A Question of Doubt (by KateP)

Summary:  Joe is left to face the future alone when the unthinkable happens.

Rated: T (16,145 words)

 

A Question of Doubt

“I’m so sorry, son.” Sheriff Roy Coffee looked at the young man before him with sympathy. “If there’s anything I can do…?”

“No, nothing. Thank you but I’d really rather be alone right now.” Joe Cartwright hustled the sheriff towards the door of the Ponderosa ranch house; practically pushing the older man outside, so strong was his need to be rid of him. “I’ll be in touch about…about…”

“You take your time Little Joe.” The Sheriff began, but found himself addressing the heavy wooden door as Joe pushed it hastily shut.

Roy stood irresolutely on the doorstep for a moment; he really didn’t like leaving the boy alone like this. Such devastating news would be hard enough for any man to bear, leave alone a seventeen year old. He just wished Doc Martin was here, he’d left word in town for the doctor to get out to the Ponderosa as soon as possible but, as the physician was busy delivering Bridget Steven’s baby, there was no telling when that would be.

‘I just don’t know how the boy is going to cope with this’ he thought, walking slowly across to his horse. Swinging into the saddle he looked back at the closed door with a heavy heart. To tell Joe that not only his father but also his brothers wouldn’t be coming home had been the hardest thing he’d ever done. Concern for Ben Cartwright’s youngest son overrode his own sorrow at the loss of one of his oldest friends as Roy rode slowly out of the yard.

In the house Joe was unaware of the Sheriff’s departure. He was too concerned with trying to hold himself together in the face of the overwhelming news he’d just been given. Sitting numbly in his father’s chair Joe ran his fingers softly over the polished wood of Ben’s desk realising that he would never again see his father sitting here working on the books. Never again would the house ring with the sound of his father’s deep voice, his brother Adam’s guitar or Hoss’ booming laugh. Only minutes before he had been working in the yard, wondering how his family were faring in Arizona and now… Abruptly Joe gave up the fight to contain his sorrow, buried his head in his hands and let the bitter tears fall.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

“Little Joe?” Doctor Martin touched the young man’s shoulder. “Did you hear what Mr. Dewar said?”

Joe looked up at the doctor’s words, and shook his head slowly. He hadn’t heard anything much that his father’s lawyer, James Dewar, had said. Nothing seemed to be penetrating the thick fog of despair that he’d been living in for the past week. This afternoon he had stood alongside Sheriff Coffee and Dr. Martin in the church as the Reverend spoke of his father and brothers but the eulogies had gone unheard, he couldn’t remember a single thing that had been said.

“No, I’m sorry, I didn’t hear.” He apologised, trying hard to concentrate on the lawyer. “If you could just repeat it please?”

With a deep sigh, James Dewar shuffled the papers before him. “I’ll start again at the beginning.” He said impatiently. “If you could just try to listen this time, Joseph.”

Beside Joe, the doctor stiffened at the lawyer’s tone, sending a venomous look at the man. Couldn’t the insensitive idiot see how difficult this was for the boy? He thought angrily.

From the kitchen doorway Hop Sing watched anxiously. Roy Coffee’s telegraph had brought him rushing home from visiting his cousin in Carson City to find Little Joe deep in grief. Despite Hop Sing’s best efforts the boy had eaten scarcely anything in the last week, and had hardly slept. Looking at him now, dark circles beneath the green eyes, pallid face, hair tousled and unkempt Hop Sing’s heart ached for him. Joe looked so lost, so alone.

“You know that your father’s will leaves the Ponderosa to you and your brothers?” The lawyer was saying now, his tone clipped and terse.

Joe nodded mutely; he had always known that the Ponderosa would be partly his one-day but had never dreamed that he would be the only one left to inherit it.

“The thing is,” Dewar continued quickly, impatient to get this over with and return to Virginia City. “Though obviously the ranch will eventually come to you in it’s entirety, as the law stands you are too young to inherit it. It must be held in trust until you reach twenty one.”

“In trust?” Joe asked, puzzled. “What exactly does that mean?”

“It means that there will be a trustee appointed who will come here to administer the Ponderosa and its related businesses until you are old enough to run it yourself. Your father always imagined that if anything happened to him Adam or Eric would administer your share of the business till then, but of course…”

“I can run the ranch,” Joe interrupted, a spark of anger lighting his eyes for a moment. “I don’t need anyone else.”

“I’m afraid that is how the law stands,” Dewar said firmly, beginning to put his papers away. “I wired your father’s brother, John, as he appears to be your nearest relative. Unfortunately he is overseas and unreachable. In his absence trusteeship passes to your nearest male relative, your father’s cousin, Henry Cartwright. I received a reply to my telegraph stating that he was prepared to take on trusteeship of the ranch, and incidentally, guardianship of you until you reach eighteen. He should be here within the month.”

“But, I don’t even know Cousin Henry,” Joe protested. “Pa’s only ever mentioned him once or twice. You can’t just let him take charge of the Ponderosa. Dr. Martin,” he appealed, turning to the doctor. “You can’t let this happen.”

“I’m sorry Little Joe. But there’s nothing that I can do. I’m sure this cousin of your father’s will do the best he can for the ranch.” Doctor Martin was sorry that the young man was so upset over this but privately he was glad Henry Cartwright was coming, Joe needed some family around.

“I have to get back to town now,” James Dewar stood up and moved out from behind Ben’s desk. “I’ll be out to see Mr Cartwright when he arrives, until then I’ve asked Sheriff Coffee if he’ll call out from time to time and see how things are going. I’ve had a word with your father’s foreman, Joseph, and he assures me that he can keep things ticking over till Mr Cartwright’s arrival, any problems he will, of course, refer to me. Now I must bid you good day.”

As Dewar left, Hop Sing rushing forward to open the door for the man and close it firmly behind him, Joe rose slowly to his feet. As though moving in a dream he headed for the stairs.

“Joe?” Doctor Martin called anxiously after him. “Are you all right?” ‘Foolish question’ he thought to himself even as he said it. ‘Of course he’s not all right. He’s just lost his entire family and now he’s learned that his home isn’t even his own.’

“I’ll be okay,” Joe answered without looking round. “Thank you for coming today.”

As Joe disappeared up the stairs Hop Sing came over to stand by the doctor. “L’il Joe not sleep, not eat,” he said softly, the worry evident on his face. “I do not know what to do.”

“I don’t think there is anything we can do,” Doctor Martin said heavily. “They say time heals all, and I’m sure it will blunt Joe’s grief eventually, but for now we can only be there if he needs us.”

Upstairs, Joe quietly pushed open his father’s bedroom door. The past week he had hardly ventured upstairs, the empty rooms too hard to face. He had been using the downstairs guest bedroom to sleep in, though he had done very little sleeping. Dozing for an hour or two most nights he would find himself waking, face wet with tears as he recalled what had happened. Then, unable to rest, he had been spending the remainder of the night in the barn. Somehow the silent companionship of Cochise eased to some degree the ever-present ache in his heart. The pinto seemed lonely too; missing his stable mates as Joe so desperately missed his family.

Crossing to the window Joe pulled aside the heavy drapes that Hop Sing had left closed as a sign of respect. He stood for a while, looking out at the view. The glint of the lake shimmering in the sunlight, the tall pines, the majestic grandeur of the mountains. The sight usually lifted his spirits but today he felt nothing. Turning away he went to sit on his father’s bed, running his hand over the covers. The faint scent of Ben’s bay rum rose from the pillows and suddenly a great weariness swept over Joe as the long sleepless nights finally caught up with him. He was asleep almost as soon as his head touched the pillows, transported for a while into a world of dreams where his brothers teased him as they always had and Hop Sing’s gentle hands, when he found Joe asleep and pulled the covers around him, were transformed into the longed for touch of his father.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Joe could never remember much about the three weeks between being told of Henry Cartwright’s imminent arrival and the man actually getting to the Ponderosa. The days seemed to run together into one long, grey, dismal period of grief where nothing seemed to matter anymore. Hop Sing continued to put food on the table, the ranch continued to run but Joe felt removed from it all, existing in a place full of pain and loneliness. He vaguely recalled Sheriff Coffee telling him that Mr. Dewar had received a telegraph from Cousin Henry announcing that he would be arriving on the midweek stage from San Francisco but it still came as something of a surprise when Dewar drove the buggy into the yard, a stranger beside him.

Just for an instant, as Joe opened the door, his heart skipped a beat. Superficially Henry Cartwright bore some resemblance to Ben. Of the same general build and colouring there was a certain something in the way he walked and held himself that reminded Joe of his father. Then he looked into Henry’s face and any thoughts of a likeness immediately vanished. Whereas Ben’s dark brown eyes had held warmth and understanding Henry’s were a washed out shade of khaki, that swept Joe with a look almost of contempt.

“So you’re Marie’s boy.” The voice was cold, a hint of arrogance tingeing the words.

“I’m Joe Cartwright.” Joe held out his hand in greeting. Henry looked down at the outstretched hand for a moment then, ignoring the gesture, he pushed past the young man and entered the house.

“Good size place,” he commented, looking around the great room as Dewar followed him inside and Joe closed the door behind them. “When I last saw Ben he’d just begun building this house.”

“My Pa built the Ponderosa into the finest ranch in Nevada.” Joe told him, pride in his father apparent in his voice.

“As I told you, it’s a very large concern,” Dewar broke in, walking over to stand in front of the big, stone hearth. “There are logging and mining interests to look after as well as the cattle operation.”

“I’m aware of the importance of the place,” Henry removed his bowler hat, placing it on the low table in front of the fireplace. “I’ve followed the fortunes of my cousin Ben over the years.”

“If you find that you need any assistance in getting to know the Ponderosa, please feel free to call on me.” Dewar’s tone was almost obsequious, the man was obviously desperate to retain the Cartwright business.

“I shall.” Henry replied shortly and sat himself down on the couch peeling off black calfskin gloves and laying them beside his hat. “But right now I could do with a drink to wash away the dust of the journey.” He looked over at Joe, who had remained standing by the door. “Do you have any decent alcohol in the place, boy?”

