Difficult Roads (by mcfair_58)

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Summary:  Ben Cartwright’s young sons are under threat.  Could a secret long buried be the reason?  And if so, just whose secret is it?

Word Count: 66,559

Rated PG-13 for racial slurs and western style brutality and violence

Difficult Roads

ONE

“Hey, Adam!  Slow down!”

The call caused him to rein in his mount, but not his anger.  Twenty-two-year-old Adam Cartwright waited – back straight, legs straining in his stirrups, jaw clenched and eyes narrowed – for his younger brother to catch up.

“Old Sport’s gonna trade you in for a new rider if you keep that pace up, older brother,” Hoss said, huffing a little as he drew Chubb to a halt alongside his stable mate.  The sixteen-year-old met his fierce gaze and swallowed.  “I got me a feelin’ you’re a mite upset with little brother.”

Adam moved his eyes, but nothing else.  “A mite.”

“Come on, Adam, Little Joe’s just –”

“Irresponsible?  Reckless?  Aggravating?”  He drew in a breath and let it out slowly, seeking to master his irritation.  “Immature?”

“He’s a boy, Adam,” Hoss protested.

This time he pivoted in the saddle to look at the teenager.  “So was I at ten, but you didn’t see me acting this way!  When I was Joe’s age I….”

“…moved mountains single-handedly with your own bare hands, put up buildings with spit and nails, minded a thousand head of cattle while knittin’ the heels for your socks, and cooked and cleaned whilst you done the laundry!”  Hoss tossed him a look.  “Anyone ever tell you that you got big head, big brother?”

Adam’s lips twisted as he considered his brother’s words, for he did respect Hoss’ opinion.

“I do sound a bit…egotistical at that,” he admitted.  “But that doesn’t let Little Joe off the hook.  No matter how young he is, there’s simply no excuse for taking off in the middle of a work day –“

“Little Joe didn’t just ‘take off, Adam,” Hoss said softly.

“Oh, come on.”

“I mean it, Adam.”

“Right.”  The black-haired man loosed his mount’s reins so he could cross his arms over his chest.  “I sent Little Joe to the back pasture to fix the fence and when I went by to check on his progress an hour later he was gone.”

“You sent Little Joe out to fix the fence right next to that pair of yahoos Pa hired a couple of weeks back.  They ain’t done nothin’ but give little brother grief since they set foot in the yard.”

“Who?” he asked, genuinely confused.

“Sears and Shade.”

It was autumn and the yearly cattle drive was quickly approaching.  They were known for paying above standard wages, so a lot of men came to them for jobs.  Pa hired men on early so he could assess each individual and decide whether or not they were trustworthy.  Bush Sears and Pratt Shade were two of the most recent.  Sears was a long, tall drink of brackish water that left a slightly sour taste in your mouth.  He was dark haired, dark-eyed, and tended to wear dark clothes and had, well, a dark look about him.  Pratt Shade, ironically, fit his name.  He was pale as morning mist with blond hair that tended toward gray and light blue eyes which did the same.  He appeared to be little more than Sears’ shadow.  From what he’d observed of the two men – who were just about his age – they were hard workers and seemed to get along with the other men.

“What did Little Joe do to irritate them?” he asked.

“Dang it, Adam!  There you go again, picturin’ Joe as the one doin’ wrong.”

“Because he usually is.”

Adam’s eyes shifted to his brother’s hands where they rested on the saddle horn.  Hoss’ knuckles were white.

Apparently he wasn’t the only Cartwright with a temper.

“Little Joe’s just about the hardest worker you’ll find, older brother, if you give him somethin’ to do that don’t make him think you think of him as a kid.”

“Mending fences isn’t a kid’s job.  We’re all required to do it.”

Hoss shook his head.  “I can sure enough see why little brother wants to pop you on the nose most of the time.”

“For making him mend fences, which is a man’s job?”  He was quite confused.

“For not listenin’ to him!” the teenager barked.  “You just don’t get it, older brother.  One plus two don’t always equal three.”

“They do in this universe.”

Hoss let out a sigh.  “You take one boy – and the boss’ boy at that – and you put him with two cowpokes who just plain don’t like kids and you ain’t got three, you got trouble!”

It was Adam’s turn to frown.  “What do you mean?”

“You know Little Joe, he ain’t the best at keepin’ his mouth shut when he thinks somerhin’ ain’t right or fair.  He was workin’ on whitewashin’ that shed we got in the back when he heard those two talkin’ mean about Dan Tollivar, callin’ Dan an old man what didn’t know nothin’ and such.  Little Joe, well, he rounded that shack like a house on fire and told them to mind their manners.  When they asked him who he was, he told them he was Ben Cartwright’s son and they’d better listen to him or his pa’d knock them on their backside and show them the gate.”

“Oh, dear….”  Adam ran a hand over his face.  “Did they hurt him?”

“No, but they dang near scared the bejeezus out of him.”  Hoss scowled.  “I told Joe he ought not to of done what he done, but should of come to one of us.  That made him right mad.  I told him it weren’t ‘cause he was little, but ‘cause he needed a witness.”

“Did you tell Pa?”

His brother shook his head.  “Little Joe begged me not too.  He told me Pa’d lock him in his room and throw away the key if he thought someone had it in for him.”  Hoss paused.  “I pert near did it myself.  Joe’s such a little feller.  He’s a scrapper and he can take care of himself with older boys, but those two….  I don’t know, Adam.  They make me feel kind of…uneasy.”

Oh, the games we play,’ Adam thought to himself.  If Joe had told Pa, or Hoss had told him, then most likely Little Joe wouldn’t be missing.

“So what happened today?  Do you know?”

“First of all, it weren’t an hour afore you went lookin’ for Joe, it was more like two.  I checked in with him before that and he was workin’ away, but with one eye on Sears and Shade.  I offered to help him finish, but you know Little Joe, he weren’t havin’ none of that.”  Hoss shifted uneasily in his saddle.  “I kind of gave them two the evil eye, if you know what I mean, and went back to my business…’til I heard you yellin’ like the end had come about Little Joe not bein’ where he was supposed to be.”

Adam chewed his lip for a moment.  “Why didn’t Little Joe come to me?”  He knew the answer, but for some sick sadistic reason he needed to hear it.  “Doesn’t he trust me?”

“Joe trusts you, Adam, and he loves you, but….”

“But what?”

“Well, right now…he don’t like you much.”

It was hard.  Joe was ten and he was twenty-two.  They were more than a decade and worlds apart.  His sojourn to college had not helped and, in many ways, they were still rediscovering and redefining their relationship.  The little boy who had idol-worshipped him and tailed him like a puppy everywhere he went, who had awakened him in the middle of the night for comfort after one of his frequent night terrors, was no more.  In his place was a stubborn and at times sullen pre-teen who thought he knew everything and considered it his God-given duty to challenge everything he said.

“Little Joe don’t mean it, Adam.  He just….”

He held up a hand.  “Yes, he does, and in some ways, I supposed I deserve it.  Joe and I have always been on the opposite ends of the pole.  Pa says it’s because we have so much of our mothers in us.  My mother was a quiet, serene, New England beauty, while Marie….”

They were silent a moment.

“I sure do miss her, Adam,” Hoss said with a sigh.  “Mama, I mean.”

He did as well, though he didn’t know if he missed Marie’s moments of pique, her temper tantrums, or her wild, spontaneous nature – all of which her son had inherited.

Adam drew in a breath and let it out slowly.  “Sometimes I wonder if Little Joe and I will ever ‘click’.  He needed me as a child –”

“He needs you now, Adam.  More than you know.”

The black-haired man looked at his brother.  His lips quirked.  “Don’t let Joe hear you say that.”

“Little Joe, Adam, he’s…well…he ain’t whole, if you understand what I mean?”

“No.  What do you mean?”

“Joe’s got all these things churnin’ inside of him.  He’s the baby, so that’s hard enough, but he’s also like Mama.  And he ain’t no bigger than a minute.  That ain’t easy on a feller.”

Neither is being big as a mountain’, Adam thought, but he kept the thought to himself.

“Go on.”

“You ain’t been here.  You ain’t seen what I seen.  You know, after you left, Little Joe had to run to me for everythin’ includin’ them nightmares of his.”  The big teen shook his head.  “Right after you left they got real bad.  Little Joe’d start tossin’ and turnin’, and then he’d start screamin’ and, well, sometimes I couldn’t wake him up.  He’d yell and yell ‘til….”  Hoss dropped his head.  “I had to slap him a time or two.”

He’d done that once.  It was one of the most horrible moments in his life – slapping a four year old.

“He couldn’t wake up.”

“Doc Martin called them ‘night terrors’.  Adam, they was awful.”

“Did Joe tell you what they were about?”

“Dyin’.  Mama dyin’, Pa dyin’ – you and me dyin’.  And every time Little Joe was the one to blame.”

”Was it ever Joe himself dying?” he asked, remembering his own experience.

Hoss nodded.  “That too, though not so much as the other.  Mostly Pa.  Adam, Joe’s got it in his head Pa’s gonna die and it’s gonna be his fault.  And he can’t do nothin’ about it, so that makes him mad.”  The big teen hesitated.  “I got curious, so I got me a book.”

His brows peaked.  Hoss was not much of a reader.  “Oh?”

“Doc Martin gave it to Pa and Pa gave it to me.  I cain’t understand much of it, but there’s a part that talks about dreams.  The man what wrote it says what we’re feelin’ and cain’t or won’t talk about comes out in them.”

“Has Joe talked to Pa about his fear?”

Hoss let out a whistle.  “Little Joe admittn’ he’s afraid of somethin’?  You talkin’ about the same little brother I got?”

“Point taken.” Adam chuckled, but sobered quickly.  He’d never known his mother, but he’d been formed by her loss never-the-less.  His way of coping had been to become very quiet and to think things through to their nth degree; that way he could always be in control.  Little Joe’s loss of Marie, at such a young age, had taken his brother in a completely opposite direction.  It was as if the little boy cursed the fates and was determined he would right the wrong they had done him – no matter what the cost.  Of the three of them, Hoss had survived the best, though his mother’s loss had touched him with a gentle sadness.  Still, it was God’s grace that the giant teen was there to act as a buffer between him and his baby brother.

Adam looked ahead.  “So where do you think he’s gone?”

“I imagine Little Joe’s at the lake or by Mama’s grave.”

Both lay in the direction they were heading.  “Okay.  We may as well be on our way.”

“What’re you gonna do when we find him?” Hoss asked.

What was he going to do?  Chastise Joe?  Yell at him?  Grab the kid and hug him tight and never let him go?

“That’s up to Little Joe.”

 

The relief Adam felt when he spied the little scamp sitting on the muddy ground by Marie’s tombstone – his knees pulled to his chest and his curly head tucked into his arms – was palpable.  In some ways, having a baby brother – and at age twenty-two, ten seemed like a baby – had pushed him in the direction of never getting married or having children.  He didn’t know how Pa did it, worrying each and every time they walked out of the door.  It wasn’t that they were incapable of looking out for themselves.  Even Joe, young as he was, had been trained in the harsh realities of the West.  The problem was the West itself.  It  could turn a placid day into a tempest in a heartbeat and take a mountain and roll it into mud and send it crashing down without warning.  Brigands and villains and other evil men who had made a name for themselves in the East came out West in order to leave that name behind – and make a new, more vile one for themselves.  There was no such thing as a pleasant walk in the sun.  There were chuck holes and cliff edges that crumbled without warning.  The land was populated by danger; venomous snakes, wolves, cougars and grizzlies were everywhere.  What would have been a stroll in the park in Boston here, in the Nevada territory, was a deadly gauntlet.

Between the Ponderosa and this serene and sacred spot, death dogged every man – or boy’s – steps.

“You can save it.  I know I’m in trouble,” came the small, somewhat petulant voice.

Hoss tossed him a look.  He didn’t speak, but the teenager’s eyes said it all.  ‘Go easy on him.  He’s hurtin’.’

Adam nodded and then dismounted.  He walked with slow, deliberate steps to his little brother’s side and crouched on the rain-soaked ground.  The black-haired man counted to ten – partly to stem his rising temper, but mostly to calm his rapidly beating heart.  He wanted to reach out and touch the boy the way he would have just a few years back.  If this had happened then, he would have gathered Joe in his arms.  His brother would have sniffed and snorted and made excuses and then admitted he was wrong and snuggled in.

Not anymore.

Now, Joe was coiled tight as a spring.  A single touch would set him off.

“Little Joe,” he said and waited.

“Go away.”

“Well, now, I don’t think Hoss and I came all the way out here just to go away.  Do you?”

That brought the curly head up.  Joe glanced at Hoss and then back at him.  He ran his sleeve under his nose and sniffed.

“What’re you gonna do?” he asked.

“Well, not tell Pa that you just used the sleeve of your shirt to wipe your nose,” he said.

That brought a little smile.

Very little.

Adam could see the wheels turning behind those large green eyes.  “You ain’t mad?” Joe asked.

He thought a moment.  “I won’t be, if you answer one question honestly for me.  Okay?”

Little brother looked wary.  “What question?” he asked.

“Joe.  Why did you run?”

There was a subtle shift in tension.  It progressed through Joe’s body to his jaw, thrust his lower lip out, and caused his nostrils to flare.

“I figured you’d think I got tired of doin’ my work and just left.”

“That’s not an answer.  That’s a supposition.”

Little Joe’s eyes flicked to Hoss where he stood now, some six or so feet away.  Something passed between them that he wasn’t privy too.  It was that way with his younger brothers.  They were like two halves of one soul.

“I s’pose old blabber-mouth over there told you,” Joe groused.

Hoss just smiled.

Adam pushed his hat back an inch or so.  “Why don’t you tell me?”

Little Joe let out a sigh; a long, loud sigh that spoke of so many things – his desire to be like the two of them, his hope that one day he would outgrow being the baby; his wish to be his own man.

“Little Joe, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with tellin’ Adam the truth.  It don’t mean you’re any less of a man.”

Joe’s lips were clamped tightly together.

“Joe, you can tell me or you can tell Pa,” Adam said, placing emphasis on the final word.

His brother let out another sigh.  “Them two – ”

Those two.”

Joe looked at Hoss again, who said, “You listen to older brother, he’s got a better way with words than me.  You’re gonna need them one day when it comes to spoonin’ girls.”

The disgusted look on their little brother’s face made them both laugh.

Those two,” Joe began again.  “Sears and Shade.  I guess I made them mad…or something.”

Adam shifted so he was sitting on the ground beside his brother.  One thing he had learned from taking a turn at dramatics in college, was that the one in the highest position had the advantage – and was perceived to hold the most power.  He didn’t want to intimidate the kid by his pose.  Apparently he did it enough just by existing.

How did you make them mad?” he asked.

“I don’t know!” Joe blurted out.  Little brother ran a hand through his curls, shoving them back from his forehead.  “I was mending the fence just like you said.  One of them, Shade, I think, made a crack about me being…little.”

“Did you say something back?”

“No,” Joe bit off, “I didn’t.  At least, not that time.”

So he had mouthed-off.

“Go on.”

“I just started working harder.  They kept ribbing me and I guess I started getting mad.  I threw the hammer down and turned…to….leave….”

“Did you hit one of them with it?” Hoss asked.  Obviously this was news to him.

“No!  It didn’t come anywhere near him, but he…he….”  Joe shivered.  Those wide, expressive eyes fixed on him.  “Adam he scared me.  So I ran.”

“I see,” he said as he rose.  “I’ll just have a little talk with the two of them and –”

Joe shot to his feet beside him.  “Adam!  No!  Just leave it alone.  They didn’t do anything…not really.”

It was those last two words that bothered him.

“Joe,” he said as he reached out a hand to steady his kid brother.  “If one of those men threatened Hoss – or any of our workers – I would have to do something about it.  This has nothing to do with your age or size, and all to do with respect for our father.  You’ve seen hands fired before for less.”

“You’re not gonna fire them, are you?!”

“That will depend on how they answer.”

Little Joe’s eyes were wide.  There was a lot going on in their emerald depths.  There was fear, which troubled him, but also a kind of pride – the pride that he was Ben Cartwright’s son and no one had the right to treat him that way.

Adam watched his brother a moment before asking, “Do you want to be there when I question them?”

Joe blanched.  He swallowed hard.  “Do I have to?”

“No, but it’s always best for a man to be confronted by his accuser.”

“Is that what I am?  An…accuser?”

“In a way.  Joe, if you aren’t there, then Sears and Shade can tell me anything they want and there will be no one to refute it.  Do you understand?”

Joe nodded slowly.  “Okay.  I guess I better be there then.”

Adam didn’t really understand why, but touch was not a natural part of him.  Little Joe needed it as surely as air.  Reaching out, he placed a hand on his little brother’s shoulder.

“Joe, you’ve just taken one more step toward becoming a man.  I’m proud of you.”

It took a second, but then the kid stood straight as a cock surveying his brood.

“I won’t let you down, Adam.  I promise.”

“I know you won’t.  Now, you go get Cadfan from wherever you’ve hidden him, and let’s get home. You’re soaked through and I don’t want you getting sick.”

As Joe scrambled into the trees, Hoss came to his side.  “You did real good, older brother,” he said.  “You’re gonna make a good pa one day.”

Adam’s gaze went to his younger brother as Joe reappeared leading his mount.

Or maybe not.

 

Joe thought confronting Sears and Shade would be just about the hardest thing he’d ever had to do.  So it surprised him when they were pretty nice about everything.  He and Adam went into the barn early that morning to talk to them while the pair were about their chores.  The two men had a lot of experience with horses and Pa had set them to care for and break the half-dozen or so now in the corral.  Sears had the most experienced at breaking, but Shade had done it before.  The blond man said he didn’t really like it much ‘cause of how it made the horses feel.

That made Joe like him even more.

It made him real nervous when Adam started talking about what happened.  Before older brother could finish, Sears held up a hand to stop him.  He quickly apologized for ‘losing his head’, as he put it, and admitted the two of them had been giving him a lot of grief.  He said they both had younger brothers at home and were used to giving them a hard time and such.  When Joe got to thinking about it, what the pair did really wasn’t all that different from how Hoss and Adam treated him when they were feeling ornery.

“Sorry, kid,” Sears said with an easy smile.  “Guess I forgot you don’t know us all that well.”

Joe nodded.  “It’s okay.  Sorry I got riled.”

“There’s one last thing I’d like explained,” Adam said, his hand planted firmly on his shoulder so he couldn’t bolt and run.  “What is this about a hammer?”

Shade winced.  “That was me.”

“Did you think Joe was trying to hit you?”

The blond was incredulous.  “Heck, no.  I was worried about him.  You could tell he….”  He hesitated.  “Sorry, kid, I don’t mean to talk about you like you aren’t here.  I could see you were buildin’ up a good head of steam.  I was afraid you were gonna hurt yourself.”  Shade turned to him.  “It about stopped my heart when the kid swing-mounted onto that horse and took off like a house on fire!”

Adam was looking at him now.  “Is that how it happened, Joe?”

Joe chewed his lip.  It was…and it wasn’t.  Shade was mad, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t about him getting hurt.  He didn’t really know what it was that had set the man off, but he didn’t really see any reason to prolong the agony this interview was bringing him.

Joe shrugged his shoulders.  “I guess.”

“You ‘guess’ or it is?”

Little Joe’s gaze moved from Shade to Sears and back again.  There was something.  He didn’t know what it was, but they were grown-ups and he was a kid and, in the end, what they said would be what everyone believed.

“It is.”

Adam stared at him a moment longer before nodding his head.  “Okay.  We’ll leave it at that…for now.”  His gaze moved to the two men standing before them.  “Let’s shake on it like men and get back to work.”

Shade moved toward him, his hand outstretched.  “Sorry again, kid,” he said.

Sears did the same.  “Yeah, sorry,” the dark man agreed and then added, “I promise we’ll play nice the next time we see you.”

Joe felt a chill run down his spine.  Adam moved him away and handed him a pitchfork before he had time to decide whether it was because he felt insulted.

Or because he was afraid.

 

Adam stood on the porch looking out toward the Virginia City road.  He had a cup of coffee in his hand – and nearly spilled it when giant-sized hand slapped him on the back.

“Waitin’ for Pa?” Hoss asked.

It had been another usual evening for the three Cartwright brothers.  Their father was in the settlement.  Pa had several business meetings to attend and deals to cinch and expected he would be a few days.  That left him in charge for the duration, which was fine when it came to the ranch.

Dealing with his little brother was another matter.

As expected, Joe had been in a mood when they came in for supper.  The kid was so transparent, it almost made him laugh.  Almost.  Laughing tonight would definitely have been a poor choice where Joe was concerned.  Little brother sighed – more than once – and kept looking off in the direction of the barn.  He drummed the fingers of his right hand on the table while he pushed his uneaten food around on his plate with his left.  His lithe frame was taut as an arrow ready to be shot from the bow.

And they both knew why.

Hoss was just finishing a mouth of mashed potatoes.  He glanced at Joe, who wasn’t paying attention, and then winked at him before speaking. “You know, ‘fore he left, I heard Pa tell Bush that those new horses would be just right for the army contract he’s negotiatin’.”

Little brother’s fork skidded to a halt on his plate.

“They’d just about finish out the number we need,” he agreed as he put his napkin down.

“There’s some good stock there,” Hoss went on, looking sideways at Little Joe.  “Like that piebald pinto.  She’s sharp as a whip.”

“She’d do some soldier proud, that’s for sure,” Adam continued on as Hop Sing appeared to refill his coffee cup.  “Thank you, Hop Sing.”

The Asian man nodded, a smile on his face – until he saw Little Joe’s plate.  “Skinny boy need to eat!  Number three son want to be big and strong as brothers, he need eat!”

Adam hid his smile behind his cup.  “I think little brother has other things on his mind, Hop Sing.”

“Hop Sing not care.  Boy need to empty mind and fill belly!”

With that pronouncement, their cook turned and disappeared into the kitchen wing leaving a long line of Cantonese coloring the air behind him.

Seizing the opportunity, Joe asked, “Can I go?”

Adam eyed his brother’s plate.  It was…maybe…half-finished.  “How about you fork down the rest of your potatoes first?”

“I wanted to….  I really need to go out to the barn, Adam.  I got chores to do before bed.”

Hoss reached over and scooped half of Joe’s potatoes from his plate.  “You’re gonna need muscle for them chores, little brother.  You eat what’s left.”

Joe shoved the white pile around again.  “Do I have to?” he asked, looking up through a fringe of curls.

Adam nodded.  “Yes, you have to.  Pa’d skin me as it is if he knew how much food I’ve let you throw away while he’s been gone.”

“Hop Sing gives it to the pigs,” Joe insisted.

“Oink!  Oink!” Hoss declared.

There were six bites left on Little Joe’s plate.  “Four,” he ordered, pointing toward the mound.

Joe rolled his eyes, scooped up all four at once, and shoved them in his mouth.  He looked like a ground squirrel preparing for winter.

“Nw cn I gah?” he asked.

Adam wanted to roll his eyes too, but resisted.

“Yes, you can go.”

Little Joe was out the door before he had time to finish the sentence.

“It’s that pinto, you know?  I think Joe’s in love,” Hoss said as he washed the last of the potatoes down with a glass of milk.

He knew.  Ever since the black and white piebald mare had been brought in, they always knew where to find their little brother.  In fact, that was why he had set him to repairing the corral fence, so he could watch her.  ‘Poor Cadfan’, he thought.  Little brother was fickle in his affections.

“Pa’s noticed too,” the big teen added.

“We’ve talked about it.  Joe’s birthday is coming up in a few weeks.  I thought she’d make a good present.”  Adam let out a sigh.  “The pinto is a little big for Joe, but he’d grow into her pretty fast.  You know Pa, he’s worried about it.  He can’t help but think of Marie.”

“That boy’s got an awful lot heaped on them skinny shoulders of his,” Hoss replied.

He loved his father deeply, but if Ben Cartwright had a blind spot, it was Joseph Francis Cartwright.  His mother, Elizabeth, was the first woman Pa had loved and would always hold a special place in the older man’s heart.  Inger, in some ways, had been Pa’s heart, bringing him back to the man he had been before his mother’s death.  Marie?  Ah, Marie….  The New Orleans beauty had been used and abused by the world and, as such, needed protecting.  Pa had done his best to keep her safe, but he’d failed, plain and simple.  While Marie had many things to recommend her, Pa’s last wife had been a willful child in many ways and no more so than when she insisted on riding a horse too large and too temperamental for her.  Since Pa had failed to protect Marie, he was bound and determined to protect her son.  At ten, Joe chomped at the bit and tested his muscle now and then.

Heaven help them when he turned eighteen!

Adam nodded.  “I’ve watched the mare with Joe.  They seem to have an affinity for one another.”

“A what?” Hoss asked as he reached for the remainder of the biscuits.

“A spontaneous or natural liking,” he said and meant it.  “I think we both need to….”  Adam trailed off as he noticed Hop Sing scurrying in from the kitchen.

“What is it, Hop Sing?” Hoss asked as he rose from his chair.

“Noise, outside.  Much noise!  Something upset horses.”

Adam exchanged a look with his brother as he headed for the door.  He was sure Little Joe was with the horses and with the pinto in particular.  Joe loved horses.  He knew what to do around them.

“What do you suppose is goin’ on?” Hoss asked.

“I don’t know, but we’ll find out as soon as –”

Adam had opened the door.  He could hear the horses, squealing and shrieking with fear.  There was another sound as well.  One that gripped his entrails in a fist.

Little Joe was shrieking too.

 

 

TWO

A few minutes before Hop Sing came running into the dining room shouting, Little Joe had been in high hog heaven.  He loved Cadfan, but his Welsh Cob had been chosen for him when he was younger.  He was sure he was ready for a man-sized horse.  When he’d pressed the issue with Pa a few days back, his father had told him he was only ten and, at thirteen hands, a fourteen hand horse was big enough.  Cob’s were sensible, strong, and sturdy, Pa said, but most of all, they weren’t risk takers.

Why Pa worried about that was still a puzzle.

Anyhow, he’d come out to the barn and taken care of Cadfan, feeding and watering him and bringing him a handful of oats before brushing him down and placing a blanket on his back to ward off the growing chill.  It was only September, but he’d lived enough years to know that the weather in Nevada could be as fickle as a woman.

Joe laughed.  He’d learned that one from Hoss.

When he got done with Cadfan, he’d gone to the corral to watch the half dozen or so horses they had there and listen to their evening talk.  Horses were just like people.  They talked to one another, even ordered one another around if they felt like it.  It was kind of funny to listen to.  Pa’s horse was King of the Ponderosa, just like Pa.  The others had to go when Buck said ‘go’ and stop when he ordered them to stop.  When Buck was gone, like now, the other horses acted like a herd of young stags testing each other, tryin’ to prove who was next best.  They didn’t mean nothin’ by it.  Hoss said it was the same with men and, one day, he’d understand what he meant.

He’d been coming out every night now to take care of Cadfan and finish up his chores before slipping into the corral to talk to the horses.  They liked him, he knew it.  Nobody had a way with horses like he did, unless it was the Indians.  Most of the hands treated them like dumb animals, but he knew they were smart.  If you talked to a horse, they’d listen.

Especially the horse with the piebald coat.

She was a beauty.  Her coat was like silk; white as snow with spots black as a storm cloud.  Pa said she wasn’t just a pinto, but was a paint, which meant her sire was a quarter horse or thoroughbred. She held herself like a queen.  It was silly, but in some ways she reminded him of his mama.  Pa said Mama could get that ‘look’ in her eyes. You didn’t know if the next minute she’d tear into you or give you a great big hug and kiss.  Adam said Mama was a tease.  That made him mad at first, but then he’d realized Adam wasn’t being mean.  He was just telling it like it was.

He could be a tease too.

Joe looked to the left and right and then behind to see if Hoss or Adam had come out of the house.  When he didn’t see them, he climbed up onto the top railing and sat there, watching the horses mill around.  He knew Pa didn’t like him climbing into the corral when there was no one else with him, but that’s when he liked it best.  Late at night, like this, it was just him and the horses.  He wasn’t afraid of them.  The ones in the corral were green broke already so they’d had a man on their backs, and while some of them still might not be too happy about it, they were used to people.  As he began to shift off the rail, Joe was startled as a gruff voice called out.

“Hey, kid!  What do you think you’re doing?”

Joe inched back up and turned around.  He didn’t know where Pratt Shade had come from, but he was standing there bigger than life.

“I’m just watchin’ the horses,” he said, telling most of the truth.

“Your brothers know you’re out here?”

He fought back his temper.  “Yes, they know and they don’t care,” he replied, ending with a lie.

The blond man came and leaned on the fence beside him.  “I heard you had a way with horses, kid.  Which one’s your favorite?”

Joe was confused by the sudden change in the conversation.

“I…I like the paint,” he said.

“She’s a beauty, but is a bit high-handed.”  Pratt paused.  “She thinks a lot of herself, that one.”

He was offended by the man’s off-hand remarks about his horse.

“Shows what you know!” Joe snapped.  Then he thought better of what he’d been about to say.  He didn’t want to reveal how often he’d been in the corral alone.  “I’ve watched Adam and Hoss with her.  She’s got fire, but a good temper.”

The blond man snorted as he straightened up.  “Sounds like you’ll be running the ranch by the time you’re thirteen,” he chuckled.  Then he ruffled his hair.  “Be seeing you around, kid.  You be careful with those horses.”

Joe watched Pratt Shade until he rounded the shed.  He must be heading for the bunkhouse.  Then he looked around to make sure Bush Sears wasn’t coming next.  The pair of them were just about like twins.  You hardly ever saw one without the other.  Adam said they acted like brothers, but they had different names, so Joe thought that wasn’t likely.  Then again if it had been different and he and Hoss and Adam had had the same mama but a different pa, they would have all had different names too.

Slipping off the railing and onto the rain-soaked ground, Joe entered the corral.  He walked a few feet and then stopped and called out the names he had given the horses.  You couldn’t know someone if they didn’t have a name.  The big black was Coal.  It was kind of a stupid name, but it fit ‘cause he loved to roll around in the dust.  The bay was ‘Berry’ because Hoss liked to say he was brown as one.  There were a pair of palominos.  He called them ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Sunset’ since one of them was lighter than the other.  And then, there was the paint.  He’d thought a long time about a name for her.  He wanted an Indian name, since the horse was a paint, but none of them seemed to fit.  He knew his pa would have a fit of apoplexy if he called her what he wanted to.  It made him sad, what had happened to the Indians.  The land he called ‘home’ had once been their home.  And while his pa had come by all his land fair and honest, there were others who had cheated and lied to get what they had.  The chief of the Chiricahua had fought – and was still fighting – trying to take back what had been his.  He…kind of admired him for it.  Not for the killing or hurting people, but for his determination to see justice done.

Justice meant a lot to Joe Cartwright.

He tried the name again.  ‘Cochise.’  Joe mouthed the word without sound, as if feeling it on his lips somehow would make up his mind.  The paint was a lady after all and he’d get no end of ribbing for giving his girl horse a boy’s name.

And she was his horse.  Pa just didn’t know it yet.  He’d work and take care of her and ride Cadfan until Pa thought he was big enough, but then, he needed her to be his.

As Joe stood there, thinking, several of the horses came up to him.  They knew he always carried treats in his pocket, so he doled them out to the half-dozen circling him.  With a smile he petted and patted and spoke soft words as he slowly made his way to the place where the corral met the barn.  Above the paint’s head the big wooden doors were open.  Adam was gonna have someone’s hide for that!  Maybe his, Joe thought with a wry twist of his lips.  He’d have to remember to go up and close the doors when he finished with the horses.

The paint was playing hard to get.  She was standing next to the barn with her head down, munching on something.  It looked like a couple of apples.  No wonder she hadn’t come his way!  He couldn’t compete with a sweet treat like apples.  Sticking the one he’d saved for her back in his pocket, Joe headed over to the mare.  She lifted her head and eyed him, and then went back to her munching.  The other horses had followed him and they weren’t real happy about her getting a better treat than them, so they started crowding in.  One even tried to steal one of the apples.  Cochise was having none of that.  She lifted her head and snorted, driving the other horse back.

Joe was beginning to think he’d better get out of the corral.

And then it happened.

Something fell straight from the open window of the barn to the mud and trampled grass below.  It was dark, so it was hard to see what it was.  It lay still for a moment and then began to wriggle.  Suddenly, the back end of it coiled up and it reared its head, ready to strike.

Snake!

 

By the time he and Hoss reached the corral attached to the barn it was pandemonium.  Several of the horses were straining to break through the rails at the back, while the others circled the fenced-in area, running fast as if they were contestants in a race.  The night was pitch-black.  The moon was playing hide and seek.  It was behind a low bank of clouds now, which made it almost impossible to see.  Hoss ducked into the barn and was back in a minute, shaking his head.

“No sign of Little Joe,” he said, his tone as wary as the eye he cast on the corral.

Adam strained to see past the milling horses.  Close to the barn there was a splash of white.  It had to be the paint.  She was standing still, just under the upper door.  The black-haired man frowned as he noted it was open.

“Yeah, I seen it too.  You think Joe was up in the hay mow and maybe he dropped somethin’ and ran?”

“I don’t know why he would have been.”  He was watching the animals, whose panic showed no sign of abating.  “First thing, we have to get the horses calmed.”

“I’ll go open the gate,” Hoss said.

“Right.”  Opening the gate would, in theory, give the horses what they wanted – a way out of the corral and away from whatever had frightened them.  As he watched his brother lift the latch, the black-haired man wondered what had spooked them.  There had been no strike of lightning or other natural phenomenon, and they were usually pretty content in the corral where they knew they were safe from predators.

“Doin’ it now!” Hoss yelled as he flung the gate wide and stepped back.  It took the horses no more than thirty seconds to realize their path to freedom was at hand.  First the pair of palominos and then the bay and black headed out.

Leaving the black and white paint standing where she had been.

Hoss waited until the horses had cleared the fence before stepping into the corral.  He scanned the muddy area with his eyes narrowed, searching; looking no doubt for whatever had terrified the animals.

It wasn’t until he heard a sharp intact of breath that he realized Hoss had been hunting for something else as well.

The big teen ran across the open area and was on his knees in the mud before the words escaped his lips.

“Adam, get in here!  It’s Little Joe!”

Adam was over the fence  and on the move before his brother could draw another breath.  By the time he reached the pair, Hoss had gathered Little Joe into his arms and was cradling his small form against his chest.

As he dropped to his knees, the big teen looked at him.  “He was under the paint, Adam,” he whispered, his voice robbed of strength by awe.  “She was watchin’ over him.”

A quick glance showed him where the pinto’s hooves had dug into the ground.  They were evenly spaced and just far enough apart that Joe could have lain untouched between them.  Even so their brother had not escaped unscathed.  Amidst the mud, straw, urine and feces covering him, there was blood.

“Can you tell how badly he’s hurt?” he asked.

“One of them got him on the side of the head,” Hoss said.  “Looks like a hoof caught him.”

He could see that.  The wound looked shallow, but was bleeding profusely.  It was cause for alarm, but not panic.

“Anything else?” the black-haired man asked as he began to run his hands down his brother’s limbs, checking to see if any of them were broken.

“Not so’s I can tell.”  Hoss hugged Joe a little tighter.  It didn’t escape Adam’s notice that little brother didn’t respond.  “What was he doin’ in the corral anyhow?  You think Joe spooked the horses by bein’ in there?”

“We won’t know until he wakes up and can tell us.”  He shot a look at the pinto who was standing by, watching them as if concerned.  “We need to get him in the house and send one of the hands for Paul Martin.”

Even as the words left his lips, Adam heard a buzz of noise like a hive of bees rapidly moving their way.  Several of the men, including Bush Sears and Pratt Shade, appeared.

One look at the scene told it all.

“I’ll ride into settlement for the Doc,” Pratt said and was gone before he could give him a nod.

“You need any help?” Bush asked.

Adam shook his head.  He was leery to move his brother any more, but he couldn’t leave Joe laying in the muck either.  There was such risk of infection.  “Hoss and I can get Joe to the house.”  He paused.  “We had to let the horses go.  Take someone with you and see if you can round them up.”

Bush remained where he was, unmoving.

“Yes?” he asked.

“Pratt said he saw the kid earlier, sitting on the rail here and watching the horses.  He told him it wasn’t the smartest thing to do.”

“And what did Joe say?”

“What you’d expect from a kid.  He knew what he was doin’ and you didn’t care.”

Hoss had risen to his feet.  The big teen held Joe’s slender four-feet-six, seventy-five pound body close to his chest.  Joe was growing.  His legs and arms seemed to be doing it faster than everything else.  They dangled down at odd angles, lending him the appearance of a marionette with its strings cut.

Joe might have known what he was doing, but he didn’t know what he was going to do….

When he had to face Pa.

 

Ben Cartwright shoved the plate of food away from him and leaned back in his chair.  He’s lost his appetite after the conversation he’d had with one of his chief competitors for the army contract.  He’d won the contract and the other man had accused him of collusion with the seller, saying they were of old acquaintance and the Ponderosa had an unfair advantage.  While he and Jim Shaw did know each other, Jim was a shrewd businessman and he would have accepted Sebastian Stephens’ bid in a heartbeat if it had been better than his.  Stephens was an out-of-towner.  He’d started life in the East, but had come to Gold Hill not all that long ago from the bay area and was trying to outdo and outbid everyone in an attempt to get in on the ground floor of what he expected to be a booming metropolis in a few years.

He hoped Stephens was right on that account.

The man had followed him to the restaurant and arrived just about the time his steak had.  It sat, chilling, while he talked and then railed.  Out of respect to the establishment Ben had kept his temper – until Stephens threatened to make him pay.  At that point he’d risen, taken the man by the collar and the back of his expensive finely-tooled leather belt, and thrown him out the door and into the dust.  After that he apologized to the patrons and the owner and then went back to his seat and started in on his cold steak.  The owner offered him a fresh one, but by that time he’d lost his appetite and knew it would only be a waste of good food.  The rancher leaned his elbow on the table and his hand on his chin and fell to staring out the window.  It was late.  He’d come for supper, so by now the sun had set and it was past time for bed.  The restaurant would be closing soon and he’d be forced to go back to his hotel room.  It was a lovely room, with all the finest appointments, but it was empty.  He missed his son’s raucous laughter, their byplay, and even their bickering.  He’d been away two days and it would probably be two more before he finished with everything.

Home called like a siren’s song.

“Would you like your check, Mister Cartwright?” a slightly weary voice asked.  He looked up to find his waitress, a lovely young woman named Rosanna, smiling down at him.

“Time to go home?” he asked.

She nodded.  “I get to go right away tonight.  Lillie has to help clean up.”

“How’s that little one of yours doing?”

Rosanna, like so many of the women who dared to live in the West, had run from something in the East – something that most likely involved a man.  She had a five-year-old son and wore a ring on her finger, but it was pretty well understood by everyone that she had never married.

“Grant?  He’s fine.  Thank you for asking.”

“How are you doing?  Are you able to get by?”

They’d had this talk before.  People sometimes accused him of trying to be a father to the entire settlement.  He’d been rebuffed before, but most young women like Rosanna – once they understood that his motives were pure – were comfortable with him.

“We’re okay.  I have a little put back for the winter when the custom falls off.”

“You let me know if you need help,” Ben said as he reached into his wallet and pulled out the amount of the bill – plus a generous tip.

“That’s a lot of money for a steak you didn’t eat,” Rosanna remarked as she accepted it.

“It’s worth the price of avoiding indigestion,” he said as he rose.

The young woman shook her head.  “I don’t like that man.  He thinks he owns everything.”

He sensed something in her voice.  “Has he bothered you?”

“No more so than others,” she admitted with a sigh.  “Mr. Stephens, he’s just…well…he makes me feel uncomfortable when he looks at me.”

As he moved away from the table, the rancher said, “If he gives you any trouble, you let me know.”

Rosanna laughed.  “You going to throw him out of my apartment on his tale?”

“I just might,” he replied, laughing as well.  “You have a good night and give that boy of yours a hug for me.  I’d do it myself if I could.”

“Missing your boys?” she asked as she picked up his plate.

Ben nodded.  “Always.”

“You have a good night, Mister Cartwright.”

“You too, Rosanna.  See you at breakfast.”

