and baptism ceremony.”

Although Ben thought Daniel’s phrasing was rather odd – he knew what a baptism was, of course, but he’d never heard it called a “repentance and baptism ceremony” before – he didn’t dwell on it. Preoccupied with adding a column of figures, he simply gave a distracted, “Yes, it would be,” and didn’t notice that Daniel walked toward the kitchen.

Ben was left alone long enough to have made some progress with his work, when Daniel’s voice brought his nose from his ledger.

“Benjamin, your Chinaman made lemonade.”

Ben glanced up, taking the glass his brother handed him.

“Thank you. Hop Sing always seems to know what we need before we ask for it.”

Daniel took a seat in a chair across from Ben’s desk. When he was settled and had taken a sip from his own glass of lemonade, Ben said, “You know, our ‘Chinaman,’ as you call him, has a name.”

Daniel frowned. “You’re making a mistake by indulging him.”

Ben raised an eyebrow. “Hop Sing?”

“No. Joseph.”

“What does Little Joe have to do with how we refer to Hop Sing?”

“Joseph appears to have a lot to do with everything that goes on in this house.”

Ben leaned back in his chair with a heavy sigh, massaging his forehead with the fingers of his right hand. If any one of his sons were present, they’d have been able to warn Daniel that this posture was a sign you were getting on Ben Cartwright’s nerves.

When Ben had reminded himself ten times over that he didn’t want a falling out with his brother, he stopped rubbing his forehead and calmly addressed the man.

“As I mentioned the day you arrived, Hop Sing has been with us since before Joe was born. Joseph was just a little boy when his mother died, and I needed someone to take over the role of mother, if you will, during those times I was working somewhere on the ranch and couldn’t have a five-year-old with me. Therefore, he feels a strong affection for Hop Sing. I realize Little Joe was disrespectful to you, Daniel, but please try and understand that from his point of view, you’re being disrespectful each time you call Hop Sing Chinaman.”

Daniel didn’t respond the way Ben expected him to. There was no lecture regarding what the Bible said about the yellow race, and no lecture about a young pup in need of learning to hold his tongue and respect his elders. Instead, Daniel smiled. Something Ben didn’t often see him do.

“Benjamin, if I haven’t told you this, I’m proud of you.”

Ben was momentarily taken aback by this rare compliment.

“Well. . .well now, thank you. Thank you, Daniel. Coming from you, that means a lot.”

“As you know, I had great concerns when you spoke of coming West all those years ago. And although I don’t cotton to many of the ways out here, you’ve handled yourself honorably. You’ve accumulated much wealth, but you’ve remained a humble man. You’ve remembered where you came from.”

“I always try to. All we were taught on that little farm back in Ohio is an important part of me.”

“And it appears you’ve upheld those teachings. As well, your neighbors and the town’s people speak highly of you. And from what I gather, you give generously to your church and its causes.”

“I believe that if a man is able to, he should give back some of his good fortune to those in need. I’ve done my best to instill that in my sons, as well.”

Daniel nodded. “Adam and Eric are fine men. Adam is intelligent and capable. A steady young man in both his thinking and his actions.”

“Adam’s always been reliable,” Ben smiled. “Even when he was just a boy.”

“And Eric. . .he has a righteous soul. He’s a good Christian man and a hard worker.”

“Hoss is all of those things and many more. I rely on him just as much as I do Adam, only in different ways, as befitting their different personalities.”

“The Lord has blessed you with two sons you can be proud of, Benjamin. Sons who will take care of you in your old age as loving sons should.”

Ben chuckled. “Well, I hope my old age is a few years off yet.”

“Perhaps the Lord will see fit to bless you with good health as he has blessed me.”

“Perhaps he will. But the Lord hasn’t blessed me with just two sons I can be proud of,” Ben reminded his brother. “He’s blessed me with three.”

“And now you come to the heart of my concern.”

“The heart of your concern?”

“Joseph.”

“And why does Little Joe cause you concern?”

“He causes me concern, Benjamin, because he obviously causes you none.”

“Pardon?”

“You’re blind to Joseph’s doings.”

“His doings?”

“He has a lot of Pa in him.”

“Pa?” Ben frowned. “What does Pa have to do with this discussion?”

“In letters you’ve written to me over the years, you’ve said Joseph takes after his mother.”

“He does.”

“That may be so, but he also takes after our pa.”

“And if he does, what would be so wrong with that?”

“Pa was high-spirited. Maybe you don’t remember those spirits as well as I do, because they’d been tamed some by the time you came along. But if it hadn’t been for Ma. . .”

“If it hadn’t been for Ma what?”

“I don’t know what, other than to say it would have led to no good. He enjoyed his liquor, and he never happened upon a card game that he didn’t sit down and join, and there were times when he didn’t come home and Ma wasn’t sure where he was.”

Ben’s disbelief was plain to hear. “Wasn’t sure where he was, or wasn’t sure when he was due back? There’s a difference, you know.”

“Maybe so. But you know as well I do that he wasn’t a God-fearing man. I remember walking to church with Ma, and her telling me that if we prayed hard enough for Pa, that someday he’d come with us. Only he never did. And not long after that the babies died one by one.”

“You can’t blame Pa for those deaths, Daniel. Our brothers and sisters died due to illness and misfortune, not because of anything Pa did or didn’t do.”

“Haven’t you ever wondered why the Lord took so much from him?”

“No, I haven’t. I’ve always thought that after a lot of heartache, the Lord blessed Pa and Ma with six more children who thrived, just like you thrived.”

“You’re entitled to your views. But as for me, I believe the Lord was punishing our pa. Unfortunately, Ma was punished right along with him, and she didn’t deserve that.”

Ben remained silent a long moment, gathering his thoughts before finally speaking them out loud.

“I won’t argue when you say Pa was high-spirited. His liveliness is one of my fondest memories of him. And yes, I suppose you’re right. Pa had a…thirst for things a preacher wouldn’t approve of. But he always provided for us, Daniel. We never went hungry, or wanted for a warm fire, or a roof over our heads, or shoes on our feet when winter came, or sound guidance at his knee.” Ben chuckled. “And sometimes across his knee, as well. And when he’d walk in the door at night and swing us over his head one by one, and rub that wild tangle of hair into our bellies while laughing in that funny way he had that made everyone laugh right along with him–”

“The laugh your Joseph inherited.”

“Is that such a bad thing?”

“I don’t suppose it would be if that was the only trait of our pa’s your youngest possessed.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I will always honor the memory of our father, Benjamin, as the Bible says I must. But nonetheless, I shall not lie to myself about his faults, nor forget them.”

“We all have our faults.”

“We do, but we can overcome them by using the Bible as our guide and the Lord as our compass. That’s all Ma ever wanted from Pa, and for as much as he loved her, it was the one thing he could never bring himself to do.”

Ben didn’t make a response to his brother. Obviously, their memories of their father differed. But Ben couldn’t in good conscience tell Daniel his memories were wrong. Memories are based on so many things, from perspective, to an individual’s personality, to in this case; the fact that Daniel was fourteen years older than Ben, and remembered their father when Pa wasn’t much older than Little Joe was right now.

Did Ben think that if Joe married tomorrow and had a child soon thereafter that his parenting skills might be lacking now and again? Of course they would. There was no getting around the fact that an eighteen-year-old boy has some wild oats to sew. By God’s own hand, Ben believed, a thirty-year-old made a far different father than an eighteen-year-old did. Pa was still several months short of his nineteenth birthday when Daniel was born. He was thirty-three when Ben came along. That was quite a stretch of years to mature and change, and settle into the “Weston Ways” as Pa used to say when teasing Ma about how she’d driven some of “that ole devil clean on outta me.”

Daniel interrupted Ben’s thoughts.

“It is said the son often pays for the sins of the father. It’s my fear that sometimes the Lord makes the grandsons pay for the sins of the grandfather, unless we, as fathers, take matters into our own hands and correct them. As the Bible says, we are given free will to follow the Lord, or to turn from Him. It’s our choice.”

“Daniel, come on now. You’re making Pa sound like. . .well, like someone he wasn’t.”

“He sinned, Benjamin. That’s why so many children were taken from him.”

“All have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” Ben quoted from the Bible.

“That’s true, but only the sinner who repents earns the Lord’s forgiveness.”

Ben started to stand. He suddenly felt the need to see how Hop Sing was getting along with the supper preparations. He smiled at his brother. The same polite smile he used when any guest annoyed him.

“As the father of three sons, I well understand that sometimes brothers disagree. So on this subject, we’ll disagree and leave it as such.”

“Benjamin, please sit for a moment longer. On this one thing hear me out. Please don’t let your stubbornness get in the way.”

Ben reluctantly sat back down. “What one thing?”

“Don’t allow Joseph’s charm and easy smile to blind you to the facts.”

“The facts?”

“You need to break that boy before it’s too late, just like you’d break an unruly colt.”

“Daniel, I’m confused by just what you think needs breaking where Little Joe is concerned.”

“You have no control over him. You think you do, he allows you to think it, but you don’t. He’s secretive. He comes home at all hours of the night. He arrived at the stage after being involved in a brawl like a common street thug. He daydreams when he should be listening to the preacher, and–”

“In other words, he’s a normal eighteen-year-old boy.”

“That may be so, but I doubt you had these same challenges with Adam or Eric.”

“Joseph isn’t a reproduction of his brothers, any more than Adam and Hoss are reproductions of each other. And just like their father, none of them is perfect. Why sometimes I think Adam takes life far too seriously. And sometimes I wish Hoss’s soft-heart didn’t mean that he was vulnerable to every ne’er-do-well with a sad story. And yes, sometimes I wish Little Joe’s high spirits, as you phrase it, didn’t lead him into trouble. But I treasure each of my sons for who they are, and wouldn’t change a one of them even if God gave me that opportunity.”

“See, Benjamin, this is what I’m so concerned about. That you won’t listen to me with an open mind.”

“My mind is open, but I think I know Little Joe better than you do.”

“That may be so, but it may also be the reason why you only see the good in him and not the evil.”

“Evil? Daniel, begging your pardon, but I think that’s a harsh word to attach to my son. Little Joe isn’t evil.”

“Evil is often hidden. That’s the way Satan works.”

“I’m sure it is, but I have no worries about evil where Joseph is concerned. Foolish pranks, yes. Impulsive decisions, yes. Times when his temper gets the best of him, yes. Those are the things I worry about. But evil – no. That thought has never crossed my mind.”

“Well, perhaps it should before it’s too late.”

“Daniel–”

The man leaned forward with intensity burning in his brown eyes. “Benjamin, I beg of you. Don’t make the same mistakes I did.”

Ben’s brow furrowed with puzzlement. “Mistakes?”

“Don’t think that just because you’re a good Christian and a God-fearing man, that Satan can’t dwell in your house.”

“I’m sure he can.” Ben chuckled and added, “Though I can’t say I’ve ever seen any signs of him.”

“Don’t make light of this. As your eldest brother, I’m attempting to counsel you.”

“And I appreciate that counsel. However, I don’t appreciate you speaking ill of Pa, or implying that Little Joe is up to no good.”

Daniel hesitated a long moment, then leaned back and gave a reluctant nod. “As you wish. This is your home, and I’m just a visitor.”

“You’re more than a visitor. You’re my brother.”

“But a visiting brother nonetheless. Therefore, I shall keep my opinions to myself. But you can’t stop me from praying for you and Joseph.”

“And I won’t ask you to.”

“Very well then.” Daniel stood. “I believe I’ll go to my room and rest before dinner.”

“You’re more than welcome to do so. I’ll let you know when the food is on the table.”

