Summary: Life on the Ponderosa has its ups and downs. Joe and Andy have decisions to make.
Rated: K+ WC: 9680
The Farm Series:
The Farm – Book 1 – Taken
The Farm – Book 2 – The Return
The Farm – Book 3 – Taking Flight
The Farm – Book 4 – The Horse Operation
The Farm – Book 5 – The Wedding
The Farm – Book 6 – The Major’s Daughter
When horses rode up in the yard, I stood from my desk, slid the drape at my window, and witnessed three smiling faces. The boys were back, and Hoss stepped out of the barn to greet them. I, too, wondered how they faired and flew out the front door to hear firsthand.
While I crossed the yard, Hoss swung the corral gate open to let Joe and Andy each lead a new mustang inside. After removing the ropes they’d used to capture the wild horses, they rode out of the corral and dismounted.
“Well,” I said as I slid my arm across my son’s shoulder. “You found the herd.”
“Sure did, Pa.”
“They look like fine animals.”
“How’d your leg hold up?”
“No worries, Pa. My leg’s just fine.”
The plaster had been removed from Joe’s left leg just over a week ago. Doc said take it slow, but Joe’s enthusiasm over his new roll on the Ponderosa seemed to take precedence over common sense. The broken leg was just a minor setback, and the boy was raring to go. As a father, I wanted to keep him home under a watchful eye, but things were different now.
Joe was no longer a boy. He’d been through hell, and I wanted him to make his own decisions and have a future he could be proud of.
“Just look at them, Pa. Me and Andy will have ‘em broke in no time.”
“Hey, slow down a minute.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“Riding’s one thing, Son, but breaking broncs is entirely different.” Andy and Hoss had taken seats on the top rail of the corral, but they were still within hearing range. I didn’t want to have that discussion in front of a crowd, but Joe persisted.
“My leg’s fine, Pa. I can do it.”
“I’m sure you want to, but you heard the doctor. Let’s not be in such an all-fired hurry to break that leg again.”
“Don’t make me hogtie you, Son.”
Though I was only kidding, Andy flew off the rail and came to stand between Joe and me. “That won’t be necessary, Sir.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” I said. “I’d never …” But the damage was done. Andy led Joe and their tired mounts toward the barn and away from me. I glanced up at Hoss who jumped down from his perch and stood beside me. “You don’t suppose.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it, Pa.
Johansson done everything else to the boy. He probably done that too.”
My heart sank. How could I amend a comment that Joe would’ve laughed off years ago? The issue was trust, and whatever I gained over the past few weeks, I lost in a matter of seconds. Joe didn’t see me as Pa. He saw me as a large man who could hurt him. Though they might have started out the same height and weight at fourteen, Andy had surpassed Joe by a few inches. My son had been starved to death for three years, and he remained shorter and slighter in stature than most boys his age, which might be the reason Andy tried to control the situation before it got out of hand. He’d become Joe’s confidant and protector, and I became the outsider.
“He’ll be all right, Pa. Give him a minute to settle hisself and I’m sure he’ll—”
“No. You’re wrong, Son. Right now, I’m the boss man. I’m the enemy.”
“Oh, Pa. Don’t be ridiculous.”
I left Hoss standing alone and retreated to the house. My elder sons and I agreed that Joe needed a project of his own, something that would boost his ego and give him a sense of importance. As soon as the cast came off his leg, I asked if he’d take full control of the horse operation, and when a genuine smile lit his face, I knew we’d hit the mark.
After the plaster was removed, Paul gave a word of caution about overdoing, but Joseph was eager to get started. Everything about Joe was giddy with excitement, and I could almost see the boy I once knew. Joseph was home and his appreciation was genuine.
Less than a week later, he and Andy rode out to look for the herd of wild mustangs Hoss had seen roaming near the south pasture. Bedrolls were tied behind saddles and their saddlebags were packed with enough grub for a couple of days. The boys were excited to be out on their own with an important job to fulfill.
“You two be careful,” I said.
“Don’t you worry about us, Pa. We’ll bring home the best.”
“I’m sure you will, Son, but no unnecessary chances. Understood?”
Joe’s eyes sparkled, and an energy I hadn’t seen since his return enveloped him. The boys mounted and turned in their saddles to wave as they headed out of the yard. They hadn’t known this kind of freedom—at least Joe hadn’t—in his entire life. He was out on his own and allowed to do as he pleased.
To say I didn’t worry while they were away was an understatement. I’d only had Joe home a few weeks, and having him out of sight would be difficult. My elder sons stood beside me as the young men rode out.
“You had to let him go,” said Adam.
“I know, Son.”
“Aw, they’ll do fine, Pa.
Joe ain’t no greenhorn when it comes to ridin’ and ropin’. Neither’s Andy since the drive.”
I smiled up at Hoss. His words of comfort eased my mind at the time, but things were different now. The boys had returned—proud as peacocks—and I coined a phrase I should have known was unsuitable.
It was too soon to have another talk with Joseph. He needed Andy more than he needed me and when I sat down behind my desk, I could do nothing but hold my head in my hands and ask God for guidance. I couldn’t do it alone. I needed Him to show me the way, to let my troubled son know he could trust me at any cost.
As I prayed for wisdom and understanding, I wasn’t aware that two young men were having a heartfelt discussion of their own. Plans were being made; plans that didn’t include the Ponderosa began to take form.
How could I have known that my words had such an enormous effect? My son came home a fragile, emaciated young man I barely recognized. With his white/blonde hair and bones protruding from every angle, I should’ve been more aware. I should’ve been more sensitive to his condition, but no. That wasn’t the case. I tried to dismiss the past and develop a routine that Joseph would remember from the years before the farm, but I went too far. I overstepped.