She smiled and headed for the kitchen even as he headed for the door.  Outside the restaurant, the streets were quiet.  It was a Monday.  After spending a riotous weekend in town, most of the ranch hands had headed back the night before to the various spreads they worked.  It was part and parcel of the West and was why – so far – he’d never let Hoss and his little brother come into the settlement without him or Adam on a Friday night or Saturday.  There was simply too much mischief to get into.  The ranch was twenty miles away and it afforded him some peace, knowing that his boys were growing up with his hand at the rudder and no one else’s.  Adam, of course, was old enough to take care of himself.  Ben puffed out a little sigh.  It was unfair how much he counted on the boy.  At twenty-two, Adam should be in the settlement letting loose some steam along with those ranch hands instead of staying home to take care of his two younger brothers.

He’d make it up to him the next weekend.  Let him come into the settlement to have some fun.

Ben left the restaurant and headed across the street.  The hotel was diagonal from it.  Buck was stabled in the livery nearby.  He considered for a moment making a detour to check on his old friend before he bedded down, but as he stood there in the middle of the street – vacillating – a wave of weariness washed over him and he decided there was nothing for it but to go to bed.

Tomorrow would be a better – and hopefully brighter day.

When he arrived at the hotel, Ben realized just how tired he was.  Sitting on the edge of the bed, he removed his boots and coat and fell backwards fully clothed.

He was asleep in minutes.

Somewhere around two a.m. he was awakened by an insistent pounding.  Startled awake, it took Ben a moment to remember where he was and realize that the sound was someone banging heavily on the door to his hotel room.

If it was Sebastian Stephens he was going to kill him.

Tired, disgruntled and out-of-sorts, the rancher dragged his weary body to the door and opened it.  At first, he didn’t recognize the man in the hall.  Then, through the fog of exhaustion, a name came to him.

“Shade?  What are you doing here?”

Pratt Shade was ringing his fingers on the brim of his faded hat.

“Mister Cartwright, you need to come.  There’s been an accident.”

 

The night was cold and hollow and it took hold of his soul as Ben Cartwright rode his faithful mount hard through the dark, desperate to reach his home.  He’d left messages at the hotel to be sent in the morning to the men he was scheduled to meet with, explaining but not apologizing for his absence.  The Ponderosa needed those contracts to make it through the winter, but that need paled next to the one to be with his youngest son.  Pratt hadn’t been able to tell him much.  All he knew was that the horses had spooked and Joseph had been in the corral when they did.  He’d volunteered to ride for the doctor and taken off immediately.

His old friend Paul Martin, doctor to the boys though he wasn’t yet the settlement’s official physician, was about an hour behind them.  Paul wasn’t much of a horseman and it was dark.  That meant even the best of riders could easily fall prey to the road’s dangers.  Because of that – and the fact that Paul needed to bring his medical supplies with him – his old friend was coming by carriage.

As they pulled into the yard a couple of hands shouted out a greeting.  Bush Sears headed their way and met up with Pratt as he dismounted.

“Adam will be right happy to see you, Mister Cartwright,” Bush said.  “He’s taking it hard, what happened to the young’un.”

“Can you tell me anything?” Ben asked as he quickly removed his saddlebags and tossed them over one arm.

“One of the horses caught Little Joe’s forehead with its hoof.  That’s about all I know.”  Bush looked at the house.  “Hoss scooped the boy up and took him in fast as the first rattle out of the box.”

“Did either of you see what happened?”

“No, sir,” they both replied.

“I saw the young’un earlier, sitting on that fence,” Pratt admitted.  “I warned him he shouldn’t go near the horses, but you know boys.  He didn’t listen.”

Yes, he knew boys.  He’d reared three of them and had the gray hair to prove it!

“Thank you both.  I appreciate all you’ve done.  Now, I need to get inside.”

The house was fairly dark.  From the meager light that spilled through the office window, he could tell the fire had been banked.  Ben looked up and saw a light blazing in Joseph’s window.  A silhouetted figure passed back and forth behind it, pacing like a mountain cat on the prowl.

“No need to thank us,” Pratt said.  “We both have little brothers.  Doesn’t come as any surprise yours gets into trouble.  Hopefully, Joe will be okay.”

Ben watched the pair depart before entering.  He’d guessed right.  The lower level was fairly dark.  As he paused, getting his bearings, there was movement to his left and Hop Sing emerged from the kitchen.  The Asian man was carrying a load of linens and a bucket of water.

He almost dropped the bucket when he saw him.

“Mistah Cartwright!  Thank goodness you home!  Number three son need father.”

“How is Joseph?” he asked.

“Boy not wake up yet.”

A fist of fear closed around his heart as he counted off the hours.  It would have taken Pratt Shade at least three to make it to  the settlement even at a clip.  The two of them were at least a half-hour in the settlement getting ready, and another three coming back.

Joseph had been unconscious for at least six hours.

“Not at all?”

“Boy murmur now and then.  Call for father, but not wake up.”

“Pa, is that you?”

Ben turned toward the stair, recognizing the giant figure poised on a step about halfway down.  “Hoss,” he said, heading for him.  “How is your brother?”

The big teen hesitated.  “We don’t rightly know, Pa.  We didn’t want to move Joe much in case somethin’ was broke…maybe inside.  You better come up and take a look for yourself.”

“Hop Sing, I have a few things in my saddlebags that need looked after.  Contracts and such.  I would appreciate if you would do that.  Here.”  Ben held out his hands.  “Give me the linens and the water and I will take them up.  Then you get some sleep, old friend.  You look exhausted.”

“Hop Sing not sleep until he know number three son going to be oh-kay,” he said softly.  “Doctor Paul on his way?”

“He should be here within the hour.”

The Asian man nodded.  “I go ask ancestors to watch over small boy and Baptist God to make him well.”

Ben pressed the other man’s shoulder.  “Thank you.”

As he and Hoss made their way up the stair and moved along the hall, a quiet sound drifted toward them.  When they reached Joseph’s door, he realized what it was.  Adam was singing.  Tears filled the rancher’s eyes as he paused before entering.  The tune was one Marie often sang to their young son.

Frère Jacques

Frère Jacques

Dormez-vous?

Dormez-vous?

Sonnez les matines

Sonnez les matines

Ding, ding, dong

Ding, ding, dong

 “Hey, Joe,” Ben heard Adam say as he opened the door.  “It’s morning.  The bells are ringing.  You need to wake up.”  His son’s voice choked with emotion.  “You gotta wake up, Joe.”

Ben stepped inside.  “Son?”

The face Adam turned toward him was pale as wordless grief.

“Pa.  Thank God!” the boy breathed. He raised up and looked behind him.  “Paul’s not with you?”

“He’s on his way,” the rancher said as he carefully moved into the room.  There was the light on the dresser he had seen through the window and another one turned low on the bedside table.  The room was fairly dark.  He had yet to see his son clearly.

Adam noticed his frown.  “I kept the light low.  I know…a blow to head….  Well, I was afraid if…when Joe woke up it would hurt his eyes.”

If  he woke up.

His son slipped out of the bedside chair to make room for him.  A little moan escaped Ben’s lips as he sat down and reached for his youngest son.  A makeshift bandage was wound around Joseph’s head.  It was partially soaked through.  On the floor there was a bucket with other discarded bloody rags.

“We can’t get the wound to stop bleeding, Pa.  It stops for a while and then starts right back in.”

Ben was unwrapping the bandage.  Joseph’s forehead looked like a field of wildflowers on a dusky day, it was dotted with so many colors.  A large semi-circular cut marred the boy’s tender flesh on the right hand side.  He thanked God it wasn’t too deep.

“Is there anything else…wrong?” Ben asked as he swallowed over his fear.

Adam ran a hand through the shock of unruly black hair on his head.  “I honestly don’t know.  Nothing else is bleeding….”  He winced.  “…at least, on the outside.  I didn’t want to move Little Joe any more than I had to until Paul got here.  Hoss and I brought him in from the corral.  We got Joe out of his clothes and cleaned him up.  There was…dirt in the wound.”

And worse, he was sure.

“You’ve done all you could, son,” Ben said as he reached for one of the fresh linen strips Hop Sing had supplied.  “We’ll just have to wait for Paul.”

What have I done other than almost get Joe killed?” his eldest snapped.

Adam’s vehemence shocked him.  “Son, this isn’t your fault.”

“Then whose is it?  You left me in charge.”  He shook with a sigh.  “I was supposed to keep Little Joe safe.”

Ben lifted his son up so he could wind the bandage around the back of his head.  Joe was so light in his arms, like a sparrow that had fallen.  “And Little Joe was supposed to do as you told him and not go near the horses unless someone was with him.”  He turned to look at his oldest boy.  “Am I right?”

Adam shook his head.  “Joe’s a kid!  I should have known he wouldn’t listen.  When he went outside after supper to do his chores, I should have followed him.  I shouldn’t have….”

“Like I shouldn’t have allowed your mother to get pregnant, or Inger to come out West?  As I shouldn’t have allowed Marie to have that horse when I knew it wasn’t wise?”  Ben leaned back as he finished tying off the bandage and stared at his youngest son’s pallid face.  “Just like I shouldn’t have allowed any of you to grow up, because I can’t always be with you.  I can’t…protect you.”

“You do your best, Pa.”

Ben looked right at his eldest.  “So did you.”

Adam ducked his head and ran a hand along the back of his neck.

“Can I come in?” a shy voice asked.

Ben turned toward the door. “Hoss.  I’m sorry I forgot about you.  Of course you can come in.”

“It’s okay, Pa.  I was helpin’ Hop Sing with some of his mornin’ preparations.  I just wanted to let you know that Paul Martin just pulled in.”

“Thank God!” Ben breathed.  “Go and meet him, son.  Bring him right up.”

“I’ll go, Pa.”  Adam’s gaze returned to Little Joe.  “To tell the truth, I could use a little air.”

As the black-haired man passed his teenage brother, Hoss placed a hand on his shoulder.  Adam briefly returned the gesture and then left the room.  After he’d gone, Hoss sat on the side of Joseph’s bed and reached out to stroke a tangle of curls off of the boy’s battered forehead.

It warmed his heart to know that his boys were so close.  Though they had their differences, they were always there for one another and would always be in spirit, if not in body.

“So what has the young scamp got himself into now?”

Ben turned to find Paul Martin standing just inside the room.  He rose to his feet and went to greet him.

“Adam?” he asked.

“I told him to take a walk,” Paul said as he came to the bed.  “How long has Joe been unconscious?” the physician asked as he sat on Joseph’s other side.

“He’s kind of tried to surface a few times, Doc,” his son replied.

“How long since the last time?”

Hoss shrugged.  “A hour or so.  We was awful busy.  I wasn’t lookin’ at the clock, if you know what I mean?”

“Well, the fact that Joe is trying to reach us is encouraging.”  Paul made a ‘tsking’ nose as he removed the bandage.  “That’s quite a blow he took.”  Next he moved his hands along Joseph’s arms and legs, checking for breaks.  “Everything seems intact,” Paul muttered as he lifted the boy and began to feel along his spine.  He stopped when Joseph cried out.

Paul gently turned Joseph over and lifted his night shirt.  His old friend frowned as he looked up at him. “Ben, did anyone mention this bruising on his lower back?”

“We was afraid to move him, Doc, for fear we’d hurt him more,” Hoss admitted.

Paul nodded as he began once again to move his fingers along Joe’s spine.  “Wise, very wise,” he said somewhat distracted.

Joseph whimpered as the physician continued to probe.

“Paul. What is it?  What are you thinking?” the rancher asked as he returned to his son’s side.

His friend pursed his lips as he straightened up.  Before speaking, Paul reached out and affectionately brushed a hank of curls back from Joseph’s forehead.  “You’ve really done it to yourself this time, haven’t you, boy?”

Ben’s heart began to race.

What has he done?”

“I can’t be sure, Ben.  I won’t know until Little Joe wakes up and, even then, it will take time and observation to tell what damage has been done.”

“Doc?” Hoss asked, his knuckles going white on the bed knob.  “What’re you talkin’ about?”

The physician pursed his lips.  “There’s no way to say this but to say it.  It seems one of the horses kicked your brother low on his back.  There’s quite a lot of swelling, Ben.  The blow could have fractured one of Joseph’s vertebrae.”

“Fractured…his spine?  What does that mean?”

Paul rose to his feet and looked directly at him.  “It means Joseph may never walk again.”

 

 

THREE

Hoss stirred and looked up as his older brother came down the stairs.  The big teen was sitting by the fire with an open book in his lap.  He’d tried reading, but had given up a few minutes before.

Keepin’ your mind on words was hard when your heart was one flight up with your baby brother.

“Adam, where do you think you’re goin’?”

Adam halted abruptly and turned back to look at him.  He’d made it to the door and was reaching for his coat.  “I’m going into the settlement,” he said as he pulled it on.

“How can you do that when you don’t know how it’s gonna come out with Little Joe?” he demanded as he crossed to his brother’s side.

“Hoss, look.  You know I’m as concerned about Joe as you are, but my sitting here worrying isn’t going to change the outcome.  His life’s not in danger and there are things that have to be attended to.  The ranch won’t run itself.”

It seemed kind of uncarin’ to him, thinkin’ about business at such a time.

I couldn’t walk away,” he responded.

“No, and neither can Pa.  I can, but that doesn’t mean I want to.”  Adam laid a hand on his shoulder.  “Think about it Hoss.  Pa was in the settlement, attending to some very important business – business meant to get us through the winter.  He had to stop and come home, leaving all of that undone.  There are still contracts to be signed, bids to be made, and so on.  You and I both know that if the Ponderosa isn’t represented, Sebastian  Stephens is going to have a monopoly on everything and that isn’t good for us or the settlement’s residents.”  He lifted his hand.  “I have to go.”

Hoss dropped his head.  “Sorry, Adam.  And here I was thinkin’ –”

“That I was a cold-hearted bastard?” older brother finished with a smile.  Adam’s gaze went to the stair.  “I don’t want to leave but, if I go now, I’ll have at least five business hours before the day ends.”

“You gonna stay over?”

“No.  I’ll come home.  They’ll be plenty to do overnight.  I can always ride in again tomorrow morning.”

As his brother finished buttoning his coat and reached for his hat, Hoss cleared his throat.

“Yes?” Adam asked.

“I been sittin’ here thinkin’.  I mean, there ain’t much else to do ‘til the Doc and Pa come down.”  He paused, unsure of how to put his thoughts into words.  “You don’t think that Stephens feller could have had anythin’ to do with Little Joe’s accident….do you?  After all, it got Pa out of the settlement.”

“I’ve considered it,” his brother admitted.  “Still, there’s no evidence that it was anything but an accident.  Little Joe went where he shouldn’t have been, something startled the horses, and he was hurt.”  Adam paused.  “Still, the timing seems, well, frankly a bit too coincidental.”

“Pa’s sure stuck here now,” he said.  “He ain’t gonna leave Joe ‘til he’s well.”

“Yes.  For weeks….”  Again, Adam’s eyes went to the stair.  “Or maybe longer.”

The reason Pa might be forced to remain near the house for ‘longer’ hung between them unspoken.  Into that silence came images of his little brother runnin’, leapin’, ridin’ and laughin’.  Little Joe was like a grasshopper.  You’d reach for him and he’d already be gone.  The boy was never still.  He was on the move from the moment those big green eyes of his opened in the mornin’ until they closed in sleep at night.

A tear trailed down Hoss’ cheek.

Adam’s hand gripped his arm.  “Don’t lose hope.  Joe’s young.  He’ll recover quicker than any of us.”

“But the Doc said….”

“Paul is a learned man and he’ll be the first to admit he doesn’t know everything.  Sometimes the spirit can overcome a physical difficulty when no one thinks it possible, and if little brother has anything, it’s spirit!”  Adam released him and turned to open the door.  “Hoss, Joe’s going to need you to be strong for him, but even more than that, Pa’s going to need your strength.  You know how he is about Little Joe.”

“You think he’s takin’ it extra hard ‘cause Mama, you know, was killed by a horse?”

“I imagine it’s on his mind.”  His brother stepped onto the porch.  “Tell Pa I’ll be back around eight.  If something…changes…send one of the hands in for me.”

“I will.”

After he closed the door behind Adam, Hoss turned and braced his back against it.  He didn’t know about Pa, but Little Joe’s accident sure had put him in mind of Mama’s.  The whole dang thing had left him kind of weak in the knees.  If it hadn’t been for that paint horse, Joe probably would have been killed.  She’d kept him from bein’ trampled after he was down.

That little filly was sure gonna get an extra cup of oats tonight!

Hoss ran a hand over his face as he pushed off the door and headed back into the great room. As he did, Doc Martin made an appearance.  The doctor descended the steps slowly, like he was tired.  When he thought about, Pa’s friend would have been roused from his bed about two in the morning.  The older man was probably exhausted.

“You want some coffee, Doctor Martin?” Hoss asked.  “I can feed you too.  Hop Sing cooked pancakes and ham for breakfast, but ain’t none of us had a stomach for it.”

Paul looked at him.  “Son, you need to keep your strength up.  Both your father and Joe are going to need you.”

“That’s what Adam said.”

The doctor looked around.  “Where is Adam?  I’d like to speak to him.”

“Adam’s gone.”

“Gone?”

“Pa was doing some important business in the settlement.  He had to leave it behind.  He had meetin’s scheduled for today and tomorrow.  Adam went to stand in his place.”

“And to keep Sebastian Stephens from becoming king of the territory?” the Doc asked wryly.

“That’s about it, sir.  It’s important to Pa, and with Little Joe….”

Paul briefly touched his shoulder.  “I completely understand.  Life must go on no matter what.”

Hoss hesitated.  “How’s Little Joe?  Did he wake up yet?”

The doctor shook his head.  “Not yet, though there are signs he’s swimming to the surface.”  Paul eyed him.  “When was the last time you ate something, son?”

The big teen frowned.  “I guess supper last night.  After that’s when we found Little Joe.”

“How about you and I share some of those cold pancakes and ham?”

Hoss swallowed as his stomach flipped.  “I don’t think I can.  Not after….”

“Little Joe is alive, Hoss.  That’s a blessing in itself.  Your brother could easily have been killed with so many horses running wildly about the corral.  And I could be wrong.  Joe might wake up and move his legs.  He’s still got a long, hard road ahead of him even if he does, but the threat of paralysis might be just that – a threat.”

Paralysis.  That was a hard word.

“I understand that, sir,” Hoss replied, his eyes tearing.  “But you didn’t see the little feller shoved face down into the mud, covered in muck and blood.  I thought…  I….”

“You thought he was dead, just like your mother.”

Hoss drew in a gulp of air before going down like a drownin’ man.  “Yes, sir,” he answered as tears trailed down his cheeks.

A movement to the side caught their attention.  He and the doctor turned toward the dining room just in time to see their cook and housekeeper emerge from the shadows and head for the table.

“Hop Sing hear Doctor and Mistah Hoss talk.  Both sit down now and eat or Hop Sing feed pancakes to the goat!”

“Good as your pancakes are, Hop Sing, my stomach just ain’t wantin’ food,” he sighed.

“Number two son stomach always want food,” the Asian man said as he placed two plates on the table.  “It his head say he not hungry!  What good it do little brother or father if big brother’s eyes flutter and he faint like girl?!”

Paul cupped his hand over his lips.  His eyes danced as he stifled a chuckle.

Hop Sing finished putting the glasses next to the plates and then came right up to him.

“Mistah Hoss not listen to Hop Sing.  How often he tell number two son that the birds of worry and care fly over your head, this you cannot change, but that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent.”

Hoss reached up and ran a hand through the sandy fuzz on his head.  “I ain’t got all that much hair for them dang birds to nest in.”

“Boy have enough!  You sit at table.  Hop Sing bring food and drink, then take tray up to your father.”

Paul caught hold of the Asian man’s arm.  “Thank you, Hop Sing.  I appreciate the offer.  As to Ben, let’s give him a few more minutes before you go up.  He’s quite…upset.  I doubt he will eat until Little Joe wakes up.”

Their cook shook his head.  “I wait, then take up coffee.”

“That sounds about right.”  Paul indicated the table and the empty chairs with his hand. “After you, son.”

 

“Son, can you hear me?  Little Joe, it’s Pa.  Please son, please…wake up.”

Ben both wanted his son to wake up and feared it.  He feared Joseph seeing the tears that were streaming down his cheeks.  He didn’t want to frighten the boy, but he couldn’t seem to stop them.  He was overwhelmed with anticipated grief and with shame.  Those contracts – the bidding and the competitive atmosphere that went with them – had seemed so important just a few hours before.  If he told the truth, winning out over Sebastian Stephens had given him great pleasure.  He disliked the man intensely and despised the way he went about conducting business.  He had seen it as his mission to stop him.  Yesterday it had been the army contract, today it was about timber, and tomorrow, about mining.  He needed to diversify his interests.  Protect his investments.  Make sure he came out on top.  Ben reached out to brush a matted chestnut curl from his son’s forehead.

What did any of it matter now?

The boy had developed a fever.  It was low and Paul said it was to be expected.  His friend had spent nearly half an hour carefully cleaning out the wound on Joseph’s forehead.  It sickened him to see the imprint of the horse’s shoe in his son’s tender flesh.  Paul had gently reminded him that not only dirt, but most likely discharge from the horses themselves had entered it while Joe lay face down in the mud.  Thank God, the horse had only struck him a glancing blow!

At least, in the front.

He’d sucked in air as Paul turned his boy over to reveal the bruising low on Joseph’s back.  It was just above the tail bone and the skin was swollen badly.  The physician had run his fingers over it, causing a low moan to escape the boy’s lips.  Then, he’d instructed him to do the same.

The damage was evident.

Ben cupped his son’s face in his hand and planted a kiss on his head before rising and walking to the window.  The new day was afoot.  He could hear the men moving about in the yard.  For a moment he wondered who was instructing them, but then realized it had been some time since he’d seen Adam.  Knowing his oldest boy, he’d assumed responsibility for keeping the ranch afloat while his father sat in a darkened room, tending his youngest brother and despairing.

And yes, he was despairing.  The words with which Adam had described both Joseph’s accident and how and where he and Hoss had found the boy had struck a desolate chord deep within his soul.  Marie’s boy had inherited her love of horses.  From the time he could sit one, it had been all he could do to keep Little Joe’s boots on the ground.  He often found the ten-year-old watching the horses, reveling in their power and, if the truth be known, in their wild and carefree nature.  Sadly, that love had proved as the moth to the flame.  Joseph had been drawn in and he’d been scorched.  Ben turned to look at the silent form on the bed.

Would his boy ever be the same?

As he stood there, musing, Ben heard his son speak.  Joseph had moaned now and then, and even said a few unintelligible words.  This time, whatever he’d said had been spoken with clarity.  Crossing to the boy’s bed, Ben sat on the side and touched his face.

“Joseph, son,” he tried again.  “It’s Pa.  It’s time to wake up.”

The boy moaned again and shifted, and again, he spoke the same word.  Ben wasn’t sure that he’d heard what he thought he heard.

“What was that, boy?” he asked as he leaned in.

“Cochise….”

That was what he had heard.  “Cochise?  Joe?  What do you mean?”

The boy’s eyelids fluttered, his thick black lashes dancing against the field of white that was his face.  A second later he frowned.  Then his fingers clutched the covers.

“That’s it, son,” he said as he took the boy’s hand.  “Fight!  Come back to me.”

One green eye opened.  The other followed – slowly.  Little Joe looked around the room, passing him by as if he didn’t exist.

“Cochise?” he asked again.

Ben was beginning to worry.  Was the boy out of his head?  His fever wasn’t all that high.  Perhaps Little Joe was recalling one of the stories he’d told of his and Adam’s passage west.

But had he mentioned the chief of the Chiricahua?

“Joseph?”

At his voice, the boy stiffened.  Little Joe’s eyes closed and opened again, and he looked in his direction.  For a moment, the boy frowned and then, God was gracious.

His son smiled.

“Hey, Pa….”

Ben gripped the boy’s hand tighter.  “You know who I am?”

“Sure do….”  Joe stopped.  His face took on a puzzled look and then he cried out.  “Pa, it hurts!  Make it stop hurting!”

The tears returned.  “I know it does, son.  I’m so sorry.”  Rising from the bed, Ben went to the door and yelled downstairs.  “Hoss!  Is Paul still here?”

A second later Paul Martin answered.  “Is Joe awake?”

“Yes, and he’s in pain.”

Pivoting on his heel, Ben returned to the bed and his place at his son’s side.  Reaching out, he caressed the boy’s hair.  “You’ve been hurt, Joseph.  Paul will be here any minute.  He’ll give you something for the pain.”  When he got no response, he shook his son gently.  “Little Joe?”

“…let me sleep….”

“Sorry, son, we can’t let you do that,” Paul said as he entered the room.  “Is he coherent?” he asked.

“He knew me.”

“That’s a good sign.”  The doctor moved to the other side of the bed and sat down.  He reached out and took Joseph’s jaw between his fingers.  “Little Joe, look at me.”

His son sighed.  “Leave me…alone.  It…hurts.  Let me…sleep….”

Paul chuckled.  “I will in a few minutes.  But I need you to look at me now.”  As Joe complied Paul said, more to himself than anyone else, “One pupil is enlarged.  You’ve got a good concussion going there.  Little Joe, how many fingers am I holding up?”

Paul was worried about Joe’s sight as well, the blow from the horse’s hoof coming so close to his eye.

Joe swallowed.  “Ten,” he said after a moment.

Ben exchanged a look with the doctor.  Paul was holding up one finger.

“Ten?” the physician asked.

“Well, the way you’re…waggin’ it.  It…looks like ten.”

Paul grinned.  “There’s that Cartwright spirit.”

Before he could finish speaking, Joe sucked in air and cried out again.  “Pa!  It…hurts.  Make it…stop hurting!”

“You’re going to hurt for some time, son.  You’ve got a bad knock on the head and you’ve injured your back.  The horse struck you the hardest there.”

Joe swallowed again.  A sure sign that nausea was soon to follow.  “Cochise?”

Paul looked at him.  Ben shook his head.

“Joe, who’s Cochise?” the doctor asked.

In spite of the pain he was in, a slight smile lifted the corner of the boy’s lips.  “My…horse.”

He was as puzzled as Paul.

“She…wouldn’t hurt me.”  Joe’s green eyes pleaded with him as he struggled to lift his upper torso.  “Tell me…she…didn’t hurt me, Pa!”

Paul pressed his hands on Joseph’s shoulders.  “You need to stay calm.  Little Joe!  Listen to me!”

“Pa!  Don’t…put her down!  She didn’t…mean it!”  Tears were streaming down his son’s ashen cheeks.  “Please, Pa!”

Then it came to him.

The paint.  Joe had talked about nothing else since they brought the last half-dozen horses in to break them, the black and white pinto among them.  That’s why he had defied his command to stay out of the corral.

The horse that had saved Joseph’s life was also the reason he had gotten hurt in the first place.

“Joseph!  Look at me!” he ordered as he sat on bed opposite Paul.  “Are you talking about the paint horse in the corral?”

Joe was looking decidedly green.  “Yeah, Pa.  I’m…sorry…I disobeyed.  But…please don’t hurt…her.  She…”

“She saved your life, son.”

The boy frowned.

“Amnesia,” Paul said, his tone distracted.  “Not unexpected.”

Ben touched his son’s face.  “She stood over you, Joe.  She kept you from getting trampled.”

Joe’s smiled returned. Then, without warning, a sheen of sweat swept over him and he shivered.  “Pa, I’m gonna be sick….  I gotta go to…the outhouse.”

Before he could stop him, his son had tossed the covers back and raised his body up in an attempt to swing his legs over the side of the bed.

Only, he couldn’t.

 

One of the men came knockin’ just as he and the Doc were finishin’ breakfast.  Hoss had to admit that, while it had been hard to get started, he did feel better now that he had some vittles in his belly.  Pratt Shade was standing over by the corral where Joe had been injured, waitin’ on him.  The blond man was holdin’ something in his hand.

“What’d you find?” Hoss asked as he arrived.

Pratt held out the mangled orange and black corpse.

“A ground snake?”  The big teen was surprised.  “What’s one of them doin’ here?”

The ranch hand shrugged.  “I was cleaning up where the boy…where Little Joe had his accident.  Found it buried in the mud.”

The snake had obviously been killed by the strike of a horse’s hoof.

“I’m thinking this is what spooked the horses,” he went on.

Hoss took the dead thing and looked at it.  While ground snakes weren’t terribly dangerous, a bite from one could have made someone as scrawny as his kid brother sick.  ‘Course it probably didn’t have time to bite before the horse caved its head in.

He was pretty sure he knew which horse that had been.

The paint was lookin’ at him now, makin’ eye contact like she was askin’ about little brother.  He made a kissin’ sound that brought the mare to his side.

“I’m sorry I don’t have a treat for you, girl.  I promise I’ll bring you one later,” he promised as he caressed her muzzle.  “Little brother is awful sick and I didn’t remember to put any in my pocket this mornin’.”

“How is Little Joe?” Pratt asked.

“He woke up finally,” Hoss said with relief.  “Pa and the Doc’s with him.”

“I heard tell Mister Cartwright was supposed to be in the settlement today and tomorrow.  I guess, that’s why Adam headed into town?”

“Yeah.  Pa won’t be leavin’ the ranch for a while.  Doctor Martin says it’s gonna take little brother some time afore he’s on his – ”

The piercing scream that cut through the crisp morning air had the power to make his heart stop.

“I gotta go!” the big teen declared and was on his way before Pratt Shade had time to answer.

Hop Sing opened the door as his feet hit the porch.  “Father need number two son!  Number three son need brother!  Mistah Hoss go upstairs.  Hop Sing go to kitchen.  Keep house from burning down!”

He thought he’d smelled smoke.

The big teen nodded.  He took the steps two at a time and raced down the hallway toward his brother’s room.  There were no further startling cries, but he could hear his little brother sobbing.

The sound near tore his heart in two.

Little Joe turned his face toward him as he entered.  It was streaked with tears and pert near as white as the sheets the boy was lyin’ on.  Joe was clingin’ onto Pa like he hadn’t seen him do since Pa’d brought him down from that cliff at Eagle’s Nest.  The boy’s knuckles were white where they twisted the blue fabric of their father’s shirt.  Little Joe was shakin’ from head to toe.

“Joseph!” Pa said in that stern voice of his.  “Joseph, you need to calm down!”

Doc Martin was shakin’ his head.  He was also fillin’ a needle with medicine.

“Pa?” the big teen asked, at a loss.

“Hoss,” baby brother sobbed.  “Hoss, I…I…can’t….”

Hoss crossed over to the bed.  He looked at his father for permission before touching his brother’s face.  “You cain’t what, punkin?”

Those enormous eyes of his brother’s met his gaze and held it for a moment, and then disappeared as Little Joe buried his face in Pa’s shirt.

The look his father gave him was as sad as Joe’s.

“You’re brother can’t feel his legs,” he said.

A second later Paul Martin plunged the needle into Little Joe’s thigh.

 

Adam Cartwright sat at a table in the restaurant his father frequented, sipping a cup of coffee and ignoring the steak and eggs on his plate.  He’d finished one meeting and was waiting for the second one to begin.  It had been hard to concentrate when his mind was twenty miles away with his family.

Still, it had to be done and he was the only one to do it.

The sea of faces that greeted him that morning had been slightly confused and mildly amused.  He was, after all, only twenty-two and the son of a rancher, while they were self-made men of substance and wealth in their forties and fifties. They’d inquired politely about Joe and he’d told them what he knew, and then gone on to explain that his father would be unavoidably detained and he would be taking his place for the foreseeable future.  Most all of the businessmen graciously acquiesced to the need for him to step into his father’s shoes.

Most of them.

He was beginning to understand why his father had no time for Sebastian Stephens.

He’d never met the man before, though he had heard plenty about him. Stephens showed up in his black double-breasted full front coat and out of date top hat and proceeded to make an ass of himself by out-shouting and over-riding everyone else in the meeting.  He’d stayed out of it for the most part, allowing the older men to spar and jockey for position.  After all, he didn’t need to talk.  The proposal he carried, which Hop Sing had fished out of his father’s saddlebags and sent with him, said everything he needed to say.  It was close.  Stephens pulled a few sleight of hand tricks, but in the end theirs was the most reasonable bid and they won the logging contract.  Of course, the man who needed the timber knew his pa and knew he could be trusted to deliver.  No one really knew Sebastian Stephens, although everyone knew he was a man who wanted his own way and had the money to throw his weight around if he didn’t get it.

There were rumors.  Shortly after Stephens arrived in the settlement he had put in a bid to supply the timber for several buildings that were going up.  No one knew him and he lost out.  The buildings went up and then came down – in a fire.  There was no way to link the Easterner to the fire, but it was certainly suspicious.  Several other businessmen, a friend of his father’s among them, had suddenly withdrawn their bids on other contracts.  Two of them had left town.

It seemed Simon Legree had come to the Nevada territory.

“Warm up your coffee?”

Adam looked up to find Rosanna Brant standing by the table, pot in hand.

“Thanks.”

She poured the hot liquid and then placed a hand on her hip and shook her head.  “I sure can tell you’re Ben Cartwright’s son.”

“Oh?” he asked.  “How’s that?”

“Your pa doesn’t like steak either.”

Adam laughed.  “When did Pa not eat his steak?”

“The last time he was in here.  After he finished his meeting.”  She sighed.  “The cook’s gonna start thinking you Cartwrights don’t like his cooking.”

“Oh, we like the cooking well enough.  It’s just that the company we’ve been forced to keep lately kind of sours the stomach.”

“Sebastian Stephens?” she asked.

The look on her face was worth a thousand words.  “He give you trouble too?”

“He’s not a man to take ‘no’ for an answer and I’ve told him ‘no’ more than once.”

Adam frowned.  “Isn’t he married?”

Rosanna rolled her eyes and then moved on to the next table as someone called her name.

So, Stephens was a philanderer as well.  Was there anything to recommend the man?

“Cartwright, I want to talk to you.”

Adam closed his eyes and winced.  There went a relaxing lunch.

“I’m eating, Mister Stephens.  I never mix work with pleasure.”

The man rounded the table and came to a stop before him.  “Well, then, we’ll have no trouble talking.”  He pulled the chair out and sat down.  “This is not going to be pleasant.”

Sebastian Stephens was one of those men who – at first site – appeared to be handsome.  He was in his late fifties or early sixties, tall and well-built, with a head of thick salt and pepper hair that his hat barely contained.  It was only when you began to examine him – when you noted the narrow cast to his eyes, the cold hard look out of them, and the perpetual sneer that lifted his upper lip – that you began to take the measure of the man.

To say that he was arrogant was to undervalue the word.

Stephens removed his gloves and tossed them on the table as if he were calling him out to a duel – and maybe he was.

“You and your father have an unfair advantage,” he began.

“I call it a home advantage,” Adam countered.  “My father has made his home here for over fifteen years.  He’s well-known and liked.  And, I might add, trusted.”

“While I am not?”

“Let’s just saw that newcomers in these parts are often looked upon with suspicion.”

“Isn’t the West all about a new start?  About a man making something of himself?”

“Yes, it is,” Adam said, sitting up.  “But then, some men may make something of themselves that no one else wants to be a part of.”

Stephens leaned back in his chair.  “Flattery will get you nowhere,” he drawled.

“I do my best.”  Adam turned and reached for his jacket where lay on the chair beside him.  “Mister Stephens,” he said as he rose, “as pleasant as this interview has been, I have an hour before I have to be at the next meeting and business is the last thing I want to discuss or think about right now.  If you will excuse me….”

“I heard there was an accident.  Your little brother was hurt.”

Adam stopped.  He sat back down.  There was something about the way the man said it that sent chills up his spine.

What did you hear?”

“Only what the men in the meeting knew, that something happened and your youngest brother was injured and your father had to excuse himself.  Was the tyke hurt badly?”

Answering that brought a bad taste to his mouth.

“Little Joe will be fine.”

“Oh.”  Stephens picked up his gloves and began to draw them on.  “I assumed from your father’s continued absence…”

“My father and my little brother are very close.”

There was a pause.  Stephens looked right at him.  “So I have heard.  Anyhow, when you see your father again be sure to express my sympathies.  One of the most tragic things in the world is for a father to have to bury a son.”

Adam was on his feet. “Is that a threat?” he demanded.

Stephens answered him with an infuriating smile.

Then the bully tipped his hat and walked away.

 

 

FOUR

It was after nine before Adam made it back to the house.  The final meeting of the day ran late – thanks to Sebastian Stephens and his blustering.  This time the Eastern businessman won, but that was all right.  They already had one timber contract secured and, though their father had been known to juggle two at once, with what had happened to Joe, Pa’s attention was already divided.

It was strange how things turned.

Their pa had been absent more days than present recently.  It was just the way things were.  The year was winding down and soon the snow would fly.  Everything had to be made ready and secured before that happened – including business deals.  Pa’s absences had been wearing on Little Joe.  He was sure that was part of the reason they’d been at odds.  Little Joe wasn’t his child but he treated him like he was, and that was due to the fact that he was often the only ‘parent’ around.  Hop Sing did his part but, much as they all loved and respected the Asian man, he wasn’t kin.  He was Joe’s blood relative as well as the oldest, and so it fell to him to hand down discipline.

There were times when he would have given just about anything to be nothing more than the kid’s big brother.

Adam dismounted and tethered his horse at the rail.  He patted Sport’s nose before heading for the house and let his trusted friend know he’d come back later and do what needed to be done.  Right now he was tired and hungry and, if he cared to admit it, slightly off-balance.  Stephen’s words in the restaurant had unnerved him.  When he reached the door, the black-haired man paused.  He turned around to look at the barn; his eyes quickly moving past the building to the corral and the site of Little Joe’s accident.  Had it been planned?  And if so, could it have been at the Easterner’s behest?  Since it hadn’t succeeded – if…murder had been the purpose – would there be other attempts?

A chill ran along his spine as he considered it.

With a sigh, Adam opened the door and went inside.  As he closed it behind him, a tired voice called out, “Hey, big brother. We thought some sidewinder up and ‘et you.”

Adam chuckled as he hung his hat on the rack.  “No.  Just a long day.”  He turned and glanced around.  “Where’s Pa?”

“Where do you think?”

He’d been dreading this moment.  “How is Joe doing?”

A single tear ran down the big teen’s cheek.

“Hoss?  Dear Lord!  What….?”

“Little Joe cain’t…”  His brother sucked in air like someone too long deprived.  “Adam…Little Joe cain’t walk.  He cain’t feel his legs.”

“What did Paul say?”

Hoss rolled his eyes.  “What he always says.  That we gotta wait and see.”

Adam considered launching into an explanation of how swelling affected a person’s recovery and how, until it went down, it was often hard to tell the full extent of a person’s injuries.  He was a scholar.  He’d read medical journals and he loved words.  Hoss was not and did not.  Hoss was a boy worried that his beloved baby brother would never again be able to do the things he loved.

In truth, so was he.

Adam crossed over to his brother and placed a hand on his shoulder.  “I know it’s hard, Hoss, but it’s true.  It will probably be days – maybe even weeks – before Joe heals enough to know if the paralysis is temporary or…permanent.”

His voice quaked on that last one.

“Good.  Mistah Adam home.  He come eat now before he go to bed and sleep.  Need keep up strength,” a soft voice chided.

Adam turned to find Hop Sing in his customary spot, beside the dining room table.  He was in his evening clothes – soft silk pants and a long tastefully embroidered dark blue shirt trimmed with gold. The matching trim on his slippers sparked in the lamp light as he moved forward, leaving trails of fire.  These was the times when he wondered about the Asian man and who and what he had been before he came to them.  Hop Sing was pretty close about his past, even with Pa.  They didn’t know all that much about him other than the fact that he had family in the settlement, including his father, Hop Ling.  He was in his late forties, old enough to have – or have had – his own family.  The way he took care of them – the skills he had – suggested he’d had some training in the medical as well as culinary arts.  He was ever efficient, always kind, and brutally practically.  Adam grinned.  The Asian man reminded him of a mother hen under whose silky feathers beat the heart of a dragon.

“I had something in the settlement before I left, Hop Sing.  Thank you, but I’d just like to go up and see how Joe is.”

“Doctor with Little Joe.  You sit down.  Eat.”  Hop Sing’s gaze moved to Hoss.  “Brother eat with you.  He not have anything since breakfast.”

“Hop Sing!” Hoss snapped. “I done told you I ain’t…”  The big teen stopped, aghast.  “Sorry, I didn’t mean to yell at you.”

“The Doc’s still here?” Adam asked.  “I didn’t see his buggy.”

“Buggy in barn.  Doctor stay…for now.”

