Blood and Bread (by McFair)

Summary:  Twelve-year-old Little Joe is late for supper. Hop Sing is hopping mad and Adam is none too pleased. When he heads for the stable to look for his brother, Adam expects an argument – what he gets is something else entirely. Something that begins in terror and rolls on toward tragedy. Will the Cartwrights ever be the same?

Rated PG-13  (92,480 words)  Rating assigned for typical standard episodic TV Western violence and brutality.

Blood and Bread Series:  

Blood and Bread
Keep Your Eyes on the Sun
Thirty-Six Ways to Get Out of Trouble

 

Blood and Bread

PROLOGUE

 

“Where that boy go now?!  Little Joe!”   There was a pause.  “Father be angry if you no come out!”  Another pause.  “Little Joe!”

Twenty-four year old Adam Cartwright stretched and yawned.  He’d been sitting at his father’s desk working over the numbers when fatigue had overcome him.  He’d scooted down in the big chair, propped his head on the back of it, and fallen asleep.

Hop Sing’s strident call wakened him.

“What has that kid done now?” Adam grumbled as he unfolded himself and rose to his feet.  He loved his little brother but, in the years since he’d come home from college, found his tolerance for the exuberant child lacked, well, length.  Little Joe was like the land his father had chosen to call home – wild and untamed.  Or at least so it seemed to him after four years in Boston.  His father doted on the twelve-year-old and seemed to have forgotten the basic principal of parenting.

The parent is the one in charge.

With a sigh Adam walked to the front door and opened it.  Stepping outside, he looked for Hop Sing.  He finally found their Chinese cook coming out of the barn.

“No luck?” he asked.

“What Hop Sing do with boy?” the man from China asked with a shake of his queue.  “Boy no listen! Tell Little Joe to wash face and hands and get ready for supper.  He tell Hop Sing he has something to do!  Mister Ben be home soon from city and not be happy.  Hop Sing tell boy to chop chop!”

“Ah, well, that’s where you made your mistake.”

Their cook frowned.

Adam shrugged.  “Little Joe distinctly told me last night that no one was allowed to tell him what to do.”

It had been quite a confrontation.  He had to give the little scamp his due.  He’d told Joe to go upstairs to bed.  Their father was due home and hadn’t arrived yet.  Joe had gone toe to toe with him and told him Pa had said he could stay up until he got home and that he’d have to carry him kicking and screaming up the stairs and tie him to the bed if he wanted him to stay up there.

It had been tempting.

Adam sighed.  He’d begun to understand shortly after he returned home that Little Joe was a boy with a problem.  He regretted to this day that his departure for college had coincided with Marie’s death.  The Little Joe he had known when he left for school was not the Joe he returned to.  Oh, his littlest brother had always been a handful – willful, stubborn, and  more determined than any full grown man he had ever met.  But at the same time Joe was, well, sweet.  He was an absolute charmer with that head of dark brown curls, those enormous green eyes, and that grin.  Oh dear, that grin!  But there was something underlying all of that.  It shone from the boy’s eyes at times and, to tell the truth, it frightened him.  Whatever it was kept Joe on the brink.  Laughing and snorting one moment.  Angry and crying his heart out in the next.

He wasn’t sure what it was, but he thought it had to do with their Pa.

Hop Sing was staring at him.

That’s what he got for waxing poetic about a twelve-year-old.

“Have you checked the stable yet?” he asked.

The Chinese man shook his head.

As Pa was away again and he’d been left in charge for the day, Adam offered, “I’ll go do that.”  He’d taken a few steps toward the stable – it was one of Joe’s favorite places to disappear into when the urge to be obstinate struck him – when he had a thought.  Turning back, he asked, “Did you check with Hoss?”

“Mistah Hoss out with other men.  Work fences.”

That was right.  He kept forgetting.  Though Hoss was still shy of nineteen he was as big, if not bigger, than most of the men they hired and he worked a man’s job.   His middle brother had changed too in the years he’d been away, growing from an awkward adolescent into a sensible, secure, and sincere young man.  You could always count on Hoss.

Adam eyed the stable.  Of course, you could always count on Little Joe too.

You could count on him to get into trouble.

“What we do with boy?” Hop Sing sighed.  “Much anger in him.  Much fear.”

That stopped him.

“Fear?  Joe?” he snorted.  “That boy doesn’t have the sense to be afraid.”

“Mister Adam not here.  He not see.”  Hop Sing’s black eyes fastened on his.  “Boy too young to lose mother.  Afraid he lose father too.  And maybe brothers.  All the time afraid.  All the time angry. ”

Adam frowned.  Yes, he could see that.  “Angry at Pa, you mean?”

Their cook shook his head.  “Angry at God.”

His own mother had died as he was born.  He’d never known her.  He had known Hoss’ mother and he vaguely remembered his own childish anger at a wise and loving Creator who would allow such a thing; one who would allow such a beautiful and loving woman to die so senselessly.  By the time Marie came along he had hardened himself, he supposed.  Her death had seemed to him almost inevitable.

“Well,” he said, with a wry smile, “if Joe’s mad at God, little brother has bitten off more than he can chew.   He’s not going to win this one.”

“Little Joe not know how to not win,” Hop Sing said solemnly.

Truer words had never been spoken.

As Adam turned back to the stable, he called over his shoulder.  “You go ahead and finish cooking.  I’ll find Joe.  I promise he’ll be spit and polish clean and ready for eating before you can say Jack Robinson.”

The way he said it, it sounded like he was going to serve Joe up for supper.

There were days….

It was late autumn and the days were growing shorter.  The sun’s light penetrated the interior of the stable as he entered, but it was fading fast.  His little brother had one or two favorite hiding places in the building and he started with those.  There was the feed bin where the dog liked to hide her pups, and the area where they kept extra hay and other stored items.  When he didn’t find the kid in either of those locations, Adam paused in the middle of the stable with his hands on his hips and considered his alternatives.  There was the office yet and the stalls themselves, though Joe should know well enough not to go into them and chance being trampled by the massive near ton-weight animals.  Deciding he would try the loft next, Adam had just reached for the rung of the ladder when he heard a noise.

A small strangled noise.

He’d been annoyed when he started out to search for Joe and then grown irritated – perhaps even mad – as his brother continued to elude him.

For the first time Adam Cartwright knew fear.

“Joe?  Little Joe?  Is that you?”

What he’d heard wasn’t repeated, but there was another sound.  It could have been a man cursing.

Adam reached toward his hip, then remembered he hadn’t worn his gun.  There’d been no need.  For goodness sake, all he was doing was trying to track down one wayward kid!  He thought the sound had come from one of the stalls – probably the one farthest back – and so he headed for it.  On his way there Adam palmed a rake and turned it so the sharpened tines were facing out.

“Who’s there?  Joe?  Is that you?” he called as he walked.

Two things happened.  There was a yelp and then a sharp cry.

“Adam!  Adam!  Help me!  Help –”

Then silence.

Terrified, Adam strode toward the back of the stable.  Just as he came alongside the last stall, a large dark form stepped out of it.  The light had faded enough that he couldn’t see the man well, but he was taller than Hoss and powerfully built.  Whoever it was, was dressed in janes and wore a heavy navy-blue pea coat.  He had a stocking cap on his head and a bandana tied around his mouth and nose.  Above the colorful cloth, Adam could see the man’s eyes.  They were cold as the fear that gripped him.

Anchored under one arm was Little Joe’s silent form.

“What have you done to my brother?” Adam demanded, wielding the rake.

“Nothing compared to what I will do to him if you don’t put that rake down, boy,” the man growled,  “and put it down now.”

It was then Adam noticed the gun in the man’s other hand.  The tip of it was anchored in Little Joe’s curly brown hair.

Adam didn’t hesitate.  As the rake hit the stable floor, he pleaded, “Let my brother go.  Please.  He’s only a boy.”

Those cold eyes narrowed.  “Ain’t that a shame.  You tell your Pa when you see him that’s a shame.  Ain’t nothin’ quite like someone takin’ a boy from you.”

Panic twisted his insides.  “Don’t hurt him.  If it’s a hostage you want, take me.”

The man looked him up and down.  “Ain’t right. Don’t even the score,” he said enigmatically.

Adam’s eyes went to his little brother’s limp form.  Dear God!  He had to get Joe away from this madman!

“If it’s money you want, Pa will – ”

“Money.  Pshaw!  What’d I want with money?  Ain’t no good to the likes of me.”

His mind was flying faster than a herd of wild mustangs.  Who was this man?  He obviously had a grudge against their father.  What could it be?  What could be so bad that he would threaten the life of an twelve-year-old boy?

He was almost afraid to ask.

“Then what do you want?”

The man stepped forward.  “I got a message for your old man.  You deliver it, boy.  You tell him Wade Bosh paid him a visit today.  You tell him I’m takin’ my due.”  As Bosh hesitated, Adam’s eyes went to the limp form dangling from the man’s right arm.  Joe was blinking, fighting toward consciousness.  “I’m just takin’ what he owes me.”

“You can’t have my brother,” Adam countered sharply, his jaw tight.  “I won’t let you take him.”

Those cold eyes locked on his.

There was a click.

“Fine with me to leave the boy here, but you’ll get to clean up the mess.”  Bosh nodded toward the stall, which he had just exited.  “Now, you just get yourself back there where I can tie you up.”

Adam hesitated only a second.  With his eyes on Joe, he moved past the man.  He had only gone a few feet when he pivoted on his heel.  Knowing it might be the only chance he had to save his brother, Adam caught hold of the man’s arm and pulled it up, and then slammed his full weight into the kidnapper’s massive form.

There was a grunt.

A second of silence.

And then the sound of a shot.

As his knees hit the dirt, Adam had one thought.  ‘I’ve killed him.  I’ve killed Little Joe’.

It was only as he lay on the floor watching the man carry his struggling brother out of the stable that Adam realized he was wrong.

If he’d killed anyone, it was himself.

 

PART ONE

 

ONE
Ben Cartwright was hot and dusty and saddle sore, and not in the best temper.   When he had given in to the lure of the West, leaving New England and its century-old civilization behind, it was with the knowledge that life would be one long fight.  Not only would the elements be against him, but man as well.  There would be herds of cattle lost to the Indians and to disease.  Too little and too much rain bringing times of drought and floods that would threaten to wash away everything he had done.   There would be men who would, by force, try to wrest from him what was his – cattle rustlers, highwaymen and thieves.  But no one had warned him about the most God forsaken creatures of all.

Bureaucrats.

He’d been in Eagle Station all day wrangling with businessmen and lawyers over a disputed piece of timberland.  While all his holdings were secure, it seemed there was always someone who came forward to dispute his ownership of this or that particular parcel of land – and always the best ones!  When he’d asked why the man hadn’t come to him in the first place to work this out, the contender’s lawyer had made it quite clear that his client feared he would ‘inflict bodily harm’ on him if he did.

Ben snorted out dust as he wiped the back of his sleeve over his face.

Damn right!

After tethering his horse, the man with gun-metal gray hair walked over to the watering trough.  He removed his gloves and anchored them behind his waistband and then worked the pump, sending a cool gush of clear liquid into the wooden vessel.  Bending, he put his head under it and let it run over his hair for a moment.  Straightening up, he tossed the gray waves like a dog, sending clear cold missiles flying out to strike the packed earth. Then he reached for the ladle that hung on a nail driven into the trough.  As he did, the door to the house opened and the man he hired to care for and to cook for him and his boys came out.

“Happy see you home, Mistah Ben,” Hop Sing said, his shrewd eyes taking him in.  “You no have tough day in town?”

“I have tough day in town,” Ben chortled as he took a sip.  He glanced around.  It was nearly dark and that meant the days chores were done.  He’d been surprised when none of the boys rushed out to greet him.  Especially Joseph.  With a frown, he asked, “Where is everyone?”

“Mistah Hoss still out with men.  Due back soon.”  The man from China paused.  “Mistah Adam look for Little Joe.”

“Adam’s looking for Joseph?  You mean the boy’s disappeared?”

His cook sighed with exasperation.  “Hop Sing look for boy everywhere!  No can find him.  Mister Adam, he say he look in stable.”

Ben glanced at the building.  It looked quiet.  “When was this?”

Hop Sing looked up.  “Maybe twenty minutes ago.  Not sure how long. “  He scowled.  “Hop Sing busy.  Beat meat and bang kettle.  Make stew for supper.”

As he hung the ladle back on the nail, Ben asked, “Twenty minutes?  What would the boys be doing in the stable for that long?”

“Hop Sing not know.  Stew burn he any longer.  Just wanted Mistah Cartwright to know.”

With that the man from China turned and walked back into the house.

Ben scowled as he watched him go, and then he realized he had been scowling all day.  He was home now.  Supper was on the table and he was looking forward to an evening with his boys, hearing about all they had done, and maybe playing checkers or chess with one of them.  All three had keen minds and were good at both games, though Adam preferred chess and Joe and Hoss, checkers.  That wasn’t surprising since checkers was a more straight-forward game.  Chess required a slightly devious mind.

A ‘sneaky’ one, as Hoss liked to say of his eldest brother.

With a chuckle, Ben turned and walked toward the stable.

Even when the sun was shining, the inside of the stable could be dark.  It amazed him sometimes how night seemed to arrive sooner inside than outside.  As he entered Ben heard several of the horses shy as if they were nervous.  Instantly alert, his hand went to his gun as he stepped into the main room.  His eyes were busy scanning the stalls and so he didn’t see the object lying in the middle of the floor until his foot encountered it and he was forced to look down.

It was as if the world stopped.

“Adam!  Good Lord!  Adam!”

His eldest son was lying on the stable floor.  One hand was folded under his chest and the other thrust out toward the door as if he had been reaching for something when he fell.  In the dim light Ben couldn’t tell whether his son had tripped and fallen or if something worse had happened.  Adam’s skin was naturally pale, but it seemed even more so than usual.  As he felt for a heartbeat and found it, a suspicion, unsupported and just as undeniable, punched him in the gut.   This was not good.

Really not good.

“Adam?” Ben called softly as he sank to his knees beside his oldest boy.  When his son gave no response, he tried again, “Adam, it’s your Pa.  Adam, wake –”

He’d felt something wet at the boy’s middle.

Thick and wet.

That suspicion had just become a surety.  His fingers were covered in blood.

Ben looked around.  He instinctively knew no one else was there, but  caution demanded he look.  In the end he decided there was nothing he could do but leave his son laying where he was and run to the house for help.  Placing a hand on Adam’s head, Ben promised a quick return, and then walked briskly to the stable door.  Once there, he glanced back.  A beam of moonlight, falling through one of the windows, illuminated Adam’s still form.  His son hadn’t moved or made a sound.

He was yelling before he burst through the door.  “Hop Sing!  Hop Sing!  Come quick!  Adam’s been hurt!”

Ben made his way to the sideboard in the dining room where they kept extra linens.  He had no idea how badly Adam was wounded, but he knew it was imperative to stop the bleeding.

Hop Sing came out of the kitchen, dishrag in hand.  “What you yell about?  All time yelling!  Bad as boys!  Hop Sing….”

The face Ben turned toward him caused his cook’s words to trail off.  Grabbing the linens, he headed for the door.  “Adam is in the barn.  He’s hurt.  Bleeding.  Get some bandages and then follow me.”

“What about Little Joe?”

Ben stopped dead in his tracks.  At first the words didn’t register, he was so focused on what had happened to Adam.

“J…Joe?” he stammered.

“Mistah Adam look for Little Joe,” Hop Sing said, his voice quiet.  “You no see Little Joe?”

The proportions of the disaster he was facing suddenly became all too apparent.  For just a moment, Ben felt he might collapse, but just as quickly his resolve surfaced to keep him on his feet and moving.

“We’ll just have to hope Little Joe is being his naughty self,” he said, his tone grim as he looked at the amount of blood on his hands.  “Adam may be dying.”

The time it took to cross the yard and reenter the stable seemed like an eternity, though in truth it was probably thirty seconds.  Ben tossed the linens to the floor and sat by his son.  Drawing a breath, he gently rolled Adam over just as Hop Sing arrived.  Bless him, the man from China had brought a lantern as well as extra bandages and a canteen of water.  Lifting his eldest boy, Ben slipped in under him.   As he rested Adam’s head on his arm, he whispered a quick prayer and then felt for the boy’s heartbeat.  It was there.  Fairly steady, if a little weak.

That was a good description of him at the moment as well.

“What happen to boy?” Hop Sing asked.

He was unbuttoning Adam’s shirt.  He had no idea.  Had his son injured himself with one of the farm tools?  There was a rake laying at an odd angle on the straw close by.  As he probed Adam’s left side and encountered the wound, his question was answered.

Launching a thousand more.

“He’s been shot,” he said, his jaw tight.

Hop Sing had wadded up some of the linens and doused them with water.  As he handed the bundle to him, he asked, “Who want to shoot Mistah Adam?”

Ben shook his head as he pressed the linens against the wound.

Hop Sing rose to his feet.  The next words he spoke were a knife-thrust to his heart.

“Mistah Ben want me look for Little Joe?”

“Not…here….”

Ben looked down.  He was surprised to find Adam looking up at him.

“Son?”

“Joe’s…not…here.  He….”  Adam winced with pain and let out a short grunt before trying again.  “…took…him….”

Adam was reaching up.  Ben caught his hand and squeezed it.  “Who, son?  Who took your brother?”

His son’s hazel eyes closed and opened with less focus.  He looked at their joined hands and then  back to his face.

“Pa?”

“Yes, son, I’m here.”  Ben glanced at Hop Sing.

The man from China nodded.  “I go to town for doctor and sheriff.  Come back soon as can.”

“Hop Sing, I know you don’t like to ride, but my horse….”

“Take Mistah Ben’s horse.  Go faster.  Come back soon.”

Adam’s eyes lazily followed their cook’s retreat.

“Mad….” he said.

“What is that, Adam?”  Ben frowned as he noted the blood already seeping through the thick wad of linens he had pressed against the boy’s wound.  “I’m not mad.”

Adam’s lips curled in an unlikely smile. “Hop Sing….  Going to…miss supper….”

Ben ran a hand along his son’s brow, clearing the matted black hair that clung there.  Adam had lost consciousness.   Shifting, Ben slid out from under his boy.  He gently laid Adam’s head on the floor before going to look for blankets and anything else that might keep him warm until Hop Sing’s return.  Until he knew more about Adam’s wound he was hesitant to move him.  Still, he knew it would be hours before Hop Sing could return with the doctor.  He thought if he pulled the boy over to where he could sit with his back against the wall, he could hold him until then.  It was imperative Adam know he was not alone in case….

No.

As he picked up one of the blankets to cover Adam with, Ben heard a sound.  He turned toward it and found a solid form blocking the open doorway.

“Pa?” Hoss asked as he entered the stable.  “What are you –?”

He’d seen.  Ben dropped the blanket and went to over to his middle son.  “Adam’s alive, Hoss, but he’s hurt.  I sent Hop Sing to town.”

He saw his son’s mind working, turning over what he’d said.  He and Adam, here.  Hop Sing, gone.  No little brother in sight.  The inevitable question followed.

“Where’s Little Joe?”

The older man shook his head.  “I don’t know, son.  He’s not here.”

There was no emotion Hoss felt that didn’t show in those clear blue eyes.  He’d come home from a day of ranching to find his world changed, and perhaps forever.  The boy’s love for his two brothers was fierce, but there was a special connection between him and Little Joe.  Along with Hop Sing, Hoss had reared the boy after Marie died.  He’d always been busy.  Away.  Preoccupied.

If Joe was….

Hoss had moved past him.  He was kneeling beside his brother.  The teenager looked up at him, fright in his eyes.

“He’s bleedin’ bad, Pa.”

Ben went to join him.  Hoss was right.  The linens pressed against Adam’s side were nearly soaked through.  So far as he could tell, the bullet had gone through the soft flesh of his son’s right side, escaping out  the back.  While the loss of blood was troubling, at least there was less fear of blood poisoning.

As the older man pressed his hand against Adam’s forehead, checking for fever, Hoss asked, “You want I should take him into the house, Pa?  It’s awful cold out here.”

It was the season where the weather was changeable.  While it had been near seventy degrees during the day, it had rapidly fallen off to where it felt like it might be in the high forties.

“Do you think you can carry him?” Ben asked.

Hoss smiled shyly.  “Shucks, Pa, I carried feed sacks heavier than older brother here.”  As he spoke, his giant of a son gently placed one arm under Adam’s shoulders and the other behind his brother’s knees.  With little effort, he rose to his feet with his burden.  “You want I should take Adam to his room?”

“Why don’t we put him in the downstairs bedroom until we see how badly he’s wounded.”

Tears entered his son’s eyes.  “Who’d do this, Pa?  Who’d want to hurt Adam?”

All he could do was shake his head.

Who indeed?

 

Hop Sing and Paul Martin made it in record time.  Still, even at that, it was early morning before they arrived.

The night had been harrowing.  More than once Ben thought he had lost his son.  Even though the bullet had passed through Adam’s body, exiting out the back, it appeared the wound had been contaminated by the fact that the boy had – at some point – dragged his body across the stable floor in an effort to reach the door.  It was all Ben could do to think of it – his young son, wounded, bleeding, pulling himself along the floorboards, desperately trying to reach the yard where he could be seen and found.

Ben cast a glance at the staircase even though he knew the effort was useless.  He would hear the doctor as he began to descend.  Rubbing a hand over his face, the rancher shifted back in his chair, easing the pain in his tired body, if not his troubled soul.  Paul had been as encouraging as he could be when he arrived.  He said – if Adam had to be shot – the good news was that the bullet had entered and exited, and his son had been struck in such a way that no vital organs were involved.  The bad news was Adam had lost a lot of blood and the wound was infected.  The boy had quickly developed a high fever and spent half the night screaming out in his delirium.

Screaming for his youngest brother.

