At the Hands of Strangers (by Camera Chic)

Summary:  A prequel. A revengeful hired hand kidnaps Little Joe, who discovers a new friend in an unlikely place.   

Rated: K+ (13,805)

At the Hands of Strangers Series:

At the Hands of Strangers
Friends and Strangers

At the Hands of Strangers

 “Joe! Hey Little Joe! Dinner!” Hoss yelled outside. He shut the door and turned and walked into the dining room, frowning slightly. “Hey Adam?” he said as he sat down at the table. “You notice Little Joe’s been actin’ sorta peculiar recently?”

Adam shrugged. “Not particularly. Although I haven’t really seen him today. Other than when he stormed out of here earlier. I figured he’s just cooling off somewhere.”

“I guess so,” Hoss replied. Adam and Little Joe had gotten into a fierce argument today. Joe had been in the wrong, but that hadn’t mattered to him. Hoss sighed. He hoped Ben would be back from his trip soon; or at least before there was a serious fight between his two strong-willed and stubborn siblings.

Both of them looked up as Little Joe slammed the front door open and ran inside, not even bothering to close it, and tore up the stairs. As he reached the top, Adam admonished, “Joseph! Go back and close that door!” Little Joe stopped at the top of the stairs, his back to his brother. Under normal circumstances, the ten year old would have grumbled and rolled his eyes before going back down the stairs; but today he just stood frozen at the top. “Joseph, did you hear me?”

Little Joe turned and ran down the stairs to the door, trying to hide his face from his older brothers. It didn’t work. As soon as Joe had shut the door, he turned to find Adam in front of him, curiously observing the angry tears on the boy’s cheeks. “Joe…? What’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” he replied sullenly and ran past Adam up the stairs to get changed for dinner.

Adam and Hoss looked at each other, puzzled. It was unusual for the boy to remain so angry about getting into trouble this long. Something else had to be bothering him.

A few minutes later Little Joe sulked into the dining room and sat on the edge of his chair, tilting it forward. Adam cleared his throat. “Joe, sit properly,” he said, and started cut the beef. Joe slammed the chair back and leaned on the table with his arms crossed. Adam closed his eyes for a couple of seconds, and then put the knife down and looked at his younger brother. “Something you want to share?” he asked.

Joe didn’t look up at him or respond.

Adam sighed. “Joe, I know you’re probably still upset about this afternoon-“

“Shows what you know,” muttered Little Joe.

Hoss looked up in surprise. “Joe! What’s eating you? Come on, out with it.”

Joe chewed his lower lip for a couple of seconds, and then looked up at Hoss. “One of the hands got mad at me,” he said.

“Why?” Hoss asked. “What happened?”

Joe shrugged. “I was watching them breaking some horses, and one of them said I was a little kid, and I shouldn’t be there ‘cuz it was dangerous.”

Adam frowned. Little Joe knew how to stay safe while watching them work the horses. He loved watching but he never got too close to the fence. Usually he climbed up on something near the ring and watched from a safe distance and to keep out of the way. Most of the hands knew this. “Joe, was anybody else around when he said this?”

Joe shook his head.

“Tell us exactly what happened, Joe,” Hoss said. He knew as well as Adam it had to have been one of the new men that saw their brother as being in the way. Most of the others were tolerant and even pleased by his keen interest.

“Well, I was sitting a little ways away from everything, like I’m supposed to, and one of the men came up to me when everyone else was watching them break that new horse we just got. He grabbed my arm and told me to get out of there. I said I was allowed to be here as long as I wasn’t causing problems, and he got real mean. He called me a couple of names and said some words I’m not allowed to repeat, so I left.”

“Who did it?” Adam asked. He frowned as Little Joe immediately looked away and shrugged. He could tell Joe knew but wasn’t going to tell them, and he wondered why.

Little Joe looked up. “I’m not hungry…can I leave, please?”

Adam sighed and nodded. As Joe got up, Adam called out, “Tomorrow is Sunday and we’re going into town. I told Hop Sing to get a bath ready, and I expect you to be done by your bedtime.”

Joe just muttered as he went up the stairs.

Adam looked at Hoss, and the rest of their meal was spent trying to figure out who could have gotten angry at their brother.

 

******

 

Adam opened the door to the guest room where Little Joe was taking his bath. Adam raised his eyebrows in surprise at seeing Joe fully dressed for bed already and brushing his hair. “Well, that was fast,” he commented. Little Joe shrugged. Adam walked forward and grabbed Joe’s wrist.

“Hey!” Little Joe loudly protested.

Adam examined his hand. “Joe, did you even get in the tub?”

“What do you mean?”

“You still have dirt under your nails, and your skin isn’t even wrinkled.” Adam released his hand.

Little Joe glared at him. “The water was too hot.”

Adam dipped his hand in the tub. “Well, it’s not too hot now- Joseph…” he said threateningly as Little Joe backed away from him and the tub. “Get over here now. I’m not playing.”

Little Joe squirmed away as Adam tried to grab him and ended up standing with his back against the tub. “Fine, I’ll take a bath.”

Adam waited a few seconds and then said, “Well?”

“Well what?”

Adam gritted his teeth. “Joseph, I’m not leaving this room until you get in the tub.” Little Joe just looked at him, and Adam could tell he was trying to decide whether or not he was serious. Adam decided to make up his mind for him, and he quickly moved forward and grabbed the cuffs of Joe’s nightshirt. Joe’s cry of protest was muffled by the nightshirt coming over his head. Adam frowned at what he saw, and reached out and gently turned Joe around. He gasped slightly as he fully saw the boy’s back. There were about eight bright red welts on his back. The skin wasn’t broken, but it looked bad enough to become pretty bruised.

Adam took hold of the boy’s shoulders and turned him to face him. Joe’s head was still bowed. “Who did it?” Adam asked. Joe didn’t look up or answer. Adam tried again. “Joe…was this done by the same guy that yelled at you?”

Joe barely nodded.

“When did this happen?”

“Today…” Joe whispered. “He whipped me with the cinch from Sport’s saddle.”

Adam slowly inhaled and then picked up a towel and wrapped it around the boy’s waist. He had taken apart all the pieces of his saddle this morning so he could thoroughly clean them after a muddy ride the day before, and he hadn’t put them back together yet. Adam bit his lip as he thought of how painful being whipped by the strip of leather must have been, even if it didn’t leave cuts. “What happened?”

Little Joe shrugged. “I ran in the barn this afternoon, and he was checking the shoe on one of the horses and it kicked him and knocked him down. He got really mad.”

“Joe…” When the boy didn’t raise his head, Adam reached out and took hold of his chin, and then forced him to look up at him. “Why didn’t you say anything? Why didn’t you tell us?”

Joe swallowed before answering. “I was afraid too, Adam.”

“Why?”

“He said that I deserved the whipping, and I better not get him in trouble.” Joe looked away. “I knew you would do something about it…but now that I’ve told you, please don’t. It’s not that important…I’ll just stay away from him and try not to get him mad at me.”

“Joe…tell me who did this.”

“Adam, no! I don’t want you to talk to him. It was my fault for spooking the horse anyway…you’ve told me a hundred times not to go charging into places…” Joe stopped and looked up as Adam pulled him closer.

“Joe. What he did was wrong…that’s why he didn’t want you to tell. He had no right to hit you…it doesn’t matter what you did. Tell me who did it.”

Joe looked at the floor for a few minutes. “It was one of the guys we hired last week. Harker,” he said quietly.

“Thanks,” Adam said. “Don’t worry about it. Let’s get you cleaned up so you’re presentable for prayer meeting tomorrow.”

 

******

 

Monday morning Joe was in the barn saddling his horse, Midnight, so he could go to school. He finished tightening the last buckle and turned to leave the stall, but as soon as he saw the man standing outside of the stall he gasped and backed up.

Harker took a couple steps forward and patted the horse on the back. “Nice animal you have here,” he said.

Joe stood flat against the back of the stall, staring at the man in front of him. “What do you want?” he asked.

Harker looked at him in surprise. “Why, I’m not doing anything wrong, am I?”

Little Joe looked down and shrugged. “I guess not.”

The man smiled. “I mean, I wouldn’t want to do anything to get myself fired. I like this job,” Harker moved closer to Joe, who pressed himself flatter against the wall. “I like this job a lot,” he continued. “No sir, I wouldn’t want to get fired.” He stepped closer to Joe.