Adam suddenly felt weak in the knees.

A hand caught his elbow and steadied him.  “Boy go to table.  Eat.  No good to father if he fall down.”

He nodded.  “Thanks.  I think I will.”  Then he looked at his brother.  “Come on, Hoss.  We can nag each other into eating.”

Hoss ran a hand through his sandy hair.  “Okay.  I guess not eatin’ ain’t helpin’ Little Joe none.  It just feels…well…wrong when I know he’s layin’ up there feelin’ so sad.”

“I know.”

As the two of them sat down, Hop Sing brought in a plate of bread and butter, some slices of ham, and two slices of apple pie.  He left and returned quickly with a pitcher of milk and two glasses.

Adam smiled as the Asian man put the pitcher down.  “Do you ever sleep?” he asked with a wry smile.

“Hop Sing sleep.  Have ears like bat.  That way he know when needed.”

He was tired.  His usual barriers were down.

“Well, you’re very much needed here,” he said.

Their cook’s eyes narrowed.  He nodded, and then disappeared.

“I think you embarrassed him,” Hoss said as he reached for the milk.

“No.  I think there’s more to it than that, though I’m not sure what.”

“He was right, you know?” Hoss asked as he took a bite of bread.  “I do feel better eatin’.”

The usual banter came to mind, but it seemed out of place.  Instead, Adam nodded.

“Hop Sing is always right.”

 

Doctor Paul Martin turned away from the small boy on the bed to look at his father.  Ben sat in the chair by the window watching the sun set.  It had been five years, but it felt no more than a day since he’d been in this house, in another room, doing the same thing; preparing himself to tell a grieving husband that his beloved wife had breathed her last.  Time was a curious thing.  It seemed he’d known the sleeping boy forever, but felt like it had been less than a heartbeat since the last time Marie had flung the door to the ranch house open and greeted him with one of her effervescent smiles.

He was getting old.

As he knew it would, the slight shift he made on the bed was a signal to the boy’s father.

“Paul?”

The physician closed his eyes for a moment, then inclined his head toward the door.  ‘Let’s talk outside,’ he mouthed.

Ben rose slowly.  He crossed over to the bed first, where he brushed back a few curls to plant a kiss on his young son’s forehead, and then followed him out of the room.

“Is there something you wanted to say that you didn’t want Joseph to hear?” Ben asked, his tone wary.

“No.  I just didn’t want to disturb him.  As you know, he fought taking the medication that last time.”  He paused.  “Ben, I’m going to be honest with you.  Little Joe is in a great deal of pain.  He won’t admit it, but then again, that boy never does.”

“And?”

“Pain is a strange creature.  It’s a thing of the body, mind, and soul.  A human trinity, if you will.  If it’s not controlled, pain can wear a man – or a boy down.  It becomes its own kind of injury.  Joe needs rest.  Lots of rest to recover.”

“Is there anything else you can do for him?”

He shook his head.  “Not now.  Maybe, once the swelling has gone down.  For now it’s a waiting game, and waiting is simply not in the vocabulary of Little Joe Cartwright.”

Ben ran a hand over his stubbled chin and sighed.  “No, it’s not.”

“I’m going to head into the settlement to check my office and on my other patients.  I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon at the latest.”

The rancher swung toward him,  “Oh?  Oh, all right.”

“Here’s my prescription for the entire family.  First of all, keep that pain medication in Joseph.  His concussion is moderate and he’s been awake enough that I think that worry is past.  He’ll have headaches, maybe experience blurred vision for a time….”  Paul smiled.  “You know the drill.”

Ben laughed. There had been far too many concussion in this household full of men.

“All right.”

“Joseph needs to sleep – you all need to sleep and eat and take care of yourselves.  The days ahead are going to be trying.”

“You don’t think Joseph will regain the use of his legs, do you?” Ben asked, a shadow of despair in his tone.

“I think no such thing.  I am not thinking beyond today and that’s what you must learn to do to.”  The physician indicated the door.  “And teach that young scamp in there to do as well.  See this as an opportunity, Ben, not a set-back.  Use it to make Joseph a better man – no matter the outcome.”

His friend stared at him a moment and then nodded.  “Thanks, Paul.”

He placed a hand on the other man’s shoulder.  “Easy for me to say.  I’m not his father.”

The sound of someone clearing their throat made them both turn toward the end of the hall.

“Hello, Adam,” Paul said.

Adam’s look was almost shy as he greeted them.  “Doc.  …Pa.”

He’d forgotten.  Adam had just returned. The boy was probably wondering if his father was angry with him for leaving.

Gracious as ever, Ben asked, “How did things go in the settlement, son?”

“Stephens got the high country timber contract.  Everything else went our way.”

“You’re growing into quite the entrepreneur yourself, Adam,” the doctor remarked.

The boy nodded at the compliment.  A heartbeat later, he asked, “How’s Little Joe doing?  Can I see him?”

Paul exchanged a look with Ben, who gave a barely noticeable nod.

“You can sit with him,” he said in his best ‘doctor’ voice.  “Just don’t wake him  And Ben – you get some sleep!”

The rancher shot him a dark look and then straightened up and saluted.  “Ay, Aye, Captain!” he said with mock formality.

Paul began the familiar trek down the hall shaking his head.

If he was a ship‘s captain, he knew he’d have to keel-haul his old friend later.

 

Adam eyed his father a moment before saying in a gentle tone, “Pa, Paul’s right,  You look exhausted.”

The older man ran a hand along the back of his neck.  “I am exhausted, but I can’t sleep.”  His weary gaze went to Joe’s bedroom door.  “Not yet, anyhow.”

“Hoss told me about Joe’s legs.  That he can’t feel them.”

“Or move them.  Your brother was in a panic.  Paul had to sedate him.”

He knew how hard that had to have been on his father.  “Has he been awake since then?”

“He tried to come up out of it, but Paul put him under again.  He regretted it, but said Joe’s violent movements and attempts to get up could cause greater injury to his spine.  He’s not sure, but he thinks one of the vertebrae has a hairline fracture.”  Pa made a face.  “If it breaks….”

“God, Pa.  Joe’s only ten.  He can’t understand.  He’s going to panic the minute he’s awake.”

“Somehow….”  Pa drew in a great breath of air and sighed it out.  “Somehow we have to get through to him.  You know, son, God allows these things for a reason.  This is a testing point in your brother’s mettle.”

His father knew his views on God were slightly less…altruistic….when it came to this kind of thing, and it was out before he could stop it.

“What if Joe never walks again?”

The pain his question caused his father brought him instant shame.

“Sorry, Pa.  I’m tired.  I didn’t think.”

“No, it’s all right.  In the end, that may be exactly where we are.”  The older man thought a moment.  “Our criterion – the standards by which we measure a man are flawed.  We put more value on a pair of working legs than on the mind or heart of the individual.  God sees things differently.  Sometimes God gives us a thorn – something we dearly wish to pluck from our flesh – because it is His tool to form a man into someone who can live a life to His glory.”

Adam thought about his father, a man who had lost three wives, who had seen hardship and experienced near starvation; who at one time had nothing and now had been given so much.

“Your brother Joseph, as dearly as I love the little scamp, has many lessons to learn; patience and prudence among them.  He lives each day at a breakneck pace.  This may be God’s way of teaching him that cannot continue.”

Adam mulled that over for a moment.  If what he suspected was true – if Joe’s ‘accident’ had been no accident – would Pa still feel the same way?   Was this one of those instances of the Almighty using a man’s evil for the good of those who loved Him?

After a moment, his father said, “You look tired, son.  Once you check in on Joseph, you should get some rest.”

“Before I turn in, I’d like to go over the day’s events with you – if you aren’t too worn out.”

Pa placed a hand on his shoulder.  “I’m wide awake.  I think I’ll make a toddy and have a smoke.  Would you like one?”

Thinking of his saddle-sore rear end and the numbing effect of his father’s brandy, he nodded.  “Thanks, Pa.”

His father lifted his hand, briefly touched his cheek, and was gone.

Adam turned to look at his baby brother’s door.  He steeled himself by taking several breaths before opening it and stepping in.

The room was dark with the exception of a lamp turned low on the table next to Little Joe’s bed.  Joe was on his back, which was an unusual thing to see.  He was usually twisted up in his covers like one of Mrs. Hoffmeister’s German pretzels.  There was no pillow under the little boy’s head and the sheets beneath him were undisturbed.

Adam wished he could have said the same thing for himself.

Little Joe was one of those ‘bonny’ kids as a Scottish neighbor of theirs liked to say.  His skin was naturally golden with fairly high color in the cheeks and lips.  He had wide expressive eyes that looked at the world with wonder and were wonderfully well-equipped at getting him out of trouble.  Joe’s hair was golden-brown now, though the odds were it would grow darker as he aged.  His hair was a riotous, reckless, glistening tumble of spiraling curls as out of control as its owner.

Right now the owner of those curls lay still.  The sound of Little Joe’s unnaturally slow breathing filled the room.  His brother’s skin was the color of a morning without sun; those glistening curls dull as unpolished metal.

Adam drew a breath as he sat down in the chair next to his brother’s bed.  For a moment, he simply stared at him.  Then he reached out and took hold of one of Joe’s pallid hands.  They lay perfectly crossed on his brother’s chest giving the kid the appearance of a corpse.

He couldn’t take it.

Careful to keep his touch light, Adam brushed a few curls from his brother’s forehead.  A tear slid down his cheek as he did.  The words he spoke were soul-sore.  “I’m sorry, Joe.  This should never have happened.  I should have stopped it.”

He didn’t expect a response, but he got one.  Baby brother’s sooty eyelashes fluttered against his parchment-white skin.  Joe licked his lips.

“Thirsty,” he said in the voice that belonged to someone other than his brother.

“I’ll get you some water, buddy,” Adam replied as he reached for the pitcher on the bedside table.  Lifting Joe’s head, he helped him to drink.

“…thanks….”

That was Joe all over.  He’d probably thank a bank robber for holding the door open while he ushered him out as a hostage.

“You okay, buddy?  You need anything?”

He waited.  Just about the time he decided Joe was out for good, his brother spoke again.

“Where’s…Pa?”

“He’ll be back any time.  Pa went to get a drink.  He was thirsty too.”

Joe’s nod was nearly imperceptible.  He remained silent for a few heartbeats and then said, “Sorry. I shouldn’t have….”  The kid winced as if the pain he felt was beginning to penetrate the drugged stupor he was in.  “…stupid….”

Adam glanced at a second cup beside the bed.  It had the remnants of a muddied white liquid in it.  Beside it lay several folded papers with a substance inside.  No doubt they were pain medication.  He frowned, unsure as to whether or not he should give his brother another dose.

“Hey, little buddy.  Are you in pain?”

Joe’s lips curled up at the ends.  “…gave me…a…kiss.”

“Who?” he asked, expecting the answer to be ‘Mama’.

“Cochise.”

That was a new one.

“Who’s Cochise?”

The smile broadened.  “…my…hero….”

Then, before he could ask another question, Little Joe lost the fight to stay awake.

Adam remained where he was, holding his baby brother’s hand.  People thought he didn’t like physical contact.  They were wrong.  He respected it.  People touched too easily.  It meant too…little.  This moment, sitting here, connected to his ailing brother, was powerful.

Several minutes later Adam broke away and left the room.

 

Ben heard his eldest son coming down the steps before he saw him.  Adam had to be as exhausted as he was.  His oldest boy was a thinking man of action, weaned on hard times and bred of a deep self-imposed sense of responsibility and duty.  It would have been hard for him to make the choice between remaining behind to protect his little brother and going to the settlement to see to the needs of the ranch in order to secure their future. The down-payments from the contracts Adam negotiated would get them through the winter by providing for necessities

Like a walking chair for his baby boy.

Ben shuddered.  His words to his eldest son had been sagacious and serene.

He was anything but inside.

“Your toddy’s on the stove in the office,” he said as Adam headed for him.

“Thanks, Pa.”  The boy went to get it and then returned to take his accustomed seat in the blue chair on the far side of the hearth.  He took a sip and savored it, then took another and leaned back to let it slide down.  “That’s good.”  A second later his son shot him a look.  “You didn’t make it, did you?”

Ben laughed.  “No.  Hop Sing did.”

“I don’t mean any disrespect, Pa, but your toddies, well, they taste like they were meant to keep a sailor from getting scurvy.”

He laughed.  “As they were!”

They sat in companionable silence for a while after that, each lost in their thoughts, until the rancher decided he’d best get the day’s business over with.

“So we’ve secured the larger of the timber contracts and the one with the army.  Other than Sebastian, did everyone else seem content with the process?”

Adam nodded as he took another sip.  “Yes.  There was the usual grousing and good-natured banter.  No one seemed upset.”

Ben sensed something. “Other than Sebastian.”

Adam put his glass on the table.  “What do you know about him, Pa?”

“Not much.  He keeps his past pretty close.  He was born in the East, Boston, I think, and came out West with the rush to California.  He was one of the lucky ones who found gold and managed to keep it, though now that I know him, I wonder what his methods of ‘retention’ were.”

“Does he have a family?  Is he married?”

Ben finished his glass off and put it on his chair-side table.  “He’s never said.  He mentioned a daughter once.  Deceased, I think.  Why?”

“Just trying to figure him out.”

Ben snorted. “Good luck with that.”

“He’s been in the area about a year, right?”

“About.  Maybe a little less.  Sebastian showed up on the stage one day.  He took a room at the hotel and began to buy up as much property as he could.  Then he moved on to mines and timber.”

“He’s got horses too.”

“Yes, and men who know what to do with them.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him ride.”

“I guess that’s what money gets you.  Everything you desire.”  Adam paused.  “But, in the end, maybe nothing you want.”

“Adam, where is this going?”

His son rose to his feet and walked over to the fire.  Adam’s hand found a purchase on the stones as he gazed into it.  For a long time he was silent.

“Pa, I…think Sebastian Stephens may have been behind Little Joe’s ‘accident’.”

If Adam had told him that a two-ton pink grizzly had just waltzed into the great room wearing a tutu, he could not have been more surprised.

“What?”

Adam looked at him under his arm.  “He threatened me.”

“Who?  Sebastian?  At the meeting?”

“No.  Afterwards.  I was eating lunch at the place where Rosanna works.”

Ben drew a steadying breath.  “I see.  Did he tell you he had something to do with what happened to your brother?”

Adam moved to the table before the fire and took a seat directly opposite him.  “Not in so many words.  He asked about Little Joe and said to give you his sympathies.”

“I’ll admit that’s surprising, but it’s not a threat.”

Adam’s lips twitched   “It’s not.  That’s what came next.  He said, ‘One of the most tragic things in the world is for a father to have to bury a son’.”

A chill ran through him from stem to stern.

Ben swallowed hard over his rising anger.  “He said that?”

“Pa, I think Adam may be right,” a new voice remarked, startling them both.  Ben turned to find Hoss exiting the kitchen.  His middle son had his coat on and looked to be heading outside.

“I wondered where you were, son,” he remarked.

“Ah heck, I was helping Hop Sing in the kitchen since, well, you know, Little Joe cain’t do his usual chores.  Bringin’ in wood and such.  I gotta go out and get me some more wood.”

“What do you mean, you think I may be right?” Adam asked.

Hoss joined them.  “I ain’t had time to tell neither of you yet.  Pratt Shade found a dead snake in the corral.  Figured that was what caused the horses to spook.”

“A snake is unusual in the yard, but not unheard of,” Ben said.

“I know, Pa.  It was just that it was a ground snake.  You know?  The kind you find in a meadow or lazing by the side of a lake.”  Hoss smiled.  “Cochise sure did him in good.”

“Cochise?” Adam asked.  “Joe mentioned a ‘Cochise’.”

“Was your brother awake?”  Ben started to rise.  “We have to keep him still –”

“It’s okay, Pa.  I stayed until I was sure he was under again.  He was thirsty.”

Ben sat back down.

“So who is Cochise?”

Hoss smiled.  “That’s the name little brother done gave that paint horse, the one what saved him.”

Adam looked puzzled.  “But it’s a mare.”

“And Little Joe’s ten,” the big teen replied. “you go ask him what he’s thinkin’.”

That made them all laugh, though they sobered quickly enough at the thought that Little Joe might never get to ride that horse – or any other.

Ben’s brow furrowed.  “So, what we have is a suspicious accident, and a veiled threat that it might not have been an accident.  That’s not much to go to Sheriff Olin on.”

“I’ll talk to him when I go into the settlement tomorrow,” Adam said.  “Just to make Robert aware of our suspicions.”

“In the meantime, I need you two to be extra cautious.”

Both of them stared at him open-mouthed.  Almost as one, they demanded ‘Why?’.

“Because Sebastian Stephens’ threat was open-ended,” he said.  “No father should have to bury a son.”  He looked pointedly from Adam to Hoss. “He didn’t say ‘which’ son.”

“But Joe…” his eldest protested.

Ben shivered.  “Could be just the first.”

 

Hop Sing retreated from the threshold of the dining room.  The things he’d heard disturbed him.  It disturbed him even more to know that there was nothing he could do, and so he chose to go back to doing what he knew.  There were many tasks to be completed before he could lay down his head.  There were dishes to be cleaned.  Bread and other food must be prepared.  The Asian man’s gaze went to the stove,  A good-size pot, brimful with steaming water, sat upon it.  Boiling in the pot were strips of linen that had been used to soak up the blood of his beloved son.  On her death bed Missy Marie had made him promise to keep her Petit Joseph safe; to love and care for him as if he was his own.

It was sacred vow and one he would keep so long as he drew breath.

The task before him was difficult.  Not because the heavy cloths were hot and must wrung out by hand.  This is not what he dreaded.  What he dreaded was carrying the pot to the door and throwing the water out – water red with Little Joe’s life energy.  This should not be.  It felt like he was throwing a part of the boy away and this was something he would never do.  He would not give up on Mistah Cartwright’s number three son, nor would he let the boy’s father or his brothers.  They must not grow weary – they must not despair – no matter how long it took for the ten-year-old to run like the wind once more.

As Little Joe would.

Hop Sing closed the door and returned the pot to the stove before heading for the mountain of wet linens that were ready for the wringer.  Quietly, thoroughly, the Asian man ran the cloths through the wood and metal device one by one.  Such repetition gave him time to think, and this day he chose to think of how he had come to be in this house with the good man whose children he loved as his own.

When a young man, he came from China and chose to live in California.  Bad choices were made and he was forced to run.  He was Chinese and work was not to be found.  In the end, he sold himself to a man and became indentured.  Mistah Cartwright found him working for this cruel master and bought his freedom.  Hop Sing smiled as he placed a stack of linens on the table.  Missy Marie was a beautiful woman with many talents.  Sadly, cooking was not one of them.  The Asian man continued to smile as he went back to turning the crank.  Or, perhaps gladly.  Missy Cartwright had given birth and she was weary.  The labor was not easy for her or for her small son.  Both needed much rest and care.  Mistah Ben hired him to cook, but soon found he had other gifts.  He helped both mother and son with the knowledge he had of Chinese medicine.

The crank stopped in his hand.  Hop Sing sighed.

Even so had come the beginning of his woes.

The Asian man’s gaze shifted to the back wall of the kitchen.  He remained still, lost in thought for a moment, and then left the wringer to cross over to it and stepped into the shadows cast by a massive oak cupboard.  There, on the wall, was his personal shrine.  In the shrine were many things: flower petals, a wooden box, spices, and several images.  One, in shuǐ-mò ink and wash, was of his great-parents.  The second Mistah Ben had given him of Missy Marie after her death.  Behind these two – tucked safely away where no one would see – lay a gilded locket.  Inside the locket was the portrait of a woman.  He did not name her for fear she would haunt him.

The fear was foolish, for she haunted him still.

Removing the locket, Hop Sing wrapped the gold chain about his fingers, and then opened it so he could look upon the face of the one he had loved.  A moment later he snapped it shut and returned it to the shrine.  Then he returned to the wringer and began to work.

Work was all he had now.

 

 

FIVE

It was as if the natural world knew what they were facing.

Ben Cartwright stood on his porch wearing his thickest, heaviest coat, with the collar pulled up around his throat to ward off the chill, coffee cup in hand.  It was late September, not an unheard of time for old man winter to make his presence known, but not a common one either.  It was early in the morning and he’d risen to see his son off.  He feared for Adam, making the twenty mile trek to the settlement on his own, so he’d made up an excuse and sent two of the men along with him ‘to bring back some much needed supplies’.  His son saw right through his ruse but said nothing.  He was a good boy.

They were all good boys and he loved them more than life.

Ben took a sip of coffee and relished the warmth as it trailed down his throat and into his gullet.  He’d been surprised to find a thin sheen of ice on the water in the trough that morning as well as a layer of frost glazing the pummeled grass of the yard.  Waxing poetic, Adam had quoted something about an ‘untimely dew upon the fairest flower’.  The rancher knew it would only be a day, maybe two, before they were back to early autumn, but for now, that ‘untimely frost’ suited his mood.

Joseph still could not feel his legs.

Where the day before the boy had railed and screamed and cried his heart out, thrashing and fighting them to prove that he could make his legs work and would get out of bed on his own, today he was silent.  While the injury to his forehead was still a cause for concern, Little Joe’s other cuts and abrasions seemed to be healing nicely and with no sign of infection.  Considering how long he had lain in the mud, that in itself was a miracle!  During the short time Joseph had been awake, he’d talked to the boy and he’d admitted to experiencing headaches and – thank God! – only a slight amount of nausea.  Paul had ordered absolute bed rest so the possible fracture in Little Joe’s vertebrae had time to heal.  When he thought of the violence a severe bout of nausea would bring, it chilled him.  The boy had eaten very little since the accident.  There was nothing to vomit and the dry heaves….

He closed his eyes.  ‘Don’t borrow trouble, Ben Cartwright’, he told himself.  ‘Let the days troubles be sufficient for the day.’

Reluctantly, in the early hours of morning, he’d fed the boy the pain medication Paul had left behind and watched him drift off into an untroubled sleep.  It bothered him to constantly drug his young son even if he needed it.  He missed Joseph’s voice, his irascible nature; the constant arguments and defiant stares – his son’s touch.

He missed his son.

“Hey, Pa.  You okay?”

Ben opened his eyes and looked toward the barn.  Hoss was standing before him with a hammer and a bucket of nails in his hands.

“I’m fine, son.”

“Thinkin’ about Little Joe?” the teen asked as he came closer.

“Yes.  And about all of you.  You be careful out there today.”  Hoss was going out to one of the far flung pastures to mend fences before the snow flew.

‘Aw, shucks, Pa.  I’ll be fine.”  The big teen put the bucket down and tugged on his gloves.  “It sure is colder than a miner’s toe out here.”

“Is Pratt going with you?”

“Yes, sir.  Bush too, if that’s okay.”

He looked at the teen.  “Both of them?”

“Pratt was out riding fence last night.  He said some of the poles was knocked down and took the wire with them.  Bush’s gonna go to the settlement to get some more wire and then he’s gonna meet us up there.”

Ben considered it.  There was nothing suspicious about it other than the fact that Pratt was the last one to talk to Joseph before his ‘accident’.  But then, if both were going and they knew he knew about it, it was unlikely they would try anything.

“All right.  Keep a close watch on them.”

Hoss frowned at him.  ‘You think they had somethin’ to do with what happened to Little Joe?”

“I don’t know.”  Ben ran a hand over his eyes.  “I don’t know what I think.  But for the moment – for your old beleaguered father – please be careful.”

The big teen grinned.  When Hoss did that, it reminded him so of Inger with her easy smile.

“Heck, Pa.  I’m always careful, don’t you know that?  I gotta be with those two ornery brothers I got.”  Hoss sobered.  “You tell Little Joe I’m thinkin’ about him next time he wakes up, and I’ll be up to see him soon as I get back.  Okay?”

“I will.”

With a casual wave of his hand and a hearty, “See you later, Pa!”, Hoss was on his way.  Ben watched as the teenager met up with Pratt Shade who was coming out of the barn and then turned back toward the house.  He’d heard the door open.

Hop Sing was standing in it.

“Mistah Ben go away?”

He looked down at his coat.  “I was going to go out and check in with a few of the men while Joseph slept.”

“Little Joe awake.  Boy refuse to eat.  You come.  Make number three son eat.”

It was always a struggle with Joseph whenever he was ill to get the boy to eat anything.  Still, somehow, he knew this was different.

Very stubborn boy when he make up mind.  Make mind up not to eat.”  His cook and friend paused.  “Think maybe too, he make mind up not to live.”

Ben closed his eyes.  “I’ll come in.  Give me a moment.”

What could he say to his son?  What did you say to a ten-year-old boy on the cusp of turning eleven, who’d had his life altered in a single moment in such an unimaginable way?  He knew the platitudes.  He’d spoken them to Adam.  ‘Everything is in God’s will.  This was given to you to overcome, son, to become a stronger, better man.’ Little Joe didn’t want to be a man.  He wanted to be a boy – a carefree, happy, physically fit, active and mobile boy and that had been taken away from him.

For the time being’, he reminded himself.

And that was what he had to make Joseph understand.

 

Joe Cartwright raised his head up as high as he could without puking, looked down his straight covers at his immobile legs, and willed them to move.  He couldn’t actually see them – or feel them – but he could see the places where his toes pushed the blankets up in a kind of teepee, so he knew they were there.  Never in his short life had he come across something he couldn’t accomplish if he put his mind to it.

But they didn’t move.

With a shallow sigh – any deeper and it hurt – Joe balled his fingers into fists and tried again.  All that accomplished was to send pain shooting through his head like an arrow loosed from the bow by an Apache warrior.  And it hit its mark.  Seconds later he broke out in a sweat.  His breaths came fast and hard.  He was gonna puke.

He wasn’t gonna puke!

“Joseph?  I’ll be there in a moment, son.”

The voice riding down the corridor was a balm and a blister at the same time.  Joe loved his pa – he wanted him at his side – but he was mad at him.  All Doctor Martin and Pa did was feed him that awful tasting gritty white liquid to make him sleep.  Like sleeping was going to change things!  The last time Pa pressed that glass to his lips, he’d pretended to swallow while holding the liquid in his cheeks and spit it out the minute he was alone.  It still put him to sleep, but he was able to wake up after only a few hours and it was then he’d started trying to make his legs move.  He’d kept at it until he exhausted himself and had to sleep again.  Then, when he woke up and started back in, Hop Sing came in and wanted him to eat.  A feller couldn’t eat when he was concentratin’!  He knew he’d scared Hop Sing when he refused to say anything.  Hop Sing probably thought he was givin’ up.  He wasn’t.  He was a Cartwright and no one and nothing was going to keep him down!

Joe looked down the long line of unrumpled blankets covering him.

No one…and nothing.

Unless, of course, that professor who had come through a year or so back was wrong and mind over matter didn’t work.

Joe’s mood swung one hundred and eighty degrees in the opposite direction.  Tears flooded his eyes.  He was never gonna walk again.  He’d been kind of awake when Pa and the doctor were standing by his bed talking so low they thought no one could hear.  He’d heard words like ‘paralysis’ and ‘crutches’ and even worse, ‘walking chair’.  The doc had talked about how he might not be able to take care of….what needed taking care of for himself anymore.  Someone might have to do it for him.  There was another word. One that scared him most of all.

Asylum.

Joe sucked in snot and tears.  He gritted his teeth and swallowed over his fear.  With his fists clenched, he reared up as far as he could and shouted so loud God in Heaven couldn’t have missed it.

“HULLY GEE!!  MOVE, YOU BLAM JAM DAMN LEGS!!!  MOVE!!!!”

The door flew open a second later and he knew he was in trouble.  Pa looked like he’d had one of them apocalyptic fits.

“Joseph!”

He wondered if he could fake puking just to get some sympathy.

 

Ben stifled his urge to shout ‘hallelujah!’

“I will not have that kind of language in my house, young man!” he said, careful to keep his tone stern.

Little Joe looked sheepish – and wonderfully awake.

“Sorry, Pa,” he replied, meek as a mouse.

Ben sat on the side of the bed and reached out to brush the rampant curls from his son’s forehead.  Still masking his smile with mock anger, he demanded, “Now, tell me, Joseph.  Where have you heard that kind of language?”

Little Joe’s nose wrinkled.  “From the horses?”

He couldn’t help it.  He laughed out loud.  “Which one?”

His son thought a moment.  “Adam’s.”

Ben wanted to stand up and dance a jig.  Here was his son – his obstinate, fiery, determined, and slightly exasperating son.

He thought he’d lost him.

He might still.

“Oh, I see, Adam’s.  Well, I’ll admit Sport can be a little…testy at times.”  Ben’s hand cupped his son’s chin.  “How are you, boy?”

Little Joe glared at him – for about two seconds before his lower lip started to tremble.  “I’m okay, Pa.  Don’t…you worry.”

He hated to do it, but he moved his hand and laid it on one of his son’s legs.  “Can you feel that?”

Joe bit the lip and shook his head.

He moved his hand to the other leg.  “How about this one?”

Another shake.  Slower and more deliberate this time.

He took the boy’s head in both hands so he couldn’t turn away as he spoke.  “That doesn’t mean you won’t ever feel them again.  Do you understand?”

Little Joe remained still.

“Joseph, do you believe what I am saying?”

The boy swallowed a couple of times.  A tear trailed down his cheek.  “I don’t know.”

Ben sat back.  “Well, that’s honest.  I can deal with honesty.”

“Pa, what if…”  His son’s eyes went to the hand that lay on top of his leg.  “What if it don’t come back?  What if I can’t…ever…walk?  Will my legs shrivel up like Mister Benson’s?”

Carl Benson was a veteran of the Mexican War who had a bullet cut through his spine.  He was lucky to be alive.  His legs had shriveled to the size of a child’s – about the size of Joe’s.  Poor Benson had taken to liquor to satisfy his despair.

Ben’s fingers gripped his son’s leg as a vision of this boy – now, a man – living a life of waste and desolation flashed before his eyes.

To his surprise, he felt small  fingers on his arm.

“It’s okay, Pa.”

The dam brook.

The rancher did all he could do to stop the ensuing flood, but there was nothing to do but to let the waters of grief and guilt and remorse wash over him.  The tears started as a stream but were soon a river.  He wanted to run, to flee – to do anything to keep Joseph from seeing him as he was – but a still small voice told him to be a man and remain.

He was okay with that until he began to sob.

Joe was sitting up.  He shouldn’t be sitting up, but he was.  His small son had used his hands to haul his body forward enough to encircle him with his arms.

“Don’t cry, Pa,” he whispered as he patted his back.  “It’ll be all right.”

His own words.  His own damn words, spoken with such easy assurance so many times in the midst of the tempest of so many tragedies.  They were useless – false – filled with a hope that remained unfulfilled.  Elizabeth.  Inger.  Marie.

Marie’s boy.

“You’ll see, Pa.  I’ll walk again.  I will!”

He was still waiting for the calm after the storm, but for the most part, the tempest had passed.  “Joseph, I….  Just a moment.”  Ben rose and went to his son’s washstand and tossed water on his face.  He almost lost it a second time as the realization struck him that even that simple action might lay outside of the life given to his third boy.  After drying his face and his tears with a towel, Ben returned to the bed and sat by his son’s side.

His son looked…scared.

He took his tiny hand in his own.  “Son, I….  I should have been here.”

“When I was cleaning out the stalls?”

The absurdity of it struck him.  He nodded.  “Yes.”

“Pa.  You can’t be here all the time and if..if I hadn’t done what I knew I oughtn’t to have done, I wouldn’t be in this pickle.”

They’d never discussed what happened.  Welcoming the change of subject, the rancher asked, “What do you remember?”

Little Joe lay against the bed sheets.  His son had barely more color than they did, but he was awake – and alive!

“Not much,” he said after a minute.  “I wanted to see Cochise….”  His boy’s eyes flicked to his face.  “I wanted to see the paint.  She likes me, Pa.”

“Go on.”

“I remember being in the barn doin’ my chores and then talking to her.  That’s about it.”

Ben frowned.  “You don’t remember anything about something dropping out of the open barn door?”

Joe frowned too.  “No.  Did it?”

He ignored that.  “Do you remember Pratt Shade talking to you before you went into the corral?”

The frown deepened.  Joe shook his head and then winced.

“Are you hurting, boy?” he asked, his hand returned to his son’s cheek.

The boy’s lips twisted with the admission.  “Some.”

For Little Joe, that was tantamount to an admission of guilt from a lifer!

“Here,” Ben reached for the medicine.

Joe’s hand stopped him.  “I don’t want that stuff, Pa.  It makes me feel funny.  I promise I won’t move around a lot.  Please don’t make me take it.”

All of the sudden Joe’s lucidity took on a new meaning.  “Did you spit it out the last time?”

His boy paled, but nodded.

Ben let out a sigh.  “Joseph, what am I going to do with you?”

“Carry me downstairs so I don’t have to lay in this dumb room by myself all day?”  Those eyelashes fluttered.  “Please, Pa.”

“Not yet, son.”  At Little Joe’s crestfallen look, he added.  “Paul’s due back soon.  If he says it’s okay, then we’ll see.”  Ben imagined it was too soon, but he couldn’t stand to dash the boy’s hopes.  “Now, please, take this for me.”

Joe eyed the glass like it was a rattler.

“Okay.  But only for you, Pa.”

He smiled as he raised the boy’s head up, and then sat there after he had taken the medicine and waited until it had gone into effect.  Then he rose and headed for the door.

“Pa?” a sleepy voice asked just as he reached it.

That boy’s stubbornness!

“Yes, Joseph.”

“I’ll say a…prayer for you.”

Ben closed the door behind him and stood in the hall, humbled.  What miracle had given him three such sons?

 

“What you do in barn, Mister Hoss?  It late.”

Hoss started and then turned to find Hop Sing staring at him from the open door of the stable.

“Hey there, Hop Sing!  What’re you doin’ outside this time of day?”

“Hop Sing headed for chicken coop.  See if he can find eggs.”

Fetchin’ the eggs was Little Joe’s job and he and Adam had kind of hit and miss on doin’ it lately.  They was awful busy with all the extra chores from both little brother and Pa bein’ out of the mix.  Here near the whole day was gone and there was still tons to do!

“I’m sorry, Hop Sing.  I should’ve checked ‘em before I came in here.”

“No need.  Big boy have other things to do.”  Hop Sing looked around.  “Number one son not home yet?”

“Ain’t seen hide nor hair of him, but Adam thought he’d be late gettin’ home what with havin’ to sign all them papers and smoke cigars and drink brandy and shake hands and such.”  Hoss laughed.  “At least, he’ll enjoy the brandy part.”

“What you do in barn?”

That was another thing about Hop Sing.  He was as persistent as Little Joe – and could be just as much of a pest at times.

“I’m goin’ out to ride night fence.”

He shook his head.  “Number two son not go alone!  Father not like it if you go alone.”

Hoss stifled a sigh.  “Come on, Hop Sing, I’m sixteen – gonna be seventeen soon.  I don’t need no nursemaid like my little brother.”

“Little Joe very angry if he hear you say that.”

Hoss sighed.  “Do you know how happy I’d be to have Joe come runnin’ around that corner and shout at me right now?”

The Asian man nodded.  “Hop Sing know.  It same with him.  Kitchen too quiet since boy hurt.”

“You’re dang right, it is.”

“Hop Sing go get eggs now.  Fix big omelet when you come in.”

“It’s gonna be nine at least for I get in, Hop Sing.  You don’t need to do that.”

“Number two son always hungry.  That good thing.  Make Hop Sing feel needed.”

The admission took him by surprise.  Hop Sing usually didn’t say much.

“Heck, you know we need you.  I don’t know what we’d do without you.”  He ran a hand along the back of his neck.  “I guess, sometimes, we forget to tell you.”

Hop Sing looked like he’d hit him with a hammer.

“No more talk!” he declared.  “Wise man have long ears, big eyes, and short tongue.  Talk too much!”

And then, he was gone.

Hoss stood scratchin’ his head over that one for a while.

As he finished tightening his cinch, the big teen heard a sound.  He moved to the door and looked out.  He was right.  It was a horse riding into the yard.  Adam dismounted near the rail, tossed his mount’s reins over it, and headed for the house.

“Hey, big brother!  How’d it go?”

Adam stopped and turned back, obviously surprised that he’d missed him.  He walked slowly his way.  “Other than having to play nice with the man I suspect of trying to kill my little brother?  Swell, just, swell.”

“Stephens got under your collar, eh?”

“And my shirt and my union suit,” he groused.  “I have never met a more contemptible human being.”

“God loves him.”

Adam’s brows jerked upward.  “What?!”

Hoss tried to hide his smile, but couldn’t.  “Just had to see your face.”

His brother rolled his eyes.  “Where are you going?” he asked as he noticed he had his winter coat on.

“Out to ride fence.”

“Alone?!”

“Now, Adam, don’t you start that.  I been ridin’ fence alone since I was thirteen.  I ain’t goin’ far, just out past where Pratt and Bush and me were workin’ earlier.”

“I don’t know, Hoss.”

“I know.”  The big teen sighed as he turned back into the stable.  “Pa ain’t gonna like it.”

“I wasn’t thinking of Pa.  I don’t like it.”

Hoss turned back.  “Did Stephens make another threat?”

“Not so you could say.”  Adam thought a moment.  “He kept talking about how big the Ponderosa was and how easy it would be for someone to get lost and no one ever find them.  He even suggested Pa sell him half of it to keep us safe.”

“Well, I ain’t gonna get lost.  I could ride fence with my hands tied behind my back and a bag over my head.”

“Don’t joke about it.”

The big teen frowned.  “About what?”  He paused.  “Oh. Sorry.”

“Take someone with you.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know.”  Again, he was silent.  “Anyone but Sears or Shade.”

“How come?”

“I just don’t trust them.”

Hoss let out a sigh.  “Ok.  If’n it’ll make you feel better.”

“It will.”

“How about old Post-hole?  I saw him wanderin’ around earlier.”  Post-hole Wilson was so named ‘cause  that had been the first job he’d had after coming out West.  He was just a boy back then, before the war.  The two of them were friends since Post-Hole was bigger than he was.  “Ain’t no one gonna mess with him.”

Adam nodded.  “Yes.  That’ll do.  Thanks, brother, for understanding.”

“It’s what I’m here for.”

 

Adam tossed his hat on the peg, hung his coat beside it, and then coiled his gun belt on the credenza.  An exclamation of surprise escaped him when he saw his little brother’s curly head resting on the sloped arm of the settee.  Pa was talking softly to Little Joe.  The older man looked up at him and smiled.

“Welcome home, son.”

He was around that settee fast as a jackrabbit in front of a prairie fire.

“Joe!”

Little Joe gave him a weary smile.  “Hey, older brother.”

Adam met his father’s gaze over his brother’s head.  His hopes were quashed as Pa shook his head slightly.

“What are you doing downstairs, buddy?” he asked as he sat on the table beside the sofa.

“I got tired of lookin’ at those old walls in my room,” Joe answered with a yawn.

“Paul said it was safe to carry your brother downstairs – on a stretcher.”  Pa tossed his head in the direction of the corner.  He had missed the canvas and wood pallet leaning in the corner.  It was the one they kept for emergencies.

He guessed this qualified.

“It kind of…hurt,” Joe admitted haltingly, “but I’m happy to be downstairs.”

Adam reached out to ruffle his hair.  “I’m sure you are, buddy.”  He looked up at his pa.  “Is Joe going to stay here?”

Pa looked directly at his brother.  “For the time being.”

“Ah, Pa!  Please don’t make me go back up there,” Joe protested.

“We will do whatever is for your best, young man.”

Adam’s gaze dropped to the pillows supporting Joe’s back.  He wasn’t lying flat, but wasn’t quite sitting up either.

“Paul felt it would be good to relieve some of the pressure on Joseph’s spine.  It’s easier down here.”

“Hop Sing put hot bricks wrapped up in wool under the blankets,” Joe said, yawning again.  “It’s makin’ me sleepy.”

“You just go to sleep, buddy.  You need your rest.”

Joe sighed as his eyes closed.  “So…everyone…keeps…telling…”

He was out.

Adam chuckled as he rose to his feet.  He inclined his head toward the dining table.  Pa nodded in return and then made their way over to it.  As they sat down, he asked, “How is Joe?  Really?”

“Your brother’s not in quite as much pain.  The swelling has gone down some.  Paul said we could cut his medication in half.”

Adam was staring at his brother’s curly head.  “He’s something, isn’t he?”