Bridling at being addressed as ‘boy’, Joe’s reply was terse. “There’s brandy in the decanter over there.” He said, pointing to the cut crystal container.

“Then pour me a glass.” Henry ordered and turned back to Dewar. Biting back the retort that sprang to his lips Joe moved slowly over to do as he was bid. He didn’t bother to ask the lawyer if he would like a drink as well, just poured a measure into a glass and handed it to Henry. The man had just taken a sip of the liquid when Hop Sing emerged from the kitchen.

Padding quietly across the room to where Henry sat, the little cook bowed politely. “Welcome to the Pondelosa, Mister Henry.” He said softly.

Henry looked up at the diminutive Chinaman in surprise and an expression of distaste chased across his face. “I didn’t know Ben employed a Chinese.” He said to Dewar, as though Hop Sing had not even spoken.

“This is our cook and housekeeper, Hop Sing.” Joe was angry now, and didn’t bother to hide it. “My father and brothers considered him a part of our family, as do I.”

“I’ll have no Chinese in the house,” Henry announced calmly. “The man has until tomorrow morning to leave.”

“No!” Joe stared at Henry in dismay. “Hop Sing belongs here, you can’t send him away!”

“I beg to differ,” the older man put his empty glass down on the table and stood up. “From now on I am in charge of the Ponderosa and I will do all the hiring and firing.”

“But you can’t…” Joe began.

“I can,” Henry interrupted, his voice still even but holding a trace of anger now. He advanced on Joe till he stood with his feet practically touching the young man’s own. “You’ll address me with more respect in future, boy,” he said. “Because like it or not for the next three years I am your boss. Now, get my bags and show me to my room.”

Joe shot a stricken glance at Dewar, who looked uncomfortable but just shrugged his shoulders in resignation. Turning to Hop Sing, Joe saw the little man’s warning look and understood that he was being advised to do as Henry said for now. Angrily, Joe stalked over to the man’s luggage, picked it up and headed for the stairs.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

‘It might have been easier on the boy’. Roy Coffee thought, as he rode out to the Ponderosa to introduce himself to Henry Cartwright. ‘If there had at least been a body to bury, a grave to mourn by’. Ben and his two eldest sons had been in Arizona territory, combining cattle buying with a visit to an old friend of theirs. They had checked in to a hotel in a small town near the Mexican border and had become the victims of a fire that had raged through the old wooden structure in the early hours of the morning. In the tinderbox dryness of the Arizona summer there was nothing that could be done to stop the flames, which had spread unchecked to several nearby buildings, including the livery stable. One of the few survivors had been the hotel clerk, who, having recognised the Cartwright name when they checked in, had wired Sheriff Coffee informing him of their fate.

The rattling sound of an approaching buggy broke into Roy’s thoughts and he looked up to see James Dewar driving towards him.

“Afternoon Mr. Dewar,” he greeted the man as the buggy pulled alongside. “You on your way back from the Ponderosa?”

“Yes, I just took Mr. Cartwright out there.” Dewar answered, shading the sun from his eyes with his hand as he looked up at Sheriff.

“I heard he’d arrived. Missed him in town so I thought I’d ride on out and make myself known,” Roy told him. “He seem to be settling in all right?”

James Dewar grimaced, remembering the scene he’d just witnessed. “He’s taking control all right,” he said. “A most unpleasant man. Hardly in the door before he’d dismissed Hop Sing.”

“What?” The Sheriff was aghast. “Surely he can’t do that? Hop Sing’s just about all Little Joe’s got left in the way of family now.”

“Unfortunately Mr. Cartwright has complete charge of the Ponderosa until young Joseph reaches twenty one.” Dewar said with resignation. “He’s well within his rights to get rid of the cook.”

“I’d better get on and see what’s happening.” Roy said, doffing his hat in farewell. “I can’t see Little Joe taking this very well.”

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Dismounting and about to approach the front door of the Ponderosa Roy’s attention was caught by the sound of Joe’s voice raised in anger. It appeared to be coming from inside the barn and turning around, Roy walked across to see what was happening.

“You can’t just go,” he heard Joe saying as he drew near. “This is your home!”

Pausing in the doorway, Roy peered into the gloom of the building. After the bright sunlight of the yard it took a moment for his eyes to adjust. When he could finally distinguish the scene, he saw Joe standing by Cochise’s stall, curry brush in hand as though he had been interrupted whilst grooming the horse. In front of him stood Hop Sing, dressed for travelling and with a large carpetbag by his feet.

“I must leave.” Hop Sing was saying. “Am just servant on Pondelosa. If Mr. Henry say Hop Sing go, then he must go.”

“Then I’ll come with you,” Joe flung the brush to the ground and started towards the door. “I won’t stay here with that man.”

“No!” Hop Sing said swiftly and to Roy’s surprise it sounded as though he was issuing an order. “You stay here,” the small man continued, his voice softening. “Father build this ranch for L’il Joe, for Mister Adam and Mister Hoss. Now only you can take care of ranch, is father’s legacy to you.”

“But how can I stay here without you?” Joe turned to face the cook and Roy caught a glimpse of the despair etched deep on the young man’s face. “You’re all I’ve got left of my family, if you go I’ll have no one.”

“I will be close by,” Hop Sing said gently. “Just in Virginia City. L’il Joe come visit often.” Putting out a hand he touched Joe’s arm gently. “You need Hop Sing, he be there.”

Feeling a little embarrassed at interrupting, Roy cleared his throat loudly and walked into the barn. Seeing the sheriff Joe made a valiant effort to pull himself together, even attempting a smile as he came forward to shake hands.

“I just met Mr. Dewar.” Roy came straight to the point. “Told me this Henry Cartwright fellow just dismissed Hop Sing.”

Joe nodded, and cast a glance back at the little Chinaman. “He said Hop Sing had to leave by the morning.”

“But I go now,” the cook picked up his carpetbag and started forward. “One of hands take me to town.”

“I’m sorry about this, Hop Sing,” Roy said sympathetically. “I just wish there was something that I could do, but it does appear that Mr. Cartwright is within his rights. He’s the boss here now, at least till Little Joe turns twenty-one.”

“Hop Sing just need wait till L’il Joe in charge,” the man smiled sadly. “Then come back.” Formally shaking the Sheriff’s hand and giving a small bow Hop Sing turned to Joe and extended his hand to him. “I go now.” Ignoring the outstretched hand Joe reached out and hugged the little man fiercely then turned quickly away and walked over to Cochise, not watching as Hop Sing left the barn.

The Sheriff stood silent for a while, feeling awkward and unsure what to do. It was obvious that Joe was very upset by Hop Sing’s departure and Roy just wished that he knew the right words to use to comfort the boy. “I guess I’d better go and introduce myself to this Henry Cartwright.” He said at last, unable to think of anything else to say.

Joe nodded, his face averted. “I’ll be in in a minute,” he mumbled thickly and Roy gave him an understanding glance before leaving the building.

Left alone with Cochise, Joe buried his face in the animal’s side finally letting go of the grief he had held inside for so long. The numbness he had felt ever since he had heard of his family’s death faded away, replaced by a pain so deep that he wondered for a moment if he could possibly bear it. His shoulder’s shook as blinding tears flowed and he clung to the horse in despair repeating over and over the same three words like a mantra. “Pa…Hoss…Adam.”

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

An irate looking man, whom the sheriff would have immediately identified as a Cartwright, even if he had not already known the man’s identity, answered his knock at the door of the Ponderosa. The resemblance to Ben was unmistakeable.

“Afternoon.” Roy said, holding out his hand. “Names Roy Coffee, just thought I’d ride out and introduce myself.”

“Henry Cartwright,” the man shook hands, his eyes flickering down to the tin star proudly displayed on Roy’s chest. “Pleased to meet you Sheriff, won’t you come in?” As Roy walked past him Henry surveyed the empty yard before closing the door and turning to his guest. “I’d offer you some refreshment,” he said. “But I’m afraid you find me at a bit of a disadvantage. I haven’t yet had the time to hire any house servants and I have no idea where young Joe has disappeared off to.”

“I just saw Joe.” Roy told him, settling himself on the couch. “He’ll be along in a moment, he was just saying goodbye to Hop Sing.”

“Ah yes, the oriental cook.” Henry sat down in the old leather armchair and the Sheriff felt a pang of sorrow as he recalled the many times he had seen his old friend Ben in that chair. “I must say for a servant the boy seems rather attached to him.”

“Oh, I think Ben thought of Hop Sing as rather more than a servant. He’s a fine cook as well, I’m surprised you decided to get rid of him.”

“I prefer to choose my own staff.” Henry said, looking up as the door opened and Joe came in. “Where have you been?”

“Out to the barn.” Joe said as Roy swivelled round to look at him. Only a slight redness around the eyes gave away the distraught state the young man had been in when he last saw him though as he came further into the room the sheriff saw that the ends of his hair were wet and surmised that he must have washed his face before entering the house. Turning back to his host he intercepted the look that the man threw at Joe as the boy sat himself down on the hearth. Now why would he dislike Little Joe that much? He thought, puzzled. He’s only just met him.

Making small talk with Henry Cartwright was difficult, Roy found he had nothing in common with the man and he soon found an excuse to get back to Virginia City.

“I’ll be out again soon to see how you’re doing, Little Joe,” he said as he left, patting the young man on the shoulder. “And mind you call in and see me if you’re in town.”

“I will,” Joe assured him with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “‘Bye.”

“Well.” Henry said as he closed the door behind the sheriff. “You certainly know some powerful people.”

“Sheriff Coffee is one of my father’s oldest friends,” Joe told him, his tone betraying the hostility he felt to this man. “I’ve know him most of my life.”

“Your father have a lot of friends?” Henry asked idly, walking across to Ben’s desk and picking up one of the portraits that stood on it.

“Yes.” Joe longed to tell the man to get his hands off the picture, which he could see was of his brother Adam’s mother, Elizabeth. “Everyone liked my Pa.”

