Summary: A man driven by hate uses Joe as a weapon to bring Ben to his knees.
Inside the little school another day was beginning much like any other…all the children were settling into their seats and the teacher, Miss Abigail Jones, was calling the class to attention. She began the day with a prayer and then proceeded to outline the work for the day. As her voice filled the room, one student struggled to pay attention.
Here she goes already, he mused to himself, the days barely begun and lecturing already. She must just love the sound of her own voice; she just goes on and on and on…. But then it was that voice, directed at him that pulled him back into the moment.
“Joseph, we’re just getting started and already your mind is wandering. You best pay attention young man or you’ll find yourself staying in at recess to catch up on the assignments you’ve not heard me assign. Now, as I was saying JOSEPH, lets take out our arithmetic books and turn to page 76 and begin to work those problems.”
Twelve-year-old Joseph Cartwright was not a big fan of school, but did what was required to get through each day, barely. So with a humph and a sigh, he slapped his math book onto his desk and pulled out his slate and pressed on, not wanting to give Miss Jones any reason to keep him from recess.
As the class worked quietly, an older man entered the room and stood in the back. Looking for any distraction, Joe immediately noticed the man and with all the curiosity of a young boy studied his features. He was an older man, maybe as old as his father, he thought. But his face was worn; his beard was scraggly and dirty, as was his grayish hair that stuck out from under a tattered brown hat. His clothes were well worn and faded but it was his eyes that gave Joe cause to pause and shudder. And as he tried to figure out this man and understand the feeling he was getting from his eyes, the man had become impatient for the teacher to notice him. Failing to attract Miss Jones attention, the man loudly cleared his throat.
Miss Jones looked up from her work and rose from her chair, “Yes sir, may I help you?”
“Well, yes ‘m, I’ve been sent to collect up Little Joe Cartwright,” the man stated flatly.
Little Joe jumped up from his seat and whipped his head to look at Miss Jones. Miss Jones held up her hand to indicate to Joe to wait just a moment.
“Little Joseph, why? May I ask who you are sir?”
“Yes, Ma’am, I’m a new hand out at the Ponderosa and things are kinda crazy out there right now…with that big accident and all and since my horse was saddled and nearby, the foreman told me to get into town and send the undertaker back and then come get the kid. Yup, undertaker first and then the kid, that’s what he done told me and that’s what I done did,” explained the man.
As the man spoke the classroom was eerily quiet. Joe’s eyes grew wide with fright and as he heard the word undertaker he had to grab at his desk to steady himself. Miss Jones was quickly at his side and put her arm around the boy’s slim shoulders drawing him to her side.
“Miss Jones,” Joe croaked out in a whisper, “the undertaker?”
“Now just hold on Joseph, we don’t have any idea what’s going on.” She said with an air of authority and then focused her attention on the man who had become the center of the small classroom.
“Sir, just what are you trying to say? You’re frightening this child,” she said calmly gesturing toward Joe.
“I’m just doing like I was told. They said to send the undertaker with three boxes, why they’d need three I don’t know…didn’t look like there was enough of anyone to fill one box let alone three, but with all that Cartwright money they can probably afford they’s own boxes, beside…” the man rambled on unconcerned about his young audience, until he was cut off by Miss Jones.
”Excuse me sir!” Miss Jones eyes grew in fury as she listened to the callous man and felt Joe cling onto her and tremble. A quick glance down revealed the pale, shocked face she knew she’d see. Desperate to get Joe away from the foolish man’s tale, she knelt before Joe and took his shoulders in her hands and turned him to face her. She saw the tears streaming down his face as he struggled to speak. But she started, “Now Joseph, we don’t know what happened, this man may not know the complete story…”
Joe interrupted her, “But Pa woulda come for me himself or sent Adam or Hoss, unless…they couldn’t…and if it weren’t bad they wouldn’t have sent for me at all,” he hiccuped and hung his head.
Miss Jones pulled him toward her and patted his back as she spoke, “Mitch, please take Joe and help him saddle his horse.”
Mitch nodded and replied, “Yes ma’am. Do you want me to ride along with him, Miss Jones?”
Before Miss Jones could answer, the man jumped in hurriedly, “No, NO they done told me to bring just the kid. Only one kid…that place is not fitten for a bunch of crying kids…it’s bad enough for men with all that blood and such…”
“Sir please”, Miss Jones interrupted as she gave Joe a gentle push toward the door, “can’t you see you’re upsetting these children with such talk. Surely the situation is not as bad as all that.”