When the five of us set down to supper, I apologized again for my thoughtless behavior, but I was too late. The damage had been done and when I woke the following morning, the boys were nowhere in sight. Hoss scoured the house while Adam raced out the front door to check the barn. Their beds were made and clothes still hung in the wardrobes. When Adam returned and couldn’t make eye contact, I knew, but held my breath and waited to hear the answer outright.
“Their horses are gone.”
“Want me and Adam to saddle up?”
“No, Hoss. Dragging them back won’t solve the problem.”
“You just gonna let ‘em go?”
I tried to rise from my chair and give Hoss a decent argument, but I didn’t have the strength. Hauling Joseph and Andy home wasn’t the answer. They had to want to return. They had to realize—especially Joseph—that the Ponderosa was his home, and this is where he wanted to be. If we brought them back now, he’d only find reason to run again.
Weeks passed, and life went on. A day didn’t pass that Hoss wasn’t adamant about riding out and every time he asked, my answer was no. My anger over the situation hadn’t come to a head, but I felt it would in time, and my elder sons would take the brunt of my frustration. If Joe didn’t ride back soon, he’d be lost to us forever and Hoss, maybe Adam, too, would never forgive me. They’d hold me responsible, and I couldn’t blame them.
Since Hoss had been so eager to jump on his horse and ride out, I felt that an errand might calm him down.
Contracts needed to be signed, and I didn’t trust the mail to deliver on time. Though I usually sent Adam since he knew the importance of any timber contract, I trusted Hoss would feel the same. He could get the job done just as well and as a side note; he could keep his eyes peeled for the missing boys.
I handed the leather satchel to my middle boy. “Here you go, Son.”
“I know you will.”
“Sacramento or bust.”
I held his strong hand in mine. “You take care now.”
“Will do, Pa. Maybe I’ll see something interestin’ along the way.”
Nothing more had to be said.
I knew exactly what … who he referred to, and if he were lucky, he had a way of smoothing things over without anyone realizing they’d lost the argument and were in total agreement. If anyone could find Joseph and bring him home without a ruckus, it was Hoss.
After he rode out, I tried not to get my hopes up. This was a business trip, nothing more, but I couldn’t help but think what might happen if things went well. The sound of hooves pounding in the yard, and three men dismounting as I rushed out the front door. Joseph. I held my arms open as he ran toward me and tucked his cheek against my chest. The joy I felt overwhelmed me until I opened my eyes and reality hit. Foolish old man. Foolish to think the impossible.
Adam and I set out to do the work of three to four men. Hoss helped Adam with barn chores before he ate breakfast and saddled Chubby for the long ride ahead, but it was up to the two of us to keep the ranch running smoothly.
“What’s first, Adam?”
“You have your choice, Pa. You can clear out the beaver dam in Cross Creek or you can shoe the chestnut. Which do you prefer?”
“That’s a heck of a choice, Son, but I’ll take the mare.”
“Good enough. I’ll saddle Sport.”
By week’s end, I was beat and ready for a day off. Adam was too, but the chores we managed were nothing more than a weekly battle to keep things running smoothly. Although I hoped, there’d been no message from Hoss. No sighting of Joe or Andy. Nothing I could hold on to that brought promise of the future I planned for all of my sons.
Hoss wasn’t due home for another few days, and the routine of chores continued through Thursday when Adam and I were interrupted by a young fella handing me an envelope. I scanned the telegram quickly, thanked the boy, and handed him a dime.
“It’s from Hoss.”
“I don’t know.” I read the wire twice but there wasn’t much of an explanation. “Says he’s staying over in Placerville for a couple of days.”
“That’s all it says.”
I handed the wire to Adam. “Not very chatty is he.”
Remembering some of the wires my eldest had sent, I glared at him until he understood. “None of you boys are good at explaining.”
Adam returned the wire and clapped my back. “Maybe he fell for that little redhead at The Lost Wages. Could be the saloon had more to offer than just a good steak.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m sure that’s it, Son. Let’s get back to work.”
Time moved slowly as I awaited Hoss’ return. Something didn’t sit right, and I couldn’t put my finger on the problem. Since there was no mention of the boys, I had to rule them out, but what else would keep him in Placerville? Adam gave a less than satisfying answer though I understood his intention. If one or more of my sons was away from the ranch, I worried. Any father would, and the smart remark was his way of easing my mind.
Monday afternoon, I finally had time to sit at my desk and deal with a mound of paperwork. Adam left early to pick up supplies and when Hoss and Adam rode in together, I leaped from my desk and hurried out the front door.
“Welcome home, Son.”
Weary from the long ride, Hoss dismounted and started for the barn with Chubb in tow. Since curiosity had the best of me, I followed right behind. “Have a good trip?”
“It was long.”
He’d loosened the cinch and reached up to pull off the saddle, but his movement halted abruptly. “Yeah. Guess you could say interestin’.”
“Let me unload Hop Sing’s supplies first,” Adam said, “and we can all sit down and talk.”
My curiosity turned to fear. “Something the matter?”
“Hoss will explain, but I doubt he wants to tell the story twice.”
With the wagon unloaded and the mail thrown on my desk, I guided my sons to the dining room table and called to our cook. “Three thirsty men out here, Hop Sing. Do you have any of that good lemonade?” We barely sat down before Hop Sing brought lemonade and a plate of sugar cookies. When Hoss gulped his drink down and didn’t reach for a cookie, I knew something was wrong. “Well, Hoss?”
“I ain’t sure where to start, Pa.” His movements were unsteady, jerky. Not like Hoss at all. “There was this gal, see.”
I glanced at Adam. “A gal?”
“Yes, Sir. Little blonde. She minds that lunch counter at The Cary House.”
When Joe’s leg was casted and we were forced to stay in Placerville, I vaguely remembered a young lady about Joe’s age when I’d gone downstairs to get a carry-away lunch, sandwiches and apples if I recall. “Go on.”