“Not everyone,” Henry remarked coolly. “He was never my favourite cousin for a start. Ironic that I should end up running his ranch.” Replacing the portrait of Elizabeth on the desk he picked up the one next to it. “Eric’s mother?” he asked.

“Yes, that’s Inger.” Joe said shortly and cringed inwardly as Henry put it down and turned to the portrait of Marie.

“You look very like her,” he commented, running a finger over the picture frame. “I met her once, you know. She was a very beautiful woman.”

“You met her?” Despite his dislike of the man Joe was interested. “In New Orleans?”

“No, here at the Ponderosa.” Henry told him. “Didn’t you hear me tell that lawyer that when I last saw Ben he’d just started building this house? I came out for a visit, wished I hadn’t, god-forsaken, lawless place it was then. Ben was literally running people off the property at gunpoint.”

“So you met my brothers as well?”

“Couple of brats as I remember. Adam, well the boy thought he knew it all even then before all that fancy education my cousin paid out for. Eric I recall was a chubby little boy, always eating and more interested in playing with his animals than anything else. Ben spoilt the pair of them and I’ve no doubt he did the same with you.”

“I don’t think so,” Joe declared staunchly. “He was the best…” he ground to a halt, unable to speak past the lump that formed in his throat.

Henry didn’t comment, just picked up all three of the pictures, stacked them together and handed them to Joe. “Do something with these,” he said. “This will be my desk from now on and I don’t want to have to look at Ben’s wives while I work. Now, I’m going to see if I can find anything to eat in the kitchen and then I intend to spend the evening unpacking. First thing in the morning I want you to have the buggy ready for me to drive to town and hire a cook for this place.”

Left alone in the room as Henry disappeared into the kitchen Joe clutched the three pictures to his chest and bowed his head fighting hard against the threatening tears. ‘I know the Ponderosa will be mine soon, Pa,’ he whispered under his breath, trying to picture his father in his mind. ‘But I don’t know if I can stand three years with Cousin Henry. Help me bear it, Pa. Please help me be strong enough.’

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Doing his rounds of Virginia City the following day Roy Coffee was pleased to run in to Doctor Paul Martin just returning to his office after visiting a patient.

“Mornin’ Doc’,” he hailed him, as Paul alighted from his buggy “Just the man I wanted to see.”

“Something ailing you, Roy?” the doctor reached out to pick up his bag before turning to face the sheriff.

“I’m fine. It was young Joe Cartwright I wanted to speak to you about.”

“He’s not ill, is he?” the doctor asked, leading the way into his office and motioning to Roy to sit down. “Not that I’d be surprised, grief has a way of catching up with folk.”

“He seems to be coping,” Roy told him, seating himself and taking off his hat. “It’s actually about this Henry Cartwright fellow. I met him yesterday, didn’t cotton much to him. He struck me as having a real dislike of Little Joe and I can’t figure out why. You’ve known the Cartwrights longer than me, just wondered if you knew any reason that this Henry would take such a dead set against the boy?”

The doctor slid into his chair facing Roy and sat in silence for a moment. “I never met the man,” he said slowly. “But I was around at the time he visited and I did hear a rumour, of course it’s all hearsay and a long time ago…”

“Well what was it?” Roy asked impatiently as the physician fell silent.

“You have to remember that Virginia City was no more than a tiny hamlet back then,” the doctor said. “Everybody knew each other and they all liked Ben Cartwright and his family. I’m sure that Ben never got to hear about this, no one would have told him.”

“Told him what?”

“That his cousin tried to seduce Marie.”

“Joe’s mother?”

“A fellow by the name of Jacobs told folk about it. He used to work up at the Ponderosa then. It would have been around a year or so before Joe was born, Hoss and Adam were just young kids. Henry came out here on a visit and seems he took a real shine to Marie. Anyhow Jacobs was working in the barn one day and he overheard Henry asking Marie to go back East with him, that he could give her a better life, plenty of money, fine clothes and such. Of course she told him no, that she was happy here with Ben. Way Jacobs told it Henry got real upset, called her a few nasty names and tried to kiss her. She slapped his face and left. That was all there was to it.”

“Don’t seem like much of a reason to hate the boy,” Roy said thoughtfully. “But he surely does seem to.” Getting up, he put his hat back on and prepared to leave. “I’ll be keeping an eye on cousin Henry,” he told the doctor as he opened the office door. “Seems like Little Joe might need someone to look out for him.”

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Henry Cartwright had returned from Virginia City that morning to announce that he had hired a cook and a housekeeper in the person of Ada Simpson, a middle aged widow who Joe recalled as a vinegar faced, spiteful woman who even his father had found difficulty in finding a good word for.

“She’ll be arriving tomorrow,” he told Cochise as groomed the horse that afternoon. “It won’t seem like home at all with her in the kitchen instead of Hop Sing.”

“Talking to someone, boy?” Startled, Joe looked up at the sound of Henry’s voice and saw the man standing in the doorway.

“Just thinking out loud,” he muttered, continuing to smooth Cochise’s coat with the brush.

“Your horse?” Henry inquired, coming to stand at the side of the stall.

“His name’s Cochise,” Joe told him, proudly. “Pa gave him to me when I was twelve.”

“A nice piece of horseflesh,” Henry conceded, running an admiring eye over the pinto. “Might try him out myself.”

Joe stiffened, his brush strokes ceasing. The thought of Henry astride Cochise made him shudder. “He’s a one man horse,” he said quickly. “Doesn’t take well to other riders.”

“No harm in trying is there?” Henry gave him a grim smile and reached out to pat Cochise’s neck. With a snort the horse tossed his head angrily, pulling away from the man’s touch. “Well, that’s not what I wanted you for anyway,” Henry withdrew his hand and stepped away a little. “I’ve decided that I’ll sleep in the master bedroom from now on and I’d like you to clear Ben’s belongings out of it.”

“Pa’s room.” Joe felt white-hot anger course through him at the thought of this odious man sleeping in his father’s room. “You can’t do that.”

“The room is not being used,” Henry said calmly. “Better if I sleep there than it becomes some kind of shrine. You have to face the truth, boy. Ben won’t be needing it any more.”

“It’s my father’s room,” Joe felt his temper rising as he turned on Henry, anger glowing in his eyes. “I won’t clear it out for you. I might not be able to stop you using it but I’m not going to help.”

“Really?” Henry’s voice was cold. “But I thought you might like to pack up Ben’s belongings yourself. If I have to do it, well, I might as well burn them all.”

Horrified, Joe could only stare at him, speechless.

“It’s up to you.” Henry said, turning away.

“All right, I’ll clear the room.”

A gloating look settled on Henry’s face as he heard the young man capitulate. “Better get started then,” he called back as he left the barn.

Filling boxes with his father’s clothes and personal effects Joe made a conscious effort to shut off his emotions. He was determined that Henry should not see how this was affecting him; he wouldn’t let the man have that satisfaction. Carrying the containers carefully to Adam’s room he stacked them in a corner then sank down on the bed and looked around him. “Thing I can’t figure out, Adam.” He whispered softly, feeling the presence of his older brother strongly in the quiet room. “Is why he hates me so much? What have I ever done to him?” Getting up he walked over to where Adam’s guitar stood propped up against the wall. Picking the instrument up, he ran his hand over the polished wooden body. “Or perhaps its Pa he hates,” he continued, gently touching the guitar strings which vibrated with soft sounds beneath his fingers. “Perhaps he’s just getting even with him through me. But what could Pa have done?”

Hearing a noise from the corridor Joe quickly put the instrument down just as the door swung open and Henry looked in.

“All finished?”

Joe nodded, not looking up.

“Good, then you can give me a hand moving my things in.” Turning on his heel he headed for Ben’s room and reluctantly, Joe followed.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

It was a couple of days later that Roy Coffee, just crossing the street to the hotel to get a bite of lunch, saw Henry and Joe Cartwright ride into town. Joe dismounted smoothly from his pinto, tethering the horse to the hitching rail then waiting while Henry struggled down from the tall bay that he was riding. Roy had to smile a little when he saw what Henry was wearing. In an obvious effort to present the image of a western cattleman Henry had discarded his eastern vestments in favour of heavy cord pants and a chequered shirt set off by a black bandana. On his hip rested a gun belt replete with a shiny new Colt revolver.

“Hey, Little Joe.” The sheriff hailed the boy, walking over to shake his hand before acknowledging Henry. “Mornin’ Mr. Cartwright.”

“Good morning.” Henry replied shortly, turning to Joe. “I expect you back at the Ponderosa in time for the supper Mrs. Simpson is preparing.” He said coldly. “Don’t be late.”

“I’ll be there.” Joe said and Henry nodded curtly then turned and walked off towards James Dewar’s office.

“How are things at the ranch?” Roy asked, seeing the loathing on Joe’s face as he watched Henry’s retreating back.

“I’ll tell you one thing, that man’s no rancher, however much he tries to look like one,” Joe said with a short harsh laugh. “Just lucky that Will is sensible enough to ignore most of what he says or the place would be going broke.”

“Yes, old Will’s a good foreman,” the sheriff affirmed, thinking of the grizzled little man who had been working on the Ponderosa as long as he could remember. “He thought a lot of your Pa.”

“I know.” Joe ducked his head a moment, taking a deep breath. Then he looked up with the first real smile that Roy had seen on his face in weeks. “I’m just about to go and see Hop Sing,” he said. “Get some decent food for a change, that Mrs. Simpson is about as much of a cook as cousin Henry is a cattleman.”

Roy watched Joe head off towards the street where Hop Sing was staying with his cousin before finally going to get his lunch.

Coming out of the hotel an hour later, replete from his meal, the sheriff saw Henry Cartwright leave the lawyer’s office and cross the road to the saloon. Roy had been about to return to his own office but the sight of Henry changed his mind and he turned and walked slowly over to the law firm of Dewar and Jamison. Pushing open the door he entered a small outer room where he was met by one of the two young clerks that were employed there.