As his brother started to walk away, Ben got to his feet and stepped around the desk.

“Daniel? No hard feelings?”

The man turned around, meeting Ben’s eyes while shaking his head.

“No hard feelings. You must guide your sons as you see fit. It’s not my place to tell you otherwise. ”

Ben nodded his thanks. He watched as Daniel headed for the guestroom. Upon hearing the door close, he turned toward the table where the liquor decanter sat. Not for the first time since his brother arrived, Ben longed for something stronger than lemonade. Unlike other days, however, today Ben acted on that longing. He poured brandy into a glass, then returned to his desk and slowly sat back down with the air of a man preoccupied by his thoughts.

Chapter 27

The paperwork Ben planned on completing went untouched. He sipped his drink while mulling over the recent conversation with his brother. In more ways than not, Ben supposed it shouldn’t surprise him to discover Daniel blamed their father for things that were out of Pa’s control. Some of Ben’s earliest memories of his eldest brother involved the man claiming that some sin or the other had brought misfortune. It didn’t matter if lack of rain caused it to be a bad year for crops, or if a neighbor fell from a haymow and broke an arm, or if a child drowned while playing in the river. According to Daniel, sin was always to blame for these hardships. As though God kept a tally sheet of even the smallest human transgressions, and made certain you eventually paid for all of your wrongdoings. That was far from how Ben felt things worked. He’d always thought of God as a loving, forgiving father. But there was little use in arguing that point with Daniel, whose position on the subject evidently hadn’t changed in the years since Ben had last been with him.

And then there were those mistakes Daniel spoke of.

“Benjamin, I beg of you. Don’t make the same mistakes I did.”

What had he meant by that? Daniel never admitted to mistakes of any kind. Since arriving, he’d spoken frequently of God and business – both store business, and then ranching business as his knowledge of the Ponderosa expanded – but little else. When Ben had offered his sympathy over Danny’s and Clara’s deaths, Daniel refused to be drawn into a conversation about either of them. He referred to Clara’s passing as “God’s will,” given her years of frail health, and to Danny’s passing as an “unspeakable tragedy.” Which was exactly how Ben would feel about the deaths of any of his sons, so overall, he hadn’t found it odd that Daniel avoided mentioning the boy.

As to the event that caused Danny’s death, Ben didn’t know. In a letter written a few days after their nephew’s funeral, John supplied scant details. Details that hadn’t amounted to more than, “Danny’s death was swift and unexpected. He injured his head in a fall, Ben, and died shortly thereafter. This was likely a blessing, as it’s my understanding nothing could have been done to save him. Daniel seems to be holding up well, but I’m afraid the boy’s passing will cause Clara’s health to decline further. Ruth is also taking his death hard. She and Danny were especially close.”

Evidently John’s prediction about the decline of Clara’s health proved true, since she died just a few months after her only son. The son Daniel wanted for so many years, and whose birth he’d rejoiced in far more than Daniel had ever rejoiced in anything before or since. But somewhere as the years passed mistakes were made. Daniel admitted it just a few minutes ago, but what mistakes? Mistakes regarding the raising of Danny? Or mistakes in his relationship with Clara? Or mistakes that had nothing to do with his family? With Daniel, it was difficult to guess. Heaven knew that if he forgot to put money in the collection plate one Sunday twenty years ago, he’d consider that a mistake God was just waiting for the opportunity to punish him for.

Ben would have spent more time puzzling over those unspoken of mistakes, while trying to tie them into the blame Daniel directed at their pa along with his concerns for Little Joe’s moral character, but then Adam entered the house full of news from the timber camp. On the heels of Adam’s arrival, Hoss came in wondering what was for supper after spending the afternoon inspecting Cartwright grazing land.

Therefore, in short order, things unspoken of didn’t seem important any longer. With a fresh glass of lemonade in hand, Ben sat down with his sons in the great room and listened to the accounts of their day while waiting for Little Joe to come home.

Chapter 28

Daniel knelt beside his bed, eyes closed, elbows propped upward resting on the mattress, hands clasped, and head bowed in prayer. The prayer was nothing new. It was the same prayer he’d been taking to God since his arrival on the Ponderosa. The prayer was for both Joseph and Benjamin. A prayer asking God to drive the evil from that boy. A prayer asking God to make Benjamin see that the evil existed before it was too late.

After he’d said amen, Daniel struggled to his feet. Despite his good health, it was no longer easy to rise from a hard floor after prayer. He walked stiffly to the rocking chair in the corner, took his Bible off the small round table next to the chair, and sat down. He could hear men’s voices through his closed door and assumed his nephews had returned home. He didn’t bother to join them. When supper was ready they’d let him know. Until then, he’d spend time alone in quiet contemplation.

The unopened Bible lay in Daniel’s lap as he gently rocked back and forth, a breeze blowing in through the open windows kept the room comfortable despite the warmth of the day.

As Ben had done earlier, Daniel mulled over the conversation he’d shared with his brother. There was an old saying about not being able to catch flies with vinegar, which was why Daniel had done his best to let only honey roll off his tongue. That thought brought a small smile to his lips. It was something Ma had often said to him.

“Daniel, you have an honest tongue and you speak your mind. While the Lord smiles on those who are truthful, the truth must sometimes be softened to avoid offense. Remember, son, that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.”

And so, in heeding that long ago advice, Daniel had tried to soften the truth with Benjamin this afternoon, but to no avail. Perhaps plain old vinegar would be the only thing that would get through to his brother. On the other hand, Daniel had employed blunt honesty on numerous occasions since arriving and it had done him no good. Benjamin’s mind was closed where Joseph was concerned. Therefore, though Daniel had a lot more he could have said to his brother, there was little point in being anything but agreeable. Obviously, Satan not only had a grip on the son, but on the father as well.

As he sat rocking, Proverbs 22:6 ran through Daniel’s head.

Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it.

It was a noteworthy verse. One Benjamin would do well to remember and put into practice.

Daniel thought some more, then gave a firm nod. Perhaps this is why God sent him here. If Benjamin was not going to train up his youngest child in the way he should go, then perhaps God was leaving that job to Daniel.

A job Daniel was more than willing to take on, just like he’d taken it on with his own son – consequences not withstanding.

Chapter 29

The only way Joe Cartwright had to judge how long he’d been in the hole was by tracking the path the sun traveled above him. His pocket watch was in one of his saddlebags, as was just about anything else that might have been useful to him. A length of rope, a small pickaxe like miners carry, and his canteen – the canteen sitting beside his saddlebags somewhere far above him – that was what Joe wanted most after being in this damn hole all afternoon. His canteen, and the lunch Hop Sing packed for him. He’d give up three months worth of Saturday nights in Virginia City to drain half the canteen in one gulping swallow, and gobble down his sandwich in two ravenous bites. His hunger had grown far beyond the growling and gnawing point, to the point of causing the kind of pounding in his head that Joe normally experienced after a few too many with Tuck and Mitch at the Silver Dollar.

Joe gingerly moved his head back and forth, trying to loosen the stiff muscles in his neck. He’d been craning his head upward most of the afternoon. And as though he wasn’t suffering from enough maladies, his throat was sore from yelling for help. Not that he’d wanted to yell for help. He had too much pride for that. But after three hours of trying to claw his way out of the deep hole, all he’d gotten for his efforts was dirt in his eyes, dirt in his hair, and a throat that he swore was drier than the Mojave Desert. It was right about then that Joe set his pride aside and decided hollering; “Help! Hey, somebody, help me! Help, I’m down here!” was the only choice left him.

Joe shivered. His shirt. He’d give up another month of Saturday nights in Virginia City for his shirt too, but like his canteen and lunch sack, his shirt wasn’t at hand. He shouldn’t be cold. It had been a hot day and he’d spent most of the afternoon exerting himself, but now that dusk was falling, the temperature was dropping. Not dangerously so for most men, but dangerous for a young man in a stressful situation who hadn’t eaten in twelve hours, nor had water in over six, and was trapped below ground surrounded by dirt walls that were rapidly cooling with the disappearance of the sun.

As twilight began to streak the sky pale pink above Joe’s head, he sank to the dirt floor with exhaustion. His throat was raw, his voice was raspy, his head hurt, and dirt clumped beneath his fingernails. There wasn’t enough room for Joe to sit with his legs spread out in front of him. He was forced to sit with his knees tucked against his chest, which would be okay for a while, but if he was here until morning he’d likely have a hard time getting out of this position and standing.

Joe tried to guess at the time as a chill from the damp dirt beneath him crept in through the seat of his trousers, and then guess exactly when his father would send one of his brothers to look for him. They would have expected him home for supper at six. He’d probably be granted an hour’s leeway, maybe a little longer, considering it was never easy to predict how long a job on the ranch might tie a fellow up. But based on the fading daylight, Joe assumed that it wouldn’t be too long before Pa started wondering where he was. Even so, it would be well past dark before Adam or Hoss got here. In the meantime, there wasn’t much Joe could do but sit and wait. On the off chance that someone was traveling past – one of the Ponderosa ranch hands perhaps – Joe decided to yell for help again. If he’d been wearing his gun belt, he could have saved his voice and fired off a shot or two. But he’d removed the belt when its leather grew too hot around his waist, and now, like everything else Joe might have made good use of, his gun was out of reach.

His yelling was nothing other than an effort in futility. His voice came out in barely more than a raspy whisper, and even then, it cracked and changed octaves like it hadn’t done since he was thirteen.

The laughter came on the heels of Joe’s cry for help.

“Hey, Joe, you sound like a girl!”

“Yeah, Joe, my brother’s right! You sound like a girl. Like a scared little girl who’s afraid of the dark!”

Joe jumped to his feet.

“Charlie! Paul! Get me outta here! You’ve had your fun. Now come on, get me out!”

All Joe got for his demands was more laughter that was then followed by more taunts.

“Sounds like one of our baby sisters, don’t he, Charlie?”

“Hell, Paul, even our sisters wouldn’t yell like that. Reckon that just goes to prove Joe Cartwright ain’t nearly as tough as everyone ‘round here thinks.”

“Reckon so.”

“Maybe we’d better head on into the Silver Dollar and spread the word around ‘bout what a sissy Little Joe is.”

“Sounds good to me, brother. Hey, Joe, we’ll have a drink on you, buddy! See ya’ later!”

“Yeah, Joe, see ya’ ‘round, friend!”

Joe wanted to yell for Paul and Charlie not to go. He wanted to yell for them to stay and help him, but he wasn’t going to beg. He’d die down here in this godforsaken hole before he’d sink to begging for any kind of help from anyone – and most especially not from those two lowdown snakes.

The young man sunk back to the cold dirt. He ran his dirty hands through his hair while giving a heavy sigh, and trying not to think of the hot supper waiting for him at home, along with a glass of Hop Sing’s lemonade to wash it down with.

Chapter 30

The dining room table had been cleared and the supper dishes washed – all but Joe’s that is. His place was still set, and the basket of rolls was covered with a white cloth and resting in front of his empty plate. Well over an hour ago now, Hop Sing had saved portions of the meal for Joe, preventing Hoss from having third helpings.

“Hey, Hop Sing, don’t take all that away!” Hoss protested after polishing off his second round of food. “If ya’ want my opinion, the fella’ who don’t show up for supper don’t get fed.”

“Hop Sing no ask you opinion.” The housekeeper looked at Ben for approval. “I put food in warmer for Little Joe.”

“Yes, Hop Sing, thank you. I’m sure he’ll be along soon.”

“I agree with Eric,” Daniel stated from the end of the table. “If Joseph is late and misses supper, he should go without.”

“Well, I don’t agree with Eric.” Ben’s eyes traveled from Hoss to Daniel. “As I’ve told you previously, my sons work long and hard. None of them goes without a meal.”