“Her name’s Marianne Hofstadter and she … well, she’s friends with Joe. Maybe not friends ‘xactly, but she knows them boys … knows them pretty good. She said they’d been through a couple of weeks ago lookin’ for work and was back two days ‘fore I rode in. Still lookin’.”
“What kind of work?”
“Anything that paid a decent wage. Said they was bronc busters, but they’d take any kind of work they could get.”
“Two days ago … ”
“Well, it’s been nearly a week now, Pa. See, I hung around town for a while hopin’ they’d come through again, but I didn’t have no luck. I left my name and a few dollars with the girl and told her to wire me if she heard anything else.”
What I didn’t understand was why Joe and Andy felt comfortable heading back to Placerville. The farm was only five miles away; a hellish place, and I thought they would’ve ridden in another direction. Hoss tried his best, and we knew where they might settle if a job presented itself although I needed my boy home. I wanted to saddle up and ride out that day, but that wouldn’t solve the problem. Whether my heart said so or not, I had to let Joe find his own way and give up the thought of running. Maybe then, he could find peace on the Ponderosa. And that’s how we survived the next few weeks, hoping and waiting though never quite accepting my decision to let Joe work things out alone.
Seeking refuge, the burned-out shell of the farmhouse served as sleeping quarters for the two young men. After sorting through the rubble as best they could, they made do with what remained intact. Straw had been gathered and beds were constructed on pallets where the front parlor once served as a command post. Every night at nine sharp, young men had gathered in a straight line so Johansson could denigrate and disgrace his so-called soldiers. Would they be imprisoned or punished, or would they be set free to work another day? No one could predict. No one dared speak up. The decision was Johanssons and his alone.
The man had been a tough taskmaster. He demanded perfection and punished in order to record the consequences. The age of the boys didn’t matter. He didn’t care what it might do to their spirit much less their souls. A daily dressing down became routine, and Joe realized early on that he could block out the man’s foul voice and remember a land where trees grew tall and lake water glistened.
Life on the Ponderosa had a calming effect. It meant home and family, and when winter snows gave way to tall spring grasses and a rainbow of wildflowers, Joe would ride—sometimes recklessly—through open fields until he and his mount had their fill. The days were endless and vibrant, and he treasured the hours spent on the back of his pony. He often found comfort by seeking out other memories, but he could distance himself from his captor more effectively when he rode through those glorious fields.
Now, his goal was survival, and he feared the father he once adored. Those long-ago visions of home and family had been marred by threats of punishments, and he’d made the only choice he saw fit. He put those dreams behind him. He’d find work and find a way to make it on his own.
Joe was soon hired on a trial basis. “Prove yourself, Son, and you’ve got the job.” He signed on as a bronc buster though the job was short-lived. With only three mares needing attention, he proved he was more than capable, but when the job ended, so did the money and he had to find work elsewhere.
Marianne secured Andy a job as the hotel’s bellhop, which also meant cleanup duty when he wasn’t busy hauling luggage and heavy trunks to upstairs rooms. He washed dishes, swept floors, and polished brass fixtures.
Though he wasn’t keen on menial work, employment and a steady job had been provided. It also meant he’d been offered room and board. He declined the room but took any leftover food for the two of them to eat back at the farm.
Constant searching for a new payday had given way to sleepless nights and a shorter than normal fuse for Joe Cartwright. His frustration became an endless distraction, and if the friendship was going to survive, Andy had to let his own frustration at his best friend surface.
“This isn’t working like we planned,” he said.
“We’re doing okay. Not rich yet, but we get by.”
Andy never had trouble talking to his partner before, but this time was different. He’d lived hand-to-mouth his whole life, and he wanted more than working for a mere pittance just to get by. He wanted a home of his own and at some point, a wife who’d share the simple life he envisioned. He needed to put Johansson and his drunken father behind him, but living in burned-out rubble only brought back the horrors of the childhood he tried to forget.
Joe was part of those horrors. Although his friend took the brunt of the abuse, Andy had been there to comfort and restore a sense of balance. His assurances had been received and valued as Joe made his way back to consciousness on a weekly basis, but they’d returned to the godforsaken place where punishment had been handed out like a cool glass of buttermilk on a warm summer day.
In addition to living in squalor and eating handouts, Andy began having feelings for the girl who’d befriended them when no one else but Ben Cartwright cared whether they lived or died. After rescuing his son, Joe’s father took Andy into the fold with no reasonable explanation as to why he showed compassion to a stranger, but he had.
He’d been a good boss and a decent human being until a slip of the tongue had sent Joe into a frenzy, and they fled the comforts of home and family the following morning.
Things were different now.
Andy had done his job the best he knew how. He’d kept Joe alive. He’d kept his friend sane, but with time and the longing to start a new life, the two needed to go their separate ways. If he could convince Joe that his pa’s comment was only that—a silly comment that meant nothing at all—Joe could return home. With a lesser burden to carry, Andy could move into the hotel and in time, maybe he could court the pretty girl that made his head spin.
“We’re not doing okay, Joe. This is crap and you know it.”
“What the heck are you talking about?”
“This life. Our lives. Why are we doing this?”
Joe stood from his seat on the pallet and crossed the blackened room. “I can’t live under his roof. You know that, and so do I.”
Andy stared at the back of his friend. “Why? Because he made a joke? Because he wasn’t thinking? Give it up, Joe. It ain’t worth leavin’ a good home.”
“What do you know?”
“Look. You’ve always been a fighter. Ever since the day I met you, I knew you could handle just about anything. You didn’t need me then, and you don’t need me now.”
“I don’t understand. You wanna leave? Is that it?”
“In a way.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means I can’t live like this anymore. I want out. I’m taking a room at the hotel in the morning.”