“Well you wasn’t there teacher and I was, but what ever you say,” he said with slight smirk. Then the classroom fell silent waiting for Mitch and Joe to return.
“Joe’s all ready Miss Jones,” Mitch stated as he came into the room and took his seat. Joe waited by the door.
“Well then we best be gettin on. Death waits for no man,” the man stated. Then he turned and hurried out of the room ushering Joe along, leaving the occupants stunned and Miss Jones searching for a way to soothe the shaken children.
“Miss Jones, Miss Jones,” Mitch called to her.
“Yes Mitchell? Was Joseph all right to ride? Perhaps I should send the doctor along, but I guess if it’s as bad as that man said, the doctor would already be there,” Miss Jones muttered.
“No Ma’am, he’s not all right, he got sick…threw up just outside. He’s really scared,” he answered.
Joe and the man rode along for about an hour as Joe tried to pull himself together. He figured he’d need strength and composure to face what he feared at the end of the ride. Joe knew he needed to get more information from the man, but he was afraid to ask so he figured he would start with small questions and work up the question he dreaded.
“Mister, where was my Pa workin’ today?” Joe asked in a small shaky voice…but he received no reply.
“Are we heading to the mill?” Joe asked. Again, there was no reply. The man just rode along staring straight ahead.
“How long you worked for my father?” Joe asked…his stomach tightening into a knot, something wasn’t right.
“Mister, was it my pa and brothers who were hurt? Huh, please Mister, please?” Joe begged the man.
“You sure do ask a powerful lot of questions, boy. Ain’t no one ever taught you to speak only when spoken to? The man sneered at Joe and laughed an evil chuckle.
“What’s goin on?!” Joe demanded.
“Shut up Kid!” The man shouted, as he grabbed at Cochise’s reins. Terrified, Joe turned Cochise and with a quick kick bolted away from the man. “Damn it kid you better get back here,” the man shouted as he took off after Joe.
Cochise was fast, but she’d already been run hard today. Joe had been running late for school and tried to make up time on the trail and did, thanks to Cochise, but now the horse was tired and had little to give her master as he tried to flee the horrible man. As Cochise slowed, Joe glanced over his shoulder to see the man gaining on them. Before long the man had closed the gap and reached out his arm. He grabbed a handful of Joe’s jacket and pulled him back off his horse. Joe landed in a heap on the ground, hitting his head and fell into unconsciousness.
Back in the schoolhouse, little work was accomplished the rest of the morning. The children were all restless and scared. By lunchtime, Miss Jones, who was herself now a nervous wreck, decided to dismiss school for the remainder of the day and go seek out Sheriff Coffee or Doctor Martin and try to find out what happened to the Cartwrights. She was frightened for the family, especially Adam as well as for Joseph and she was beginning to doubt whether she should have let Joseph go with the callous man.
Miss Jones hurried into town toward the Sheriff’s office in search of answers. She was a determined woman and it showed in her stride. At the sheriff’s office, Ben Cartwright and his two oldest sons were catching up on the town’s news. Ben had accepted the Sheriff’s offer for coffee, but Adam and Hoss were interested in a beer and were heading out the door as Hoss spied Miss Jones marching toward them. Stepping back and quickly closing the door he chuckled to Adam, “Oh Lordy brother, you’d better head for the back door or maybe into a cell.”
“Why?” was the tentative response from Adam.
“Cause Miss Abigail is headin’ this way and she looks bound and determined, somebody musta told that gal you was here.”
“Very funny Hoss, Miss Jones would be at the schoolhouse this time of day, let’s go.”
“Alrightty then, but don’t say I didn’t warn ya, you heard me warn him, right Pa? Right Roy?”
“Yup, we heard ya Hoss,” Sheriff Coffee laughed.