“Good afternoon, Sheriff,” the young man stood up as the lawman came in. “What can I do for you?”

“Afternoon, Pete.” Roy had known the youth since he was little more than a baby and smiled to himself at the formal way the young man greeted him. “I’d like to see Mr. Dewar if he’s available.”

“I’ll just see, sir.” Pete scooted round the desk and disappeared into the inner office returning a moment later to say that James Dewar would be pleased to see the sheriff and opening the door to usher Roy through.

Seated behind his large, imposing desk Dewar looked a very distinguished figure. He smiled up at Roy as he entered and indicated the leather chair that stood opposite him.

“Is this a personal call, Sheriff?” he enquired as Roy seated himself. “Or do you have some business you’d like to discuss?”

“It’s sort of personal,” Roy told him, removing his hat and placing it on his lap. “Concerns one of your clients, Henry Cartwright.”

“I see,” Dewar leaned back in his chair. “You do realise that I’m not supposed to divulge any of Mr. Cartwright’s personal business to you?”

“I know that,” Roy said, shifting uncomfortably in the chair. “But I’m worried about Cartwright’s handling of the Ponderosa. Young Joe seems to think he’s not making a very good job of it.”

Dewar regarded the sheriff in silence for a while. He’d just had a most unpleasant interview with Henry Cartwright. For some reason it seemed that the man was hell bent on making business decisions that would mean disaster for the Ponderosa. All his advice had gone unheeded with Henry insisting that things be done his way. Eventually, with a deep sigh, the lawyer leant forward resting his elbows on the desk. “I shouldn’t break a confidence.” He said at last. “But Ben Cartwright was my best client and I’ve seen that ranch go from strength to strength over the last few years. All I can say is if cousin Henry gets his way he could ruin the place and I’d sure hate to see that happen.”

“And Little Joe?” the Sheriff asked worriedly. “How are you looking out for his interests?”

“There’s money in a trust fund,” Dewar told him. “There’s no way Henry Cartwright can get his hands on that, but as for the ranch…”

“Is there nothing you can do to stop him?”

“Not really. He says these business ventures he has in mind will benefit Cartwright holdings. I don’t agree but I can only advise, the ultimate decision is his.”

“I see.” The Sheriff got to his feet, and put on his hat. “You’ve tried to get in touch with Ben’s brother again?”

“No.” Dewar said, also rising to his feet and reaching out to shake Roy’s hand. “But I’ll send a telegraph this afternoon. If I could only reach him he could overturn everything Henry does.”

“Then try.” The sheriff said as he left the room.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Descending the stairs into the great room of the Ponderosa a week later, gloomily anticipating the unappetising meal that Mrs. Simpson called breakfast Joe found Will Reagan, the ranch foreman, in angry discussion with Henry.

“There is no way I can roundup all those beeves and drive them to market without extra men.” Will was saying, his face red with annoyance.

“And I’m telling you that I will not waste Ponderosa money on hands we don’t need,” Henry said calmly. “You do the job with the men we have or I find myself a foreman that will.”

“Pa always hires on extra hands for the fall roundup and the cattle drive,” Joe interrupted with a sympathetic glance at Will. “It’s far too much work for the number of men we have at the moment.”

“What Ben did doesn’t apply any more,” Henry said, walking over to the front door and opening it wide. “I say no extra hands and that’s an end to the matter.”

Will stayed where he was, shaking his head in disbelief. “I never thought it would come to this,” he said eventually, turning to look at Henry with disdain. “Sixteen years I’ve worked this ranch alongside Ben Cartwright and his boys, since Joe here was no more than a baby. But you don’t give me any choice Mr. Cartwright. I know the job can’t be done without extra men so if you can find a foreman willing to try then you do that, because I quit.”

“Will!” Joe exclaimed in dismay. “You can’t.”

“I’m sorry Joe.” The grizzled little man looked at him with regret. “You know I had a great deal of respect for your Pa and I sure hate to leave the ranch like this, but I just ain’t takin’ any more from that man.”

“I’ll be helping with roundup,” Joe told him, desperately trying to persuade him not to go. “I reckon some of my friends would be prepared to help us out at no cost, Mitch Devlin and Seth Pruitt for sure and perhaps Johnny…”

“It’s not enough, Joe,” Will said sadly. “You know your Pa’d take on up to twenty extra drovers for the roundup. Bedsides it ‘ain’t just that, your cousin’s been ridin’ me ever since he got here. I’m sorry but I can’t stay.”

Turning away he walked from the house, Henry pushing the door closed behind him. As soon as he was gone Joe turned on Henry furiously. “Are you trying to ruin us?” he yelled, any thought of respect towards his father’s cousin gone. “Will’s the best damn foreman in the territory, how can you let him go?”

“Mind your tongue, boy.” Henry said angrily, catching hold of Joe’s arm. “I’m doing what I think is best for this ranch and I don’t expect you to question it.”

“You’ve never run a ranch!” Joe exclaimed, pulling free of the man’s grasp. “This is my ranch, my father meant it for me and I won’t see you ruin all his years of work.”

“What can you do?” Henry sneered, contempt in his look. “I’m in charge here, not you. It’s no good running to the sheriff either, the law’s on my side in this.”

Enraged, Joe hit out blindly at the man, catching him on the jaw. Henry staggered but didn’t fall, moving instead to grab Joe’s shoulders. “I could have you in jail for that!” He shouted, shaking the young man violently. “Just remember I’m your legal guardian till you turn eighteen.”

“I hate you.” Joe hissed, jerking himself away from the man and heading out to the barn to start his morning chores with the sound of Henry’s laughter following him. As Joe took his temper out on the feed buckets, banging them violently together, Cochise looked up and snickered softly. “Sorry, Cooch,” Joe apologised, smoothing the animal’s soft flanks. “Didn’t mean to upset you.” Filling the buckets more quietly he thought again about giving in and leaving the ranch, but knew he couldn’t. The Ponderosa was his father’s legacy to him and whatever happened he had to try his best to keep it.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

For the next week Joe was able to avoid seeing very much of Henry. The man had taken to spending every evening in Virginia City, often returning home in a slightly inebriated condition. Joe’s days were taken up by the roundup which was in full swing. With few available hands it meant that everyone had to put in extra hours to get the job done. Knowing that the men were only doing this out of a sense of loyalty to himself and his family Joe tried to show them how grateful he was by working twice as hard as everyone else. Henry’s new foreman had not yet materialised and Will’s second-in-command, a lean tow headed man named Lenny Smith, had stepped into the breach.

Returning to the Ponderosa one evening, bone weary from a day spent in the saddle Joe found Henry at home for once and playing host to Sheriff Coffee.

“Evening, son,” the sheriff greeted Joe as he came into the house, hanging up his hat and jacket and unfastening his gunbelt. “Been waiting on you getting home.”

“Something you wanted to see me about?” Joe asked, putting his gunbelt down on the credenza.

“Yep,” the Sheriff looked round pointedly at Henry who was seated in the leather armchair. “A private matter.”

“Then I suggest you go up to Joe’s room or take it outside.” Henry told him haughtily. “For I’ve no intention of being turned out of my own room.”

“Come on up.” Joe told the sheriff, too tired to argue and Roy followed him upstairs to his room.

“Cold sort of fella, ain’t he?” the sheriff commented as Joe showed him in and shut the door firmly behind him.

“I hate coming home and finding him here,” Joe told him, slumping down on the edge of his bed. “Sitting in Pa’s chair and drinking Pa’s brandy. I hate Mrs. Simpson being in Hop Sing’s kitchen and I just wish…I just…” his voice broke as tears sprang to his eyes and embarrassed, he lowered his head. “I miss them so much.”

“Son,” Roy put a consoling hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You do know that if you need anything, or you just want someone to talk to, then I’m always available and so is Doc. Martin.”

“I know,” Joe looked up gratefully, blinking away the tears. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said all that. I guess I’m just tired, been working real hard.”

“Yes, I saw Will, heard about his run in with Henry.” Roy said. “He’s signed on at the Andersen ranch, did you know?”

“No I hadn’t heard. I’m glad he found somewhere to go.”

“Henry hasn’t taken on anyone else?”

Joe shook his head. “We’re trying to do the job with about half the men it needs,” he said. “The hands have been working real long hours.”

“So have you, I hear.”

“I don’t mind. Kind of takes my mind off things a bit. Anyway I have to at least try and keep the ranch going.”

“That’s what I’ve come to see you about,” Roy said, sitting down on the chair beside the bed. “I’ve been speaking to James Dewar about things. I don’t like what Henry Cartwright is doing to this ranch.”

“I think he’s trying to ruin it,” Joe told him grimly. “I don’t know why but I’m sure that’s what he’s doing. If it wasn’t for the loyalty of our hands we wouldn’t be able to get the cattle to market this year and I know he’s not been near the timber camp or the mines since he arrived.”

“I believe you’re right. Dewar tells me that Henry has been taking some very risky business decisions.”

“But there’s nothing I can do,” Joe said angrily. “Cousin Henry is legally in charge.”

“Unless we can find your Uncle John.”

“Dewar said he’d tried, and couldn’t.”

“He’s trying again Little Joe, and this time he thinks he may be getting somewhere. We know that he’s overseas but no one has a contact address. Dewar has been telegraphing all over the place and he found that one of your Uncle’s friends had a letter from him saying that he intended visiting Italy for a few months. Dewar’s having some enquiries made there. I just wanted to tell you not to give up, we’re all trying to help.”

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Joe slept better that night, Roy’s news giving him at least a little hope that there might be some way to get rid of Cousin Henry. Waking late he quickly washed and dressed then hurried downstairs intent on getting out to help with the cattle. He was buckling his gunbelt on as he walked out of the house and stopped short in dismay. In front of him was Cousin Henry mounted on Cochise.

“Morning, Joe.” Henry called, smiling down at him triumphantly. “I thought I’d take your horse today, that big beast you gave me to ride has thrown a shoe.”