Daniel gave a disapproving “humph,” but didn’t say any more. Hoss shot his father a sheepish smile.

“Sorry, Pa. I was just funnin’. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”

Ben nodded his understanding. “I know you didn’t.”

Unfortunately, your uncle doesn’t possess a sense of humor, nor would he recognize humor if it bit him in the. . .

Ben let his thought trail off, doing his best not to be disrespectful to his eldest brother, even when that disrespect wasn’t spoken out loud.

Once the meal was over, Ben led his family to the front porch. It wasn’t until the sun began to set that worry for Little Joe surfaced. It wasn’t unusual for Ben or his sons to be late in arriving home for supper. Especially during the summer months when the days were long and so much work needed to be done. But as twilight took over for the sun, Ben stood and walked to the edge of the porch.

Adam glanced up from the table where he and Hoss sat playing checkers.

“He’ll be along in a few minutes, Pa.”

“I’m sure he will be.”

But when Adam’s prediction of a “few minutes” turned into twenty more minutes passing without Little Joe’s arrival, Ben’s worry increased. He supposed he was being foolish. After all, if it were Adam or Hoss who still weren’t home he wouldn’t be ready to send someone searching for them. But the missing son was Little Joe, who had only recently begun to enjoy the freedoms adulthood brought a young man, and who had a knack for finding trouble even when he wasn’t looking for it.

Ben turned and faced the checker players. “Adam, Hoss. I want you to saddle your horses and go look for your little brother.”

“Look for him?”

“Yes, Adam, look for him.”

Ben didn’t see Adam roll his eyes at Hoss as the two men stood up from their game; nonetheless, he knew that action had taken place. As though Adam was saying, “Once again we get sent to save the kid’s hide.”

Well, maybe that was the case. But then, as far as Ben was concerned, that came with the territory when you were a big brother. He glanced at his own big brother who sat staring at him with a disapproving frown – judging his parenting skills once again, Ben was certain, and finding them lacking in some way. Not for the first time in his life, Ben wished he had the kind of relationship with Daniel that Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe shared.

Ben gave his oldest a playful slap on the back as Adam passed. “Yes, son, once again you get sent to track down Joseph. The woes of being a big brother.”

Ben walked along with his sons to the barn, wanting to be out of Daniel’s hearing range.

“Adam, you take the trail to that dam. Maybe Joe’s still up there.”

“Maybe,” Adam agreed dubiously. From the doubt in his voice, Ben knew Adam didn’t think it likely Joe was still working on the dam this late into the night. But perhaps he’d worked until the sun began to set and was just now heading home.

“And, Hoss,” Ben said quietly, “I want you to go to Virginia City and have a look around the places. . .well, the places you know Little Joe to frequent when his father and brothers aren’t with him.”

Hoss grinned and nodded. “Don’t you worry none, Pa. I know just where them places is.”

The big man didn’t elaborate, and Ben thought of how lucky Little Joe was to have such a loyal brother. Ben figured if he knew some of Joe’s secret haunts he’d likely skin that young scallywag alive.

Ben got a lantern for Adam as his sons saddled their horses. Adam secured the lantern to his saddle horn, then climbed on Sport. The boys left the ranch yard, promising their father that one of them would return with Little Joe in tow safe and sound.

He might not be so sound if I find out he headed off to Virginia City after he cleared that dam and got involved in a poker game.

Normally, Ben would have said that out loud to his two older sons, which would have caused them to laugh as they rode away, but by now Daniel was standing at his right shoulder so he refrained from saying anything other than, “Thanks, boys,” as Adam and Hoss headed their horses in opposite directions and rode away.

“Always worrying about Joseph, is that it, Benjamin?”

Ben shook himself from his thoughts. “Pardon?”

“Joseph. You always appear to be worrying about him.”

“I wouldn’t say I always worry about him.”

“But more so than you do your older boys.”

Ben shrugged. “He’s quite a bit younger than Adam and Hoss. Not as mature.”

“Not having good judgment, or the ability to make righteous choices?”

“Little Joe possesses both of those attributes.”

“Then why do you worry so about him?”

“It’s as I told you, he’s young. He has some growing up to do yet, as we all did when we were just eighteen.”

“Benjamin, don’t ignore this any longer, please.”

“Ignore what?”

“Your worry over Joseph. The fact that you’ve had to send his brothers to look for him – and not for the first time I gather. Take it as the sign it is.”

“Sign?”

“Sign from God. He wants you to open your eyes to what’s right in front of you.”

Ben turned around and walked toward the door.

“All that’s in front of me, Daniel, is an empty house. When my sons return, it will be full again like it should be. In the meantime, let’s go inside. We never did eat any of that carrot cake Hop Sing made. If we don’t have some now, we might not get any. I’m sure the boys will be hungry when they get back. If I know Hoss, he’ll polish off half that cake before he goes to bed.”

As Ben led the way into the house, he tried not to let his worry over Little Joe’s whereabouts show. After all, he wanted to enjoy his cake, rather than have his dessert sour in his stomach while his brother lectured him about signs from God.

Chapter 31

Both rider and horse were mindful of their limited visibility as they traveled the route to the dam Adam discovered days earlier.

“Should have just taken care of it myself,” the man grumbled with a yawn. “If I had, I’d be home in bed right now instead of being sent after an errant little brother. If Hoss finds that kid at a poker table, or in some saloon girl’s room, I swear the kick I give him in the seat of his britches will land him all the way in Carson City.”

Adam’s annoyance with Little Joe changed to concern when he heard a familiar whinny break the nighttime quiet. Cochise must have heard him approaching and recognized Sport’s scent.

The man tethered Sport next to Cochise. He grabbed the lantern from his saddle horn, took a match from the book in his shirt pocket, and struck it. He lit the lantern, raised his arm, and shined the light around.

“Joe?”

Adam used the light to look over Cochise. The horse seemed fine, albeit restless as he tossed his head and moved from foot to foot. As the lantern traveled with Adam’s movements, it landed on a pile of paraphernalia. Adam bent down, eyeing Joe’s saddlebags, canteen, hat, shirt, gun belt, and the lunch sack still filled with a sandwich, beef jerky, two cornbread muffins, an apple, and three cookies. He picked the shirt up and studied it. He didn’t see any tears in it, or any blood on it, which brought him some relief.

He stood, using the lantern to cast as much light as possible on the area.

“Joe? Little Joe?”

He started toward the stream. Joe was a good swimmer and the water wasn’t very deep here, but if he’d slipped on a rock, fallen and hit his head, or if he’d become overheated and passed out. . .

“Joe?” Adam’s voice grew louder with each questioning call. “Joe?” The lantern’s light revealed Joe had been working on the dam at some point during the day. The top quarter of it was dismantled, with the branches Joe tore out of it piled on the shoreline. Adam looked around.

“Little Joe! Little Joe, where are you? Joe!”

Adam didn’t hear the first two responses he received, and almost didn’t hear the third.

He squinted into the night, not certain if he’d heard a person, or if the raspy sound was nothing more than a small animal scurrying into the underbrush.

“Joe!”

“Over here,” came the return yell, if one could refer to it as such. It sounded more like the way a man spoke when he was laid up with the croup.

“Over where?” Adam peered into the darkness.

“Here! Down here, Adam!”

“Down. . .?”

“Be careful! Don’t fall in.”

“Fall in?” Adam mumbled, while making his way toward the sound of his brother’s voice. “What the. . .”

Joe squinted as the light shined down, assaulting his eyes.

Adam knew it was a dumb question, but it was the only one that came to mind.

“What are you doing down there?”

“Digging for worms, what the hell do you think I’m doin’ down here? I fell in this godforsaken pit sometime around noon.”

Adam didn’t chide Joe for his choice of language that Pa wouldn’t approve of. After all, Adam imagined he’d engage in some choice language of his own if he’d spent most of the day in a hole.

“Are you all right?”

“I’m okay.”

“You’re sure?”

“Just hungry, thirsty, cold, and my head feels like I had a heck of a good time in Virginia City that I don’t have the pleasure of remembering.”

Adam chuckled. “I bet it does.”

The man set the lantern down, then got on his belly, extending a hand into Joe’s tomb.

“Here. Grab my hand and I’ll pull you up.”

It took Joe a few seconds to get to his feet. It was too dark for Adam to tell if he was in pain from some injury he wasn’t revealing, or if he was just stiff from sitting for too long.

Adam felt a hand clasp his.

He wasn’t kidding when he said he was cold.

“Okay, Joe, on three. One. . .two. . .three.”

Adam pulled, but he barely made progress before Joe’s hand slipped from his grasp.

“Sorry. I couldn’t hold on.”

“Don’t worry about it. Let’s try again. Once more, on three.”

Adam counted to three, but just like their previous attempt, Little Joe couldn’t hang on. In addition to that, the earth beneath Adam’s chest was crumbling, showering his brother with dirt.

“Be careful, Adam. If that gives way you’ll be down here with me, and I can tell ya’ right now, there ain’t room enough for the both of us in this hole.”

“I’ll take your word on that. Besides, I don’t fancy being stuck down there until sometime after dawn when Pa comes looking for us. How about you?”

“I haven’t fancied bein’ stuck down here for as long as I already have been, so no, I sure don’t fancy bein’ down here until tomorrow morning. By then, I’ll be able to out eat Hoss at his hungriest.”

“I’m sure you will. All right, hang on a few more minutes. I’ll be back.”

“Where you goin?”

“To get Sport and a rope.”

Within five minutes, Adam had a length of sturdy rope secured around his saddle horn. He threw the other end down to Joe.

“Tie it around your waist, then tell me when you’re ready.”

When Joe didn’t protest Adam’s instruction to tie the rope around his waist, Adam knew his brother was as tired and weak as he’d surmised. Under normal circumstances, Little Joe would have grabbed onto the rope and scurried up that dirt wall as though he were a mole.

“Okay, I’m ready.”

“All right. We’re gonna take it slow and easy. If you feel any pain, call out and I’ll stop.”

“I’m not hurt, Adam.”

“You might be and just don’t know it yet.”

“Well I’m not. So come on, get me outta here.”

“Joe. . .”

“Yeah, yeah. If I hurt anywhere, I’ll let you know.”

“Is that a promise?”

“It’s a promise.”

“Okay then. Are you ready?”

“More than you can imagine, big brother.”

“Here we go.”

Adam slowly walked Sport away from the hole, listening for any cries of pain from Joe. No indications of pain came, however, and within a few seconds Adam was instructing Sport to stop. Joe had made it halfway out of the hole, but didn’t have the strength to get out the rest of the way.

Adam ran back to the hole, grabbed Joe under the arms, and finished pulling him out. He knelt beside his prone brother, concerned when Joe didn’t immediately get to his feet.

“Here, let me get that rope off of you.”

Adam gently turned his brother over, using the light from the nearby lantern to study Joe as he did so. Both legs and arms appeared to be at normal angles, and Adam didn’t see blood anywhere. Mostly, all he saw was dirt. Smudges of dirt on Joe’s face and bare chest, and streaks of dirt on his trousers.

Adam patted a cold shoulder as he slipped the rope from Joe’s waist. “Are you all right?”

Joe nodded. “Just tired.” The young man’s eyes were blood shot, but Adam wasn’t certain how much of that discoloration was from the weariness Joe just spoke of, versus irritation from dirt.

“You stay here and rest a minute while I get your shirt and canteen.”

Joe nodded his thanks as his eyes drifted closed.

When Adam returned, he helped Little Joe sit up. With Joe’s back resting against his chest, Adam uncapped the canteen and handed it to his brother.