Little Joe was missing.  He’d sent a dozen hands out to look and the boy was nowhere to be found.  At first, he’d hoped Joseph was just being his usual high-spirited self.  There had been other nights when his youngest had forced him to come looking for him.  In a strange way, he thought, Joseph needed the reassurance that his father loved him and would set everything else aside to find him.  Joe had suffered the worst of his sons in the loss of his mother.  While Marie’s death had been hard on his older sons – Hoss most of all – both older boys regrettably knew and understood the dangers of the West and had accepted its harsh nature and the grief that could come with it.  Joseph knew nothing of this.  All he knew was a safe home with a wonderful woman who loved and nurtured him – a wonderful woman who had been there, drawing him onto her lap and lavishing kisses one moment, and then gone the next.

He worried about the boy.

“It’s been an awful long time, Pa.  You think Adam’s okay?”

Ben looked at Hoss.  Neither of them had slept for more than a few fitful minutes since the night before.  His middle son was devastated – one brother shot and the other gone.  He’d tried to help Hoss but, as usual, it had been his gentle giant of a son who had helped him even more.

“Adam is in the hands of Doctor Martin and the Lord,” Ben replied, knowing his words were pat.

Hoss’s young face scrunched up as it always did when he was thinking hard.  Finally he asked, “Pa, how come God lets this kind of thing happen?”

Ben leaned back in his chair and looked over steepled fingers at his teenaged son. How many times as a young man had he asked himself that same question?  His faith in God was deep and abiding and hard won, but that didn’t mean he had all the answers.

“I don’t know, son,” he answered honestly, “but I honestly believe God does.”  Ben paused, thinking.  “Do you remember that time you got your finger caught in the fish hook and we had to take you to Doctor Martin to have it cut out?”

“I sure do, Pa.  It hurt like the dickens!”

“While we were on our way to town, we came across John and Myrtle Hicks on the road.  Myrtle was trying to get John to town, but the wheel on their carriage had broken and they were stranded.”

Hoss nodded.  “I remember.”

“John had a cardiac insufficiency.  Now, while I am sure you would have wished that hook hadn’t lodged so deeply in your finger that neither Hop Sing or I could get it out, the fact that we were on that road and were able to get John to town in such a short time saved his life.”  Ben paused.  “John and Myrtle are praying people.”

The look was there again, multiplied by ten.  “So…somethin’ good came out of somethin’ bad?”

Ben nodded.  “Exactly.”

At that moment, there was a sound outside.

Hoss rose to his feet.  “That’s horses, ain’t it, Pa?  Who do you suppose it is?”

Sadly, he didn’t have to ‘suppose’.  Ben knew who all too well who it was and, while the man was his friend, he would have given everything he had not to greet him.

“ Roy,” Ben said as he opened the door and stepped out of the way.  “Come in.”

Deputy Roy Coffee stood on the porch, hat in hand.  Their friendship was one of long standing, dating back to when he and the boys had first come to Eagle Station.  He liked Roy.  The lawman was a simple, honest individual.  The world to him was black and white.

Someday, he would make an excellent sheriff.

“I’m sorry we have to be seein’ each other under these circumstances, Ben,” Roy said as he entered.

Looking past him to the riders still sitting their horse s in the yard, he asked, “Would your men like to come in as well?”

“Them two boys?  Nah.  If’n it’s okay, though, I’ll tell them to tend to the horses while they wait.”  Roy hesitated.  “Once I get done talkin’ to you, we’ll be headin’ out to see if we can find your boy.”

Ben could feel Hoss’ unease.  It radiated across the room.  Turning to his son, he said, “Hoss, I want you to show Roy’s men where to find everything they need.”  When the boy failed to move, he added quietly, “Please, son.  I know you want to hear what Roy has to say, but – ”

“Beggin’ your pardon, Pa, but that ain’t it.”

“What is it then?”

“I know Roy’s gonna do all he can to find Little Joe and…to find those men who hurt Adam.”  Hoss moved to stand beside them.  The look his son gave him was almost desperate.  “I want to go with him, Pa.”

Ben exchanged a glance with Roy.  The lawman spoke before he could.

“Son, I know you’re worried about your brother and I ain’t blamin’ you for wantin’ to take a crack at the man that hurt Adam, but – ”

“Pa, you tell him I ain’t no kid!” Hoss interrupted.  Once he realized that he had, the sandy-haired teen apologized.  “I’m sorry, Deputy Roy.  I didn’t mean no disrespect.  But the truth is I ain’t been a kid since Ma died.  I know how to be responsible.”  His son’s clear blue eyes moved to him.  “Pa cain’t go since Adam needs him.  One of us needs to be out lookin’ for Little Joe.”

Roy was eying him.  “How old are you, son?”

“Near nineteen, sir.”

The deputy drew a deep breath, as if considering the responsibility he was thinking of shouldering.  “What do you say, Ben?”

What did he say?  Or what did he want to say?

No, of course.

No.  The boy is only eighteen.  Barely past being a child.  I can’t expose him to such danger.

But then he thought again.

Hoss was eighteen.  Boys married at that age and were suddenly men.  Some even had children of their own.  And Hoss was right, he wasn’t a child.  When Marie died his middle son had been forced to grow up quickly.  He and Adam had to run the ranch.  Hop Sing was wonderful with Joseph, but he too had his work and it was demanding.  It was Hoss who had been in the right place and of an age to become both mother and father to his youngest son.

And he had done a wonderful job.

Ben drew a breath as he stepped over to his boy.  As he let it out, he anchored his hands on the teen’s shoulders.

They were of a height.

“This mean a great deal to you, doesn’t it, son?” he asked softly.

Hoss had tears in his eyes.  “It’s not that I ain’t just as worried about Adam, Pa.  But you know…you know me and Little Joe.”

Ben nodded.  His smile was a little forced.

Yes, he did.

“You will take no chances, you hear me?  And you will do everything Roy says, or either of his men.  Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

Ben laid a hand alongside his son’s face.  “I love you all.  You are just as important to me as Joseph and Adam.  You take care of yourself.”

“We’ll be leaving as soon as we can, son,” Roy Coffee said.  “We’ll be out today and tomorrow before heading back.”

As Hoss nodded, Ben told him.  “See to Roy’s men and their animals first and then come in and gather your gear.  I’ll have Hop Sing put together some food for you.”

Normally, the thought of Hop Sing’s cookin’ would have brought a smile to his son’s lips.  Not this time.  They were set in a thin line of determination.

“We’ll find Little Joe, Pa.  We’ll bring him home.”

Ben released his son.  Forcing a smile, he said, “I know you will, son.  Now, you’d better get going.”

“Thank you, Deputy Coffee,” Hoss said.

“I’ll be right honored to have you along, boy,” Roy replied.

As the door closed behind his son, Ben said to the lawman.  “Let me give some instructions to Hop Sing and then I’ll be back.”

 

Roy Coffee watched his friend disappear into the hall that led to the ranch house’s kitchen before crossing over and taking a seat before the fire.  No matter how many times he came to Ben Cartwright’s home, he was impressed.  Not that Ben had built it to impress – he was too good a man for that – but impress him it did anyhow with its size and simple elegance.  It always brought a smile to his face to look at all the items in it.  While most of them were what a man would choose, there were still traces of the woman who had graced Ben’s home for five years such as the elegant striped settee, the floor lamp with a flood of crystals hanging from its glass shade, and several sets of china and glassware.

Weren’t too many homes he went into on the outskirts of Eagle Station where he worried he was goin’ to break the dishes just by lookin’ at them!

Yes, Ben Cartwright had done right well by himself, forgin’ an empire against all odds by grit and determination.  Maybe he’d had a little luck – or maybe God just loved Ben a little bit more than others – he didn’t know.  What he did know was that Ben was one of the best men he’d ever known and he’d raised just about the finest boys he’d ever met.

It was a damn shame someone was out to do them harm.

Since the sheriff had left town, he’d been holdin’ the fort along with the two men outside who’d been deputized before the older man rode away.  The sheriff had to give testimony in San Francisco and so he was goin’ to be in charge for a good three or four weeks.  It wasn’t his first time doin’ it, but it wasn’t his tenth either and he was right nervous about gettin’ it correct.  He’d been up early every day lookin’ at wanted posters and then patrollin’ the streets of Eagle Station mornin’, noon, and night to see if he spotted any of the mean hombres on them.  He’d had a talk with the proprietors of the local saloons, givin’ them fair warnin’ that he wasn’t goin’ to put up with no nonsense.  In fact, he’d felt right proud of himself for keepin’ the trouble down.

Then Ben’s Chinese cook had ridden up to the jail and let loose a string of foreign words there weren’t no way he was gonna understand.   It took him a moment to calm the little man down.  When he did and he finally got some English instead of that overseas jabber, he’d realized he didn’t have to look for trouble – trouble had come to him.

Adam Cartwright had been shot and left for dead on Ben’s own land and Little Joe was missin’.

Lord have mercy!

“Roy,” a tired voice said.  “I’m sorry I can’t say that I am happy to see you.”

The lawman turned toward the stairs.  Doctor Paul Martin was comin’ down them.  He’d expected he was here.  He’d seen Hop Sing pullin’ out of Eagle Station with the Doc in tow.

“Seems you and me has a way of runnin’ into each other when the news ain’t so good, Paul,” he said in reply.

The doctor had reached the floor.  He looked around.   “Where’s Ben?”

“In the kitchen,” he replied, nodding toward it.  “How’s the boy?”

Paul fixed him with a stare that was less than welcoming.  “I suppose you want to talk to him?”

“It ain’t a matter of wantin’,” he answered without apology.  “That boy’s the only eyeball witness we got us right now.”

They both turned toward the kitchen wing as a tall gray-haired figure appeared.  As he made his way past the dining table,  Ben asked, “Paul, how is Adam?”

Ben Cartwright was a strong man.  If you’d have asked Roy on any given day, he would’ve said weren’t nothin’ could scare him.

He was scared now.

“His fever is still high, but not dangerously so. The combination of the medicine I gave him and Hop Sing’s ancient remedies seems to have turned the tide.”  Paul paused and his eyes moved to Roy.  “Adam’s very weak, Ben.  He’s lost a lot of blood.  It will take some time to build it back up.”

“Can I see him, Doc?” Roy asked.

“I’d rather you wait until tomorrow,” came the expected reply.  Then, surprisingly, he added, “It’s up to you, Ben.”

The rancher blinked.  “Up to me?  Since when is it ‘up to me’?”

The doctor cracked the first smile he ‘d seen.  “You’ve reared some tough boys, Ben.  Adam is insisting he be allowed to talk to the law.  I told him I would leave it up to you.”

Ben snorted and shook his head.  “Coward.”

Paul Martin chuckled.  “Guilty as charged.”  He sobered quickly.  “He’s very concerned about his brother.”

Roy watched indecision flicker across his friend’s broad face.  He was glad it weren’t him havin’ to choose.  One boy missin’, and the other one hurtin’ and maybe holdin’ the only key to findin’ him.

“Is Adam strong enough” Ben asked at last.

“No,” Paul said abruptly, “but he’s determined and sometimes that is a different kind of strength.”  The physician turned to the lawman then.  “Keep it to a few questions and a few minutes, Roy.  If Adam gets too upset, I will call a halt.  I won’t jeopardize his life.”

No.  But he might be jeopardizing Little Joe’s.

“I’ll do my best to keep it short,” Roy promised as he held out his hand.  “After you, Ben.”

 

It had been hours since he had seen his eldest son and Ben was shocked to see how pale he remained.  His mother had had skin like ivory.

Adam was whiter now than Elizabeth had ever been.

He appeared to be sleeping.

“I gave him something for the pain,” Paul said softly.  “You’ll have to rouse him.”

Ben nodded as he headed to his son’s side.  Sitting in the chair he had earlier pulled up to the bed, he reached out and ran a hand along Adam’s forehead, pushing back the fringe of black hair that lay in such stark contrast to his skin.  With a glance at Paul, who nodded, he called him.

“Adam.  Adam, it’s Pa. Can you hear me?”  He waited.  “Adam?”

His son made a small noise.  A grunt that turned into a low moan.  He shifted slightly and his eyelids fluttered.  A second later Adam’s eyes opened.  And closed.  And opened again.

“Pa…?” he asked with a frown.

“I’m here, son.”

Adam frowned and his breathing quickened.  A second later words exploded from him.  “Joe.  Pa!  He…took…Joe!”

Ben caught his son’s hand in his own.  “Adam, you have to remain calm.”  He shot a look at Paul Martin, who was frowning.  “Otherwise Paul will chase us out of the room.  Can you do that?”

Adam’s eyes closed again, as if he was drawing on some inner reserve of strength to combat a rising fear.   A moment later he opened them and nodded.

“Son, you said ‘he’,” Roy Coffee interjected as he drew closer to the bed.  “Did you know the man who took Little Joe?”

Pain tightened the skin at the edges of Adam’s lips and eyes.  He gave a small shake of his head and then fell silent.  Ben thought he was asleep and rose to shoo everyone out of the room, but at that moment Adam spoke again.

“Name,” he said.

Ben sat back down.  He glanced at Roy.  His own hope was reflected in the lawman’s eyes.  “You know the man’s name?”

Adam’s jaw was tight.  He licked his lips as he nodded.  “Told…me.”

“He told you his name?” Roy asked, obviously surprised.

“Tell your…Pa….”  Adam struggled to speak.  “Tell your Pa…Wade Bosh…taking what’s…owed him.”

“Ben, that’s enough,” Paul Martin warned.   “He’s getting too upset.”

“Pa, you…have to let…me….”  Adam’s fingers gripped his shirt, tugging him closer.  “Bosh…shot me.  Joe…he hurt Joe.  You’ve…got to…find him before….”

Abruptly Adam’s fingers released his sleeve.

“He’s unconscious!” Paul snapped.  “You two get out of here and, Ben, send up Hop Sing.  I may need him.”

He turned to the doctor to ask a question, but it died on his tongue.

Roy took hold of his arm.  “Come on, Ben.  Best let the doctor do his work and let me get to mine.”

Ben didn’t remember descending the stairs.  Even as his fear for Adam fought with his terror for Little Joe, his mind set about trying to unravel the puzzle of his oldest son’s words.

The man who took Joseph had been careful to make sure Adam knew who he was.

But who was Wade Bosh?

And just what did the man think he owed him?

 

 

TWO

Joe Cartwright slowly opened his eyes and instantly regretted it as someone took a hammer to his head.  Overcome with a wave of dizziness, he closed them again and licked his lips and swallowed.  His mouth was dry and his tongue felt like worn leather.  Cautiously, he eased his eyes open again and attempted to focus on his surroundings.  It was dark wherever he was and cold.  He could feel a light breeze ruffling his hair.  Joe shivered and reached out to pull the blanket that was covering him up closer about his shoulders and then realized he couldn’t.

His hands were bound together in front of him.

Along with that fact another one hit him.  His felt sick.

Really sick.

Leaning to the right he retched until his stomach was empty, and then rolled onto his left side and laid on the cold hard ground feeling totally and utterly miserable.

Ground.  Yeah, he was on the ground.  He wasn’t in his bed.  He wasn’t at…home.  He was….

Where was he?

“About time you roused, boy,” a rough voice groused.  “I thought maybe I’d have to throw you to the fishes.”

He knew it wasn’t, but he couldn’t help but ask.  “Pa?”

A blast of laughter answered his weak plea.  “Damn my eyes, boy!”  Before Joe could draw a breath someone took hold of his soiled shirt, pulled him up, and slammed him against a wall.  “You got eyes.  Do I look like yer old man?”

Joe fought to keep upright.  He blinked and swallowed again.  There was a face before him – close and foul – but he couldn’t see it.  It was like being underwater; the man’s features were a wash.

“N…no,” he stammered.

The man’s fingers were just under his chin.  The knuckles were calloused over with scars that scratched his throat as he continued to draw him upward until Joe was on his feet.

“Not up to Dick, are we?” he snorted as he looked him up and down.  “Lost our supper?  I should have expected as much from the runt of that swaggerin’ son of a gun Ben-ja-min Cartwright.”  The man paused.  His voice lowered in pitch.  “Now I got you,” he said menacingly, “I’ll make you into a man.”

The pressure on his throat was causing Joe to choke.  Still he managed to rasp, “Who..who are you?”

“Who’s got you, you mean?”  The man took his other hand and locked his rough fingers in his curls and forced Joe’s head back and waited until he met his eyes.  “You take a good look, boy-o.  You and me are gonna be mates.”

Joe’s vision was still shaky.  He squinted and was able to see that the man was either dark-skinned or deeply tanned and had a head of wiry salt and pepper hair.  The ends kinked and curled like corkscrews around a face deeply furrowed with wrinkles.  He had a long, kind of bulbous nose that was bent to one side as if it had been broken – probably more than once – and thin cruel lips.  His eyes….  Joe sucked in air.

His eyes were the same as a mountain cat’s staring you down and sizing you up for supper.

The man chuckled as he squirmed and tried to break free.  Then the pressure on his throat increased.  “Name’s Bosh.  Wade Bosh.”  Joe saw something flicker in the depths of the man’s pale cold eyes.  “That mean anythin’ to you, runt?”

“No.”

The man slammed his head into the wall behind him.  “No – what?”

Joe blinked, at a loss.

“I’ve never heard your name,” he replied.

Again his head contacted the wall. “I’ve never heard you name – what?” Bosh growled.

Joe swallowed.  He was terrified to answer.  The pain in his head increased each time he was driven back.  Piercing lights shot before his eyes.

He was going to be sick.

“You say it, boy!” his kidnapper shouted.

Joe closed his eyes.  He was going to die.  He was going to die somewhere in the middle of nowhere, without even knowing why.

Then he had it.

“S…sir?” he stammered.  “I never heard your name…sir?”

Wade Bosh stared at him hard for another two or three heartbeats and then released his grip. Joe struck the floor and rolled over, retching bile.  Bosh watched him a moment and then walked away, shaking his head.  “You got a lot to learn, boy.  A lot to learn before you’ll be fit to be mine.”

Laying on the floor, stinking of vomit and chilled to the bone, Joe watched the man walk away into the darkness.  He heard him fumbling with something and then saw that he was coming back.  Desperate to escape, the boy began to crawl along the floor, using his fingers, digging them into the damp earth, breaking his nails and causing them to bleed.

It did no good.  Bosh caught him by the back of his collar, turned him over, and drove him into the dirt.

The man loomed over him, shaking his head.  “You’re just like him, you know?  Don’t know your place.  Well, you’ll know it before I’m done with you, Jo-seph Cartwright.”  Bosh bent then and brought a white cloth forward.  “Time to move on,” he said.

Joe knew that sickening smell.  He shook his head violently.  “No!  Don’t!  That stuff makes me sick.  I can’t –”

Too late.

It was too late.  The cloth with the chloroform was pressed over his nose.  Joe continued to struggle, but he knew it was no use.  He could feel it winning.  He bucked once, wildly, desperately, and then his body shuddered to the ground.  The world shifted sideways.  He began to slip.

And was gone.

 

“You see anythin’ useful, Tad?” Roy Coffee asked.

Tad Corby was crouching at the side of the trail reading the tracks of a horse.  They’d been following it for a while, hoping against hope that it might lead them to Little Joe Cartwright somehow.

Roy glanced at Ben’s middle boy who was sittin’ his horse, waitin’ – and it weren’t patiently.  Hoss was right upset.  ‘Course, he had a right to be.  Someone done took off with his little brother and from the look of it, they might just have got away with it.  Whoever had Little Joe was smart.

Right smart.

Hoss had argued with him when he called a halt and said they were gonna make camp for the night.  The boy’d wanted to go on even though they might as well have been blind.  He’d been ready to lay down the law when Tad shouted and said he’d seen somethin’.  The moon had broke through the clouds and Corby’d spotted a set of tracks leading off the road and into the trees.  It was all he could do to keep Ben’s boy from boltin’ right that minute into the woods.  It weren’t that the boy was defyin’ him.  Trouble was, Hoss was young and had enough energy to be to California and back before him and his men could even say ‘howdy.’ They’d discussed it and decided they’d try it until the light gave out.

Which, by the look of the dark clouds rollin’ in and the feel of the risin’ wind on his face, weren’t about to be long.

They’d picked up the kidnapper’s trail first out back of Ben’s stable.  Trouble was it was the trail of just one man.  There weren’t no sign of the boy with him.  Then again, whoever took Little Joe could have been carryin’ him.  The boy weren’t much bigger than a minute.  There’s been plenty of pounds weighin’ the horse down and drivin’ its hooves into the dirt, but then it weren’t any more than a tall man would have made and Tad said the horse was a big one.  Maybe sixteen hands.  So man and horse alone might of been enough to do it.

In other words, they didn’t know squat.

Tad had climbed to his feet and was headin’ toward him.  He was shakin’ his head.

“I just don’t know, Roy.  Could be the same horse.  Might be a different one.  I just can’t tell.”

The lawman looked up.  The sky was growin’ mighty dark.

“That’s it,” he announced.  “We’re callin’ it quits for the night.  Break out your bedrolls.  Tad, you get a fire going.  Marv, you see to the horses.  I’ll do the cookin’.”  Turning to Hoss, he called out.  “Hoss, why don’t you see about gettin us some firewood?”

It seemed to take a moment for his command to register with Ben’s young son.  The boy was turned away from him and starin’ into the woods.  Hoss seemed to come to himself and lifted a worried face to the sky before dismounting.

“You sure we gotta stop, Deputy Coffee?” he asked as he arrived.

The lawman smiled.  “You call me, Roy, son.  No need to stand on bein’ formal.”

Hoss looked uncomfortable.  He winced.  “I ain’t sure my pa would go along with that, sir.”

Roy smiled.  Ben Cartwright taught them right.  “Well, you call me whatever makes you comfortable, son.  But I’m tellin’ you Roy is fine with me.”  He paused.  “After all, you don’t see my other men callin’ me ‘sir’.”