Pa snorted.  “He certainly is!  Joseph is already planning ways to get back on his feet.”

“Can he feel them?”

“No, but that’s not going to stop him.”  Pa’s smile was affectionate and a little bit sad.  “You know your brother.”

“I guess it’s better than wallowing in self-pity.”

The older man sighed.   “Paul says that may come later, once Joseph realizes he never will.”

That stopped him cold.  “Is it definite then?  He won’t be able to walk?”

“I’m sorry.  I’m tired.  Nothing is certain yet.  It’s too soon.”  Pa ran a hand over his face and deliberately changed the subject.  “So, how did your day go?”

He made a face.  “Same as yesterday.  Sebastian Stephens was an ass.”

“Any more threats?”

“Not outright ones.”

His father stiffened and looked around.  There was a note of panic in his voice.  “Where’s Hoss?  I haven’t seen – ”

“He’s out riding fence with Post-hole Wilson.”

The older man visibly relaxed.  He even smiled.  “Now that would be a sight to see.”

Post-hole usually did what his name said, drive in posts.  He wasn’t much of one for sitting a horse, though he would grudgingly ride to the settlement and back.  The tall gray horse he rode was part pachyderm, or so the men joked.

“I know Hoss is big enough to be taken for a full-grown man,” Ben said, “but in reality he’s still a boy and, while he may look like a man, in many ways he still thinks as a child.”

“He’s too trusting, you mean?”

“That and too quick to give his heart.  Hoss also thinks he’s indestructible.”

Adam chuckled.  “Don’t we all?”

With that, the two of them fell silent, each lost in his own thoughts.  They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes before Pa roused.

“I’d best get upstairs and grab a pillow and blanket.,” he said as he scooted his chair back and rose.  “Your little brother refuses to budge from the settee and I decided to let him think he won.  Paul said it would be all right to leave Joseph there until he returned tomorrow morning.  Tomorrow he’s going to instruct us in a regime to follow.  He wants us to begin to apply hot and cold compresses.” The older man drew a breath.  “He also wants to show us what to do to keep your brother’s muscles from atrophying.”

Adam studied his father.  The older man looked like he was on his last leg.  “Let me stay with him overnight, Pa.  You look like you could use a night in your own bed.”

Pa gave him ‘that’ look.  “You do too,” he said softly.

“But I’m a young and growing boy,” Adam countered with a smile.

“While I am an old man who is only getting older?  Is that what you’re saying?”

He shrugged.  “If the boot fits.”

Pa mulled it over for a moment.  “Is it permitted then to go and get you a pillow and blanket?”

“Thanks,” he said as he rose from his chair.  “That would be great.”

A minute later his father returned with the items and handed them to him.  He headed over to check on Little Joe before climbing the stairs.  “He’s sleeping deeply,” the older man said as he caressed his brother’s head.  “I gave him a dose of medicine in his milk.  I doubt he’ll rouse ‘til morning.”

“I’ll sleep in your chair.  It’s more comfortable than mine.”

His father’s eyebrows peaked toward his graying hair.  “Do tell?  Then why is it ‘your’ chair?”

“Blue’s better for my complexion.”

His arm still stung a minute later from where his father had smacked him.

With a stretch and a yawn, Adam went to his designated ‘bed’ and sat down.  The fire flickered, its embers almost spent.  He knew he should toss another log on, but decided he’d do it later.  The ranch house was silent except for the ticking of the hall clock and the sound of Little Joe’s regular breathing.  Adam raised the wick on the lamp by his father’s chair and picked up a book.  He read for a short time, but it wasn’t long before his eyelids began to droop and he was fast asleep.

That lasted until the pounding started on the front door.

Adam jerked awake, his heart beating wildly just as the banging stopped.  He took a moment to calm himself before heading for the door.  Once there, he paused with his hand on the latch to glance over his shoulder at his little brother.  Joe was snoring, so he was still asleep.  As exhausted as their father was, he imagined the older man had slept through the knocking as well.  Turning back, he opened the door and stepped out.  He couldn’t see anyone.

But he could feel someone clawing at his ankle.

Adam looked down and let out a string of words his father would have tarred and feathered him for.

Post-hole Wilson was laying on the porch.

He had a bullet hole in his side.

 

 

SIX

Roy Coffee was a patient man – like how he was patiently learnin’ the ins and outs of law-keepin’ before he decided whether or not he wanted to be a full time sheriff.  He was a badge-wearin’ deputy, but that was kind of like a man puttin’ on a collar and callin’ himself a preacher.  He could take it off any time he wanted.  Bein’ sheriff meant makin’ a commitment to a group of people and swearin’ to protect them no matter what the cost.  He was pretty sure that was what he wanted to do with his life.

He just wasn’t one hundred percent, put your hand on the Bible sure yet.

Tonight was his night to walk what the folks in the settlement called ‘streets’, and so that was what he was doin’, tippin’ his hat as he went and makin’ nice friendly talk with all the nice friendly people. While he was doin’ that, he was keepin’ his eye on the unfriendly types, notin’ what they was doin’ and who they was with.  One pair he was keepin’ watch on when he could was Bush Sears and Pratt Shade.  They was two of Ben Cartwright’s boys.  He’d seen the Sears earlier when he’d been mindin’ his own business,  takin’ the missus out for a soda at the mercantile.  Ben’s hand came into the settlement ridin’ hellbent for leather and went straight to the hardware store.  About a half hour later he came back out with a couple of boxes that he loaded in the wagon.  Then he took off lickety-split.  From the look of what he was carryin’ the Cartwrights must be mendin’ their fences.

Roy chuckled.

Ben sure had some fences to mend with that there city slicker what came to the settlement a year or so back.  He’d seen Stephens today talkin’ to Adam Cartwright.  That was when the missus went to try on a new hat she’d seen in the window of the millinery and he’d stepped outside.  He’d sort of moseyed over toward where they was standin’ – careful to keep out of sight – and taken a listen.  That Adam was a cool one.  He could count on one hand the times when he’d seen Ben’s oldest boy lose his temper.

Sebastian Stephens had managed to move that count to the second hand.

He couldn’t catch all of it, but it sounded like they’d sparred earlier over a business deal and the way they felt about one another was spillin’ over into their free time.  The only thing he overheard that he thought was a mite suspicious, was when the Easterner started talking about how big the Ponderosa was and how easy it would be for someone to get lost on it.  There weren’t no reason for him to say such a thing, not with Ben and the boys goin’ through what they was with Little Joe.  He’d set his lawman’s cap for Stephens at that time.  If the truth were known, that was what he was doin’ now.  He was slowly and surely workin’ his way along the muddy streets toward the city slicker’s high-falutin’ mansion that was set square in the middle of the mud-flat known as Gold Hill to see if he could, well, see anythin’.

Roy shook his head.  If that there Easterner had his way, he’d soon own the ‘Gold’ in the name.

There weren’t too many grand houses in the settlement.  Most of the mines around that had been boom had already gone bust and the money just wasn’t there.  Everyone was hangin’ on waitin’ on that big strike and, in the meantime, gettin’ into trouble on account of they was bored and had nothin’ to do but drink and brawl.  In time Gold Hill would either be a fine town or a ghost town.  He and his wife would just have to wait and see.  Since they didn’t have any little ones, that was all right.  It was different for a man like Ben Cartwright.  He had three fine young sons.  Hoss and Adam, well, they was almost men.  It was the little one he worried about the most.  It was like the Bible said, men were evil unless they chose to do good.

He’d hate to think of anythin’ happenin’ to that young’un.

Roy chuckled as he continued his even stride down the rain-soaked street.  That Little Joe, he was a caution!  There’s be many a time, when he was a little tyke, that Ben brought the boy with him into the barber shop.  Little Joe’d talk up a storm while he was waitin’ for Frank to work his magic on his pa and brothers.  When his Pa got tired of hearin’ it, he’d send him outside with one of his older brothers and the boy would run circles around them.  Smart as a whip, that one, with a mouth just about as sharp at times.  ‘Course, it weren’t easy having those three big Cartwright men to live up to.  It would have been hard for Little Joe even if he wasn’t such a little squirt.

Yep.  The Cartwrights – all of them – were men among men and he was proud to call them his friends.

Roy halted in front of the pie shop, just across from Sebastian Stephen’s trophy house.  The Easterner didn’t know how to speak in a regular voice, he just had to shout and his house did the same.  It was one of them fancy painted types with so many doo-dads and gewgaws dripping from the eaves it made a man dizzy to look at it.

Roy tipped his hat to a man and woman as they passed by, and then slipped into the shadows and headed for the other side of the street.

There was a light on in Stephen’s parlor.  That wasn’t surprising considering the time of day, but it was turned down low, which indicated that the Easterner was either sittin’ contemplatin’ his toes or he wasn’t wantin’ to broadcast he was awake.  It could be that Chinese maid of his – Lou Ling or somethin’ – was working late.  Sebastian Stephens was married but his wife lived in Boston, and that about said it for the marriage.  Beth Riley over at the pie shop said Mrs. Stephens was the delicate type and didn’t care to have her ‘olefactory’ senses assaulted by sweaty cowboys and miners covered in coal dust and such.  She’d been out for the grand unveiling of the house and then gone back East.  The local gossip said the man had been married before.  No one seemed to know what had become of the first wife, but the daughter was dead.

The lawman looked left and right and then crossed the dimly lit space between the street and Stephen’s yard.  The businessman had paid to have one of them citified streetlights put up to keep his place safe since he thought the local constabulary was inept.

That bein’ Robert and him.

Every evenin’ some poor feller had to climb up a long ladder to light that street lamp and then come back at dawn to put it out.  He supposed it made Stephens feel special to have it, like he was a cut above all the other yahoos in the settlement.  It was a sorry thing when a man had to puff his chest out so far.  It usually meant that, in time, he’d top over and have a fall.

Roy eyed the house.  He could see two men moving around in the front room.

He wondered if that time was now.

 

Adam Cartwright stared in disbelief at the wounded man lying on their stoop.  He turned to shout for Hop Sing, but then he remembered Little Joe was asleep on the settee.  The black-haired man inched forward and closed the door behind him, and then bent down and placed his hand on the ranch hand’s chest.  Adam blew out his relief.  Wilson’s chest was rising and falling.  Quickly crossing to the kitchen door,  he opened it and stepped inside – nearly scaring the life out of Hop Sing who let loose with a long string of Cantonese curses.  Once he explained what had happened, the Asian man helped him drag the big man into the kitchen and maneuver him through the hall and into the first floor guest bedroom.

The whole time Little Joe slept away.

It took the pair of them to get Post-hole – whose real name was Jeb – onto the bed so Hop Sing could examine his wound.  Fortunately, the bullet had missed anything vital.  There were signs that Jeb had been beaten as well – a split lip, a bloody gash above his eyes; bruises forming on his chin and chest.  The whole time they moved in silence, undressing the wounded man and cleaning him up, an unspoken question hung between them.

What had happened to Hoss?

When they’d finished, he dropped into a chair and lowered his head into his hands.

Hop Sing shook his shoulder a moment later.  “You want Hop Sing should wake father?”

Pa.

God.

Adam wearily pushed himself up and out of the chair.  “No.  I’ll go.  It’s my responsibility.”

Hop Sing blocked his way.  “Responsibility like holding egg,” he said. “Grasp too tightly and it drips through fingers.  Hold too loosely.  It will drop and break.”

Adam stared at him, uncomprehending for a moment.  Then he smiled.  “You are very wise, my friend.”

“Learn from doing same,” he said.  “Hop Sing go get bandages.  You go get father.”

The black-haired man cast one last look at Jeb Wilson, willing him to regain consciousness . Then he headed for the stairs.

Adam hesitated outside his father’s door, Hop Sing’s words ringing in his ears.  Middle brother was old enough to make his own choices, but these were special circumstances.  He’d thought that, by making Hoss take Post-hole with him, the teenager would be safe.  Obviously that had not been enough, which was a terrifying thought.

With a sigh, he rapped on the door.

His father must have had a sense that something was afoot because he was wearing his robe and slippers when he opened the door.  Pa looked done in.  Guilt layered upon guilt in the young man as he knew he  was only going to add to that.

“Joseph?” his father asked, his tone wary.

“Joe’s fine.  He’s asleep on the settee.  It’s…Hoss.”

“Are he and Jeb late getting back?”

Adam winced.  “Post-hole’s here, Pa.  Hoss…isn’t.”

He saw the light dawn in his father’s eyes.  “What?”

There was no easy way to put it.  “Post-hole was attacked.  He managed to make it back to the house.  Hoss is….  Pa, he’s missing.”

The older man wavered a bit and had to reach out to steady himself against the door.  “Is Wilson alive?”

“He’s in the guest room.  Hop Sing and I tended to him.  He sent someone for the doctor.”

His father was shedding his night clothes.  “Has Jeb been able to say anything?”

“He’s out cold.”  Adam felt nauseous.  He had to swallow before continuing.  “Pa, I….”

The older man had finished buttoning his shirt.  “Later, son,” Pa said as he reached for his vest.  “We can deal with your choice later.  Right now all that matters is finding your brother.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I want you to take Joseph back to his bed.  We have to keep him unaware of this as long as we can.  If he knows something has happened to Hoss, there will be no stopping him.  He’ll try to get out of bed and may hurt himself worse.”

“Pa…Joe can’t get out of bed.”

“I know that!” Pa snapped.  “Do you think I’ve for– ”  His father froze at his horrified look.  Pa reached out and wrapped a hand around the back of his neck – and unusual gesture between them.  “I’m sorry, Adam.  This is not your fault.  It is the fault of whoever is trying to hurt me through my boys.”

“It’s okay, Pa,” he said with a shy smile.

“No.  No, it’s not.  Taking my fear and anger out on you will do no good whatsoever.”  Pa didn’t release him.  He looked him in the eye.  “Adam, listen to me.  For no reason whatsoever are you to go anywhere alone.”

“Pa, I can take care of myself.”

“I imagine that’s what Hoss told you.  Am I right?”  When he said nothing, his father released him and headed for the door.  “Now, please, get your brother and take him up to his room.  If Little Joe wakes, tell him I’ll be up shortly.  I’m going to check on Jeb.”

 

Careful to stick to the shadows, Roy walked the perimeter of Sebastian Stephen’s house.  All the windows had fancy silk shades, so he could only guess at what was happenin’ inside.  He thought there was more than one man with the city slicker.  Not that that was a crime, but it was kind of late for a business meetin’.  A little while back a shade had been pulled aside and someone had peered out, but he couldn’t make out their features.  Sebastian had himself a stable too and he’d taken a look in it. There were five horses in there, but that didn’t mean much.  The Easterner had bought him a number of high-steppin’ fancy horses to pull his carriage around town.  There was only one didn’t fit.  A black with no markings he could see.  It was a powerful horse, bred for silence and speed.

Figurin’ he’d seen just about all he was gonna see, Roy retreated to his post in front of the pie shop to keep watch until Stephens’ lamp went out and he went to bed, or someone else came out.

It was fifteen, maybe twenty minutes later – just about the time he’d started to worry he was gonna nod off – that someone slipped out of the house through the side door and headed for the stable.  The lawman couldn’t see much, just that the man was dressed in dark clothes and had dark hair.  Whoever it was, was already mounted when he left the stable.  He headed for the center of the settlement at an easy lope and then kicked his heels and took off at a quick clip.

Heading straight for the Ponderosa.

 

Ben Cartwright let out a sigh as he looked out of the guest room window and noted the rising light.  When he’d chosen this land to build his ranch house on, he’d taken the view of the mountains and tall pine trees into consideration, but even more so, he’d chosen it with a desire to be free of people.  He and Adam had traveled for so long amidst the noise and chaos of wagon trains – forced to coexist with dogmatic, desperate, and often sick and starving people – that he’d wanted nothing more than to be able to step out of his door in the morning and see no one as he took in a lungful of the crisp, clean mountain air.  Ben shook his head.  He couldn’t count how many times, since the boys had begun to grow, that he’d regretted that choice.  They were twenty miles out from the settlement.  For Marie it had meant at least five hours in a carriage to and back from any social gathering.  For his sons, it meant they were cut off from their friends.  For supplies, it entailed endless trips over endless miles hauling goods – and always with the threat of highwaymen or other unscrupulous men lurking along the way.  In the winter, they were cut off, not only from society, but from aid.  Worst of all, when in need of a physician’s care, it was almost a full day – seven or eight hours – before the doctor could arrive.

Ben ran a hand over his face and sighed.  Eight hours.

His middle boy had been missing for eight hours.

Jeb Wilson had awakened twice during those long anxious hours.  The first time, the older man had been incoherent.  The second, he was better able to speak.  Jeb explained in halting sentences that he and Hoss had been heading back when a shot came out of nowhere.  It hit him and drove him out of the saddle.  Hoss dismounted to help him and that was when they’d been attacked.  There were five men, so they were badly outnumbered; all in black and wearing bandanas over their faces.  Still, even wounded, Jeb had been sure he and Hoss could handle them.  But the blood loss had caught up to him and he’d fallen where he stood, and when one of the men threatened to put a bullet through his head to finish him off, Hoss had surrendered.

Of course, he’d surrendered.

He was Hoss.

The men had tied the teenager’s hands before him, blind-folded him, and ordered him to mount.  Then, they disappeared into the night.

Post-hole Wilson, one of the strongest and best men he knew, had risen to his feet and walked the five miles back to the house to let them know.

Ben rose from his chair.  Moving quietly, he exited the room and closed the door behind him.  His tan coat was by the front door and he shinnied into it before stepping outside.  The sun was just cresting above the mountain peaks, casting a golden glow across the land.  Everything had grown silent in the face of such majesty.  The rancher closed his eyes and drew in that breath of crisp, clean air.  It did nothing to stem the rising terror in his heart, but it did remind him that this was what counted – life, home.

Family.

A moment later a buggy rolled into the yard.  Ben stepped off the porch and went to meet his friend as he exited the vehicle.

“Thank you for coming, Paul.  You must have ridden through the night to get here this early.”

“Actually, I was on my way back from the Jenkins place when your man found me,” the physician explained as he dusted off his coat and pants. “I caught a few hours sleep on their settee after I tended to their little girl.  Ellie’s got a fever.  So I am wide awake and ready for whatever the Cartwrights have to throw at me,” he finished with a wink.

“You don’t know?”

“I assumed the call had to do with Little Joe’s accident.  Your man just said someone was in need of attention.”  Paul’s look darkened.  “No?”

Ben started for the house.  “No.  There’s another patient.  Jeb Wilson.”

The physician’s brows popped.  “That mountain of a man?  What happened to him?”

The weary rancher led the way to the guest bedroom and pushed open the door.  Jeb was lying on the bed, his chest rising and falling in a steady, if rapid rhythm.

His tone was grim.  “He’s been shot.”

“Shot?”

Ben nodded.

He and Paul were of long acquaintance.  His friend sensed there was something else.  As he walked to the bed and laid his bag on the table beside it, Paul asked, “Ben?  What aren’t you telling me?”

He looked once again to the window, noting the vast expanse beyond – a thousand acres and more of it that were his alone.

A thousand acres of emptiness.

“Hoss is missing.”

 

Hoss wrinkled his nose.  He was in a dark place that smelled awful musty.  Whoever had dumped him there hadn’t removed his blindfold so, even if there was a smidgen of light somewheres, he couldn’t see it.  When he’d been on the horse, his hands had been tied in front of him.  Now, they was tied behind his back and the rope was wrapped around some kind of a beam.  The wood was rough and still had the bark on it, so he was guessin’ he was in some kind of a cellar or maybe a mine.  It weren’t all that bad, though it was kind of cold and damp.  The chill from the stone floor was seepin’ through the fabric of his cotton work trousers and givin’ him the shivers.  All in all he’d been in worse places.  The men what took him hadn’t hurt him and, if it had just been him, he probably wouldn’t have had too much to complain about.

But for what they done to Jeb, he wanted to kill them.

The big teen had no idea how long he’d been underground, though he could guess where he was.  He’d paid attention as they rode and was pretty sure his kidnappers had been headin’ toward Gold Hill. They rode about four hours.  He and Jeb had been about two hours north of the house when they was ambushed, so addin’ the two together, that put him about halfway between the ranch and the settlement.  He’d listened as they rode and hadn’t heard any farm animals squawkin’ and mooin’, or people talkin’, so they hadn’t passed any homesteads on the way.  There weren’t no dust in the air, so he didn’t think they’d come close to the desert.  So he was probably bein’ held in one of the old shanty towns that had flared up and gone out fast as a candle in the wind.  He and his brothers had explored an awful lot of them as kids.  Him and Adam more than him and Little Joe.  Hoss’ lips curled with a smile when he thought of his baby brother, but then the smile faded.  If Joe couldn’t ever walk again, he wouldn’t be able to….  Hoss pursed his lips and shook his head.  If that was the case, he’d just have to put Joe on his horse and ride him out there and carry him through whatever mischief the little boy wanted to get into.  Just ‘cause Joe’s legs didn’t work no more, he wasn’t gonna let his little brother miss out on nothin’.  He loved him too much.

He sure hoped Joe was okay.

Hoss stifled a sigh as he straightened his back against the beam and lifted his head and listened.

Nothin’.

He didn’t like the dark much, but he guessed – since he couldn’t see that he was in the dark – it was okay.  Maybe if he could get the blindfold off, well, the sun would just come bustin’ through.  Maybe – just maybe – there was other people bein’ held with him and he wasn’t alone.  The big teen snorted as he rested his head on the rough surface of the beam.  He knew better.  He knew he would have been able to feel the sun through the fabric layered over his eyes, and he knew there weren’t nobody there.

He was alone, in the dark, just like he’d been in those nightmares he’d had when he was a little runt about Joe’s size.

There weren’t nobody but him and Pa and Adam then.  Mama hadn’t come along yet.  She was down in New Orleans married to some other man, livin’ a miserable life and waitin’ on Pa to rescue her.  Pa was kind of careful about who they made friends with and what he and Adam did and where they went.  They didn’t have a lot of friends.  If the truth were told, they had each other and that was about it.  Adam would stay awake long into the night to tell him stories so he wouldn’t be afraid.  Pa said he thought that was part of why Adam started readin’ books – he needed more stories.  Older brother would go from wagon to wagon, beggin’ for a book, and then read it until he had the stories memorized, and then he would tell them to him to put him to sleep.  He did it to cover the sounds too.  People livin’ together a long time get on one another’s last nerve.  Even good people.  Late at night, when they was tired, the people travelin’ with them would start to bicker and fight.  There were always babies cryin’.  Their mamas cried as well when they had to lay them in the earth and leave them along the trail in an unmarked grave.  On top of that there were the sounds of the night: wolves and coyotes; vultures circlin’ over head.

But the worst sound of all was Pa cryin’.

The older man didn’t do it often, and only when he thought they was both asleep.  Pa would get down on his knees and beg the good Lord for mercy.  He’d ask the Lord to watch over him and Adam, and to make sure both of them lived and thrived.  Then Pa would stop and the tears would flow and he’d finish up by tellin’ God that if He was gonna take someone else, it had better be him.

That had scared him more than anythin’ else.

So when he found himself alone in the dark, it always got him thinkin’.  He weren’t afraid of mountain lions or bears or things that went bump in the night.  He was afraid when he woke up he’d still be alone and everyone he loved would be gone.

“Keep ‘em all safe,” the big teen breathed.  “You hear me, God?  You keep my pa and brothers safe ‘til I can be there to protect them.”

“So you’re awake,” a voice said, startling him.

“Yeah, I’m awake.  I been for a good while.”

“You’re a quiet one.  That little brother of yours would have been kickin’ and screamin’ by now.”

So whoever it was knew them.

“You better hope you never try to do nothin’ to Little Joe,” he growled.  “I’ll tear you in half.”

A hand checked the ropes at the back of  the beam and gave his foot a kick.

“Too late,” they sneered.

“What do you mean?”

Someone sat down and scooted a chair forward.  “Took me a long time to find that snake.  Disgusting thing.  I was more than happy to drop it on the kid’s curly head.”

Hoss sat up.  Dadburnit!  Adam had been right.

It was Pratt Shade.

“Why’d you want to go and hurt Little Joe?” he demanded.  “He’s just a kid.”

“Boy.  Girl.  Man.  Woman,” the blond man replied.  “What do I care so long as I get paid.”

Hoss heard a match strike and smelled smoke.

“You get paid for hurtin’ people?”

Pratt snorted.  “Yeah.  I get paid good.”

Hoss drew in a breath.  “Are you gonna hurt me like you hurt Joe and Jeb?”

“Jeb?”

His tone darkened.  “The man you shot.”

“Oh, him.”  The chair shifted again.  “He got in the way.  I was paid to nab you.”

“And do what with me?”

“Don’t know yet.  Haven’t been told.  I’m just supposed to keep you here for now.”

“You like hurtin’ kids?”

There was a second of silence before Pratt replied.  “You ain’t a kid.”

“I’m sixteen.”

“No way.”

“Yeah, I’m big for my age.  I know it.  But even if I ain’t a kid, you hurt Little Joe.  He’s only ten.”

The man rose.  There was a touch of remorse in the Pratt’s voice when he spoke.  “My employer wanted to send a message.”

“Joe cain’t walk.”

“What?”

“Little Joe.  He hurt one of them verta things in his back.  He cain’t walk.”

Pratt let out a sigh.  “Sorry to hear that.  That kid can be a real pain, but he’s got spunk.”

Hoss fought to control his temper.  It wasn’t going to do him any good to get a mad on – not ‘til he was free at least.

“So, it’s just gonna be you and me sittin’ here, shootin’ the breeze ‘til someone gives you another order?” he asked.

The blond man took a few steps.  “Nope.”

“Nope?”

“Just you, kid.  I gotta go tell the man who pays me you’re awake.”

Hoss’ heart pounded as the man’s footsteps receded, leaving him alone.  So he wasn’t in a cellar.  Pratt would have reached the ladder by now.  He must be in one of the old mines.

“Hey!  You gonna leave me here alone?”

The big teen heard a ‘click’ and then a door opened in the distance.

“Nah,” the distant voice said as the door slammed shut.  “You got the rats for company.”

A moment later everything was silent.

 

Ben Cartwright opened the door and stepped onto the porch.  His heart constricted when he saw Adam standing by the corral where Little Joe had been injured.  His son was deep in thought.  He took a step toward him but halted as one of the older wranglers who had been in the barn – a man known as ‘Big Henry’ since he was small and rangy – saw the boy and walked over to him.  He knew it chafed on his oldest son to constantly have someone with him, but – so far – Adam had done it for him.  He didn’t know what he would do if all three of his boys were hurt or kidnapped!  It was part of the reason he kept them so close.  The dream of the young man he had been was to build his Ponderosa and become a cattle baron and timber king.  So great had been his desire and – if he was honest – his ego, that he had scarcely considered the consequences to those he loved.  His success made his sons targets for avaricious, unscrupulous men whose ‘dream’ was to live off of other people’s hard-earned money.

“Mistah Ben not eat.  Bring breakfast out to him,” a soft voice said.

He turned to find Hop Sing standing near the porch table.  There was a tray with sandwiches and a pot of coffee on it.

Before he could speak the Asian man pulled a slip of paper out of his pocket and waved it in the air.  “Mistah Ben not tell Hop Sing he not hungry.  Doctor leave prescription.  You eat!”

Paul had left a short time before to make his rounds.  He was due back later to look in on Joseph who had still not awakened.  He was beginning to worry that he had given the boy too much of his medication, but his old friend said to give it a few more hours.  Joseph was, most likely, exhausted.  He also added that the more the boy slept, the quicker he would heal.

Ben’s lips curled with amusement.  “Paul didn’t actually write a prescription, did he?”

“Hop Sing frame it.  Use it many times!”

“All right, old friend.,” he laughed as he walked to the table.  Ben looked at the tray and then back to his cook.  “There are quite a few sandwiches here.”

“Check paper.  Have number one son’s name on it too.”

Indeed it did.

Ben raised a hand to catch his oldest son’s attention, and called him over.  He handed Adam the paper when he arrived and watched as what Paul had written registered on his young face.

“The doctor’s always right, son,” he said when he sensed Adam would demure.

The boy glanced at Hop Sing and then turned back to him.  “Let me finish instructing Henry and then I’ll join you.  All right?”

“Certainly, son.  I’ll wait for you.”

A few minutes later the two of them were seated at the outside table with napkins on their laps and full plates in front of them.  Neither of them had an appetite, but they knew they had to eat.  He was slowly nibbling the corner of a sandwich while Adam sat pulling his apart. The boy shoved the meat aside as if his stomach couldn’t take it and took a bite of the bread.  Then he looked at him.

“No,” Ben said, his tone gentle.

His son’s black brows peaked.  “How do you know what I’m going to ask?”

“I know because I know you.  I’m sorry, son, but you’re not going after your brother.  For one thing, it’s too dangerous, and for the other, I need you here.”

“But, Pa –”

“No, ‘but, Pa’. The answer is no.”

Adam slammed his hand down on the table’s surface.  “I’m not a child to be ordered around anymore!” he declared.  “Pa, I’m twenty-two….”

“Yes, and that is a fine old age to boss a cattle drive, but not one to take off into a known danger.”  He shook his head.  “You don’t have the experience of men that I do, Adam.”

“Don’t I?  Pa, I gained my experience on the trail west just like you did.  I learned it wasn’t safe to show your back or close your eyes for even two seconds.  Stealing, taking – killing for gain was a way of life.  There was no one you could trust because, friend or foe, when the food ran out they would kill you for what you had.”  His son’s temper flared as he warmed to his subject.  “By the time I was Joe’s age, I had seen it all – birth, death, loss, plague, starvation.  I lost friends – too many friends – and watched their mothers and fathers either shrivel up or wither away with the loss.”  His son stopped, his nostrils flaring.  “Pa, I was a man by the time I was seven and I’ve been a man ever since.  I am going to search for Hoss and there’s nothing you can say that will stop me.”

Ben was taken aback.  He sat a moment, considering.

“I had no idea you had been left so – ”

“Jaded?”

He shook his head.  “Wounded, boy.  Wounded.”

Tears kissed his son’s whiskey-brown eyes.  “I had to learn to look out for my own, Pa.  I need to do that now.  I need to find Hoss.”  Adam paused.  “Roy’s formed a search party.  Bush Sears was in the settlement picking up supplies.  He came back to tell us.  Henry and I are riding into Gold Hill to join it.”

“You’ve made up your mind.”

“I have.”

Ben drew in a calming breath and let it out slowly.  His tone was wistful.

“I wish I could go with you.”

“I know you do, Pa,” his son said as he pushed his plate away.  “But you have to be here for Little Joe.”

The rancher placed his napkin on the table and rose.  “Yes, and I had better go check on that boy now.  He’d going to sleep the day away.”

Ben had no more headed for the door when it burst open.  “Mistah Ben!  Mistah Adam!  Little Joe not in his bed!”

The two of them stood there with their mouths hanging open.

“You not hear Hop Sing?  Number three son not in bed!”

No one could have called which of them made it up the stairs first.

It was dead heat.

Little Joe’s door was standing wide open.  So was his window.  The linen curtains his wife had chosen nearly twelve years before blew into the boy’s empty room.  It felt foolish – and Adam beat him to it – but they even looked under the bed to make sure Joseph had not fallen and rolled there, or had regained the use of his legs and was hiding to surprise them.

Ben walked over to his son’s bed and sat heavily on it.  He looked at Adam and Hop Sing.

“How?”

Adam was looking out the window.  “They had to take him out this way, Pa.”  The fear in his son’s voice said what he didn’t.  Little Joe’s injury was precarious – a fall, someone handling the boy wrong, and his fracture could turn into a break.  His eldest turned back into the room, his rage barely contained.  “I’m going to kill them!”

He tended to agree.

Ben’s first impulse had been to climb out of the window and see if he could follow their trail.  Instead, the older man sat on the bed thinking. There had to be a pattern – a clue as to what was happening.  It all started when Little Joe ran away, and yes, he knew about the incident even though his sons had conspired to keep it from him.  Henry told him that Little Joe was uncomfortable around Bush Sears and Pratt Shade.  The pair seemed to consider the boy a nuisance.  He’d had words with them, making certain it would not happen again, and then let it go.  Then came Little Joe’s accident.  Pratt had been speaking with the boy before it happened, and later showed Hoss the snake that had spooked the horses.  And Sears had returned today just before Joseph vanished.

“Pa?”

He held up a hand.  He needed time.

Then there was Sebastian Stephens.  Ben knew the man hated him and would do anything to make him forfeit the contracts he had won fair and square.  Would the Easterner have the bullocks to kidnap his boys to accomplish this?  Was he that petty a man?  Could Stephens be in league with Bush and Pratt?  Did the pair work for him?

“Pa!”

He looked at Adam.  His son was holding out a folded piece of paper.

“What is that?”

“I just found it,” he replied.  “Tucked under Marie’s portrait.”

Ben glanced at the image of his beautiful wife and whispered his apologies for not caring for their young son as he’d promised before responding.

“Did you read it?

The boy was slightly green.  He nodded.

“What does it say?”

Adam cleared his throat.  “I have your children.  You took mine, so now, I have taken yours.  As a great man once said, revenge is a dish that must be eaten cold.”

Ben swallowed hard.  “Let me see it, Adam.”

His son didn’t move.  He was staring at the lines written on the page.  “It’s not addressed to you, Pa.”

“Not addressed to me?”  Ben rose and took a step toward him.  “Then…who?”

His eldest looked up and met his puzzled gaze.

“It’s for Hop Sing.”

 

 

SEVEN

Hoss jerked awake at the sound of a door opening somewhere in the distance.  He listened as the footsteps grew closer.  A second door opened, this one closer to him and the footsteps continued.  Then they stopped and light struck his blindfolded eyes.  It crept through the cloth that covered them and made him squint.  Several pounding heartbeats later a second set of footsteps sounded along the corridor.

When they stopped, a gruff voice asked, “In here?”

“Yeah, put him with the other one.”  The man moved.  Hoss felt a boot brush his leg.  “Brought you some company, kid.”

There were muffled sounds, like someone shouting through a gag.  Hoss felt a pair of boots connect hard with his leg on their way past.  The man cursed as he dropped someone to the floor a few feet away.

“Shut up, kid,” the man ordered.  “Or I’ll shut you up for good.”

There was the sound of a slap.  The talking stopped.  The light and two pair of footsteps receded.

Then, there was silence.

Except that, whoever the man had left behind, had started cryin’.  He was guessin’ by the sound that they was pretty young.

“Hey,” Hoss said, “hey!”.  When there was no response, he said it louder.  “Hey!  Now, you cut that out, you hear?”

The snifflin’ came faster and then stopped.  It was followed by a little sigh.

“You’re okay,” the big teen said.  “You ain’t alone.  I’m here.”

There was another more desperate sound, like the cry of a wounded puppy.

“I know it’s scary in here.  I ain’t too fond of the dark myself.  But it’s okay.  At least we got each other.”

There was a new sound, kind of like a dog scratchin’ at the door.  Whoever his new cell mate was, they was draggin’ themselves across the stone floor to his side.  They was breathin’ real hard while they did it.  Hoss breathed right along with them, willin’ them on.  It must have took a good five minutes afore he felt somethin’ bump up against his thigh.  Then somethin’ happened that confused him.  A pair of hands – dirty and bound together from elbow to wrist – reached up to touch his face.

“Hmrs?” a muffled voice asked.

He was surprised by the size of the fingers touchin’ his chin.  They was awful small.  He couldn’t believe it, but them goldarn varmints had kidnapped some little kid and brung him here to keep his folks from findin’ him!

“It’s okay,” he said again.  “I may not look like much right now, but I promise I’ll get us out of here.”  Hoss gulped.

Somehow, he thought.

The kid sighed real loud and then started gruntin’.  Them little fingers of his gripped his shirt and used it to pull him up higher.  For a minute Hoss thought maybe the kid had gone crazy, but then he realized what he was aimin’ for.  The kid turned his back to him and leaned in.  Hoss felt the knot of a gag press against his lips.

It tickled.

Whoever it was, they sure had a lot of hair.  That was a good thing cause it left some wiggle room between the gag and the back of the kid’s skull.  As the big teen gripped the knot with his teeth and began to pull down, the kid reached up to try to help.  Those varmints had done tied the ropes so tight, all the kid could do was move his fingers.  It took some doin’, and about ten minutes, but finally – together – they managed to loosen the knot enough that the gag fell down around the kid’s neck.  A second later the kid spit something out.  Probably a wad of cloth.  He heard ‘em gag and swallow several times.

“Hey,” the big teen said after a few heartbeats, “you okay?  You ain’t hurt yourself or nothin’?”

“Of course….”  The kid cleared his throat.  “Of course, I’m okay, you big galoot!  What took you so long?”

Hoss was stunned into silence.  For a heartbeat or two.

“Little Joe?”

“Well, I ain’t the man in the iron mask!” his little brother snapped.  Little Joe’s bravado faded away very quickly as his brother’s fingers took hold of his shirt again.  “It is you, Hoss?  Isn’t it?  I can’t see you.”

“Goldarnit, little brother!  What’re you doin’ down here?”  Hoss paused as the full implications of his brother bein’ at his side sunk in.  “What are you doin’ out of bed?  Little Joe!  Can you walk?”

His brother grunted as he drew closer to him.  “No.  It was Bush Sears. He took me out of my bed.”  He sniffed again.  “I still…. I still can’t feel my legs, Hoss.”

That was stupid.  Makin’ him think about it.

Well, in for a penny.

“Did he hurt you, Little Joe?  Is your back painin’ you?”

There was silence.

“Joe?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Damn him,” he cursed.  “Little Joe?”

“Yeah?”

“Do Pa and Adam know you’re gone?”

“I don’t know.”  Joe’s voice quavered.  “I was sleepin’ on the settee last I knew.  Pa gave me one of those powders.  I….  I couldn’t wake up.  I thought….”  His little brother squeezed in even closer.  “I thought I was dreaming.”  There was a pause.  His brother’s voice grew even smaller.  “Hoss, where are we?  What are they gonna do with us?”

If there was one thing Bush Sears was gonna burn in Hell for eternity for, it was the fact that his hands were tied and he couldn’t hold his brother!

“I don’t know, Little Joe,” Hoss replied, careful to keep his tone calm.  “I guess they just want to keep us somewhere for a while where Pa and Adam cain’t find us.”

“Are they gonna give us back?”

The big teen winced.  He hoped he didn’t burn in Hell for lyin’.  “Sure thing, Little Joe.  They’ll give us back once Pa does what they want.”

“What do they want?”

He had to do somethin’ to get the kid’s mind off of the predicament they were in.  “Little Joe?”

“Yeah.”

“You can wiggle them skinny little fingers of yours, right?”

“My arms are tied together.”

“But I felt them on my face.  You can wiggle the tips.”

“I can…just.  What do you want me to do with ‘em?”

Hoss was thinkin’.  He could feel some play in the ropes that bound him to the beam.  He’d been workin’ them while he was alone in the dark before Little Joe showed up.  The rope felt kind of old and he wasn’t sure – if he could get the right angle on it – that he couldn’t snap it.  Maybe Joe could reach around him and….

“Little Joe?”

“Yeah?”

“Can you get your arms behind me?”

There was a soft grunt as he tried.  “Kind of.”

He could ‘hear’ the sound of his brother’s teeth pressed into his lip.  “It hurts, don’t it?”

There was a pause.  “Yeah.”

“Little Joe, now you listen to me.  I don’t want you doin’ nothin’ that puts no strain on your back.  You hear?  But see if you can pull yourself up real close to me and get your fingers under the rope that’s ‘round my wrists.  Do you think you can do that?”

There were more grunts.  Then Joe let out a cry.

“Joseph, you stop now!”

His brother gulped in air before replying.  “But I gotta get you lose.”

“You don’t gotta do nothin’ but take care of yourself, little brother.  Those bad men….”  He sucked in his anger.  “They shouldn’t ought to have moved you.”

Joe’s voice was pinched.  “I know.”

“You gotta take care of yourself.”

A sigh.  “I know.  But….”

“No buts.”

“But the end of the rope is hanging down.  I can feel it.  Maybe if I pull it?”

His brother’s words were a ray of hope.  Had he already managed to work the end free?

“Can you do it without hurtin’ yourself?”

“Sure…well…it won’t hurt…much.”  Little Joe started and then he stopped.

“Joe?”

“Hoss, are we gonna die here?”

He could hear it in his brother’s voice.  Little Joe was beginning to panic.  “Joseph, if you aren’t tellin’ me the truth.  If you’re hurtin’ your back more….”