“Get off him,” Joe said tightly, hands curling into fists at his side. Angrily he moved towards Henry and the man yanked hard on Cochise’s reins, pulling him round. Taken by surprise by the movement and unnerved by the unfamiliar rider the horse reared up, dumping cousin Henry unceremoniously in the dust of the yard.

As the man stumbled to his feet, red faced with embarrassment, Joe was unable to stop himself from laughing. The sound of his high pitched cackle of mirth served to incense Henry who reached for his gun and drawing it awkwardly, took aim at Cochise.

“Damn horse,” he exclaimed. “I’ll show you.”

Hilarity ceasing abruptly at the sight of the gun, Joe flung himself between Henry and the pinto. “No!” He exclaimed. “You shoot me before you harm my horse.”

For a moment it almost appeared that Henry would do just that, and Joe held his breath, as the gun remained trained on him.

“I suppose he’s too valuable an animal to destroy.” Henry mumbled at last, putting his gun away and stalking off to the house.

With a long, shuddering sigh Joe turned to Cochise, his hands trembling a little as he took up the horse’s reins. “Let’s get out of here, Cooch,” he said, mounting up and preparing to ride out. He cast a glance back at the house as he left the yard, wishing with all his heart that he didn’t have to come back. “It’s not home any more, is it boy?” he asked Cochise, bending to pat the animal on the neck before galloping away to join the roundup. “Not without my family.”

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Watching as Lenny and two of the hands expertly guided a few stray cattle to join the main herd Joe was surprised when he caught sight of his friend, Mitch Devlin, riding towards him.

“Hey, Joe.” Mitch hailed him as he drew closer. “I thought I’d find you out here.”

“Come to lend a hand?” Joe asked, only half joking. “We could use an extra man.”

“No, I came out to see you about something,” Mitch pushed his hat back from his forehead and looked at Joe with troubled eyes. “It’s about Mr. Cartwright so I didn’t want to come out to the ranch in case I ran into him.”

“What’s he done?” Joe queried, steadying himself on Cochise as the pinto moved restlessly beneath him.

“He’s been saying some things,” Mitch looked down at his horse’s neck, finding it hard to meet his friend’s gaze. “About your mother.”

“My mother!” Joe said in surprise. “What sort of things?”

“He said…” Mitch broke off, his face flushing pink as he remembered the words that a drunken Henry Cartwright had used. “He said that your mother was well…a little free with her favours.”

“Just what is that supposed to mean?”

“Please don’t make me use the word he used Joe, it wasn’t very nice.”

“What exactly did he say?” Joe asked, fury burning in his eyes. “Tell me Mitch.”

“He said…he said…she was a whore,” The last word was barely above a whisper. “I’m sorry.” Mitch added miserably. “I thought that you ought to know, he got a little drunk and ended up telling half the customers in the Silver Dollar.”

“He won’t say it again.” Joe told him brusquely, pulling Cochise around. “Not when I’ve finished with him.”

“Don’t do anything hasty.” Mitch said anxiously, seeing the cold rage on Joe’s face.

Joe didn’t answer, just dug his heels into Cochise’s side and galloped away leaving Mitch staring after him, wondering if he’d done the right thing in telling his friend about Henry.

By the time Joe reached the Ponderosa his anger was at boiling point. Leaping down from his horse he ran towards the house, flinging the door open and stalking inside, finding Henry sitting at the table in the middle of his midday meal.

“You loathsome, obnoxious excuse for a man.” Joe’s voice was icy with dislike as he confronted his father’s cousin. “How dare you say such a thing?”

“Don’t talk to me that way!” Henry got to his feet, his face reddening with anger at Joe’s words.

“You had no right to talk about my mother like that,” Joe yelled, standing his ground as the enraged man came towards him. “No right.”

“Hadn’t I?” Henry sneered stopping just inches from where Joe stood, his cold eyes fixed on the youth. “I would have taken that woman away from here, given her all the benefits that life in the east can offer, but she chose to stay here with Ben. She rejected me…ME! She was just a hostess when Ben found her in New Orleans, no better than a common whore dishing out her favours to wealthy men.”

“That’s not true! My mother was a wonderful woman,” Joe’s hands were clenched into fists, fury racing through him at Henry’s words. “She wouldn’t have looked twice at a worm like you anyway, she loved my father.”

“Your father?” Henry laughed and the sound sent a cold shiver down Joe’s spine. “You think Ben Cartwright is your father, boy? Why just look at you, I see no trace of Cartwright in you.” Grabbing Joe by the arm he dragged him over to the mirror, pushing him in front of the glass. “See that, you’re the image of your mother but there’s no hint of a resemblance to Ben. Marie wasn’t above a few flings with the handsome men around here, make no mistake about that.”

“No!” Joe flung back, pulling away and turning to face Henry. “That’s not true, it’s not!”

“She rejected me,” Henry suddenly struck out and Joe reeled backwards as the man slapped him viciously across the face. “No one rejects me, you hear, no one. I hated her for what she did and I’m going to get my revenge through you.” Reaching out he grabbed Joe’s arm and hauled the youth towards him, raising his fist for the next blow.

“Leave him alone!” The deep voice thundered across the room. Henry looked up, startled, and paled at the sight that met his eyes. Thrusting Joe from him so that the young man fell heavily against the couch he began to back away as Ben Cartwright advanced towards him across the room.

“Ben…I…I…wasn’t going to hurt the boy…I…I swear.”

“Get out!” Ben said, his tone icy cold. “Pack your bags and get out of here before I do something I might regret.”

Without a backward glance Henry ran for the stairs, unsure whether he had seen his cousin or a spectre of him. Ben turned to Joe; his youngest son was sitting on the floor where he had fallen when Henry pushed him away. The boy’s skin was ashen, his eyes wide and uncomprehending as he stared at the man he had believed dead for so long.

“Joseph,” Ben knelt beside the boy, reaching out to touch the son that, for a while, he had thought he would never see again. “It’s all right, Joe. I’m here, I’m real.”

At the touch of Ben’s hand on his arm, Joe gave a convulsive shudder and then as if in a dream reached out tentatively and lightly touched his father’s face. “But…but…” he stammered unbelievingly. “We heard…Sheriff Coffee heard…there was a telegraph…” he stopped talking as from behind him came the sound of booted feet and cheerful voices.

“Hey there, little brother.” Hoss came round the couch and stopped behind his father, wide face wreathed in a grin.

“Joe,” Adam was right behind, his smile fading to concern as he saw the look on his young brother’s face. “Hey, it’s all right,” he said reassuringly. “We’re not phantoms, Joe. We are real.”

“I…” Joe looked from one to the other of his family with wonderment. Then suddenly he collapsed against his father and Ben’s arms closed tightly around him as he sobbed tears of joy and relief.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

“What’s been happening here, Joe?” Ben asked at last as his son eventually pulled free of the embrace and, a little embarrassed at his show of emotion, wiped his eyes with the backs of his hands. “Roy told me that Henry’s been trying to ruin the Ponderosa, was that what you were fighting over?”

Joe nodded, his thoughts in turmoil. He badly wanted to tell Ben the reason for Henry’s actions. He wanted to tell him what the man had said and seek reassurance that it wasn’t true but a part of him was scared to do so. For what if Henry was right, what if he truly wasn’t a Cartwright? “You saw Sheriff Coffee?” he said, getting awkwardly up from the floor and seating himself on the couch. He kept his gaze fixed on his father, almost afraid that if he looked away this might turn out to be just a dream and he would be left alone with Henry again.

“Yes, we stopped in Virginia City this morning and nearly gave poor Roy heart failure.” Ben told him, sitting down beside his son and putting his arm around him. “I’m so sorry, Joseph. I had no idea that you thought we were dead, I knew you’d be worried about us but I …”

“Where were you?” Joe broke in, anger suddenly coursing through him as he looked round at his family. “Surely you could have let me know you were all right? I’ve spent weeks with that repulsive cousin Henry and all the time you were okay? He dismissed Hop Sing, Will left, I was all alone here with him and I thought I’d never see you all again. Do you know that we even had a memorial service? I missed you so much and there was no one left, no one…” Joe stopped as Ben squeezed his shoulder sympathetically, the familiar touch causing treacherous tears to well once more and threaten to spill over.

“We tried to get word to you,” Adam came over with a couple of glasses of brandy handing one to his father and one to his youngest brother. “But Mexican prisons aren’t very cooperative when it comes to sending telegraphs.”

“Prison?” Joe’s eyes widened in surprise at his brother’s words. “You were in prison?”

“Yes.” Ben nodded affirmatively. “It’s a very long and involved story, Joe, and will keep for later. Right now I want to hear exactly what my cousin has been doing before he packs up and leaves.”

While his father and brothers listened in silence Joe told them of Henry’s dismissal of Hop Sing, his lack of interest in the way the Ponderosa was run, his bad business decisions and his refusal to hire extra hands for the cattle drive that had led to Will leaving. He said nothing of Henry’s accusations against Marie or his claim that Joe wasn’t Ben’s son.

“I think I’d better go and have a word with cousin Henry,” Ben said, getting to his feet as Joe finished talking. “Then perhaps someone could organise a pot of coffee and some food?”

“Sure, Pa.” Hoss got up and started toward the kitchen.

“I don’t think you’ll like Hop Sing’s replacement,” Joe warned him and Hoss turned around with a questioning look. “It’s Ada Simpson.”

“The widow Simpson?” Hoss asked, dismayed. “That sour faced old…”

“Hoss!” Ben broke in quickly. “I’m sure that Mrs. Simpson has done her best.”

“Her best!” Joe suddenly let loose with a peal of laughter as he thought of the meals Mrs. Simpson had set before him the last few weeks. “That woman can’t cook at all.”

“And here I’ve been looking forward to Hop Sing’s cooking for days.” Hoss complained with an anguished look. “Think I ought to go to town and get him now, Pa?”

“Tomorrow will do,” Ben smiled, enjoying watching his sons together again. “I’m sure even Mrs. Simpson can make a decent pot of coffee and a few sandwiches.”