It took a second.  Hoss smiled shyly.  “Your other men?”

“You’re a valuable member of the search party, son.  Just like Marv and Tad.”

The smile broke into a grin.  “You mean that?”

Roy placed a hand on the teenager’s shoulder.  “I sure do.”

Hoss ducked his head in that way he had.  He’d been doin’ it since he was just a little tyke – well, a littler tyke.  Weren’t no time in his life you could of called Eric Cartwright ‘little’.  That brother of his, the one that was missin’, now he was another story.

A strong wind could of blowed that young’un away.

“Deputy….”  Hoss cleared his throat.  “Mister Roy, can I say somethin’?”

“Sure thing, son.”

“I don’t think the horse we’re followin’, well, it may have somethin’ to do with Little Joe goin’ missin’, but I don’t think it’s the man what took him.”

Roy blinked.  “Now what makes you think that, son?” he asked kindly.

Hoss drew a breath and puffed it out.   “You see, Mister Roy, that’s a right big horse.  I know ‘cause I ride one.”

“Tad said those prints went right into the ground.”

“But it ain’t enough!” Hoss protested.  “When we was behind the barn, I seen that man’s boot prints pressed  into the ground.  You could tell just how much he weighed.  Mister Roy, I carried Joe plenty of times.  He don’t add much.  That man’s prints, well, he’s a real big feller.  That horse should be even heavier if the two of them are ridin’ it.”

“So maybe he put Little Joe on it and was walkin’ beside it,” he offered.

“Ain’t no prints showin’ that he was, you know that.”

Yes, he did.

Roy scratched his chin.  “So what you’re sayin, son, is that we’re on a wild goose chase.  You think Bosh sent that horse on alone.”

Hoss scowled.  “I don’t like to….  Well, I’ve been taught not to question my betters.”

“How come you didn’t speak up before, boy?”

Ben’s son shrugged.  “I could be wrong.”

And he wasn’t quite old enough to shoulder the guilt if it turned out that he was and somethin’ happened to his brother ‘cause of it.

“You think we oughta go back and start again.”

Hoss chewed his lip.  “Maybe you and I could, Roy.  That way Mister Corby and Mister Jones could keep followin’ this trail.  You know, just in case.”

Roy considered it and then nodded slowly.  “Don’t take more than two men to follow one set of tracks.  You and I will do that come mornin’, boy.  Now,” Roy favored him with a grin, “how about you go get some of that firewood so we don’t freeze our tails off.”

The teenager nodded and then turned to go about the task.  He’d taken about ten steps when he turned back.

“Thanks, Mister Roy.”

Deputy Roy Coffee watch Hoss Cartwright go with a smile on his lips.

He was a keeper, that one.

 

A golden light was spilling in the office window of the Ponderosa ranch house.  Outside the window birds wheeled in the air, announcing the morning.  As the light rose ranch hands woke and went about their business.  Horses nickered.  Steers lowed.  Soon the air would be full of other sounds – timber being cut, cattle being roped and branded; horses snorting as the bronco busters climbed on their backs.   Ben Cartwright sat in his desk chair listening as he stared at the map of the empire he had created.

It meant nothing.

Wearily, the rancher rose from his seat and walked toward the massive stone hearth that was the centerpiece of the great room.   He glanced at the chess board and then turned to look at the game of checkers left half-finished on the table.  After a moment he crossed to the blue chair by the fire and picked up the book lying on its velvet surface and turned it over so he could read the spine.  It was one of Adam’s volumes of Shakespeare.  There was a bookmark holding his place.  It seemed the bard awaited his wounded son’s return just as he did.

Just as he awaited Hoss’ return.

Joseph’s return.

The house had never felt so empty or so useless.

Still holding Adam’s book, Ben dropped into the chair his son usually occupied and lowered his head into his hands.

He’d never felt so useless.

Several minutes later a soft sound alerted the older man to the fact that he was not alone.  Ben lifted his head to find Hop Sing watching him from across the room.  Shifting, he placed Adam’s book on the side table and forced a smile.

“Morning, Hop Sing.”

There was nothing ‘good’ about it.

“Mistah Ben not sleep last night?”

He’d tried to after Paul Martin shooed him out of the sick room.  He’d failed, miserably, of course.  If he wasn’t thinking about Adam, he was thinking about Hoss who was out with a search party.  He thought of Joseph too.  In fact, Joe’s fate was never far from his mind.  Joseph, his child who had vanished, seemingly into thin air, taken by a man who had some reason to hate him.

Wade Bosh.  He had turned the name over in his mind all night.  It was an unusual name.  He should remember it.

Bosh.  Wade Bosh.

He had no idea who he was.

Ben ran a hand over his stubbled chin and turned to look up the stairs.  “I should check on Adam.”

“Hop Sing just come down.  Mistah Adam sleeping,” his cook said as he came closer.  “Doctor say worst is over.”

“Over?  What do you mean ‘over’?  How long ago?”

“Adam’s fever broke about dawn, Ben,” a bleary-eyed Paul Martin said as he descended the stairs.  “I was worried after that relapse, but you breed them tough here.”

“He’s…Adam’s going to be all right?”

Paul frowned.  “He will be – if he stays in that bed and heals.  Your oldest boy is already talking about getting up and riding after the man who took Little Joe.”

“He can’t do that!” Ben protested.

Paul lifted one eyebrow.  The look he gave him was sympathetic.  “Adam wouldn’t listen to me.  He dragged himself up to a seated position and tried to throw his legs over the side of the bed.”  The doctor snorted.  “You not only breed them tough, but stubborn as mules.”

Ben’s eyes went to the stairs.  He listened.  He hadn’t heard a thud.

“You convinced him to lie back down?”

“No.  God did.  He passed out.”

“What?”  Ben was headed toward the stairs.

Paul caught his arm. “It’s all right, Ben.  It’s not like the last time. The boy was just too weak to try it.  The effort wore him out.  He’s sleeping normally now.”

“Mistah Cartwright, I go check on Mistah Adam again,” Hop Sing offered.  “Wait until he wakes.  Maybe he want something to eat.”

“That’s a good idea,” the doctor agreed.  “Broth or soup.  Something easy.  Maybe a little bread.”  As his cook headed up the stairs, Paul turned to him.  This time the look he gave him was that of a man who knew all too well the pain he was in.  “I never got to tell you how sorry I am about what’s happened with Little Joe.  Do you have any idea who this man is who took him?”

“I wish I did!  It’s maddening to have a name, but nothing to attach to it.  Wade Bosh.”  Ben let out a sigh of frustration.  “Whoever he is, he has something against me and he’s taking it out on my sons!”

Paul’s hand landed on his shoulder.  “Get hold of yourself, Ben.  Your boys need you to be strong for them.  Hoss most of all, I imagine.”

Ben frowned.  “Hoss?  Hoss is the only one who’s safe.”

Paul’s smile was gentle.  “That’s what I mean.  I know that boy.  First of all he’s feeling guilty because he didn’t prevent Adam being shot.  Then, because he couldn’t protect Little Joe.  Add to that the guilt he must feel because he isn’t in danger, and you have one troubled boy.”  The doctor lifted his hand.  “He’s young, Ben.  Hoss may look like a man, but he’s hardly more than a child.”

As he stood there, considering the wisdom of his friend, Hop Sing reappeared at the top of the staircase.  “Mistah Ben, Mistah Adam asking for you.”

Ben looked at Paul who nodded.  “Knowing you lot, I’ll have a calmer patient if you talk to him.  But, Ben, not too long, and not too many questions.  Let him tell you what happened, if he wants to.”  Looking at the man from China, the doctor added.  “I have some powders for you, Hop Sing, to use for Adam.  For both his pain and to help him sleep.”  Paul caught his eye and winked.  “How about we slip one of them into his soup?”

As his cook headed down the stairs, Ben headed up.  He walked down the hall and then hesitated just a moment outside his son’s bedroom door.  After whispering a brief prayer for wisdom, he opened it and stepped inside with something that passed for a smile plastered on his face.  Adam didn’t see it.  His oldest son was laying on his back, staring at the ceiling.  When the boy realized he was there only his eyes moved, shifting toward him.

The first words out of Adam’s mouth were, “Any word about Joe?”

Ben went to the chair beside the bed and sat down.  “Roy is out looking for him.  Hoss went with him.”

Adam shifted slightly and grunted as he did.  Ben reached out and helped him to right himself against the pillows.  The boy was still pale, but his color was better.  The lines of pain had eased a bit around his lips and eyes as well.

“If Roy is smart he’ll…give Hoss his rein,” his son said.  “No one…reads tracks better than him.”

Ben nodded.  “How are you feeling, son?”

Adam’s look was chagrinned.  “Stupid.”

“Why ‘stupid’?”

His oldest boy closed his eyes, as if he were seeing it all happen again.  When he spoke, he was obviously in pain.  “I went looking for Joe…couldn’t find him.  I thought he was….”  Adam’s eyes opened and he looked at him.  In their hazel depths was something of despair.  “I thought he was hiding on…purpose.  I was mad.”

He touched his arm.  “Son, maybe this should wait for later when you’re rested.”

Adam shook his head.  “No.  You need to…know.  Bosh had him in the back stall.  Joe was….”  He drew a shuddering breath.  “He had Little Joe under his arm.  Pa, at first he wasn’t…moving.  I think he…was drugged.”

Ben’s jaw tightened.  “Go on.”

“All I had was a rake.  Bosh…threatened to hurt Joe if I didn’t…put it down.”

Adam had paled.  His breath was coming harder now.  “Son, perhaps you should rest.  Paul said –”

His son’s fingers gripped his wrist.  “Pa, let…me finish.  Then…I promise…I’ll rest.”

Ben nodded.

Slowly.

“I dropped the rake.  Bosh…ordered me into…one of the stalls.  He…was gonna tie…me up.  I….”  Adam swallowed.  “I tried to take…him, Pa. It was…stupid.  I could have gotten Little Joe…killed.”  His son’s gaze reflected the horror he had felt.  “Bosh had the gun…to…Joe’s head.”

He felt the horror as well.  It left him speechless.

“Pa…?”

“Son, you did what you had to do,” he said at last.  “It didn’t work, but it just as easily could have.”

Adam’s grip tightened.  “Joe’s gone and it’s…my fault.”

He covered the boy’s hand with his own. “No.  It’s the fault of the man who took him.”

His son held his gaze for a moment, defiant.  Then, seemed to accept his words.

For a moment they sat in silence.  The sun was still shining.  The birds called out in joy beyond the window.  Life went on even though, in the ranch house, it went on wounded.

“Pa, you need to…go after Joe.”

Ben shook his head.  “Roy has the law searching.  Hoss is – ”

Again, that grip. Firm.  Resolute  “Joe needs you…more than Hoss or I do, Pa.  We’ll be okay.  He…won’t.”

He nodded.  It was true.  He knew it.

Still….

“I can’t leave you until I know you re out of danger.”

“Then you can leave, Ben,” a voice said from the door.  He turned as Paul Martin reentered the room.  “Hop Sing is on the way with soup and some tea for Adam.  The worst is over here.”

Paul’s implication, of course, was that the worst might be yet to come elsewhere.

Ben released his son’s hand and rose to his feet.  He brushed the sweat-soaked hair off of Adam’s forehead and then bent and planted a kiss on the cleared space.  Adam didn’t protest.

He knew that kiss was more for his father than for him.

As he reached the door, Adam’s voice called him to a halt.  “Pa?”

“Yes, son”? he asked, turning back.

“Tell Joe I’m sorry when you see him, will you?”

Ben nodded.  When he saw him.  Not if.

God willing, it would be soon.

 

THREE

The stagecoach arrived in Eagle Station early that morning.  There was only one passenger on it.  More had been scheduled to take it, but they had quickly exchanged their tickets for the next coach, which was due to leave Placerville the following afternoon.  The two maiden ladies who had been due to ride reported that one of them felt ill.  They decided to stay over for the night to see if the sickness passed.  The logger who was heading back to his trees developed a sudden aversion to coaches and chose to rent a horse instead.  There were two salesmen who decided Placerville looked mighty good, while the banker and his wife who had arrived late and left the soonest simply and rudely stated that if the stage line was going to allow ‘those’ kind of people on it, they would have none of their custom in the future.

No one, it seemed, wanted to ride with a darky.

The passenger in the coach smiled.  There were two ways to look at it.  He could be hurt by the rejection or take pride in the power of his color.

He chose to do the later.

The irony was, due to his white father and half-white mother, it took two looks to determine that he was anything other than white himself.  The ends of the stranger’s full lips quirked with wry amusement.  Why was it, when a man was two-thirds white, that he was still considered black?  He dropped his eyes to the hands poking out from underneath the elegant white lace cuffs of his Marcus Regency shirt.

At most you might have called him coffee with cream.

As he sat there musing, he heard a sound.  The driver had jumped to the ground and was reaching for the door.  Outside the coach the usual gawkers had arrived.  The stage line was still a new enough phenomena in the area that its arrival always drew large crowds.  They were not there to gawk at him – at least not yet – but to see who had found some reason to visit their backwater village.  He’d come from such a place once upon a time where it was everyone’s business to make sure that they knew everyone’s business.

They were in for, well, a bit of a shock.

“Eagle Station, Mister Randolph,” the driver announced as the coach door opened.  “Your bag’s already down.”

In spite of the confidence he had gained over the years while living in England, Jude Randolph drew in a deep breath and held it as he stepped out of the coach.  He noted the usual reactions as he did – fear, anger, disbelief, curiosity and, yes, hatred.

Hatred of what he was.

Hatred of how what he was made them feel.

Jude nodded as he stepped down.  He opened his silk purse and removed a coin and put it in the driver’s hand.

“Thank you, my good man.”

The driver’s eyes lit at the gold coin.  He tipped his hat.  “Thank you, Mister Randolph!”  With a nod to the left, the driver finished, “The International House is over there.”

There was some grumbling at the suggestion.  It didn’t surprise him.  It only confirmed that Eagle Station was no more or less civilized than the rest of the towns he had stopped in during his progress from California to Nevada.

A man – burly, bristle-cheeked, and more than a bit of a buffoon from what he could tell – pushed through the crowd.  His bushy mustache twitched as he announced, “You just get back on that stage, Mister.  We don’t want your kind here!”

Jude pretended ignorance.  It was something he was well-practiced in.  “And what ‘kind’ would that be?  Tall?  Well-dressed?”  He grinned.  “Handsome?  Or perhaps, you mean English?”

“You know what kind,” another man, a possessor of  a shock of straw-yellow hair and a cadaverous face, growled.

“My dear sir,” he replied, “you seem to grant me powers of perception that are far beyond those with which the good Lord has imbued me.” Jude raised his black brows.  “If you would care to clarify your position?”

“How come a darky like you talks so fancy?”

Jude pivoted to look at the skeletal man beside him.  “Perhaps, because a ‘darky’ like me had the good fortune to attend Oxford University instead of failing to be present at school past the age of accountability as it seems you did.”

It took a moment.  Well, actually, more than a moment.  The one man had to point out to the other that what he’d said had been an insult.

“You gonna let that darky get by with saying you’re stupid, Jake?”

Jude held up a finger. “I beg to differ.  I never said…”  He looked at the jowly man.  “Jake?”

Jake nodded.

“I didn’t mean to imply that Jake was dim-witted,” he said, turning back.  “Merely inexpert.”

Bristle-cheek frowned.  “Ain’t that the same thing?”

Jude looked the man up and down, noting his dungarees and checked shirt as well as the well-worn leather boots with spurs.

“If the cowboy hat fits….” he said.

“Are you making fun of my friend, Hal?” Jake demanded.

“There’s no need.  He does entirely too good a job of it on his own.”

The rest of the crowd had been standing by listening to their repartee.  Now they began to back off.  It took Jude a moment to understand why.

Then he saw the gun.

“My good man….” he began, his eyes on the pistol.

“I ain’t your ‘man’,” Hal snarled.  “Boy.”

“Yeah, boy,” Jake added, darting forward and knocking off his hat.  “I think we ought to teach you a lesson.”

Jude glanced at his beaver hat, eating dust.

He shouldn’t have said it.

But….

“The only thing you or your brainless cohort could teach me would be how to become a bigoted, oafish boor.”  Jude sneered.  “Not exactly the skill-set someone of my position needs.”

“Why you!” Hal snarled as he raised the pistol.

“Pardon me, pardon me,” a light sing-song voice interjected.  “So sorry, but need to pass by on boardwalk.  Ranch hands in Hop Sing’s way.  Mistah Ben not happy with hands.  Send them far away with no pay if he no get supper in time tonight!”

Jude watched with amusement as the men’s faces went from angry to angrier, and then progressed rapidly toward worry and finally, fear.

“You shut your mouth, China man,” Hal muttered, the wind driven from his sails.

“No, you keep quiet!  Mister Ben busy man, hungry man!  Want food on table when get home!”  The man from China eyed the pair with obvious disdain.  He punctuated his words with the jab of a finger.  “You come Ponderosa, I send you to see boss.  You tell him why supper late!”

Jake caught Hal by the elbow.  “We don’t want to make the boss angry. Them jobs mean too much to us.”  He paused to lick his lips. “You know that.”

Something passed between the two men.  Jude wasn’t sure what. But in the end they slunk off toward the local sampling room with the tails of their beastly plaid shirts tucked between their legs.

The man from China watched them go with a scowl.  “Person stupid, don’t have medicine to heal,” he said with a shake of his head.

Jude laughed as he turned toward him.  “Though I believe I could have extricated myself from the situation without substantial damage, I thank you, friend.”  He held out his hand.  “Ngóh giujouh, Jude Randolph.”

The Chinese man beamed as he took his hand.  “Hop Sing.  Hóu hòisàm yihngsīk néih.”

Jude bowed as he took the man’s hand and shook it.  He’d lived abroad for a time and had picked up a smattering of Cantonese.  “I am pleased to meet you as well.”  Turning back, the elegant mulatto’s gaze swept the street which was, not surprisingly, for the most part empty.  “So, my friend, how do you find Eagle’s Station?”

“Bad people here,” Hop Sing answered, his brows drawn down in a frown.  But then they popped up and his tone brightened.  “Even more good people!  You stay, you meet them.  Many good people like Mister Cartwright.”

Jude stiffened.  “Cartwright, you say?”

Hop Sing nodded – vehemently.  “Mister Cartwright boss of Hop Sing.  He not good man, he best man!”

The Englishman drew a hand across his chin.  Curling his index finger under his lip, he asked, “What is Mister Cartwright’s Christian name, if you don’t mind my asking?”

The man from China frowned – just a bit.

“It’s is quite all right if you don’t want to tell me.”  Jude drew in a breath.  It seemed he had no other recourse than to be completely honest.  “Actually, I have come to Nevada seeking a man named ‘Cartwright’.  Benjamin Cartwright.”

The frown deepened.  “What man from city want with Mistah Cartwright?”

Jude catalogued the interesting reaction.  “You might say I am an old friend.”  He paused, remembering.  “A very old friend.”

“Man from city not that old,” Hop Sing stated plainly.

“Man from city has a name,” Jude countered.  “Please, call me Jude.  There is no need to stand on any formality.”

“How Jude know Mister Benjamin Cartwright?” the man from China demanded.

He thought a moment.  “Was the man you work for a sailor some twenty-odd years back?  Did he serve as first mate to Captain Stoddard among others?”

“What it mean to you if he did?”

Hop Sing reminded him of a fierce little dog protecting its beloved master.

Jude attempted to ease the man’s fears with a smile.  “I was a cabin boy on the vessel Independence.  It wasn’t one of Captain Stoddard’s ships, but one on which First Mate Benjamin Cartwright served for a short time.  She sailed the English seas as the decade of the twenties ended.”  The Englishman’s voice drifted off as the memory of that time took his attention.  He could see Benjamin Cartwright standing on the deck of the Independence during a fierce gale, facing down a man whose only intent was his death – and all because he had chosen to protect a young black boy who had no help and no hope.  “He was….kind to me.  I would like to see him so I could give him my thanks.”

The man from China did not look entirely convinced.  “What name of Captain Stoddard’s daughter?”

“Elizabeth,” he replied without hesitation.

Hop Sing’s black eyes narrowed as he weighed every word.  “Mister Cartwright have enemies.  How I know you not one of them?  How Hop Sing know you not come here to hurt him…or his family?”

Jude thought a moment.  Then he spread his hands wide.  “Look at me, Hop Sing.  I’m not white.  How many men would have helped a mulatto?  How many have helped you other than Benjamin Cartwright?”

It seemed at last that the man from China believed him.  He nodded and then his eyes went to a building across the street that sported a doctor’s shingle.  “Hop Sing take you to Mistah Ben after he gets supplies.  Mistah Ben’s son hurt.  Needs medicine.”

It was his turn to frown.  “Hurt?  How?  When did this happen?”

“Happen last night.  Bad man come to Ponderosa.  Shoot Mistah Adam, Mistah Ben’s number one son.”  The Chinese man’s face grew ineffably sad.  “Take Mistah Ben’s young son.  No one know where.”

The Englishman’s jaw tightened. “Took him?  How old is the boy who has disappeared?”

Real tears entered the Chinese man’s eyes.  “Little Joe twelve.”

For a second, Jude reeled.  Enough so, that he had to reach out and grasp a rail to steady himself.

As he stood there, drawing a deep breath, the man with a queue asked, “Mister Jude, what wrong?”

What was wrong?

Everything was wrong.

“Good Lord,” Jude breathed.  “I’ve come too late.”

 

Ben Cartwright stood outside his stable watching his middle son, Hoss, walk with his head down and his eyes to the ground, searching for signs of his missing brother and the man who took him.  Hoss and Roy Coffee had surprised him when they’d arrived alone that morning about eight o’clock.  Roy explained how Hoss felt they’d misread the kidnapper’s tracks and how the boy had insisted on returning to the ranch house to start again.  His friend explained that the other men who had been with them had continued on, intent on following the tracks that had led them away from the Ponderosa in the first place.