Joe stared out the broken window where shards of glass still jutted out haphazardly. Had it all been a dream? As he stared over the barren field, his mind began playing tricks. He watched himself plowing, planting, and carrying buckets of water when the rains didn’t come. The army’s demand for cornmeal and the constant sense of failure always surfaced in the shadows of his mind. Grinding. Bagging. Hauling. “Faster, faster, faster …”
“Oh. Sorry. I … just. Go. Move to town. I don’t care.”
“Talk to me, Joe.”
“There’s nothing more to say.”
“Will you go home?”
“It’s time to man up. Time to make amends.”
“Make amends? You think I was wrong to leave, don’t you?”
“Not at the time, but I do now. Stop running, Joe. Your family loves you, but you do everything in your power to shut them out. Your father made a mistake, but did you give him a chance to explain? No. You ran. Every time something doesn’t go your way, you run.”
“I had reasons to run.”
“Not this time. This time you were wrong.”
Had there been a door to slam, Joe would have done so when he stomped out of the burned-out rubble and into the barren cornfield. Dust swirled at his feet. A life wasted. A life out of control and burdened by the past. Could he return to a family who didn’t understand, who only saw good and tried to erase the bad? Had it been so bad that running was his only option? He wasn’t sure. Maybe Andy was right. Maybe he screwed up again.
Though his eyes began to tear, he fought for control. He was a man, not a little boy. No longer could he let childlike emotions and the sinking feeling of despair rule his thoughts. He ached for home and his family, but crawling back with his tail tucked would show a certain weakness he couldn’t bear for them to see. They’d coddle and cajole and try to make things right, but things could never be right again.
He’d witnessed the longing in his father’s eyes for life to return to normal, but three years had changed him, hardened him. How could he make them understand that he wasn’t the same Little Joe? That boy died the first time Johansson shoved him in the pit, closed the iron bars over his head, and keyed the metal lock.
His father made a joke and he overreacted. He knew that now. The little boy in him returned that day, and he’d stomped off to the barn like a petulant child. He’d let his heart rule his mind and he ran. Andy was right. He always ran. Hoss used to call him a human jackrabbit, and Mama used to say he ran like the wind.
What if she’d lived? What would she think of her son now? “Man up.” Those were Andy’s words and maybe he was right. Maybe it was time to quit running.
Every day was a struggle. Even though I tried to get my boys talking, meals were a quiet affair. I’d always used hard work to dispel mindless hours of dwelling on things we couldn’t change. This time, none of us could get past the fact that Joe had been found only to leave the Ponderosa unexpectedly. As I sipped the last dregs of my coffee, so did my elder sons before pushing up from the dining room table.
“See you tonight,” Adam said.
The work never ended. Hoss and Adam were heading back to the north range to finish a job they’d started yesterday. “I have business in town, but I should be home by mid-afternoon. You boys have a good day.”
“Pullin’ ornery steers outta bushes and bogs ain’t always a good day, Pa.”
I smiled up at Hoss. His idea of sarcasm never quite hit the mark, but I wouldn’t have him any other way. He was beefy and strong and hard work never fazed him. He’d be lost without projects that keep his mind focused. Otherwise, the misery over losing Joe a second time would consume him. As I rode into Virginia City, I spotted Roy standing on the boardwalk. He waved his hat, and I pulled up in front of the jail.
“Mornin’, Ben. How’s things out your way?”
“Good as can be expected.”
“Little Joe still ain’t back?”
Roy Coffee and Paul Martin were the only two people I’d told about our situation. Both men were new to Virginia City, and both men had become good friends. They were good people, conscientious, and eager to help. Joe’s leaving was neither an issue with the law or a medical problem but both took time to listen, and I appreciated their concern.
“Walk with me to the Post Office?”
“Sure will. I was headin’ that direction anyhow.”
Wagonloads of goods traveled through dusty streets. New picks and shovels were snatched up as soon as they arrived at Vern’s hardware. Virginia City was a mining town and just as wagons pulled in daily with fresh supplies, so did new arrivals. Word of silver strikes spread like wildfire, and men who’d given up the goldfields in California headed straight for the Sierras and a new prospect of striking it rich. The town bustled with energy and excitement.
A young man sitting a tired bay rode up just after I slid the mail into my vest pocket. Roy and I both turned toward him when he called out my name. “Mr. Cartwright! Mr. Cartwright!”
“Slow down, Son,” Roy gestured by smacking the boy’s leg with his hat. “You ain’t gonna see your next birthday you keep ridin’ like a wild banshee.”
“Telegram, Sir.” I thanked the boy and handed him a shiny dime before peeling the envelope open and reading the sparse amount of words.
Ben Cartwright, Ponderosa Ranch. Stop.
Joe on his way home. Stop.
Andy McDaniel. All Stop.
I read the wire three times before handing the thin sheet of paper to the anxious sheriff. “Hey, that’s good news, Ben.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
“Guess you won’t be stayin’ for a game of checkers.”
Roy smiled and clapped my back. “Don’t you skedaddle outta here like a wild banshee, ya year?”
“I’m afraid I’m too old for that.”
“Good. I’d like to see you celebrate another birthday, maybe even two.”
I chuckled and grasped the good sheriff’s hand. “So would I.”
I left Roy to make his rounds and hurried back to my horse. I planned to see Hiram Woods, but I didn’t have a scheduled appointment. I could see him anytime. Today was special. My boy was coming home. Busy tending his garden, Hop Sing looked up but went right back to weeding when I rode into the yard. I stabled Buck before I relayed the good news. “Little Joe’s on his way home.”
“Boy finally get sense? Know what right and what not?”
“I guess so.”
“He come today?”
“I’m not sure.”
“I cook. Boy come.”
I nodded my appreciation and walked into the house with a lighter step than I had in a long while. Hop Sing would cook something special every day until “his” boy arrived. When my sons rode into the yard after a full day’s work in bushes and bogs, I relayed the good news from Andy’s wire. Hoss’ eyes twinkled with excitement, but Adam used more caution though I wasn’t sure why. Outward feelings weren’t his strong suit although I thought he’d be glad to hear about his brother’s homecoming.