“Fired…?” asked Joe, suddenly getting a very bad feeling. “What are you talking about?”

“Why, your brother of course. He had a little talk with me this morning.” Harker moved closer to Joe and held his shoulder. Any trace of the smile he had before was now completely gone. “What’s the matter, boy? You don’t look happy. Maybe you’re remembering the rest of the conversation we had. About what would happen if you told anybody.” The man held up his other hand and Joe bit his lip as he saw the belt.

 

******

 

Joe ran through the schoolyard, knocking a kid out of the way. He took careful aim and kicked the ball hard, sending it to its goal amidst cheers from his teammates. He grinned at them, but carefully ducked out of their reach and ran for the water trough next to the schoolhouse. As he dunked his head in the water to cool off, he became aware of somebody standing behind him. He stood up and shook his head, and then looked back. It was William, the kid he had knocked over to win the game.

“What do you think you were doing?” William asked.

“Playing,” replied Joe.

“Don’t you mean cheating?”

Little Joe’s temper immediately flared. “I was not!”

“You were too! You deliberately tripped me. That’s not allowed in the game.”

“I did not!” was Joe’s indignant reply. “You’re just a sore loser!” The next second, Little Joe found himself on the ground, grimacing in pain. He put his hand to his bleeding nose as Miss Jones came running towards the scene.

“What is going on here?” she called, and some of the children quickly explained what had happened. She bent over Little Joe and looked at his nose. “It’s bleeding heavily. Everyone, go inside and wait quietly for me. I’ll be back from the doctor’s in a few minutes. I expect you all to behave.” She ushered Little Joe down the street and into the doctor’s office. “Doctor Martin?” she called.

“Back here,” he replied.

She pushed Joe into the back, where Doc Martin and Roy Coffee, a longtime friend of both the good doctor and Ben Cartwright, had been talking.

“Well, what’s this?” said the doctor as he lifted Joe onto the exam table. “You in a fight today?”

Miss Jones quickly outlined what had happened, and then she excused herself to go back to her class. Doc Martin helped Joe tip his head back to stop the bleeding, then he got a damp cloth to clean up the blood.

Joe was concentrating on getting his nose to stop bleeding, and he didn’t notice what the doctor had stopped to look at until he felt him grab his wrist and pull his sleeve down. “Hey!” Joe yelped, dropping the cloth he had been holding under his nose.

“What happened?” Doc Martin asked with a worried frown. Joe looked at the bruises on his wrist, and then at the floor. “Did Adam or Hoss do this?” Doc Martin asked. Little Joe shook his head. Doc Martin glanced up at Roy, and then looked back at Joe. “Okay, son, how about you take off your shirt. I want to get a good look at your arm.”

Joe looked up in panic. “No,” he said and tried to think of some reason not to. Nothing was coming.

“Come on, I just want to have a look.” When Joe didn’t move, he glanced up at Roy.

As the other man walked behind him, Joe tried to jump off the table but Doc Martin gently held his arms.

Roy carefully pulled up his shirt. “Paul, come have a look,” he said. Doc Martin released Joe and walked around the bed. He gently examined Joe’s back, and then looked at Roy. “There must be about a dozen cuts here.” He carefully pulled the shirt over Joe’s back, and then he and Roy walked around to the front of the bed.

“Joe, how did this happen?” Doc Martin asked.

Joe didn’t answer.

“Does Adam or Hoss know?” asked Martin.

Little Joe’s only response was a shrug.

The two men exchanged looks, and then Roy helped Joe down from the bed. “Come on, youngen’,” he said and gently nudged him to the door. “I’m going to take you home. You can’t go back to school looking like this.”

It was a quiet trip back to the Ponderosa. As soon as they arrived in the yard Adam came outside, curious as to who would be visiting this time of day. Upon seeing the bloodied clothes of his younger brother, Adam rushed across the yard. He lifted his brother out of the saddle, and then inspected his face. Joe angrily pushed his hand away. “I’m all right, Adam! Leave me alone.” Joe turned and bolted into the house.

Adam looked over at Roy. “Thanks for bringing him home,” he sighed.

Roy dismounted and tied the reins to the post. “How are things going out here?” he asked.

Adam frowned. “Well, fine Roy. Why do you ask?”

Roy shrugged. “No reason in particular. Is the youngen’ behaving himself?”

Adam smiled. “As usual,” he chuckled. “Loud and stubborn as ever.” Suddenly Adam frowned as he sensed more to what he was asking. “What’s wrong?”

Roy saw no point in dodging the issue. “Adam, did you see his back?”

Adam frowned. “Two days ago. Joe said one of the hands hit him.”

“Well, if I were you I’d do something about it. Doc and I saw it today, and it looks pretty bad. He’s got a lot of cuts and bruises.”

“What…?” Adam turned and strode inside with Roy following him. They went into Joe’s room to find him lying face down on the bed. As soon as Joe realized they were in the room he scrambled up. Adam reached out and caught him, and then with much fighting and yelling on Joe’s part, he wrestled Joe’s shirt up. Joe stopped fighting the moment he realized it wouldn’t do any good anymore. Adam gently pulled him up and sat on the edge of the bed. “Joe, what happened?” Little Joe didn’t move. He just stood in front of him with his head down. Adam gently held the back of his head and pulled him close to his ear. “Joe…what happened? It’s a lot worse than it was before,” he said into his ear. He strained to hear the answer, and then looked up at Roy and Hoss, who had come in at the start of the scuffle. He pulled the boy onto his lap, taking care not to touch his back where he had been hurt.

“What did he say?” Roy asked quietly.

Adam looked up at them. “Because I told you. That’s what he said…because I told you.”

Hoss gasped. “You mean Harker did this because Joe told you about the whipping?” Adam nodded grimly. “What are we going to do?”

Adam thought for a few moments, and then looked up at Roy and Hoss. “We can’t keep him on, even though we’re shorthanded.”

Joe looked up at him. “Please don’t fire him…”

“Why, what did he say?” asked Adam.

Joe shrugged. “Nothing…exactly. He said he’d get really mad if he got fired, and if it was because of me…he said he’d know where to come looking,” he finished quietly.

Adam looked up at Roy. “Can anything be done?”

The man shook his head. “I wish there could…but you can’t put a man in prison for having a mean temper.”

Adam caught his meaning…if Harker actually seriously hurt or killed Joe, then they could do something. That would never happen, Adam decided. “Well, then we won’t let Joe, or else Harker, out of our sight until Pa comes back.”

 

******

 

Pretty soon it was Saturday, a day that all three boys dreaded for different reasons. When Ben was there, he usually made sure things went off without any problems. But now that he was on the trip, Little Joe had taken to questioning Adam’s authority. Adam hated Saturday because it meant fighting with Little Joe all day to get him to do his extra chores, and Joe hated it just as much because it meant extra chores that he didn’t have time for during the week. Hoss tried his best to stay out of the way of his brothers, but he disliked seeing either of them get so angry and frustrated.

Adam took a deep breath as Little Joe stomped into the dining room for breakfast. Hoss groaned quietly and exchanged a look with Adam. Not two minutes after they had started eating, Little Joe started complaining.

“Do I have to clean out the barn today? It’s not fair; it takes forever to do. Why can’t I do something else instead? I always have to clean out the barn.”

Adam focused on the eggs and bacon in front of him. Do not get angry, do not get angry, he kept telling himself. He took a deep breath. “Joe, everyone has different chores. If you were bigger and older, you could do something different, but you can’t. I’m sure I would love to trade some of my jobs for an easy one like cleaning out the barn, but I can’t. Now stop complaining and eat your breakfast.”

“But Adam-“

“Joseph, I am in no mood to argue with you. I have a lot of work to do, so I strongly suggest you finish your breakfast and then get to work on your chores.”

Little Joe sulkily started eating. He knew when Adam talked like that, he meant it. And he was in no mood to receive any sort of punishment; not after the two recent beatings. He quickly finished eating and then asked to be excused. Without waiting for the answer, he left the table and stormed outside.

A couple of seconds later he stormed back into the house. When Adam and Hoss looked curiously at him, he snapped, “Well, I’m not going outside by myself.”

Adam glanced up at Hoss, and then went back to his breakfast. Today was going to be long.

 

******

 

“Meyers and Johnston, I want you two to round up any strays you can find in the south pasture. Some of them got scattered last week, and I think there’s still a good amount of them not back with the main herd,” Adam said.