Just in case.

Ben looked at his son.  If it hadn’t been for the fact that Hoss wouldn’t have listened to him, he would have told the boy to go inside and get some sleep and let the law do what they could.  The strain on his young son was plain in the slump of the big teenager’s shoulders and the way he muttered to himself as he walked a few feet, knelt, and then rose and walked again, ever hopeful that he would spy something that would lead them to Little Joe.  Hoss had taken on quite a lot of responsibility.  If the boy misread the tracks and Joseph…well…didn’t make it….

Ben shook himself.

No.

Damn it!  No.

Roy was watching him closely.  He gave his friend a weak smile.

“Now you listen to me, Ben.  You’re doin’ all you can.  You know that.”  Roy indicated the house with a nod.  “You got you other concerns.”

The gray-haired man nodded.  It pained him more deeply than he could express that he couldn’t join in the hunt for Joseph, but he couldn’t abandon Adam.  He would consider leaving once Hop Sing returned from town but, even then, he wasn’t certain it would be wise to go.  Ben knew his eldest son.  Keeping Adam in bed might be more than Hop Sing could manage without his authority to back him up.

Adam would kill himself to save his youngest brother.

“Ben.”

The rancher glanced at Roy who was indicating the empty yard in front of the stable.  He frowned when he realized they were alone.

“Where’s Hoss?” he asked.

“Gone ‘round the back,” Roy replied.  “I think maybe you and me oughta just follow him.”

Ben nodded.  He glanced at the house before moving, half expecting to see Adam’s long lanky figure stumbling out of the door in spite of his direct order to the boy to remain in bed.  When he didn’t see him, the rancher sighed.  Not with relief, but in expectation.

He’d probably find him there when he got back.

“Ben!”

There was excitement in Roy’s voice.  Moving quickly, Ben rounded the stable and almost stumbled over Hoss who was once again kneeling on the ground.

“Did you find something, son?” he asked.

Hoss turned a weary face toward him.  While there was a tiny glint of hope in his eyes, his lips were turned down in a frown.  His son pointed to the ground before him.

“I ain’t sure how we did, but we missed these Pa,” he said softly.

Two set of boot prints.  One small and slender.  Joe’s.

The other….  Ben sucked in air.

The other pair looked like they belonged to a giant.

“They wasn’t on that horse, Pa.  I’m thinkin’ that man what took Little Joe must of put a sack of grain on the saddle and sent it runnin’.”  Hoss rose to his feet.  “I bet if we check the feed in the stable, there’s one missin’ at least.  Maybe two.”

Ben planted a hand on his son’s shoulder.  “Good work, son!”

Hoss’ frown had deepened.  “I understand why that man done what he did.  It sure put us off the scent.  But Pa, he ain’t gonna get anywhere fast if he’s on foot and he’s got Little Joe to contend with.”

The older man smiled, though the smile faded quickly from his lips.  He knew his youngest son, just as Hoss knew his little brother.  Joseph would not go meekly.  He would try to escape, try to make it home – he would use everything that was in him to come back to them.  If the boy tried and failed it might very well put his life in danger.

“I imagine anyone takin’ a child for ransom or such would have other horses hidden somewhere along the trail, son,” Roy interjected.  “I doubt they was on foot for long.”

Ben was looking at his youngest son’s boot prints.  “Let’s follow these and see where they lead,” he suggested.

“You gonna leave Adam, Pa?” Hoss asked, surprised.

He shook his head.  “No, son.  I’ll walk with you a ways and then you two can go on.  If I can, I’ll follow as soon as Hop Sing returns.”  Ben eyed the pair.  They both looked done in.  “But first, you two need to come inside for some coffee and food.”  As his son started to protest, he held a hand up.  “It will do your brother no good if you faint from hunger.  Besides, I need to check on Adam before we head out.”

Hoss’s nose wrinkled.  “I feel kind of…selfish, you know, Pa?  Restin’ and eatin’ food when Little Joe’s….”

The sentence trailed off as the boy ducked his head.  Ben stepped over to him and put a hand on his shoulder.  “Son, look at me.”

“Yes, sir,” the teenager said as he looked up and met his stare.

Hoss had the bluest eyes – clear as a mountain stream, crisp as ice on a winter morning.  They were so transparent the boy wasn’t able to hide anything he was feeling.  His middle son was scared.

Just as he was scared.

“Son, Little Joe knows we’re coming.  Joseph knows we will never give up until we find him – that we haven’t forgotten him ”  The gray-haired man paused.  “And I hope he knows another thing,” he added quietly.

Those blue eyes were wide as a small child’s and just as trusting.  “What’s that Pa?”

“That his God knows what is happening and this terrible event in within His providence.”  Ben’s jaw tightened with emotion.  “That the God who made him is sovereign and in control and hasn’t forgotten him either.”

Hoss stared at him for a moment before speaking.  “I ain’t sure I got the…rock solid faith you do, Pa.”

Rock solid.

The thought of his youngest son in the hands of a kidnapper – and a giant of a man at that, when Joseph was so small – was chipping away at that rock.  He could feel it cracking and was fighting hard to keep it from crumbling.

“This is what builds such faith, son,” he replied.  “It says in Isaiah, ‘Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction.’  It is in that moment, when we are in the fire, that we find out what we’re made of.”

Hoss puzzled a moment and then nodded.

“Ben!”

He and Hoss both turned toward Roy Coffee.  The deputy was standing at the corner of the stable looking back toward the house.

Ben wasn’t clairvoyant, but he knew what the deputy was looking at.  “Adam?”

Roy nodded.  “Yep, walking toward the stable bold as brass and slow as molasses.”

It took three, maybe, four seconds for Ben to round the wooden structure.  Just like Roy said Adam, pale as a winding sheet, was walking across the yard.  His son was dressed haphazardly.  The tail of his wine-colored shirt was flying in the wind and his black suede vest was inside-out.

He was wearing his gun.

“And just where do you think you are going, young man?” Ben boomed as he stepped into his son’s path.

Adam didn’t look the least bit penitent.  “I’m going after Little Joe,” he stated firmly – as firmly as he could between chattering teeth.

Ben’s heart melted at this physical manifestation of his oldest son’s love for his youngest brother.  Still, he couldn’t let that melt his resolve as well.

“You will turn around and march back into that house,” he said firmly.

Adam favored him with a weak imitation of his usual grin.  “Pa, I’m twenty-four.  You can’t tell me what to do.”

It was true.  But he could suggest it – strongly.

“Son, I know you’re worried about your brother, but you know what Paul said.”  His eyes went to his son’s side. Adam was holding it with his left hand.  “You’ll break that wound open.  It hasn’t had time to heal.”

There were unspent tears in Adam’s eyes.  “Pa!  I can’t just lay there!  This is my fault!  Don’t you understand?”

“No, it ain’t, Adam,” Hoss said as he came between them.  “It ain’t the fault of anyone but that bad man who took Little Joe.”  His middle son glanced at him and then took a step toward his injured brother.  “Adam, I got me a heart full of guilt too.  Little Joe, well, he’s my responsibility.  I should of checked on him to make sure he was okay.”

Adam was shaking his head.  “Hoss, no, you – ”

“You cain’t tell me what I’m feelin’ anymore than I can tell you, older brother!” the giant teen snapped.  Then his tone softened, “I know you want to look for Little Joe, Adam, but Joe’d be the first one to tell you to take care of yourself.  ‘Sides….”  His big son frowned.  “If Roy and me don’t find Little Joe soon, we’re gonna need you to go look later when we’re all tuckered out.”

“I’ll have to be gettin’ back to town, son,” Roy Coffee added as he joined them.  “I got me one, maybe two days to give to the search, then I gotta get me back to the office.  You can take over then.”

Ben glanced at Roy.  He couldn’t tell if he was being truthful – or helpful.

Adam was wavering, both mentally and physically.

“I don’t know….” he said.

“Well, I do,” Hoss replied as he moved forward to take his brother by the arm.  “You look like somethin’ a herd trod on, older brother.  Come on now, let’s get you back in your bed.”

Ben silently acknowledged his middle son’s wisdom.  Where Adam would have fought him tooth and claw, his brother’s gentle words had driven home the truth that he was in no condition to sit a horse or ride.  Still, the boy tried one more time.

“But Little Joe….”

“Don’t you worry yourself none, Adam,” Hoss said, his tone uncompromising.  “I’ll ain’t comin’ home without punkin’, you can bet money on that.”

The use of Hoss’ pet name for Little Joe stabbed Ben.  It brought to mind the boisterous unstoppable whirlwind that was his youngest son.  His youngest son who was missing.

His youngest son who had been ripped from the bosom of his family and was God only knew where.

Ben walked over to the pair and placed a hand on each of their shoulders.

“Come on, boys, let’s go inside.  Hop Sing left food to warm up.”  At their looks, he added, “I don’t feel like eating either, but we have to keep up our strength if we’re to find your brother.”

There was a moment of hesitation.  Then both nodded.

Ben allowed himself a little smile.

He’d won the skirmish.

But the greatest battle was yet to come.

 

Adam Cartwright shifted and straightened up, easing the pain in his side.  He was propped in the blue velvet chair near the fire and had spent the last hour or so watching his father pace the floor.  The older  man had wanted him to go up to his room after they finished eating to rest.  Once again, Hoss had run interference for him.  His younger brother had convinced their father that it was probably best to leave him where he was until Doctor Martin’s promised visit later that evening.

After all, a second climb up the stairs might just break that wound that had remained closed so far wide open again….

The black-haired man glanced at the tall case clock.  It was just about noon.  Roy Coffee and his brother had headed out around 10:30, after they had eaten and refreshed their supplies.  As he left, Hoss had once again made the promise he had no way of knowing if he could keep – the promise that he wouldn’t return home without Little Joe.

Adam closed his eyes as he leaned his head back against the soft supple fabric of his favorite chair.  His brother Joseph could be, well, a royal pain at times.  So far as he was concerned Joe was undisciplined and more than a little spoiled.  It wasn’t that he was bad.  Joe was a good kid.  A hard worker when he wanted to be, smart, and, in some ways, more mature than other boys his age.  But there was a part of Joe that was, and probably always would be an eternal child.  He put it down to his mother, Marie, dying when Little Joe was just a tyke.  Joe was nearly thirteen now.  While other boys his age were happily cutting the apron strings and flying free, Joe had no desire to be loosed.  The invisible ties that bound him to Marie and to the place where she had lived, if ever so briefly, had only grown stronger.  Joe was frightened to be alone.  Frightened that, while he was, someone was going to die, or that they would abandon him and never return.

The black-haired man sighed.  He wondered if the thought had ever crossed his brother’s mind that it might be him who would leave them first.

Adam sucked in air as tears formed in his eyes.

It was his fault.  No one could tell him otherwise.

The morning had been a typical one.  He’d yelled at Little Joe more than once.  In fact, the reason Joe was in the stable was most likely due to the fact that he’d told him he’d neglected his work there.  The kid shouldn’t have been left alone.  Joe should have been in the house where he would have been safe.

Safe from the animal who took him.

With his eyes still closed, Adam considered what he could recall of the man’s appearance.  It had been dim in the stable and it seemed pain had blanked out at few minutes before and after the shooting.  Still, he remembered the sheer size of the man, and his eyes – cold, wicked eyes that gleamed with an unholy joy.  Little Joe was the one who’d been taken, but Joe wasn’t the one who was Bosh’s target.

That was their father.

For the thousandth time, he wondered why.

He kept thinking over the words the man had said to him.

‘Ain’t that a shame.  You tell your Pa when you see him that’s a shame.  Ain’t nothin’ quite like someone taking a boy from you.’

‘You tell him I’m takin’ my due’.

Adam’s eyes opened and sought his father’s figure.  The older man had opened the door and was staring out it, as if by sheer will he could draw his youngest son back to the fold.  He knew his father, knew the man he was and the man he had been.  He could have done nothing wrong.  If, as it seemed, the older man had taken someone away from that villain, then it was to save them.

Was Bosh’s ‘due’ a replacement for whoever that had been?  Was that why the man had kidnapped the youngest and most vulnerable of Ben Cartwright’s sons?

Adam paid attention as his father’s lean frame tensed.  He saw the older man frown before he stepped out the door.  There was an exchange of words that included more than a smattering of quickly spoken Cantonese, so he knew Hop Sing was one of those who had arrived.  The black-haired man’s eyes went to the clock.  It was too soon for Roy and Hoss to have returned, unless they’d realized the trail they were following was a false one.  Planting his hands on the arms of the chair, Adam levered himself out of it.  As he took a step toward the front door, his father returned.  Pa gave him a disapproving glance, but held his comments to himself as Hop Sing and a stranger walked in.

And what a stranger!

The man appeared to be between thirty-five and forty.  His black-brown hair was curly as Little Joe’s, though the curls were tighter on the ends.  They spiraled down to cover his ears and abruptly ended just below them.  He wore his hair parted on the side and a similar cascade of curls fell in a wave over the left side of his face.  He was obviously of mixed parentage.  There was a negro in there somewhere and perhaps Indian, most likely a few generations back.  He was handsome as handsome went, with even features that tended a bit to the feminine.  He had a broad straight nose over full lips and enormous eyes.  Adam couldn’t discern their color from a distance, but they were light and might have tended toward hazel.  The brows that topped them were black and thick.

“What Mistah Adam do out of bed!” Hop Sing chided as he hurried over to him.  “Doctor say you stay tin bed another day or two!  You tear wound in side again, Hop Sing no have thread to sew you back together!”

The elegantly attired mulatto’s smile was affectionate.  “Hop Sing has been quite concerned about you,” he said, his accent thick.

So, he was English as well.

Adam glanced at his father who shrugged.  Apparently, Pa had no idea who this man was either.

As he eased himself back into the chair at their cook’s insistence, the black-haired man said, “It’s all right, Hop Sing.  I came down to check on how things were going and Pa decided it was best for me to remain downstairs until Doctor Martin comes.”

Suspicious as always – and usually with good reason – the man from China turned to his father who nodded.

A second later the older man said, “Hop Sing, aren’t you going to introduce your friend?”

That surprised him – his Pa letting a stranger into the house before he knew who he was and what his business was with them.

The man from China bowed deeply.  “Hop Sing excited.  Forget to tell.”  He turned toward the Englishman and said, “Mistah Ben, Mistah Adam, this Mister Jude Randolph.  Man come from all way from England to see honored father.”

His father frowned.  ‘Jude Randolph?’ he mouthed.  “Jude….”

 

Ben Cartwright paled.

Jude Randolph.

The name sounded a bell.

Its sonorous tone resonated over an ocean of water and more than two decades of his life, bringing with it a second peal that called another name to mind.  The name of a man whom he had shamed.  A man he had, in fact, destroyed.

Wade Bosh.

“Good Lord,” Ben whispered.

He only hoped that name was not a death knell for his youngest son as well.

 

 

FOUR

“Adam!  Adam, answer me!”

Joe Cartwright stood in the doorway of the stable, yelling his brother’s name.  Its interior was darker than usual.  The only light penetrating the wooden walls came in thin shafts that fell through the liberty dollar size knotholes that had popped out of the ceiling.  Outside the moon was high and the night was cold and he was frightened.  No, he was terrified.

And he didn’t know why.

Joe looked at the threshold.  It was like, well, as if when he stepped over it there would be no going back.  He knew his terror was unfounded. It was just the stable like it had always been the stable.  He could hear the horses shifting in their stalls, talking to one another with nickers and whinnies.  He ever heard the stable cat, the one Pa allowed to keep house there so long as she chased out all the mice.  She was mewing and her kittens were mewing back.  They were near grown now, but they kept close to home.  Just like he kept close to home.

Close to the ranch house.  Close to the barn.

Close to this stable.

Drawing a breath, Joe stepped in.

He let it out when nothing happened.

Then he laughed.  He could hear Hoss, snortin’ loud as the horses, falling down in the hay and laughin’ so hard his sides near split at the thought of him being afraid of a place he’d known all his life.  Older brother Adam would stand there, arms crossed, shaking his head and tellin’ him he was letting his heart rule his head.

Adam.  Something about Adam.

Was he afraid of Adam?

Joe blew out a breath and nickered like a pony.  Him.  Afraid of that blue-blooded, cool, unconcerned, Yankee.  Adam might be nearly twice his size and twice as old, but he wasn’t scared of him, not even when older brother was havin’ one of his fits.  He’d had a right good one that morning, shouting at him and tellin’ him he hadn’t done his work.  Adam didn’t know that Pa’d asked him to help with one of the horses and told him to let the stable chores go until after supper.  And, of course, Adam didn’t give him a chance to tell him either. Older brother had shouted and he’d shouted back and in the end he’d stomped off to do his chores even though Pa had told him to come in and eat beforehand.  Now Pa was probably mad at him!

He just couldn’t win.

Halting inside the door, Joe called again.  “Adam!  If you’re in here, show yourself!  Adam!”

A sound answered him.  Not a word or a name, but a sound.  A sound he’d heard before – just after Pa had shot one of their lame horses.

The sound of something dying.

Joe swallowed over the lump of fear in his throat and moved forward, calling again.

“Adam?  Adam, are you –”

A shaft of moonlight pierced the night in the stable, illuminating a figure on the floor.  Behind it was a thick foot wide trail of something black.  It took a second for him to recognize it as blood.

A lot of blood.

Falling to his knees, Joe reached out and touched his brother’s back.  Adam was growing cold.  Terrified, he picked him up and slipped in underneath him.  As he cradled his older brother in his arms, Joe felt his trousers grow wet as even more blood soaked through the cloth to soak his skin.  Adam opened his lips and a moan came out.  Then he opened those hazel eyes.

“Little Joe?” he asked.

Joe took the hand that fumbled in the light.  Catching Adam’s fingers, he squeezed them.  “Yeah, Adam.  It’s Joe.  I’m here for you, brother.”

Adam seemed confused.  “Why….  Why…Joe?”

Joe swallowed over bile even as his tears fell.  His brother wasn’t going to make it.  He could tell by the look in his eyes.

He’d seen death’s knock before.

“Why what, brother?” he asked, his voice quivering.

Adam’s blood-streaked fingers touched his face even as his brother’s soul fought hard to be free.

“Why did you kill me?”

 

Little Joe Cartwright woke with a start, breathing hard.  Even as he did, the sickness he had known before slammed into him and he realized he’d been dreaming.  Adam wasn’t dead.  At least, so far as he knew.

He could be though.

There was no way of knowing.

At the thought of his brother’s long form lying still on the stable floor, his stomach turned over.  Joe tried to wrap a hand around it to hold in the sickness but found he couldn’t, so instead he writhed on the hard ground, drawing his bound hands and knees together and curling up in a ball. Hot waves rolled over him, drawing the sickness up and out until there was nothing left and all that spewed out of his dry lips was a bitterness that tasted like death.

Just when he felt he couldn’t take it any longer, someone took hold of his hair and forced his head back and dribbled liquid into his mouth that tasted of ginger and lemon.  The cool liquid ran down his chin and onto his chest, soaking his shirt and setting him to shivering.

A moment later a rough voice demanded, “Open your eyes, boy!”

Joe didn’t want to. If he did, he knew it would make everything real.  He’d have to face the fact that he wasn’t at home in his bed having one of his nightmares.  Home, where Pa would come in to wake him and sit with him until he went back to sleep.  He’d have to accept that he was somewhere else.  Somewhere no one knew about.  Somewhere no one could find him.

That this nightmare was real.

An abrupt slap to the face confirmed it.

“I told you to open your eyes, boy!  Look at me when I’m talkin’ to you!” the man commanded as he shook him.  “I’ve got men watchin’ that fancy house of yours.  You want me to tell them to make it real hot for your Pa and brothers?”

Joe groaned and did as he was told.  He forced his eyes to open on the terror that had become his life.  Wade Bosh knelt beside him, leaning in, one hand clutching a handful of his curls and the other holding the canteen mere inches from his lips.

“Take another drink.”

As much as he could, he shook his head – and got another slap for it.

“I said, ‘drink!’.”

Joe opened his lips and let the sour liquid dribble in.

“I ain’t havin’ you die on me, you young scallywag!”  Bosh rose to his feet and then ordered, “Sit up!”

Joe felt weaker than he could ever remember feeling.  It was all he could do to comply, and even then it was only a half-effort.

“You got yourself a case of Cape Horn fever, I suppose.  Ain’t nothin’ wrong with you!” Bosh snarled as he shoved him with the toe of his boot.  The massive man stood looking down at him a moment before he spoke again.  “I shouldn’t be surprised, I ‘spose, that Cartwright whelped nothin’ better than a runt on that New Orleans strumpet of his.”

Joe set his jaw and forced himself to sit up.  His nostrils flared and his chin jutted out as he shouted, “Don’t you say anything about my mother or –”

Bosh snorted.  “Or what?  You’ll hit me with a broadside?”

“You untie me and you’ll see!” Joe shouted as he strained against the ropes binding him.

Before Joe had time to draw a breath, he felt his neck snap as Bosh drove his head back.  A second later rough fingers cupped his chin.  “So there’s some fire in you after all, Joe Cartwright.  Good!  You’re gonna need it where we’re goin’, boy.”  Bosh released his grip, rose, and walked toward the fire he’d kindled in the mouth of the shallow cave they were holed up in.  “The sailin’ life ain’t an easy one.  The sea would as like suck you down as hold you up.”

Joe grew still.  “What do you mean, the ‘sailing’ life?” he asked, his voice hushed with fear.

Bosh had begun to kick dirt into the fire, as if in preparation for moving.  “Now just what do you think an old seaman like me would be wantin’ with the likes of a nipper like you?  Think you’ll make a fit cabin boy?”