“Here, but take it easy. Don’t drink it all in one gulp.”

“That’s all I’ve been dreaming about doing for the past ten hours.”

“I’m sure that’s the case, but nonetheless, go easy. You don’t want to throw it back up.”

Adam suspected his brother practiced a good deal of restraint where the water was concerned simply to appease him. When he’d drained the canteen dry, Adam filled it again in the stream. Joe drank it half empty, then grabbed the sandwich Adam held out to him.

“You should probably wash your hands first.”

That suggestion went unheeded, as did Adam’s command of, “Slow down, Joe,” as his brother gobbled the sandwich in four bites, and then gobbled each one of the cookies Adam handed him in two bites. Adam’s prediction that the sandwich and cookies would be thrown up given the speed with which Joe ate them proved untrue. By the time Adam handed Joe his shirt, the young man seemed a bit stronger. Adam helped Little Joe to his feet, then stuck close as Joe made his way to the stream where he knelt to rinse his hands and face.

While Joe did that, Adam filled his brother’s canteen one last time. If it weren’t for the fact Pa would worry if they didn’t arrive home yet that night, Adam would have made camp there. Joe’s pinched features told Adam his brother’s headache was paining him more than the young man acknowledged. In addition to that, he could barely put one foot in front of the other as he walked toward Cochise, and Adam didn’t miss the shivers despite the shirt Joe was now wearing.

Adam grabbed Sport’s reins and walked the horse to where Joe was untying Cochise. He handed Joe his canteen, hat, and gun belt, before bending to pick up the saddlebags. He tossed them over Cochise’s rump; then reached into one of his own saddlebags.

“Here.”

“What’s this?”

“My jacket.”

“Don’t you need it?”

“If I needed it, I’d have been wearing it, now wouldn’t I?”

“I dunno. I guess.”

“You guessed correctly. Now put it on, and then we’ll head home. The sooner we get there, the sooner you can eat supper and go to bed.”

“Supper?” Joe said, as he shouldered into Adam’s jacket. It was too big for him, but he didn’t complain. “By the time we get home breakfast’ll only be a few hours away.”

“Then I’m sure Hop Sing will be happy to scramble you a plateful of eggs, and flip you a few flapjacks while he’s at it, if that’s what you prefer.”

“That’s what I prefer. Along with a hot bath and some of them headache powders he keeps on hand.”

“I’m sure it can all be arranged. And Hoss will thank you, by the way.”

“Thank me? For what?”

“He was hankering for your helping of food at the dinner table. While you eat your eggs, he can get your plate out of the warmer and have himself a late night snack.”

Considering it would be after midnight before they got home, Joe acknowledged the truth to Adam’s words.

“You’re probably right about that.”

“I know I’m right about it.”

“Speaking of Hoss, where is he?”

“Pa sent him to Virginia City. You know our father when it comes to your whereabouts. He wanted to cover all possibilities.”

Joe chuckled. “For as much as I’d love to be sitting at a poker table right about now with a cold beer in front of me, guess I won’t be givin’ Pa anything to get riled over tonight.”

“For which Pa will be grateful, I’m sure.”

While Joe climbed in his saddle, Adam blew out the lantern and got on Sport.

As Adam headed for home with Joe riding beside him, he glanced back into the blackness. He had a lot of questions he wanted to ask Little Joe about the origins of that hole, and exactly how he ended up falling into it, but by the weary slump to his kid brother’s shoulders, along with the voice that was only half its normal strength, Adam decided questions could wait until Joe had both some hot food and a dose of headache powder in his stomach.

Chapter 32

Footsteps on the porch brought Ben out of his chair. Hoss met his father’s eyes as he entered the house and shut the door behind him.

“Sorry, Pa. No sign of ‘im.”

“Did you look everywhere?”

“Yes, sir.” Hoss removed his gun belt and hat. He hung the hat on a wall hook then rolled up the gun belt, placing it on the sideboard. “Everywhere I know ta’ look, that is. Asked around some too. No one’s seen him.”

Although the last thing Ben had wanted tonight was for Hoss to find his younger brother seated at a poker table in Virginia City, especially given Daniel’s looming presence at his elbow, Hoss’s announcement prompted renewed worry. There was no reason for Little Joe to be working on that dam so late into the evening. If he hadn’t completed his task as suppertime came and went, he would have headed home before dark with plans to return the following day to finish the job.

Ben glanced at the Grandfather clock. Twenty minutes past midnight. His lips tightened with concern.

“I hope Adam’s run across him.”

“I’m sure he has, Pa. They’re probably on their way home as we’re standin’ here. No use in worryin’ ‘til we got somethin’ to worry about. Ain’t that what you always say?”

Ben gave his middle son a slight smile. “Yes, that is what I always say. But sometimes it’s easier to say than to put into practice.”

“Especially when your worry is centered on Joseph, is that it, Benjamin?”

Ben took a deep breath before facing his brother. “I worry about all of my sons now and again.”

“Tell yourself that if it makes you feel better. But deep down you and I – and our Lord – know the truth.”

Hoss didn’t appear to take notice of his uncle’s remark, which didn’t surprise Ben. Neither Adam nor Hoss seemed bothered by Daniel’s presence, nor bothered by the way he often brought Joe to task. He supposed that was because they still thought of Joe as their baby brother. As a boy still in need of guidance from his elders, as opposed to a young man who had the right not to be asked to repeat the preacher’s sermon word for word, or supply chapter and verse of whatever obscure Bible passages Daniel was intent on quoting at the dinner table. Or more likely, they just enjoyed the humor those moments provided at their younger brother’s expense, as older brothers were often noted to do.

Well, some older brothers, Ben thought ruefully with regard to the older brother standing beside him.

Thankfully, any debate over the time Ben spent worrying about Little Joe versus time spent worrying about Adam and Hoss ended when more footsteps were heard crossing the porch.

Ben opened the door before his sons had a chance to enter the house.

“Boys. . .Little Joe, are you all right? What kept you so late? Did you run into some kind of trouble taking apart that–”

It wasn’t until the brothers stepped into the foyer and Joe could be viewed under the glow of the lamps that Ben knew his youngest son had, in fact, run into some kind of trouble. Dirt streaked his face and neck, and his eyes were red and watering as though irritated by foreign matter. When he took his hat off, his hair held a coating of fine gray dust. And when Ben caught sight of Joe’s hands as he set his gun belt on the sideboard, he saw dirt clumped beneath his nails and raw, torn skin on the tips of his fingers.

Exhaustion glowed dully from Little Joe’s bloodshot eyes as he gave an involuntary shiver beneath Adam’s jacket. He shot his father a tired smile.

“I’m okay, Pa. Nothin’ a hot bath and some sleep won’t cure.”

“But what happened? How did you get in this condition? What–”

Behind Little Joe’s back, Adam subtly shook his head at his father.

“Pa, Joe hasn’t had a decent meal since breakfast and he’s got a pretty fierce headache because of it. Why don’t we let him clean up and eat before we start asking a lot of questions.”

Ben’s eyes met Adam’s. In those few seconds he picked up on the silent message his eldest was sending that indicated Joe’s physical condition needed tending to before further inquiries were made. Ben nodded.

“Yes. . .yes, I can see that’s a good idea, Adam. Hop Sing!”

Joe winced at his father’s yell. Ben placed a gentle hand on Little Joe’s arm.

“Sorry about that, son.”

Joe mustered up a teasing grin and admonished his father with a line Ben had often used on his sons when they were young and roughhousing in the great room.

“Just keep it down to a dull roar, would ya’, Pa?”

Daniel “tsked tsked” at what Ben assumed the man took to be Joe’s impertinence. He ignored his brother, not bothering to explain the family joke.

Hop Sing appeared from the kitchen in his nightshirt and robe, thought too alert to have been sleeping. Like Ben, he’d no doubt been worried about Little Joe.

The houseman took Little Joe’s other arm, and along with Ben, ushered the young man toward the kitchen.

“Come, Little Joe. Water all ready heating for bath, and Hop Sing keep supper warm.”

“I’d kinda like some scrambled eggs if you don’t mind,” came Joe’s tentative request. “And maybe a couple of flapjacks to go along with ‘em?”

“Hop Sing no mind. Mr. Hoss can finish Little Joe’s supper while Little Joe eat breakfast.”

“Sounds just dandy to me, Hop Sing. Me an’ Adam’s gonna see ta’ the horses first. Then I’ll be ready for that there midnight snack ya’ mentioned.”

“I’m sure we can all share in a little snack of some sort while Little Joe eats,” Ben said. “You boys go on and tend to the horses. I’ll help Hop Sing with the bath water. Uh…Daniel…” Ben paused in his march to the kitchen and turned to address his brother. “It’s been a long day for you. You’re welcome to call it a night if you’d prefer. We’ll keep things down to a “dull roar” as Little Joe said. Besides, after he’s cleaned up and has had a bite to eat we’ll be turning in too.”

“No, Benjamin, that’s all right. I’m wide-awake. I’ll just wait out here until your family is ready to gather at the table. I can offer a prayer of thanks for Joseph’s safe return before he has his meal.”

Ben heard Joe give a quiet groan of despair at the thought of sitting through one of Daniel’s lengthy prayers. He couldn’t say he blamed his son for that. He wanted to give a groan or two as well.

“All right then,” Ben reluctantly agreed for lack of anything to say other than, “Please, not tonight.”

Ben left his oldest sons to their chores and left his brother in the dining room while resuming his trek to the kitchen with Little Joe.

By the time Adam and Hoss returned to the house, Joe was in the tub in the summer kitchen washing the dirt off his body and out of his hair. Ben was coming down the stairs with clean clothes for his youngest. Hop Sing was scrambling eggs and flipping flapjacks. And Uncle Daniel. . .well, Uncle Daniel was seated at the dining room table waiting to pray.

Chapter 33

Despite the lateness of the hour and the weariness clinging to him like a heavy fog, Joe had to admit the warm bath and hot meal, along with several grimaced swallows of the bitter headache powders Hop Sing mixed in a glass of water, left him feeling a lot better than when he’d walked in the door. He was no longer shivering as he sat at the table barefoot, wearing a pair of clean trousers and a shirt he hadn’t bothered to button. Uncle Daniel had started to comment on his state of undress, but Pa cut him off.

“It’s not important tonight, Daniel. It’s long past any regular dining hours around here. I highly doubt we’ll have visitors coming to the front door at one-thirty in the morning.”

Pa had helped Joe rinse out his eyes after he finished bathing and was dressed. He’d leaned backwards over the sink while Pa poured a cup of water in each eye, irrigating them as best he could. The only thing that still hurt somewhat besides Joe’s head, were his fingertips where the skin was scraped raw. But at least the fingers were clean and didn’t look infected. Or so Pa said when he studied them under the glow of a kitchen lamp.

No questions were asked of Joe at that time, nor while he ate. Pa must have been taking Adam’s advice with regard to Joe getting a meal into his stomach before he told his family what happened. Of course, it was a wonder Joe was eating at all, considering Uncle Daniel’s prayer of thanks threatened to go on until dawn. Pa didn’t admonish Joe when he silently picked up his fork during the prayer and shoveled in three mouthfuls of eggs. Uncle Daniel’s eyes were closed so he didn’t see this transgression, and while Pa shook his head at Joe, his lips were curved in a smile and there was a twinkle in his eyes, as though he enjoyed watching Joe outsmart the old man at his own game.

While Joe ate the breakfast Hop Sing had made for him, Hoss ate Joe’s leftover supper, Adam ate a sandwich, and Pa and Uncle Daniel ate a few of the cookies Hop Sing piled on a plate and placed in the middle of the table. When the meal was finished and Hop Sing had cleared the dishes away, Pa leaned back in his chair.