The two men nodded, and Adam looked around him. “Well, everyone has their orders, let’s get-“ Suddenly he stopped as a loud banging noise came from the barn, at the same time a horse could be heard neighing and Little Joe was yelling, “Whoa boy!” There was the sound of hooves, and then a big brown horse ran out of the barn. For a second, Adam thought it was Sport, but then he realized it belonged to one of the hands. Hoss quickly grabbed the halter as the horse slowed to a stop in front of the group of men. Adam was just about to ask for the owner of the horse when one of the men rushed forward. Adam groaned silently when he saw who it was.

“That’s my horse!” snapped Harker as he pulled the lead rope from Hoss’ hand.

Joe came running out of the barn and up to the horse, oblivious to the man holding it. “I’m sorry, Adam, Sport got spooked and he…got away…” he trailed off as he realized his mistake.

Harker suddenly and viscously backhanded the boy, knocking him to the ground. “What do you think you were doing!” he yelled as he jerked the sobbing child off the ground by the front of his shirt. Immediately Adam and Hoss were in front of him, with the rest of the hands moving forward as well.

“Let him go!” Adam said sharply.

Harker released the boy, who immediately took cover behind Adam. “He had no right taking my horse out!” Harker yelled.

“I didn’t know! I thought it was Adam’s horse!” sobbed the child.

“You brat! If you ever dare touch my horse again, I’ll whip you good!”

Adam felt Little Joe cringe, and he angrily glared at the larger man. “No you won’t; because you’re fired,” said Adam. “You have one hour to get your things. I’ll have your five days of pay ready in 15 minutes. And if you ever step foot on Ponderosa land again, I’ll shoot you myself.”

Harker stiffened, and then turned and walked into the bunkhouse. Hoss looked down at Joe, who was still quietly crying. “You okay?” he asked.

Joe shrugged. He was greatly embarrassed by fact that all the hands had seen him crying. “I’m all right,” he whispered. “But now what? He’s gonna come after me.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Adam. “I don’t think he’ll ever show his face here again.”

 

******

 

For the next few days, Adam and Hoss took turns riding with Little Joe to and from school. Joe was afraid to go by himself, and they didn’t blame him.

On Thursday morning, Little Joe came down to breakfast a little late as usual. Adam looked up at him. “Hey, Joe? You think you can make it back from school all right today? Hoss and I have to ride out to check the herd; one of the hands found cat prints, and we need to track it.”

Little Joe shrugged. “I guess so,” he said quietly.

“Joe,” said Hoss, almost reading his thoughts. “He left town the day after we fired him, and he hasn’t been seen since. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Joe nodded. “I know. I’ll be okay.”

Both Hoss and Adam frowned as they heard the tremor in his voice, but there was nothing that could be done. “Sure you will,” said Adam, and tried to smile reassuringly.

 

******

 

Adam tiredly walked through the front door and dropped his hat on the credenza. It had been a long day, but they had managed to track down the wildcat. He looked up and was startled when Hop Sing ran around the corner, yelling in Chinese. “Hop Sing, what’s wrong?” he asked. Adam listened closely, and as he began to comprehend what Hop Sing was saying he felt a knot forming in his stomach. He turned and grabbed his hat, and then ran outside into the darkening evening. “Hoss! Hoss!” Adam burst into the barn, his heart pounding. “Hoss!” he almost screamed. “Joe didn’t come home today! Hop Sing hasn’t seen him all day!”

Hoss immediately started to saddle Chubb again. He had a feeling of dread starting to form, and he hoped that he was wrong.

The brothers rode into town as fast as they could, and came to a stop outside Miss Jones’ home. Adam took the steps two at a time, and knocked loudly on the door. A few moments later, a window opened upstairs. “Who’s there?”

Hoss looked up. “It’s Hoss and Adam Cartwright, ma’am. Miss Jones…did you see Little Joe today?”

Abigail Jones shook her head. “No, I didn’t. He didn’t come to school today…why, is something wrong?” She watched worriedly as Adam leapt onto Sport and rode quickly away.

“I hope not, ma’am,” answered Hoss, and he quickly followed Adam. He spotted his horse a few minutes later outside Roy Coffee’s house. As Hoss stepped to the open door, he heard Roy say, “I’ll see what I can do,” and then Adam rushed past him.

“Adam?”

Adam looked back. “He’s getting some men together. We’re going to look around before it’s too dark. Maybe his horse threw him or something,” Adam tried to sound optimistic, but the idea that his brother lying hurt in the desert somewhere was a happy substitute for what they both feared didn’t offer any reassurance. He and Hoss quickly mounted, and, with a lantern in hand, Adam led the way.

 

******

 

It was well past dark when the two brothers arrived back at the ranch. It was impossible to see any tracks in the dark, so they decided to go back and get supplies and maybe a few hours of sleep, and then start out in the morning as soon as it got light. They led their horses into the barn, and started to remove the saddles. “Adam.”

Adam looked to where Hoss was pointing. Little Joe’s horse, fully saddled, was standing in the middle of the barn. Adam and Hoss nervously approached it and checked the saddle and gear for any signs of blood or foul play. There was nothing. Adam began to go through the saddlebags. “Nothing in this one.” Adam walked to the other side. “Here, I found something…it’s Joe’s shirt.” As Adam pulled the shirt out it fell open. The two men stared at it silently. Hoss looked at the ground, his eyes brimming with tears. The shirt was dirty and torn, and in one spot there was a large dark stain. Adam looked at it carefully. It was a blood stain, surrounding a long, narrow cut in the fabric right above the pocket. Adam noticed something in the pocket, and took out the piece of paper, his hands shaking. There were just two words on the paper.

“He’s dead.” Adam dropped the paper. “That’s all it says, ‘He’s dead’.”

Hoss started angrily. “No! That can’t be! How could he do this?”

Adam walked towards his horse. He began to put the saddle back on.

“Adam?”

Adam finished tightening the gear, and started to mount.

“Adam!” Hoss reached out and pulled him away from the horse. “Adam, what are you doing?”

Adam angrily pulled away. “I’m going to find Harker. He’s not going to get away with this. I’m going to make him tell me what he did with…” Adam’s voice broke, and he paused for a couple of seconds. “I’m going to kill him.”

“No, Adam, you can’t do that.”

“He killed Joe! Hoss, don’t you understand? He murdered our brother!” Adam started to sob, and collapsed in tears in the floor. “Oh, Joe…” he sobbed. “I’m so sorry…we should never have let him go by himself…” Hoss quickly knelt next to him and embraced him, and began to cry along with him. The two brothers remained there for some time, sharing in their grief.

 

******

 

Little Joe squirmed against the ropes. His bottom was starting to get very numb after the hours of sitting in one spot. He had long ago given up trying to get free from the ropes that bound him to the tree in the little clearing. He had given up yelling for help, too. He was too far away from any paths or roads. The only way anyone would find him is if they knew where to look. Harker had chosen the spot very carefully, but Joe didn’t know why. The man hadn’t said very much after he had taken Joe. He forced him to change into a rather large and worn out shirt, and then brought him here and tied him up. He had been gone the rest of the day, and it was now almost night.

Little Joe froze as he heard a horse approaching, and looked up as Harker rode into the clearing. The man jumped off his horse and tied the reins to a branch at the edge of the clearing. Joe frowned. “Where’s my horse?” he asked quietly.

Harker looked back at him. “Your horse?” He laughed nastily, and Joe shuddered. Harker walked up to him and knelt down. “I left it in front of your house for your brothers to find.” Harker held something up, and then waited until Joe recognized that he was holding a large, bloody knife. “After I killed it.”

Little Joe squeezed his eyes shut and dropped his chin to his chest. Why would he do that? How could he be so cruel?

Harker laughed, and then left the clearing. Joe watched him leave with angry tears in his eyes. It wasn’t fair…Midnight didn’t do anything; why should he have to die? Suddenly Joe got a cold chill…he hadn’t done anything either. What was going to happen to him? He looked up fearfully as Harker walked back into the clearing. The man dumped an armful of wood on the ground, and then started to build a fire. “What are you going to do with me?” Joe asked quietly.

Harker barely glanced up at him and finished adding wood to the fire. “I haven’t decided yet.”

“You won’t get away with this. My brothers-“

“Shut up!” Harker snapped and looked over at him. “Keep quiet or I’ll kill you right now.”