With that Adam pulled open the door and found himself standing nose to nose with Abigail Jones. Miss Jones was overcome with relief at seeing Adam safe and she hugged him tightly. Adam was stunned by the intensity of the embrace, but quickly grabbed her bony shoulders to push her off of him and free himself from her entanglements. The others in the room stood in stunned silence and finally it was Miss Jones who broke the silence. “Oh Adam, I am so relieved to see you safe and unharmed. You are unharmed aren’t you? Oh yes, you look quite well, as usual. Oh and Mr. Cartwright, Hoss you’re both fine too, OH thank goodness…I was so worried, well all the children were and Oh my Joseph, he must be greatly relieved as well…”
As she rambled on, the men each exchanged confused looks, completely unaware of what she was taking about yet unable to get a word in edgewise as she continued. Now however her voice took on a more severe tone.
“…and speaking of Joseph, Mr. Cartwright surely there was a more appropriate choice as to who could have come and collected the child. That, that man was heartless and completely insensitive in what he said, really, Mr. Cartwright you should have sent one of the boys for Joseph, if you needed him, but really, if you’re all well, I can’t see why you would have had to worry that poor child… you know he was physically ill at the very idea, really Mr. Cartwright, I was fearful that he would faint as he rode off with that man…”
“Miss Jones, I’m sorry, I truly have no idea what you’re talking about.” Ben interrupted quickly, as she paused to take a breath. “Joe rode off with what man?” he added.
“Well surely Mr. Cartwright, you or someone who works for you sent that man to collect Joseph after the accident this morning,” Miss Jones spouted back.
“What accident?” Adam asked.
“The one that required the undertaker,” Miss Jones replied indignantly.
“Miss Jones, there was no accident this morning as far as I know and certainly no need for the undertaker!” Ben retorted.
“But that man, he came for Joseph,” she said softly.
“What man?” Ben asked quickly, his voice tightening with fear.
“Oh my, oh my goodness he did seem a bit, well, odd and he didn’t want anyone to accompany Joseph. Oh my, oh dear…” Miss Jones paled and Hoss quickly offered her a chair, “Thank you, Hoss.”
“Miss Jones, I think we need to hear the whole story,” Ben pressed the distraught teacher.
“Well this man entered the school this morning shortly after school started…” she started telling the whole story, including the upsetting details the man told regarding the undertaker, the need for three coffins and all the other gruesome details. She related how Joe reacted, both emotionally and physically. Ben paled with each detail until he had to sit down.
“OH Pa, that poor kid, what he must be thinking? Who could that fella be and why would he get Joe out of school?” Hoss asked the questions they were all thinking. Ben’s mind was a whirl of questions: What in the world was going on and more important: Where was Joe!
“Miss Jones, Miss Jones?” Sheriff Coffee called to the shaken teacher.
“Yes Sheriff, could we talk outside gentlemen, I need some air,” she asked demurely.
“Of course,” Ben answered and took her elbow and led her outside.
“Miss Jones, can you tell who the man was and what he looked like?” the sheriff asked.
“I didn’t get his name, but he said he worked on the Ponderosa,” she explained.
“Well that don’t help,” Hoss snapped and then turned to his father, “Pa what are we gonna do, whoever it is has got Little Joe.”
“Calm down Hoss,” Ben started, “We need to be smart here. Roy, we’ll need some men for a posse, we should head out from the school and start trackin. Miss Jones, do you have any idea which way they rode off?” But without waiting for her response, Ben continued to issue orders. “Adam, you and Hoss will need to go get the horses, and Roy…” Ben, Roy and the boys set about planning while Miss Jones just stared down the street. She thought she saw someone familiar. Yes, she thought…there’s something about the clothes and the tattered brown hat. She watched the man walk down the street toward the saloon. Finally she was sure…
“Mr. Cartwright, that’s the man!” She exclaimed.
“What?!” Ben boomed, “WHERE?!!”
“He just went into the saloon,” she stated.
“Please, show me,” he cried and pulled the teacher toward the saloon followed closely by Hoss, Adam and Sheriff Coffee.
Peeking in the door with Mr. Cartwright over her shoulder, she pointed to the older man with the tattered brown hat. “Wait here, Miss Jones, come on boys, let’s find out what’s going on.”
Ben and his entourage stormed into the saloon, and Miss Jones slipped in quietly behind them anxious to find out what was going on. The man was sitting alone in the corner of the saloon, nursing a beer. He seemed to be waiting.
“Mister, I think you have some explaining to do. What have you done with my son?” Ben demanded.
“Well, well, well, if it isn’t the great Ben Cartwright, as I live and breathe,” the man stated coolly.