“Today?” Hoss said but didn’t wait for an answer. “Maybe me and Adam should ride out just to make sure he don’t forget the way.”
“I think he can manage on his own, Son. Why don’t you two wash up. Hop Sing’s been cooking all day. I don’t know whether he’ll be home today or tomorrow. It’s a two-day ride, and I doubt Joe’s aware a wire was even sent.”
“Ain’t Andy comin’ with him?”
“Listen, Boys. I don’t have all the answers. All I know is Joseph’s coming home.”
Two days passed and then three, and there was still no sign of Joe. Anything could happen alone on a trail, and every scenario possible filtered through my mind like little snippets of reality I didn’t want to dwell on.
Did his horse lose a shoe? Did he change his mind mid-trip? I didn’t want to think the worst, but it became difficult to wonder if he wasn’t in trouble. When Hoss offered to ride out again, I worried that Joe would assume we didn’t have faith in his abilities, but I couldn’t wait much longer and agreed to let Hoss go.
As the sun set that evening with no word from either boy, I stepped out to the front porch carrying a hot cup of coffee. I hadn’t slept for days and should’ve settled on brandy instead. Had Hoss accomplished the task he’d been willing to take? If so, why weren’t they home by now? Had they stopped to camp overnight? Was one of them hurt? Sometimes, fatherly intuition took over, but not this time. Tonight, I was at a complete loss.
When Adam joined me outside, he brought two shots of brandy with him. “It’s only been a day,” he said. “Give them time.”
I tossed the coffee and accepted the glass of brandy. My son knew me well. “I know, and I’m trying.”
“Has Hoss ever let you down?”
“Of course not, and I don’t expect he will this time either.” I wish my answer reflected how I felt. If anyone could track that boy down, it was Hoss so what made me feel so uneasy?
Just before dawn the next morning, I stood rooted to the front porch hoping the boys would magically appear if someone were there to greet them. Foolish old man with foolish whims. Just what did I expect to see? If the boys had made camp, it was too early for them to ride in. No one in his right mind would shave and dress at this hour but an anxious father who couldn’t lie in bed a moment longer. Not even the sweet sound of birdsong filled the cool morning air. As I turned to go back in the house, I glimpsed my eldest son leading two ready mounts from the barn.
“What’s this all about?”
“We both know something isn’t right.”
“Is that your take?”
“It’s yours too, isn’t it?”
Bedrolls had been attached, and a cloth sack of supplies hung from the horn of Sport’s saddle. “I’ll get my things.” I strapped on my gunbelt and grabbed my hat. Maybe our thinking was irrational. Maybe we jumped the gun, but Adam could be right.
“You bring Mr. Hoss and Little Joe home to Ponderosa?”
“That’s the plan, Hop Sing.”
As the sun crept over the horizon, guaranteeing another hot summer day, we rode out of the yard and to the road that would take us to Placerville. Curiosity had the best of us, but I felt better already. No more guessing. All this sitting and wondering and pretending nothing was amiss was more of a fool’s game than riding out and getting answers.
Placerville was a two-day ride if a steady pace was kept, which we managed until noon when we stopped at a stream to water the horses and have a bite of jerky. After a brief rest, we slowed our mounts and looked for signs along the way.
“I think that’s Chubby’s mark,” Adam said pointing to a hoof print. “Hoss said something the other day about having to shoe his right hoof. Something about a chip in his shoe.”
“Well, he made it this far.” We were on the right trail, but I had no doubt that Hoss would stick to the main road; at least, traveling west. If he hadn’t found Joe by the time he reached Placerville, he might vary his route on the way back. “Let’s go.”
After a full day’s travel and nothing out of the ordinary, we made camp, but Adam noticed something right off. “Hoss stayed here,” he said, and I had to agree. The small ring of rocks around a burned-out fire was definitely Hoss’ doing. My middle boy treasured every piece of land he crossed and would do anything to keep it safe. Even building a campfire just for himself, he used caution.
“Tomorrow then,” I said. “Surely, we’ll find one or both of them tomorrow.”
We turned in late although we both woke early and headed out, each of us anxious to know what the day would bring. We rode in silence until I spotted debris on the horizon. “What’s that up ahead?”
“I don’t know. Something’s not right.”
We turned our horses into a full-out gallop until we came upon a sight that made both our stomach’s turn. An upturned stage and four dead horses dotted the landscape. A stagecoach normally used six fresh mounts. Had the other two been set free? Adam and I dismounted and while I checked inside the overturned coach, Adam circled the wreckage looking for clues about the accident.
“No one in here,” I shouted.
“Only mailbags, but look at this.”
I pointed to a large tree branch that lay under the body of the coach. “This wasn’t an accident. Looks like road bandits wanted something worthwhile from the stage.”
“Looks that way.”
“I walked up ahead,” Adam said, “and it looked to me like three horses left the sight, but I can’t be sure.”
“Possibly. Maybe he found the driver and … it’s hard to tell.”
By the time we reached Placerville, it was late afternoon, but the best sight of all was seeing Chubb tied outside the sheriff’s office. We rushed inside. “Hey, Pa. Adam. What in tarnation?”
“We got worried, Son.”
“Sorry about that, Pa.
I should’ve wired when I got here.”
The sheriff—Red—stood up from the chair behind his desk. “We meet again.”
I offered him my hand. “Yes, we do.”
“Your son’s a decent kind of feller, Mr. Cartwright. Most men would’ve kept on goin’.”
“What happened out there?”
“Someone dragged a tree limb across the road, and I’m guessing the driver couldn’t stop in time.
“We saw the limb.”
“Figures,” Adam said.
“They get clean away?”
“Sure did. Had a posse on ‘em for three days but lost the trail when they turned up into hard rock country. Funny thing, though, that was a brand new coach, straight out of Concord.