“I wouldn’t bet on it.” Joe was saying as Ben made his way up the stairs to confront Henry. He could hear the noise of drawers being pulled open as he reached the top landing and was a little surprised to find that Henry had taken possession of his room. Reaching out he pushed open the door. “It looks like I got back here just in time,” he said, as Henry looked up from where he was throwing clothes into a bag. “From what Joe tells me you’ve done your very best to ruin this ranch.” He looked round at his room, now filled with Henry’s belongings. “Why?” he asked quietly. “What did I ever do to you that you felt it necessary to destroy the home I’ve spent so many years building, the home I meant for my sons?”

Henry didn’t answer immediately, his thoughts calculating. If Joe had told Ben about his hatred of Marie and desire for revenge through her son then his cousin would have challenged him about it. Obviously Joe had said nothing. “Everything I did was well within the law,” he said at last, closing his bag and picking it up. “I’ll be leaving now. I’ll take the buggy with me to town, you can pick it up from the livery stable.”

“I think it might be better if you stayed here tonight,” Ben told him, a hint of a threat in his deep voice. “Tomorrow we can ride in and see Mr. Dewar together, just to be sure everything is as above board as you say it is.”

“You can’t hold me here,” Henry blustered, starting forward. “I demand that you let me go.”

“I won’t hold you by force,” Ben said, leaning against the door and smiling coldly at his cousin. “But I’m not prepared to allow you the use of any of my horses and it’s a very long walk to Virginia City.”

Henry stared at Ben in dismay. “It seems I have no choice but to do as you say.” he said at last, putting his bag down on the bed.

“Thank You.” Ben opened the door. “You might as well sleep here tonight. I’ll ask Mrs. Simpson to bring you up a meal and I’ll see you in the morning.”

As Ben left the room, Henry sat down heavily on the bed, his shoulders slumped in defeat.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Despite the fact that Ada Simpson’s cooking was every bit as bad as Joe had said, the bread soggy, the meat overcooked, it was a joyful group that sat around the table that evening. Ben, Adam and Hoss had cleaned up and rested a little and now were ready to celebrate being home on the Ponderosa and reunited as a family. Ben brought out a bottle of his best wine, frowning a little as he saw how his stocks had been depleted. Pouring the wine and handing it round, Ben held up his glass in a toast. “To us,” he intoned, looking proudly around the table at his sons. “The Cartwrights.”

“The Cartwrights,” echoed Hoss and Adam. Joe held his glass up in salute but didn’t join in the toast. His feelings were torn, the euphoria of having his family home and safe marred by the remembrance of Henry’s words.

“Joe?” Ben had noticed his youngest son’s silence. “Are you all right?”

“Fine,” Joe managed a reassuring smile for his father. “I was just wondering when you were going to tell me how you came to end up in prison, and how come you weren’t in that hotel fire.”

“Let’s make ourselves a little more comfortable,” Ben said, taking his wine and getting up from the table. “Then we’ll tell you all about it.”

Leaving the remains of the meal for Mrs. Simpson to clear away, the Cartwrights settled themselves around the fireplace. At a nod from Ben, Adam began the story.

“We did check in to that hotel,” he told his brother, who was listening eagerly. “But we didn’t stay very long.”

“Not once we found we was sharin’ the room with all those other guests.” Hoss put in with a laugh.

“He means fleas,” Adam explained, seeing Joe’s quizzical look. “The place was infested with them. We were covered in bites within minutes of being in the room. It was obvious that we weren’t going to get any sleep so we decided to leave.”

“So how come you never checked out?” Joe asked quietly, remembering all too vividly the telegraph that had informed him of his family’s death. “The hotel clerk said you were still there.”

“The clerk was asleep behind his desk when we left,” Adam informed him. “As we’d paid in advance there seemed no point in waking him so we just got our horses from the livery and rode out.”

“The livery burnt down as well,” Joe said. “We thought the horses had died too.”

“Yes, Roy told us,” Adam took a sip of his wine and settled deeper into the armchair. “Anyway, we were heading for a ranch on the Mexican border where Pa had arranged to take a look at some stallions the owner was looking to sell. We’d been riding half the night and were pretty tired so we stopped and made camp for a couple of hours, to try and get some sleep. Must have been even more tired than we realised because next thing we know, it’s morning and we’ve been surrounded by a posse of Mexican lawmen.”

“Was my fault,” Hoss interrupted, a guilty look in his blue eyes. “I was meant to be keeping watch.”

“Could have happened to any of us,” Adam reassured him. “We were all dog tired, and anyway even if we’d seen them coming there was nothing we could have done. They are the law down there.”

“So what happened?” Joe asked impatiently, anxious to hear the full story.

“As it turned out we’d inadvertently crossed the border into Mexico and these lawmen were after a gang of American bandits who’d robbed a hacienda, killing the owner and four of his men. We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, the only descriptions they had could have fit almost anybody and as we were Americans and carrying a great deal of Mexican currency that we’d brought with us to buy the horses, we got taken off to prison.”

“Surely the rancher you were on the way to see could have backed you up?”

“Once we managed to make ourselves understood then they did send someone to the rancho we’d been heading for. They found that it had also been raided and the ranchero was dead. That just about sealed our fate. The language barrier made it very difficult for us to protest our innocence and with all the political trouble in Mexico at the moment I think they felt a hanging might provide a nice little distraction for the locals.”

“You were there all this time?” Joe asked, as his brother stopped talking for another sip of wine.

“They arranged for the hanging to coincide with the local fiesta,” Ben took up the story. “Which meant keeping us in prison for almost three months.”

“Three months with hardly a decent meal,” Put in Hoss with a mournful look. “If the local padre hadn’t brought us a roast meal every Sunday I swear I’d have wasted away by now.”

“Doesn’t look like it’s made much difference to me.” Joe grinned, glancing at his older brother’s still ample figure.

“As the date set for the hanging drew closer it looked pretty bleak,” Ben continued, as Hoss shot his younger brother an indignant look. “I was beginning to fear that we’d never see either you or the Ponderosa again,” his voice dropped low as he recalled those dark days. “I just wished that we could have had the opportunity to say goodbye, to tell you…”

“I know,” suddenly serious, Joe’s eyes met his father’s. “That’s how I felt too.”

For a moment all four Cartwright’s sat in silence contemplating exactly how close they had come to losing each other. Eventually Adam cleared his throat. “To cut a long story short,” he said. “Two days before the hanging there was another raid on a hacienda, they caught the real bandits who confessed that they had been responsible for the crime we were charged with.”

“So they let you go?” Joe asked.

“With hardly even an apology,” Adam told him wryly. “Not that we waited around for one, soon as they let us out we headed for home.”

“But why didn’t you send a wire?” Joe felt anger begin to stir again. “At least let me know you were safe.”

“Little brother, we just rode for the Ponderosa as fast as possible,” Hoss said. “We only passed through a few towns and they was all one horse places which hardly boasted a saloon yet alone a telegraph office.”

Joe was stopped from any further comment by the sound of a buggy rattling into the yard of the Ponderosa.

“Who can that be?” Ben said, getting to his feet and crossing to the door. Opening it he gave an exclamation of delight. “Hop Sing! Good to see you, come on in.”

“Sheriff Coffee tell me Cartlights come home,” the Chinese cook allowed himself to be ushered into the house by Ben. As he entered Adam, Hoss and Joe sprang up from their seats and rushed over to greet him. “I come see if true.”

“Sure is great to see you, Hop Sing,” Hoss enveloped the little man in a hug. “I done missed your cooking something awful.”

“I bring big pot stew,” Hop Sing announced, his eyes suspiciously bright as he broke free of Hoss’ embrace and looked round at his family. “Is in buggy, just need to be heated up.”

Needing no second telling Hoss headed for the door as Hop Sing shook hands with Adam and embraced Little Joe.

“You want me to put it on the stove for you?” Hoss called, returning with the pot held firmly in his large hands.

“Hop Sing put it on,” The little man took the container from Hoss and headed for the kitchen. Within moments a steady stream of Chinese words issued forth and Ada Simpson came rushing in to the great room.

“Well, really!” She said indignantly to Ben. “I thought that at least you’d give me until tomorrow before you brought your Chinese cook back.”

“I think Hop Sing wanted to come home as soon as he could Mrs. Simpson,” Ben told her with a smile. “And we’re very glad he’s here, aren’t we boys?”

With a sour glance at the other three Cartwrights who nodded in agreement with their father Mrs. Simpson stalked off to her room. Minutes later the tempting aroma of beef stew had begun to filter through from the kitchen and Hoss gave a deep sigh of contentment as the family settled down around the table to enjoy their meal.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

“So what you’re saying is that everything my cousin did has been within the letter of the law?” Ben asked James Dewar.

“I’m afraid so,” Dewar told him sympathetically. “I wish I could tell you differently, but all he’s guilty of is mismanagement and he can easily claim that was just down to inexperience.”

Ben paced the room in fury. He and Adam had ridden in to Virginia City this morning with Henry and Mrs. Simpson. It had been a very strained journey, Mrs. Simpson vociferously complaining about her abrupt dismissal and Henry wearing an air of smug indifference that incensed the two Cartwrights.

“How bad is it?” Adam asked Dewar now. “Have we lost much?”

“Henry lost you a couple of contracts,” the lawyer told him, opening his books to show Adam the figures he had kept. “I think you may be able to salvage at least one of those, when the buyer realises that you are back in charge.”

“Then there’s the cattle drive,” looking up from the books, Adam addressed his father. “There’s still time to hire on extra hands for that.”

Ben nodded. “I’ll see to that and I’d like to arrange a bonus payment for the men that have been helping with the roundup, we’d be in a far worse mess if it wasn’t for them.”

“Henry also bought in to a few ventures that I advised him against,” Dewar continued. “I have little doubt that his motive in all of this was to damage the ranch but there’s nothing that would require the law to be brought in.”

“I just can’t understand why Henry should do such a thing,” Ben said as he and Adam left the lawyer’s office. “We never got on well but I had no reason to suppose he disliked me enough to ruin the Ponderosa.”