He knew this had something to do with his father and with making him pay for some supposed sin.  It was all so unfair.  “You won’t get to make anything out of me!” he countered.  “My Pa will find me and he’ll kill you when he does!”

The massive man stared at him and then bellowed out his amusement.  “Superior, nose in the air, self-righteous Benjamin Cartwright take a life?  Shows what you know, boy.  He’d as soon let you die as break that high and mighty moral code of his.”

“You don’t know nothin’ about my Pa!”

Bosh was back faster than a rattlesnake.  Joe found himself trapped between the wall and the man’s powerful fingers as they closed on his throat.

“I know everythin’ about that pompous high-handed prig,” he hissed.  “Everythin’, you hear!”  Joe tried to avoid looking into the man’s eyes, but it was impossible.  Bosh’s face was mere inches from his own.  “I can see him in my mind’s eye, standin’ there, denyin’ me what was mine.”  His kidnapper stopped suddenly.  A strange light entered his eyes as he reached out to stroke his hair.  His voice softer, almost cloying, he said, “I’ll take care of you, boy.  Don’t you worry.  You’ll have a better life with me.”

Joe bit his tongue.  It wasn’t in his nature to stay silent, but he did this time.

It seemed wise in the face of Wade Bosh’s madness.

 

Ben Cartwright fell into the large red leather chair by the fire.  He sat with his hands linked between his legs, staring at the man seated on his late wife’s elegant settee – a man he had never seen before, but a boy that he knew well.

In the last twenty years he had married three times and buried three wives, fathered three sons and built an empire.  The life he had lived as a seaman when a young man seemed now to be a waking dream – a dream, he feared, that had just become an unexpected nightmare for him and his sons.

They had moved into the area of the great room and sat before the fire.  Adam occupied the blue chair, he, the red, and Jude sat on the settee.  Hop Sing came and went from the kitchen, setting the table, dusting and moving a vase from here to there.  The noticeable lack of progress at any of these tasks suggested the man from China simply needed to be close.

Ben sat up and leaned back. The last time he had seen Jude Randolph, he’d been a boy about Joe’s age.  As Jude had no idea of the year he had been born, he would have guessed him to be between eleven and thirteen at the time.  Jude had started life on a plantation in the south.  The place had an excess of slaves and their heartless master ended up selling off a group of the younger ones with no regard for the fact that he was destroying families.  Some went to other plantations, but a small portion were purchased by a New Englander who was recruiting men as sailors.  They were freed – so to speak – and transported to Massachusetts to man sailing vessels, among them the merchant ship Independence.  It was a privately owned ship bound for London and captained by a long-time friend of Abel Stoddard.  Ishmael Peak was a hard but fair man.  He’d been left short-handed due to an epidemic that had wiped out one third of his crew, including his first mate.  As his cargo was perishable and he was in haste, he was persuaded to hire a half-dozen of the ex-slaves to man his ship.  They were, unfortunately, treated as something less than human by all involved and promised a mere pittance of a wage.  The black men also lived under the threat that – should they disobey or cause trouble – upon their return to the states they would be sold back into slavery.  In other words, they were still in chains.  As was to be expected, they were given all of the more heinous tasks of the ship to perform.  Among the former slaves were two younger boys – Jude and his elder brother, Samuel.

The older man shifted uncomfortably.  It was mostly due to this arrangement that he’d hesitated when Abel Stoddard asked him to undertake the three month journey to England with Peak.  Something about the whole thing just felt wrong.  But he owed Abel more than he could ever hope to pay and so he’d agreed and signed on as first mate.  The Independence had come out of South Carolina and had a mostly southern crew.  It hadn’t taken long for him to become disliked as he openly expressed his opinions concerning the treatment of the black men and human trafficking in general.  Late one night, as they neared England, he came upon a group of seamen whipping Samuel Randolph, whom they had tied to the mast.  When he’d demanded to know what the young man had done to deserve such harsh treatment, he’d been told in stops and starts that Samuel had dropped a tray of food while bringing it to a white lieutenant, who had then ordered the whipping.  Infuriated he’d ordered Samuel, who could have been no more than seventeen at the time, untied and sent him to the sick bay.  He demoted the lieutenant and punished the ones who had accosted the boy by assigning them all of the heinous tasks the young black man had been forced to perform.  Captain Peak had backed him up, but he’d not been happy about it.  Ishmael was a man of the South as well and to him, as to most of the seamen on the ship, the black men who sailed with them were little more than cattle.

Later when he’d gone to see how Samuel was fairing, he’d found him lying on a cot in the sickbay with another younger boy seated beside him.  He knew the child as he was one of several who served the captain’s cabin, though they’d had little if any interaction.  The boy was pressing a wet cloth to his brother’s forehead as Samuel tossed and turned with a rising fever.  The doctor gave him an absent nod and left the room as he dropped into the empty chair on the other side of the low cot and began to study Jude Elijah Randolph.

The first thing Ben noticed was that the boy and his brother were of mixed parentage.  In time he found out that Jude’s maternal grandmother had been black and his grandfather, a mix of Spanish or Caribbean and white.  Both parents were of mixed heritage as well so that the boy, while he had some obviously African features, was light-skinned and light-eyed.  Jude’s hair was a dark brown bordering on black that turned to spun gold when the sun caught the edges of his myriad curls.  He was a sensitive child, far too sensitive for a life at sea.  Jude was also, to put it bluntly, beautiful – a fact some of the more salacious of the seamen did not miss.

Samuel died the following day.

From that time on Ben had made it his business to keep an eye on the boy.  He and Jude became casual friends, spending a moment together when they found the time, playing chess or checkers.  Jude had a quick mind and a pleasant temper and he had thoroughly enjoyed the time they spent together.  Then, one day, Jude disappeared.

On a ship, in the middle of the ocean, he disappeared.

He’d canvassed the ship, speaking to everyone.  Finally, he found a man who said he’d seen the boy standing near the rail the night he disappeared.  When the seaman asked Jude what was wrong, he said the boy told him that he missed his brother and wanted to be with him.  It was this man’s opinion that the boy had jumped overboard.

He knew the man.  He didn’t like him.

It was Second Mate Wade Bosh.

Ben ran a hand along his chin and sighed.

How could he have forgotten?

“Mister Cartwright?”

He looked up to find Jude watching him with concern.  “Call me Ben, please, Jude.  It’s been a long time, but there is no need to stand on formality.”

The former cabin boy smiled.  “It is good to see you.  I only wish it were under more agreeable circumstances.”

Ben nodded.  He’d had a chance to chat briefly with Hop Sing and understood that Jude had come to Eagle Station specifically looking for him.

He’d come to warn him about Wade Bosh.

Too late.

Too late for Joseph.

Ben shook himself and forced a smile.  “You seem to have done well over the years.  When I left you, you were little more than a boy.  I had hoped the money I left with you would have been enough for you to secure lodging and find a job to pay for room and board.  But this?”  He indicated the man’s elegant attire and obvious wealth.

Jude laughed.  “Hardly what you would expect, is it?  If you remember, Ben, after you rescued me from my captivity on the Independence and set me on English soil where I was free, you gave me a letter of recommendation to take to your relatives in Derby.”  The Englishman paused.  “I never made it.”

“I thought you were dead,” Ben replied.  “When I contacted Mark, he said you’d never arrived.”

“Shortly after you departed, I was waylaid and the money you’d given me was stolen.  I was struck on the head and lay bleeding in an alley, sure I was going to die.”  Jude noted his horrified look.  “Do not despair, old friend.  If I had died, it would have been as a free man.”

“What did you do?” Adam asked.  His older son was tired and hadn’t said much so far, but as always his son’s keen mind was at work.

“A local storekeeper found me in that alley.  He took me in and nursed me back to health.  In time, he adopted me and I was reared as one of his own.  When he prospered, becoming one of the wealthiest merchants in London, I prospered with him.  Father died several years back and his estate was apportioned between his two natural children and myself.  John assumed the presidency of the mercantile business, handling both his portion and Joanna’s.  I was left control of the timber operations, mills, and forestland.”

“Which is why you came to this country?” Ben asked.

“In part.”  Jude shifted in his seat as if ill at ease.  “As you know, there was another darker reason as well.  My brother John came to me one day to tell me that a former shipmate had come into one of our stores looking for me.  He told me it was the ship’s first mate and so I erroneously assumed it was you.  I looked forward to the meeting. When I arrived at the rendezvous, you can imagine my surprise and horror when it turned out to be the Independence’s second mate.  Bosh had found out I was alive and prosperous.  He made an attempt to blackmail me based upon the time I spent alone with him.”

Ben had always wondered what horrors Jude had been subjected to while being held captive by Bosh.  At the time he’d freed him, the boy he’d been had remained silent.  Ben’s gaze went to Adam.  His son was sitting up, his attention riveted on the former cabin boy.  He hoped Jude would be discreet, at least until they could talk alone.  If Adam knew what he suspected, there would be no way under the sun he could keep him from joining the hunt for his brother.

He prayed to God his suspicions were wrong.

“I suspect his attempt to blackmail you was unsuccessful?” Ben asked.

“So far as blackmailing me, yes.”  Jude’s hesitated, his gaze flying to Adam and then back to him. “When I refused to play his game, Wade Bosh became a madman.  He attacked me and came close to killing me.”

“Killing you?” Adam echoed, his tone hollow.

Suddenly, Ben couldn’t breathe.

 

The interior of the ship Independence was black as pitch this deep within her.  He’d searched the vessel over for a week without finding a sign of the missing boy.  The captain had warned him that very day that if he didn’t cease and desist, he was facing disciplinary action.  Sad as it was, the boy had gone overboard, Captain Peak told him, just as Second Mate Bosh had said.  Bosh stood behind the Captain, glaring; a sickening smirk plastered on his beefy face that proclaimed he had gotten away with it.  Whatever he had done with Jude Randolph – or planned to do – there would be no justice for the child.

Ben had made a vow there and then that such would not be the case.

With the same prayer on his lips that he had whispered and shouted for the last two weeks – that God would lead him to the boy – First Mate Ben Cartwright caught a lantern in his hand and lit it before descending the after stair, and then took the stair below that to the bottommost part of the ship.  They’d harbored that night and in the morning the off-loading of the cargo would begin.  If Bosh concealed the boy in one of the crates, there would be no saving him. 

He had to find him tonight. 

Soon, Ben found himself in the fore of the ship.  He continued on, moving until he was below the orlop and in the hold.  There was a small pocket of space there he had not yet been able to check.  It lay beyond the step of the foremast, separated from the sea by only the keel and dead rising.  It was too small for a man, but then Jude was far from a man.  He was a boy.  A boy who had been terribly and horribly misused.  He’d chosen this moment to check the hidden pocket as Wade Bosh was otherwise occupied.  He had, perhaps, an hour before the man would be free of his duties. 

It was there he found Jude – dirty, emaciated, barely able to speak, but alive.

The boy was alive!

Ben had brought an extra coat with him to wrap around the child should he find him.  He pulled the boy’s wasted limbs into it and fastened the buttons.  Bright feverish eyes looked up at him.  Jude’s lips parted and a small strangled sound issued from them.  With tears falling, he’d picked him up and borne him through the ship, emerging onto the deck in a secluded area and proceeding directly to the captain’s cabin.

When they went to look for Wade Bosh, the man had disappeared.

 

Ben stirred at the touch of a hand on his shoulder.  He looked up to see Adam – pale, weak Adam – standing at his side.  The rancher rose immediately and, in spite of his son’s protests, gave him his seat.  Remaining close by, he turned again to Jude.

“Do you think Joseph’s life is in danger?” he asked.

Jude thought long and hard before answering.  “I do not think Wade would mean to hurt the boy, even though his hatred of you, Ben, is great.  I visited Bosh in jail, before he was sent to Newgate prison for two years for assault, and it was all he could talk about.  His release is what compelled me to seek you out.  Bosh was…possessed by the thought of you and how you had robbed him of his ‘son’.”  The former slave sighed.  “That ‘son’ being me.”

“That’s what Bosh said, Pa, before he shot me,” Adam interjected.  “He said, ‘You tell him I’m taking my due.  I’m just taking what he owes me.’”

The fear he felt for his young son had multiplied as the Englishman recounted his tale.  While Wade Bosh might not intend to harm his son – only to possess him – he knew Bosh well enough to know Joseph’s treatment would be harsh even if he was compliant.

Jude had fallen silent.  The Englishman’s gaze went to Adam.  At last, he asked, “How old is your son, Ben?”

“I’m twenty-four, why?” Adam answered.

Jude nodded. “Old enough.  During the trial I was forced to recount the days I spent as Bosh’s prisoner.  In deference to my adopted father’s memory and his status in the city, the testimony was taken in the judge’s chambers.”

“Why?” his son asked innocently.

Ben knew why.  Pederasty was a crime in England, punishable by death, for both the perpetrator and the victim of his crime.  Nevermind the unwilling victim of a such a predator was innocent.

Before he could say anything, Jude held up a hand.  “It is hard to describe Wade Bosh’s treatment of me, but it was not what you are thinking, Ben.  My brother was concerned what I said would be misconstrued by the general populace and blown out of proportion by the newspapers.  Bosh never touched me.  Not in that way.”

Ben saw Adam’s face fall.  Apparently such a thing had not entered his young mind.

The weight that lifted from Ben’s shoulders was palpable.  The result was weak knees.  As he sank to the hearth stones, he repeated, “Not in that way?  But in others?”

Jude nodded.  “Bosh seemed, unhinged, even then.  One moment he would be gentle as a father, cooing over me.  The next he would turn like a rabid dog and strike me so hard my teeth rattled.  He would not brook defiance and I learned quickly enough to keep my thoughts to myself.  If Joseph is a docile boy….”

Ben and his son exchanged glances.

Jude read them. “Ah.  He takes after his father then?  I was afraid of that.”

His son turned toward him with a puzzled look.

The gray-haired man fought an inappropriate smile.  “Joseph gets his fire from both the fore and aft, from his mother and me, I’m afraid.”

“A fitting mate then,” Jude said.  He glanced around. “Is your wife here?”

“Marie died when Joseph was barely five,” he replied, the pain of the loss still evident in his voice.  “That loss has fueled the boy’s anger.  Joseph is, unfortunately, anything but compliant.”

Jude rose to his feet.  “Then it is all the more important that we find the boy and soon.  I would not have your son hurt on account of me.  Do you know which direction Bosh took?”

Ben rose as well.  He kept Adam seated by applying a hand to his shoulder.

Adam balked. “Pa, you can’t expect me to stay here when Joe is –”

“Yes, I can,” he said firmly. “First of all, if you go with us my attention will be focused on you.  Is that what you want?”

The boy paled.  “No, sir.”

“And secondly,” Ben said, softening his tone, “someone needs to be here. What if Roy and Hoss return?  Or someone comes with information?  What if Joseph, God willing, makes his way back on his own?”  He paused to let that sink in.  “I need someone I can trust to handle that if it happens.”

Adam seemed to mull it over.  “What about Hop Sing?” he tried.

“Much as I love Hop Sing, he’s not up to this task.  You are.”

His son’s hazel eyes pinned him.  “If Doctor Martin says I can ride, Pa, I can’t guarantee I won’t.”

Ben gazed with love at him. “Well, I suppose you are too big to take a switch to if you disobey my orders.”  Turning away from his beloved oldest boy, he faced Jude again.  “Do you have a horse?”

The Englishman shook his head. “I came with Hop Sing in the wagon.”

Hop Sing had finished his work and waited at the table.  The dishes were set and the food was ready.  Even though his stomach rebelled at the thought, Ben knew he had to eat – he had to keep his strength up for the fight ahead.

Ben turned to Adam.  He felt it was too soon.  Still, giving the boy something to do might help quench his feelings of guilt.  “Son, will you go out to the stable and select a mount for Jude?”

Adam’s eyes reflected his gratitude.  “Sure thing, Pa,” he said as he slowly rose.

“Supper ready,” Hop Sing announced.  Ben wondered if the man from China had heard what he said earlier.  He didn’t worry if he had.  Hop Sing would know why he’d said it.

As the door closed behind Adam, Ben turned back to the man who had been the boy he had saved.  “Tell me the truth, Jude.  How desperate is Joseph’s situation?”

Jude reached out and took his shoulder in his hand and squeezed it. There were unspent tears in his light eyes.

“There is no time to lose.”

 

Joe lay on the ground shivering.  It was dark and it was cold and he ached from his head to his toe.  He figured he’d been bound for nearly two days now.  Three or four times his captor had loosed his bonds.  That was to let him go about his business.  It had been hard to do since the man stayed right by his side while he was doin’ it, sometimes with a hand on his shoulder.  At first he’d found it embarrassing, then kind of humiliating, and then the lack of privacy had just made him mad.  The third time it happened, he’d yelled at the man and told him to leave him alone.  Wade Bosh was a big man and he put a lot of weight behind a punch.  He’d backhanded him for bein’ mouthy and sent him reeling into a tree.  He’d struck head first and gone out for a minute or two. When he woke up his pants were buttoned and he was tied up even tighter than before.

He was gonna kill him.  He didn’t know how or when, but someday he was gonna kill Wade Bosh.

That was a promise he’d made himself.

It was dusk and they’d come to the edge of the lake.  For the last few miles they’d traveled by horse with him slung over the saddle, but most of the journey had been made on foot. He figured it was because Bosh wanted to stay off  the main roads and thought it would be less likely anyone would spot them traveling through the wilds.  Joe’s exposed skin was cut and sore and his feet felt like they’d been beaten with Hop Sing’s meat pounder.  Every step he took was a little bit of agony.  Bosh had fed him once or twice a day, beans mostly, and mostly cold.  He was hungry and thirsty.  Joe knew, of course, that his kidnapper was doing everything he had to in order to keep him alive, but only just what he had to.  He wanted him weak.

Too weak to try to escape.

It hadn’t taken him very long to realize that the big man didn’t like anyone challenging his authority.  That smack he’d taken while peeing was the last time he’d tried it.  He decided that, if he pretended to be puny and scared, he’d take the man off guard when he did try to run.  And he was going to run the first chance he had.  The first time Bosh untied him, somehow – he didn’t know how – he was going to overcome him and run like a jackrabbit.

Joe looked up at the giant form looming above him, half-again big as Hoss and swallowed hard.

Yeah.  Right.

Bosh reached down and shook him.  “You awake, boy?”

Sometimes he thought if Wade Bosh called him ‘boy’ one more time, he was gonna scream.  Joe bit his lip.  Let him think he’d hit him so hard he was barely conscious.  It wasn’t far from the truth.

The big man hovered.  “Lad?”  The toe of Bosh’s boot nudged him.  “Time to be on our way.”

The curly-headed youth could hear the waves crashing against the rocks that lined the shore.  The wind was up and, from the look of the clouds, a storm was on its way.  He’d grown up around Lake Tahoe and he knew how quick one could come up.  Bosh must want to get moving before it did.

But did he?

He knew his pa and Hoss would be coming after him.  Probably the sheriff and Deputy Roy as well.  Maybe all the hands on the ranch.  Or at least he thought they would.  Pa wouldn’t wait to follow unless….  Joe swallowed over his fear.  He didn’t know about Adam.  He’d been barely conscious when Wade Bosh carried him out of the barn, but he’d been awake enough to see what happened.  He’d heard that shot and watched Adam fall; had seen the trail of blood running away from his brother’s silent form.

Adam could be dead.

If he was, his pa couldn’t come.

It wasn’t the cold or the danger or the pain of the bruises on his face or the cuts on his hands that made Joe moan.

It was the thought that he might be alone.

Really alone.

“I thought you were gullin’ me,” Bosh huffed as he knelt and checked the ropes binding his hands.  A second later the big man used a grip on them to force him to his feet.  As Joe swayed, Bosh lifted him over his shoulder and began to carry him toward the lake.

“Where are we going?” Joe demanded, figuring Bosh couldn’t hit him since he had his hands full of him.

His captor snorted.  “You and me, boy, we got us a boat to catch.”

Joe’s eyes went wide.  He began to struggle.  If Bosh got him on a boat and took him across Lake Tahoe, his pa or anyone else looking for him would lose the trail.  There was no more time.  He had to get away.  He had to –

Bosh caught his chin in his hands and forced him to look into his eyes.  “I got me a man waitin’ on the other side for us.  We don’t show by daybreak, he’s got orders to ride hard and fast to that fancy house of yours and leave no one alive.”

Joe stilled immediately.  He knew kidnapper’s threats were usually false, like the one Bosh had made about having men surrounding the house.  Pa had warned them there would be men who would try to use them against him.  He’d taught them that outlaws almost always used empty threats to control a man; threats against his family and such.  Still, there was no way of knowing.  They weren’t all that far from the house yet.  It didn’t even take a day to ride to his mama’s grave and they weren’t far from that.

Bosh could be telling the truth.

“Well, what will it be, boy?” the big man demanded.

Joe glared his answer and kept still as his captor bore him to the edge of the lake and laid him in the bottom of a medium-sized rowboat.  As Bosh pushed off from the shore, a steady rain began to fall, adding to the discomfort he already felt.  Joe lay with his head propped against one of the seats.  His eyes remained fixed on the shore as it began to recede – the land he loved and the life he had fading away and disappearing into the rising mist.  He fought the tears that threatened to fall, not wanting to appear weak.  All too soon he lost the battle.

“It’s gone, son,” Bosh said in a soothing tone as his strong arms propelled the craft out and into deeper waters.  “There’s no one but me now.  No other way to survive.”

Joe struggled to keep his lip from trembling as he eyed the water flowing by the boat.  If that was the truth, then he’d just rear up and throw himself into the lake.  It was warm on top, but he knew how cold it was just below the surface.

It wouldn’t take long to die.

But he wouldn’t die.  Not because he was afraid, but because he wouldn’t do that to his pa.  Pa’d lost enough.  No, somehow he would survive, and somehow he would return.