Bright red paint and yeller wheels, but one of my men found three bullet holes. If’n someone planned the crash, who was they shootin’ at, and why? The driver was busted up some. He probably died on impact.”
My sons and I made eye contact. Were we all thinking the same thing?
“Your son brought him and two of the horses back to town, but there weren’t no bullet holes in the driver. I tell ya, Mr. Cartwright. It’s a mystery to me.”
None of us mentioned our suspicions to the sheriff. It was a wild shot and I wanted to talk to Andy first. That way, I’d have a timeline to go on. “I think we’ll get a room at the Cary House. We’ll stop by later, Sheriff.”
Red turned his attention to my middle boy. “Thanks again, Hoss. You’re a good man.”
I asked the boys to stable the horses while I went to the hotel. Andy had sent the wire from Placerville, but I had no idea how to find him. Maybe if I talked to the girl … Marianne, I think Hoss said.
A line of men waited for service in the hotel’s café, and the same little blonde Joe and I had seen when he’d broken his leg still worked the counter. I decided to check in first and wait until she’d taken orders from the hungry miners before I pulled her aside to ask questions.
“If the suite’s available, I’ll take it,” I said.
“Very good, Sir. One night only?”
“I’m not sure. At least two.”
I laid my saddlebags on the counter while I signed in. I didn’t have luggage although the clerk banged on his bell anyway. A smartly dressed young man with a curious little red cap hurried out from the back room.
“Will you show Mr. Cartwright to his room?”
As the young man moved closer, I realized immediately … “Andy?”
“Yes, Sir, Mr. Cartwright.
What brings you to town?”
I looked back at the clerk. “May I have a minute of this young man’s time?”
“Something wrong, Sir.”
“No, not at all. We’re old acquaintances.”
“Oh … certainly.” The little man sighed with relief as he reached to the back wall, unhooked the key and handed it his bellhop.
I was in too much of a hurry for chitchat or I would have sung Andy’s praises rather than have the little man wonder why I wanted to speak to his employee. Instead, I took Andy aside and asked questions I hoped he could answer. “Do you remember what day you sent that wire?”
“Um … let’s see. A week ago? Why? Is Joe with you?”
“No, he’s not, and that’s why my sons and I are here.”
“He should’ve been home four or five days ago. I told Joe to go ahead, and I’d send the wire.”
I noticed Andy kept glancing over my shoulder at the desk clerk, and the last thing I wanted was to get the boy in trouble. “I know you’re busy, but I’d like to talk again when you get off work. Is that possible?”
“Yes, Sir. But I’m not officially off until nine tonight.”
“Nine it is then.
We’re in the suite.”
“Good enough. I’ll see you later, Sir.”
I’d forgotten Andy had the key to our room, and I followed him up the stairs. He unlocked the door and handed me the key. “Such service,” I said.
“The Cary aims to please.”
“I see that.”
“I’ll be back at nine, Sir.”
I gave him a quick nod but as soon as I flopped my weary bones in an overstuffed chair, Hoss and Adam arrived and were eager for a decent meal. “Lost Wages?”
“Sounds good to me,” Hoss said.
By the time our steaks arrived, Hoss thought an apology was necessary, but that was Hoss. His constant worry about being a disappointment made him the most reliable person I knew. Hoss could never disappoint. It wasn’t in his nature.
“I’m sorry I got waylaid, Pa. I ain’t holdin’ up my end of the deal.”
“Oh, Hoss. Don’t be silly.” His appetite wasn’t what it should’ve been, a clear sign he felt guilty over not finding Joe. “You did what you had to do, and I’m proud of you, Son.”
“Thanks, Pa, but you know what? I noticed them bullet holes too. I realized the stage was brand new, and it got me to wonderin’.”
“I think it has us all wondering.”
“You think Little Joe was involved.”
“We can’t count it out. He could’ve run into them head-on.”
“Wrong place? Wrong time?”
“Possibly, Adam. We’ll ride out first thing in the morning. The boy’s out there somewhere, and I won’t leave without him.”
We left Placerville after a quick breakfast and rode back to the wreckage where the three of us separated. Although Hoss was the better tracker, we took off in different directions. After talking to Red one more time, he said the posse followed tracks heading south so Adam and I thought we’d see if anything was missed before the bandits rode into the high rocks. Hoss rode north just in case. The plan was to meet back at the stage at noon or fire a signal if luck was on our side.
If the bandits took Joseph with them, they could be on their way to Mexico and my thoughts veered in that direction. Of course, I thought the worst. Leave no witness. No body – no crime. A man hung for murder but not for robbery. If Joe witnessed the crime and wasn’t left for dead at the scene, the scenario made perfect sense.
Andy had done as promised and came by the suite at nine. He brought Marianne with him in case we had questions for her too. To find out the boys had lived at the farm shocked the three of us more than I can say, but I soon realized the farm was home for years and it might make sense that they return to familiar surroundings.
“I got tired of our living arrangements, Mr. Cartwright. We lived on scraps from the café and slept on pallets. After living like animals for nearly three months, I told Joe I was taking a room at the hotel and he needed to go home and make amends.
“You see, Sir … I realized how you must’ve felt when we left the Ponderosa. I felt the same way when Joe and I separated, and I think he did too. We promised to keep in touch, and we promised we’d see each other again. It will never be the same, but it was time we moved on, time to make a new life, and try to forget the past ever existed. Does that make sense?”
“It makes perfect sense, Son.”
Andy and Marianne sat next to each other on the small settee, and I couldn’t help but notice how he gripped her hand before he relayed his side of the story. The young man was in love, and he was ready for that new life.
“I hope we all see each other again. No matter where you settle, you know how to find us, and you’re always welcome in our home.”
“Thank you, Sir. You’ve been more than generous, and I’ll always remember my time on the Ponderosa.”