Little Joe bit his lip and shrank back against the tree. He knew the man had a violent temper when he was angry, and Joe didn’t want to upset him. Maybe he could try to talk his way out of this later. Or else keep alive long enough for Adam and Hoss to find him.

 

******

 

A week later, Adam and Hoss were standing in front of the hotel, waiting quietly for the stage to come in.

“Howdy, boys.”

They looked up. Both of them had been so lost in their own thoughts, they failed to see Doc Martin’s approach.

“Hi Doc,” replied Hoss glumly.

“Your Pa get back today?”

Adam nodded silently. They had received a telegram two days ago telling them when he would arrive. But that’s all it had said. Adam dreaded seeing his father. Of all the things that could possibly have gone wrong at the ranch, Little Joe being murdered was not one that Adam ever would even have dared imagine. He had no idea what he was going to say. Sorry, didn’t mean anything; he had seen danger, Joe had alerted him to the depth of it, and yet he had done nothing. He should have made Joe stay home from school, or made sure somebody rode with him. He had been stupid and naive to think that a violent man would just let things go.

“Any word from Roy?” Hoss asked, interrupting Adam’s thoughts.

The doctor shook his head. “They haven’t found any trace of Harker. Just…just the clearing. The tracks disappeared into rocks soon after. But they’ll find him.”

Hoss blinked back tears. He and Adam hadn’t been to the clearing the posse had found. It had been not very far from the ranch, but it was very secluded. The only way the posse had found it was by the number of tracks leading in and out of the woods there. There wasn’t much in the clearing; just the remains of a campfire and a large bloody knife. There were no other signs of what had happened, and no signs of Joe. Roy had thought that if Harker murdered their brother in the clearing, there would have been more evidence.

Both Hoss and Adam were saddened that their brother wouldn’t get a proper burial or grave. They hadn’t spoken this out loud, but it was an underlying thought for both of them. There should at least have been a place to mourn their brother’s tragic death.

Adam looked up as the stagecoach rounded the end of the street. He looked at Hoss, and then took a deep breath. The coach came to a stop, and a man jumped out. He reached in and helped a little girl out, and then they both went into the hotel. Another man followed them out of the coach, and then finally Ben Cartwright exited. In Adam’s eyes, he looked to have aged ten years since he left. There was great sadness about him, and Adam was at a complete loss for words. Tears sprang to his eyes as his father reached for him.

“Adam,” whispered Ben, giving him a brief but warm hug. He turned to Hoss and hugged him as well. He smiled briefly, and then turned and picked up his bag.

Paul Martin reached out and clasped Ben’s hand. “Ben, if there’s anything I can do for you or your family, please let me know.”

Ben nodded, and then he and his two sons got on the wagon and began the ride back to the ranch. Once they arrived, Ben insisted on knowing all the details. Adam’s telegram to him had been necessarily brief.

“And…that’s about it,” Hoss finished. “They can’t find any trace of Harker…the posse’s been searching for days.”

There was silence in the room for a few minutes, and then finally Adam cleared his throat. “Pa…I…I don’t know what to say…”

“Adam,” Ben breathed. “I know what you’re thinking…but please don’t blame yourself. Nothing good could come of that.”

Adam nodded, but the dark cloud that had settled into his thoughts didn’t disappear. As he looked into the faces of his father and brother, he wondered if there would ever be joy in this house again.

 

******

 

Several hundred miles away…

Harv Benson walked out of the backroom muttering under his breath and buckling his belt. The man at the bar, an old friend of his, Peter Randal, chuckled as he finished his beer. “I guess he won’t be breaking anymore glasses, eh?”

Harv frowned at the smirk on Peter’s face. “Why I ever let him talk me into taking that kid…”

“Why did you?”

Benson picked up Pete’s empty glass and refilled it. “I’ve known Harker awhile. He didn’t explain very much, but I think he was in trouble. Probably tried to ransom the kid and the family would have nothing to do with it. I don’t know…” Benson slid the beer across the bar.

Pete picked it up. “So what are you supposed to do with him?”

Benson shrugged. “Keep him while he’s useful. If he gets to be any trouble I’ll sell him as a cabin boy to some ship.”

“Ah…”

The two men turned and looked as the ten year old walked out of the backroom and behind the bar. He had tear streaks on his face, and his eyes were red from crying. He began to pick up the glass shards from the floor, taking care not to cut himself. He found the last of the big pieces, and then went to get a broom. As soon as he was finished sweeping up the shards, he put the broom away and then came out of the back to continue wiping the glasses. As he walked by Benson, the man reached out and took hold of his shoulder.

“Well,” Benson said. “Done cleaning up the mess, are you? If you ever break another one, you won’t be able to sit for a week. Understand?” With this, the man gave him a shake and turned back to the man at the bar. Little Joe bit his lip to keep the tears from falling again. He highly doubted he’d be able to sit now. Besides, the broken glass hadn’t been his fault. A man at the bar had tossed it at him when he was done. But Joe didn’t bother to explain this. He knew it would only earn him a harsher punishment.

 

******

 

“Here, sir,” Little Joe said and put the beer down on the table. The man barely looked up; he was so intent on the poker game. Joe walked to the other side of the table to set the other beer down. As he reached out to place the mug on the table, the man sitting next to him tossed his cards down in disgust. Joe’s arm was bumped and he dropped the beer. The entire glass spilled, its contents soaking the money, cards, and papers on the table. Little Joe could feel his face pale, and he slowly backed away from the table. It took a couple of seconds for the half drunk players to realize what had happened, but as they did they jumped up and turned angrily to the boy. One of them, the one who had won the now wet money on the table, reached out and grabbed Little Joe’s arm. “I’ll teach you to be clumsy!” he yelled, and started to drag the child outside.

“No, no! It was an accident!” Joe pleaded, but the man didn’t listen. Suddenly there was a person in front of them, and Little Joe found himself being pulled away from the man.

“Leave the kid alone.” Joe looked up at the speaker, a tough looking man with the beginnings of a beard. His hair was dark, and his skin was rough and tanned. He stood unwavering, holding Joe’s arm, until the drunken poker player had gathered his winnings and left. The man guided Joe to the bar, and then let go of his arm. Little Joe walked around the back and looked up at the man. “Thanks, mister.”

“Get me a beer,” he replied.

“Yes sir,” he said as he quickly poured the man’s drink. He looked up at the man, expecting to see him toss money on the counter and leave, but to Joe’s surprise the man handed him the money and then leaned on the bar. Joe went to get the man’s change.

“Why aren’t you in bed?”

“What?” Little Joe froze and looked up at the man.

“Isn’t it a little late for a kid your age to still be up?” When Joe didn’t move or say anything, the man asked, “How old are you?”

Little Joe shut the drawer and walked back to the bar. “I’m ten,” he said as he handed the change to the man.

“And you’re still up this late? How do you manage to get up for school?”

“I…don’t go to school,” Joe said quietly, and glanced towards the back door. There was no sign of Benson yet; he had gone to the root cellar to get another keg. Joe looked back as the man leaned over the counter.

“You in some kind of trouble, kid?”

Joe frowned. The last thing he wanted was for this man to start asking Benson questions. Although…he seemed like he had wanted to help. He had protected Joe from getting beaten…or killed. What if he wanted to help? What if he could? Joe looked at the back door again, and then he nodded.

The man nodded thoughtfully. “Your family…do they know where you are?”

Little Joe shook his head, and then turned away from the man as Benson came in with a barrel. The man glanced at him, and then smiled and saluted him with the beer and went back to his table in the back.

Joe watched him for the rest of the night. He sat in the back of the room. He ordered a couple more drinks, but Benson filled the orders. There was another man sitting with him, but he didn’t drink anything or talk to anyone else. Mostly he just seemed to observe. There were a few other men who came in and talked to the two men, and then went out again.

After a while, most of the customers had gone for the night, and Joe began to clean up. While he was mopping, he happened to glance up at the table in the back and he discovered the men were gone. He frowned as he realized he wasn’t sure when they had left. He was pretty certain they had been there when Benson had yelled at him for spilling a bottle of whiskey…but he wasn’t sure if they left before or after a poker game turned into a brawl resulting in two broken chairs and a shattered lamp. Joe shook his head as he realized it didn’t even matter. He didn’t know why he cared; he knew he’d never see that man again.