No matter how long it took.

 

 

FIVE

The morning sun rose above Lake Tahoe.  The mid-autumn night had been cold but the day was hot and, as he’d feared, heralded a storm.  Lightning flashed in the distance as the sound of thunder echoed across the roiling waves.  Their small party was clear of it for now, other than a spit here and there, but it raged on the southwest side of the large body of water.

A body of water he feared his son traveled upon.

Ben Cartwright ran a hand across his forehead to wipe away beads of sweat brought on by the high level of humidity.  They’d been dressed for fall and, with the storm, the weather had taken a sudden turn toward the summer just gone.  Hoss had shed his heavy coat.  It was bound and tied to the saddleback of the boy’s barrel-chested morgan percheron.  His son was on the ground, moving slowly inch by inch, seeking and reading tracks.  Roy Coffee stood next to Hoss, his piercing gaze fixed on the endless miles of restless deep blue water before them.

He and Jude had left the ranch house and ridden hard, pausing only briefly in the darkest of night to catch a few hours sleep.  Hoss and Roy’s tracks had been easy to follow since they were making no attempt to mask them.  The four of them had joined forces near dawn.  With each mile that passed Wade Bosh’s intentions grew ever clearer and Ben knew a growing fear.  The rancher’s gaze returned to the body of water that stretched endlessly before him, noting the morning mist that partially obscured it.  Bosh was headed for the lake.  On top of that, he was an experienced seaman.

What if he meant to take Joseph over the lake instead of around it?

Though it was the last thing he wanted to do as he worried it would confirm his worst fears, Ben crossed to Hoss’ side.  Jude followed, but passed the boy by and went to talk in low tones to Roy Coffee.  His teenage son was kneeling, his fingers tracing something in the mud.

Ben hesitated and then placed a hand on his shoulder.

Hoss looked up with tears in his eyes; his reddish-blond hair blowing in the rising breeze.  “He’s gone, Pa,” he said, his usually boisterous voice quiet; without strength.  “Little Joe’s gone.”

Ben kept his eyes on the ground, refusing to look at the choppy waves.  “How do you know, son?”

The big teen pointed to the ground.  “See there, Pa, that’s gotta be Bosh.  He’s a big man, Pa.  Real big.”

He saw the prints.  There were rumors, told by those who lived in these parts, of a giant creature known as Sasquatch.  It was said to be seven feet tall and weigh many hundreds of pounds.  The prints looked like they could have been made by such a beast.  Ben winced at the thought.  His son wasn’t called ‘Little Joe’ for nothing. The boy had yet to hit a growth spurt.  Marie’s boy was slight and slender and not very tall, and though Joseph fought like a tiger and was stronger than he looked, against such a man as Bosh he would be completely….

Helpless.

“This here’s Little Joe’s prints, sir.”  Hoss shifted and was pointed to another set of marks in the earth.  “I know them boots of his.  He’s got a nick in the heel.”  His son paused and then looked up at him.  “Joe’s tied up, Pa.  His feet are bound together.”

It made sense.  If he was a man as big as Bosh, there would be no need to make the boy walk, he would simply carry him.  It would give him more control.  Ben drew a breath as he lifted his eyes to the lapping waves.  The lake was approximately twelve miles across.  Within a few miles, any sailing vessel would vanish into the mists of morning.  He knew from experience that it took about thirty minutes for an able-bodied seaman rowing to cover a mile in a small boat.

“How old do you think the tracks are, son?” he asked.

Hoss rose to his feet.  He dusted off the knees of his brown pants and then straightened up and stared at the lake, as if willing the mist to part and reveal his missing brother.

“They was here last night, Pa,” he said, his voice both tired and terrified.  “That Bosh, he’s got him some kind of a lead.”

Yes, he did.  While it might be eleven or twelve miles across the lake, it was nearly seventy around it.  More time they would lose in pursuit.  Time they would not be able to make up.

Ben’s brows drew in and down as he pursed his lips and considered his next move.  It appeared that they were going to have to guess which harbor Bosh would head for once he reached the opposite shore.

God help them if they were wrong.

Jude and Roy had moved to join them.  “Benjamin,” Jude said, “I cannot tell you how sorry I am to have brought this upon your household.”

Ben shook his head.  “No apology is necessary.  The only thing you did wrong was to be sold like a piece of property and to end up on a vessel with Wade Bosh as second mate.  You are hardly responsible for that.”

The Englishman frowned.  “I can’t help but wonder if it was something I said at the trial that rekindled Bosh’s hatred of you.”

“How long ago was the trial, son?” Roy Coffee asked.

He considered it.  “My adopted father died three years ago in December.  Wade Bosh appeared the next year.  Somewhere around two and a half.”

“Seems to me if it was somethin’ you said, son, he would have been here sooner.”

Ben’s eyes spoke gratitude to the lawman.  Jude was nothing if not Wade Bosh’s victim, just as his youngest son was now the seaman’s victim.

“Jude, tell me again why do you think Wade took Joseph?” he asked with trepidation.  The former cabin boy’s assurances before that Bosh would have no perverted interest in his son had done little to quell his fears in that regard.

“I believe it is as Adam said, Benjamin.  Bosh has it in his mind that you took me – took his son –  from him all those years ago.  Now he has taken your son from you in recompense for the loss he believes he suffered at your hands.”

Ben glanced at Hoss and decided he couldn’t hide anything from the boy, no matter how much it might frighten him.  Joseph’s life depended on them all having knowledge of what Bosh was about.  “You said he was violent – that Bosh tried to kill you when he reappeared in England.”  He saw Hoss stiffen and Roy place a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  “Do you think he will harm Joseph – physically?”

Jude hesitated.

Sensing something, Ben asked quickly, “What haven’t you told me?”

The Englishman sighed.  “Have you ever heard of syphilis of the brain, Benjamin?”

Syphilis he knew about.  It was a disease common among sailing men, often picked up in the ports from their immoral dalliances with the local women of the night.  Many went blind from it.  But syphilis of the brain?

He shook his head.

“Medical science is only beginning to understand the brain.  It seems there are times when this disease does not manifest itself in the way you and I are familiar with, but instead eats away at the brain.”  Jude held his gaze. “The result can be madness.”

“Are you saying….”  He swallowed over his fear.  “Jude, are you saying Wade Bosh has this form of the disease?”

“Yes, and in his insanity, I wonder….”

Ben’s heart skipped a beat.  “Bosh may think, or come to think that Joseph is you?”

Hoss was staring at the two of them.  “Pa, what does that mean?  What does it mean for Little Joe?”

When Jude was a boy, just about Joseph’s age, Second Mate Bosh had captured him and then spun a yarn to everyone that he was dead.  The Independence’s second mate had hidden the boy away and nearly starved him to death in an effort to control him.  When he’d freed Jude, it had been obvious the boy had been beaten as well and he was afraid – so terribly afraid.

Ben’s mouth was dry.  “I need you to tell me, Jude.  I need you to tell me everything about the time when you were Bosh’s prisoner.  If Little Joe’s kidnapper is reliving what he did then, he may try to do the same things now.”  The rancher cast another look at the darkening lake.  Rain had begun to fall and had passed quickly from light to steady.  Ben closed his eyes, picturing the lake’s other shore.  The closest landing was John Meek’s bay to the south and west.  From there Bosh could go anywhere, Vallejo, San Francisco….

Anywhere there was a tall ship and a port of call.

 

Adam Cartwright rose to his feet.  There’d been a knock at the door and Hop Sing wasn’t around to answer it, so he’d worked his way out of the chair and was limping over to see who it was.  Their Chinese cook had gone to Eagle Station to fetch supplies.  Adam grinned.  It had taken just about every mental gymnastic he could manage to get him to go, but he’d won in the end.

In Hop Sing’s eyes he wasn’t any more capable of taking care of himself than Joe.

As he ambled over, the black-haired man thought about the first time he’d met Hop sing.  It was about the same time Pa came home with Marie.  He’d been thirteen then and, since he thought he was all grown up, he and the man from China had gone a few rounds.  But, after the first time Hop Sing’s Chinese medicine got him up and out of bed in one week instead of two, he gained a newfound respect.  After that their cook had become something of a second ‘ma’ to him and Hoss.  Marie’s attention was often focused on Little Joe, since their youngest brother had come early and needed a lot of tending.  Hop Sing had taken up the slack, making sure he and Hoss were up and ready for school, and that he sent them out the door with lunches that were the envy of even the wealthiest of their classmates.  After Marie died, Hop Sing’s interest was mostly Joe – after all, someone had to watch the kid every minute or he would have torn the house down – and yet he still found time to take care of the two of them.  When he left for college, the Chinese man cried – and handed him a lunch that was the envy of everyone on the stage coach bound for Boston.

Smiling with the memory, Adam opened the door.

On trouble.

Two men burst in, guns drawn.  As one fanned off to check the kitchen wing, the other leveled his revolver at him and demanded, “Where is he?  Where’s that high-falutin’ darky?”  The intruder glanced from side to side and then pinned him with pale watery eyes.  “We know he was headed to your place.”

Adam wrinkled his nose at the man’s rank breath.  He didn’t recognize him or the other man with him, but he knew their type.  They were locals – ranch hands, maybe, or miners – and were obviously intoxicated.  Jude must have run afoul them when he arrived in town.  The elegant educated former slave had probably made fools of them.  They’d gotten drunk and were out for revenge.

The black-haired man straightened imperceptibly in an attempt to project strength.  He’d come downstairs against orders and done some light work around the house, always careful not to reopen his wound.  Still, he was pretty tired and had been just about to call it a night when that knock came at the door.

He was definitely not up for a fight.

“Jude’s not here,” Adam replied.  “He was, but he’s gone.”

The man who had disappeared into the kitchen was back, apparently satisfied that they were alone.  He came up to him and grabbed hold of his collar.  “Okay, Cartwright!  Where’d the darky go?  You better tell us and tell us fast!”

“Into Eagle Station,” he said without hesitation.

The two men exchanged a look.  “Then why didn’t we see him on our way out here?” the second said.  “Are you lying to us, boy?”

Damn that laudanum!  He wasn’t thinking clearly.

“There’s more than one path into town,” Adam extemporized.  “Or, maybe, Pa decided to show him some of our land on the way there.”

The man who had his shirt balled in his fist turned to look at his partner in crime.  “You buyin’ that, Jake?” he asked.

Jake chortled. “No way in Hell, Hal!”

Adam blanched.  He did know them.  Jake Kusky and Harold Wilmot.

Unfortunately, they worked for them.

Adam pursed his lips and lifted on eyebrow.  “You know, I think my father might look dimly upon two of his hands threatening me.  Why don’t the pair of you turn around and go back out the door and we’ll just pretend this whole thing didn’t happen?”

“Why don’t you just shut up!” Hal snarled.  Then, without warning, he backhanded him.  Adam stumbled into a chair, knocking it over, and then fell to the floor as the inebriated man turned to his partner, ordering him to keep watch at the door.  Standing over him, Harold Wilmot sneered as he pointed the revolver at his head.  “Don’t you go thinkin’ you’re the man your pa is, boy, ‘cause you ain’t.”

Adam had curled up.  He had his hand to his side and was fighting a wave of pain and nausea that suggested at least one of the stitches Doc Martin had taken in his side had popped.

“Don’t you think we ought to get out of here, Hal?  What’s the point of stayin’ if the darky ain’t here?” Jake asked nervously, his eyes on the yard.

Jake Kusky wasn’t the sharpest tool in the line shack.  Hal Wilmot was another matter.  They’d been hired on a few weeks before when they needed extra hands for the fall round-up.  Like most ranch hands, the pair were transients.  They’d arrived together and offered a letter as proof that they’d worked one of the big ranches close to Reno.  Somehow, now, he doubted the veracity of their claim.  They were obviously thieves and liars.

He just hoped they weren’t killers too.

Hal stared down the barrel of his gun at him and demanded, “Where’d the darky go?”

Darky.

Images of Jude Randolph flashed through Adam’s mind – of his rich brown curls, pale eyes, and light complexion that was barely darker than his in summer time.  The former cabin boy was far more white than black.  Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to matter.  He’d heard that, in the South, if your mother was a slave, then you were a slave too no matter how much white you had in you.

What lunacy.

Adam bit his lip against the pain and considered his options.  He could continue to make up stories in order to misdirect the pair, sending them on a wild goose chase, but it had already been proven that the drugs the doctor had given him for the pain had addled his wits and he wasn’t thinking straight.  Most likely he’d slip up.  He could tell them the truth and do the same, but that would put his pa and brother in danger.  The black-haired man looked up at Harold Wilmot.  The man appeared to be around forty.  He had wiry dark hair streaked with silver, a thick mustache, and cold ice-blue eyes.  Adam thought he’d caught a touch of a southern accent, and guessed that was what fueled Wilmot’s hatred.  Jake Kusky on the other hand was a bumbling fool.  He had pale yellow hair that hung in hanks before his brown eyes and a gaping mouth.  No, Jake was no worry.  It was Wilmot he had to look out for.  Wilmot, who had murder in his eyes.  At the moment, his bloodlust was aimed at Jude Randolph, but it would take little for to turn it to him.  Hal was the kind of a man who simply liked to kill.  He was also the kind of man who was unlikely to leave witnesses.

There was only one option left.

It was gonna kill his pa.

Feeling his shirt, Adam noted it was damp.  Fortunately, it was wine-colored and the blood wouldn’t show – much.  “Another man came here yesterday.  He kidnapped my little brother.”  When Wilmot snorted, seemingly delighted, Adam bit back his anger and went on.  “His name is Wade Bosh and he’s connected to Jude Randolph somehow.  Jude and my father took off after him.”

How are they connected?” Hal demanded.

Adam shrugged.  “My pa didn’t tell me.”

Wilmot frowned, but bought it since he was a devious devil himself.  “Which way did they go?”

Adam drew a breath.  This was the part Pa wasn’t going to like.

“I’ll have to show you.”

Those icy eyes were filled with suspicion.  “Why?”

“You’re on Ponderosa land.  My Pa and brothers and I have ways through no one else knows.  Pa wouldn’t have followed the road.  He’d be worried about someone tracking him.”  While that might be true, he was fairly certain his father and Jude had followed the road, at least for some ways.  He doubted the Englishman was an accomplished rider.  Even if he was, the West was a whole different country.

“Makes sense, Hal,” Jake said.

Wilmot looked over his shoulder.  “When I want your opinion, lamebrain, I’ll ask!” he snapped.  Turning back, the grizzled man said, “Seems to me, Cartwright, that you want to come with us for some reason.  Why’s that?”

Why?  To stay alive, of course.

Thinking quickly, he replied, “All right.  You got me.  There is more to it.”  Adam adopted an angry pose.  “My pa treats me like a kid.  He left me behind because I was asking too many questions.  I’m certain there’s something going on between Randolph and this man Bosh.”   He scowled.  “Jude is a rich man.  I think he has some kind of treasure hidden up in the hills.  Bosh wants it and that’s why he took my brother, to threaten my pa so he would make Jude turn it over to him.”

He tried not to frown.  That was about the most convoluted thing he had ever said, but then the pair he said it to were drunk.

Hopefully, greed would make it make sense to them.

“You think he’s telling the truth, Hal?” Jude asked, dollar signs in his eyes.

“I…don’t…know….”

“Get me a Bible,” Adam said quickly.  “I’ll swear on it.  That is, if you believe in God.”

“We ain’t heathens!” Jake asserted.

No, just brutes and would-be murderers.

Hal was wavering.  With the tip of the gun, he indicated his side.  Adam glanced down to find blood seeping between his fingers.   “What’s wrong with you?”

He scowled.  It was little use lying.  All they had to do was lift his shirt to see the wound.  “The man who took my brother shot me.  It’s nothing.”

Fortunately, his red shirt hid just how much blood had soaked into it.  If it was a stitch he’d broken like he thought and he was lucky, it would clot soon and stop.

If he wasn’t lucky….

“Look,” Adam insisted, “I want to get my hands on that money.  My pa doesn’t give me anything.  You’ve seen how it is here.  My middle brother and I have to work like hands for a hand’s wages while our little brother gets treated like a prince!”  Sorry, Joe, he thought.  “If we catch up to them, I’ll help you.  Then we can split the treasure three ways.”

He hoped that by appealing to their baser nature – and making them think his was base too – the intoxicated pair wouldn’t think things through too carefully.

“If we’re going to go, we’d better go now,” Adam continued.  “Our cook will be back anytime.  The men too.  It’s the weekend and they’ll be coming in for their pay.  You know how it is.”

Only it wasn’t.  The hands were in the field and not due back until Monday at the earliest.

“I say we go for it, Hal,” Jake said.

“Shut up!  I’m thinkin’.”  Wilmot scowled and then gestured with his gun.  “Get up!”

Adam complied, as quickly as he could – which was not fast enough for Wilmot.  The man reached out, caught him by the arm, and dragged him the rest of the way.  By the time he was on his feet, the black-haired man couldn’t help it, he was panting.

“You slow us down and I’ll shoot you and leave you like a dead dog by the side of the road,” the outlaw snarled.  “Is that understood, Cartwright?”

Adam nodded.  He supposed he should feel lucky.  Not only was he going to live a little longer –

He was going after Joe.

 

Little Joe woke with a jolt as lightning flashed and thunder crashed and the boat he was sailing in rocked from side to side.  For a time he had been allowed to sit on the seat and had stared at the endless miles of dark blue water stretching out on every side of him.  He’d contemplated throwing himself overboard – preferring death to a life with the man who had taken him – but like before, rejected the idea.  When he was about ten a friend of his drowned.  Every man and boy in Eagle Station had gone looking for Jim Tyler.  It ended up he’d been caught in a ravine by a flash flood and carried away.  They only found the body ‘cause he got snagged on a tree before the river took him.  He and Pa had been with the men who found Jim.  Once he saw what had happened, Pa’d caught him and turned him away, tryin’ to shield him, but he’d seen his friend anyway – seen the skin sloughing off of his feet and hands and the bright red blood pooling in his cheeks and forehead.  He’d caught the scent of death as they carried Jim by and he looked into his dead friend’s glistening, lifelike eyes.

Joe closed his own and shuddered.  He couldn’t do that to his pa.  If he was gonna die, it was gonna be clean and on dry land.

That way his bones would be picked clean.

The curly-haired boy blinked to clear his eyes of sleep, but quickly realized that it wasn’t sleep that weighed them down but rain.  He remembered slidin’ down to the bottom of the boat as the rain started; passing gratefully from a world of pain and fear into one where he was runnin’ on warm summer grass with his mama, and laughing as Hoss and Adam chased them.  He was lying there still, his hands and feet bound.  Glancing at Wade Bosh Joe saw him struggling with the oars, fighting to keep them on course and afloat.  There was a bucket near the big man’s feet to scoop water out of the hull, but he didn’t have a hand to use it.

“Untie me!,” Joe shouted above the storm.  Bosh didn’t hear him the first time, so he cleared his throat and shouted again, louder this time.  “Untie me so I can help!”

Bosh frowned.  “Why would you want to help me, boy?” he growled.

Joe’s eyes went to the sky.  It was black.  He turned around and looked.  There was no shore.  The waves were rising higher than the boat and they were riding low in the water.

Really low in the water.

“Cause I don’t want to drown!” Joe yelled as he shoved his bound hands toward his captor.  “Untie me so I can use the bucket!  Otherwise, we’re gonna go down!”

“What do you know about sailin’, nipper?”

He did a double-take.  Bosh’s tone had done an about face.  It was almost – friendly.

Joe shook his head to clear away his confusion as well as a mass of tangled, sodden curls that dragged down into his eyes, blinding him.  He blew at the remainder as he replied.  “My Pa’s had me out here, and my brothers. I ain’t never been this far from shore, but I’ve been out in a storm and I know what to do!”

Not one this bad, he thought, but kept the thought to himself.

The man who had taken him from his home stared at him for the longest time.  So long Joe feared they would sink.  Finally Bosh locked the oars in place.  He reached toward his belt.

And then came at him with a knife.

Joe’s eyes went wide as he pressed back against the wooden seat, sure he was gonna die.  It was almost too much to take in when Bosh sliced through the ropes binding his feet and hands and then, with a twist, palmed the bucket and thrust it toward him.

“Get to baling, boy!”

Joe didn’t argue.  He didn’t want to be Bosh’s captive, but even more than that, he didn’t want to die.  As he loaded the bucket and tossed the water overboard into the rushing waves, the seaman began to row with vigor, driving them through the mist and toward the unseen shore.  Joe had no idea how far across the lake they were.  It seemed to him that the sun was up, though it was hard to tell with the cloud-covered sky.

It couldn’t be that far to the opposite shore.

Joe glanced at the water at his feet.  It was up to his shins now, which was more than halfway up the side of the boat.

It better not be too far.

A crack of lightning split the night.  As the thunder rumbled, waves crashed up and onto the boat.  Bosh halted what he was doing, a look of horror on his face.  “We’re not going to make it!” he announced as the boat began to list to one side.

Visions of Jim’s corpse rose up before Joe’s eyes.  God, no! he thought.  No!  Don’t let my pa see me like that.  Please, God, no!

Joe let out a startled yelp as Wade Bosh’s huge form crashed into him and propelled him into the water.  Stupidly, he gasped as his head went under, sucking liquid into his lungs.  A moment later he spit most of it out as the seaman lifted him above the waves and shoved him onto the boat, which had resurfaced upside-down.  It was rocking with the waves and he didn’t think it would hold for long.  As he lay there, Joe coughed several times.  His chest felt tight and he was light-headed.  It was all he could do not to slip off into the black water.

“Climb on my back, boy!” Bosh shouted above the renewed thunder and lightning.  “Wrap your arms around my neck!”

His kidnapper was near the boat and his broad shoulders offered a mountain of safety.  Much as Joe hated to be dependant on the man who had ripped him from his home, he had no choice.  For whatever reason the seaman wanted him alive.  He was pretty sure Bosh wouldn’t let him drown.