Though we didn’t have much of a lead on Joseph, I was pleased that Andy had done his best for Joe and that he’d found happiness with Marianne. “I wish you the best, Son.”
Hoss rode alone. He squinted into the bright sunlight as he scanned the horizon before studying the ground for signs of a horse or man on foot. But an infinite number of hills played tricks on him and became nothing more than a vast cropping of working and forgotten mines. He’d seen wagon trails and hoof prints, but did they mean anything at all? Was he to check every working and abandoned mine? Would one hold the results he was after? He rode toward a stream to water his horse. “Dang if I know, Pa,” he mumbled, but only Chubb heard his cry of frustration. “Sure hope you’re havin’ better luck than I am.”
Standing in knee-deep water, miners lined the creek-bed shaking and sifting dirt through homemade sluice boxes. From old men with long white beards to boys even younger than Joe, they bent over their awkward contraptions. Hoss couldn’t fathom the get-rich-quick scheme that brought so many men from so many parts of the country.
Hard work got a man rich and bending over a box all day and hoping for a miracle gave Hoss reason to be thankful he wasn’t that kind of fella at all. But, he could ask questions. Surely, these men had to look up from the clear running creek now and again.
Leading Chubb by the reins, he walked along the stream and asked every man he saw if they’d seen a boy with funny looking hair. Joe’s white hair had grown out some and his locks had become a two-tone mess of unruly curls. An old-timer, who’d taken time to sit down and eat a plate full of beans, asked Hoss if he wanted to join him. “Big man like you’s gotta be hungry all the time.”
“Well, you’re right there, and I thank you for the offer, but I’m lookin’ for a boy who might’ve come this way.”
“Lots of boys come this way. This one somethin’ special?”
“Yeah. He’s my little brother. Might have a gunshot wound. Might not. I ain’t rightly sure. He’s got funny lookin’ hair, though. You’d understand if you saw him up close like.”
“I jest might be able to help ya, Big Fella.”
“Yeah? You seen him?”
“Ain’t sure. Kid I saw didn’t look nothin’ like you. He was pretty scrawny.”
Hoss’ eyes widened like saucers. “That’s him. That’s Joseph.”
The old man stood and pointed up the creek. “Martha’s got a boy with her. Found him about two miles south of here. She’s always takin’ in strays and feeding ‘em a meal or two.”
“Where abouts she at?”
“Walk that animal up the creek. Can’t miss her bright red dress and big floppy hat. If’n he ain’t your brother, at least she’ll feed you better’n I can.”
“Thanks, Ol’ Timer.” Hoss started to turn but looked back at the old man. “Anything you need ‘fore I leave?”
“Nope. Got everythin’ I need right here.”
Hoss stepped lively until he spotted the red dress. Pulled up from the hem and tucked in her waistband, the old woman stood sifting and swaying in the creek just like everyone else. An A-frame tent stood nearby and he wondered if … was it too much to hope for?
“‘Scuse me, Ma’am. Mind if I have a word?” Putting one hand to her back, the woman stood up straight and stretched her burning muscles. With the other, she tilted the brim of her floppy hat farther down and narrowed her eyes up at Hoss. As she plowed through the knee-deep stream to the water’s edge, Hoss studied the contours of her face. She looked to be Pa’s age or better, and he wondered how she’d come to siftin’ for gold when she should’ve been home raisin’ a family. “It’s about the boy.”
“Who told you ‘bout him?”
“A man downstream.”
“What’s this boy to you, Mister?”
“He might be my brother, Ma’am.”
“You don’t look like a feller who’d be kin.”
“You’re right. I don’t Ma’am. That’s why we call him Little Joe.”
Martha moved closer to Hoss. “He done somethin’ wrong? You the law?”
“No, Ma’am. Just a brother.”
“Come on then. I got him inside.” Hoss followed the woman and nearly bent in half to slip through the small opening. “He’s hurt bad when I found him. All shot up and tryin’ to crawl.”
“Yep. Two bullet wounds, one to his left leg and one to his right arm. Didn’t fare so well those first couple days. Fever set in after I dug them slugs out. Poor thing’s a fighter though. Think he might live after all.”
Kneeling on one knee, Hoss swept the matted hair from his young brother’s forehead. “Joseph. Wake up, Boy. Ol’ Hoss is here to take you home.”
Joe tried to curl up sideways, away from the voice, until recognition hit him head-on. “Hoss?”
“That’s right.” Hoss eyed the two wounds wrapped in what looked like Joe’s shirt. “Pa and Adam’s both waitin’ down by the wrecked stage.”
“I see that. Think you can ride?”
“Horse got away.”
Hoss looked up at Martha as Joe struggled to get his words out. Though the boy was weak and barely conscious, Hoss couldn’t leave him behind. “You ain’t seen a pinto wanderin’ around, have you?”
Hoss laid his hand on Joe’s chest. “We’ll worry about Cochise another time. Right now, I need to get you to a doctor.” When he tried to stand, Hoss rammed his head into the canvas tent and quickly squatted back down. He looked up at Martha. “You think he can ride?”
Martha rubbed the back of her neck. “I ain’t no medicine woman.”
“No, Ma’am, but I sure appreciate what you done for him.”
Martha blushed and removed her floppy hat. “Take him.
Maybe you can get him to eat. I tried but he don’t seem too fond of my cookin’.”
“It ain’t that, Ma’am. He … well, he’s had a tough go lately and he don’t eat much of anything. Don’t blame yourself. It’s just his way.” In the summer heat, Joe hadn’t needed a blanket, and he lay there half-naked. His shirt and pants had been removed and the left side of his long johns and been torn off above the knee. “Is his clothes around somewhere?”
“They was a bloody mess, Big Fella. I used part of his shirt for a bandage and burned the rest.”
“All right. What’s done is done.”