“I am, Hoss.  I am telling the truth.  I promise.”

“Okay.  Okay.  Give it a try then.  But don’t you push yourself!”

He could only imagine his brother’s position.  Little Joe’s skinny legs were stretched out beside his.  The boy had to have his torso twisted like a pretzel for him to reach around behind and grab the rope.  All the big teen could do as his ten-year-old brother grunted and gasped was pray that the Doc was wrong and that Little Joe’s verta-whatever wasn’t really cracked.

Hoss had vision of hearing a ‘snap’ in the dark and his baby brother goin’ limp as a rag doll.

“I got hold of it, Hoss!”

“Keep your voice down, Little Joe.  We don’t know if anyone’s out there.”

“Sorry,” he whispered.  “Sorry.  I got it.”

“Can you pull on it?”  He felt a tug.  “Anything happenin’?  Joe?”  Hoss waited.  “Little Joe, you answer me.  I can hear them teeth of yours bitin’ into your lip again.”

“I’m…okay, Hoss,” Joe gasped.  “I really want to….”

“You stop now if it’s too bad.”

“But if I stop I can’t….”  A little sob escaped him.  “Hoss, I really want to feel your arms around me.”

The big teen closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the beam as he fought for control.  He was gonna need that there light to come back so he could see to pick up the pieces of his heart and put them back together.

“I know you do, Little Joe,” he said, fightin’ back his own tears.  “But I want you to walk again, and –”

For a second, he couldn’t believe it.  Joe had tugged again and his hands were free!  Hoss dragged his blindfold down around his neck and then began to rub them together to bring back the circulation.  After a moment, he realized Little Joe hadn’t moved.  He’d kind of expected the kid to fling himself into his arms the moment he was….

Damn.

Hoss reached out with one of his hands and found Joe’s leg.  He moved up from there to the boy’s face.

Tears were streamin’ down it.

“Oh, punkin….”

Hoss had been a long time without moving, but the physical pain he felt in his muscles as he pushed them into action was as nothing compared to the soul-deep pain that pierced his heart.  The big teen slipped an arm around his little brother’s skinny shoulders and gently lifted him onto his lap and then circled him with his arms.

The only sounds in the abandoned mine were that of a slow drip of water and two heartbeats joined as one.

 

Hop Sing was devastated – and completely at a loss.

The Asian man sat on Marie’s striped settee.  He had the note in his hand and stared at it as if it were a snake that would bite him.

“You have no idea what this is about?” Ben asked, slightly exasperated.  He felt bad for grilling his friend, but the stakes were too high to go gently.  The note had said nothing about ransom or any intention to return his boys.  In fact, it was terrifying in its simplicity.  He pointed toward the folded piece of paper.  “No idea what the note means?”

“Mistah Ben,” his cook began, his voice trembling.  “Hop Sing only wish he did.  He never take any man’s children.  He never would.”

“Do you have any enemies that you know of?” Adam tried.  “Anyone who might want to…use Joe and Hoss against you?”

He shook his head.  “No enemies.  Hop Sing friend of every man.”

It was true, though there were plenty of bigoted white men in the area who did not reciprocate that feeling.

A chill snaked down his spine as Ben looked at his oldest son.  “Adam, it’s clear you are a target as well.  Whoever this is simply hasn’t found the opportunity to…take you yet.”

“I’d be harder to take, Pa, and they know it.  I’m a man.  Hoss and Little Joe are just boys.  These cowards….”  His son’s jaw clenched.  “If they hurt…. I’ll kill them, Pa.  I’ll just….kill them.”

They’d talked over sending for Robert or Roy, but there was even less the lawmen could do than they themselves.  There was no trail to follow.  Whoever had taken Joseph had been expert at masking their tracks, and Hoss…  Hoss had simply disappeared.

“Hop Sing, show me the note again,” Adam said as he reached out.  He studied it a moment, “Everyone knows that you work for us, Hop Sing.  But who would know you well enough to know that you consider the three of us your children?”

The Asian man blushed.  “Hop Sing would never presume…”

The rancher brought his hand down on his friend’s shoulder.  “It’s all right, old friend.  We consider you family as well.”

“Only Hop Ling and honorable brothers and sisters know this one so well,” their cook said.  “Perhaps honorable cousins who come to visit.  No one else.”

“I think that’s an important clue, Pa,” his eldest insisted.  “Whoever took Hoss and Little Joe has to know Hop Sing, or know someone connected to him.  How else would they know that he was anything other than a hired hand?  Or that hurting us would hurt him?”

“That’s all well and good, Adam, but it doesn’t get us one step closer to figuring out who took your brothers or where they are holding them.”  Ben rubbed his forehead.  He had developed a whopper of a headache.  “Joseph isn’t well.  He needs to be home in his bed, resting and healing.  If he loses the ability to walk because of this –”

A small moan escaped the man on the settee.

Ben apologized.  “I’m sorry, Hop Sing.”

“Mistah Ben right,” their cook admitted with a sigh.  “All of this Hop Sing’s fault.”

“As I told Adam earlier, this is no one’s ‘fault’ except the evil men who have perpetuated the crime.  Do you understand?”

The Asian man nodded and then dropped his head, unable to meet his eyes.

“So what do we do, Pa?” Adam asked.

Ben let out a sigh.  “Have any of the men come back yet?”  He’d sent a dozen hands out in every direction to look for signs of Joseph’s kidnappers that he might have missed.

Adam walked to the door and opened it.  “Not yet.”

 

It was decided they would go into Gold Hill at the first opportunity.  It didn’t take much time to issue the needed orders to keep the ranch running.  He had good men and they knew what to do.  By the time they reached the settlement the blinds were being raised, the bank was opening, and there were people milling about.  He and Adam were mounted.  Hop Sing followed in a wagon.  Together, the three of them were going to the jail to fill Robert Olin and Roy Coffee in on what had happened and request a discreet search party be formed to search for his missing sons.  Since there had been no ransom demand – and no command not to inform the law – Ben considered it a prudent thing to do.

The odds were, whoever had his boys, had no intention of returning them.

“Pa?”

He looked at his son.  Adam had already dismounted and was tossing his reins over the post.

“Yes?” he asked as he did the same.

The boy was chagrinned.  “I hate to ask, but do you think Hop Sing is telling us the whole truth?”

Ben looked back in the direction they had come.  He’d been as sympathetic as he could be, but his sons lives were at stake.  He had grilled Hop Sing late into the night and then continued to think about his cook’s replies long after he’d gone to bed.  Always, his answer was the same.  He had no idea who would hate him enough to threaten the lives of the two – Ben’s gaze flicked to his eldest – of the three boys he loved and had helped to rear as if they were his own.

“Son, we’ve both known Hop Sing for over ten years now.  You know the kind of man he is.”

“I do, Pa.  But I also know he is a man, and men have secrets.  Hop Sing’s what, four or five years younger than you?”

Ben nodded.

“So, he’s in his mid-forties. That means he was in his early thirties when you hired him.”  Adam paused.  “That’s a lot of life to live.  How much do we really know about him?”

The rancher had to admit there wasn’t much.  He took a man as he found him and didn’t ask a lot of questions, believing that the past was the past and everyone had a right to a new start – especially in the West.

“I know he lived in Yerba Buena before he came to us,” he said.  “I believe he arrived there or somewhere close by when he emigrated from China.  He’s spoken of a school he attended in the area where he learned the culinary arts, as well as an apothecary shop he worked in where he specialized in Chinese medicine.”

“But what made him leave Yerba Buena?  Do you know?”

Ben shrugged.  “I didn’t ask.”

Adam hesitated.  “I understand that, Pa, and I respect it.  As I respect Hop Sing.  But there’s so much we don’t know.  He would have been old enough by then – more than old enough – to have his own family.  The note does mention children.”

“But not Hop Sing’s children.  The children mentioned in the note, Adam, belong to whoever has taken your brothers.”

“It accuses Hop Sing of having ‘taken’ them.”

“I know.”  Ben sighed.  “But we both know he would never do such a thing.  And even if he had, where are they?  He came to me with no children or  wife.  No, Adam, I think the note is purposefully misleading.”

“So what do you think it means?”

The rancher shook his head.  “I have no idea.”

“Hey, there, Ben.  Adam,” a cheerful voice called out.  “What brings you two in so early?”

Ben turned to greet his friend.  “Good morning, Roy.  We’ve come to see Robert.”

Roy shook his head.  “Fraid you can’t, Ben.  Robert rode out last night.  Seems someone found a body out by one of the old diggin’s.  He went to fetch it in.”  The deputy eyed the sky.  “Probably won’t make it ‘til noon.  Maybe later.”

“Any idea who it was?”

“Nope.  Sounds like some drunk who landed in the wrong spot.”  The lawman’s sharp gaze moved from him to Adam and back.  “Little Joe ain’t worse, is he?  I saw the Doc headin’ for his office.”  When neither of them said anything, Roy tried again.  “Ben?”

“Son, will you keep an eye out for Hop Sing?  Bring him in when he gets here.  In the meantime I’ll fill Roy in on what’s happened.”

“Sure thing, Pa.”

Roy’s gaze narrowed.  “Hop Sing’s comin’ in too?  Ben, what’s this about?”

“I’d like to talk in your office, Roy.  You never know who’s listening.”  As the lawman unhooked his key ring from his belt, Ben turned back to his son.  “Adam, you stay close.  Don’t wander off.”

His eldest son’s shoulders rose and fell with a suppressed sigh.  He moved to the bench that fronted Robert Olin’s office and sat down.  “I’ll sit right here and wait like a good boy, Pa.”  The last was said with a half-smile.

Ben nodded.  “Thank you.  Two sons missing is more than enough to worry about.”

 

Adam stretched his legs out so he could rest them on the porch rail of the jail.  It was a crisp, late September day.  The air was still and the dust low and altogether it wasn’t unpleasant to sit on a wooden bench outside of the sheriff’s office and watch the world go by.

Or it would have been pleasant had his brothers not been missing.

He and Pa had discussed their shared guilt on the way in. The fact that someone – most likely Sears or Pratt – had broken into the house and snatched Little Joe right out from under their noses mortified them both, as did the fact that they had hired the two men in the first place.  He and Pa were self-proclaimed protectors; his father of them all, and him, of his younger brothers.  He’d failed in his duty and it rankled like a dead fish too long in the sun.  He’d failed.  He’d let both Hoss and Little Joe down, but Joe most of all.  Hoss had made a choice and, while it proved to be a less than wise one, he’d removed himself from his big brother’s protection.

For God’s sake!  Little Joe had been asleep in his room!

“Good morning, Adam.  You and your father are in early.”

He’d been so caught in his own thoughts that he’d missed the fact that one of the businessmen he’d met with had stopped on the boardwalk and was staring at him.

“Sorry, Mister Chase,” he said as he lowered his legs.  “I was lost in my thoughts.  Pa had some business with the sheriff, so we came in before he could go out on his rounds.”

Philip Chase let out a sigh – a slightly infuriated one.  “I wish my business was so pleasant,” he said, a sour look on his face.

Adam chuckled.  “I take it you’re meeting with Sebastian Stephens?”

“Yes, more mining business.  I swear, that man won’t be happy until he owns every last enterprise in the territory!”

“Is he trying to buy you out?”

“Ruin me.  But I won’t let him.”

Adam leaned forward.  “What’s he done?”

“Spread rumors that I can’t pay my men; that the mine is failing.”  Philip scowled.  “Told my creditors I can’t pay them either.”

“Are you the only one he’s done this with?”

“There are a few others.  We all own small mines, or small spreads of timber.  Nothing like your father’s holdings.”  Chase paused.  “Ben hasn’t received any threats, has he?”

‘Not that kind of threats’, he thought.

“No.”

“That’s good to hear.”  Philip tipped his hat.  “Well, I best be on my way.  I’m having breakfast with the snake at the hotel.  Maybe he’ll swallow an egg whole and choke.”

Chase’s remark brought a smile to Adam’s face, but it didn’t remain on his lips long.

As the businessman headed for the hotel, a wagon rolled into town.  The black-haired man recognized it instantly as their supply wagon.  Hop Sing was in the driver’s seat.  Adam watched the Asian man skillfully pull the wagon up in front of the feed store, disembark, and head inside.  Since they were in town anyway, their cook was going to pick up a few supplies.

No matter what, life went on.

“Adam, have you seen Hop Sing yet?”

He turned to find his father standing in the doorway.  “He just rolled in.”

The older man looked.  “I want you to join us then.  I’m sure he’ll be along in a minute.”

 

Ben took his seat again and waited until Adam did the same.  Roy Coffee leaned on the edge of Robert Olin’s desk.  He still looked slightly stunned.

Which was just the way he felt.

“So, let me get this straight,” Roy said. “Both Hoss and Little Joe are missin’?  And you ain’t got a clue who took ‘em or why other than suspectin’ those two varmints – Pratt and Shade  – was involved somehow?”

He hadn’t shown Roy the note yet.  He’d been waiting on Hop Sing.  Ben considered it a moment and then reached inside his pocket and pulled it out.  There was no way of knowing how long the Asian man would be.  This way the three of them could leave the settlement as soon as they were done with Roy.

He handed the note to lawman without a word.

Roy read it once, and then twice – and then a third time before he looked up.

“You got any idea what this means, Ben?”

He shook his head.

“Does Hop Sing?”

Again, ‘no’.

“You recognize the handwritin’ at all?”

He hadn’t thought about that.  Ben took the note again.  He drew a steadying breath as he perused it.  “Sadly, no.”

“You said Hoss went missin’ while he was out ridin’ fence with Posthole and Wilson got hurt.  How’s he doin’?”

They’d moved Jeb to the bunkhouse that morning at his insistence;  “Jeb’s going to be all right,” he replied.

“Shot him, huh?”

“That was the only way they could take Jeb down,” Adam remarked, his tone clearly impatient with Roy’s thought processes.

“I know, son.  Don’t get your nose out of joint…”

Adam was up and on his feet.  “What are we doing here?” he demanded.  “Why aren’t we out there looking for my brothers?  What good does it do sitting here chatting like church women at a social when at any moment whoever took Hoss and Little Joe could kill them.  For all we know, they might already be dead!”

His son paled.

The silence in the room was deafening.

Adam fell heavily into his chair.  “Sorry, Pa.”

“Son.”

It was Roy, not him.

Adam’s blazing amber eyes shot to the lawman.

“I know you’re worried about your brothers.  Your pa and me, we’re worried about them too.  Why don’t you tell me where we should start lookin’?  You tell me, and I’ll raise a search party and light out right now.”  When his son said nothing, Roy continued.  “The truth is, son, we just don’t have enough to go on.  You said there weren’t no tracks you could find leadin’ off the Ponderosa and you didn’t find nothin’ at the place where Hoss disappeared.  All we got right now is jawin’ and I’m sorry to admit it.”

Adam was silent a moment.  “I can’t do…nothing.  I have to do something.”

“Son….”

Adam’s keen eyes bore into him.  “Pa., I’ll go crazy if I don’t.  I know you’re worried about someone taking me too, but I’m twenty-two and you can’t stop me if I decide to go look for my brothers.”

He was silent a moment.  “No, I can’t.  But I can ask you not to go alone.”

“How about I come with you?” Roy asked.

“Olin’s away.  Don’t you have to be here?” Adam asked.

“I’ll send one of the boys for another deputy.  Ain’t much to do but stop saloon brawls and such.  You give me an hour.  I’ll raise some men and then we’ll head out.  That sound all right?”

Adam nodded as he rose to his feet.  “I’m going to get some fresh air…”  The boy’s gaze shot to him.  “Unless I need your permission for that too.”

His son’s words were insolent.  His tone disrespectful.

Ben decided to ignore it – this time.

“See if you can find Hop Sing.  He should have finished up by now.”

“Okay.  Be back shortly.”

Ben waited until he heard the door close to let out the breath he’d drawn.

“The boy’s right upset, Ben.  He don’t mean anythin’ by it.  I imagine he’s feelin’ guilty that he’s all right and his little brothers…well….”

“It’s Joseph I’m the most concerned about,” he admitted.  “Under most circumstances, Hoss can take care of himself.  Little Joe, with his injuries….”  As he paused a rage, deep-rooted in righteous anger sought to consume him.  “With God as my witness, Roy, if I find the men who did this and what they have done causes that boy to never walk again, I’ll….”

Roy was watching him.  “Do what?  Kill them?”

Ben didn’t answer, because at that moment the door to the jail flew open and his eldest burst in.

“Pa!” Adam exclaimed.  “Pa!”

Ben went to meet him.

“Hop Sing’s gone.”

 

 

EIGHT

As Ben Cartwright and his son sat down to talk with Roy Coffee, Hop Sing stood before the counter of the feed store.  The Asian man had glanced out the window earlier and seen Adam sitting on the sheriff’s porch, and then watched him go inside.  As soon as he completed his tasks he would join them, though he knew not what good it would do.

What had he done?

Who had he offended?

Who had taken his sons, and who did they believe he had taken?

Such thoughts swam round in his mind like golden fish in a pond.  They churned and turned as if a great blue heron peered down at them through the water.  Golden fish meant happiness and brought wealth and prosperity.  The great heron, with its giant wings spread wide, heralded death.

Whose death?  Mistah Hoss?  Little Joe?

Mistah Ben looked at him with eyes of sympathy, but Mistah Adam’s eyes held a suspicion that he did not tell the truth.  He would not lie.  Concealing the truth was like wearing embroidered clothes and traveling at night.  All men could see.

If Mistah Adam could see into his heart, he would see it was breaking.

“Hop Sing.  Did you hear what I said?”

The Asian man looked up.  “Sorry, no hear,” he admitted.

“You’re a million miles away today,” the proprietor sighed.  “I said, we just got in a new shipment of sugar.  You want one of the boys to fetch it for you so you can finish out your list?”

“That be okay,” he said.  “Have time for boy to fetch, then Hop Sing must go.”

“Is Ben waiting on you?  I saw him come into the settlement with Adam earlier.”

He nodded.  “Yes.  Mister Cartwright expect me soon.”

“I saw them go into the office with Roy.”  The store owner lifted an eyebrow.  “Anything wrong?”

Hop Sing blinked.  His sons were missing.  His life was ended.

“Nothing wrong.”

“I…see.  Well, anyway, it’ll take about twenty minutes.  Jake has to go down to the warehouse.”

“Hop Sing go tell Mister Cartwright then.  Let him know.”

“Good enough!  I assume Ben’s gonna settle up the account before you leave?”

“I send Mister Cartwright in.  You ask him.”

“Okay.  Okay!  No need to get testy.”  As he turned his back, Hop Sing heard the man mutter under his breath.  “Uppity Chink!”

He ignored him.  The Asian man was used to such insults.  They fell as rain on a man such as him whose skin was not white.  Long ago he had learned a nut is hard to crack because its skin is tough.  When he was a young man he did not know this.  He had been like the peach whose skin is broken with the barest touch.

“Honorable Hop Sing, this one is pleased to see you today,” a soft voice said.

The Asian man turned.  In spite of his broken heart, he smiled.  He had learned that long ago as well.  A smile could heal where medicine could not.

“Honorable Lu Lin,” he said with a bow.  “It is good to see you as well.”

“You have come for supplies?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Lu Lin see honorable Mister Cartwright and son at the jail.”  The young woman let out a little sigh.  “Honorable son most handsome.”

His smile widened.  “Honorable Lu Lin most beautiful,” he said.

She looked back toward the door.  “Such a one as he does not see one such as me.”

Hop Sing touched her arm.  “You are wrong.  To Mister Cartwright’s number one son, no one is invisible.”  The Asian man paused as he noted something.  Normally Lu Lin, who worked in the house of Sebastian Stephens, wore her hair up and held in place with ruby-studded combs given to her by her honorable mother.  Today her hair was down; the thick black waves pulled close to her face to conceal a dark smudge near her ear.  “Lu Lin.  What is this?” he asked as he reached for it.

The young woman was a child compared to him and considered him as a father.  She had no one and nothing in this world but a dishonorable brother who worked for the dishonorable Easterner Sebastian Stephens as gardener and driver.  Her brother, Lu Yin, was young and foolish.  Like his name, he was interested in money and rode the tiger.

Her hand darted to her cheek as she took a step back.  “It is nothing, Honorable Hop Sing.  This one fell while carrying dishes down the stairs.”

“Then why do you hide the bruise?” he asked patiently.

Her dark eyes darted to his face.  Then she looked down.

“Who did this to you?”

“What do you think you’re doing, coolie?  Get away from her!”

Hop Sing looked over Lu Lin’s head.  The man who had spoken stood on the threshold of the establishment.  He was a tall man with a broad build, whose hat sat uneasily upon a head of thick dark hair.  Like the wall of a mine, which is richly veined, it took the rising light to reveal the streaks of silver in it.

He wore an Easterner’s suit that did not speak of his wealth, but shouted.

“Lu Lin, you will come here immediately if you wish to remain employed,” the newcomer commanded.

The girl looked up at him.  “I must go,” she whispered.

So this was Sebastian Stephens.  Hop Sing had never met the man, though he had heard much of him from his employer and Mistah Cartwright’s number one son.  When he left his homeland and came to this country he had hoped for a better life.  In Guangdong there was much fighting and great upheaval.  In the end, those who had wealth had none and so they pressed the poor farmer to pay for their foolishment.  His father, Hop Ling, was such a farmer, working the land his father and his father’s fathers had lived upon for untold years.  Soon, Hop Ling could not afford to feed his wife or his many children.  He was a young man then, without the fears or wisdom of age.  He went to his father and told him of the opportunities in Gam Saan or Gold Mountain, and said he would go to America.  He would work and earn money and send it to back them so that, in time, they too could come to the land of plenty.  At first Hop Ling forbade it, but as he watched his many children grow thinner and thinner – and his wife’s beautiful black hair turn gray as mist – his father gave him both his permission and his blessing.

And so he sailed away.

A few years before Mistah Cartwright’s youngest son was born, the ship he boarded brought him to a port near Yerba Buena.  There were few people there, and those who were there came from many lands – England, Spain, Russia, China and more.  Each sought to find his place.  He was no different.  From the time he was a child, he had known all of the herbs and their uses.  His mother said he knew them without her teaching.  As a boy he had spent much time at her side learning how to use them not only to cook, but to heal.  Upon his arrival he sought employment and found it with another man from China whose apothecary shop was on the wharf.

Hop Sing raised a hand to block the sun as he took a step forward.  He wanted to see Sebastian Stephens better, but the shameful man’s face was hidden like a tiger in the grass.  All he could see was his narrowed eyes and they looked on him with hate.

Many men’s eyes had looked upon him in this way when he first came to this land.  Coolie.  Ching-chong.  Chink.  These were words that stung but had no bite.  At the time he had thought it was so with all white men; that they hated any who were not like them.  In his heart he could not dream of such a man as Ben Cartwright.  A man who looked at him and saw, not the color of his skin or the shape of his eyes, but him.

Lu Lin had reached the door.  She bowed humbly and went to wait on the porch.  Hop Sing did not miss where the man’s hand went as she passed and it angered him.  Lu Lin did not dare speak for fear of retribution.

He did not fear retribution.

“Most honorable sir,” he said.

Stephens turned from the girl.  “Are you addressing me, chink?” he hissed.

Hop Sing moved closer.  “Yes.  Most honorable sir forget something.”

Lu Lin’s employer looked directly at him.  “Is that right?”

The Asian man stepped closer and lowered his voice.  “Honorable sir has eye on Lu Lin.”  He paused.  “Many eyes on honorable sir.”

The man snorted.  “Is that a threat, coolie?”

“It is no more than an observation.”

“Yes.  Well, this is my observation.  Eyes that look where they shouldn’t end up being put out.  Lu Lin is my business.  Ben Cartwright is yours; him and his children.”

Hop Sing drew in a sharp breath.  There was something in the way Stephens said the word that lifted the hairs on the back of his neck.  The cruel man caught Lu Lin’s arm and propelled her down the steps and into the street.  Just as they reached his rig, he turned back.

“I’ve got two words for you, ching-chong, and two words only.  Maiden Lane.”

The water parted.

And the Great blue heron devoured the golden fish.

 

Sixteen-year-old Hoss Cartwright drew in a weary breath and let it whistle out softly through his nose.  He was tired and achin’ and hungry and, if the truth be told, more than a little bit scared.  It had been bad enough before, bein’ taken without warnin’, blindfolded and hog-tied, and then quick-marched into wherever he was and left to rot.

It had been bad enough before them bad men did the same thing to his little brother.

Little Joe was still sittin’ on the floor pushed up against him, close as he could be.  The boy was makin’ little gruntin’ sounds in his sleep.  Hoss wasn’t sure if it was ‘cause he was dreamin’ bad dreams or if Little Joe was actually hurtin’.  Most like it was both.  It was dark and no one had come for a while, so the big teen had gone ahead and taken off his calfskin vest and put it underneath his little brother so his tailbone was cushioned.  He had to hope that whoever came in next to bring them food didn’t notice.  Little Joe had pleaded with him to untie his hands and he’d felt about as low as a low-bellied snake when he said ‘no’.  There weren’t no way to hide the fact that he’d done it, and if their captors noticed Joe was free then they’d know he was free too.  Their only hope lay in the fact that he was free.  His captors had left his feet loose since he was tied tight to a beam.

If the opportunity arose, he’d take it and get them out of there.

Hoss touched his little brother’s matted curls.  Punkin had been awful brave.  He’d sucked in his disappointment and nodded his head and then leaned into him and let the tears silently fall.  Little Joe probably thought he didn’t know he’d been cryin’.  After all they just about couldn’t see a single thing.  But he’d heard him and the sound of it had near tore his heart in two.

He’d get them out of this.  He would!

He just didn’t know how.

Hoss’ stomach rumbled as he turned toward the door.  Every so many hours someone came in with water and, once in a while, with a bit of food.  In the beginning it had been Pratt Shade or Bush Sears, but lately the footsteps told him it was a woman.  He guessed whoever was holdin’ them didn’t want them dead – at least not yet.  The woman smelled like vanilla and ginger.  The last time she’d come she’d said something, he thought it was in Chinese, and touched his cheek before she stood up and left.

It was awful lonely when she did.

Hoss looked down at Little Joe as his brother shifted.  He listened to him breathe and noted how the breaths began to come more rapidly as if he was beginnin’ to panic.

“Little Joe, you awake?” he asked.

His brother shuddered.  A second later, he asked, “Hoss?”

“Yeah, it’s me.”  He put his arm around his brother’s tiny shoulders and squeezed.  “I got you.  You feel my arm, don’t you?”

Joe blew out a breath.  “I couldn’t wake up.  I thought this….  I thought I was still caught in a nightmare.”

You are, little brother,’ the big teen thought, but he said, “Nah.  Ain’t much of any light in here, so it’s hard to know if you’re awake or not.”

Joe inched in a closer.  “They still got us.”

“Yeah, they still got us.  But don’t you worry none, Little Joe.  I’ll figure me a way to get us out of here.”

There was a pause.  “Do you think Pa’s coming?”

Pa and Little Joe were mighty close.  Maybe on account of Mama dyin’, and maybe just ‘cause they was. Pa was Joe’s hero and he couldn’t have a better one.

“Pa’s on his way,” he said firmly and he meant it.

“But…he won’t know where we are.”

Hoss hesitated, forming his reply.  “Little Joe, you know how people tell me I’m just about the most natural tracker around?”

His brother nodded.

“I ain’t nothin’ compared to an old mama grizzly when her babies go missin’.  I tell you, they got themselves some unnatural natural sense that leads them right to their cubs.”  He paused to wet his lips.  “You and me, punkin, we’re Pa’s cubs.  He’ll find us.”

Joe seemed to relax a bit at that.  There was another silence and then he said, “I’m hungry.”

“I am too.  I tell you I could just about eat you right now!”

“I can hear your belly grumblin’,” Joe giggled.

“It’s tellin’ them varmints what took us that it’s supper time.”  Or dinner, or breakfast.  He didn’t really know which it was.

“Hoss?”

“Yeah?”

“Won’t they know somethin’s different when they see I don’t have my gag on anymore?”

He’d thought about that.  There’s been more than one man comin’ and goin’, checkin’ on them.  Some of them were strangers.  He just prayed they didn’t talk to one another and would think one of the others had done it – takin’ off Little Joe’s gag, that was.  The big teen’s fingers touched the vest he’d put under his brother’s skinny little hiney.  That was another prayer.  He prayed it was so dark whoever came in wouldn’t see it, ‘cause if they did, they’d figure out his hands were free.  As it was, he had lean down and have Joe pull his blind back into place and then shove his hands behind his back every time one of them bad men came in.  They never checked his hands.

“I wouldn’t worry about it, Little Joe.  I think they got other things on their mind.”

Even as the words came out of his mouth, footsteps sounded, echoing through the corridor outside.  Hoss leaned down so Joe could tug his blind into place and scooted a foot or so away from his brother.  Whoever it was stopped just inside the room and stood there, saying nothing.  A second set of footsteps told Hoss they had more than one ‘visitor’.  He heard a curt order issued and then the door closed.  As the man moved off, the woman headed for them.

He knew it was her ‘cause the scent of vanilla and ginger came before her.

Xiǎo nánhái,” she groaned as she knelt beside him.

He knew that one.  Hop Sing used it often enough.  “Yeah, Joe’s awful young,” Hoss agreed, his tone edgy.

“I ain’t little,” his brother protested in a very little voice.

The woman shifted.  He thought she was lookin’ back toward the door.  He could tell because he heard her feet move.  She remained silent for several moments and then moved in close so she could feed him.

Duìbùqǐ,” she breathed as the spoon touched his lips.

“Huh?”

“She’s sorry,” Little Joe said.  After a moment the little boy added, “Hop Sing made me learn that one.”

‘Sorry’ about what, he wondered?  What she was doin’, maybe.  Or, maybe, the fact that they were bein’ held.  Or maybe just that his little brother was?

In-between bites he said, “You gotta help Little Joe.”

“I ain’t goin’ anywhere without you Hoss,” Joe stubbornly insisted.  “No way no how!”

The woman turned.  She seemed to be listenin’.  Then she moved from him to Little Joe.  He heard the spoon scrape the bowl.

“I ain’t eatin’ no bad guys food!” Joe declared.

“Litte Joe, you hear me.  You take what she offers and you eat it right down.”

“But, Hoss….”

“No, buts.”  He was worried sick about the kid.  Little Joe was worn down from his accident.  He had to keep up his strength.  The cold and the damp and the pain and the worry were like to be enough to kill him.  “You do what I say.”

Joe was silent a moment.  “Okay, Adam,” he huffed smartly

Hoss couldn’t help it.  He chuckled.  Then he smiled as he heard his brother swallow.

“Ma’am, could I ask you one thing?”

“I cannot help you escape,” she replied.

“I’m not askin’ you to.  I…  Well, it’s two things really.  Can you take off my blindfold?”  He wanted it off.  It was hard to remember to put it back on every time someone came in.  Little Joe could have worked his own gag free by reachin’ up with his hands, even bound, but there was no way either of them should have been able to work off his blindfold.  “Please.”

A moment later her fingers touched each side of his head.  “Not think master care,” she said as she pulled it loose.

That was kind of frightenin’ since it meant he might see someone when they came in.  If her ‘master’ didn’t ‘care’, the odds were he didn’t think it was gonna matter, which meant he probably did mean to kill them before it was over.

“What is second thing?” she asked.

“Next time you come, could you bring a blanket for my little brother?  He was sick afore those men took him and I’m worried he’s gonna get worse.”

“I’m okay, Hoss,” Joe insisted.  “I don’t want a blanket if you can’t have one.”

Suddenly, a man’s voice called out, ‘Nǚhái. Lái zhèlǐ ba!’

It was an order.

The girl gasped and rose to her feet.  He caught a glimpse of her before the lantern light disappeared. She was young and pretty.  Hoss thought he might know her, or at least, had seen her in the settlement.  The trouble was most all of Chinese girls looked the same to him.  They was all pretty and usually pretty small, with pretty dark eyes and shy smiles.

And scared.

“You know that one?” Hoss asked after she left.

“Yeah,” Little Joe replied as he laid his head on his leg.  “He told her she had to go now.”

“Did you see her, Little Joe?” he asked.

“Mm-mm,” his brother nodded.  It sounded like Joe was fallin’ asleep.

“You know who she is?”

His brother yawned.  “I’ve seen her before.”

“Where?”

“In the store, when I went to the settlement with Hop Sing.”  Joe yawned.  “I think he called her Lulu or somethin’.”

That was a mighty funny name for a Chinese woman.

“Lulu?  You sure?”

“Or somethin’.”

Hoss thought about it.  Lulu.  Lu lu.  Or maybe Lu Lin?

“Was it Lu Lin?  Little Joe?”

“Don’t know.  Don’t care,” his brother grumbled.  “Let me sleep.”

“Okay, Little Joe.  You go to sleep.”

Hoss pulled his hands from behind his back.  He pulled his brother in closer and once again circled the little boy’s shoulders with his arm.  He was still thinkin’ about Lulu or Lu Lin or whoever she was when he realized somethin’ else.  Reachin’ over with his other hand, Hoss laid it on Little Joe’s forehead.

Punkin was on fire.

 

Hop Sing watched from the window of the livery as his grieving master and number one son left the sheriff’s office and crossed the street to the mercantile.  They hitched their horses behind the supply wagon, climbed into it, and headed for the Ponderosa.

He would never see it or them again.

Such was his shame that he would never be able to return to his home or to those he loved.  From triumph to failure was but one step.  The choice he had made so long ago cast a shadow so deep that the bright sun of his time with Mistah Ben and his sons was lost.

Mr. Ben’s sons.

His sons.

Hop Sing’s jaw tightened with grief.  Tears filled his eyes and fell like morning dew to wet his cheeks.  He remembered the time before he left China.  Wise father tell him as he left his home, ‘A truth spoken before its time can be dangerous.’

Wise Father had been wrong.

Time betrays and hangs the thief.

As the wagon trundled out of sight, Hop Sing turned and bowed to the stable owner. After paying what was owed, he took the horse he’d rented into the light of the noon day sun.  He did not mount, but led the animal down the muddy streets toward the center of the settlement.  The Asian man had no need to ask for directions.  Mistahs Ben and Adam had spoken often enough of the magnificent house Sebastian Stephens had built that rose like a temple above the smaller siheyuan.  Once there, he led the horse into a small stand of trees.  He did not wish to see the elegant men and women who entered by its front door.  He watched for one young woman.  Lu Lin would not be allowed to use this door.  If she disobeyed, she would pay the price.

As had another young woman many long years before.

 

Adam Cartwright coiled his gun belt and slammed it down on the credenza before heading into the great room.  He was tired and frustrated and about at his wit’s end.  He and his pa had headed out for a time with Roy Coffee, but all they’d found was frustration.  Now, it was the end of the day, and they were back home with nothing to show for it.  The sun’s dying rays had tracked them as they rode into the yard, casting long black shadows before them that matched his mood.  He shouldn’t be angry, but he was and he knew why.

He felt impotent.

“Adam,” his father said as he closed the door behind him.  “Son….  Please.”

He knew his pa felt the same way.  They’d suppered on surprise and shared a breakfast of despair.   Neither one of them had slept more than two or three hours since Hoss and Little Joe had gone missing.  He’d heard his father pacing in the great room all night because he’d been pacing in his room upstairs.

As he fell into his chair, the black-haired man let out a sigh.  “Sorry, Pa.  I don’t mean to make things worse.”

The older man looked at him.  “Son, I don’t think there is any way you could.”

The remaining contracts, the timber, the cattle and horse business –  all been forgotten, as had the daily needs of the ranch.  Not that they could be forever, but at this moment who really gave a damn as to whether or not a horse was shoed or a tree felled?  Nothing mattered but finding Hoss and Little Joe.  Nothing.

And there was simply nowhere to start.

“Do you think you could eat something?” Pa asked.  “I think Hop Sing left some cold cuts in the ice box.”

The subject turned his stomach – Hop Sing, not the cold cuts.

What did they really know about him?

All the way home his father had defended the Asian man, but, really, who was he?  Pa admitted he knew very little other than the fact that Hop Sing was a son of Hop Ling and had come highly recommended by his last employer, a man in Hangtown.  Before that he had worked in the bay area in what served as the upscale part of Yerba Buena, California.  It wasn’t much.  Hop Sing had been in the US for approximately fifteen years, arriving when he was a bit older than him.  That left at least four years unaccounted for.

He’d spent four years away at college.  He knew how long a time that was and how much a young man could get into and up to during it.  Adam knew as well that he had secrets he’d never told his family and did not intend to tell.

Could Hop Sing be any different?

“You’re very quiet, son,” his father remarked as he took a seat in the leather chair by the fire.

“Just thinking.”

“About?”

“You know what about, Pa,” he admitted with a sigh.  “Until we solve the puzzle of Hop Sing and who he is and was, we’re not going to solve the puzzle of who took Hoss and Little Joe.”

Pa winced at the mention his younger brother’s name.  It wasn’t that Pa wasn’t just as worried about Hoss, but – at least when he left – Hoss had been whole.

Little Joe was not.

“We just need to ask him, son.  I’m sure Hop Sing will tell us – ”

“Then where is he?!” he demanded, jumping to his feet and beginning to pace.  “Pa, you have to admit his absence looks like an admission of guilt!”

His father pursed his lips.  “Or shame,” he said softly.  “You have to remember, son, there are ways in which Hop Sing is not like us.  It’s not a matter of bigotry to say that, but of fact.  Ours – the Western man’s – is a system based on guilt and innocence.  For Hop Sing, who is from the East, it’s about honor.”

“Maybe he prizes his ‘honor’ more than Hoss and Little Joe’s lives,” Adam said and instantly regretted it.  “I’m sorry, Pa.  I’m clutching at straws.”

“I understand, son, just as I understand that your knowledge of Hop Sing is a child’s.”  His father held up a hand to stifle his protest.  “What I mean is, you were twelve when you first met him.  Barely older than Little Joe is now.  The world was lived from your perspective – what could you get from it, what could it give you – what would make you happy.

His son grinned.  “Well, Hop Sing certainly made me happy when you brought him here to cook.  Nothing against Marie, but cooking was not one of her strong suits.”

His father chuckled.  “No, it wasn’t.  Much as I loved her, Marie had little skill in cooking or any other task associated with running a household.  She’d been….”  The older man paused as if rethinking the word he had chosen.  “ In many ways she’d been a kept woman.  There was always someone else to perform menial chores whether it be a servant or slave.”

It galled him to think that anyone felt they had the right to enslave another and yet it was part and parcel of the founding of their country.  That was part of what had drawn Pa to the West as it offered a fresh start to men of all colors and races.

And yet, was it really any different?  There were men right now petitioning the government to put more and more restrictions on the Chinese who had come into the area during and after the Gold Rush.  In some ways they were seen as an ‘uppity’ slave population that expected wages.  The California legislature was considering a bill known as the Foreign Miner’s License Tax that would stipulate a tax of three dollars per month on every foreign miner who chose not to become a citizen.  Many Chinese did not want to do so as they intended to return to China once they had earned enough money to support their families.  The irony – and this was not lost on the men writing the bill – was that an earlier law, the Naturalization Act of 1790, only allowed free white persons to become citizens.

Pa leaned his head back against the warm leather of his chair.  “That man in Hangtown, he wasn’t really Hop sing’s employer.”

“No?”

His father looked at him.  “He was his owner.  Hop Sing was indentured to him.  He never told me why, but I had to buy out his contract in order to bring him with me.”

This was news to him.

“I didn’t think….”  Adam cleared his throat.  “I mean, does that kind of thing still happen?”

“Old ways die hard.  I asked him about it, but Hop Sing was tight-lipped and I decided it didn’t matter.”

The past, in other words, was the past.

“Do you think that could have anything to do with…well…with what’s happened?” he asked.

His father leaned forward.  He nodded.

“What are you going to do?”

Standing, the older man replied.  “Something I thought I would never do.  Go through Hop Sing’s things.”

 

 

NINE

They started in the kitchen.  There were several places Ben knew his cook kept personal items.  It wasn’t that he’d paid much attention, but now and then Hop Sing would open a drawer or cupboard and he couldn’t help but notice.  He sent Adam to check out the drawers while he headed for the personal shrine Hop Sing kept in the back.  Ten years before he had given him a copy of Marie’s portrait to keep there.  Ben knew Hop Sing prayed every day.  His friend’s unique mix of Chinese ancestor veneration and Freewill Baptist beliefs made him smile at times.  He knew the shrine contained another portrait, as well as momento mori such as a smudge pot, dried flowers, and at least one small box.  On a table below it were half a dozen candles of various sizes and a shallow gilt-edged dish for burning incense.  The rancher stared at the dish for a moment.