“Mister, if you wanna stay that way you’d better answer my Pa’s question, now where’s my brother,” Hoss spat at the man.
“I’d expect a might better manners from a son of ol Ben Cartwrights now sonny,” the man sneered.
Hoss and Adam were both seething now and were ready to pound the man to get answers, but Ben held them back, “Boys,” Ben commanded through clenched teeth.
“Mister, you may know me, but I don’t know you, but I do know is you took my son out of school this morning and I want to know where he is.” Ben again demanded answers.
“Well, let me see now, your son, your son…is he a little fella, with a head of curly brown hair and a big lump…
Ben grabbed at the man, but he was ready and scooted his chair back, “If you’ve hurt him…”
“Hey, I can’t help it if the kid can’t ride good, now let’s make sure we’re talking about the same kid,” the man snickered at the families distress. “Now where was I, oh yeah, the kid I got, gots big green eyes, that cry big tears. Really Cartwright this can’t be your kid, cause the one I gots a real baby, who’s afraid of the dark…cryin’ and screamin’ for his Pa…a real baby.
“You bastard, where is my SON!!!” Ben screamed. Adam and Hoss just stood horrified at the man’s words. This scum had their brother and was tormenting them with the details.
“Really Cartwright, I’d have thought that you’d have gotten that temper of yours under control in the last ten years. But now that I think of it, it’s gotta be your kid I have, he looks just like that meddling wife of yours…how is the old hag now Ben?”
Ben exploded on the man beating him with all he had, but the man just took it, didn’t defend himself, he just laughed. Adam and Hoss grabbed their father…”PA, PA stop! Stop now, we need him to find Joe, we need him!” Adam told him.
“That’s right Sonny. You need me if you ever hope to see that baby again” the man laughed an evil laugh as blood ran down his face from Ben’s beating.
“Mister, I’m gonna arrest you for kidnapping and I’m doin’ it now before you get torn limb from limb. I’m gonna throw you in jail and then you’re gonna tell us where you took the boy,” Sheriff Coffee explained to the man and his murderous audience. Roy pulled the man from the floor and led him to the jailhouse.
As the man left the saloon he smiled at Miss Jones and said, “Thank you for your help today teacher, couldn’t have got him without ya,” and he laughed again. Miss Jones dropped her head and offered a whispered apology, “I’m so sorry Mr. Cartwright, so sorry,” and then she left amid a flurry of tears.
“I’m fine now boys, let me go. Hoss get me a whiskey,” Ben said. Hoss stood shocked. “Now HOSS, Now!”
Ben downed his drink quickly. “You boys get over to the school and see if there is a trail to follow then meet me back at the jail. I’m going to talk to that scum and God help me I’m going to try not to kill him. You boys hurry up now.”
Ben walked quickly toward the jail and burst through the doors to be met by Sheriff Coffee in the main office. “Now Ben, I can’t have you hurtin’ that man…”
“That, MAN!” Ben shouted, “That man is an animal and he’s got my son, but I won’t kill him just yet, I need him to tell me where my son is!!!” Ben thundered.
“I know Ben…let’s see what we can get out of him,” Roy offered and the two of them went to the cell.
“Well Howdy Ben! How neighborly of you to come visitin’. Can I offer you a cup of coffee,” the man laughed out loud. “I promised you I’d come back to see ya, sorry it’s taken me so long. What’s it been ten years? Yup, I’d say ten years, three month and a few days. I’m almost hurt you don’t remember me though, seein’ how our wives were such good friends. But I’m sure it’ll come to ya. Now if y’all excuse me, I think I need a nap.” And with that the man lay down on the cot and turned away.
Ben sat in the outer office with his head in his hands as he racked his brain trying to place the man and his name. Surely he must know this man. As he sat thinking, Roy was pouring over his arrest record for eight years ago, also trying to place the man. Then Adam and Hoss returned to the office. “Pa, there’s not a trail to be had around that school. There’s nothing to follow,” Hoss reported glumly.
“Did that jackass say anything Pa?” Adam asked.
“Ten years ago this idiots wife knew Marie…Roy could he be Carl Hutton, look up that name.” Roy was flipping through the records again.
“Who’s Carl Hutton, Pa?” Hoss asked.