Joe shoved the back door open and stumbled into the alley with the bucket of dirty water. He dumped it out in a clump of bushes, and then turned to go back inside. Before he realized what was happening, someone had covered his mouth and was pulling him down the alley. Little Joe dropped the bucket and started to struggle, but the man hissed “Be still.”

Little Joe was pushed through a door of one of the buildings in the alley. There was a pile of sacks on the floor, and Joe was pushed face down onto them. Very briefly he saw a couple of men standing nearby amidst piles of boxes, and then a cloth was tied over his eyes. “Stay down and keep quiet,” a man said.

Little Joe obeyed, and pressed his face into the sack. He was scared. He heard the man walk away and talk quietly with someone else. Who were these men? Joe knew it was dangerous here; that men were kidnapped a lot for work on ships, but he hadn’t thought he’d be in any danger of that. He was too young to really work on a ship. But if they didn’t take him for that, what then? Little Joe struggled to hold back tears as he tried to push those thoughts out of his head. He heard a couple of people walk up to him, and he stiffened.

“Hey, I’m not going to hurt you,” a man said. “Just answer some questions for me. Are you a runaway?”

Joe shook his head, but then realized they probably couldn’t see that. “No,” he whispered.

“How did you get here?”

Little Joe took a deep breath. He didn’t know who this man was, but he didn’t see any way out of this right now other than to answer him… “One of the hands that worked on my family’s ranch kidnapped me out of revenge, and he gave me to Harv Benson to work.”

“Your family has a ranch? You’re not from around here.”

Joe bit his lip. Why did he tell them that? He had given too much away. Now they would know that his family was wealthy.

“How long have you been here?”

“Here…about a week.”

“Why didn’t you try to get help before?”

Joe shook his head. “There was no one to get help from.” It was true- there was no law in this town. At first Joe had tried to ask a couple of people for help, but they just laughed at him and told Benson. Joe had been afraid to try again after the last beating.

Someone came into the room. “It’s not clear yet; a couple of people went into the bar and they realized he’s gone.”

“Damn…” hissed the first man under his breath. “Let’s get him out of those clothes.”

Joe stiffened as he felt hands grab him, and then he was pulled up to his knees. He felt someone start to undo the buttons on his shirt, and he began to protest and struggle. Immediately someone said, “Stop it. Be still.” Not being able to see or fight back in any way, Joe reluctantly obeyed. He felt the shirt being pulled off, and then he was pushed to the floor again. After a couple of seconds someone said, “The pants too.” Joe felt his face get red as his shoes and then pants were pulled off. He felt a blanket being tossed over him, and he was grateful for both the warmth and privacy it offered. A few minutes passed by, and then someone walked into the room. The blanked was removed, and Joe was pulled to his feet. “Here,” someone said, and a couple of men helped him pull on a pair of pants. He gratefully fastened the last button, and then the men helped him put on a shirt and his shoes. Both the shirt and the pants felt clean and new, and Joe wondered who these people were. He couldn’t imagine why they would give him new clothes if they only intended to hurt him.

A door opened. “It’s clear,” someone whispered, and then Joe was ushered out of the room and outside. After they had gone about 30 steps, Joe could tell he was being led into another building. This time he was taken up stairs and finally into a room where he was pushed onto a bed. The blindfold was removed, and Joe rolled over to see five men in the room. Two of them were the men from the saloon.

The man who had talked to him in the saloon sat on a chair next to the bed. “Okay, kid. Why don’t you tell us your name and how you got to be here.”

Joe frowned. “Why? What do you want with me?”

The man raised his eyebrows. “To help you. This here is Marshal Bill Naylor, and he’s here to introduce some law into this town. We just happened to be in the saloon and saw what happened. We thought you might need help.”

The frown on Joe’s face lessened, but he remained wary. “My name is Little Joe and my family owns a ranch near Lake Tahoe in Nevada. One of the new hands we hired got mad because my brother fired him and so he kidnapped me. He brought me here…and I don’t know…that’s about it. What do you mean, help me? Why did you bring me here?”

The man glanced up at the other men in the room. The marshal walked over to him and said, “Look kid. It’s gonna be pretty dangerous in this town for the next few days. We’ve gotten all the women and children out of here…not that there were very many of them. You don’t have any business in this town, so Jack here will see that you get home, all right?”

Joe nodded, and the man turned and gestured at the other men in the room. Everyone left except the man who had first talked to him, Jack.

Jack stood up and held his hand out. “Let’s do this proper. I’m Jack Trent.”

Joe got off the bed and shook the man’s hand. “Little Joe Cartwright,” he responded.

The man let go of his hand and frowned thoughtfully. “Cartwright…in Nevada? Your father is Ben Cartwright?” he asked slowly, stating it more as a statement than a question.

Joe shifted his weight uneasily. Suddenly he was very scared. He quickly turned and, as there was no other path to the door, bolted over the bed. It caused him to lose several seconds, and as a result, Jack reached the door at the same time he did. Joe felt the man’s strong arm wrap around his waist, and he was lifted off of the ground. “No! No! Let-“ Joe was cut off as Jack’s hand covered his mouth.

Joe was carried, kicking and fighting, back to the bed where he was held down. “Calm down, son. That’s enough. I’m not going to hurt you,” Jack kept repeating in his ear, and finally Joe was completely tired out. As he stopped fighting, the man slowly let go of him.

Joe rolled over, trying to catch his breath. He stared up at the man with tears in his eyes.

The man sighed and sat on the edge of the bed. “Kid, I’m not going to hurt you. I’m going to take you home, just like Bill said.”

“How do you know my father?”

“We were good friends many years ago. Then we went our separate ways.”

“You don’t like him.”

The man snorted. “How very perceptive. We had our disagreements. Nothing that will get in the way of me doing my job.” Jack chuckled. “I’m kind of curious to see how Ben Cartwright will react when Jack Trent rides up to the Ponderosa with his youngest son.” Jack laughed to himself for a few seconds, and then looked back up. “Are you the youngest? How many siblings do you have?”

Little Joe sat up and leaned against the headboard. “I’m the youngest. I have two older brothers.”

“Hoss and Adam, right?”

Joe nodded, but then as he thought of his brothers, he looked down. He knew they had to be sick with worry. He had been missing two weeks; they must have thought that he was dead by now. And Pa…

Jack watched him carefully. He had seen the change of expression, and he realized the kid must be terribly homesick. He stood up. “You stay here, and I’ll go get you some food. You look like you haven’t had a decent meal in awhile. Don’t leave this room, okay?” The man looked at him for a few moments, and then left the room.

Joe stood up and went to the window. He half considered sneaking out, but then he realized he had no money and nowhere to go. He was stuck here. With a man who obviously disliked his father. There was no way he would trust him. Joe pulled the curtain aside carefully and looked into the street. He could see the mercantile, and the livery. He suddenly realized he was in the hotel down the street from the saloon. He saw the marshal and his men walking down the street. The marshal yelled to someone and the person he yelled to responded by shooting. Pretty quickly, the street was filled with gunfire and muffled shouts. Joe heard the bedroom door behind him open and a man walked across the room and tugged Little Joe away. “Stay away from the window,” Jack said. “We don’t need you to get hit by a stray bullet.”

Joe sat down on the edge of the bed as the sound of the gunshots ceased, and Jack handed him a tray of food. “When I come back, I expect all of that to be gone,” he said. Joe watched as he left the room, and then started to hungrily eat. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually had a full meal. Joe finished the last of it and then put the tray down on the table next to him. He started to yawn, and slumped down on the bed. Almost instantly he started to drift into sleep. He tried briefly to fight to stay awake, but after the warm meal he was losing the battle. He finally drifted into sleep, a better sleep than he had experienced since he was first kidnapped.

A few minutes later Jack came back in. “Okay, son, are you…” he trailed off as he saw the sleeping child. He stood looking down at the boy for a few minutes. He didn’t really look anything like his father. He wondered if Ben Cartwright was still the way he remembered him- stubborn and opinionated. Always doing the right thing. Jack chuckled to himself. For once, he was doing the right thing. He wondered if Ben would appreciate it…or would he refuse to see past the conflict that had separated them all those years ago.

Jack sighed and bent down and removed Little Joe’s shoes. He gently tugged the blankets from underneath the sleeping child, and then pulled them over the top of him. “Get some rest son, and don’t worry about anything,” he said quietly. “You’re safe here, and no one’s going to hurt you.” Jack picked up the tray, and then blew out the lamp next to the bed.