It had been a gift from Marie.

Ben lit one of the candles and raised it so he could see into the shrine.  It was made of wood painted red and shaped like a Chinese pagoda . The roof was ebony.  There were doors and a bit of ornamental fencing on both sides to hold the precious items in.  Within the enclosures were a few sprigs of pine.  The rancher drew in a breath as he shifted a branch and came face to face with his late beloved wife.  Marie stared at him with disapproval.  He couldn’t blame her.  He felt as if he was violating his friend’s trust.

But then, his sons lives were at stake and he had no choice.

When Ben shifted Marie’s portrait to one side, his hand encountered another.  It was of an older man and his wife.  He remembered that Hop Sing had told him the painting was of his grandparents.  Behind it was an object that glinted in the light.  At first, he wasn’t sure what it was, but then the rancher realized it was a chain.  Tugging at it, he brought it and the object attached to it forward and into his hand.

“What’s that, Pa?” Adam asked.

He looked at him.  “Nothing in the drawers?”

His son shrugged.  “Bills of sale.  Letters from his family.  Oh, and one or two from a woman named Clare.  Those were post-marked back in the thirties.”

Ben gazed at the locket he held.  It was obviously a woman’s.  The piece was roughly rectangular in shape and made of gold. The open-work case was studded with five diamonds – one on each corner and another in the middle.  The chain was just as elegant.  Alone, the price of it would have purchased a fine thoroughbred.

Adam let out a whistle.  “How do you think Hop Sing came by that?”

He had no idea.  As he’d said, when he hired Hop Sing the Asian man had been poorer than a church mouse.

“Are you going to open it?”

The rancher went to the kitchen table and sat down.  Adam followed and did the same.  Once there, the older man puzzled over how to open the locket.  It was the type with a hidden clasp.

“Try pressing the stones, Pa.  I remember Marie had one like that.”  At his look his son grinned.  “It drove Little Joe nuts.”

He remembered that now.  Thoughts of his missing boys vied for his attention, but Ben pushed them aside and concentrated on the puzzle at hand.  He tried the center stone first as that was the obvious choice.  It didn’t work, of course.  Neither did the other four.  Then he noticed a bit of raised work toward the top on the back and pressed that.  The locket popped open to reveal the portrait of a beautiful young woman.

A beautiful young white woman.

Adam was twisting his neck to see, so he showed him the image.

He whistled.  “She’s stunning.”

And obviously a child of wealth.  Whoever she was, the young lady was attired in an off-the-shoulder dress, but had demurred and added a modesty scarf.  She wore a fashionable dimity cap with French lace that barely managed to contain a mass of spiraling golden curls.  She was very young, most likely under twenty, and had a beautiful, intelligent and serene face.  Ben tried to divine the thoughts in her head.  If he had been hard-pressed, he might have said she had the look of a caged lark – content, but longing for freedom.

“Yes,” he muttered as he turned the locket over in his hands.

“Who do you think she is?”

Ben was pressing the locket in other places.  Marie’s had a secret chamber in the back.  Finally, his fingers found the spot he was looking for and it popped open.

Inside was a tiny slip of paper.

Ben unrolled it and read the words aloud, ‘Tonight at Maiden Lane.  I await.  My love, Clare.’

He handed the paper and the locket to Adam who stared at them a moment before speaking.  “Do you think…?”

No, he didn’t think – he knew.

Clare was the woman Hop Sing had loved.

 

Night had fallen.  Hop Sing watched from his place of concealment as a fine vehicle rolled into Sebastian Stephen’s elaborate carriage house.  A moment later the man mounted the steps and went inside.  Where he came from in China, such a building could have housed his entire family –  and many honorable cousins.  When young, he and his father had visited the home of a wealthy man.  While there, his bàba told him to remember that the downfall of a man began with pride.  ‘Pride goeth before destruction’, the preacher in the Baptist church would say.  Sebastian Stephens deserved such a fall.

God had appointed him to make sure it happened.

Deciding it was time, the Asian man spoke softly to his horse.  He told him to be patient, that he would not be long, before starting across the street.  It was quiet.  Most who lived in the settlement had gone inside and, those who worked late, were occupied.  His own father was busy in his laundry, washing and ironing the clothes of rich men such as Sebastian Stephens.  His path had been different, and yet the same.  Upon arriving in America he’d found employment with a friend and worked in Lee Chen’s apothecary shop.  Their clients were the common people of Yerba Buena.  One day a man of wealth came into their establishment.  His daughter suffered with headaches.  Often, she would lay in the dark for days unable to eat or speak.  The white man’s doctors could do nothing for her.  A friend of this man, who had traveled in the East, suggested he seek a cure in Chinese medicine.  Hop Sing was surprised when his friend suggested that he accompany the man to his home.  Lee Chen was older – wiser .  Chen told the man that he had a special kind of magic in his hands and called him a healer.

This one, deeply humbled, left his post grinding herbs and followed Sebastian Stephens to his home.

The house Stephens had in Yerba Buena was as out of place as the one in Gold Hill.  There were few structures there, and most were humble.  This house sat on a hill overlooking the bay and was large and impressive.  Upon their arrival, the wealthy man puffed his chest out like a Sage Grouse and told him  how he had beaten out every other man in the area to become the richest among them.  He owned ships and used them to move goods from place to place.  Stephens did not tell him how he had ruined these men to get what he wanted, or of the cruel joy it brought him.

This he would learn later.

He was told to wait in the front hall while the wealthy man went up a tall stair to the next floor.  While he waited many servants came and went.  Most were Mexican women.  He was later to find out that the men Stephens employed worked out-of-doors for he did not trust them with his daughter.  Sometime later a well-dressed Spanish woman in her fifties appeared.  She ordered him to follow her and took him up the stairs.  At the top there was a large room with a great window that looked out onto the water.  The curtains were pulled back and the dying sun was the only light in the room.  To one side was a bed, separated from the rest of the room by a muslin curtain.  On the bed lay a young woman whom he assumed to be Mister Stephen’s daughter.

His jaw tight; the words forced from between his lips, the wealthy man said, “Help her.”

Stephens departed then, leaving him alone in the room with the two women.  The Spanish woman, whose name was Maria Theresa, went to sit by the window.  He was later to find out that she had been with Stephen’s daughter from her birth and served as her mother since her own had died.  Maria Theresa would chaperone them while he tended her.

The young woman’s name was Clare.

Hop Sing shifted and looked up.  A lamp had come to life on the upper floor of the great house in Gold Hill.  Sebastian Stephens had retired to his private quarters.

It was time.

The Asian man clung to the shadows as he moved to the yard between the stable and the house.  Through the window he could see Lu Lin.  She was speaking to her brother.  Her face was animated and her hands flew; the gestures she made both challenging and condemning.  He would have to wait until they finished to approach her.  He did not want to wait.  Every minute that passed, each breath taken brought death closer to those he loved.  Retreating to the garden, Hop Sing took up a post from which he could watch the side door.  Above his head there was an arbor; the worn latticework held together by a network of vines whose blossoms had long since died.

As had Sebastian Stephens daughter.

—-

Clare stirred at his approach.  A trembling hand pulled back the muslin curtain, revealing a heart-shaped face fresh as the first morn.  Her skin was white as the dove.  Her spiraling hair, golden as the beams of light it rode.  Her eyes startled him, for the black centers were far too wide within their sea of azure blue.

“I am Hop Sing,” he said as he bowed.  “Honorable father has asked that I provide relief for your headaches.”

“Thank you for speaking softly,” Clare said as she lifted a hand to shield her eyes from the meager light spilling in the window.  Her voice was weary as it was lyrical.  “Father always shouts.”

“Do you desire the curtains to be drawn?” he asked.

Clare turned her face to the side.  “Father won’t allow it.  The doctor said the air was good for me.”

“But the light is not.

“No.”

“I will close them.

A smile touched her lips as she turned back.  “Father will be angry.”

“I do not believe so.  Your father has given you into my hands.”

“A Chinese man?”

Hop Sing bowed again.  “Forgive this one for being forward.  He did not ask leave to attend you.  If you would not have one such as I…”

“No.  It’s not that,” she answered.  “Father hates the Chinese.  I am just…surprised he brought you here.”

“Necessity can change a lion into a fox,” he replied.

“And a fox into lion,” Clare replied as she turned her head away from the light again.

“I will close the curtains.”

Maria Theresa watched him as he went to the window and did just that.  The older woman smiled and nodded as if she approved.  As she returned to her needlework, he returned to his patient.  Sitting in the chair beside her bed he said, “Tell me of these headaches.  Have you always had them?”

“Since I was a little girl,” she sighed.

“Was there an incident when they began?”

Clare glanced at him.  “Like an accident?”  When he nodded, she said, “No.”

“Can you describe how they feel?”

She thought a moment before replying.  “As if I am lost in the fog.  I…cannot find my way.  I know that if I turn, I will fall and, if I fall, I will never land.”

“Do you feel pain?”

Again, she thought about her answer.  “Yes…and no.”

“Can Missy Clare elaborate?” he asked.

“Missy Clare,” she mused.  “There is a stabbing pain.  It runs from the base of my neck to behind my eyes.  It is a pain…with no substance.  It does not come and go.  It simply is.”

“Do you see lights?”

“Oh, yes,” she exclaimed.  “They are beautiful and deadly.  Like fire and ice.”

How poetic was her soul.

“Clare?” a young voice called softly from the doorway, interrupting the interview.

Clare lifted her hand.  “That’s Ethan,” she said.

“Father asked me to look in and see how things were going?”   The young man walked into the room.  In form, he was handsome; slender and willowy as a young pine.  His hair was golden as his sister’s and his eyes were the same.

Hop Sing realized with a start that they were twins.

“How are you doing, Kitten?” Ethan asked, though his eyes were on him.

“I don’t know yet,” she replied with a little pout.  “Doctor Hop Sing is still working on a diagnosis.”

“Permit this one to remind Missy Clare that he is not a physician,” Hop Sing said.  “This one comes with humble knowledge and skill – ”

“Then you are certainly not a doctor.  Humility is the last thing in their bag!” Ethan remarked as he sat on the side of the bed and stretched his hand out.  As he touched his sister’s forehead, he asked, “Does it hurt, Kitten?”

“Mm-hm.”

Ethan turned to him.  “Can you help her?”

“It is this one’s belief that he can.”

“Are you going to use Chinese remedies?”

“Yes.”

Ethan slapped his knee.  “Man’s alive!  That will wake the snakes with the old man,” he declared.

“Etty, please,” Clare moaned.

“Sorry, Kitten,” he whispered as he kissed her on the cheek.  Then Ethan stood and turned toward him.  “Clare’s been plagued by these headaches since we were children.  Usually has them once or twice a year.  Recently, they’ve become more frequent.”

“This humble one will do his best to alleviate your sister’s suffering.”

Ethan placed a hand on his shoulder.  “Thanks, old chap.  It’s hard to see her suffer.”

——

A noise brought Hop Sing’s attention back to the present.  The side door to the house opened and Lu Yin stepped out.  He was wearing a light coat and carrying a hamper.  Yin headed for the stable and in a short time, reappeared on horseback.  With a last look at the house, the young man disappeared into the night.

It was time.

 

Ben Cartwright returned to the great room to await his son’s return.  They’d risen with the sun and, as soon as they’d finished breakfast, he’d sent Adam out to round up as many of their men as he could to join in the new day’s search for Hoss and Little Joe.  It was midday now and he expected Roy Coffee to appear any minute with even more from the settlement.  The Ponderosa was vast and, as they had no idea which direction to head, they would have to head in all directions.  He’d put his best tracker on the hunt for signs, instructing him to begin at Joseph’s window.  The man had returned a short time ago to inform him that there was nothing to find.  No boot or hoof prints.  No wagon wheels.

Nothing.

It was as if his baby boy had been secreted out of his bed by faeries and disappeared into thin air.

The rancher glanced at the box he held in his hand.  His search had taken him into Hop Sing’s room and he’d found it under the bed.  He had yet to open it.  It seemed so great a violation of his friend’s trust that he hesitated.  The Asian man was intensely private about his personal affairs.  He’d met Hop Sing’s father, brothers, and countless dozens of cousins.  He’d worked side by side with him for nearly a dozen years, and yet of the man himself, he knew very little.  Whenever curiosity reared its ugly head he would beat it down with sensible words, telling himself a man had a right to his privacy and what was in the past should remain in the past.  He wouldn’t want his sons to know everything he had done in his wild and misspent youth, and he certainly wouldn’t want to be held accountable now for the man he had been then.

But this was his sons.

Ben took a pen knife, inserted it in the handle of the lock that dangled off of the box’s catch, and pried it open.

Propriety be damned!

The wooden box fit roughly on his lap.  It was a thing of beauty, made of cherry with mahogany and ivory inlays.  It put him in mind of the chest Marie used to keep her jewels in and he wondered briefly if it had belonged to a woman.  It was filled almost entirely with letters and papers.  A quick glance told him that most of the papers were of a business nature and dated from the eighteen-thirties; from the time before Hop Sing had come to work for him.  As he rifled through them, one in particular caught his eye.

It was a warrant for Hop Sing’s arrest.

“Pa,” Adam said as he opened the door and poked his head in.  “Deputy Roy’s here with the men from the settlement.”

Ben raised a hand in acknowledgment.

“What’s that?” his son asked as he entered and crossed the room to his side.

Without a word, he handed the warrant to him.

Adam perused its contents quickly, and then went back and read it again more slowly.  “Do you think the woman it mentions is the one in the locket?” he asked as he handed it back.

A woman was dead.  Hop Sing had been sought in connection with the crime.  “I don’t know,” he said as he began to rifle through the rest of the papers.  There were a good many letters at the bottom.  Most seemed to be from the same period of time.

“You fellers ready?” Roy Coffee asked as he stepped into the house.  “We got us a plan for coverin’ all the Ponderosa, but it will take every man we got.”

Ben stopped what he was doing and looked up.  While the papers and letters in the box were interesting, they had little to do with their present dilemma.  Or at least, he didn’t think they did.  Later.  Later, after his sons were found, he would return to them and explore this facet of the man he called ‘friend’.

A man he was beginning to believe he had never known.

“On our way, Roy,” the rancher responded as Adam headed for the kitchen and the saddlebags they had filled with supplies in preparation for several days in the saddle.

He had his coat on by the time his son reappeared,

“I got me a feelin’ in my bones, Ben,” Roy said as they headed out the door.  “We’re gonna find those boys of yours today.  I just know it!”

Ben nodded as he reached for his hat.  “God willing, Roy.  God willing.”

Once outside he spoke to his men.  Most of them were old hands who had watched Hoss grow from a boy to a budding man and they were keen to find whoever had taken him and make them pay.  There was a deep burning ember of hatred within them for the boys’ kidnappers and for what they had done to Jeb Wilson.  Thanks to Paul Martin, Jeb was going to pull through, but the man’s recovery would be lengthy due to the nature of the injury and his advanced age.  Ben took time to look each one in the eye, letting them know he meant it when he said he appreciated their willingness to volunteer and that he wanted them to abide by the law.  He reminded them that there were two boys whose lives depended on them not losing their heads or doing anything rash.  Roy stepped up then and spoke.  He’d deputized a dozen men.  He stressed that the volunteers in each party needed to let the lawmen with them take the lead if they came across anything, and that they were to send word back to him or Ben before taking any action.

The rancher closed his eyes as his friend spoke.  He was only half-listening.  A fear had taken root in his heart as his gaze moved from one anxious face to the next, including Old Henry and Phillip Chase.  For all he knew, the men who took Hoss and Little Joe could be in the crowd surrounding him.  If they felt threatened – if they feared exposure and possible capture – they might just cut their losses and run.  Little Joe and Hoss could be lost; abandoned and left behind.

Or, their abductors might simply kill them.

“Pa?”

He looked at his son.  “Yes, Adam?”

“We’re ready to ride out.”

Where, Ben wondered?  Where would they go?  Just how did you begin to search an area when the area you were searching was literally the size of a small state?

“Robert Olin’s back,” his eldest said.  “He’s taking a party of men and heading into the desert.  Roy thought we should start here since we know the land best, and work our way toward the settlement.  Maybe head for some of the old abandoned mining towns.”  When he said nothing, his son asked, “Pa?  Are you all right?”

The rancher shook his head. “No, son, I’m not all right, and I won’t be all right until both your brothers are safely home.  I’m worried for them both, but my chief concern is for Little Joe.  I think it’s safe to say that his kidnappers will give little thought for the boy’s welfare.”

“Joe’s tough, Pa.  Tougher than you know.”

“He’s such a sensitive boy….”

“If I know Little Joe, his last thought will be for his own welfare.  He’ll be worried about Hoss.”  Adam’s lips curled with an affectionate smile.  “I imagine Joe’s hard at work figuring out a way to escape right now.”

“Your brother can’t walk.”

“That won’t stop Joe trying.”  Adam placed a hand on his shoulder.  “Trust him.  Trust both of them.  They’ll fight as hard as they can to come home safe to you.”

Ben nodded as he briefly covered his son’s hand with his own.

“You ready, Ben?” Roy Coffee asked.

The rancher looked toward the Heavens.

Let He who hath the steerage of my course, direct my sail.

 

Hop Sing watched as Lu Lin closed the door behind her and walked down the short flight of steps leading from Sebastian Stephen’s house.  She lived with her brother in a small house in the area of Gold Hill known as Chinatown.  He had watched her grow from a child to a beautiful young woman in the time he had lived with the Cartwrights. It saddened him to find her working for such a bitter man as Sebastian Stephens.  He was sure the wealthy man paid her well and this, most likely, was why Lu Lin remained with him in spite of his harsh treatment of her.

Leaving the shadows, the Asian man blocked her path.

“Honorable Lu Lin,” he said.  “This one must speak with you.”

Her eyes darted back to the house.  “Most honorable Hop Sing, it is not wise.”

“Wise or not, this one must.”  He indicated the arbor behind him.  “I would ask you to join me.”

Lu Lin looked extremely nervous.  He knew she feared her employer, but sensed there was more to her agitated state than simple fear.  Her beautiful face was pale; her cheeks sunken and her eyes rimmed with red.  She hesitated and then nodded and preceded him into the shadows.

Before he could speak, she said, “I know why you are here.”

“Then perhaps, you will tell me.”

Her lips parted, but she shook her head.  “I cannot.”

“Cannot, or will not?” he asked.

Lu Lin winced.  Tears glistened in her dark eyes.  “I do not fear for my own life, honorable Hop Sing, but for the life of one I love.”

“It is for the life of those I love that I have come to you,” he countered.  “Perhaps you can explain to this one how one life can be worth more than another?”

The young woman closed her eyes and dropped her head.  “This one is ashamed.”

Hop Sing reached out.  He took her chin in his fingers and lifted her head.  “What has Sebastian Stephens threatened?”

“My brother,” she began, “he has brought dishonor on our house.  He has…stolen from the man who owns him.  If I…speak, Mister Stephens will turn Lu Yin into the law and they will hang him.”

“How will he know?”

Her eyes grew wide.  “He is a devil.”

The Asian man nodded.

So he had learned long ago.

———-

“What is that you are doing?” Clare’s light voice asked.

Hop Sing turned toward her.  Sebastian Stephen’s beautiful daughter was in her bed; her back propped by many pillows.  He was sitting at a table by the window, its surface illuminated by a single shaft of light.

“I am preparing willow bark,” he replied.  “Since before the Christ was born, it has been used to treat headaches.  The bark crushed is good for pain and inflammation. I am making a tea for you to drink.”

Clare was silent a moment.  “Are you a Christian?”

He rose and headed toward her, carrying a pot of steaming water and a cup filled with the preparation he had made.

“The man whose home I live in is a Baptist.”  He smiled shyly.  “This one listens when he talks.”

She smiled as well.  “Not preaches?”

He shook his head as he placed the cup on a bedside table and slowly poured boiling water over the leaves.  “Lee Chen does not preach.  He speaks and answers when I question.”

Clare leaned back against the pillows, her arm languidly thrown across her forehead.  “There are a few churches in Yerba Buena.  They’re all Catholic, so Papa says we cannot go.  He has a man who comes here to conduct services.”  The beautiful young woman pursed her lips as if she had tasted something sour.  “All he does is preach.”

“True faith is confirmed by the heart, confessed by the tongue, and acted upon by the body,” he said as he picked the cup up and handed it to her.

“What does it taste like?” she asked, looking at it from under her arm.

“A life without pain,” he replied.

Her lips curled.  “In other words, awful.”  She made a face as she sipped the liquid it contained.

“Bitter herb often brings sweet fruit,” he replied with a hint of a smile.

The young woman took another sip, this time making less of a face.  A moment later she handed it back empty.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Thanks are not necessary.  It is my duty to heal.”

“So, caring for me, it’s just a matter of duty?  You find no pleasure in it?”  Clare looked directly at him.  “I think I’ve been insulted.”

He did not know how to reply.  His experience of women – other than family – was limited, and of white women was practically non-existent.  He knew some were what men called ‘teases’, while others were vain and found it necessary to have men approve of them.  Meeting Clare’s gaze, he did not think she was either of these things.

“It is my pleasure, Missy Clare,” he said.  “This one is honored to be allowed to care for you.”

Her face broke into a smile, brighter than the beam spilling into the room.  Clare reached out, offering him her hand.  He took it, because he felt he must, though he knew he should not.

“Dear Hop Sing, you have it wrong,” she said.  “The pleasure is all mine.”

———-

Xué hǎo sān nián, xué huài sān tiān,” he said softly.  “It takes three years to learn well, but only three days to forget.”

In other words, you must choose to do good or evil will have its way.

Lu Lin hung her head again.

“Where is your brother?”

It snapped back up.  She looked startled.

“I watched him ride away half of an hour ago.  Where does he go?”

Her voice was small as a mouse.  “I do not know.”

He didn’t believe her, but he let it pass.  “But you know what he went for.”

She shook her head.  “I do not know…for certain.  When Lu Yin comes in the house, he and Mister Stephens go into the study and lock the door.  It is there they speak.”

“And you have listened?”

“Only once.”

“Did he catch you?”

She nodded.

Hence the bruise on her cheek.

Hop Sing thought a moment.  “Do not speak.  Simply nod.  Did this conversation have to do with Mister Cartwright’s sons?”

A hesitation, and then another nod.

“Does Mister Stephens know where they are?”

“Yes,” she breathed.

“And does your brother tend to them where they are?”

Tears flooded her eyes.  Again, there was silence and then a soft, painful sigh.  “As do I.”

He reached out to catch her wrist.  “Lu Lin.  Are they well?”

Her dark lashes fluttered, sending tears streaming down her cheeks.

“Honorable Hop Sing must hurry.”

 

 

TEN

Hoss no longer cared whether the men holdin’ them knew he had his hands free or not.

A sound had awakened him earlier and he’d reached out to touch his brother, only to find Little Joe wasn’t by his side.  He pert near panicked until he felt around and realized the boy had toppled over and was layin’ on the cold stone floor.  Picking his brother up, he’d returned Joe to his lap and begun to work on the ropes that bound the little boy’s arms together.  Joe woke up while he was doin’ it.  His brother held still as he worked the knots loose and then flung his arms about him the minute he was free and took hold like he was three stories up and afraid to fall.  Little Joe was hot – really hot.  Even so he’d been shiverin’ to beat the band.  Fearin’ for him, Hoss had retrieved his vest from the floor and wrapped it around his skinny frame before pullin’ him close.  Joe was whimperin’, so he kept talkin’, tellin’ the little boy he was right there and everythin’ was gonna be okay.

He sure wished he believed what he said.

That had been a few hours back.  He’d been waiting ever since for someone to tote in some water so’s he could give his little brother a drink, but so far no one had.  Since he’d been taken, it seemed there was always someone comin’ and goin’.  There’d be voices outside or he’d hear footsteps, and every so often a light would shine into the room and someone would open the door and come inside.   He’d been in mines before with Adam and their pa.  Adam said that a mine without a light was a new definition of ‘black’.

He sure did miss that light.

Hoss stared out into the gloom, thinking about all the shafts and corridors that were out there and how they burrowed into the earth like a prairie dog.  For the life of him, he couldn’t understand why any man would want to work in a mine.  If you had to do it, that was one thing, but to choose to leave the light and the air and all of God’s glorious creation behind to labor in a pitch-black pit?

That was his new definition of ‘crazy’!

Tiny fingers plucking at his chin brought Hoss back to the present.

“What is it, punkin?” he asked.

“I’m thirsty.”

Hoss licked his lips.  “I know, Little Joe.  I am too, but we ain’t got any water.” The big teen leaned over and picked up a crust of bread.  He’d been hoarding little bits over the last few meals just in case….

Well, just in case.

“I got me some bread.  You want it?”

Joe’s head shook against his shirt.

Hoss placed a hand on his brother’s forehead.  “You got yourself some fever goin’ there, little brother.”

“Don’t you think I know that, you big lug!” Joe snapped.

It was good to hear some fire in Joe’s tone.

“Are you sure we don’t have any water?”

“Sorry, Little Joe.  They ain’t brought anythin’ for a couple of hours.”

“Have you looked around?  Maybe there’s some in the room.”

“Joe, you know I can’t ‘look around’ at nothin’,” he snorted.  “It’s black as a winter chimney in here!”

Even as he said it, the big teen wondered why he hadn’t gotten up to check out the space they occupied.  He guessed it was because he didn’t want to leave Little Joe behind – and he still didn’t.  It didn’t smell of blasting powder or nothin’ so he didn’t think it was a storeroom.  Maybe it was the foreman’s office or somethin’ like that.  Hoss remained silent as he considered his little brother’s needs.  It was damp and cold in the room and Lu Lin had never brought that blanket.  Maybe there was one here, or maybe there was something else like a coat or shirt hangin’ on a peg that he could toss over Joe.

“You’re awful quiet.”

Hoss chuckled.  “I was just thinkin’ about how smart you are, little brother.  Could be there’s some things in here we could use.”  He paused.  “I hate to put you down, but….”

“It’s okay.  I’ll be okay.”

Sure you will, he thought.

“I’m gonna scoot you off my lap and lean you against the wall.”

“…okay….”

After he was sure Joe was propped real nice, Hoss unbuttoned his shirt and removed it.  “I’m gonna put my shirt around you to keep you warm,” he said as he lifted his brother’s feverish form and began to wrap it.

“But you’ll get cold!” Little Joe protested meekly.

“I got an extra shirt on ‘cause I was ridin’ night fence,” he said.  “I’ll be fine.”

“Don’t be gone long, Hoss,” Joe’s small voice pleaded.

He put his hand on his brother’s head and ruffled his damp curls.  “I won’t.  I promise.”

It was like bein’ blind, only he didn’t have no cane to feel around with.  One thing Hoss found out right quick was that the room weren’t very big.  He hit a wall within seven steps and that put it at under twenty feet.  Luckily, he didn’t hit anythin’ else.

“You find anything, Hoss?” Joe called out.

“Not yet, little brother.  Just hold them horses of yours.”

Hoss changed directions, heading left from where he’d been.  A few seconds later he said, “Ouch!”

“You okay?”

“I’m fine.”

His knee had encountered something hard and now that he felt along it, he thought it was a wooden desk.  It was empty of papers and pencils, and there wasn’t a chair.  Or at least he hadn’t found one yet.  Hoss almost fell when his hands encountered a dead space with nothing in it and then – thank the Almighty! – he felt something made of a heavy cloth.

He also felt a slight breeze.

“What’d you find?”

“Somethin’ that’ll make you feel a sight better, little brother,” he answered as he moved toward the opening through which the air was pouring.  It was a door – the door to their prison he imagined.  He was about to test it when he heard those voices he’d been missin’ – only he wasn’t so happy about hearin’ them now.  Turning in his brother’s direction, Hoss ordered, “Little Joe, you keep quiet.  Someone’s comin’.”

A small moan told him his brother had heard.

Hoss reached up to feel the door and discovered it had a small window in it, which had been broken out at some time.  He paused just to the side of it and listened.  He couldn’t hear much.  The men weren’t close, but he managed to catch a few words.

“…with them?”

“…sure.  …said he’ll…let us know today.”

“…sick.”

“…cares.  …dead by sundown.”

The big teen froze.  He stood there, contemplatin’ what he’d heard as the voices moved away.  There was a few glass shards left in the window, but he didn’t care.  Hoss pushed his arm through it and reached down, prayin’ that he could find the lock and that the key would still be in it.

All he managed to do was cut the heck out of his armpit.

“Hoss?” Joe called.  “Are…you…comin’ back…soon?”

Little brother’s teeth was chatterin’.

Hoss turned and caught the garment off the hook.  It was a heavy coat made out of wool, with a big old collar just right for turnin’ up.  He didn’t know if it belonged to one of the men who’d brought them there, or if it belonged to whoever had used this office once upon a time, but he didn’t care.  For his little brother, it was big as a blanket.

Little Joe was slid partway down the wall by the time he got to him.  Hoss caught his brother under the arms and lifted him up.  He held the little boy to his chest while he slipped the coat around him, and then lowered Joe to the floor and sat beside him.

“Thanks, Hoss.  It’s…real warm,” Joe said.  “Did you…find a…way out too?”

Hoss laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder.  “I’m gonna sit with you a while and then I’m gonna go and look again.  Okay?”

Joe’s reply was quiet.  “I was kind of hoping you were gonna find a way out.”

He was glad his brother couldn’t see his frown.  Hoss was thinkin’ about what he’d heard those men say.  He didn’t know what they was plannin’, but whatever it was, it wasn’t good.  Seemed to him that whoever was holdin’ them must have decided they weren’t worth it, or were too much trouble, or maybe, they’d just been waitin’ and meant to kill them all along.  Even as that dark thought took root, hope sprung in Hoss’ large heart.  Maybe the bad men knew their pa was on the way!  Maybe they was thinkin’ they was gonna get one over on their father, but these varmints didn’t know Pa.  Pa would move heaven and earth to find them.

Hoss looked toward the door.

He just better do it before sundown.

 

Ben Cartwright sat across the camp fire from his eldest son, his thoughts as black as his mood.  He was tired…well, exhausted really.  From the time of Little Joe’s accident, he’d had very little to eat and even less sleep.  His nights were plagued with dreams, the theme of which was always the same: all three of his sons were dead.  In his nightmares he watched them die, or found out they were dead, or stood before three open graves watching the coffins being lowered into the ground – and the worst thing was, there was no reason.  There was no one to blame.

No one but Hop Sing.

The rancher shook himself.  He was a man who put faith in his good judgment and, from the moment he had met Hop Sing, he had known he was a good man.  He didn’t doubt him, not really, but he wished his old friend had taken him into his confidence before leaving.  The system of honor held sacred by the Chinese and cultures like theirs was a worthy one.  It placed others above one’s self and created a world where elders and children alike were respected and truth was paramount.  At the same time, it had a darker side where secrets were kept and cowardly acts committed in the dark in order to keep one’s ‘face’.  Hop Sing had lived in America for fifteen years or more.  He’d become Westernized in some ways, but in others was still a man of the East.

A man of mystery.

“Would you like more coffee, Pa?” Adam asked, breaking into his reverie.

He shook his head.

There was a pause.  “Are you all right?”

Ben looked at Adam – really looked at him.  Though he was a man – at twenty-two – to him, his son seemed little more than a boy.  Only six short years ago he had been Hoss’ age.  A child really, in the greater scope of things.  Though he’d sailed away from everything he knew at a younger age and thought himself grown and worldy-wise, in reality, he had known nothing.  His had been a fairly happy childhood and adolescence.  Though he and his father fought, he’d known the older man loved him dearer than his own life.  His parents cared for him – protected him – just as he had done with his boys.  In Hoss and Little Joe that had bred a sense of safety and a willingness to trust.  Perhaps a little too much so.  Adam, on the other hand, had seen his fair share of the dark underbelly of life on the journey west and come away from it guarded and wary.

He just hoped the boy was wary enough to keep from falling prey to the same men who had taken his brothers.

Ben stretched and leaned back against the bole of the pine tree he was sitting under.  They’d made camp in a small grove with one of Roy’s deputies and about a dozen other men.

“I’m worried about your brothers.”  The rancher paused.  “And you.”

Adam grinned.  “They’d have to be some pretty bold kidnappers to snatch me out from under the eye of all these armed men.”

“They took you brother out of his bedroom while we were in the house.”

His eldest sobered quickly.  “Yeah.  I have to admit, that’s pretty bold.”

“Thank you, son, for playing it safe.  I know it chafes at you to be watched over.”

“It’s okay, Pa.  I….  I remember when I was a little kid.  The wagon train was a pretty dangerous place, but I never worried about it.  I knew you were there, keeping watch.”

As best he could.

“So, what’s the plan for tomorrow?” Adam asked.

The day had fled.  His youngest sons had been missing for over twenty-four hours now.  Ben glanced at the lawman who was traveling with them; a good solid man of middle years whose name was Lucas Painter.  “I can’t help feeling we are going about this the wrong way.  I know it was my idea to begin the search, but something keeps calling me back home.”

“You think Hop Sing’s the answer.”

He nodded.  “The best one we have.”

“Do you want to go back and find him, Pa?”

He did, but he didn’t want to leave Adam alone.

“I’ll be okay,” his son said, reading his mind.  “I’ll stick to the group and not go anywhere alone, I promise.”

Ben frowned.  Adam was a man.  He could trust him to look out for himself.

Or, at least that’s what he kept telling himself.

“Are you going to leave now or in the morning?”

The rancher placed his cup on the ground.  “Now.  There’s plenty of light with the moon so full.”

“Then go, Pa.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s to trust your intuitions.  You’re seldom wrong.

Ben looked at his boy.  He raised on eyebrow.  “Can I have that in writing?”

Adam laughed.  “Sure.  I can always claim it’s a forgery.”

He rose to his feet and his son did as well.  “Have I told you lately how much I love you, son?” he asked.

“That depends on your definition of ‘lately’.” Adam grinned.  “I think it might have been twelve hours ago.”

“Too long.”  Ben touched his son’s cheek.  “I love you.  Take care of yourself.  I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

 

Adam Cartwright woke after only a few fitful hours of sleep.  He sat up and blinked, and then stretched and yawned before rising to his feet.  For a second, it had taken him by surprise not to find his father and brothers sleeping beside him.  Then it all came crashing back – Little Joe’s accident and kidnapping, Hoss’ disappearance; his father leaving the night before.  Adam gazed in the direction his pa had gone and wondered how far the older man had made it by his moon and starlight before he had to stop.  Knowing his father – and Pa’s determination – he was probably pulling up in front of the house right about now.

“Mornin’, Adam.”

The black-haired man turned to find Deputy Lucas Painter approaching.  Painter was around Roy Coffee’s age and had been a sheriff when he was young.  The sandy-haired man said his shoulders got smaller the older he became and they weren’t big enough to carry all that responsibility any more.  He was lean and tough as a month old piece of jerky, with a shock of mustard yellow hair and crisp blue eyes.

“Good morning, Lucas,” Adam replied as he bent to pick up his bed roll.

“I haven’t see your father around.  Did he go missin’ too?”

He shook his head.  “Pa decided to go home.  He felt he could accomplish more there.”

Lucas’ brows met in the center.  He was silent a moment and then he asked, “So what do you two know that I don’t?”

“What do you mean?”

Lucas shifted his weight from one foot to the other.  “I wasn’t born yesterday, son, and I know your father well.  The fact that you’re still here indicates that we need to keep searchin’ for your brothers.  Otherwise, he would have taken you with him.”  Lucas was looking straight at him.  “Look, Adam.  Everyone in the Nevada territory knows how your pa is about you boys.  He’d turn Heaven and Earth upside down and march straight into Hell to find one of you if you went missin’, and make the men who took you pay.  So, why did your father leave?”

He said nothing.

“There must be something – or someone – back at the Ponderosa who knows somethin’ I don’t.”  Lucas pinned him with that ‘look’ lawmen got, when they were just about to use the power of the badge.  “Somethin’ I don’t that I should.”

He considered it a moment.  The lawman was right.  If it had been anyone other than Hop Sing, they would have gone straight to the law with the information they had – sketchy as it was.

But it was Hop Sing.

Adam bit the inside of his lip.  “Lucas, really, Pa just felt we might have missed something.  He was feeling…frustrated that we haven’t made any progress.  He wanted to start at point A and move back through B to C.”  He cleared his throat.  “He’ll rejoin us later.”

Lucas continued to stare at him.  Then he nodded his head.  “Okay.  We’ll go with that for now.  If there’s one thing the Cartwrights are known for, it’s their honesty.  I’ll take you at your word.”

The lawman really knew how to turn the screw.

“Thank you, Lucas.  If Pa finds out anything, we will certainly share it.”

“You do that.  That’s the way we’ll keep your brothers alive.”

And with that, he turned and walked away.

Adam let out a sigh as he watched the man go.  Lucas was right.  He should have told him about Hop Sing.  It was just, well, Hop Sing was family, and if one of his family was suspected of something – something that had not been proven – he would keep it close and not tell anyone until and unless he had to.  It was all too easy for men to misinterpret words.  He’d seen lynch mobs formed over a rumor.  And if word got out that a man from China was suspected in the disappearance of two white boys, well….

He shuddered.

“Hey, Cartwright!  We’re gonna be heading out soon.  You better get moving.”

He turned to find one of the men who had volunteered to help in the search for Hoss and Joe waving at him.  He didn’t know him, so he presumed he’d come from the settlement.  He was a big man and kind of looked like an older version of Hoss.  Adam lifted his hand and waved back.  The man was right.  Half the camp was ready to roll and he was still standing in the middle of it holding his bed roll.

“Be ready in a minute,” he responded as he finished rolling it up.

It didn’t take long to gather his things and secure them to his horse’s saddle.  That left only a few things to do before mounting up.  First, Adam returned to the fire where he downed the last of his slightly stale coffee and ate a stick of jerky skinny as Lucas.  Then he went to the stream that bubbled nearby and splashed some water in his face.  Finally, the black-haired man headed into the trees to take care of business.  He’d finished and was ready to return to camp when something stopped him.

That ‘something’ being the barrel of a gun pressed into his ribs.

“Make a sound and you won’t ever make one again,” a familiar voice warned.

Adam glanced over his shoulder.  He wasn’t surprised to find it was Bush Sears who held the gun on him.

“Might I ask what you’re doing?” he inquired.

Bush snorted.  “And here I thought you were the smart Cartwright.”

“Well, I will admit that I am a bit puzzled.  There’s a lawman and about a dozen other armed men on the other side of these trees.  If your intention is to rob me, you might have chosen a more opportune moment.  All I have to do is call out.”

“Rob you?” Sears scoffed.  “I get paid good, Cartwright.  I’m not robbing you.  I’m gonna take you to see your little brothers.  Isn’t that what you want?”

Adam stiffened.  He and Pa had suspected Sears, but to hear him admit it….

“Hoss and Little Joe,” he demanded.  “You better tell me they’re all right.”

“That big one, he’s okay.  The little one ain’t feelin’ too good.”

“What have you done to Little Joe?”

“I ain’t done nothin’.  The kid was sick when we took him.”

“Out of his bedroom,” he snarled.

“Yeah.  It was kind of dumb, leaving a window open like that.”  The barrel pushed more deeply into his ribs.  “Doesn’t your Pa know the night air ain’t good for little boys?”

“So I take it you’re kidnapping me as well?”

“Yeah.  You come nice and quiet, Cartwright, and no one back there in the camp needs to get hurt.  There’s more of us in the search party.  You yell and there’ll be a bloodbath.”

Adam drew a breath and held it. With Lucas and the other men so close, he could probably get away.

But did he want to?

Hoss had to be terrified.  He was alone with Little Joe, who was sick – and who knew how sick?  No one knew where his brothers were and this man was going to lead him to them.

“Sorry, Pa.”

“What’s that?” his kidnapper asked.

Adam sighed.  He’d made his father a promise and he’d just made the choice to break it.

He sure hoped his shoulders were big enough.