Ten years ago or so, Marie got friendly with a Mary Hutton, she and her son lived in town. Mary worked in the cafe and we all thought she was a widow, but she later told Marie her husband wanted to divorce her but wanted their son. She was running to keep her child and she just wanted to take her son back east and start over. The story touched Marie, especially after what happened with her mother-in-law and her first child. So she desperately wanted to help Mary get away. So we discussed it and offered to help Mary get back to Ohio. About a month after she left Carl Hutton showed up threatening everyone and anyone to find his son. He found out Marie was Mary’s friend and he showed up at the house one day. You boys were at school and Hop Sing was out, and well Marie and Joseph were alone. I came home early, thank God and found him trying to take Joseph. Our son for his, he said. He had hit Marie and tried to take Joe, so he went to prison for assault and attempted kidnapping…” Ben explained until Roy interrupted him.
“For ten years and three months. It must be him, Ben,” Roy stated.
“Our son for his, again,” Ben moaned.
“Pa, I remember that time and Marie crying about some friend of hers who went back east only to die a short time later. Both the lady and her son she had said,” Adam stated.
“Oh God that’s right Adam, both Mary and her son died in a fire at their boarding house,” Ben added.
“Do you think he knows Pa, cause if his son is dead, there’s no tellin’ what he would do to Joe,” Hoss asked fearful for his brother.
“Roy let me talk to that animal again,” Ben stated heading toward the cell.
“Hutton, I remember you now. But there’s nothing to be gained from taking my son. You can’t hurt Marie with this, she passed away some time ago,” Ben stated as calmly as he could.
“Well good for you, Ben. You know my shrew of a wife died some time ago too, but she took my son with her, thanks to you, so I’m going to return the favor.” Hutton smirked.
“You sick piece of trash, he’s just a child!! Where is he!!!” Ben bellowed at the man so twisted by hate.
“My son was a child too, and if you and your wife hadn’t sent him away, he’d be with me today, a man!” Hutton yelled back, his blood pressure building in hate.
“No, he would have left you of his own accord, driven away by your hate for his mother!” Ben shouted at the man.
“Shut up Cartwright…let me tell you more about your kid, let’s see you squirm…you know he thinks your dead. I let him think you all died a miserable death this morning. He thinks he’s all alone and made him sick…but best of all is he’s afraid of the dark…all alone, cold and tied up in the dark thinkin’ your dead.” Hutton laughed that same evil laugh he gave in the saloon. “It’s perfect…I’m here in this comfy jail and he’s all alone with no food or water. I wonder how long he’ll last, Cartwright. What do you think Ben? Of course there could be an explosion and that might get him sooner…you never know….” Hutton howled with laughter as Ben grabbed him through the bars and yanked him into the iron bars.
WHERE IS MY SON, YOU SICK BASTARD!!! Ben screamed at the man and thrust him across the cell into the far wall.
Hutton laughed again while trying to suck in air. “I’ll never tell you Ben, never…you’d better get lookin’ or all you’ll find is bones…I hope…” Hutton stopped laughing and clutched his chest. His eyes grew wide and he slid down the wall to become a heap on the cold hard floor.
“ADAM, get the doctor, this scum can’t die yet!” Ben yelled and then thought to himself: How will I find Joseph?
By time the doctor arrived everyone knew Hutton was dead and along with him died the hopes of finding Little Joe.
“Pa, what are we gonna do? How are we gonna find Joe now?” Hoss cried and Ben rubbed his big son’s shoulder while desperately trying to figure out what to do. From what Hutton had said, Joe was surely in a desperate situation. His child was alone without food and water. He could only last a few days with out water, but he had been vomiting so he’d dehydrate sooner. Then there was the threat of an explosion. What to do?!
Shaken from his fear by the need to find his son, Ben spoke. “Okay boys, we’re getting nowhere sitting here. We need a plan. So here’s what I figure. We need to be looking somewhere dark that could be rigged for an explosion.” Ben started.
“Like a cave or a mine shaft,” Adam offered.
“Right,” Ben continued, “Plus we need to figure how far out of town Hutton could have gotten in an hour or an hour and a half.
“Huh?” Hoss question.
“Well look Hoss,” Ben explained. “Hutton took Joe from school at around 9 this morning, but we saw him at the saloon at 12:30, right.” Hoss nodded. “So it stands to reason he rode for about an hour and a half, spent a bit of time hiding your brother and then rode back. So we need to set up a perimeter that encompasses locations within an hour and a half ride from the school and then check all the caves and mines within that perimeter. Understand?”