Hoss slid both hands under his brother’s form and crouched through the tent’s narrow door but when Joe struggled and tried to stand, his leg gave way when his toes touched the ground. Hoss grabbed him up again. “Hold still, ya dang fool.”
Managing to lift Joe onto the saddle, Hoss turned back to Martha. “I’d like to pay you for what you done.” Hoss reached inside his vest pocket.
“No. Don’t need no handout.”
“For medicine and such.”
“Will it make you feel better?”
“You’re a good man, Big Fella. You got a ma and pa?”
“Just a pa, Ma’am.”
“You tell him he raised you right.”
Hoss smiled and handed the woman a ten-spot. “Buy yourself a new dress and a good, hot meal, Miss Martha. You saved my little brother, and I can’t do enough to thank you.”
When she reached up and pulled him close, and smacked a big, wet kiss on his cheek, it was Hoss’ turn to blush. Before climbing up behind his brother, he tipped his hat and waved as he turned Chubby in a southerly direction. “Good day, Miss Martha. Hope you strike it rich!”
Winter came early that year. Fog stained the windows as snow gently covered the landscape. Our lives had changed once again. Joseph was home to stay, and we all made adjustments, especially me. For a long time, I told myself Joe was no longer a boy, but I’d never changed my way of thinking, not really. I still saw him as a youngster I could reprimand and criticize without thinking things through. It wasn’t easy to accept that the boy was gone and a man with thoughts of his own had emerged over time, time spent away from the Ponderosa. Time I’d never get back.
We all struggled at first, everyone except Hoss, who seemed to understand and know just what to say when Joe’s feathers were ruffled, and he was ready to explode. I feared he’d run again but Hoss knew better. Joe worked hard to dismiss the past and make a new life, and Hoss seemed to know he was home to stay.
“Don’t fret none, Pa,” he said more than once. “That boy ain’t goin’ nowhere ever again.”
But, between my terrifying dreams of Joseph taking off and Joe’s frantic nightmares, I had reason to fret. I tried to soothe his tortured soul as terror of the past surfaced but, in time, he began to let go, and I sensed he was ready to move forward just as Andy had done with his new life at the hotel.
Joe balked about having to lie around the house while his bullet wounds healed and over time, I learned to compromise. Even Adam criticized the way I babied the boy, and I had to change my old way of thinking more than once.
“He just wants to sit outside. Is that such a horrible request?”
My eldest was right, of course. Fresh air and sunshine couldn’t hurt; in fact, it might be the best thing for the boy. I learned to accept the changes and realized I couldn’t boss three grown men like I had when they were children. When I accepted my failures, we were all better for it.
After a month of convalescence, Joe was anxious to get back to work. Paul Martin said light chores for a week and then back to business full on. Although leery, I said nothing. I was learning. Just as Joe began his days of mending tack while sunning himself on the front porch, a letter arrived from Andy saying he was on his way to the Ponderosa. Joe missed his friend, and the signs were clear as he sat waiting and watching for his friend to ride in.
When a rider approached, I stood from my desk and walked out to the porch in time to see Andy dismount and Joe hobble over to greet him. If he sat too long in one spot, his leg gave him fits. He never complained, and the rest of us could sense the lingering pain, but we kept our remarks to ourselves. After two breaks and a bullet wound, it’s a wonder there was any life left in that limb, but the best surprise was seeing what Andy had brought with him.
The subject had come up several times over the last few weeks. “I’m going, Pa. As soon as I can ride, I’m going out to find him.” I didn’t object to his plan although I wouldn’t let him leave alone. One or both of his brothers would accompany him, but that wouldn’t be necessary now.
Joe ran his hands up and down Cochise’s neck then checked every inch of his horse before turning his attention back to Andy. “Where’d you find him?”
“Grazing just north of town. I don’t know for sure what happened, but I remember you saying no one could ride him but you. Maybe the outlaws gave up and swatted his rump outta frustration.”
Joe held his hand out to thank him, but his friend grabbed him in a bear hug instead. “You doin’ okay? You all healed up?”
“Good as I’ll get, I guess. How ‘bout you?”
After tying their mounts to the hitch rail, the boys headed to the front porch and plopped down in two of the chairs. They had much to discuss and didn’t need me to interfere. I left them alone to laugh or shed a few tears. Whatever was needed.
Andy stayed two days before saying he had to get back. He’d been given a new job and a decent salary—assistant manager of the Cary House. The night before he left, we all sat down to supper and celebrated his promotion. Andy was on his way to a bright future in the hotel business. He learned from the bottom up, and I had a feeling he’d found steady employment and would rise to the top in no time.
“We’ll be sure to stop in next time we’re riding through,” Joe said.
“I’ll keep the suite open for Cartwrights only.”
We chuckled and wished him well. He’d left his past behind, and I believed Joe was on his way, too. The nightmares had calmed, and he accepted that the food on his plate would always be safe to eat. Though no one expected Joe to keep up with Hoss, his cheeks weren’t as hollow and gaunt. He’d started to fill out, and I took that as a good sign.
We all waved goodbye the following morning, but it was hard for Joe to watch his friend round the barn and head back home. They’d always be brothers, maybe not by blood but in spirit. I had Andy to thank for my son’s life, and I wished him the best.
When I slid my arm across Joe’s shoulders, the rigid tension beneath my palm subsided and my son forced a half-smile. “How about a cup of coffee,” I said.
Joe nodded and the four of us walked inside together. Andy would be missed but never forgotten. “He’ll do just fine, Joseph.”
“I know. He’s the best friend a man could ever have, Pa.”
Yes, my boy had become a man, a good man, and I was as proud as the day was long.
Other Stories by this Author
- The Farm – Book 2 – The Return (by jfclover)
- The Farm – Book 6 – The Major’s Daughter (by jfclover)
- The Farm – Book 4 – The Horse Operation (by jfclover)
- The Farm – Book 1 – Taken (by jfclover)
- The Farm – Book 5 – The Wedding