“Little Joe, unless you’re too tired to discuss it, I’d like to know what happened out there today.”

“I’m not too tired, Pa. I. . . .uh. . .I. . .well Pa. . .I. . . ” Joe’s eyes flicked from his father to his brothers. He hated the thought of being a tattletale and not working this out for himself. Even more, he hated the thought of once again being perceived as the son and the little brother who always needed to be bailed out of trouble. But the hard truth of the matter was; he had no idea how to put a stop to Paul and Charlie’s pranks without his family’s help.

Joe’s eyes returned to his father. He worried his lower lip a moment. “It’s. . .it’s the Dunns, Pa.”

“Pardon?”

“The Dunns. Paul and Charlie. They’re the ones behind it.”

“Behind what, son?”

“Behind everything!” Joe knew he shouldn’t lose his temper, but he was tired, and his head still hurt, and he was sick of being kicked around by Paul and Charlie. “Behind me endin’ up in that hole today, and behind me takin’ that tumble off Cochise a while back, and then Cochise disappearing on me, and Adam’s lost hammer, and me gettin’ jumped by those boys in that alley–”

“What boys?” Pa asked. “When?”

“The day Uncle Daniel arrived. In the alley behind the Silver Dollar. A buncha miners’ kids. Paul and Charlie put ‘em up to it. Na. . .someone who knows it on good authority told me so.”

“Hold up there a minute, Little Joe. Slow down, son. I don’t know half of what you’re talking about. Adam’s hammer? Cochise disappearing? You ending up in a hole today?” Pa looked at Adam, who nodded confirmation of the last statement.

“I don’t know how he got down there, Pa, but he was in a hole when I found him.”

“I just told you how I got down there! Paul and Charlie!”

“Did they throw you down there?”

“No, they didn’t throw me! But I know they’re the ones who dug it and then covered it up so I’d fall in. I’m pretty sure they’re the ones who constructed that dam too.”

“Oh, Joe,” Adam stated with skepticism, “I don’t think so. How could they have known you’d be the one who was sent to take the dam apart? It could have just as easily been Hoss or me up there today instead of you.”

“Well I don’t care what you think. It’s what I know.” Joe looked at his father. “And if you hadn’t gone to Mr. Dunn in the first place after I asked you not to, none of this would have happened.”

“So you’re saying all these. . .these pranks Paul and Charlie are pulling on you, are my fault?”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m sayin’,” Joe confirmed with more impertinence than he probably should have been using. Nonetheless, everything he said was true, and it made him angry that his father had put him in this position. He felt like the boy who was a constant target of the schoolyard bullies, and not only was it a feeling Joe Cartwright wasn’t accustomed to, it was also a feeling he didn’t enjoy. “If it hadn’t been for you, I wouldn’t have spent all day in that damn hole and–”

“Joseph!” Uncle Daniel yelled from the other end of the table. “I’ve heard far more than enough of this, young man. You should have a strap taken to your backside for speaking to your father with such an uncivil tongue. You should have that smart mouth washed out with a bar of lye soap. You should–”

It was a good thing Pa stepped in then, because Joe was on the verge of telling the old man to go to hell, consequences be damned.

“Daniel, please. Allow me to take care of this.”

“I would if I thought you’d actually punish this young upstart for the disgraceful attitude he brings to his father’s table. But I know you won’t, Benjamin. I know you’ll only coddle him, and spoil him, and–”

“Daniel, look. I don’t mean to be rude, but this is a private family matter. Something I’d like to discuss alone with my sons.”

There was a long pause while Uncle Daniel studied Pa, and then shifted his eyes to Joe, before finally returning them to Pa again.

“So you’re asking me to retire to my room?”

Pa nodded. “That’s what I’m asking. I apologize for our heated discussion here this evening, but sometimes discussions in this house progress in that fashion for a short period of time.”

“And you allow such insolence on the part of Joseph, is that it?”

“As I said, sometimes discussions get heated around here. We always work things out in the end, however, and none of my boys, including Little Joe, crosses a line he knows I won’t stand for.” Pa’s eyes shifted to Joe. “And if a son of mine would cross that line, rest assured I’ll put him in his place by reminding him of just who’s the head wolf in this pack.”

Joe dropped his eyes to the table. “Sorry, Pa.”

Pa didn’t say anything to Joe. Instead, he waited silently until his brother finally stood.

“All right then, as you wish, Benjamin. I’ll retire for the night.”

“Thank you. Good night.”

Daniel gave a tight nod. “Good night.”

Adam and Hoss said good night to their uncle, but Joe’s voice was noticeably absent. He didn’t care if the old man thought he was rude for not bidding him good night. And besides, Uncle Daniel didn’t include Joe in the good nights he offered to Adam and Hoss, so Joe figured they were even in that regard.

Pa waited a full five minutes after Uncle Daniel entered his room before standing and indicating to his sons that they’d continue the discussion in the great room.

“Let’s try and keep our voices down so your uncle can sleep.”

Joe didn’t think his father was so much concerned about Uncle Daniel getting his rest, as he was concerned that the man would overhear their conversation if it grew loud again.

Joe was too uptight to sit, so while his father sat in his favorite chair, and Adam and Hoss sat on the settee, Joe paced back and forth in front of the fireplace.

“Okay, Little Joe, tell me again – and calmly this time while using a respectful tone of voice – exactly what’s going on between you and the Dunns.”

“Nothin’s going on ‘cause of me, Pa. It’s them making trouble.”

“All right. Then tell me, please.”

Joe ran a hand through his still damp curls as he once again told about his run-ins with Paul and Charlie. He was more thorough in the telling this time, giving his father and brothers a better idea as to what had been occurring ever since Pa visited Jim Dunn.

When Joe finished, Pa sat quietly contemplating all he’d just learned. When he finally spoke, he didn’t inform Joe of what he was going to do, but instead said, “Little Joe, since my visit to Jim apparently had the opposite affect of what I’d hoped and only antagonized the situation further, what would you like me to do this time?”

Joe was caught by surprise. He wasn’t expecting his father to ask his opinion. This was the kind of thing Pa would ask Adam or Hoss. When a situation involved Joe, Pa usually stated what he was going to do and then did it, with no amount of pleading on Joe’s part changing his mind. Maybe this is what happened when your pa finally started to recognize you were no longer a boy. Maybe this was the start of a change where Joe and his father were concerned. Trouble was though, Joe ended up feeling like a little kid anyway, because he had no solution to offer.

“I. . .I don’t know, Pa.”

“Well now, ifin’ ya’ ask me, I think me and Adam should go over there and have us a visit with Paul and Charlie like I wanted to do back when they first started causin’ ya’ trouble, little brother.”

“I don’t think it would hurt for us to give it a try,” Adam stated.

Pa shook his head. “No, boys. This is Joe’s decision to make, not yours.”

When Joe still didn’t having any suggestions for his father, Pa said, “You know, Joe, just because a young man’s father wants to help him through a rough patch, doesn’t mean the father isn’t recognizing his son is growing up and is capable of taking care of himself.”

“I know.”

“And sometimes it takes someone else. . .a friend or a family member, to help a person out of a jam. Sometimes it helps to have a. . .well, a mediator of sorts.”

“But it didn’t help the last time.”

“No, it didn’t,” Pa acknowledged. “So perhaps this time I need to talk to Jim a little more forcefully. Let him know that we Cartwrights don’t stand for being bullied.”

Joe gave a rueful smile. “I think in this situation, Pa, I’m the one who’s supposed to stand up for myself and demand that Paul and Charlie quit bullying me.”

“So is that what you want to do?”

Joe thought a moment. “Yeah. . .yeah, I guess it is. Only so far, I haven’t had much luck at it.”

“Then how about if you and I ride over to the Dunn ranch together and meet with Jim and his boys. You can have your say, and then I’ll have mine.”

“Just you and me?”

Ben glanced briefly at Adam and Hoss, then looked back at Joe and smiled. “Yes, son, just you and me.”

“Do you think it’ll do any good?”

“I’m not going to lie to you. I honestly don’t know. But I will tell you this. The pranks Paul and Charlie are pulling on you have reached a dangerous level. I won’t have your wellbeing put at risk over timber contracts. Jim and those boys of his need to understand that.”

“All right.” Anticipation over finally being able to take some kind of action shone from Joe’s eyes. “When are we leaving?”

Ben laughed. “Well, not right now. I think we’d better get some sleep first, don’t you?”

As the Grandfather clock chimed indicating it was two-thirty in the morning, Joe blushed at his eagerness.

“Oh yeah. Yeah, sure, Pa. I guess we’d better get a few hours of sleep, huh?”

“I think that would be a good idea.”

Ben stood.

“Come on, boys, let’s head for bed. I have a feeling daylight will come far too early for all of us.”

Hoss stretched and yawned as he stood. “I have a feelin’ you’re right about that, Pa.”

“Me too,” Adam agreed, stifling a yawn of his own.

The men trooped upstairs with Little Joe leading the way. Soon, the house was dark and quiet; its residents asleep save for the one in the guest room on the main floor, who was pondering all he’d overheard.

Chapter 34

Adam spent the morning straightening the tack room. It was just the kind of job he needed following a long day, and then an equally long night. As Pa predicted it would, dawn arrived too early. But then, it always did when a man got only a few hours of sleep.

Surprisingly, Little Joe was the first one out of bed that morning. Not only was that action out of character for Joe on a night when he’d gotten eight hours of sleep, it was especially out of character on a night when he’d gotten just four. Adam assumed his brother’s new “early to rise” habit wouldn’t last long, and was brought on by a bad case of the jitters over the thought of meeting with Jim Dunn and his boys. However, Little Joe would never admit to that, and neither Adam nor Hoss tried to force an admission from him, meaning the potential for several rounds of teasing went by the wayside during breakfast. In part, because Adam and Hoss knew their father would put a quick end to it. And in part because the three Cartwright siblings generally stuck to their own personal unwritten code of, “you never kick a brother when he’s down – or at least not too hard.”

Pa and Joe left shortly after breakfast, headed for the Dunn ranch. How long they’d be gone, Adam couldn’t predict. If things went well they might be asked to stay for lunch. If such an invitation were extended, they wouldn’t return home until mid-afternoon. Adam expected to see them earlier than that, however. Given what Paul and Charlie had been putting Little Joe through, he didn’t foresee this meeting Pa had in mind producing a successful outcome.

Adam wasn’t a man who usually restored to strong-arming someone into compliance if more diplomatic measures could be employed. But in this situation, he wasn’t so certain Hoss was wrong. Maybe Paul and Charlie did need to be roughed up a bit and reminded that two against one wasn’t playing fair to begin with, and that endangering Joe’s life went beyond a few pranks pulled in retaliation over lost timber contracts. Maybe he and Hoss would yet be paying the Dunn brothers a visit before this was all over, regardless of whether Pa approved or not.

For the time being, Adam shook off his concerns about the Dunns and concentrated on the task he’d assigned himself. Hoss was in Virginia City running errands. He’d driven out of the yard on a buckboard ten minutes after Pa and Little Joe left. Adam had no doubt his middle brother would find reason to eat in town. More than one Virginia City café catered to the big man’s appetite. And the likeable, good-natured Hoss could generally talk a waitress out of an extra piece of pie at no additional cost. That alone was incentive enough for Hoss to skip lunch on the Ponderosa today.

Adam didn’t turn around when he heard footsteps joining him in this room located at the far end of the barn.

“I was just thinking about you. Figured you’d eat lunch in town. What happened? No pie to be had today?”