 

Ben topped the last rise before his home just as the dawn light broke over the mountains.  With every clop of his horse’s hooves he’d grown more determined to get to the bottom of whatever was happening.  Obviously someone held a grudge against Hop Sing and he was certain Hop Sing knew who it was. Why else would the Asian man have vanished?  Ben kept reminding himself that Hop Sing was a trusted friend and that whatever his motives were, they had to be pure.  He couldn’t believe the Asian man would do anything to willingly put the boys in danger.  As the note said, Hop Sing did think of Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe as his ‘sons’.  His dear wife on her deathbed had put the boys in their housekeeper’s care and Hop Sing had done everything he could to fulfill that sacred duty.  He washed their clothes and fed them, tended them when they were sick, and had been there for them when he, in his grief, had abdicated his responsibilities and abandoned the three most precious things in his life.

Still, there was something Hop Sing was not telling him and he simply could not let that stand.

He’d stopped briefly in the settlement on his way back to the Ponderosa to grab a cup of coffee and inhale a piece of day old pie at Beth Riley’s shop.  He knew she’d be up early baking.  Beth had welcomed him in and they’d chatted for a bit as he ate.  When he put his hat on and headed for the door, she’d called him back.  Beth explained that she’d been going home late the night before and her path – as he knew – took her past Sebastian Stephens’ grand house.  She’d glanced at the mansion as she walked past, and seen two people standing outside.

‘Is there any reason Hop Sing would have been visiting so late?’ she’d asked him innocently.

Ben’s jaw clenched at the thought of the slick Easterner.  He detested the man and had assumed when Hoss disappeared, that Stephens had been behind it.  It was the same with Little Joe.  He knew there were unscrupulous men who would stop at nothing to get what they wanted, and Sebastian was certainly one of them.

Then the note had come.

Impossible as it seemed, it appeared that the kidnapping of his sons was aimed at Hop Sing and not at him.

Could the two men be somehow connected?

Ben reined in his mount after rounding the end of the stable.  Since most of the men were out looking for Hoss and Joe, the yard was deserted – with one exception.  A small wagon with a team of horses was tethered to the rail in front of the house.  The animals looked at him as he dismounted and approached and pawed the ground, as if anxious to be on their way.  When he arrived at the wagon, Ben lifted the tarp that covered the bed and looked in.  It held food and drink, enough for a long journey, but – even more surprisingly – most of Hop Sing’s belongings.  As he stood there, pondering what it meant, a sound caught his attention and he turned toward the front door.

Hop Sing stood there; his mouth agape.  The wooden box that held his papers was in the Asian man’s hands.

Ben said nothing as he dropped the tarp and crossed to where his friend stood.  Hop Sing met his gaze and then dropped his head.

His jaw tight, the rancher asked, “Are you running away?”

Hop Sing’s shoulders rose and fell with a sigh.  He shook his head before looking up.  “Hop Sing not run.  Leave.  He no longer belong here.”

Was that a supposition of his own intent, or the intent of his friend, he wondered?

“Where?” Ben asked, his jaw tight.

“Hop Sing not know.  Only know he cannot stay.”

Ben thought a moment, carefully selecting his words before continuing.  “Is whatever you are hiding worth abandoning my boys?”

“Hop Sing not abandon them!  Hop Sing go to save them!”

Again, that statement could be taken several ways.

“Do you mean to say that your continued presence here threatens them?  Or,” he moved closer, “do you mean you are going to find them?”

The Asian man’s knuckles were white against the brown box he held.  He blinked back tears.

“Hop Sing mean both,” he answered quietly

Ben placed a hand on his cook’s shoulder.  “Hop Sing, I know you would never willingly do anything to put Adam, Hoss, or Little Joe in jeopardy.  But they are in jeopardy.  Running…leaving…will solve nothing.  You, old friend, hold the key to unlocking this mystery.  Whoever wrote that note called my boys your ‘children’.  It’s true.  They think of you as a surrogate or second father.  Part of what they are – the men they will become – is due to your loyalty and positive influence.”  His fingers tightened on Hop Sing’s raw silk shirt.  “If you truly love my sons, you owe them – and me – the truth.”

Hop Sing dropped his head.  “It will bring much shame upon the name of Cartwright.”

“I don’t care one whit about the name of Cartwright!” Ben snapped.  “Whoever wrote that note has my sons!  Their very lives are in peril!”

The Asian man remained silent for a dozen heartbeats before he nodded.  Hop Sing placed the box on the porch.  Then he reached into his jacket pocket and produced the locket from the kitchen shrine.

As he opened it and handed it to him, he said, “This is Missy Clare.  Sebastian Stephens’ only daughter.”

“And?” Ben asked as he stared at the lovely, if haunted face within the frame.

Hop Sing sighed.

“This one killed her.”

 

 

ELEVEN

As Adam Cartwright stumbled in the dark, he wondered how long it had taken Lucas Painter and the other men in the search party to realize he’d gone missing.  His horse had been left behind, so that would have been a giant clue.  Once he’d agreed to go with Bush Sears, they had simply walked away.  The route Bush took them on led through dense undergrowth and over rocky terrain.  There would be next to nothing to guide the lawman to him.  The few times they had left tracks, Sears had back-tracked and brushed them out, and then taken them even higher into the hills.

He had no idea where they were going.

They’d been on the move for several hours when Bush called a halt.  Even though he’d promised not to try to escape, his kidnapper had bound his hands behind his back (‘to keep you off-balance’) and tied a kerchief across his eyes.  A rough grip on his arm had guided his steps up until the moment they stopped.

‘Stay here!” Sears ordered.  ‘You move one foot, Cartwright, and I promise I’ll shoot one of those brothers of yours between the eyes.”

Adam did as he was told.  He remained still – he held his breath, in fact – and waited.  While he did, he listened.  Somewhere, not too far ahead, two men were exchanging words.  He heard his name – and his father’s – as well as ‘orders’ and ‘soon’, and even more disturbingly, ‘ditch’.  It seemed an eternity, but it wasn’t very long before the hand returned to grip his arm and he was roughly propelled forward.  The rough ground beneath his feet gave way to smooth rock and his footsteps began to echo.  He’d been in enough mines to recognize the sound.  He was forced into a shaft and, as they descended, the air grew thick and a chill settled in his bones.  They were moving to one of the mine’s lower levels – into the bowels of the earth.

Once there escape would be next to impossible, if it was possible at all.

When the elevator stopped, Sears shoved him again.  They walked for a minute or two and then Bush released him – with a second warning not to move.  Low whispers were exchanged before he heard a key turn in a lock.  They moved forward again.  There was a second key – a second lock – and then he was thrust forward.  Bush shoved him with such force that he lost his balance and fell, striking his head against the cold stone floor, and momentarily blacked out.

When he came to, Adam felt hot breath on his cheek.  A hand quickly followed, slapping it gently.

“Older brother, are you okay?”

Even though it was pitch-black in the room, he was seeing stars.  “Mm…mm okay,” he mumbled as he reached for the back of his head.

“Dang it, Adam!  What’re you doin’ here?”

He swallowed as his brother helped him to right himself and the stars began to fall around them.

“…ungrateful…” was all he managed.

“It ain’t that I ain’t glad to see you, older brother,” Hoss sighed, “but I ain’t glad to see you.  Not here.  Not like this.”

Adam blinked trying to focus.  “Are you all right?”

“I could just about eat a elephant, but otherwise I’m okay.”

Adam looked about, even though he couldn’t see anything.  “Is Little Joe with you?  Someone took him out of his bed.  Bush said –”

“Yeah, Little Joe’s here.”

There was something – a sadness, maybe even a hopelessness in his brother’s tone.

“Did they do something to him?” he demanded.

“You could say that.”  Hoss was angry.  “They done locked Little Joe in this cold damp place when he ought to be in a room with a fire roarin’ and about a dozen blankets on top of him.”

As Hoss finished, it hit him – what was ‘off’.  The room was silent.

Little Joe hadn’t said anything.

“Hoss…what aren’t you telling me?”

His brother let out a sigh.  “I done what I can, Adam, but I’m scared it ain’t enough.  Little Joe’s awful sick.”

“Where is he?”

“Over by the wall.  Come on, I’ll help you up and take you to him.”

Adam felt his brother’s arm reach around his back.  As he wobbled, Hoss asked, “You sure you can make it?”

“I’m fine.  I don’t think I hurt myself.  I just had the wind knocked out of my sails.”

“Sure, you did,” his brother snorted.  “Just like Little Joe’s ‘fine’.”

It was a short walk – no more than the distance across the great room – but, to Adam, it felt like he’d walked to the northern boundary of their land.  Hoss leaned him against a wall.  He heard the rustle of his brother’s clothing as he crouched.

“Hey, punkin,” Hoss said gently.  “Wake up, Little Joe.  We got us a visitor.”

A low moan was his reply.

Adam felt his way down the wall and then felt along it, seeking his baby brother.  His hand encountered the boy’s curls and then his forehead – which was ablaze

“He’s got quite a fever,” he said.

“Yeah, I know.  Not sure how long he’s had it since I lost all track of day and night.  I know he’s in pain.”

“Has he been awake?”

“…wake now…” a sleepy voice groused.  “How’s a feller…s’posed to sleep…with…you two…jabberin’….”

“Little Joe,” Adam asked as he touched his brother’s cheek.  “How do you feel?”

“…fine…go away….”

“Joe, I need you to stay awake, for just a minute.  Okay?”

“Don’t want to.”

“I know you don’t, but I need you to talk to me.  Joe?”

“I think he’s asleep again, Adam.”

The black-haired man let out a sigh.  “Has he been able to feel his legs?”

“Not so’s I know.  I gave up askin’ him when he got so sick.”

Adam’s fingers encountered the thick fabric wrapped around his baby brother.  “I see you found something to keep him warm.”

Hoss took hold of the coat and tucked it in around Joe’s chin.  “Yeah, ‘that’s about all I been able to do for him.”  His brother paused.  “Adam?”

“Yeah?”

“You never answered my question.”

Adam was maneuvering himself into a seated position.  Once settled, he reached over and pulled his little brother’s feather-light frame onto his lap and cradled the boy’s head against his chest.  It wouldn’t really do anything to help Joe, but it made him feel better having the boy so close.

“What question was that?” he asked as he pushed a lock of sodden curls from Joe’s forehead.

“What are you doin’ here?”

It was a good question.

“I didn’t have much choice,” he admitted.

“Did they kidnap you too?”

“Sort of,” he said.  “I was in the trees answering nature’s call when Bush Sears came up to me and shoved the barrel of his gun in my ribs.”

“Was you alone?”

“I was with a search party.”

“Couldn’t you have called out for help?”

Adam leaned his head against the wall.  It was still throbbing, though the stars had faded.  “I could have, but under the circumstances, I decided not to.”

“What circumstances?”

“He threatened to harm the men in the camp – said there were others in the search party that were with him.  Lucas and his men could have been killed.”  He hesitated.  “Besides, I knew going with Sears might be our only hope of locating you and Little Joe.  Pa and I have been looking, Hoss.  It’s been days.  We had no trail and no clues.”

Adam pulled his baby brother tighter to his chest and decided not to add, ‘and no hope.’

Hoss fell silent.  When he spoke again, he sounded like the sixteen-year-old boy he was – a boy who needed his father.

“So Pa was with you?”

“He was.  He decided to go back home to speak with Hop Sing.”

“Hop Sing?  What’s he got to do with anythin’?”

Adam winced.  He’d forgotten that Hoss didn’t know about the note.  Neither did Little Joe.  He hesitated, unsure of whether or not he should tell his brother his suspicions.  Did it really matter if, in the end, Hop Sing was exonerated of any wrong doing?

“Pa suspects that Sebastian Stephens had something to do with your kidnapping,” he responded, keeping somewhat to the truth.  “Hop Sing knows Yin and Lin Lu.  They work for Stephens.  Pa thought they might know something.”

“Well, he got that right,” the big teen agreed.  “Stephens sure enough has somethin’ to do with it.  Matter of fact, both Lu Lin and her brother been comin’ here and bringin’ us grub.”

Adam stiffened.  If that was true, then it really was Stephens who was behind everything.

But what was the bastard’s connection to Hop Sing?

“Did either of them tell you anything?”

“Nah.  That poor little gal is scared stiff and her brother, you know Yin, he just don’t care.  If he’s bein’ paid, he ain’t gonna ask any questions.”

He did know Yin and did not count him among his friends.

“So,” Hoss said, his tone wry, “back to what you’re doin’ here….”

“I came to rescue you,” he said.

The big teen was stunned into silence.  “Well, you sure enough got a funny way of goin’ about it,” he said at last.

“I’ll figure something out.  I have to,” the black-haired man said as he felt his baby brother’s forehead and winced at what he found.  Little Joe was on fire.

They were running out of time.

 

Mistah Ben sat in his leather chair, his fingers steepled under his chin.  Behind his employer the fire in the hearth blazed, casting light and warmth across the great room.  It did nothing to dispel the icy fist that gripped his heart.

“Would you care to explain that last statement?” Mistah Ben asked.

Without looking up, he replied, “Hop Sing say what he mean.”

“You killed someone?  A woman?”

Two someones,” he sighed.  “Sister and brother.  Both dead because of Hop Sing.”

“So, tell me, how did you do it?  Did you shoot them through the heart or use a rapier?”

The Asian man’s held came up sharply.

Mistah Ben sighed.  “Hop Sing, wouldn’t it be more truthful to say you feel that, in some way, you brought about their deaths?”

“Hop Sing bring about deaths,” he insisted.  “Make choice.  Choice not wise.”

“Choices of the heart seldom are, my friend. And that’s what it was, wasn’t it?”  His employer and friend pinned him  with his keen brown stare.  “The woman in the locket.  Clare.  She was the woman you loved, wasn’t she?”

The Asian man could see her as she was that last day.  Sad as the twilight that was sure to come.  He had tended Missy Clare for six months, finding joy in bringing her relief from her pain.  On many of his visits her brother would join them.  Mistah Ethan would bring a book and read out loud as he worked grinding the needed herbs and creating tinctures.  Due to this Maria Theresa no longer felt the need to remain.  Had the older woman known what was to come, she would never have left.

Had he known, he would not have let her.

“What happened?” Mistah Ben asked.

Hop Sing closed his eyes.  Summer had ended and autumn come.  Red, orange, and yellow leaves blanketed the hill outside Clare’s window; the one that led down to the bay where the tall ships came and went.  The light that filtered into the beautiful young woman’s room that day was golden as the ringlets that lay upon her collar; the breeze that rustled the curtains, crisp but not chill.  When he entered the house that morning, he found Clare’s brother had excused himself and retired to his room for the day, complaining of a headache.

He would find out later that Ethan had lied.

—–

“You know, Hop Sing,” Clare said as she walked to the window, “before you came the light hurt my eyes so I could not bear it.  I was like a caged thing, trapped in the dark.”  She looked over her shoulder at him.  “You have freed me.”

“Missy Clare is very kind,” he replied as he began to pack his bag in preparation for departing.  “This one is humbled and unworthy of such praise.”

“You’re not like other men.  Do you know that?”

He was uncertain of what she meant.  “If Missy Clare says so,” he replied.

“I do.  Men are…hard.  Cruel even.  Like my father, they seek power and ways to use it to rule others.”  Clare came toward him.  “They use their abilities…their talents to get what they want – no, to take what they want.”  She was close now – so close it made him uncomfortable.  Before he was aware of it, she had reached out and taken his hand in hers.  “You use yours to give.  Are all those who come from China like you?”

“It is our wisdom to walk in harmony with all, but there are those among us who chose to do otherwise.  These men use their hands to bring harm.”

“But not you.  You use your hands to heal.”  Clare startled him by leaning down and pressing her lips to his fingers.  “Your hands are beautiful.”

“Missy Clare, you must not –”

Why must I not?  Because you are Chinese and I am white?” she snapped, a bit of an edge to her tone.  “Because I have worth and you do not?  I have lived my life selfishly, seeking only my own pleasure; shut up in this house like a lark imprisoned, singing without knowing why, while you….”  Tears entered her eyes as she reached up to touch his face.  “While you, dear Hop Sing, have chosen a life free from such restraints – a life of giving.”  A single tear slipped down her cheek.  “You have given me so much….”

He broke away.  “Missy Clare must not say these things.”

“Yes, I must.  Ethan told me my father intends to dismiss you upon his return.”

He was surprised.  “And why is this?”

She pouted.  “I was foolish.  I let it slip.  Maria knows how I feel.  She wrote to my father.”

“How you feel?” he asked.

Clare rolled her eyes.  “Maybe you are like other men.”  She laughed.  “At least when it comes to women. I told her how I feel about you.”

It took a moment.  “You must not,” he breathed.

“I do, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”  She held his gaze.  “Hop Sing, I love you.”

“It is because I have tended you and brought you relief from pain –”

“You have brought relief for my pain –  the pain of living,” she replied.  “I can’t do it anymore.  I can’t pretend that this life, that these things,” Clare indicated the elegant room they occupied, “have any meaning for me.  I can’t…take anymore.  Don’t you understand?  I need to give.”

“You cannot love me.”

“But I do.”  Clare paused.  “And I think, if you are honest, you will admit you love me too.”

He shook his head.  “Such a thing cannot be.”

“Perhaps it cannot be, but it is.”  She took his hand again.  “Let’s go now, before father returns on his ship.  Ethan has said he will help us.  We’ll travel over the mountains.  He’ll never find us.”

“Mistah Ethan?”

“Ethan knows, silly.  Whom else could I trust?”

“But I am Chinese.”

“You’re not Chinese.  You’re a man and I love you.  That’s good enough for him.”

He did love Clare – he had loved her with all his heart from that first day – but he had not allowed his head to know.

“You would do this?  You would leave everything for me?”

Clare touched his face again.  “I am leaving nothing, and I gain everything,” she said.  “I would go with you and be your wife, if you would have me.”

And then she kissed him.

—–

“Hop Sing?”

The Asian man looked at his employer.  Mistah Ben’s face was soft with sympathy, but hard with a father’s worry.  His answer brought pain to both of them.

“The note you received, it speaks truth,” he admitted.  “This one took Sebastian Stephens’ only daughter and son.  Missy Clare pledged herself to this unworthy one.  She asked her brother to help her leave her home before her father could return.”

“You planned to run away together?”

He nodded.  “This one dreamed of a new path, but woke and walked the old one.”

“I’m sorry,” Mistah Ben said.  “I take it Clare’s father prevented you from being together.”

Hop Sing’s jaw clenched.

As wise father Hop Ling had taught, the thorn from the bush one has planted, nourished, and pruned pricks most deeply and draws the most blood.

 

Adam had shared his brother’s tenebrous dungeon for several hours now.  It was hard to imagine Little Joe and Hoss had been here for days.  The air – while adequate – was stifling, a constant cold crept up from the floor into your bones, and the all encompassing darkness was oppressive.  From what Hoss said, they’d had little water and even less food, and now even that routine had been broken.  The black-haired man wasn’t sure what time it was, but he knew it was well after the noon meal and probably past supper-time as well.  He’d heard someone speaking a while back – he thought it was Pratt Shade – but his voice had been far off in the distance and then disappeared.  Adam let out a sigh as he shifted his grip on Little Joe.  So far his plan for rescuing his brothers was not going too well.  He’d managed to get himself imprisoned along with them, and could see no way to get them – or himself – out.  He’d figured that, together, he and Hoss could overpower one of the captors, or that one of them could manage to slip out while the other kept a guard occupied.

So much for that idea!  It was almost as if they had been abandoned.

As they sat side by side, listening to their little brother’s labored breathing, he and Hoss had talked.  He’d told the big teen about the note and about Hop Sing running away.  For what must have been the thousandth time, Adam wondered what in the world the note meant.  He knew from his father that Hop Sing had been alone when he met and hired him.  There had been no wife – no ‘children’.  Of course, there could have been before, but it was almost impossible to believe that they could have known Hop Sing for over ten years and never heard anything about them.  Their cook and housekeeper was close about his past – his present, even – but a man slips.  He says things he doesn’t intend to.

His back was hurting, so Adam shifted and sat up straighter.  As he did, his little brother stirred.  Feebly, Joe touched his cheek.

“Pa?” the boy asked.

Adam caught his brother’s hand in his own.  “No, Joe.  It’s me.  Adam.”

“Where’s…Pa?”

“He’s coming, Little Joe.  Pa’s coming.  I promise.”

Joe pulled his hand away.  He shivered and then tucked in closer to him, wrapping his arms around his waist.

“Don’t leave…me…Adam.”

The black-haired man drew in a startled breath as Little Joe gripped him with the strength of a gale force wind.  It was a feeling at once familiar and almost forgotten, and it nearly unmanned him.  How many times had he comforted his baby brother in just this way after one of his nightmares?  How often when Joe had angered Pa or Hoss and felt like he didn’t have a friend in the world?  With Marie’s death, his brother’s need for his approval and love had grown exponentially.  While he was at college he had forced himself to forget, for the power of the memory –  of that need – was nearly enough to drive him to the first stage that was headed home.  Though his education had gained him much, he’d lost something while he’d been gone.

He’d lost Little Joe’s trust.

Adam ran his fingers through his baby brother’s curls.  “I’m not going anywhere, Joe.  Little Joe?”

“I think he’s sleepin’ again. Adam,” Hoss said softly.

He hoped that was all Joe was doing – sleeping.

“You know, you can’t blame yourself,” the big teen went on.  “It ain’t your fault.”

Hoss must have inherited his intuition from their father.

“Yes, it is.  I should have protected you.  Both of you.”

“Ah, I ain’t talkin’ about that.  I’m talkin’ about this here little scamp.  I know you’re feelin’ bad for goin’ away and leavin’ him so soon after Mama died.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Hoss chuckled.  “You play it anyway you like, older brother.”

Adam’s fingers continued to play with his brother’s curls.  “Pa never….”  He cleared his throat.  “I asked, but in his letters Pa always said Joe was ‘all right’.”  The black-haired man paused.  “I’m not sure if that was a comfort or not.”

“Little Joe missed you, Adam.  He missed you a lot.  But you know how it is with kids, they got a special way of survivin’.  After a while, well, I guess Joe took to pretendin’ you weren’t never there to begin with.  Just like Mama.”  Hoss blew out a sigh.  “I think it hurt too much for him to think about what he was missin’.  Little Joe was ‘all right’ ‘cept for when your letters came and he had to remember.”

Adam groaned.

“Now, don’t go feelin’ bad about that either, older brother.  Pa said it was good for Little Joe to remember.  Pa said a man grows stronger when he faces things and weaker when he don’t.”

Little Joe had written to him every month that first year, but then the letters had fallen off to every three or four months, and even then there had been a sense of ‘duty’ about the way they were written.  He’d replied, letting the family know what he was doing and that he was thinking of them, but – like Joe – he never used the words ‘I miss you’.

They were too painful to write.

He’d been back a little less than a year now.  He’d had to learn to know his brother all over again – and to love him in a different way.

He guessed it was the same with Little Joe.

Adam tilted his head back against the wall and let the tears flow.  No one would know.  The room they were in was pitch-black.  After a moment, he felt his brother stir.  Little Joe’s hand found his cheek again; his small fingers tracing the course of one of those impossible tears.

The arms that held him grew tighter.

“It’s okay, Adam,” Little Joe whispered.  “I missed you too.”

 

Hop Sing could not meet Mistah Ben’s fierce gaze.  His shame would not let him do so.  The words he spoke were hard as stones and weighed him down as if they were tied around his neck.  He had not thought of that day for many years and had no wish to do so now.

And yet, for the children he loved, he must.

______

The night was dark.  The three-quarter moon hid its face behind a bank of clouds and the stars were dim.  Missy Clare’s note, along with a token of her affection, had come an hour before, delivered by the hand of a faithful servant.  Hop Sing held the golden locket in his fingers even now as his footsteps took him to her.  Her father’s ship had docked, but he had not returned to their house.  The wealthy man had gone to another settlement to conduct business and would be gone for two more nights.

The time was now if it was to be any time.

He’d bid Lee Chen goodbye, taken up his bags, and headed for the bay.  The note from Missy Clare said she would not be alone.  Her brother would be with her.  Ethan had hired a coach and arranged for them to stay at a small mission outside of Yerba Buena that was run by a friend.  His friend, who was a Jesuit, would join them as man and wife.  After that, Missy Clare would go east with him, into unsettled territory, while Mistah Ethan returned to their father’s house to ‘mop up’ as he said.  Hop Sing paused just outside of a pool of light cast by one of the tall street lights that lined the avenue he walked.  Theirs would not be an easy union.  There would be much hatred, much derision, and much trouble.

When he told her this, Missy Clare would not listen.  She told him ‘love would find a way’.

He was to meet them at midnight at a garden gazebo.  The park that contained it sat high on a hill and was fronted by a street called ‘Maiden Lane’.  There was a Spanish name for the street as well, but the white man had given it this name because young women often came here to watch for the tall ships to return with the men they loved.  As Hop Sing rounded a corner and the small wooden structure came into view, somewhere in the distance a clock struck twelve times.  He could see movement within.  Missy Clare’s face appeared from out of the darkness and his heart soared at the sight of his beloved.  Then he saw the man behind her.  It was not her brother.

It was Sebastian Stephens.

“They hang white men for stealing, coolie,” the wealthy man growled as he twisted Clare’s arm and reeled her in.  “What do you suppose they’d do to a chink?

Hop Sing halted a few feet away; his eyes never leaving the one he loved.  “This one has stolen nothing from you.”

“You’ve stolen my children’s affections!” Stephens shouted as he came down the steps, dragging Clare with him.  “You’ve bewitched them with your potions and heathen ways!”

“Hop Sing!  No!” she cried.  “Run!  He has a gun!”

“I should kill you where you stand,” the wealthy man growled as the weapon appeared.

Hop Sing remained where he was.  He held Missy Clare’s gaze, willing her to trust him.

“I told him,” she sobbed.  “I told Papa it was my choice and that he can’t stop me. That I love –”

Her father struck her; silencing her.

But not her brother.

“As I told you to let her go!” Ethan declared as he appeared from out of the shadows.  His hair was in disarray; his collar askew.  One eye was blackened and his lip bled from being struck.  It was evident he and his father had clashed before.  “This is Clare’s life!  Let her go, father, or I swear I will never speak to you again!”

“You will keep silent!” Stephens commanded.

“I warn you,” Ethan continued, his eyes locked on the gun.  “If you murder Hop Sing, you will lose us both!”

He had known better, but he had forgotten.  The path he had chosen was a simple one, to give and to expect nothing in return.  If he could take back his words of love, he would.

But he could not.

Hop Sing closed his eyes and asked for wisdom.  He remained still as the wind whipped about him and whispered words to calm his beating heart.

He knew what he must do.

There was only one path and he must walk it.  He would challenge the wealthy man and make certain the bullet came to him.

With a smile on his face, the Asian man took a deep breath and stepped directly into the path of the gun.

Hop Sing sighed.

As an older and a wiser man, his choice would have been different, but he was young then and did not know the hearts of men.  It was not the way of his people, but it was the way of the white man.  As Sebastian Stephen’s finger closed on the trigger, Missy Clare’s brother shouted ‘NO!’ and grabbed his father’s arm.

Clare broke free.  She ran to him.

The bullet took his beloved in the back, just above her heart that beat with love.

And then, it beat no more.

 

 

TWELVE

Adam was on the move.  He’d gently passed Little Joe over to Hoss and begun to explore their prison.   For the last few hours there had been no sound or movement without it and he was beginning to suspect there never would be.

He was beginning to suspect that they’d been abandoned and left to starve to death.

As he moved along the perimeter of the room running his hands over the furniture – pulling out every drawer and searching every cubby – Adam continued to analyze the choice he had made.  At the time it had seemed the logical thing to do – allowing himself to be taken and brought to his brothers’ location.  Of course, he couldn’t have known that location would be twenty or more feet down.  Now that he thought about it, it made perfect sense.  Sebastian Stephens had bought just about every unimportant mine in the area and let most of them go dark.  Their demise upped the value of the larger mines he owned and operated.  Little did he care that he’d ruined the lives of the men who’d founded them or put dozens of miners out of work.  Some of those men had come to the Ponderosa, desperate for a job, and Pa had hired them even though they knew nothing of cattle or horses.

Adam halted where he was.  Pa.  Their father was out there looking for them.  Pa would reach the same conclusion.  He would come to save them.  But…. even if he did, how would Pa know which mine to search?  If he searched them all, they would run out of time.

No.  It was up to him to get them out.

The black-haired man hesitated where he was and listened to his brothers.  Little Joe had awakened and he and Hoss were speaking softly.  Both of them were pretty weak.  He’d eaten the night before his capture, so he still had some strength.  From what he could tell, the two of them had been practically starved to death, receiving nothing more than some kind of gruel and water since they arrived.  It made him wonder why Stephens kept them alive.  He was grateful for it, but it made little sense.  Unless he just wanted to make them suffer.

Or wanted someone to know they had suffered.

Adam grabbed the edge of the table in front of him.  He was a rational man.  It took a lot to drive him to a killing rage.  The thought of that arrogant Easterner making his little brothers pay the price for whatever grudge he held against Hop Sing was enough to do it.

“You find anythin’, Adam?” Hoss called out.

He closed his eyes and drew a breath.  It pained him to hear his normally robust and vigorous middle brother sound so weak.

“Furniture,” he replied as he began to move again.  “Some papers on a table.  Not much else.”

“There’s a rack somewheres.  It’s got some clothes on it.  That’s where I got the coat for Little Joe.”

Adam turned toward them.  “Joe?  How are you doing?”

“I’m…fine,” his brother answered in a voice too small for a mouse.  “Don’t…you worry…about me.”

“That’s good,” he said, though he didn’t believe it.  “Is Hoss taking good care of you?”

“Uh huh.”

“I got him all wrapped up, Adam.  Nice and warm.”  There was a pause.  “He’s shiverin’ pretty bad.”

“How’s his fever?”

“It’s on its way up again.”

“Try to get some more water in him, Hoss,” he said as crossed back over to his brothers.  He’d found a little in the bottom of a bucket tucked in a corner.  It was stale but it was better than nothing.  “The pail’s on your side.”

“Will you two…stop…talkin’ about me like…I ain’t here!” Joe protested meekly.

Adam reached out to brush a mop of sopping curls off his brother’s forehead.  “Sorry, buddy.  Would you like some water?”

Little Joe’s teeth were chattering.  “Too…cold,” he said as he leaned into his hand.  “Just..wanna…sleep.”

“Adam?”

There was a whole world of worry in that one word.

“Why don’t you hand him over to me again, Hoss?  Joe, I’m gonna hold you.  When Hoss brings the water, I want you to drink some.  Okay?”

He could hear the pout even if he couldn’t see it.  “Okay.  If you…ouch!”

“You okay, Punkin?” Hoss asked.

“Somethin’….”  Joe fell silent.  When he spoke again, his voice choked.  “Somethin’ just poked…me in the leg.”

Adam started to pick Joe up before the reality of his brother’s words struck him.  “You felt something poke your leg?”

Little Joe’s head nodded against his arm.  He took hold of his brother’s leg and squeezed.  “Joe?  Can you feel that?”

There was a pause.

“Sort of.”

Tears welled in the black-haired man’s eyes even as his other brother spoke.  “You mean you can feel your legs, Little Joe?” Hoss asked.

“I can…tell they’re…there,” he answered.  “I can feel somethin’…stickin’ me.”

Barely masking his jubilation, Adam asked, “Where, Joe?  Can you tell me where?”

“Kind of…underneath my right leg.”

He took hold of the little boy and leaned him forward.  “Hoss, see what you can find.”

Hoss was already feeling around Joe’s leg.  All of a sudden he sat up straight.

“Thanks, Hoss.  That…feels better.”   Joe tugged at his arm.  “Adam?”

“Yes, Joe?”

“I still can’t…move my legs.”

“That’s okay, buddy,” he reassured him.  “If the feeling is coming back, you will in time.”

“Okay.”

“Adam?  About this here pointy thing….”

He’d almost forgotten about the mysterious pokey object.

“What did you find?” he asked.

His brother took hold of his hand and turned it palm upward.  “I know what I think it is.  Let’s see what you think.”

Adam knew their father was praying for them.  He’d felt it like a covering.  Pa was petitioning God for a miracle.

It just happened.

Adam felt something cold and metallic settle on his palm.

It was a key.

 

Ben Cartwright glanced at his companion.  Hop Sing had stubbornly refused to speak since finishing his story.  It all made sense now.  Sebastian Stephens ‘children’ had been grown, but the Easterner blamed the Asian man for taking them from him.  Clare had been killed instantly.  Her brother, Ethan, disavowed his father and walked away, never to return – but not before going to the law and letting them know what had happened.  It was at this time that the warrant had been issued for the Asian Man’s arrest and Hop Sing had been detained.  If it had been up to Stephens, he would have hung, and it almost happened.  The story that Ethan gave the law was truthful but incomplete in parts.  The young man threatened to tell everything, knowing his testimony would destroy not only his father’s reputation but his life.  Sebastian relented and Hop Sing left the bay area and headed east as he and Clare had intended.  In order to survive, he became indentured and worked for the man who owned him up until the time they met.

The rancher glanced at the man seated beside him.  They’d left the ranch and were on their way by wagon to meet up with Adam.  Sometime over the last few hours Ben had come to the conclusion that they were going about the search for his sons in the wrong way.  They’d been looking above ground when they should be looking under it.  Something Sebastian Stephens said at that last meeting had come back to him.  The Easterner had boasted that he owned so many abandoned mines, he could hide an entire army in them and no one would be the wiser.

It terrified Ben to think of his young sons trapped below ground, but his intuition told him that was where he would find them.

As they sped along the road, the rancher considered all what he knew of Stephen’s holdings.  If the villain had concealed his boys in one of his mines, most likely it would be an inconsequential one, far from settlement and prying eyes.  It would have to be one that had been abandoned, unless that men who worked it were as unscrupulous as him.  Before they left the house Hop Sing had spoken of his suspicion that both Yin and Lin Lu were involved.  Ben had considered going to settlement to talk to the siblings but had decided against it.  He was concerned about the time it would take to get there and back.  Hoss had been missing for two days and Little Joe for a day and a half.  Joseph’s physical condition could only have deteriorated.  His youngest son had barely recovered enough from his accident to be allowed to go downstairs and sit on the settee, let alone to be hauled out of his window and over the roof to God only knew where.

Ben closed his eyes briefly.  God did know.  He had to keep reminding himself of that.

“Mistah Ben,” Hop Sing said.

The Asian man was pointing ahead.  Ben noted a cloud of dust headed toward them.  It materialized into Roy Coffee and Lucas Painter.

They were riding hell-bent for leather.

A chill snaked along his spine as the rancher reined the team in and waited.

“Ben!  Thank God!” Roy breathed as he checked his horse.  “We was hopin’ we wouldn’t have to ride all the way back to the Ponderosa.”

Lucas said nothing but simply stared at him.

Ben looked behind them.  There was no more dust.  No other riders.

He drew in a breath and asked, his voice tight with fear.  “Adam?”

“He’s missing, Ben,” Lucas said.

It took a second.  “…kidnapped?”

“We gotta assume so,” Roy replied.  “Though from what Lucas here said, it seems the boy might of just up and walked away.”

“Walked?  He didn’t take Sport?”

Roy shook his head.

“Mistah Adam go to find brothers,” Hop Sing said.

Ben turned to look at his housekeeper.  “How do you know?”

“Mistah Adam young and know no fear.  He feel responsible for little brothers.”  The Asian man’s gaze moved from Roy to Lucas.  “Think old men move too slow.”

“How do you know this?” Roy asked with some suspicion.

Hop Sing looked at the lawman for the first time.  “Hop Sing young man once as well,” he replied softly.

“Did you try to track the boy?” Ben asked.

“Soon as we realized he was missing,” Lucas answered.  “The tracks led out a ways but disappeared when they went up into the rock.”

“They?”

The lawman nodded.  “Someone was with him.”

“Good Lord!” he breathed.  “Then Sebastian has him too.”

Roy scratched his head.  “Sebastian?  You mean, Sebastian Stephens?  You think that city slicker’s got somethin’ to do with all of this?”

Ben opened his mouth to respond, but Hop Sing beat him to it.

“Mistah Ben not think.  He know.”

 

Adam continued to open and close his fingers on the key, unable to believe it was real.  His voice was hushed with awe.  “Tell me where you found it again?”

“The key’s what was pokin’ Little Joe’s leg,” Hoss replied.  “It was in the pocket of the coat I wrapped around him – the one I found hangin’ on the rack by the door.”

Did he dare hope?

“You think it could of belonged to mine’s foreman maybe?” his brother asked.

Adam grinned.  “I’m thinkin’ Pa’s prayers have been answered.”  He rose to his feet and quickly crossed to the door.  Once there, the black-haired man listened, making sure the hall was silent before he tried it in the lock.

“Well?” Hoss called.

He closed his eyes and whispered a prayer of his own, and then he pressed two fingers against the door and gave it a shove.  The sound it made as it creaked open rang hollowly down the empty corridor.  Adam winced and waited, but there was no response.

“It’s open,” he breathed, still not quite believing it.  “Come on, Hoss.  Pick up Little Joe and get over here.  We need to go now!”  When his brother failed to move, Adam turned toward him.  “Hoss, is something wrong?”

“I….”  The big teen sounded terrible.  “I ain’t…  Dang it, Adam!  I ain’t got the strength to get myself up and carry Little Joe.”

He quickly crossed the space between them and placed a hand on his brother’s arm.  “You’re weak.  You’ve been without food for nearly two days.  I’ll get Joe.”  As he said it, he realized his baby brother hadn’t spoken in some time.  “Little Joe?”

“He’s out again, Adam.  Happened just about the time you headed for the door.”  There was a pause.  “I cain’t wake him up this time.”

Adam probed the darkness until he came upon his little brother’s slight form.  Joe was lying on the floor.  He was breathing rapidly and his skin was on fire.   Before lifting him, he turned to Hoss.  “Can you get up on your own?”

“I ain’t…that bad,” his brother lied.  “I’m on my feet…already.”

“Can you walk?” Adam asked as he rose with Little Joe in his arms.

“Yeah.  Not sure how fast, but I can walk.”

“All right then.  Follow my voice,” he said as he led the way to the door.

“You think any of them varmints are out still there, Adam?”

No, he didn’t.

Not on this level at least.

But there was no way of knowing what they would find when they got to the top.

 

Ben explained his thinking once they met up with the remainder of the search party.  He was forced to share Hop Sing’s story, but kept it to its essential facts.  The Asian man was distraught.  He was sure the choice he had made so long ago had doomed Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe.  As for him, he didn’t believe his boys were gone.  Sebastian Stephens was a cruel man and cruel men enjoyed inflicting pain.  Most likely Stephens had not killed his boys but imprisoned them in some abandoned mine, intending to let thirst and starvation do the dirty work for him.  Roy and Lucas Painter agreed they should call the rest of the search parties in and then send them out again to search all of the Easterner’s properties.  Stephens owned two mines on the road to Hangtown.  Ben felt they should begin the hunt there, so while the lawmen headed out to find the others, he and Hop Sing headed west.  The mine closest to Gold Hill had once belonged to a neighbor of his.  He’d named it ‘Shade’s Girl’ after his daughter, but after that daughter chose a less than reputable ‘career path’,  it became known as the Shady Lady.  It had been closed shortly after Stephens came to the settlement and began his campaign to own not only Gold Hill but everything in the territory surrounding it.

It had taken them half a day to reach it.

Hop Sing’s touch brought him back to the present.

“Smoke,” the Asian man declared as he lifted his hand and pointed.

Ben saw it.  A thin gray trail, rising above the trees.  It was just the right amount for a small campfire.  That in itself was suspicious since there was no reason anyone should be at the vacant mine.

The rancher reined in the horses and let the wagon roll to a halt.  He hesitated and then reached in the back and handed his companion his spare sidearm.  Hop Sing made a face – the sort a man makes when someone has handed him a snake.

“I know you’re not a man of violence,” the rancher said, “but…”.

“It is not that.”

“No?”

Hop Sing’s jaw clenched as his fingers tightened on the weapon.  “I will kill him,” he said.

“In self defense, Hop Sing.  Only in self-defense.  Anything else and it will be murder.”

His housekeeper was already on the ground.  The Asian man looked up and met his worried gaze.  “This one’s body breathes, his heart beats, but he already dead.”  Hop Sing paused.  When he spoke again his English was unbroken.  “There is nothing left for me, Benjamin Cartwright, but the grave.”

He was gone before he could stop him.