 

******

 

“Here.”

Little Joe looked across the fire at Jack Trent, who was holding out a plate of food.

“You’d better come over here and get this, because I’m not moving,” Jack said.

Little Joe got up and walked around the fire. He went back to his bedroll with plate in hand, and then sat and quietly ate. When he finally looked back up, he found Jack watching him, an amused look on his face. “What?” Joe said, irritated.

Jack shook his head, laughing. “You. You’re confusing me, kid. You haven’t said three words to me since we left this morning. You didn’t even say thank you.” Jack stood up and took the empty plate from Joe, and then walked into the woods to rinse the plates and pan in the nearby stream.

Joe frowned. He knew he hadn’t said that much. He was still afraid of Jack…Joe blinked. No, it wasn’t Jack he was afraid of. Jack was the only person in two weeks that hadn’t hurt him somehow- either by physical abuse or lack of concern. Jack had saved his life. So why was it so hard to trust him, or even give him a chance? Joe stood up angrily. He knew why…but his father had had the falling out so long ago; maybe things had changed.

Joe leaned against a tree at the edge of the clearing, and then watched as Jack came back. The man sat down and set about pulling out a bag of tobacco and a pipe, and then he started to smoke. “You just gonna stand there?” he asked.

Little Joe shrugged. “I’m fine,” he said. He watched Jack for a few minutes. The only thing that could be heard was the crackling of the fire and some night creatures in the darkness outside the lit clearing. The silence started to become awkward, and Joe tried to think of something to say. Nice night, seemed too forced, even though it was a nice evening. Unseasonably warm, actually. Joe sighed. All he wanted to talk about was home, but he wasn’t sure if Jack would get angry. He looked up at the man, who seemed to be lost in his own thoughts, ignoring Little Joe.

Joe hesitantly cleared his throat. “I…I really…I mean…” he stuttered, not really sure what he wanted to say. He walked back to the fire, and stood in front of Jack, who raised his eyebrows. “Yes…?” said Jack.

Joe took a deep breath. “What I mean is thanks. I didn’t mean to not thank you, it’s just… I really do appreciate you taking me all the way back home,” he said.

Jack nodded. When he didn’t say anything, Little Joe awkwardly shrugged and started to turn away.

“Hey.”

Joe turned back.

Jack held up the pipe. “Want a puff?”

Joe just stared at him, until Jack laughed and said, “I’m just kidding. Come here, have a seat.” Little Joe sat down a few feet from Jack, on a log near the fire. “So, tell me about yourself. What are your brothers like now? I haven’t seen them since…wow, let’s see…since Hoss was four.”

“Oh,” Little Joe said. “Well, Hoss is sixteen now, and Adam is twenty-two. Adam went to college. He just got back last year. He’s…I don’t know…I guess he’s really smart. He won’t help me with my schoolwork, though. He says it’s better if I do it myself. Pa said I have to go to school until I’m at least sixteen, even though Hoss hasn’t gone since he was fourteen.”

“Why is that?”

Joe shrugged. “He’s more help around the ranch, I guess. He’s almost as big as a full grown man. He’s really good with the animals.”

“How about you?”

Joe smiled. “I want to learn to break horses. Adam and Pa won’t let me; they say I’m too little.”

Jack nodded and puffed on his pipe. “You miss them, huh?” he said nonchalantly.

Joe bit his lower lip and stared into the fire. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “It seems like it’s been forever.”

“I’ll bet; especially considering the circumstances. Kidnapped out of revenge…” Jack paused, hoping Little Joe would elaborate. The boy hadn’t said anything else about the situation since the first night, and Jack would have pressed him for more details before agreeing to take him if he hadn’t known who he was. He was a careful man- it kept him alive. He never got into a situation unless he knew exactly what he was doing.

“Yeah…” Little Joe said. “It was kind of my fault, though. I know Adam said it wasn’t, but…” Joe sighed.

“How can something like that be your fault?”

“Well, I got one of the new men mad at me. Adam found out he had whipped me, and he got fired.”

“That’s not your fault.”

 

“Harker told me he’d come after me if he got fired. He told me not to tell Adam about the whipping.”

Jack shook his head. “That’s not your fault, kid.” Jack leaned over and grabbed Joe’s arm to get his full attention. “Listen, if anyone ever tells you to keep something from your family, don’t do it. Never let anything come between you and your family.” Little Joe stared back at him with solemn eyes, and Jack lightly patted his cheek and smiled. “Get over there and go to sleep. We’ve got another long day tomorrow.”

Little Joe nodded and walked to the other side of the fire. He kicked off his shoes and climbed into the blankets, and then lay down on his side, watching Jack Trent for a few minutes. It was so hard to tell what he was going to say or do next. It puzzled Joe. He frowned and rolled over, and was asleep in minutes.

Jack stayed up for awhile, thoughtfully puffing his pipe. When he finally did lie down, he drifted into a very light sleep. He had managed to train his body to wake up at the slightest noise. There were many times he had closely escaped death because of his ability. Tonight, his light sleep alerted him in another way. Every time the kid woke up or stirred, Jack was wide awake in seconds. The boy left the campsite for a couple of minutes once, but he also woke up crying out a few times. Each time Jack carefully watched him through almost closed eyes until the boy went back to sleep.

 

******

 

The next morning, Little Joe awoke to the smell of bacon.

“Morning, sleepy,” Jack said.

Joe sat up. “Morning,” he replied.

“Breakfast will be done in a few minutes. Go on down to the stream and get yourself cleaned up.”

Little Joe nodded, and walked a little ways through the woods to the stream to wash up. When he came back to the clearing, Jack had served up two plates of breakfast. He handed one to Joe, and then watched with amusement as the boy sat down on the other side of the small fire to eat.

“So what are you so afraid of?” Jack asked after a few minutes.

Joe stopped with the fork in his mouth, and glanced guardedly up at the man, who continued to eat. Joe frowned for a few seconds, and then put the fork down. “I don’t know,” he said. Jack snorted. Little Joe licked his dry lips. “What did you and my father fight about?”

Jack looked up. “Now that’s not really any of your concern, is it?”

Little Joe looked down and shrugged. “No, sir.”

“Plus, I don’t think knowing what our disagreement was would lighten any fears you have.”

Joe finished the last of his breakfast.

“Especially,” Jack continued, “Because your concerns are about trusting someone whom your father had a disagreement with many years ago. Is that right?”

Little Joe looked up from his empty plate and nodded. “I…don’t know what he would say.”

Jack smiled slightly. “You know kid, I don’t think that yelling at you is going to be the first thing he does when he sees you,” he said quietly.

Joe blinked and looked away.

“Plus, do you always like or dislike people just because your father or brothers do? I think a lot of times you would, but you have to have some friends that your father and brothers don’t exactly…approve of.”

Joe looked up and smiled slightly.

“That’s not the only thing bothering you, though. You gonna tell me the rest?”

Joe bit his lip and shrugged. “I’m just a little confused. You’ve already said how you feel about my father. Why would you take me all the way back home when it’s such a long trip? You don’t do something like that for someone because you dislike them.”

Jack nodded. “You’re right, kid. Here,” Jack stood up and piled a plate, cup, kettle, pan and handful of spoons on top of the plate Joe was holding. “We have to get going; why don’t you go clean these up?” Joe looked from the dirty pile in his arms to the back of the man as he started to put out the fire. After a few seconds Joe turned and went thoughtfully into the trees.

As Little Joe started to wash off the plates, he replayed the conversation in his head and tried to understand what had been said. It didn’t make sense. Was Jack really taking him home because he didn’t like Pa? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to just leave him in the town? Or if it was his job to take him home, to leave him somewhere else so his boss wouldn’t know? Doing it this way, he would have to see Pa…

Suddenly Joe got a chill. What if Jack had just left him? He finished washing the last utensil, and then ran back to the clearing with an armful of wet dishes. He ran into the open and came to a dead stop. Everything was cleaned up…and Jack was sitting on a log waiting for him. “About time,” Jack said, and he got up and took the dishes from the boy.

Joe stood watching him pack them, and played out the conversation in his head once again. You don’t do something like that because you dislike a person… Suddenly Joe’s mouth fell open as he understood what the conversation had really been about. Jack wasn’t doing this for Pa; he was doing it for him. That’s what he must have meant when he agreed he wasn’t taking Joe home because he disliked Ben. Joe bit his lip thoughtfully as Jack stood up and turned around to get the last few things.