Joe eyed the churning water again.

That was, if he could help it.

“Now, boy!” Bosh shouted with urgency.

Clamping his lips shut and tightening his jaw, Joe did as he was told.  He slid forward, ringed Bosh’s neck with his arms and locked his hands beneath the man’s stubbled chin.  Then he held on for dear life.  The seaman pulled away from the boat as it sank and began to swim; his long, strong arms carrying them forward quickly through the roiling waves.

As he rode on Bosh’s back, Joe turned his head and laid his cheek on the big man’s neck.  His eyes drifted opened and closed, opening mostly when the lightning flashed.  After awhile it felt like being set adrift.  He felt like he was floating not on the water, but in a dream – a dream where the whole world had gone to water and fish kept men in glass bowls filled with air.  Joe was vaguely aware of the fact that his mind was wandering and wondered why.  He didn’t think he’d swallowed all that much water.  Then he realized he must have cause it was pouring out of his mouth, causing him to gag and retch.  He struggled to lick his lips in order to clear them of vomit, and panicked when he felt foam at the edges of his mouth.  He began to kick and scream, to claw at the hands that held him down.  He had to get away – get away from the water!  He had to –

“Boy!  You’re safe!  Stop fightin’ me!”  There was a pause.  “Boy!  You hear me now!”

The fingers of both his hands dug into the man’s arms.  Joe looked up to see who it was that held him, but his vision was blurred.  Water streamed into his eyes from the curls plastered across his forehead  and all he could make out was a halo of gray hair.

“Pa?” he croaked.

“I ain’t….”  There was silence for a moment.  “Yeah…”

Joe reached out with a hand, still not sure.

“Pa?” he asked again.

A big hand encased his.  Another touched his brow.

“It’s me, boy.  The only pa you got.”

 

“Pa, it’s time to go.”

Ben Cartwright turned to face the wind.  The storm had reached them and they were being forced to retreat in order to seek shelter.  Early to mid-autumn was often the time of the most violent tempests and this one raged as if the Olympian gods themselves were set against the course he had chosen.  He’d intended to start out anyway, to dare the gods and the elements to keep him from his boy.  Every minute, each hour that passed gave Wade Bosh a greater lead.  If that madman managed to get Joseph to one of the bigger cities with their myriad ports and onto a tall ship, he would be lost to them.  He might not see his boy for years.

If ever.

Hoss’ hand caught his arm.  “Pa, you gotta come with me.  Roy’s found a cave.  It ain’t too far from here.”  His middle son paused to look overhead.  Just as he did there was a crack of lightning and a nearby tree burst into flame.  “Pa, please!  It ain’t safe out here!”

It was almost more than he could contemplate, heeding that voice.

“Hoss, I can’t….”

“Pa.”  His son’s tone took on an edge that seemed too old, too wise for someone his age – as if Hoss were the parent and he was the child.  “You or me gettin’ struck by lightnin’ ain’t gonna help Little Joe one whit.  You know that.”  His son paused.  “You know too we cain’t all just take off after him.  Someone’s gonna have to go back to the house for supplies and men.  Pa.”  Hoss shook him.  “It’s a big lake and California’s a mighty big state.  We cain’t canvas all of it alone.”

There was another lightning strike, followed by a quick boom of thunder.

Ben hesitated.  Then he took his son by the shoulders and pushed him toward Jude who was waiting and watching in the distance.

“You go!”

“Pa!”  Water was running of the rim of Hoss’ ten gallon hat.  It splashed on his shoulders and slid down the shining leather vest he wore.  “You always told me God’s in control of everythin’ and that no matter what happened, it’s in His plan.”  Hoss swallowed as he looked at the churning water.  “Little Joe’s in God’s hand now, Pa.  There ain’t nothin’ we can do but pray.”

Ben drew a sharp breath.

His son’s faith shamed him.

“Pa?”

Slowly Ben nodded and then he began to walk, following after the boy who had turned his collar up against the wind.  As he did, the words of his God echoed through his mind.  ‘When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee, and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.…for I am the LORD thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour.’

Ben’s face was wet, with the rain and his tears.

His God was his son’s savior too.

Before the storm ended, God would either rescue Joseph or welcome him home with open arms.

 

PART TWO

 

SIX

 

Jude Randolph stared at the man with gun-metal gray hair who sat opposite him.  They had paused to partake of food and drink before beginning their journey around the lake.  In many ways Benjamin Cartwright appeared to be a broken man.  It was hard to see in him the strong, resilient seaman who had been his rescuer and savior some twenty-odd years before.  But then, that was to be expected.  While he did not have children of his own, his brother John did and he knew how precious they were.

And how vulnerable.

Roy Coffee had filled him in on what had occurred, the lawman’s words brief and succinct.  Benjamin had returned to Boston to marry  Captain Stoddard’s daughter.  The woman had died giving birth to his first son.  He had married again and that wife died as well, bleeding to death in front of his eyes, leaving him with another babe without a mother.  Then had come the bride from New Orleans, a fiery woman with a temper to match, who had given his old friend his third son – the child of his old age – before she too died.  The lawman had sighed and shaken his head.  ‘All Ben’s hopes are wrapped up in that boy, and the biggest part of his heart,’ he had said.  ‘If Little Joe don’t survive, well, I ain’t so sure Ben will either.

They had parted company with the deputy and Benjamin’s middle son as soon as the storm passed.  The young man with the reddish-blond hair had attempted to talk his father into returning with them, but the rancher would have none of it.  Wade Bosh had approximately a half day’s lead as far as they could tell and he was not willing to make it more.  In the end Benjamin had ordered his son to accompany Roy Coffee back to the Ponderosa.  While the lawman rode on to Eagle Station to check in with the sheriff and see if anything had been reported concerning Joseph Cartwright or the man who had taken him, Hoss was instructed to ride out to where the cattle were being sequestered and to bring back as many men as he could to form a search party.  After that, he was to rejoin his father.

Jude took a sip of coffee and then placed the cup on the ground near his feet.  When asked what he would like to do, he had opted to remain with Benjamin.  There were two reasons.  First of all, he knew more about Bosh and his methods than any of them.  Secondly, he was a living reminder that the seaman had neither molested nor sought to kill him while he was with him.  It was his hope the same would hold true for Joseph.  Sadly, the disease from which Wade Bosh suffered made the man mercurial.  His greatest fear was not that Bosh would harm Benjamin’s son on purpose – but by accident.  Bosh was a large man and powerful.  From what he had seen in England, there was a rage within him fueled by all the wrongs he believed he had suffered and he laid the majority of them at Benjamin Cartwright’s feet.

In the distance there was a rumble of thunder.  The storm had traveled southeast.  It was beyond them now, but its fierce display still lit the night, reminding the former slave of the fireworks his adoptive father had taken him to see on a business trip to France.  Jude shook his head.  It was more than amazing where life had taken him.  He had two men to thank for it.  Benjamin Cartwright and, curiously, Wade Bosh.  If Bosh had not kidnapped him and Benjamin saved him, he would no doubt have been returned at the end of their voyage to the south and slavery.

God’s ways were indeed mysterious.

Benjamin had been staring at the electrical display in the sky.  He sighed as he turned back to the fire.  “I wonder where Joseph is.”

Sadly, there was no answer that would bring his friend peace.

“You will find him,” Jude said simply. “As you found me.”

The former first mate of the Independence ran a finger under his eye, wiping away moisture.  It might have come from the few raindrops that still fell, but most likely was tears.  The rancher closed his eyes and then focused those near-black orbs on him.

“You were almost dead when I found you,” the rancher said.  “Another day and you would have been.”

It was true.  The ship’s doctor told Benjamin that when he came to see him the next day.  They had thought he was asleep, but he had been listening.

“You sat with me that night.  Do you remember?” Jude asked softly.

Benjamin nodded.  “Yes.”

“Do you remember as well what you told me?”

The older man’s brows peaked toward his dark gray hair.  “You mean you do?  It seemed you were very far away.  Perhaps so far I would not be able to reach you.”

He had been in a way.  That night first mate Cartwright was not the only one by his bedside.  His brother Samuel had been there too, offering a hand and a way out of the pain.

“Your voice…called me back,” he admitted, his own choking.  “There were words.  Words you repeated more than once.  Do you remember what they were?”

His friend shook his head.  “No.”

Jude smiled.  “Fear thou not, for I am with thee.  Be not dismayed for I am thy God.  I will strengthen thee.  Yea, I will help thee.”

Benjamin’s smile was wistful.  “Yes….”

“They are words you need to hold onto now as I did then, my friend.”

For a moment the other man said nothing.  Benjamin’s face was drawn.  His jaw tight.  “I have held on to them, Jude.  I held onto them as I buried each of my wives.  I don’t….”  He drew a sharp breath.  “I don’t know if I can hold on to them if I am forced to bury one of my sons.”

Jude understood.  In the darkness of the hold he had briefly lost his faith in God.  He’d never known his father, who had been a skilled tradesman.  The master of the plantation had sold him shortly after his birth.  It was his mother and grandmother who reared him.  Both were women of deep faith.  He’d asked them once how they could believe in a loving and merciful Father when they had known nothing but misery and lived their entire lives enslaved.

We’re all enslaved’, his mother liked to say, ‘black or white, it’s the same.  The Lord come to bring us bread for our bodies and blood for our souls.  Bread and blood, it’s all we need.

The Englishman me his friend’s troubled gaze.  “I lost my faith in the darkness, Benjamin.  It was you who brought it back to me.  If you will, I will…help you keep hold.”  Jude paused.  “You said you wanted to know what happened to me while I was held captive.  In some ways it is worse than you suspect, but in others, perhaps better.  I have said it before and I do so again, I do not believe Bosh has any intent to harm your son.”

Those dark eyes held his.  “Like he had no ‘intent’ to harm you?”

It was hard to put into words.  He’d been on the deck, carrying supper to the captain’s cabin when Bosh took him.  The ship’s second mate had stolen chloroform from the sickbay and used it to subdue him, so he could carry him deep down into the belly of the ship and sequester him in a place where no one would think to look.  Wade Bosh had bound his hands and feet and for a whole day he lay there, alone in the dark, his only companions the waves lapping against the hull and a constant growing hunger both for food and the sound of a human voice.  When Bosh returned, bringing him stale bread, a bit of cheese, and a sip of wine, he’d eaten them eagerly, but even more eagerly he had drunk in the presence of another human being.  His reprieve lasted only a few minutes. Then he was bound again and, again, left alone.  This went on for days until at last he came to hunger for Wade Bosh more than he hungered for the meager food he brought him.  He was ravenous for the touch of his hand on his forehead and for the words he spoke in his ear, assuring him that he was there for him.  There was no one else, he said.  Everyone else had abandoned him.  He was nothing to them.  He’d been forgotten.

Only Bosh cared.

Bosh, who had started to call himself ‘Pa’ when he spoke to him.

Bosh, whom he had come to call ‘Pa.’

He was later to find out that God intervened to break this cycle.  Such was his dependence on the man he would have done anything, said anything; gone anywhere with him.  As they pulled into the harbor Captain Peak found he did not feel well.  First mate Cartwright took charge of the ship, leaving Second Mate Bosh with all his duties.  As the days went by and Bosh failed to reappear, Jude came to believe he had abandoned him.  His hunger for the man quickly turned to hatred.  With his last breath, for so he had thought it was, he cursed the man’s name.  He had no idea how long it was after that when the light appeared, coming toward him through the darkness.  In a moment of clarity he’d realized what it was Bosh had done to him, how he had changed him from a human being into something else – into a kind of animal that begged for its master’s hand even though that hand brought it harm.  Then, he saw it wasn’t Bosh.  It was the ship’s first mate. The man with the kind eyes whose name was Benjamin.

It was the last thing he said before falling into a fever that nearly took him away – that name.

“Jude?” Benjamin called softly.

He blinked, surprised to find there were tears in his eyes.

“Forgive me,” he breathed.

The rancher rose to his feet.  He came to his side and placed a hand on his shoulder.  Then he walked on by and disappeared into the night.

To despair or to plead with his God, Jude knew not which.

 

Hoss Cartwright reined his horse in and fairly leapt from the saddle to the ground.  He nodded to Roy Coffee who had come with him to the house before heading into town.  The deputy said he would stable the horses and tend to them.  He was gonna go in and see how Adam was and inform his brother of the progress they’d made so far in the hunt for Little Joe.

Which was none.

They were both wet, tired, and hungry.  He’d invited Deputy Roy to come in and rest a spell as well as to eat somethin’ before the lawman hit the Eagle Station road.  The older man was gonna go to town and raise what men he could for a search party, while he went out onto the range and gathered at least half a dozen hands.  That was about all they could spare as it took most of the men to keep watch over the herd and get it settled for winter.  They planned on meeting back at the house around the time supper was served.  They’d eat and then head out again, picking up his pa’s trail.

Deputy Roy had just entered the stable and he was steppin’ onto the porch when the front door flew open and Hop Sing burst out wavin’ his hands and shoutin’ in Cantonese.  They all knew a few of Hop Sing’s words – usually the ones he used when he was shooin’ them out of the kitchen or up the stairs.  Hoss had heard a few of these before and he recognized one in particular.  Ngai.  It meant somethin’ like ‘in danger’.

Mostly Hop Sing used it when he was talking about Little Joe.

“Hey!  Hop Sing!” Hoss shouted back, holding out his hands and waving them.  “Slow down and speak English!  I ain’t got enough Chinese in my head to fill a slate!”

The small man drew a sharp breath.  He shuddered and then blurted out, “Mistah Adam gone!  No at home when Hop Sing return.  Mistah Adam not in house anywhere!”

Hoss scowled.  Now what would Adam be doin’ headin’ out when he was hurt?  Pa’d told him to stay put.  Maybe he decided he’d just take it on the chin and go out and look for their missing brother anyhow.

“You mean he went lookin’ for Little Joe?”

Behind him he heard Deputy Coffee clear his throat.  When he turned toward him, the look on the lawman’s face made his heart skip a beat.

“Hoss.  Your brother Adam’s horse is in the stable.”

Adam could have taken another horse, though he couldn’t imagine why.  A man and his horse, they kind of went together like a glove on the hand.  Riding a horse you knew and that knew you was the surest and safest way to get back home in one piece.

“Number one son not go look for brother.  Someone come in house.  Someone cause trouble!   Hop Sing find chair upside-down.”  He paused.  Some of the bluster went out of his tone.  “Hop Sing also find blood on floor by chair.”

Roy Coffee was at his side now.  “You said you found blood?”

The man from China nodded.

“Show me.”

Hoss was still reeling.  It wasn’t possible, was it?  Adam should be inside the house recovering from the bullet he took in his side.  It didn’t make any sense he would have left so that must mean –

He swallowed hard.

Someone had taken him as well.

The teenager felt a hand on his arm and looked up to find Deputy Coffee staring at him with understanding eyes.  “Come on, son.  Let’s go inside.  Standin’ out here ain’t gonna change what we find.”

It was all he could do to step through the door.  Just two days before everythin’ had been fine.  Little Joe’d been his mischievous self, playin’ tricks and drivin’ both him and Adam to near distraction.  Joe‘d rigged a bucket of mush above the stable door.  Adam had been the one unlucky enough to open it.  He’d tossed a coin and heads said he was on older brother’s side this time and the two of them had chased the little scamp all the way back to the house.  Pa’d been sittin’ in his chair as they burst through the door.  He’d watched them tackle one another with that look that said he’d just about had enough – and that enough wasn’t ever really enough.

A house that was empty now, ‘cept for him.

Standing just inside the door, Hoss watched the lawman as he crossed over to the upturned chair.  Deputy Roy knelt and touched the reddish stain on the floor.  He held his fingers to his nose and tasted it and then declared. “That’s blood, all right.  It ain’t quite dry, so it ain’t been too long.”  He looked at their cook. “How long you been home, Hop Sing?”

The man from China glanced at the tall case clock.  “One hour, maybe a little bit less.”

“That’s about right,” the deputy said as he rose.  He looked toward the door with a frown.  “We may find some prints, but I ain’t holdin’ out a lot of hope since we just rode in here and probably went right over them.”

“Who you think take Mistah Adam?” Hop Sing asked.

Deputy Roy pulled at his chin.  “Well, it cain’t be that man what took Little Joe.  He’s long gone.  Tell me, Hop Sing, did you find anythin’ missin’?”

“Someone take food and some of Mistah Ben’s liquor.  Several rifles gone.”  He paused.  “Mistah Adam gone.”

“Since they didn’t leave no ransom note, I’m thinkin’ that ain’t what we got goin’ on here.  Maybe they needed Adam to take them somewhere,” he proposed.

Hoss had been listenin’.  He’d been thinkin’ too.  The only thing that was different from two days ago – aside from the fact that Little Joe’d gone missin’ – was the fact that they had a visitor.

“Deputy Roy?” he asked.  “You don’t think this could have anythin’  to do with that there Jude Randolph, feller do you?”

Roy Coffee’s pale blue eyes narrowed.  “You may just have somethin’ there, boy.  I heard there was a disturbance in town when that English man arrived.  Had somethin’ to do with two of your pa’s men as I remember.”

“Men still talk about it in city,” Hop Sing chimed in.  “Two men from Ponderosa threaten Mister Jude, call him ‘darky’.”  The Chinese man’s eyes narrowed with outrage.  Hoss knew why.  There’d been many a time Hop Sing had been called names.  “Mister Jude make fools out of men.  Make very mad.”

Deputy Roy was noddin’ his head.  “I heard it was Jake Kusky and Harold Wilmot.  Them two are trouble.  Maybe they come here lookin’ for that English feller.”  He scratched his chin.  “What I cain’t figure is why they’d want to take Adam.”

“To show them the way,” Hoss suggested.  “To take them to Pa and Jude.”

The lawman thought that over a minute.  He nodded and then let out a sigh.  “Seems we got us two kidnapped Cartwrights.”

Hoss let out a strangled cry.

The older man pursed his lips. “Sorry, son, I weren’t thinkin’.  You must feel right lost about now.”

The teenager fought back tears.  Little Joe was his heart.  Adam, his rock.  Both needed rescued.

How did he choose?

Deputy Roy walked over to him.  “First thing we need to do, boy, is get some food and rest.”  The lawman held up a hand to silence his protests.  “You and me are plumb wore out.  We won’t do neither of your brothers any good if we fall out of our saddles and lay snoozin’ in the middle of the road.”  He turned to their cook.  “Hop Sing, can you rustle us up some grub?”  As the Chinese man nodded and went to do as he’d been asked, the older man’s attention returned to him  “You go get out of those wet clothes, son, and then come down and eat.  When you’re done, you go on out and find your pa’s men and bring as many of them as you can back here to the house.”  The lawman lifted his hand and headed for the door.  “I’m gonna ride hard and fast as I can for Eagle Station.  I’ll rustle up as many of the town folk as are free and meet you back here around supper time.”  Deputy Roy turned and pinned him with a glare.  “Now you hear me, Hoss, you stay put ‘til I get here.  If I go losin’ your pa’s last son, there ain’t nothin’ on earth’s gonna keep Ben Cartwright from hog-tyin’ me and throwin’ me to the wolves!”

Hoss sucked in his fear and unspent tears and nodded.

“You givin’ me your word?”

He nodded again.  “Yes, sir.”

The deputy stared at him a moment longer and then returned to his side.  He reached out again and took his shoulder in his hand.

“Son, I cain’t guarantee you everythin’ will come out right.  You know that.  It ain’t in my hands.  But I can tell you that if anyone can make it, it’s them two brothers of yours.  Adam’s right smart.  He can sure as heck outthink Jake and Hal.  And Little Joe,” Roy Coffee smiled, “I ain’t never seen anyone more like an eel. That boy can slip out of anythin’!”  He lifted his hand.  “They’ll find their way home.”

“Mistah Hoss come eat.  Food on table,” Hop Sing said softly.

It was a joke between his brothers that there weren’t nothin’ could take his appetite away.  He’d always joined right in, laughin’ with them and tellin’ them how right they was.

Hoss only hoped he’d get to see them again so’s he could tell them just how wrong they’d all been about it.

 

Adam Cartwright reined in his borrowed horse.  He and his captors had been riding for something close to two hours and had come to the pass where he planned to take them off the road and into one of the rockier portions of the Ponderosa.  There was a danger in going this way as anyone tracking him would have a hard time finding prints due to the hard-packed earth and stone.  Still, it lay along the route his father and Jude had taken and he’d been able to convince Hal and Jake that the pair had veered off and headed into the hills looking for Jude’s hidden stash.  Fortunately for him neither Jake Kusky or Hal Wilmot was too bright.  Their belts just didn’t go through all the loops.  He’d had hopes he could misdirect them long enough that they’d sober up and think better of what they were doing, but that hope had been dashed when Jake discovered Pa’s liquor cabinet.  Jake had chugged half a bottle of brandy and spent most of the time on the trail singing a rousing rendition of ‘Sweet Betsy From Pike’ – taking especial pleasure in the verse where Betsy shows her legs.  Hal had finished the remainder of the bottle but, unlike Jake, he didn’t get drunk – he just got quiet and mean.

Really mean.

Adam reached up and touched his jaw.  He’d failed to respond to a question quickly enough for Hal’s liking and nearly been knocked out of the saddle when the man backhanded him.  As it was, the jolt had set his side to throbbing.  He was feeling slightly nauseous and was fairly certain he was bleeding again.

At least there was no sign of a fever – yet.