 

Adam dropped to his knees when they got to the top of the shaft.  His muscles were trembling and he was out of breath.  Since there had been no one to bring them up, he’d had to hand over hand the rope to pull the elevator bearing the three of them to the surface.  All the way up Hoss sat on the platform holding Little Joe, who was still unconscious.  He’d had to help his giant of a brother to his feet and then support him as he stepped off the platform with Joe in his arms.  Both were seated now against the cave wall.  The black-haired man had wanted to bend down and kiss the ground when they emerged, but he knew that would have to wait.  He could rejoice later.  Right now he had two sick brothers to care for and protect and he had no earthly idea what they would find when they stepped out of the darkness into the light of the dawning day.

Adam glanced down.  His thigh was empty.  Bush Sears had taken his sidearm and belt when he abducted him.  That meant they were pretty much defenseless.

He was counting on the great favor God held their father in to see them home.

“You…think…anyone’s out there, Adam?” Hoss asked, breathless.

He shook his head.  He’d moved to the cave mouth and was looking out.  The way was clear so far as he could see, but he knew that meant little.  Someone could be hiding to either side of the opening or behind the trees just across the clearing.   He could smell smoke, which made him nervous.  Then again, the scent could have carried on the wind from a nearby cabin or homestead.

“How’s Little Joe?” he asked.

“He still ain’t woke up, Adam.  I’m gettin’ worried.”

He was already worried.  Damn it!  He’d come to rescue his brothers and so far all he’d managed to do was become trapped along with them.  Adam ran a hand over his eyes.  He was tired – really tired.  The lack of sleep and food was finally catching up with him.  The black-haired man shook his head and tried to blink it away.

He couldn’t afford to be sleepy because he couldn’t afford to make a mistake.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Adam.  You done your best.  You got us out of that hole,” his brother said.

“Well, my best isn’t enough,” he snapped.  “Now I have to get you home.  Both of you.”  Adam paused.  “Can you carry Little Joe or do you need me to take him?”

“I’m thinkin’ you better do it, Adam.  I don’t…want to drop him.”

The black-haired man turned away from the opening and headed for his brothers.  His eyes had rapidly adjusted to the meager light filtering into the chamber and he could see them clearly.  Both Hoss and Joe were filthy.  Their clothes and hair were soaked through with sweat and dirt caked their visible skin.  Hoss was doing his best to hide it, but he just as sick as Little Joe.  Dehydration and lack of food played a large part, no doubt, but the simple truth was that Hoss was a kid and all of this was just too much.  Fear and worry about his baby brother had about done him in.  Little Joe, on the other hand, wasn’t worrying about anything.

Their kid brother was dead to the world.

Joe’s arms and legs swung free as he lifted him out of Hoss’ arms.  A brief smile flickered across Adam’s lips in spite of their dire circumstances.  His little brother was the soundest sleeper he had ever known.  Many were the times he’d carried the kid up the stairs in just the same way.  Only this time Joe wasn’t sound asleep, he was unconscious and in danger of his life.

He waited as Hoss stumbled to his feet.  “You okay?”

“Yeah,” the teen replied.  “You get goin’.  Get Little Joe out of here.”

He had every intention of doing so.  “I’ll take him outside and then come back for you.”

“I’m fine.  I can get out on my own.  You take care of Little Joe!” Hoss snapped.

“Sure, you’re fine,” Adam replied as he adjusted his grip on their brother.  “Normally you could wrestle a grizzly to the ground and you can’t carry seventy pounds.  Look, Hoss.  Humor me.  Wait for me to come back for you.”

“I feel like I already…done…wrassled that grizzly….” Hoss admitted as he leaned against the cave wall.

Adam walked the few yards to the mouth of the cave and stepped out into the growing light.  He paused to draw in a breath of the crisp autumn air and then headed for the nearby trees, one of which he gently laid his little brother under.  The scent of smoke lingered in the air, making him wonder once again if someone had a camp nearby.  If they did, maybe he could get them to help.  As he rose, the black-haired man heard a sound – something like the noise a small animal made when wrapped in the coils of a snake.

When Adam turned back toward the mine, he saw he was right.  There was a snake, although the creature it threatened wasn’t so small.

Sebastian Stephens had his arm locked around Hoss’ neck.

And the barrel of his pistol pressed into the side of his brother’s head.

 

Hop Sing clasped the weapon tightly as he moved stealthily through the underbrush.  As Mistah Cartwright said, he was not a violent man.

He was one with a mission.

For nearly twelve years he had worked and cared for Mistah Ben and his sons.  Safe and secure in his kitchen – hidden away on the Ponderosa – he was, for the most part unaffected by life.  After Missy Clare’s death, he had grown hard.  Never again would he give his heart.  He lived his life with eyes downcast, never daring to look up.  He had been bought and sold and beaten and abused and had accepted it as just punishment for his crime – until he met a tall rancher who recognized in him something others could not or would not see.  Benjamin Cartwright would not listen to his self-effacing words, but told him he had worth.  Mistah Ben gave him a home; a place to belong – and children such as might have been.  Children he had grown to love as if they were his own.

Children who were now in danger because of him.

Hop Sing stopped and listened.  He knew Mistah Ben was not far behind.  His employer’s heart was that of the tiger.  He was strong and brave; bold and without fear.  Nothing would stop him from seeking and saving his cubs.  This brought him fear.  He knew what came of thinking with one’s heart.  It quickened a man’s steps and blinded his eyes to danger.  Mistah Cartwright would give his life for his sons.  This he could not allow.

If such a thing happened, it was for him to do.

A stand of trees blocked his view.  Hop Sing could hear men speaking on the other side.  He could not distinguish their words, but recognized the anger behind them.  Warily, the Asian man approached, carefully choosing his footing so he would not make a sound or fall and give himself away.

In this he succeeded.  He did not fall.

But he did make a sound – a strangled one –  when his foot encountered the dead man.

 

Adam glanced at Little Joe, who lay silent on the grass, and then stepped between him and Sebastian Stephens.

“Let me brother go!” he commanded.

“It’s a good thing I decided to come out and see how things were progressing.”  Stephens sneered.  “You simply can’t trust hired help these days.  You three were supposed to have been dead by now.”

Adam remembered the smell of smoke.  So someone had been camping near the mouth of the cave.  Probably Sears and Pratt since they were the ones who had been set to watch them.

That word came back to him.  The one Sears mentioned.  ‘Ditch.’

It looked like he’d interpreted it wrong.

“I take it they deserted,” he scoffed.  “What happened?  Too cheap to pay for someone you could trust?”

The Easterner held his gaze.  “Apparently, I looked in the wrong end of town.  This pair couldn’t stomach killing three kids.”

Adam wondered if any of the other the men Stephens had hired were still around.  Fear of that caused him to turn and glance at Little Joe.  He found his brother stirring.

“Joe!  Stay put!” he commanded and then realized the order was unnecessary.  Adam winced at his insensitivity.

“Hoss?”

His little brother’s voice was laced with fear.  Joe’s concern was for Hoss, he knew, and not for himself even though Stephens had shifted the gun and was now pointing it at baby brother.  Adam wondered if the man knew them well enough to realize that a threat to one of them was a threat to all.

“What is it you want?” he demanded.

Stephens answer was cold.  “As I said, the three of you dead.”

“Because of Hop Sing,” Adam replied.  “Why?  What’s between the two of you?”  He thought furiously and then remembered the locket with the beautiful young woman’s image and the letters from her among Hop Sing’s things.  “This is about Clare, isn’t it?”

The businessman’s knuckles whitened on the cold gray metal of his gun.  He bit off each word, “You… will…not…mention…her…name.”

Adam swallowed over his fear.  If he could make Stephens angry enough to turn the gun on him, then Hoss would be free to move.  He could only pray that his brother, in his weakened condition, had the strength to take on the Easterner.

“Clare loved Hop Sing, didn’t she?  That’s why you hate him, isn’t it?”

Stephens jaw was rigid.  “He bewitched her.”

“If that’s what you have to tell yourself.”

The gun did not waver.  It remained firmly fixed on Little Joe where he sat in the grass, unable to move.

“I brought that chink into my house to help my daughter,” the Easterner growled.  “He was supposed to cure her headaches, and instead he used his potions and charms and pagan ways to put her under his spell. Clare would never have gone with a man of color of her own volition!”

Adam moved a step closer.

“You stop where you are, boy, if you don’t want me to put a bullet through that brat’s head.”

It was a dangerous game he was playing and he knew it.

One he hoped neither of his brothers paid the price for.

“Adam, you take care of Little Joe and yourself,” Hoss rasped.  “Don’t you worry none about –”

The Easterner throttled him into silence.

“So noble, so good, you Cartwrights,” Sebastian Stephens snarled.  “And all this time you have been harboring a murderer under your roof.”

“Hop Sing murder no one,” a familiar voice remarked.  “At least he not do so until now.”

Along with Stephens, Adam turned to look.  Their cook and housekeeper – one of the most gentle men he knew – was standing in front of the trees, revolver in hand.  The barrel was pointed directly at the Easterner.

“Put the gun down, Chink, or I’ll kill the kid,” Stephens warned.

Hop Sing lowered his gun and deliberately stepped into the line of fire.  “Hop Sing one you hate.  You kill him.”

Stephens quickly swung the gun back to Hoss’ head and pressed the nose into his brother’s downy red-blond hair.

“I don’t want to kill you, you miserable coolie!”  Adam winced as he heard a ‘click’, signaling that Sebastian had cocked the trigger.  “I want you to suffer like you made me suffer!  I want you to live with unending, unendurable agony just as I have for these last fifteen years!”

“Hop Sing had nothing to do with your suffering,” a new voice remarked even as a tall, silver-haired figure emerged from the shadows, gun in hand.  “You brought that upon yourself, Sebastian, by your selfish actions.”

Pa.

It was…Pa.

Every bone in his body threatened to go to jelly, but Adam kept his feet.

His father moved into the clearing.  The older man looked at each of them in turn – at Hoss, who was held at the end of a gun, at Little Joe, paralyzed and unable to move, and at him, exhausted and at the end of his strength – and he smiled.

They were all alive – at least for the moment.

Pa pointed his firearm directly at Sebastian Stephens.  “You will let my sons go,” he commanded in that voice of his that was like the rumble of God.  “This is between you and Hop Sing.  They have no part in it.”

“Oh, but you’re wrong,” the Easterner countered.  “He stole my children –”

“These are my children,” Pa pronounced.  “I will not let you harm them.  Adam, get your brothers.  Take them home.”

Stephens glared at his father for several heartbeats and then, unexpectedly, released Hoss.  The big teen wobbled on his feet and almost fell down.  Instinctively, he, Hop Sing, and his pa all moved in to help.

The sound of a gunshot startled them all.

Taking advantage of the confusion, Sebastian Stephens had pointed his gun at Little Joe.

And pulled the trigger.

 

 

THIRTEEN

Adam glanced out of the window and acknowledged the rising light with a sigh before twisting in his chair so he could reach the bowl on the bedside table.  He plunged the warmed cloth he held into the icy water and wrung it out before replacing it on his brother’s feverish brow.  He’d thought he’d known what ‘tired’ was before, but the word was starting to have a whole new definition.  Pa had been around for the last few days but had ridden into settlement the night before leaving him to fend for himself.  It had been all Roy Coffee could do to tear the older man from Hoss’ side, but he’d managed it by reminding Pa that he had to give testimony before the judge if he wanted to see justice done.

Murder.  That was the charge.

The black-haired man blew out a breath and ran a hand over his eyes.  Normally Hop Sing would be here to help, but since he was in the thick of things, there was no one to left to look after his ailing brother but him.

“Adam?”

Make that ‘brothers’.

“Little Joe!  For goodness sake!  What are you doing out of bed?” Adam demanded as he rose to his feet and headed to the door where Little Joe leaned heavily against the jamb.  “And how did you even get out of bed without your crutch?”  He’d been careful to put it in the closet and close the door before he left his brother’s room.

The little boy glared at him and then dropped his head.  Joe muttered something.

“What was that?”

“I crawled.”

Adam let out a sigh.  “Joe, you know what the doctor said.  You’re not supposed to be out of bed at all.  You could undo everything you’ve gained by diso….”  His voice trailed off as he noted the tears running down his brother’s cheeks.   Adam knelt before him.  “Would you like to see Hoss before I take you back to bed?” he asked, his voice gentle.

Little Joe’s curly head bobbed up and down like an autumn apple in a bucket of water.

“I’m going to carry you,” Adam declared and then waited for the fight.  It didn’t come.  His brother didn’t protest – Joe just waited there, patiently – and that probably scared him more than anything else could.  Catching the kid in his arms, the black-haired man crossed over to Hoss’ bed and sat down.  Once there he let Joe slip off his lap so the little boy could place a hand on the big teen’s arm.

A moment later Little Joe turned his tear-streaked face toward him.  “Is Hoss gonna be all right?” he asked.

“He’ll be okay, buddy.  He’s just exhausted.”  Adam ruffled his brother’s curls.  “Like you.”

And like me, he thought.

“How come he won’t wake up?”

“Because he needs sleep to heal.  That’s why the doctor ordered you both to stay in bed.”

When Joe spoke again, his voice trembled.  “I don’t…like to lay in bed, Adam.  It’s like…. Well….  I don’t know if my legs work unless I’m usin’ them.”

Adam closed his eyes.  Thank God they were working!  Otherwise the little boy at his side would have been dead.  Thinking of it, he pulled his brother closer.

“Hey!  You’re gonna smother me!”

Adam rose.  He swung Joe up and into his arms and then headed for the door.  “How about we let your covers do that for me?”

Little Joe fell quiet as he carried him down the hall toward his room.  By the time they got there, his little brother’s hands were twisted in the fabric of his shirt and Joe’s curly head was firmly attached to his shoulder.  Adam could feel his brother trembling and wondered what was amiss.  They were home.  They were safe.

It was over.

It took a moment or two to detach the little boy.  After he got him in bed, Adam pulled the covers up to Joe’s chin, leaned in and planted a kiss on his furrowed forehead, and headed for the door.

“Adam, will you read me a book?”

The black-haired man pivoted on his heel.  He intended to refuse – after all, he was needed in Hoss’ room – but the look on Joe’s face stopped him.  This wasn’t about him reading a book, it was about his little brother not being alone.

“Sure, buddy, but it will have to be quick.  With Pa and Hop Sing away, I have to take care of Hoss.”

“Okay.”

Book in hand, Adam crossed back to the bed and sat beside his brother.  Little Joe’s lower lip was thrust out and he was trembling.

“Joe?”

“Why did Pa have to go into the settlement?” he asked.  “And where’s Hop Sing?”

His brother didn’t know about Pa leaving, or what was going on with Hop Sing, because up until a few hours ago Joe’d been no better off than Hoss.  The strain of his injury, coupled with what Sebastian Stephens put him through, had left the little boy exhausted and fevered.  Little Joe’d slept for nearly twenty-four hours straight.  It was only after baby brother woke up and had been pronounced ‘in recovery’ by Paul Martin, that Pa had agreed to leave – and then, only to ride into the settlement with Roy, give his testimony, and return as quickly as possible.

Adam hesitated to tell him more.  Joe was still pretty weak.

“Why don’t you tell me what you remember first, buddy,” he said.

“About what happened with Mister Stephens, you mean?”

Adam nodded.  Little Joe had been incredibly brave – and incredibly reckless that day.

The kid had taken ten years off his life.

“Yes,” Adam replied, careful to maintain an even tone.

Little Joe frowned.  Then he reached out and took his hand.  Adam placed his other one over his brother’s.

“He was gonna shoot me,” Joe said, breathless.  “If my legs hadn’t started working….  If I hadn’t been able to move and get out of the way….”

Adam shuddered.  He could see it happening now – Sebastian Stephens pointing the barrel of his gun right between the little boy’s eyes.

____

Smoke hung in the air along with the acrid scent of gunpowder.

Adam saw his father stiffen at the sound.  He watched the older man fight the urge to turn and run for his baby.  It took everything that was in him, but Pa knew whatever had happened to Little Joe had already happened.  He had another son to save.  Stephen’s gun had more rounds in it.

Hoss was within a hair’s breadth of dying.

“Adam, check on your brother,” Pa breathed between clenched teeth.

Stephen’s gun swung in his direction.  “Move and you’ll be next.”

The light was rising.  The place where Little Joe lay had become blanketed with leafy shadows.  He couldn’t see his brother.  Couldn’t tell if Joe was alive or…not.

“You can’t win,” Pa said, his voice tight.  “You can’t kill all of us.”

“I don’t need to kill all of you.  Just your sons,” the Easterner snarled.

“Why, Sebastian?  Why?  You’ll end your life in prison or, even worse, at the end of a rope.  Is it worth it?  Harming…murdering my boys won’t bring your children back.”  The older man’s voice broke with emotion.  “Clare and Ethan were adults.  Old enough to live their own lives and make their own choices.  The only crime Hop Sing is guilty of is having your daughter fall in love with him.”

“My daughter did not love that chink!  He took her from me with his potions and lies!”

“Mister Stephens wrong,” Hop Sing said as he moved forward.

“Stay where you are, coolie!”

The Asian man halted.  “This one tell your daughter it will not work.  He beg her to remain at home.  She would not listen.  Missy Clare say she is a caged lark that wishes to fly free.”

“You’re lying!” Stephens shouted.

Adam glanced at the darkness beneath the tree again and then his gaze returned to Hoss.  Stephens had his brother by the arm and held the gun against his head.  The madman’s hand was shaking, whether from fear or rage he had no idea.

“This unworthy one does not lie,” Hop Sing continued as he took another step forward.  Bending, he laid his weapon on the ground.  “Let Mistah Cartwright and boys go.  It is this one you want.”

The Easterner glared at him.  “No.”

“Yes.  Mister Stephens say this unworthy one kill his children.  Then it only right he kill this unworthy one.”

Stephens was vacillating, swinging the gun from him to Pa, and then back to Hoss.  Finally, he came to decision.

He let Hoss go.

As his brother plunged to the ground, the Easterner raised the weapon, pointed it straight at Hop Sing, and cocked the trigger.

At that moment a very loud and very long ‘Noooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!’ rang out and a four-foot-four seventy-three pound missile barreled out of the trees.  Little Joe was on his feet and uninjured.  He ran past Hop Sing and their father and threw himself at Sebastian Stephens’ knees.  Stephen’s gun went off but the bullet went wide, striking a distant tree.  For a moment he and Hoss and Pa and Hop Sing remained where they were, stunned by the unexpected turn of events.  It was only when the Easterner reached down and back-handed Little Joe, that the spell was broken.  The little boy fell backwards and lay still.  Sensing an opportunity, Sebastian Stephens dove for his gun.

He never made it.

One again, gun-smoke filled the air, but this time the bullet came from Hop Sing’s revolver. The Asian man stared at the smoking weapon for several heartbeats before his knees turned to jelly and he and it dropped to the ground.

“Go to Hop Sing,” his father said, briefly touching his shoulder.  “I need to check on Hoss and Joe.”

Adam glanced at the big teen on his way and was pleased to see that middle brother was awake and  strong enough to give him a tight smile and a nod.  Little Joe was still laying on the ground, but Pa was headed for him, so he whispered a prayer and let it go and continued on to Hop Sing.

When he got to the Asian man’s side, Adam crouched beside him and reached out.  “Are you all right?” he asked.

“This one does not matter.”

Hop Sing’s gaze was fixed on his father.  Pa was standing up.  He had Little Joe in his arms.

“Joe will be okay,” he replied, praying his words were true.  “I think he hit his head when he fell.”

Tears streaked the Asian man’s face.  “Only reason he not dead is Little Joe able to walk again.  When he walk, he put himself in danger!  Little boy risk his life for this unworthy one.”

“And for Pa and Hoss and me,” he said.  “That’s what family does.”

Hop Sing appeared stunned.  He looked at him.  “This one is not family.”

“Of  course you are!”

“No.”  His tone was adamant.  “This unworthy one bring only shame…danger…to the house of Cartwright.  He must go.  Not belong here anymore.”

“Nonsense.”

Adam looked up to find his father standing over them.  Little Joe was in his arms.  The older man had thrown his coat around the little boy and held him close.  Joe’s fingers were stroking Pa’s chin, so he was awake – and alive.

Thank God!

“Joseph risked his life to save you,” Pa said.  “By calling yourself ‘unworthy’, you demean not only his courage but his love.”

Hop Sing lowered his head.  “This one cannot remain.  He is without honor.”

“Do what you must,” Pa said as he began to walk away.  “But know you are always welcome at the Ponderosa.”

Adam was still on his haunches.  “Hop Sing?”

The Asian man looked at him.

“What is the meaning of ‘honor’?” he asked.  When Hop Sing said nothing, he went on.  “Does it mean running from what is difficult, or facing up to it?  Does it mean fleeing, going far away where no one knows what you have done, or living day to day in the face of bad choices and making them right?”  Adam paused, collecting his thoughts.  “It seems to me that a man who seeks to be honorable must walk many difficult roads.”

Hoss appeared beside them.  “Hop Sing.  Pa sent me.  Little Joe’s cryin’ and he’s askin’ for you.  He wants to know that you’re okay.”

Hop Sing remained as he was for a moment and then rose slowly to his feet.  His gaze moved past Hoss to the cave mouth where Sebastian Stephens’ body lay.

“This one tell Little Joe he okay.  Then find Deputy Coffee.  Turn self in.”

Adam shot to his feet.  “Hop Sing, you don’t have to do that.  You saved our lives.”

“Yeah,  Hop Sing,” Hoss said.  “We’ll tell Mister Roy it was self-defense.”

The Asian man looked from him to his brother and back.

“This one thanks you, but difficult road to honor must begin with first step of truth.”

____

Joe’s grip was fierce.

“Is that all you remember?” Adam asked.  “That Stephens was going to shoot you?”

Wide-eyed Little Joe nodded.

“What’s the next thing you remember?”

“Pa holding me.  Hop Sing saying ‘goodbye’.”  Tears entered his brother’s eyes.  “Is Hop Sing ever coming back?”

Adam wasn’t quite sure how to answer that.  The Asian man had made no promises before climbing into the wagon and heading for the house where they met up with Roy Coffee and Lucas Painter.  Their cook and housekeeper sat in the great room and admitted to shooting Sebastian Stephens with the intent to kill.  There were mitigating circumstances, of course – like the fact that Stephens had kidnapped and intended to murder the three of them – and he had Pa to speak for him, but Hop Sing was Chinese and Stephens was white.  He’d be lucky if a mob didn’t rise up to lynch him.

Hop Sing might just have to leave.

“I can’t answer that, buddy,” he replied honestly.  “We can only hope and pray.”

“Can we do that now?”

Adam nodded.  He wasn’t the most comfortable praying out loud, but he could do it.  As he knelt beside his brother’s bed and took Joe’s small hands in his own, he heard the front door open.

Joe’s eyes were open too.

“Is that Pa?” his brother asked.

“I think so,” he said as he rose and headed for the door.  A sound alerted Adam to the fact that his little brother was climbing out of bed, ready to follow.  “Whoa.  Whoa!” he said turning back.  “You stay right there.  I’ll bring Pa up to you.”

“Ah, Adam….”

“’Ah, Adam’, yourself.  Pa will have my hide if he sees you out of bed.”

Little Joe’s lips curled at the ends as he settled back.  “It’d be kind of funny to see you skinned.”

There was a pillow conveniently close.

Joe almost ducked in time.

 

Ben Cartwright tossed his hat on the credenza and then removed his gun belt and coiled it beside it.  He was weary to the bone.  The normal time to cover the twenty mile ride to the settlement was four to five hours.  He’d made it both ways in a little over three.  Forgoing the fire and his comfortable chair – as well as the enticing flask of brandy beside it – the rancher started up the stairs just as his eldest appeared at the top and started down.

“How are your brothers?” he asked.

“They’re good, Pa.  Hoss is resting and Little Joe’s awake and asking for you.”

Ben nodded.  “And how are you?”

“Me, Pa?   I’m fine.”

They both had a chuckle over that.

Adam looked beyond him.  “Where’s Hop Sing?  Is he with you?”

“No.  He’s still at the jail speaking with the judge.  I wanted to get home.  I’m…worried about your brothers.”

“Is he….”  Adam paused.  “Are they going to hold him?”

Ben shook his head.  “I honestly don’t know.  I spoke up for him.  I told the judge what Stephens had done to you and your brothers.  I assured him we were all in mortal peril and Hop Sing took that shot to save us.”

“But….”

He sighed.  “Hop Sing is his own worst enemy.  He said he shot Stephens deliberately.  What the judge is trying to determine is, first of all, the course of events and, secondly, the motive behind the shooting.  They were waiting on Roy.  At the last minute he was called away.”

“Little Joe’s pretty upset.”

The older man eyed his eldest son.  “Does he remember everything that happened?”

“No.  Just Stephens pointing the gun at him and then you holding him.  I guess that knock on the head took the rest of it.  But that’s not what he’s upset about.  He’s worried Hop Sing is not coming back.”

Ben nodded.  His youngest had a deep-seated fear of abandonment brought on by the loss of his mother at such a tender age.  When Marie died and he lost his way, for a time Adam became his brother’s rock.  Then, Adam left.  Joseph had been crushed when his eldest went to college.  The boy had wept for weeks on end and experienced nightmares nearly every night.  It had been Hop Sing, with his quiet spirit and soothing ways, who had stepped in to fill the void and brought both behaviors to an end.

He had no idea what it would do to his youngest child if Hop Sing left as well.

“I’ll go up and check in on Hoss, and then I’ll talk to Joe.”

Once upstairs the rancher stopped at his middle boy’s door to listen.  He could hear Hoss snoring away.  Opening the door he went inside and crossed to the bed where he laid a hand on the boy’s forehead to check for fever.  It was there but much lower than when he’d left, for which he whispered a quick prayer of thanks before moving on to his youngest’s room.  Ben was a bit surprised not to be greeted as he opened the door.  That was before he realized Joseph had cried himself to sleep.  The boy’s pillow was soaked, so he lifted him up by the shoulders and held him as he turned and repositioned it.  Then he sat down in the chair beside bed.  There were moments when it seemed a dream, having all three of his boys back safe and fairly sound.  There were moments as well when he wanted to blame Hop Sing for what had happened – for keeping secrets – but they were brief.  Every man, each woman, had things in their past that were not to be spoken of, even to the people they were the closest with.  He knew what grief he had suffered with the death of each of the women he had loved.

He couldn’t imagine losing one of them at the end of a gun.

Lowering his head, Ben closed his eyes, clasped his hands together, and began to pray.

 

The next thing the rancher knew, the sun was creeping in the window.  Ben blinked and sat up and put a hand to his aching back.  Sleeping in a chair at his age – no matter how comfortable – was less than desirable.  He stretched before glancing at his youngest son’s bed.  For a moment, he couldn’t find the boy and he was sure he’d been disobeyed yet again, but then he realized Little Joe was cocooned in bed linens from head to toe.  Only a few wisps of chestnut-brown hair showed at the top.  Taking hold of the covers Ben pulled them down to make sure the boy could breathe; then he left the room and headed downstairs for a cup of coffee to clear away the cobwebs.

Adam was already seated at the table.  His son had a newspaper in his hand, which he quickly put down when he caught sight of him.  Ben smiled.  He had a rule about not reading at the table.

As he took his seat and reached for the coffee pot, the rancher asked, “Anything interesting?”

Adam made a face.  “There’s another article about the Foreign Miner’s License Tax.  Do they think anybody is really fooled?  It’s just another way to oppress the Chinese.”  His son’s disgust with the politicians was clear.  “If I live to be one hundred, I will never understand why people hate a man just because of the color of his skin.”

“People fear what is different, what they don’t understand, son.”

“Well, then, why don’t they learn to understand?  Instead of chasing someone like Hop Sing away, why don’t they get to know him?  Invite him to dinner or something?”

Ben hid his smile.  Adam was young and impassioned as he once had been.  Perhaps, in time, young men like him would make a difference.

His son grinned sheepishly.  “Sorry, Pa.”

“Never apologize for compassion, son.”

Adam nodded.  “Are you hungry?  I’ve got some hotcakes on the griddle.”

“Sounds wonderful.  I’ll just….”  Ben’s voice trailed off.  He frowned.  “Was that a wagon?”

“Sounds like it.”

He rose to his feet.  “You get the hotcakes.  I’ll get the door.”

By the time the rancher got there someone was knocking.  It was early for anyone to be out and about.  If they’d come from the settlement, they would have to have left before the sun was up.  Ben glanced at his gun, wondering if he should pick it up.  After a moment he decided he was being overly-cautious and, instead, opened the door.

Roy Coffee tipped his hat.  “Mornin’, Ben.”

His gaze went past the lawman.  Hop Sing was seated in the wagon.

“Roy?  What is this about?”

The lawman turned and gestured.  “Hop Sing, you get over here!”

At first, the Asian man didn’t move.  Then he began a slow dismount.

“I brung him back to you. Ben.  He was ready to light out of town.”

“Did the judge let him go?”

Roy nodded.  “One of Stephens’ men came forward.  Seems to me he might have been one of yours too.  Goes by the name of Pratt Shade?”

Ben nodded.  He’d wondered what had become of Pratt.  The dead body Hop Sing had stumbled over was his partner, Bush Sears.  From what Adam had told him about the pair and their actions, he was more than happy to see the back of both of them!

“Shade told the judge how Stephens paid him and Sears to kidnap your young’uns and then ordered them to kill ‘em.  He said Stephens killed Sears for not doin’ what he told him to, so that makes him a murderer.”  Roy looked at his housekeeper, who by this time had made it to their side.  “Seems Hop Sing here did the settlement a service getting’ rid of him.”

Ben’s eyes were on the Asian man.  “And there were no repercussions?”

Roy pushed his hat back.  “Not so’s you can say, but I think it’d be smart to keep Hop Sing on the Ponderosa until everythin’ dies down.  Sad to say, some people ain’t too fond of the Chinese and there’s folks spreadin’ rumors that everythin’ he said is a lie.”

“Hop Sing tell nothing but the truth,” the Asian man said.

“That you did, Hop Sing, and I’m right proud of you for it.  Tellin’ the truth shows a man who respects the law.”  Roy took a step toward the wagon.  “I gotta get goin’, Ben, but afore I do I wanted to ask after your boys.  How are they?  How’s Hoss and Little Joe?”

Ben noticed how closely Hop Sing listened.  “Recovering.  Given time, they’ll both be all right.”

“Glad to hear it.”  The deputy turned to the other man.  “Now, you listen to me, Hop Sing.  You stay put for your own good.  I don’t want to see you in the settlement ’til next spring!”

“Hop Sing not hide.”

“I ain’t askin’ you too.  I’m askin’ you to take it careful.  We wouldn’t want anythin’ happenin’ to you.”  Roy shot him a look.  “Now would we, Ben?”

He held his old friend’s gaze.  “No, we wouldn’t.”

As Ben closed the door behind Hop Sing, Adam came out of the kitchen, hotcakes in hand.  They – and his son – looked a little…singed…around the edges.  At almost the same instant there was a shout and an exclamation from the top of the stairs.  Hoss was there.  He was wearing his green check night shirt and grinning like a fool.  The big teen had his little brother in hand – or he did until Joseph broke loose and bolted down the stairs.  The little boy’s legs were wobbly at best and he stumbled about halfway down and would have fallen the rest of the way if not for the fact that Hop Sing practically flew up the steps to catch him.

“Such foolishment!” the Asian man declared as he gathered Little Joe in his arms and turned to look at Hoss.  “What little boys do out of bed?!  Little boys get sick, Hop Sing have to take care of them and he have no time!  Many days away!  Have many things to do!”  His next target was Adam, who was standing by the sofa table snickering.  “What number one son laugh at?  What you do in kitchen?  Boy not know how to cook!.  He burn house down!”  Ben stifled a laugh as his eldest stuttered an apology and began to back out of the room.

But Hop Sing was not done.

The finger pointed at him next.

“Why Mistah Ben laugh?  Dark river run under eyes.  He look like old man.  Where you sleep last night?!”

Ben cleared his throat.  “In a chair….”

“In chair like baby.”  The finger wagged.  “Not baby.  Old man!”

“Hop Sing?”

The Asian man looked down at the little boy in his arms.  “What number three son want?”

Without warning, his youngest son threw his arms around the Asian man’s neck.  “Nobody can yell like you!  It’s great to have you home!”

Ben wondered what Hop Sing would do.   He was worse than Adam when it came to a show of affection.  To his surprise, the Asian man responded by pulling his small son into a tight embrace.

Then he looked at him.

“Hop Sing happy to be home as well.”

 

 

EPILOGUE

Marie would have had his hide.

Ben Cartwright stood by the coral with his oldest son, watching his thirteen hand baby boy mount the powerful fifteen and a half hand pinto that had saved his life and begin to walk it around the corral.  Hoss was leading the pair, so there was nothing to fear – and Joseph truly did have a way with horses.  After everything that had happened he should have taken joy in watching his young son take on a challenge, but in reality all he wanted to do with Marie’s boy was pull him in tight and hold him to his chest and never let him go.

He had almost had to let him go – almost had to let all of them go.  The nightmare that was Sebastian Stephens was still with him.

Ben wondered when and if he would ever be able to let that go.

The man had been a selfish brute, that much was evident.  He’d made life hell for his family and bullied just about every business owner in Yerba Buena, or San Francisco as it was now known as well as Gold Hill.  As his boys recovered, the rancher had become curious.  He’d sent out a good many letters, to various lawmen in the bay area, seeking to make contact with anyone who had known Sebastian Stephens and was willing to talk.  Eventually, Maria Theresa – Sebastian’s housekeeper – had written back.  She told him Stephens first wife had not died, but left him and their two children shortly after the twins birth.  No one knew why, though the evidence suggested she took off with another man.  Sebastian was a businessman and seldom home, and so it had been Maria who had acted as Clare and Ethan’s surrogate father and mother.  As the children grew Stephens began to pay more attention, especially to Clare who was the spitting image of his missing wife.  Maria said the man’s interest bordered on unhealthy.  Clare, a beautiful, blithe child, began to wither.  On her sixteenth birthday her father forbid her to leave the house unless he or a man he had appointed accompany her.

That was the year the headaches began.

Maria was unsure if Clare’s condition had been medical or mental or maybe both.  The headaches seemed to coincide with her father’s time at home.  At first, they were inconvenient, but then grew to be incapacitating and that was when Sebastian Stephens – in his desperation – turned to Chinese medicine and engaged Hop Sing.

Thus sealing his and his children’s fate.

Little Joe was grinning and waving as he jogged around the corral for the tenth time.  Ben lifted a hand and waved back.

“You’re awfully quiet,” Adam said.

He nodded.  “Just thinking.”

“About?”

He looked toward the house.  “Stephens and his daughter.  Hop Sing.”

“He’s been pretty quiet too.”

“Yes.  I…feel for him.  I know what it is like to have loved and lost.”  Ben paused, gathering his thoughts.  “Son, life is journey from birth to death and, like any journey, there are pitfalls along the way.  It’s the hazards, the dangers, and how a man handles them that make him what he is.  I’ve tried to teach you boys to face them, to forge forward when you must, to forgive whoever who has done you wrong, and to fight for justice when and where you can.  There are men – and women – who choose another path. It’s no easier.  In fact I think, in the end, it may be the harder one.”

“To hide, you mean?”

“To turn a blind eye, and to pretend something didn’t happen.”  Ben glanced again at Hoss and Little Joe.  Joe was still on the pinto, but they had come to a halt.  Hoss had one hand on his brother’s leg and was petting the horse’s muzzle with his other.  “You can pretend all you want to, but you can never forget.  A man that carries a secret is slowly eaten away from the inside out.”

Adam leaned on the corral fence.  “Well, Hop Sing’s is out now.”

Yes, it was.  In fact, it seemed the whole settlement knew about it.  It had been a month since his sons’ abduction and they had yet to go into Gold Hill – and he didn’t intend to go in until the winter was done.  It was late October now and soon the snow would fly, cutting them off.  The cold bitter months would do much to make the busybodies and rumor-mongers forget.  Struggling to survive had a tendency to do that to a person.  Ben prayed that, by the time they went back into the settlement in March or April, his housekeeper – and his affairs – would be old news.

“Do you think Hop Sing will be okay, Pa?”

Ben clapped a hand on his son’s shoulder.  “You’re here – all three of you.  There were consequences to for his actions, but the Good Lord saw everything through.  It will take time and understanding on all our parts but, yes, I think Hop Sing will be all right.”

The look on Adam’s face made him turn back to the corral.  Hoss had mounted behind Little Joe and the pair were making their way toward the gate.  Ben drew in a breath and held it as his father’s fears kicked in.  Joseph was barely healed from his accident.  Paul Martin had been out the day before and, after a good ten minutes of begging on his small son’s part, told Little Joe that he could ride again – if he was careful.

“Hoss will take care of him, Pa.  You know that.”

Hoss recovered quickly and had been on his feet and back to work after three days.  His injuries were minor and he’d mostly suffered from lack of food and water and exhaustion.  As was always the case, Joseph was the last to heal and the first to start telling everyone that he was ‘fine’.

Ben nodded and waved at the trusted ranch hand who was standing by the gate.  Hoss turned and gave him a grin and then he and Joseph exited the corral and headed out into the wide open spaces.

“Are you going to let Little Joe ride Cochise?” his son asked.

In spite of the irony of a female horse being named after a male warrior, the name had stuck.

“In time,” Ben replied.  “For now he can take care of her and ride with his brother.”  He was secretly hoping that due to the boy’s slighter frame and slow growth Little Joe wouldn’t be able to ride the mare for some time.  “I told him he needed to be at least as many hands high as the horse before he could ride alone.”

Adam snorted.  “So, say about age twenty-one?”

Ben laughed.  “Cadfan will do for now, though he’ll soon be too small.  We’ll have to look for something in the interim.”

“Geronimo?” the boy suggested with a grin.  “Or maybe Crazy Horse?”

The rancher pursed his lips and shook his head. “Definitely not Crazy Horse!”  Reaching out, he placed an arm around his oldest son’s shoulders. “Now, come on, young man.  We have work to do.  Those figures aren’t going to settle themselves!”

 

From the kitchen window Hop Sing watched as the men he loved went about their daily business.  He was once again a part of their lives and yet, still apart from them.  This was how it would always be.  Mister Adam had been right.  There could be no honor without shame.  He had hidden his for many years – so many, he thought it gone.  He had believed himself safe from prying eyes and knowing lips – safe from pain.  This was not so and would never be.  Mistah Cartwright had come to the kitchen early that morning, seeking coffee.  His employer told him that God often uses our greatest pain as the beginning of our greatest calling.  Hop Sing’s gaze returned to the men in the yard.

So it was with him.

His greatest loss had become his greatest gain.

Leaving the window, the Asian man crossed through the kitchen and halted by his personal shrine.  With respect, he moved the images of Missy Cartwright and his honorable grandparents and reached behind to draw out the golden locket Missy Clare had given him.  He whispered a few words as his fingers brushed its intricate surface and then opened the small box in the shrine and placed the locket inside, consigning Clare – along with all of the hopes and dreams he had had of a life together – to the past where they belonged.  She was free now.

As he was free.

The kettle whistled.  The fire crackled and popped.

Life went on.

 

 

Tags:  Adam Cartwright, Ben Cartwright, ESA, Family, Hop Sing, Hoss Cartwright, hostage, JAM, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright, JPM, kidnap, SJS, trapped

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Author: mcfair_58

Welcome and thank you to any and all who read my fan fiction. I have written over a period of 20 years for Star Wars, Blakes 7, Nightwing and the New Titans, Daniel Boone, The Young Rebels (1970s), Robin of Sherwood and Doctor Who. I am currently focusing on Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie. I am an historic interpreter, artist, doll restoration artist, and independent author.

If you like my fan fiction please check out my original historical and fantasy novels on Amazon and Barnes and Noble under Marla Fair.

I am also an artist. You can check out my art here: https://marlafair.wixsite.com/coloredpencilart and on Facebook. Marla Fair Renderings can found at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1661610394059740/

You can find most of my older fan fiction archived at: https://marlafair.wixsite.com/marlafairfanfiction

Thanks again for reading!

3 thoughts on “Difficult Roads (by mcfair_58)

  1. I love this story so much, a second read for me! The family love for each other is so beautifully written, especially love Adam and Joe’s big brother/little brother moments!!!!!

  2. An interesting back story for Hop Sing, with lots of nice brotherly moments, as well as great dramatic tension. I enjoyed it.

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