Jack frowned slightly as he saw the wistful look on the boy’s face, but then to his surprise and amusement Little Joe smiled at him. Jack grinned back. “Go get your horse ready,” he said, and turned and packed the rest of the supplies.

Jack turned back a few minutes later to see the boy standing a few feet away with his back to him. “Kid…?” he said and walked up to him.

Little Joe looked up at him, tears streaming down his face. “My horse…” he said.

Jack glanced up, but both horses were perfectly fine, still grazing at the edge of the clearing. He looked back down at Joe. “What happened to your horse?”

“He…he killed him. He came back, and he had a knife. He took my horse with him, and he didn’t bring him back. The knife had blood…it was covered in blood! Why would he do that?”

Little Joe started to sob, and Jack scooped the boy into his large arms and held him. “Who killed your horse?” he gently asked.

“Harker…he said he left him in front of our house for my family to find.”

Jack patted the boy’s back until the child’s sobs lessened. “Don’t worry kid. That man will be found. And he’ll pay for what he’s done.” Jack set the boy down, and then guided him to the horses where he helped him get saddled. As soon as everything was packed, they left to continue the rest of the journey.

 

******

 

It was the middle of the forth day that they neared the Ponderosa. The trip had gone quickly, even if Little Joe’s impatience was starting to wear on Jack’s nerves. In the handful of towns they had passed through, they had tried to send a telegram to the rest of the Cartwrights, but the towns were either too small or the lines were down.

Finally, they rode through the last of the trees and into the familiar, too long missed, clearing in front of the ranch house.

“Pa!” Little Joe didn’t even wait until the horse was fully stopped before jumping to the ground. “Adam! Hoss!” He ran towards the house as the front door opened.

Ben raced outside and picked his son up in a tight embrace. “Joe! Joe…” he said as he held his child. Adam and Hoss had closely followed him out, and both of them were talking and running their hands through Joe’s hair and over his body and they all had tears in their eyes. It took a few minutes, but finally Ben looked up at Joe’s companion. When he saw the man in the saddle he stiffened. Little Joe felt it, and he looked up at Ben, then over at Jack. “Pa…that’s Jack Trent. He…he brought me home, Pa…”

Ben looked down at him and tried to smile reassuringly. “Adam, take your brother inside,” he said, and handed Little Joe to him.

Joe was confused and dismayed, and as soon as the three brothers got inside he started quizzing Adam. “Who is he? How does he know Pa?”

Adam shook his head. “I don’t know, Joe. I don’t remember him.”

“But he said he remembered you. He said you were a kid.” Joe squirmed away from him and started towards the window in Ben’s study, but Adam caught him. “Oh, no,” Adam said and pulled Little Joe back into the main room. “Let them talk in private. I’m sure if it’s something you need to know Pa will tell you later.”

“Yeah,” agreed Hoss. “So what happened? Are you gonna tell us about it?”

Joe nodded, and then suddenly realized that he didn’t want to talk about it right now. “I’ll tell you both and Pa later…”

“Little Joe!”

Joe turned to Hop Sing, who was running towards him talking excitedly in Chinese. “Hop Sing!” Joe yelled, and ran to him to give him a hug. He stood back smiling up at the cook.

“I make you special dinner,” Hop Sing said. “All favorite foods!”

“Thanks, Hop Sing!” grinned Joe, and watched as the cook retreated to the kitchen. He and Adam and Hoss turned and looked as the front door opened. Ben walked inside…and then shut the front door behind him.

Ben couldn’t help but notice the intense look of disappointment on Joe’s face. “What’s wrong, son?”

Little Joe shrugged, fighting back tears. “Pa…but after all, he did save my life…”

“How much do you know about what happened between us?”

Joe shook his head. “Not much…he only told me you had disagreements, and that he didn’t like you very much. That’s all he said. But he brought me back anyway, Pa!”

Ben smiled kindly. “I know Joe. He didn’t tell me exactly what happened, but I know. And that’s why I invited him to stay for dinner and the night before going back to California.”

Joe’s face immediately brightened. “You did?”

Ben nodded. “He’s out in the barn putting up the horses.”

“I’ll help,” said Joe, and started to leave, but then turned back. “I mean, if it’s okay with you…?”

Ben nodded, and Joe grinned and ran out the front door. “I’ll go with him,” said Adam, and he followed him out.

Ben turned to Hoss. “Something on your mind?” he asked as he saw the puzzled frown.

Hoss looked up. “Well, no, I guess not. I’m just a little confused, that’s all.”

Ben sighed. “You’re not the only one that’s confused, but I don’t suppose anything will be cleared up until we hear the full story. Which is part of the reason I invited him to stay. Also, he did save Joe’s life. Any bad feelings I have, or had, towards him must be put aside for the moment, at least for Joe’s sake. I do owe him a lot for that.”

Hoss nodded, but he still remained puzzled. Not so much as to why Ben asked him to stay, but what would have stopped him from doing so.

 

******

 

“Jack!” Little Joe yelled as he and Adam entered the barn.

Jack stepped out of a stall. “Well, what can I do for you?”

Joe scrambled up on a bench next to the stall. “Pa said you’re staying the night.”

Jack shrugged. “I’m staying for dinner. We’ll see about the night.” He turned to Adam and held his hand out. “Jack Trent,” he said.

Adam shook his hand. “I’m Adam.”

Jack smiled. “So I guessed,” he said. He glanced down at Little Joe. “So tell me something, does this kid ever stop talking?”

Adam laughed. “Very rarely when he’s in a good mood. When he’s in a bad mood he still talks, just a lot louder.”

Joe turned red and punched Adam in the arm. Adam grinned and wrapped his arm around Joe’s waist, picking him up before he could get away. “Adam, no!” laughed Little Joe as he tried to struggle away.

“Oh no, you don’t,” said Adam. “There’s a penalty for punching without reason- what’ll it be? Locked in the store house or tickled until you plead for leniency?

“Adam…”

“The prisoner relinquishes choice of punishment to the jailer, who chooses the second option!” Adam started to tickle him.

“Adam, Adam…stop!” giggled Little Joe. Adam laughed. When Joe was smaller, they’d play-roughhouse all the time. Joe was getting bigger and older, so they hadn’t done it in awhile, but Joe was still small enough for Adam to lift easily. Behind them, a horse snorted, and Adam quickly set the boy down as he felt him tense. Little Joe ran to the stall on the other side of the barn. “Midnight!” he yelled, and ran in. He fiercely hugged the horse’s neck, and buried his face in his side.

Adam frowned. “Joe…?” He turned as Jack put his hand on his arm.

Jack nodded towards Joe. “He told him the horse was dead.”

“Harker…?”

“Told him he killed the horse, yes. The kid said he had a knife covered in blood, and that he left the horse for you to find.”

Adam shook his head. “The shirt…” he murmured.

“What shirt?”

“Harker left Joe’s shirt in the saddlebag. It was torn, with a huge blood stain and a note, stating that Joe was dead.”

“What?” Little Joe said.

Adam and Harker turned to Joe, who had heard the last part of this.

“You mean Harker told you I was dead? That he had killed me?”

Adam nodded, and Little Joe went up to him and tightly hugged him. Adam held him for a few minutes, running his hand through his hair, as Jack finished taking care of the horses.

Adam glanced up as Jack walked up to them. The man put his hand on Adam’s arm. “Come on, you two. I’m sure you’re father is anxious to see you.” Joe looked up at Adam, and then with their arms around each other, the two brothers followed Jack out of the barn and up to the house where Ben was standing on the porch.

 

******

 

Jack tossed his napkin on the table and leaned back. “Well, Ben, I must say, that was the most delicious meal I’ve had in a long time.”

Ben nodded. “Thank you, Jack. Although I can’t take credit for it; we have a wonderful cook.” Ben got up from the table as Hop Sing came out of the kitchen with a pot of coffee and four cups. Jack and the boys followed Ben into the living room where Hop Sing served them coffee. Little Joe passed on the coffee; he didn’t like the bitter taste. He and Hoss pulled out the checker set, and then with Adam looking on they began a match.

Ben nodded towards the front door. “It’s a nice evening,” he said to Jack. “Do you want to take our coffee outside?”

Jack nodded. “Sure, sounds fine,” he said, and he and Ben quietly left. Outside, Ben sat down as Jack walked to the edge of the porch and observed the darkened yard. Jack turned around to face Ben. “So, you have everything you ever wanted,” he said.