“Yeah, lets go,” exclaimed Hoss with renewed hope.
Roy, Ben, Adam, Hoss and even Doctor Martin gathered at the school. Miss Jones had informed the group that Hutton and Joe had headed east from the schoolyard, so that’s the way the search party went. Hoss had his eagle eyes glued to the ground in hopes of finding a sign or a track that his brother had passed this way.
After riding for about an hour, Hoss let out a shout. “Pa, look here at these tracks…I’ve been watching these tracks but now, look, it looks like the rider turns and bolts off that way,” Hoss points to his left. Hoss turned and followed the tracks, “see here Pa there’s a second set like someone getting chased and here’s where he got caught.” Hoss pointed to a spot on the ground where the grass was all smashed and bent over. Hoss and Adam leaped from their horses to examine the ground. “It sure looks like a little fella like Joe could have fallen here,” Hoss said as he studied the spot.
“And look, remember Hutton said he hit his head, well here’s some blood,” Adam stated.
“Well at least we know we’re on the right track, now what’s near here where he could have hidden Joseph?” Ben asked anxiously.
“I think I can follow this trail, Pa, come on,” Hoss offered and rode off followed by the small group. They hadn’t ridden long when they heard an explosion. Each man pulled his horse up short. They all exchanged frantic looks. Ben’s stomach was in his throat as he cried out, “Oh my God, that was an explosion.”
“Just like Hutton said, Pa,” Hoss sobbed.
“It came from this direction, Pa. Let’s ride,” Adam explained. Without sparing the horses, the group charged toward the sound of the explosion. They came upon a mineshaft clouded in dust with rocks still piling in the opening, and across from the mine entrance was a rickety shack nearly engulfed in flames. The men quickly flew from their saddles each racing for the mine. Adam paused for a moment to stare at the shack and the quickly rising flames.
“Leave that Adam, we’ve got to get to Joe,” Ben told his eldest son, then called to his youngest as he began to fling rocks aside, “JOSEPH, JOSEPH, Papa’s coming son!!”
The others joined Ben as they frantically worked to get into the mine. Adam quickly set to work with his father, but was troubled by his thoughts of Hutton, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Again, Adam looked over his shoulder toward the burning shack. Then all at once it came to him and Adam roughly grabbed his father and shouted, “PA! This was a trick. Joe’s not in the mine…it’s the fire, PA, Hutton’s kid died in a fire…JOE MUST BE IN THE SHACK!!!”
The sense of Adam’s theory washed over Ben as he pushed Adam aside and ran toward the shack, which was nearly completely involved. His every instinct as a parent drove him toward the flames, until the heat pushed him back. But determination moved Ben to try again, but Roy and Doctor Martin each grabbed Ben’s arms, “Ben you can’t get in there, it’s too late,” they told him.
“JOSEPH, JOSEPH,” Ben screamed in despair and then crumbled to the ground as Hoss and Adam each moved in to offer support for their father and seek comfort for themselves. They all watched in stunned silence until the flames began to die down.
“Do you hear that?” Adam asked to everyone.
“What?” Hoss asked as he wiped tears from his face.
“SHHH, listen,” Adam snapped, “There, there it is! Do you hear that…someone’s calling for PA! Come on, let’s get some water on the last of that fire.”
Ben leaped to his feet and began throwing aside the charred remains of the shack as the others threw water on the remaining embers. Each was listening for a small voice and looked for where it could be coming from. Finally in a corner of the main room, Doctor Martin stumbled on an iron handle and exclaimed, “Ben! Boys! Here, a root cellar! He could have survived down here.”
Immediately, Ben was there pulling at the hot handle and sending prayers heavenly for his son. With a firm tug the door popped up and smoke billowed from the cellar. But the voice was there…a weak cough followed by the most beautiful sound in the world.
“Papa, Papa,” It was Joe. He was covered in soot, tied hand and foot sitting in the cellar smiling up at his relieved father.
Ben jumped into the cellar and gathered his baby to his chest, hugging him tightly and kissing him softly, until Doctor Martin called to him.
“Ben get him out of there and outside to some fresh air. Quickly now!”
Ben moved as fast as he could, but would not release his precious son to another to carry.