“Did you ask him why?” Adam enquired as the two crossed the street.

“I tried but he’s not talking.”

“He thought you were dead,” Adam said as they entered the Silver Dollar saloon where Ben was intending to spread the word that the Ponderosa was hiring extra hands. “Whatever he did couldn’t hurt you, so what was the point?”

“Surely he couldn’t have meant to hurt Little Joe?” The idea brought Ben to a halt just inside the saloon. “He’d never even met Joe, why on earth would he want to hurt him?”

“I think I have an idea why.” Taken by surprise by Roy Coffee’s voice behind them Ben and Adam turned abruptly to find that the sheriff had followed them in. “Think we ought to discuss it in private though.”

Looking around at the crowded bar Ben nodded in agreement.

“Come over to the office.” Roy said and led the way along the sidewalk. Reaching the jailhouse the Cartwrights followed the sheriff inside, curious to hear what he had to say.

“Get yourself a chair,” Roy told them, opening the small cupboard behind his desk and taking out a half full bottle of whisky. “Drink?” Without waiting for a reply he poured three stiff measures of the liquor and handed them round.

“So what’s your theory?” Adam asked him, taking the glass and swirling the whisky around a little before taking a sip.

“First time I clapped eyes on Henry I could see that he hated Little Joe,” Roy told them. He swallowed his drink in one quick gulp and put the glass down on his desk with a thud. “Couldn’t figure why till Doc. Martin told me about something that happened when Henry visited years ago, before Little Joe was born.” As he told the story of how Henry had attempted to seduce Marie, Roy could practically feel the waves of anger coming from Ben, the rancher’s face growing dark with rage. When the sheriff told them about Henry’s drunken behaviour in the saloon three nights before and his accusations about Marie it became too much and Ben’s temper finally snapped. “He said what!” He exploded, leaping to his feet. “He’s not going to get away with this!”

“Now, Ben, you know I can’t condone any violence.” Roy said warningly, but the look on his face belied his words.

“I’m just going to have a little talk with him,” Ben told him, heading for the door. “If I can find the no good, lying, son of a…”

“I believe he’s checked into the hotel to wait for tomorrow’s coach,” Adam interrupted hastily. “Need any help?”

“I’m sure I can manage on my own.” Ben said tightly.

“Think you ought to go along?” Roy asked Adam as the door closed behind the furious rancher.

“I’ll go over in a while,” Adam told him, a grim smile on his face as he envisaged Ben’s confrontation with Henry. Sipping his whisky a sudden thought occurred to him. “Joe didn’t hear what Henry said about his mother, did he?” he asked.

“Not as far as I know,” Roy said, with a worried frown. “But there’s no telling what the man might have said to him. He certainly seemed to go out of his way to upset the boy.”

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

“Hey, Pa, Adam.” Hoss greeted his father and brother as they entered the Ponderosa late that afternoon. “Did you get everything sorted out?”

“You could say that,” Adam said with a wry grin at his father. “Let’s just say I think cousin Henry is feeling a little remorseful right now.”

“Pa!” Hoss exclaimed, suddenly noticing his father’s skinned knuckles and the bruise on his cheek. “You didn’t?”

“I’m afraid so,” Ben sank into the leather armchair and leaned back tiredly. “After all I’ve told you boys I’m sorry to say that I let my temper get the better of me.” He closed his eyes for a moment, a small smile playing on his lips. “No I’m not sorry,” he announced suddenly, sitting up straight and looking at his sons. “Henry deserved everything he got.”

“Amen to that.” Adam said, with a laugh. “You should have seen him Hoss, Pa sure gave him a licking he won’t forget in a hurry.”

“You fought Henry?” Joe’s voice from the top of the stairs made them all look up.

“I did,” Ben told him, watching as his youngest son came down into the great room. “I know I shouldn’t have but I heard he’d been spreading some lies about your mother.” Studying Joe closely Ben saw the pain in the boy’s eyes. “You knew about it?”

“Mitch told me.” Joe said softly, his hands clenching into fists as he spoke. “That’s what Henry and I were fighting about when you got home.”

“I see.” Ben stood up and walked across to where Joe stood. “Your mother was a fine woman, Joseph,” he said, putting a hand under the boy’s chin and tilting his head so that he could look into his eyes. Eyes that he could see were clouded with pain and misery. “A fine woman,” he repeated. “And a wonderful mother, always remember that and take no notice of Henry’s evil tongue.”

Joe nodded, pleased to hear that Ben had defended Marie’s reputation but still unable to dismiss Henry’s words entirely. Conflicting emotions tore at him, he desperately wanted to believe that his mother was the angel Ben said she was and yet that niggling doubt remained, making him feel guilty for even thinking it.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

The next few days passed in a whirlwind of activity on the Ponderosa. The roundup was completed and the cattle drive set off for San Francisco. Normally one or more of the Cartwrights would have ridden along but this year Ben decided that the family had spent enough time apart and the job was entrusted to the capable hands of Will Reagan, newly returned from the Anderson ranch, and Lenny Smith. Adam spent a few days in Carson City successfully renegotiating one of the contracts that Henry had lost them while Ben was occupied with sorting out the bookwork and visiting the timber camp and the mines. Joe and Hoss were kept busy with neglected repairs but the work, though hard, wasn’t too demanding and Joe found that it gave him too much time for brooding over Henry’s words. Often, work over for the day, he’d wash up before supper and find himself examining his reflection in the mirror searching for any resemblance to his father and wondering if Henry could have been right. His doubts began to manifest themselves in other ways and, though all the family noticed, it was Hoss who brought the matter up first. He and Joe had just returned from Virginia City and were putting their horses up when Adam came out of the house. “Did you get the mail?” He asked, as his brothers emerged from the barn and headed towards him.

“What there was of it,” Joe answered, pulling a few envelopes from his jacket pocket. “There’s one from Italy for…” he hesitated and cleared his throat before continuing. “I’ll just take it in.”

“Joe just ain’t the same lately,” Hoss said worriedly, sitting down on one of the porch chairs as he watched his young brother disappear into the house. “I can’t rightly say what it is but something’s wrong.”

Dropping into the chair next to Hoss, Adam sighed deeply. “I know what it is,” he said softly, running a hand through his hair. “I just don’t know why it is.”

“Well?” Hoss asked, as his brother showed no sign of enlightening him. “What is it?”

Adam leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “To begin with he doesn’t touch anyone,” he announced quietly and saw comprehension dawn in Hoss’ blue eyes. “Joe’s always had that way with him, a touch to the arm, a quick hug. He doesn’t do it any more.”

“You’re right.” Hoss was thinking back over the past few days, since their return. “He don’t do it, and you know what Adam? I just realised something else.”

“I know.” Adam looked over at him, his expression worried. “That’s the other thing, he hasn’t called Pa by his name since we got back.”

“Any idea why?”

“It must be something our dear cousin Henry said…or did.”

“Did?” Shock crossed the big man’s face. “What could he have done that makes Little Joe scared to touch anyone?”

“I don’t know.” Anger flickered deep in Adam’s eyes as he answered. “But I’ll tell you this. If I find out that he’s harmed the kid in some way then I’ll be riding out after Henry and by God, he’ll pay for it.”

“Do you think Pa’s noticed?”

Adam nodded. “He’s worried sick about it, but he doesn’t want to press Joe. That’ll only mean he’ll clam up tight and pretend nothing’s wrong.”

Hoss could only agree with that, his younger brother had always held his troubles inside himself and no amount of probing would get his family anywhere until Joe decided the time was right. They could only hope that he would confide in one of them sooner or later.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

At supper that evening, as they enjoyed the chicken and dumplings that Hop Sing had prepared, Ben brought out the letter from Italy that Joe had brought home that afternoon. “This came from your Uncle John,” he announced, holding the envelope up. “He’s staying with friends in Venice for a few months, sends his apologies for not letting us know sooner.” Putting the letter down beside his plate Ben frowned as he thought of his brother. “I just hope that Dewar’s messages never reached him. I’d better get a reply sent as soon as possible just in case.”

“Yes, you’d better do that,” Joe said abruptly, surprising himself at the bitterness that suddenly arose in him. “After all we wouldn’t want him to think you might be dead would we? Wouldn’t want him grieving the way I…” Stopping abruptly he flung down the fork he had been holding and made for the front door.

“Joe…” Hoss got quickly to his feet.

“Let him go.” Ben ordered and reluctantly Hoss obeyed, sitting down again and pushing his plate aside, his appetite suddenly disappearing.

“Don’t you think someone should go after him?” Adam asked with concern, looking at his father. “He’s obviously still more upset by this than we thought.”

“I’ll go and see him,” With a sigh Ben got up from the table. “Although I’m not sure that he’ll talk to me.”

Opening the ranch house door Ben saw that Joe hadn’t gone far. His youngest son was sitting on one of the porch chairs, head bowed and shoulders slumped, the very picture of misery. He didn’t move as Ben walked over and sat down next to him.

The two sat in silence for a while until at last Joe spoke up. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“It’s all right. I know you went through a terrible ordeal, it’s understandable that you’re still angry over it.”

“I’m not angry at you,” Joe shifted a little in the chair, trying to decide if he should tell Ben what was really wrong. “I know you didn’t realise that I thought you were dead and I understand that. It’s just…”

“Just what?” Ben asked as Joe fell silent.

“Nothing,” Joe shook his head. “You go on and finish your supper, I think I’ll stay out here for a while.”

“Do you want me to ask Hop Sing to keep something for you?” Ben studied his youngest son carefully, he could see that Joe was still fretting but knew better than to push the boy to tell him what was wrong.

“It’s okay, I’m not real hungry.” Joe turned to look out at the yard, quiet and still in the moonlight.

“Then you come on in when you’re ready, son,” Ben started to get to his feet but was stopped by Joe suddenly catching hold of his arm.

“I have to ask you something.”