“Quite the contrary. I think your Chinaman just put a pie in the oven.”

Adam turned. “Oh. . .Uncle Daniel. Hello. I’m sorry. I thought you were Hoss.”

“I believe Eric’s still in Virginia City.”

Adam nodded. “I assume so. He usually eats lunch there if Pa sends him on errands.”

“At least he doesn’t spend his time in town getting into trouble.”

“Pardon?”

“Like young Joseph does.”

“I wouldn’t say Joe gets into trouble every time he goes to town.”

“That’s the conclusion I’ve reached.”

“Then perhaps we’ve given you the wrong impression.” Adam returned to his work, feeling his uncle at his right elbow. “You know, Uncle Daniel, Hoss and I sometimes take our teasing further than we should. You can’t always put stock in the things we josh Little Joe about.”

“So you’re saying you and Eric are liars?”

“No. . .no, I wouldn’t exactly phrase it that way. We tend to. . .exaggerate now and again where Joe is concerned.” Adam shot his uncle a smile. “It’s what older brothers do, you know.”

“No, I don’t know.”

Of course you don’t, Adam thought with sarcasm-laced resignation. My assumption that you might have possessed a sense of humor at some point in the distant past is apparently a foolish one.

“I see. Well, perhaps Hoss and I should think more carefully before we speak.”

“Don’t apologize, Adam. I understand completely.”

“You do?”

“I do. I didn’t get the wrong impression at all. Rest assured, I’ve had the right impression since the moment I arrived here. Joseph is a young man straddling the line.”

“The line?”

“The line between good and evil.”

Adam weighed his words carefully before replying.

“No disrespect intended, Uncle Daniel, but Little Joe doesn’t engage in activities I define as evil. Activities that are reckless, yes. Activities that sometimes border stupid, yes – at least in my opinion. But not evil. Joe isn’t evil and never could be. He’s a hot tempered kid who raises a little more hel. . .heck at times than Pa approves of, but he’s got a good head on his shoulders. Given time, I know he’ll grow up to be a man who’s highly regarded.”

“You sound like your father.”

“How so?”

“Defending Joseph as though he’s the prodigal son.”

Adam had to admit this was a reversal of roles for him of sorts. Usually, he was the one complaining to Pa about Joe’s transgressions, as opposed to defending them. Nonetheless, despite Uncle Daniel being Pa’s brother, he was still an outsider as far as Adam was concerned. While Adam might think Joe could use a little more discipline than Pa often imparted upon him, that wasn’t something he’d voice out loud to his uncle. His loyalty to Little Joe ran too deep to do otherwise. What went on within the walls of the ranch house was private, as Pa often said, and best kept that way. It was one thing to share his aggravations about Joe with his father or Hoss, but quite another to take them to anyone else. . .or to tolerate them from anyone else either.

“I’m not defending Joe. My father will tell you I’m generally the last one to do that. All I’m saying is that he’s not evil by any meaning of the word.”

“Then perhaps you and I define it differently.”

Adam raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps we do.”

Silence prevailed for a moment, then; “I apologize if I’ve upset you, Adam. You’ve grown up to be a fine man. An honorable man. I know your father is very proud of you, as any father would be.”

“Thank you. That’s a generous compliment.”

“And a well deserved one from what I’ve seen.”

Uncle Daniel let the conversation die for a few moments, seemingly content to watch Adam work. However, Adam had a feeling the man had more on his mind. It didn’t take long to discover he was correct.

“I couldn’t help but overhear some things that were said last night after I retired to my room.”

Adam didn’t accuse his uncle of eavesdropping, but then, he didn’t completely let the man off the hook either.

“Oh really?” Adam questioned while he swept the floor. “We tried to keep our voices down.”

“I’m sure you did. But my hearing is still quite good for a man of my years.”

“Apparently so.”

“Yes, well, that’s the case. Anyway, I’m curious, Adam. Who are these “Dunn boys,” I heard so much said about?”

“Paul and Charlie.”

“I believe that was their names, yes.”

“Their father owns a ranch to the west of here that borders a small portion of the Ponderosa. Little Joe went to school with them.”

“They’re friends of his then?”

“I wouldn’t exactly call them friends. At least not currently.”

“Not currently?”

“When Joe was a kid in school he used to pal around with them some. As far as I know he always got along with them fine. They weren’t amongst his closest friends – maybe more of school chums, you might say, but he never had trouble with them.”

“Until recently.”

Adam nodded. “Until recently.”

“There was something said about timber contracts, and a man named Jim?”

“Jim is Jim Dunn. Paul and Charlie’s father.”

Adam briefly explained the situation with the timber contracts that was apparently the catalyst to the problems Little Joe was now experiencing at the hands of Paul and Charlie.

“Has Joseph antagonized the situation in some way?”

Adam finished sweeping and hung the broom back on the peg where it belonged. It would remain there until the next time Hoss or Joe used it for something, and then it was anyone’s guess as to where it would be found.

“Little Joe won’t back down from a fight, if that’s what you’re asking. But on the other hand, he doesn’t go around deliberately starting one either.”

“Does he engage in peculiar behavior that might have provoked the Dunn brothers?”

“Peculiar behavior?”

“Yes, you know. Does he do things you consider odd? Things you might not even recognize as odd if given only cursory scrutiny.”

Adam chuckled. “My youngest brother is both odd and peculiar at times.” Just as quickly as that statement came from his mouth, Adam rectified it, remembering that Uncle Daniel didn’t exactly have a knack for recognizing humor. “But then, Little Joe would say the same about me if given the opportunity.

“Anyway, to answer your question, I’m sure Joe hasn’t provoked them. As far as I know, until this timber issue arose, he rarely ran across Paul or Charlie now that they’re all out of school.”

“But you aren’t with your brother every minute.”

“Well, no. Of course I’m not.”

“So you wouldn’t know that for certain.”

“If you’re insinuating that Little Joe is somehow to blame for the pranks Paul and Charlie have been pulling on him, then I’m sorry to disagree with you, Uncle Daniel, when I say you’re wrong. If Joe was doing any provoking, he’d have come clean about it to Pa.”

“Or so you think.”

“I don’t think it, Sir. I know it.”

A tense silence filled the tack room. As far as Adam was concerned, there was nothing else to say on the subject. When his uncle finally broke the silence, it wasn’t with his normal strength of voice. His tone was soft, and Adam heard a trace of sorrow in it that surprised him.

“This is the way it started with my Danny, you know.”

“Started?”

“Other boys making fun of him. Other boys lying in wait to beat him up. Boys delaying him in arriving home by pulling pranks on him, just like happened to Joseph when you found him in that hole.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Bullies – well, I’ve never had any use for them myself.”

“Under normal circumstances, I don’t either. However, I’ve come to learn that sometimes there’s a good reason for their actions.”

“I can’t imagine a good reason for lying in wait to terrorize an innocent boy.”

“Perhaps not as innocent as you think, Adam.”

Adam wasn’t sure if his uncle was talking about Danny or Little Joe, but either way, it didn’t make much difference. He didn’t like hearing the man insinuate that a bully’s actions could sometimes be justified.

“Regardless, I’m sorry to hear that Danny was picked on. As far as what’s going on between Little Joe and the Dunns, Pa will get things worked out today.”

“From the sounds of things, Ben thought he had things worked out some time ago.”

“He did. But perhaps the meeting Pa has planned with all parties present will bring about positive results.”

“Perhaps,” Uncle Daniel acknowledged in a tone that voiced his underlying doubt. “However, if Satan isn’t driven out of Joseph, there is little hope for success.”

Adam almost laughed. He’d heard it said on more than one occasion that Little Joe Cartwright was full of the devil. The way Uncle Daniel said it was different, though. He said it with an intensity that left a man feeling it wasn’t just a light-hearted expression pegged on a boy who had a penchant for mischief, and too much charm for his own good.

“I don’t think we have to be concerned about driving Satan out of Little Joe.”

“You don’t? Why not?”

“Because I don’t think Satan resides within him, that’s why.”

“I was foolish enough to think the same about Danny. Please don’t put blinders on like your father has where Joseph is concerned. Help him turn his life around now, before it’s too late. Help him walk the right path.”

“Uncle Daniel, when it comes to Joe Cartwright, I learned a long time ago that there’s no use in demanding he follow any particular path. He won’t travel it until he’s good and ready. And besides, allow me to assure you that Little Joe isn’t on the wrong path by any means.”

“I had hoped to enlist your help, Adam, but I can see that I’ll make no more progress with you than I made with your father.”

“Help in doing exactly what, Sir?”

“Never mind.” Uncle Daniel shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.” In a rare show of affection, Daniel reached out and gave Adam’s arm a fatherly pat. “I will turn to the only course left me.”

“And just what course is that?”

“Prayer, son. Prayer. For you see, when no one else will listen, the Lord is always there to hear the smallest of whispers.”

“I’ve heard it said.”

“It’s true.”

“I’m sure it is.”

“I’ll see you at lunch?”

“Yes,” Adam confirmed. “I’ll be in at noon.”

“Good. I shall enjoy your company, as I always do.”

Adam watched the man turn and exit the tack room. His eyes followed his uncle until Daniel had walked through the barn and out into the ranch yard. He headed toward the house, where Adam assumed he was going to pray, or bark orders at Hop Sing, or read his Bible, or engage in whatever it was Uncle Daniel did when Pa wasn’t keeping him occupied.

Adam mulled over the recent conversation with his uncle. As Adam had learned was often the case where Daniel Cartwright was concerned, it was laced with religious references that made little sense given the circumstances – everything from the prodigal son to Satan.

Adam chuckled a bit when he recalled the old man asking him if Little Joe engaged in peculiar behavior. He knew he shouldn’t harbor such thoughts about his father’s brother, but as he walked out to the corral, Adam couldn’t help but think that if anyone around here was peculiar, it was Uncle Daniel.

Chapter 35

Ben and Little Joe sat at the Dunn family’s dining room table. Seated across from them were Paul, Jim, and Charlie. Nan Henning was asked to bring coffee and cookies. Out of politeness, Ben accepted the refreshments he’d have preferred to bypass in favor of getting to the heart of this visit.

Ben briefly took note of the shy smile Nan gave Little Joe when she placed a saucer and coffee cup in front of him, and was surprised to see the shy smile Joe gave her in return. A smile that actually caused him to drop his eyes; then subtly watch her exit the room. Not that Joseph wasn’t always charming with the fairer sex. Generally, he was too charming for his own good, as far as Ben was concerned. But this smile was different. It wasn’t his usual “devil may care” grin, designed to disarm even the most mature and experienced of women. Nor was it simply a friendly, “How do you do, Miss?” kind of smile that was accompanied by the polite tip of a cowboy hat. The type he’d normally give to a girl he’d gone to school with, but had never expressed any romantic interest in. This smile – well, it was different. Had time allowed for it, Ben would have pondered further what he’d seen pass between the young couple, and maybe even figured out just who the mystery girl was Joe danced with in Virginia City last Saturday night.

But any thought Ben might have wanted to give to what he’d seen transpire was quickly chased from his mind. The atmosphere in the Dunn home was different today from what it had been when Ben visited last month. The younger children greeted Ben and Joe with enthusiasm. Ben had assumed that event boded well. After all, it was a far more positive beginning than last time, when the little ones ran and hid, and the older children shot him dark scowls. However, Ben soon discovered that the Dunn children’s behavior wasn’t a good predictor of what awaited Little Joe and him inside.

Paul and Charlie hadn’t been in the house. When Ben told Jim he’d like to meet with him and his two oldest sons, the man acted surprised at the request. “Act” being the optimal word. And bad acting at that. Jim had no future in the theatre.