Once outside, Adam took Joe while Hoss and Ben untied him. The group sat down so Doctor Martin could examine Joe. A lump and cut to the back of his head to be stitched and bandaged and some smoke inhalation. But miraculously, the boy was in good shape. He was enjoying the attention from his father and brothers at the moment. Joe told his father about his day between coughing fits. He had been scared, but knew his Pa would come for him, because once the man had turned on him, he knew he was lying about his family being hurt or killed.
“I was scared…it was dark in the shack and you know I don’t like the dark, well I cried Pa, I tried to be brave, but I was scared.” cough, cough “but, I knew I just had to wait, Pa,” cough, cough “cause I knew you’d come” cough, cough “I’d seen the cellar when he first brought me here but that man never seemed to noticed it or that the door was up. Then once I smelled the smoke, I figured I should go in just to give you a bit more time to save me. So I just scooted over and rolled in, catching the door with my foot and it closed” Joe explained with an innocent logic.
“You did great Joe,” Adam praised. “But weren’t you worried about the cellar door catching on fire, too,” he added.
Joe wrinkled his brow, as he thought, then shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Nope, I didn’t think of that, but it didn’t so no need to worry now.” Adam smiled at the typical live-for-the-moment answer from his baby brother.
“Yup, smart thinkin’ punkin,” Hoss added.
“Yes, baby, you were very brave,” Ben soothed only to have Joe snap back.
“PA,” Joe whined, “I’m not a baby!” cough, cough.
“Oh, precious, you’ll always be Pa’s baby, but you’re right son today you proved you’re also quite the young man. You stayed calm and used your head. I’m very proud of you,” Ben praised, again pulling his youngest into a tight embrace.
“Thanks Pa!” Joe beamed. He was full of pride at his father’s praise as he smiled widely at his family. The smile only faded as more coughing beset Joe.
“Come on boys, let’s go home, I need to put my young man to bed,” Ben said concerned over Joe’s cough and other injuries.
None of the Cartwrights had imagined that Hutton had planned such hateful revenge. Hutton had rigged the mineshaft explosion as a decoy, just as Adam surmized. He had soaked the shack in coal oil and placed a burning candle on the windowsill hoping that the repercussion from the blast would knock the candle over to start the fire. What Hutton hadn’t planned on was one feisty and resourceful little boy, one Joseph Francis Cartwright.
Once home, Joe was overcome by the events of the day. Doctor Martin and Ben settled the boy in his bed and tended his injuries. The cough lingered disturbing Joe’s much needed rest. But Doctor Martin had assured Ben, that while Joe was suffering from smoke inhalation there would be no permanent damage and after a few days’ rest he would again be the rambunctious youngster they all loved. Ben remained at Joe’s bedside the remainder of the day and throughout the night. Ben knew that behind all his bravado earlier in the day, Joe would be in need of comfort should he wake in the night.
As Ben sat watching Joe, the day’s events replayed over and over in his mind and each time he shook with fear at the thought of losing his son and finally he gave in to his need to hold Joe. Gently Ben climbed onto Joe’s bed and pulled his son close. As Ben held his son and listened to him breath, Joe stirred. He turned his head and sleepily spoke to his father, “Hi Papa.”
“Hi yourself, sorry I woke you, son,” Ben said softly.
“Papa, what happened to that man? Why did he want to hurt me?” Joe asked.
“He was a man full of hate. A hate that had grown for a long time son and hate does funny things to a man,” Ben tried to explain.
“He hated me, Pa? Why, what did I do?” Joe pressed.
“Oh no Joseph, I don’t think he hated you and you didn’t do anything. And besides he’s gone now son and he can’t hurt us any more,” Ben answered gently.
“Well, I didn’t hate him,” Joe mumbled softly as he drifted back to sleep. But before he was lost to sleep, he looked to his father and said the magic words guaranteed to make everything all right: “I love you Papa.”
“I love you too, baby.” Ben answered with tears in his eyes and after he was sure Joe was asleep, he prayed, “And God please forgive me, because I did hate that man…when I knew he had my son, my baby, I knew the hate that had driven that man.”
April 17, 2002
Other Stories by this Author
- The Photograph (by StephanieJ)
- Love No More (by StephanieJ)
- The Rattlesnake (by StephanieJ)
- Sleepwalking (by StephanieJ)