Ben nodded, sitting back down again. Joe glanced quickly at him, his eyes sliding away from his father’s gaze. When Ben had called him son he finally knew that he had to ask this question or it would haunt him for ever, but it was hard to find the words. Silently, Ben waited for Joe to voice his problems, anxiety building in him as the minutes passed. What could be so difficult for the boy to say?

“Did you ever…” Joe began at last. “I mean, Henry said…he told me…did you think…ever…that just possibly.” Ben held his breath; he had an idea now where this was leading, obviously despite everything, his son was still worried about the names that Henry had called Marie. Joe’s gaze was riveted on the table in front of him as he finally blurted out the fear that had been dogging him for days. “That…that…I might not…not be…your son.”

Ben stared at him for a moment, shocked by the words. “Henry told you that?” he said at last, fury flooding through him as Joe nodded mutely. Ben found his feelings strangely mixed, he was angry with Henry for placing such a doubt in Joe’s mind but annoyed that the boy should even consider such a thing. “Don’t be so ridiculous, of course you’re my son,” he said, the words emerging more harshly than he had intended.

Joe flinched at Ben’s angry tone and kept his gaze fixed on the table. “But are you sure?” he asked, his voice scarcely more than a whisper.

Swallowing his anger Ben reached out and touched his son’s face, turning the boy to face him. Seeing the uncertainty in the luminous eyes he chose his next words carefully. What Joe needed, he realised, was reassurance.

“Joseph I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that you are my son,” he said quietly. “I loved your mother very much and she loved me. Whatever lies Henry has told you are just that, lies.”

“I’m nothing like you, though,” Joe twisted away again, looking out into the darkness. “Henry said there’s no Cartwright in me at all.”

“Henry is a bitter, vindictive man who I’ve no doubt took great pleasure in planting these ideas in your mind.” Ben said, reaching for his son’s left hand and holding it firmly between his own. “Joseph would you look at me please?” As Joe turned reluctantly to face him, Ben looked down at his son’s hand and smiled. “No Cartwright in you?” he said looking up and meeting Joe’s eyes. “You’re the image of your mother, Joe but there is plenty of Cartwright there too. Did I never tell you that your Grandmother was left handed just like you?”

“She was?”

Ben nodded, a gentle smile crossing his lips as he thought of his family. “And sometimes, certain expressions you have remind me so much of your grandfather and your Uncle John.”

“Really?” Joe asked, surprised. It wasn’t often that his father spoke of his family. Joe had heard many stories of Ben’s time at sea, his trek across the country with Adam but very little about his boyhood days.

“And as for not being like me,” Ben laughed softly, remembering his own youth. “I see myself at seventeen every time I look at you. Son, you’re so much like I was then.”

A small smile tugged at Joe’s mouth. “I can’t imagine you were ever so ornery as I sometimes get.”

“Oh, I sure was,” Ben released Joe’s hand and reached out to put an arm round the boy’s shoulders. “I don’t like to admit it but I was just as impulsive and quick tempered as you are.”

“I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe said, and the last word sent Ben’s heart soaring as he hugged his youngest son to him. “I never should have doubted Mama, or you.”

“No, you shouldn’t,” Ben told him softly, relieved beyond measure that Joe had finally realised that. “Now, I think it might be best if you told me everything that Henry said or did that’s been worrying you.”

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

As his young brother’s soft voice drifted in through the open window Adam sat in his father’s chair, anger growing with every word. He had listened with dismay to Joe’s fears over his parentage, now he heard of the threat to burn Ben’s clothes, Henry’s attempt to take Cochise for himself and the callous way the man had treated the grief stricken youngster. Hearing his younger self described as a brat who thought he knew it all brought a wry smile to his lips; there was possibly an element of truth in that, he thought, with a faint remembrance of Henry’s visit and his behaviour at the time. It was when his father gently asked Joe why he had endured such treatment that Adam finally snapped. “I couldn’t just leave,” he heard his brother reply, with a catch in his voice that told him that the youth was close to tears. “I couldn’t let him destroy all you’d built up, Pa. I had to stay for you and Adam and Hoss.”

Slamming the palm of his hand down on the desk and uttering an inarticulate sound of fury that caused Hoss to look over in alarm, Adam got to his feet. “He’s not getting away with this,” he said, determination in his voice. “I’m going to make him pay.”

“What are you gonna do?” Hoss asked apprehensively.

“Go after him, what else?” Adam told him, an ominous look crossing his face as he contemplated what he would say to Henry when he caught up with him. “You heard what Joe said, what that man did to him?”

Hoss nodded, he’d heard it all. “Let Pa deal with it,” he counselled now. “Henry is his cousin after all.”

“I suppose that’s why Marie didn’t tell Pa about it at the time,” Adam said, answering a question he’d been asking himself since he’d heard about the incident with cousin Henry and Joe’s mother. “Because Henry is family.”

“That’s exactly why,” the sound of their father’s deep voice startled both Hoss and Adam. Attention focused on their conversation they hadn’t noticed Ben and Joe come in. “She told Henry that if he left straight away she’d say nothing.”

“Henry told you about it?” Adam asked in surprise.

“I didn’t just wade straight in and hit him,” Ben said, with a smile as he realised that was exactly what Adam thought he’d done. “I told you that I was going to have a little talk with him and I did.”

“Remembering the state he was in by the time I arrived he couldn’t have had time to say very much.” Adam replied, sitting down on the edge of the desk.

“He said enough,” Ben told him shortly, seating himself behind his desk. He looked up at his sons as Joe perched himself next to Adam and Hoss stood beside them. “He told me that he offered to take Marie to New York, to set her up there. When she rejected him he got angry and tried to force himself on her. She slapped his face,” Ben smiled at the thought remembering how feisty his wife could be. “and told him to leave. He never forgave her for it and after she died he transferred all his hatred to the rest of us. He followed the fortunes of the Ponderosa and as it grew richer he grew poorer and therefore resentful. He’s a bitter man, jealous of what I had with Marie, jealous of the fact that I have my sons and he’s never had a family and jealous of my success.”

“So why take it out on Little Joe?” Hoss asked angrily.

“Because he was here,” Ben said. “The living embodiment of his mother. In Henry’s warped mind that seemed to make Joe responsible for all the things that have gone wrong for him since Marie sent him packing. He told me that it had given him great pleasure to see Joe suffer.”

“And that’s when you hit him?” Adam said with a grim smile.

“That’s when I hit him,” Ben confirmed, recalling the satisfaction he had felt as his clenched fist had made contact with the side of Henry’s face. “Violence isn’t the answer but in this case…I just needed to wipe that smug, arrogant smile off his face.”

“Well, he’s going get more than a split lip, a few broken teeth and a black eye when I catch up with him.” Adam told him.

Joe had been listening to the conversation without comment but at Adam’s statement he reached out and caught hold of his brother’s arm. “Let it go, Adam,” he said quietly.

“Let it go?” Adam was incredulous. “After what he said and did?”

Joe nodded. “He’s not worth it,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do to him legally and I don’t want to be responsible for you going outside the law. Besides,” he added with a grin. “You’ve just got out of prison, surely you don’t want to end up back there?”

Adam took a deep breath and looked searchingly into his brother’s eyes for a moment. “Oka,.” he said. “If that’s really what you want then I’ll let it go.”

“Thank you.” Joe said softly, understanding perfectly that Adam would have willingly faced prison for him if he’d said the word. Any of his family would. He looked round at the three of them and wondered how he could have ever doubted that he was truly a Cartwright. They were all so different and yet alike in so many ways, not least their love and loyalty to each other. “Anyway,” he added. “I don’t think Henry’s going to get off as easy as all that eh, Pa?”

“It turns that Henry owns a couple of firms in the Boston area,” Ben told them. “Mr. Dewar has contacts in the region and I think when word gets out about the terrible way Henry ran the Ponderosa and the money he lost us, he might find difficulty in keeping his credibility in the local business community. In fact I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he lost most of his trade.”

“So at least he’ll pay in some way,” Adam said with an approving glance at his father. “and all legal as well. I think that calls for a drink.” Getting to his feet he went over to the other side of the room and brought back four glasses and the decanter.

“You gonna make a toast, Pa?” Hoss asked as his father poured the brandy and handed it round.

“Not this time.” Ben looked at his youngest son who was still sitting on the desk. “How about you propose the toast, Joe?”

Getting to his feet Joe raised his glass in the air. He smiled at his family, gaze lingering on his father as he made the toast. “To the four of us. The Cartwrights.”

THE END

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6 thoughts on “A Question of Doubt (by KateP)”

  1. Tough one for Joe. I can’t imagine how he would survive losing everyone – I am not sure he would. And yes, EVIL cousin Henry. Wanted to string him up myself, I can tell you….

  2. Wow, what a suspenseful story. Had to finish it before going to sleep. Good I don’t have to wake up early for work. The characters were true to form. Felt so sorry for Joe.

  3. Dear Kate,

    I cannot tell you how long I’ve searched for this story 🙂 I am so happy to have found it again! It was one of the first Bonanza fanfiction stories I had the opportunity to read, and its story has lingered in my mind years since.

    This story is so heart-breaking! Even though I knew how the story ended, I still mourned right along side Joe, felt his anger and fear. The awful (but realistic!) villain you captured in Cousin Henry was truly hatable, and I could not help but grin when Ben Cartwright showed up and knocked him off the detestable little pedestal he’d built for himself.

    You did such a lovely job keeping all the Cartwright boys in character. I read fanfiction sometimes and seriously wish the writers could have taken some characterization tips from y’all! (Though, to their credit, they did create the characters we get to play with!)

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’m bookmarking this page, following it on my fanfiction account, and making sure I don’t lose it again.

    Sincerely,
    Jayne

  4. Poor Joe ! And such an evil cousin !
    Really really great story , i was meant to be asleep ages ago but had to keep reading to the end !

  5. What a horrific, gut wrenching thing for Joe to endure! The question of doubt was disturbing, certainly. But even more disturbing were the events that led up to it. 🙁

    Worthy of this third read through, and undoubtedly there will be a fourth! Well done!

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