Ben thought for a moment, and then nodded. “Yes, I’m very happy. This is a good life.”

Jack smiled. “Certainly a lot different than the last time I saw you. How big is the Ponderosa now?”

“Eight hundred acres. Adam’s negotiating some additional land in the north, which would add another hundred.”

Jack nodded. “You’re really living out your dreams.”

“How about you? What have you been doing these ten-something years?”

Jack chuckled. “You know…things you never approved of. I’ve been doing some odd lawman jobs, some bounty hunting. I was never one for settling down and having an honest job, complete with wife, kids, and milk cow.”

Ben nodded thoughtfully. “You ever go north like you wanted?”

Jack nodded. “Yeah. It’s a harsh country. It’s impossible to do any serious farming or ranching because of the climate. There are also not very many natural resources. Well, other than trees and the like. There’s no gold; at least not anything that anyone’s found. Not a big strike like California.”

“That’s where you’ve been?”

Jack nodded and sat down. “I’ve been helping a marshal introduce some law in the unruly coastal towns of California. This last one…wasn’t quite as bad as some. Bill knew he wouldn’t need me, so he sent me here to bring your boy back.”

Ben nodded. “I do thank you for that. For everything you’ve done for Joe.”

Jack nodded in reply. “He’s a good kid. He…he went through a lot at the hands of strangers; things that should never happened. He’s strong, though. You should be proud of him.”

“I am,” Ben replied, and then he and Jack looked up as a horse rode into the yard.

Roy Coffee jumped down from the horse and went up to Ben. “Is it true?” he asked.

Ben smiled. “It depends on what you’ve heard. Little Joe is back safe and sound.”

Roy smiled. “Well, I’m glad to hear that at any rate.”

Suddenly Ben noticed the bruises on Roy’s face, and his arm in a sling. “What happened?”

Roy sadly shook his head. “We finally caught up with Harker. He was heading east back through Nevada towards Texas. We tried to take him in, but the rest of the posse…there was nothing me and Hal Cook could do. They was so fired up…”

Ben grabbed Roy’s arm. “What?” he whispered.

Roy shook his head. “It turned into a lynching. We tried to stop ‘em…that’s how I got hurt. There was nothing we could do to talk them out of it. That man had done a lot of things that deserved him a hanging. But by a judge…not an unruly mob.”

Ben frowned. “These people. Is there no law or decency anymore?”

The front door burst open and Little Joe ran out, followed by Adam and Hoss. “Mr. Coffee!” Joe cried happily. The smile faded slightly as he took note of the man’s appearance. “What happened? Are you okay?”

Roy and Ben exchanged a quick look, and then Roy smiled broadly. “Of course! Keep more than my fool horse to keep me down!”

Little Joe laughed, but then quickly turned serious. “Did you find him, sir?”

“Who?”

“Harker. Pa said you were with a posse looking for Harker.”

Roy slowly nodded. “Yeah, we found him.”

Joe frowned and bit his bottom lip. “Did they arrest him? Is he going to jail?”

Roy patted Joe on the head. “Don’t you worry, youngen’. He’ll never set foot in this territory again.”

Joe looked up at him. “Are you sure?” he whispered. “Maybe he’ll get out of prison, and still come back.”

Roy bent down. “Now what did I just tell you, boy? You quit worrying.”

Joe smiled, and then Adam gently nudged him towards the house. “Come on, kiddo. It’s your turn to try and beat me at checkers.”

Joe smiled and followed Adam inside. “Couldn’t we play poker instead?” he asked as the front door shut.

Ben looked with raised eyebrows at the front door, wondering where Joe could have learned that.

Jack rubbed his nose to hide a smile. They had traveled for four days with not much but a deck of cards. The kid had caught on fairly quickly, and Jack could see that he might actually become quite good at the game someday. He cleared his throat. “You gonna tell him about Harker?” he asked.

Ben sighed. “Not right now, I don’t think. In a few days, after things have settled down.”

Roy nodded, and then said, “I best be going. I’m glad to hear the youngen’s all right. I’ll go back into town and tell people it’s not a rumor, that he’s been found alive and well.” Roy walked back to his horse.

“Goodnight, Roy,” Ben called as he rode away. Ben finished the last of his coffee, and then he and Jack went back inside.

As they opened the door, they heard Joe angrily yelling. “You can’t take that piece; that one’s not been kinged yet!”

“But Joe…it did get kinged …there weren’t enough pieces…” Hoss tried to explain, but Joe wasn’t having any of it.

“No it didn’t! It was the other one!”

“Joe…” started Adam.

“Boys.” Ben interrupted, trying to quell the fight.

Joe hardly heard him, and turned to Adam. “Keep out of it! If you weren’t so stupid and pigheaded-“

“Bite your tongue,” Jack said quietly, and Little Joe stopped yelling and looked over at him.

Joe looked down, and then glanced up at Adam. “I’m sorry, Adam. I’m just really tired I guess.” Joe had tears in his eyes, and Adam reached out and hugged him, staring with surprise at Jack.

“It’s okay. Why don’t you go upstairs and get ready for bed?” Adam said. Joe turned and went up the stairs. As soon as his door shut, Adam turned angrily to Jack. “What did you do to him to make him scared of you like that?”

Jack snorted. “He’s not scared of me. He’s only learned I don’t have a father’s, or brother’s, love or patience to put up with him doing anything other than what he’s told.”

Adam glared at the man. “You better not have hurt him,” he said, his voice low and grim.

Jack raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t. Ask him yourself.”

“I’ll do just that.” Adam turned and strode upstairs, ignoring Ben’s plea to him to calm down.

Ben turned to Jack. “I’m sorry…”

Jack dismissed his concern with an offhand wave. “Don’t bother. I’m sure you’re just as worried about what happened during the trip back. And to answer you, I didn’t put a hand your son.” Jack turned and sat down on the table in front of the fire. “We had a lot of time to talk. He told me about all of you, and the Ponderosa, and how much he wanted to be back home. We also talked about serious things…such as how saying the wrong thing can ruin a relationship.”

Ben stood in front of the fire, staring in to the flames for some time.

Finally Jack looked up. “I’m going to turn in. I’ve got to get an early start tomorrow.”

Ben looked down at him, and then warmly patted his shoulder. “Thank you so much,” he said.

Jack smiled back at him. “It was my pleasure.” The two men shook hands, and then Jack went into the guest room.

Ben turned to Hoss, who had quietly observed the exchange. “Come on son, let’s get to bed too.”

Hoss smiled and put his arm around Ben’s shoulders, and they went upstairs.

 

******

 

Little Joe ran down the stairs to see Ben stoking the fire in the living room. “Did he leave yet?” asked Joe.

Ben glanced up at him. “He just went outside,” he said. “He didn’t want to wake you.”

Joe frowned. “Why would he leave without saying goodbye?” he wailed, and then ran to the door and outside. Jack was leading the horses out of the barn, and Joe ran up to him. “Are you leaving?” Joe asked.

Jack looked down at him. “That’s a question you didn’t need to ask. I didn’t come to stay here forever, kid. You know that.”

Joe nodded sadly. “I know.” Little Joe looked up at him for a couple of seconds, and then threw himself onto the large man and hugged him fiercely. “Will you ever come back?” he asked.

Jack patted Joe’s head. “Who knows, kid.”

Joe stared up at him, tears glistening in his eyes. “I’ll never forget you,” he said.

Jack just smiled a funny smile, and mounted his horse. Little Joe ran back to Ben, who put his arm around his shoulders. Together they watched as Jack Trent rode out of the yard. Joe looked up at Ben. “You think we’ll ever see him again?”

Ben smiled and shrugged. “Who knows?”

Joe grinned back at him.

“Come on,” Ben said, and then led Joe inside to where Hoss and Adam were hungrily waiting for them to start breakfast.

 

THE END

Next in the At the Hands of Strangers Series:

Friends and Strangers

 

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Author: Camera Chic

7 thoughts on “At the Hands of Strangers (by Camera Chic)

  1. Amazing story! I Love to imagine Little Joe as a kid! You showed him the way I am used to imagine… Great!

  2. Such a small Joe….such big problems he faced. So much mystery in this story….loved it so much!!!!!!

  3. It’s probably been a decade since I’ve read this story, CameraChic, but it’s a fun read. Glad I found it here on Brand after all this time.

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