“The boys are busy this morning, Ben. I gave them a long list of chores to complete.”

Just by glancing at Joe’s face, Ben knew what his son was thinking.

Busy my eye. They’re probably off somewhere plotting the next prank they’re gonna pull on me.

“I’m sorry to derail Paul and Charlie from their tasks, but I think it’s important all of us take part in a. . .father and son discussion, if you will.”

Jim raised an eyebrow. “Father and son discussion?”

“My last visit doesn’t seem to have put an end to the trouble brewing between your boys and Little Joe. Perhaps if all five of us talk about it, we can get things resolved.”

“I already spoke to the boys, just like you asked me to. Do you really think this is necessary? I’ve got a lot to get done today, Ben, just as I’m sure you do.”

“I recognize we’re all busy this time of year. Nonetheless, I don’t think it’s to either of our benefits to ignore the situation any longer.”

“Oh. So now we have a “situation,” do we?”

“Yes, Jim, it appears we do.”

The man’s eyes narrowed. “One that you intend to blame my boys for?”

“I’m not here to blame anyone. I’m here hoping that, with assistance from you and me, our sons can get this worked out before someone gets hurt.”

The man’s eyes shifted from Ben to Joe, then back again before he finally shook his head with disgust, opened the front door, and called to a brown-headed boy who was filling horse troughs.

“Glen, get Paul and Charlie! Tell them to come to the house. No dawdling!”

“Yes, Pa.”

The fourteen year old sprinted across the ranch yard and around the corner of the barn. Ben wasn’t sure of his final destination – smoke house, wood shed, carriage house, a corral, the tool shed – it could have been any one of those places that was close enough for a lanky teenager to reach quickly on foot.

Before the awkward silence could lengthen while they waited in the foyer for Paul and Charlie, Rilla came down the stairs with Henry and Nora clinging to each hand, followed by seven-year-old Daphne and nine-year-old Polly. All of them were dressed in their Sunday best, Rilla wearing a small-brimmed pink hat and dainty white gloves.

“Oh, Ben. Little Joe. Hello. I didn’t realize we had visitors.”

Ben smiled. “Good morning, Rilla.”

“Ma’am,” Joe nodded politely.

Rilla turned to her husband. “Do you need me to stay?”

“No, no. You go ahead with your plans. Nan can get us anything we need.”

“Yes, please,” Ben said. “Don’t alter your day for us. Little Joe and I won’t hear of it.”

“Besides,” Jim smiled indulgently, “it’s just man talk. Nothing that you’d be interested in, dear.” Jim escorted his wife and children to the door. Ben thought he seemed rather hasty about it, as though he was anxious to get Rilla out of the house before any discussion could begin that she might overhear. “Enjoy your visit with Estelle. Tell Frank I said hello.”

“I’ll do that.”

Jim bent, kissing Daphne and Polly on their cheeks.

“Mind your manners at the tea party, girls. Show Mrs. Parker what grown up ladies you are.”

In unison, the girls promised, “We will, Papa.”

He chucked Henry under the chin, and then lifted Nora’s hat to place a kiss on the top of her blond head. “Behave yourselves for Mama. Have fun playing with Mary and Frankie.”

“We will, Papa,” Nora assured.

“Will, Papa,” Henry nodded gravely. Ben smiled briefly, the solemn brown-eyed two-year-old reminding him of Adam at the same age.

As Rilla and the children went out the door, Paul and Charlie came in.

“Glen, help your mother get Nora and Henry in the buggy.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Then keep everyone else busy outside. Your brothers and I will be tied up for a little while having a . . .um. . .discussion with Mr.Cartwright and Little Joe.”

“Okay, Pa.”

Ben silently observed as Paul and Charlie openly taunted Little Joe by elbowing one another and smiling like a couple of jackals, evidently not caring that Ben was witnessing it as well.

“Hear that, Paul,” Charlie stage-whispered, “we’re having a discussion.”

“Yep, I heard. Sure wish Mr. Cartwright and Little Joe would pay us a visit more often for one of these here discussions, ‘cause then we’d get outta doin’ a whole passel of work.”

At the risk of thinking like his oldest brother, Ben couldn’t believe the impertinence Jim was allowing from these two pups. While Ben would never claim that Little Joe didn’t sometimes let his temper and sharp tongue get the best of him, his son would never be openly disrespectful to a visiting neighbor, nor foolish enough to behave in such a mocking manner in front of his father.

But Jim seemed intent on pretending he didn’t notice his sons’ behavior as he led the way to the dining room and called for Nan to bring refreshments. His oldest daughter, Marjorie, whom Ben guessed was somewhere between twelve and thirteen now, assisted Nan.

Jim held off conversation until a plate of cookies, along with another plate holding slices of current cake, was resting in the middle of the table, and everyone had coffee.

“Ben, Little Joe, help yourselves.” Jim and his boys filled their plates with cookies. He dismissed Nan, telling her if they needed anything else he’d call.

The girl nodded. “Yes, Mr. Dunn.” She shot Joe one final, quick smile, then returned to the kitchen.

“Margie, go outside and keep an eye on the younger boys until I’m done here.”

If Marjorie found the prospect of being in charge of Timmy, Matthew and Gerald boring at best, trying at worst, or in any way an inconvenience, she didn’t voice it. She replied, “Yes, Papa,” in a dutiful tone, and headed for the foyer.

Jim waited until Nan was in the kitchen, and his daughter out the front door and across the porch, before speaking again.

“So, Ben,” Jim said as he bit into a cookie, “you said something about the five of us needing to have a father and son discussion?”

“Yes. Before someone gets seriously injured.”

“Seriously injured?”

“It seems as though Little Joe has had several run-ins with Paul and Charlie. Not the least of which left him beaten up in an alley behind the Silver Dollar, and falling into a hole so deep that he’d still be down there if Adam hadn’t found him.”

“Falling into a hole?”

“Yes.”

“And what exactly did my boys have to do with Little Joe falling into a hole?”

Fire shone from Joe’s eyes. “They dug it, that’s what they had to do with it.”

“Joseph,” Ben warned with just that one word.

Jim looked at Little Joe. “And how do you claim to know my sons dug this hole your father speaks of?”

“Because they showed up after I’d been in it for a good half a day.”

“If you were down in a hole, how were you able to see them?”

“I didn’t see them. I heard them. They called to me.”

Ben watched as Jim looked from one of his sons to the other. Charlie slumped in his chair with an air of indifference about him and a sly smirk on his face, while he crammed cookies into his mouth like a famished five-year-old, crumbs clinging to his lips and shirtfront. Paul’s eyes shifted to meet his father’s, as though seeking guidance as to what to say or not to say. Ben didn’t miss the slight shake of Jim’s head. That action clearly telling Paul to keep his mouth shut and let his father do all the talking.

Jim leaned back in his chair and gave Joe a patronizing smile. “Just because my boys called to you, doesn’t mean they dug the hole you had the misfortune of stumbling upon.”

“I know they dug it.”

“Uh huh. Just like you somehow know they instigated the fight you apparently got yourself involved in at the Silver Dollar.”

“I didn’t get myself involved in anything. I was jumped by a buncha’ miners’ kids.”

“See there then. Miners’ kids. You said so yourself. I could sit here all day long and still not be able to figure out how you and your father arrived at the outlandish conclusion that my sons had anything to do with that.” Jim looked at Ben. “If you ask me, it sounds like Little Joe got himself involved in some sort of trouble he doesn’t want to confess to you, Ben, and is using my boys as scapegoats.”

Joe was half way to his feet when Ben clasped a hand on his forearm and ordered quietly, “Sit down, Joseph.”

“Pa. . .”

“Joseph. Sit down.”

“See there, Ben. The boy’s got a temper. You’ve told me so on more than one occasion.”

“Yes, he has a temper, but that doesn’t make him a liar.”

“I never said he was a liar. I simply said that perhaps these. . .stories Little Joe is telling about Paul and Charlie have no basis in fact. Perhaps he’s trying to cover up some kind of mischief he’s getting into.”

This time Joe couldn’t keep his sarcastic comment to himself.

“Yeah, like I’d throw myself down a hole.”

Ben didn’t chastise Little Joe for his rudeness. The arrogance radiating from Jim and his boys made being anything other than rude difficult. It was as if a challenge was being issued. A challenge that, even given Jim’s sudden silence, Ben could hear clearly.

Just what are you gonna do about it, Ben? About any of it.

Finally, Ben was seeing matters for what they really were. His visit here weeks ago hadn’t put a stop to anything. Actually, like Little Joe feared it would, his visit probably made things worse. Jim had simply said all the right things then. Soothed Ben’s ruffled feathers by giving false assurances. Just like today, it had all been an act.

Ben took a deep breath and let it out slowly before speaking.

“Jim, I won’t have your boys harassing my son over something that’s strictly between you and me.”

“What something?”

“Those timber contracts.”

“I never said a word about those contracts.”

“You don’t have to say a word about them. All of a sudden it’s clear to me what game you’re playing. Well, let me tell you something, if you want to play games, you play them with me. You don’t play them using my son as your pawn.”

“Those are mighty strong words, Ben.”

“Yes, they are. They’re strong words because if they aren’t giving you the message, then allow me to. Call off your boys, and call them off now.”

Jim offered a phony smile. “Ben, Ben, Ben. Now come on. You seem to think this mischief my sons are supposedly engaged in with Little Joe is my doing. I can’t keep an eye on these boys all the time. I have a ranch to run. Besides, don’t you think it’s about time Little Joe learns to fight his own battles, instead of you fighting them for him.”

Once again, Little Joe’s temper got the best of him and he shot from his chair. This time, Ben stood with him, putting a restraining arm across his son’s chest. Before Joe could respond to Jim’s insult, Ben leveled a cold stare at his neighbor.

“I’m sorry those timber contracts have driven a wedge between us. Believe me, I wouldn’t have submitted a bid if I’d known you wouldn’t understand it was nothing more than business. But what’s done is done. In the meantime, you and your boys don’t want to ignite my ornery side. I’m asking you as a friend and a neighbor to put an end to the foolishness your boys are engaging in. If you don’t, and my
son…any of my sons, gets hurt, I’ll hold you personally responsible. And what I do after that. . .well what I do after that, might be something we’ll both regret.”

Ben didn’t wait for a response. He nodded toward the foyer.

“Joseph, it’s time for us to go.”

Joe shot a hard glance at Paul and Charlie that didn’t intimidate them nearly as much as he probably hoped it would. The two sat wearing twin smirks, as though they’d enjoyed the show, and were already wondering what their pa would put them up to next.

As Ben and Joe grabbed their hats from the hooks by the door, Jim called, “If you want my advice, Ben, you should quit babying Little Joe! Let him be a man and take care of himself for a change.”

Ben ushered Joe out the door before the young man could race back into the dining room and knock Jim out of his chair. As Ben and Joe walked across the front porch, ridicule-laced laughter drifted out the open front windows, doing nothing to quell Ben’s anger, or his concerns.

For the time being, however, he pushed those feelings aside to instead be the image of strong, self-assured father as he and Joe reached their mounts.

“Come on, Little Joe, let’s head back the Ponderosa.”

“But, Pa. . .”

“Joseph, come along. We’ll discuss this further at home.”

If Joe had an opinion to the contrary, he didn’t voice it. After a brief moment of hesitation, he followed Ben’s orders, swung onto Cochise’s back, and rode away from the Dunn ranch with his father at his side.

Chapter 36

“No, absolutely not! I won’t agree to it!”

“Young man, I think you’ve forgotten who you’re talking to. You will agree to it, because I’m not giving you a choice.”

“Pa, I’m not gonna have Adam or Hoss followin’ me around like I’m five years old. Like I need some kinda babysitter. I can fight my own battles for cryin’ out loud!”

“Joseph, don’t parrot back to me what you heard Jim Dunn say. As a matter of fact, forget what you heard him say. His opinion doesn’t hold an ounce of weight with me right now, and it shouldn’t hold any with you, either.”

“His opinion has nothing to do with this. I just don’t want one of my brothers tagging along after me for the rest of the summer.”

“It won’t be for the rest of the summer, Little Joe. Just until all of this blows over.”

“You can’t predict how soon that’ll be anymore than I can.”

“No. . .no, I can’t. Nonetheless, if we don’t give Paul and Charlie the opportunity to corner you alone, then perhaps they’ll grow tired of their games.”

“Yeah, while they spend all their free time spreading the word around Virginia City that Joe Cartwright has a couple of nursemaids at his side in the form of his older brothers.”

“Joseph–”

“Besides, why am I the only one who’s gotta stick close to the house, and then have an escort anytime I go farther than the ranch yard? You told Mr. Dunn you don’t want any of your sons hurt. Paul and Charlie could just as easily start targeting Adam or Hoss.”

“I suppose they could, but I don’t think they will.”

“Why not?”

“I just don’t think they will, son.”

Joe’s eyes narrowed. “Because I’m the youngest and smallest, is that it? Because you think I can’t take care of myself.”

When Ben didn’t immediately respond, his son spun away from him to pace the open area behind the settee, his boot heels making sharp angry clacks against the wood floor.

They were alone in the house. Lunch was still on the table, waiting for Ben and Little Joe to eat, but as of yet, neither one of them had shown an interest in the food. Before Hop Sing had stepped outside to work in his herb garden, he said Hoss wasn’t back from town yet, and that Adam left after lunch to check on the crew falling a stand of timber on the north ridge. Ben didn’t know where Daniel was. Perhaps Hop Sing neglected to mention he’d gone with Adam.

Ben thought a moment longer before replying to his son. He knew Joe was sensitive about his small stature when compared to the larger physiques his brothers possessed. And as for being the youngest. . .well, Ben had yet to meet a baby of the family who didn’t chafe over his position now and again. Joe didn’t realize it yet, but he’d grow out of all that given time. There would come a day a few years down the road when he’d thicken through the shoulders and chest as a boy’s body gave way to a man’s. As for being the baby of the family – Joe would never be able to change his birth order, but someday it wouldn’t seem so important. Someday he’d achieve successes and accomplishments in his own right that made him feel equal to his older brothers. That no longer left him feeling like the kid who was forever playing catch-up to the siblings born six and twelve years before him.

But, for now, Ben silently acknowledged that Joe was the youngest and the smallest, and just like those factors played a role with animals out in the wild, those factors made him far more vulnerable to bullies like Paul and Charlie Dunn than either Adam or Hoss were. When Ben finally spoke, he weighed his words carefully.

“It’s not that I don’t think you can take care of yourself, Joe. However, Paul and Charlie seem intent on causing trouble for only you. After our meeting today, I suspect that’s Jim’s doing.”

“Because he thinks Adam’s too smart for them and Hoss is too big. So we’re right back to me bein’ the stupid, weak Cartwright who can’t fight his own battles.”

“You’re neither of those things, young man. And I’ve never thought you can’t fight your own battles. But sometimes the battles grow too large for one man to handle. He has to call in reinforcements. That’s all this is, Little Joe. Reinforcements. Just for a while, son. Just until things calm down.”

Joe stopped his pacing. He looked at his father, questioning in the type of incredulous tone only a teenager can muster.

“So I can’t go anywhere alone?”

“I’d prefer that you don’t.”

“Not to Tuck’s?”

“No.”

“Not to Mitch’s?”

“No. Not unless Hoss, or Adam, or I ride along with you.”

“Not to Virginia City, either?”

“No.”

“What. . .what if I have a date?”

“Then Adam or Hoss can escort you to the young lady’s home, wait until the date ends, and escort you back here.”

“Oh, come on, Pa. No! There’s no way I’m havin’ my brothers tag along when I go courtin’.”

“Little Joe, I’m sorry, but that’s the way it’ll have to be for now. Besides, I wasn’t aware that you’re currently seeing someone.”

“I. . .I. . .I’m not.” Joe ran a flustered hand through his hair. “I mean. . .I might be. . .I could. . . oh never mind. I’m not.”

“Which is it?” Ben questioned with humor. Humor his youngest didn’t share in, given his sharp denial.

“I’m not.”

“Then the question of your brothers providing an escort is neither here nor there, is it.”

Joe scowled. “I hate it when you do that.”

“Do what?”

“Play your “father” trump card like that.”

“Well, I hate it when you’re stubborn and unreasonable. Both of which you’re being at this moment.”

“You’d be stubborn and reasonable, too, if you were placed under house arrest.”

“I didn’t say anything about you being under house arrest, and you know it. For all of our sakes, don’t make this out to be worse than it is, Joseph.”

“You wouldn’t do this to Adam or Hoss.”

“Little Joe. . .”

Joe ignored the warning in his father’s voice.

“Well you wouldn’t. And you’d never let us do it to you. You’d never let us insist you be escorted everywhere you go.”

“I might, if I felt my life was in danger.”

“No you wouldn’t, and you know it.”

“Joe. . .”

“Come on, Pa. Admit it. You wouldn’t–”

“Joseph, I’m warning you right now, it’s not a good idea to keep poking a bear with a stick just for the sake of seeing if he’ll wake up from hibernation.”

“Well, you wouldn’t and–”

“Joseph, enough! I don’t want to hear any more about it!”

“Fine! You don’t wanna hear any more about it! That can be arranged.”

“Where are you going?”

“Outside!”

“Where outside?”

“To the barn, Pa! I’m goin’ to the barn!”

“Joe–”

As Joe jammed his hat on his head he promised, “I’m just goin’ to the barn. Nowhere else. Just to the godda. . .just to the barn.”

“Watch your mouth, Joseph.”

Joe hesitated, then mumbled with eyes focused on the floor, “Yes, Pa. Sorry.”

“And before you go, let’s eat lunch.”

“I don’t want any.”

“Joe–”

“Look, Pa, I’m already doin’ what you ask by sticking close to the house and letting Adam or Hoss go with me if I leave the ranch yard. Can’t I at least choose if I wanna eat or not?”

Ben sighed. “Yes, I suppose you can. All right then. Go on. If you get hungry, come into the kitchen and make yourself a sandwich.”

“I will.”

As Joe reached out to touch the doorknob Ben said, “Little Joe. . .”

Joe slowly turned around.

“It won’t be as bad as it seems right now, son. Given time, things will work out all right.”

Joe responded with all the glumness a young man his age could possess at the thought of the freedom he’d just lost. “Yeah. . .yeah, sure they will.”

Ben followed his youngest outside, stopping on the porch and watching as Joe crossed the dusty yard and entered the barn. He startled when a voice spoke from a chair situated in the shadows of a far corner of the porch.

“There are more reasons than I can count as to why that boy needs a good old-fashioned thrashing, Benjamin.”

“Daniel, not now please. It’s been a long enough day as it is.”

“Then you don’t want my opinion on what needs to be done to drive the devil out of Joseph?”

“No, I don’t. I appreciate your concern, but I’ll handle this the way I see fit.”

“The way you see fit doesn’t appear to be doing much good. Those Dunn boys are picking on Joseph for a reason.”

“Yes, they are. Unfortunately, the reason has nothing to do with Little Joe, and everything to do with me.”

“Don’t take on blame that isn’t yours to bear. Place the blame squarely where it belongs.”

“And just where is that?”

“On Joseph’s shoulders.”

“On Little Joe’s shoulders? Daniel, forgive me for saying so, but ever since you arrived you’ve had something against Joe. You passed judgment on him before you even gave yourself the chance to get to know him.”

Daniel stood and walked toward his brother. “If I passed judgment, it’s because I see things in him you refuse to.”

“Yes, I know,” Ben acknowledged in a tone that said he was growing weary of his brother, and would like to put him on the next stage bound for Ohio. “You see Pa in him, and evil in him, and numerous other things I’m supposedly turning a blind eye to. Well right now, I can’t see much of anything because I’m hungry. Very hungry. It’s past two o’clock. Perhaps after I’ve had some lunch my vision will clear.”

Ben went into the house, not inviting his brother to join him. It was the first time he’d been openly rude to Daniel. In some ways, that made him feel guilty, because he thought of how his actions would have hurt his mother. In other ways, he didn’t care, because he thought of how his father would laugh at his remorse while saying, “Ben, I can’t say as I blame you. That oldest brother of yours could manage to get under the hide of the Lord Himself and cause a rash the size of the ocean as he festered away telling God how to do His job.”

Thinking of his pa brought a smile to Ben’s face. As he began to make a sandwich with the fixings Hop Sing had left out, Ben decided he’d better enjoy the lighthearted moment while he could. He had a feeling that until this thing with the Dunns blew over for good, lighthearted moments would be few and far between.

~ ~ ~

Next Story in the Sacrificial Lamb Series:

Part 2

 

Other Stories by this Author

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Author: Kenda

10 thoughts on “Sacrificial Lamb – Part 1 (by Kenda)

  1. This is a very tense story. I think Uncle Daniel is too much.poor Ben. well I will read the next chapter and see what happens next. thanks

    1. Hi Hope, Thank you for taking the time to read “Lamb.” I’m glad you’re enjoying it, and are finding it worthwhile.

      Take care,
      Kenda

  2. Poor Joe, when Uncle Daniel arrived he should have run for the hills – in fact they all should have! I really liked Ruth and feel so sorry for the life she leads, which must have been like so many women of the time, I am keeping my fingers crossed that things work out better for her in part 2. Have a feeling things are going to get worse for Ben and the boys before they get better! Can’t wait….Great job.

    1. Yes, I agree – they all should have run for the hills! I couldn’t imagine putting up with Uncle Daniel for an extended stay. Thank you for your feedback. I hope you find the story worth the read.

  3. Uncle Daniel would have been on the next stage to Ohio before we could’ve said “Amen” to one of his sermons. I really enjoyed this story. Great job, Kenda!

    1. Hi Juanita, Thank you for reading “Lamb” and leaving feedback. Uncle Daniel was certainly a trying house guest to say the least. I agree with you – I would have sent him back to Ohio on the next stage rather than spend an entire summer with him. And I’m sure his daughter Ruth was glad to put him ON the stage to Nevada. Thanks again!

  4. I’m amazed that nobody has punched Daniel into next week! He’s obnoxious and pompous and self-righteous … and a few other words I can’t say here. I have a feeling things are going to get a whole lot worse in part two before they get better.

    1. Hi Questfan, Yes, I’m amazed as well that no one has punched Daniel yet at this point in the story. He’s definitely not a character who evokes much sympathy from the reader. Thank you for your interest in the story and your feedback. I appreciate it.

  5. Hi Elbertina, Thank you for taking the time to read “Sacrificial Lamb.” I enjoyed creating the character of Daniel Cartwright, and from there, letting this story take on a life of its own. It was fun to dig into Ben’s past and fictionalize what his life might have been like as a boy. Thanks again! Kenda

  6. This story is very intense. I like how you combined the story of what’s happening in Ohio and what is happening with the Cartwright’s so well. Like Ben and Little Joe, I am getting a little tired of Uncle Daniel sticking his nose in the way Ben raises Little Joe. I have nothing against religion but I do not like it when someone shoves it down my thought the way Uncle Daniel seems to be doing. Very good story. I look forward to reading part 2.

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