The black-haired man’s hazel eyes lifted to the ridge above them.  He and his brothers had covered every inch of the Ponderosa and had trails of their own.  Some of them Pa knew about, others he didn’t because they were, well, dangerous to say the least.  Like this one.  For a while it followed the edge of a low hill, but then, slowly, began to climb up the ridge, winding until it came out on the top.  He’d chosen this path because it was special.  To the casual eye there appeared to be only one way down, but there were actually two.  Off to the side, hidden within a clump of wizened trees and bushes, there was a narrow chute known as Diaz’s Dodge.  The shaft plummeted down at a nearly perpendicular angle.  Anyone unfortunate enough to stumble into it would be dumped out at the bottom of the ravine.  Adam’s lips curled with a fond but frightening memory.  They’d been at the top of the ridge when Little Joe had one of his fits of temper.  Youngest brother had stomped off into the trees.  He and Hoss set about making camp and settling in, knowing the rascal would come back on his own when it got dark.  Just about the time Hoss struck a match to light the fire, they heard a yelp and a few choice words that neither one of them were aware Little Joe knew.

Then there was one they knew all too well.

Help!

Joe’d stumbled into the chute and ridden its rough sides all the way to the bottom.  To this day he and Hoss debated whether or not their little brother had landed head-first.

If he had, it would explain a lot of things.

Adam glanced at his riding partners.  Jake and Hal had given him an unfamiliar horse and then plastered theirs to his side making it near impossible to escape.  He thought the shaft might be his only chance to do so.  The problem was Little Joe was just that – little.  The chute had been a tight fit in places for his brother’s slender form.  He had no way of knowing if it was wide enough for him to make it all the way to the bottom without getting stuck.

The black-haired man snorted.  That’d be a headline for you.  College age son of Benjamin Cartwright stupid enough to get wedged in Diaz’s Dodge.  Left dangling for days.  Funeral tomorrow.

That Eastern university he attended would never live it down.

Adam blew out a breath.

“You got a problem, Cartwright?” Hal snarled.  “I thought you said you knew what you were doin’?”

“I do.”  He touched his side with his hand.  “I’m just a little tired.”

“Well, ain’t that too bad.  You can rest once you get us where we’re goin’ and we find that there darky and your pa.”

“The pass leads up and along the side to the top of the ridge,” Adam replied.  “There are a lot of caves there.  My brothers and I explored them when we  were kids.”

“You’re thinkin’ that’s where Randolph’s got his treasure hid?” Jake asked, his eyes wide as a kid with his nose pressed up against the candy store window.

He nodded.  “I’m sure of it.”

Jake looked at Hal.  “Well, then, what are we waitin’ for?  Let’s get goin’!”

Hal didn’t move.  The grizzled man was watching him, seeming to weigh his words.  “This better not be a trick, Cartwright.  If it is, you’re dead.”

“No trick,” he replied.

It was true.  It wasn’t a trick.  He was going to lead them up the pass and along the top of the ridge like he’d said.

It was just that he was just going to take a shortcut down.

 

Ben Cartwright stood near the water, gazing across Lake Tahoe to the other side.  The rising sun’s pale rose-gold fingers had peeled back the night, revealing a dawn worthy of a bard’s description.  All around the advance of winter was evident in the trees that had shed their needles, creating a blanket on the ground.  The lush underbrush of the forest echoed the dawn in earthy shades of orange, yellow, and red.  Above his head hawks wheeled, challenging one another, staking out their claims just as he had done when his sweat and hard labor allowed him to obtain the thousand acres he called home.

He would have traded it all for one hug from his youngest son.

The rancher drew in a breath and let it out slowly.  He was glad to have Jude with him as the Englishman’s knowledge regarding Wade Bosh would prove invaluable.  Unfortunately, Jude had grown up and prospered in one of the most civilized cities in the world.  While he had traveled by horse, the former cabin boy would be the first to admit that most of his horseback riding had been for show.  Jude sat a horse well, but was not used to a grueling pace.  They would be forced to move more slowly than he wanted.  It was about seventy miles around the lake if a man did the entire loop.  They had to cover a little over thirty to get to Meek’s Bay.  With Jude along, it could take two days.

In two days Joseph could be in Grass Valley, or even farther away.

Ben held out a hope – and it was a desperate one – that somehow his son would manage to escape from his captor.  Joseph was a bright, quick-witted boy.  Growing up on a ranch had made him agile and strong for his age and size.  Many older boys were deceived into thinking he would be an easy mark.  Ben’s lips curled in a wistful smile.  He could see his young son standing in the doorway, having just arrived home from school, every curl on his head awry, his knuckles bleeding, and his green eyes wide with triumph. The older man sobered quickly.  Yes, his son was capable of escaping his captor, but if Joseph tried to flee and failed, he shuddered to think what retribution he would face.  Jude had tried to soften his words, but it was clear Bosh had been physically harsh with him.  He’d read a treatise once on the natives and their techniques for bending a captive to their will.  No English was spoken to them.  They were walked or run until they were exhausted and then placed in dark teepees, bound hand and foot, and left without food or water for days.  In time their captors began to speak to them, uttering threats, and then promising no harm would come to them or their families if they obeyed.

Near the end of the article the physician who penned it remarked that these techniques were not unique to the red man, but were employed by men of all colors.  If no ransom was demanded and money was not the object of the abduction, its object was often the possession of the one taken.  He knew that was the case with Wade Bosh.  The seaman blamed him for the loss of the boy he had wrongly claimed as his son.

Ben’s jaw tightened.

Now, Bosh had his.

Lifting his head, Ben looked again at the sky.  From the angle of the sun, it was around eight o’clock.  The days were growing shorter.  It would be dark before twelve hours passed.  If Bosh had made it across the lake and not been slowed by the storm, he already had a six or seven hour lead.  The older man pursed his lips and frowned.  Yes, as great as his fear was of that, he had an even greater fear – that the seaman and his son had been slowed by the storm.  That they had been in it.

That they might not have made it across.

Retreating to a boulder that jutted over the water, Ben took a seat and linked his hands together.  He closed his eyes and lowered his head and began to pray, crying out to His God for the deliverance of his child.  As he did, a vision flashed before his eyes.  He saw himself seated beside a bed.  His beautiful wife Marie lay upon it, newly delivered of a son.  The baby was so tiny they feared for him, though his lusty cries seemed to belie the doctor’s dire predictions.  Marie took his hand and put it on their child’s head which, even then, was covered with downy curls.  They’d discussed a dozen names.  His wish was to call the child Joseph after his father.  He had let Elizabeth name Adam and, well, Inger had her own ideas.  Marie hadn’t argued with his choice, but neither had she agreed.

 

‘Well?’ he asked, knowing she knew what he was about.

Marie’s finger traced the baby’s pert nose.  “Joseph?  Are you sure, mon cher, that is the name you desire for our son?”

He was puzzled.  “Is there something wrong with Joseph?”

“Non.”  She wrinkled her nose as the baby caught her finger and began to suck on it.  “But is it not a grand nom for such a miniscule?”

“A grand name?”

Her green eyes fixed him.  “I remember my Bible.  Do you not remember yours, Benjamin?  Joseph was a special boy, so special God called him to great things.  But God called him as well to pass through the fire to get there.  Joseph was betrayed by his family and left to die.  Thrown into prison.  Betrayed again.”

He understood what she was saying.  He did believe, as did the ancient Jews, that names held some kind of power and, perhaps, even a prediction of the future.  Reaching out, he caught his son’s tiny hand in his own and said, “I remember the other part of the story, dear heart.  Joseph was a man of character.  Hard working, honest, and brave.  It says in Genesis that ‘the Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered…and the Lord gave him success in everything he did.”  He smiled at her.  “I think that’s a pretty good recipe for a remarkable man.”

Marie leaned down then and kissed their child’s head.  “Joseph,” she said, trying it out.  “Mon petit Joseph.”  Looking up, she favored him with smile.  “Like his father, Joseph will be a most remarkable man.”

 

Ben heard it again.  Whispered close to his ear as if it were a promise.

Like his father, Joseph Francis Cartwright will be a most remarkable man.

He started and turned.  There was no one there.

No one but his God.

 

 

SEVEN

Joe.  Hey, Joe!

The bundle of skin and bones wrapped in wet cloth that lay on the shore of Lake Tahoe grunted.

Joe.

The grunt turned into words.  Well, almost words.

“Guh…uhhhh…wwyyy.”

Joe, you gotta get up.  You gotta move.  A pause.  It ain’t safe here.

The bundle shifted.  A curly brown head lifted slightly from a nest of ragged, sodden blue that had once been a fine linen shirt.  A pair of green eyes flicked open in a mud-streaked face and then clamped shut just as quickly as a wave of nausea rolled through the battered and bruised body attached to them.

“Can’t,” Joe Cartwright replied.

Come on, Joe.  What’s wrong?  Ain’t you up to it?

Those were fighting words. The trouble was, there wasn’t much fight left in him.  Joe groaned again and attempted to lift himself up on one arm.  He waited until the nausea subsided for a second time and then rolled over.  It was only then he realized his shirt was up over his head, his chest was bare, and he was soaked to the skin.  As he sat up – sort of – he tugged the shirt down and over his belt.  The motion caused more nausea and he fought to keep from retching.

He couldn’t remember ever feeling so miserable.  All he wanted to do was go back to sleep.

Joe, don’t.  Don’t go to sleep.

He’ll catch you.

Joe blinked.  He reached up and touched his head and winced as his fingers came away bloody.  Walking them into the curls, he found a gash on the right side of his skull near his hairline.  With a frown, Joe lowered his hand and then looked up and out, wondering who it was that wouldn’t leave him alone.

“Pa?” he called.  “Pa?”

Shh.  He’ll hear you.

Joe blinked again, trying to clear away the cobwebs.  He wasn’t sure if he was really hearing a voice or if it was just in his head.  Of course, if it was, then he was in more trouble than he thought.  The curly-haired boy gathered his strength and rose to his feet and stood there wobbling.  The mid-afternoon sun was shining on Lake Tahoe’s placid surface.  For a moment it blinded him.  Swallowing down bile, Joe staggered a few feet forward and was surprised to see a slender form standing on the shore.

“Who?” he asked.

Then he knew.

It was Jim.

Drowned dead Jim.

Drowned dead Jim with his glistening eyes, his fire-red face, and his skin sloughing off like a snakes’.

Joe froze, terrified.

Run, Joe!  Run! Jim shouted.  Don’t die like me!

Joe gasped and sat up.  A shiver ran from his head to his toe.  In place of Jim, who had been standing at the water’s edge, was the fallen body of a big man.  Whoever it was lay still and unmoving.  One hand was thrust out before him and the fingers of that hand were buried in the sandy mud of the shore.  The man ‘s other hand was hidden beneath him, making him look like he was trying to climb a ladder lying down.  Behind him on the edge of the shore were the broken remnants of a small boat.

It took a moment.  Then he remembered.

“Bosh,” Joe breathed and shivered again.

It was fear made him quake.  Not the fact that his clothing was soaked through or that water was dripping from his curls onto what was left of his blue shirt, or the fact that the breeze made it feel near as cold as winter.  This was the man who had ripped him away from his family, who had drugged him and threatened him.

Joe’s jaw tightened and his nostrils flared.

This was the man he hated.  He was glad he was dead.

A little twinge of guilt struck Joe as that thought crossed his mind.  He could hear Pa telling him that no one was all bad.  As he heard his pa’s voice, he also had a flash of memory – Bosh puttin’ him on his back, haulin’ him to the shore, shovin’ him out of the water and onto the land before falling down beside him.

Joe’s hand went to his chest.  It hurt.  He had a vague memory of Bosh leanin’ over him and poundin’ on him while he coughed and gagged, drivin’ the water out of his lungs.

Savin’ his life.

His pa didn’t approve of cussing, but he said it anyway.

“Damn.”

Young Joe Cartwright thought this was probably what the preacher called a ‘moral dilemma’.

Hesitantly, he approached the massive man.  If Bosh was playin’ possum, he was done.  The big man would catch hold of him and any chance of escape would be gone.  But if the seaman was alive – dyin’, maybe, but alive – then he was pretty sure, as a Christian, he was under some kind of an obligation to get help.  His Pa was always sayin’ the only thing that separated men in the West from the animals they hunted was behavin’ like they were men instead of animals, and that meant bein’ decent even to those who tried to harm them.

It’d be easier bein’ an animal.

Joe was close now.  He moved forward and pushed his toe into the ragged pile of dark cloth and nudged Wade Bosh with it.

The man didn’t move.

The curly-haired boy drew in a deep breath for courage and then knelt and pressed his fingers against his kidnapper’s throat. He found the heartbeat quickly.  It was slow and steady.  As he knelt there, Joe saw that Bosh had taken a knock on the head like he had.  That was probably why he was lying there out cold.

Joe let the breath out.

He was free!

Turning on his heel, he surveyed his surroundings.  He’d been around this lake a few times with his brothers and father and thought he knew where he was – just a little north of John Meek’s bay and its landing.  He and his pa had visited John and Rita Meeks last spring.  The older couple would know him and know he was tellin’ the truth when he told them what Bosh had done.  Joe glanced down at himself.  It was a good thing too.  Right now he looked like one of those beggar boys he’d seen in San Francisco when they took a trip there.  He was barefoot, his exposed skin was splashed with mud and some blood, and his clothing was filthy and ragged.  Someone had joked one day to his pa, callin’ the three of them ‘princes’.

Joe’s tired lips curled with a weak smile.  He looked more like a pauper.

A noise from behind him – sort of a grunt – made Joe whirl.  Bosh was lying still, but that small sound was enough to put the fear of God in him and he took off at a sprint.  It was about noon by the sun.  If he remembered right, John Miller’s place was two, maybe three miles away.  He thought about traveling the road, but remembered what Bosh had said about some friend of his waiting for them on this side of the shore.

With a determined look on his face, Joe Cartwright turned away from the easy path and plummeted into the trees.

 

In the end Ben had been pleasantly surprised.  He glanced at Jude Randolph who stood beside him, taking a drink from his canteen.  Though the Englishman had assured him that his horseback skills were limited, Jude had nodded when he asked him if they could make more speed and followed suit as Buck began to canter.  Even so, their pace was galling.  Ben had always had a sixth sense where his youngest’s welfare was concerned.  He put it down to Joseph’s mother being in Heaven.  That gave him an advantage.

Marie was watching from the other side, whispering in his ear.

Having been a seaman himself Ben knew that – if Bosh got his son on a tall ship and sailed out of the harbor – the odds of rescuing Joseph were slim to none.  The men who sailed the seas were a hard lot.  Most of them were honest, but that honesty had its limits.  There was a camaraderie – a secret society, you might say – among them and, more often that not, no matter what a man had done, they protected their own.

As he was fighting to protect his own.

He and Jude had stopped a few hours back, just like they were doing now.  They had spoken briefly as they let their horses rest and took a bite of food themselves.  Jude tried to offer him comfort again, assuring him that Bosh would not harm Joseph intentionally.  He wasn’t fooled.  Ben recognized the tone and the words too well.  They were the same ones he used with his sons to reassure them when he was anything but certain himself.  The former slave and cabin boy felt a deep responsibility for what had happened to Joseph.

It seemed the person Jude was trying to convince the most was himself.

As they rested, an idea had formed in Ben’s mind.  He wasn’t sure where it had come from – common sense and logic as Adam would insist, or from his heart as his middle son would avow.  For some unknown reason he had a feeling Bosh was headed for Meek’s Bay.  It was one of the only places with a landing on the far side of the lake.  Wade Bosh was a sailor first and foremost.  He knew what a harsh mistress any body of water could be.  Ben’s near-black eyes returned to lake Tahoe.  It was calm now.  Placid.  There was no evidence of the violent storm’s passing other than a few downed limbs and a good dusting of coppery leaves.  He had to believe Joseph had made it across.  He’d seen men drowned.  Seen…boys drowned.

Before he could stop it ane image flashed before his eyes, not Jim Tyler’s body lying on the bank of the river after having been fished out of the churning waters, but Joseph’s – his skin fish-belly white, his cheeks and chest livid; those beloved green eyes fixed open and shining with death.

A shudder ran through him and, he couldn’t help it, ended in a little moan.

“Benjamin?  Is there anything I can do?”

Jude was wise enough not to ask what was wrong.  He knew what was wrong.

All he wanted to do was banish that image.  Ben was old enough to know that, even though it was the last thing he wanted to do, only talking about it would accomplish that goal.

“We had a boy several years back, a friend of Joseph’s, who went missing.  Jim fell into a ravine and was carried into the river and drowned.”  He paused.  “I was with the men who found him.”

“You are worried Joseph did not make it across the lake due to the storm,” Jude stated.

He nodded, at a loss for words.

Jude was silent a moment.  “This may not be easy for you to hear, Benjamin.  It is not easy for me to say.  Wade Bosh did not wish to harm me.  He…loved me.”

Ben’s jaw tightened.  “How can you say that?  How can you employ that word where such a beast is concerned?”

“Because it is true.  Perhaps, better put, in his mind it was true.”  Jude hesitated, considering his words before speaking again.  “You have met fathers, I am sure, who beat their children, who misuse and even abuse them, and yet, in their own minds, they believe they are doing it for their good – because they love them.”

“That is a very selfish kind of love.”

The Englishman nodded.  “It is.  It is a selfish love that views its object as a possession.”  Jude’s hazel-brown eyes met his.  “Do you not love your possessions?  Do you not care for them and take care of them?”

“My son is not a possession!”

“No.”  This time Jude smiled.  “You are a most unusual man, Benjamin.  Self-possessed and yet so free of self.  What I am trying to say is that Wade Bosh thought of me as his possession – as he no doubt thinks of Joseph – and with that comes a responsibility, a need really, to keep that possession safe and alive.”

“But he almost killed you.  He locked you in a dark place and left you to die,” he protested.

“Again, because he erroneously thought it was for my best.”  The former cabin boy sighed.  “My nearly dying was a consequence of Bosh’s fear not his intent.”

Ben tried to digest what the other man was saying – without anger.  It left his son in a precarious position at best.  He’d known fathers like Jude described.  One man in particular came to mind.  He loved his sons with a fierce selfish pride.  The youngest – a boy about Joseph’s age – had disobeyed him and brought shame to the family.  The man had beat him and locked him in the corncrib without food or water for several days.

It had been summer.  The boy had died.

At his look, Jude continued.  “I say this only to give you a slender thread of hope to hang onto, my friend.  If there was a way for Bosh to get Joseph through that storm and safely onto land, he would have done it – even at the cost of his own life.”

Doctors were only beginning to unravel the workings of the mind.  Such thinking was beyond him, and yet Ben knew it was real.  He had witnessed it with his own eyes.

In the end he said, “Thank you, Jude.  Thank you for offering what consolation there is.”

His old friend touched his arm.   “I offer that, Benjamin, but please know, what I desire to offer even more is hope.”

 

Hope.

He’d had a lot of it, but with each yard his tired legs covered, Joe Cartwright began to lose it.

The land around the lake was uneven, littered with stones and leaves and other bracken.  It was rough going in his ruined boots.  He’d turned his ankle more than once and could feel blisters forming on his feet.  There wasn’t much close on this side of the lake, that’s why makin’ it to Meek’s Bay was so important.  As Joe ran he kept one ear to his backside.  If Bosh was trackin’ him, he was either real far back or moved like a ghost ‘cause the ground cover was snappin’ like a turtle under his feet and so far he hadn’t heard anything.  That was why he’d had so much hope.  It had seemed like he was gonna make it.  He was gonna get away from the monster who had shot Adam and left him for dead as he stole him away.

Joe swallowed over a big lump in his throat. He had no way of knowin’ if Adam was alive or…dead.  When he closed his eyes, everything from that night was muddy – everything, that was, except the image of the blood trailin’ away from his brother’s body.

That was crystal clear.

Defiantly, Joe ignored the signals from his own body that he was just plain wore out and pushed on.  His pa had read him plenty of Bible stories about men bein’ in particular pickles that they thought they would never get out of.  One of his favorites had been the story of Joseph, probably because that was his name.  He remembered one night when his pa had been reading to him out of Genesis, he’d stopped him and asked why – if God loved Joseph so much – he let him get into so much trouble.  His pa had looked at him and a gentle smile had lifted his lips.  What he’d got afterwards was a lecture about God testin’ people to see what they were made of and Joseph comin’ out on top.  He’d laid there in bed thinkin’ about it for some time before he went to sleep.  In spite of what Pa said, it seemed to him Joseph got into trouble all by himself; that he didn’t think things through very well.  After all, he should have knowed he’d make his brothers mad by tellin’ them they were gonna bow down and worship him one day, and he should have stopped and thought to take his cloak with him when that old Potiphar’s wife tried to get him to do, well, what he shouldn’t.

After that he’d made a vow to think things through better.  After all, if God was gonna test him, he didn’t want to end up in some prison for years in some foreign land.

Trouble was, he wasn’t very good at it.

Joe’d gone about another ten yards when a wave of dizziness hit him.  He hadn’t had any food since right before he and Bosh went onto the water, and very little water since he’d been taken.  The gash on his head had stopped bleeding, but he hadn’t been able to clean it.  Halting where he was, he put a hand to it and was surprised to find it little fiery.

What he wouldn’t give for his pa to show up right now and blister his behind for the words he was thinking of usin’!

Swaying on his feet, Joe eyed the landscape around him.  He thought he was about a mile and a half still from John Meek’s place.  He’d meant to press on until he got there but, try as he might, he had to admit that without rest he just wasn’t going to make it.  As another wave of nausea hit him and sweat poured down his face, he spotted a clump of trees and bushes off to his right.  It was dark and would provide him with some sort of cover should Bosh come by.  Joe walked a few yards forward and then clambered up onto some rocks and used them to make his way back.  It wasn’t much, but at least his trail would disappear and Bosh would have to figure out which way he went.

That would buy him a little time.

Leaping the last few feet to the low-lying bushes, Joe crawled under them and placed his head on his arms and was asleep in seconds.

 

Ben felt as if he were sitting on a saddle composed of nails.

They were nearing Meek’s Bay.  It was nearly three in the afternoon and they’d been riding for almost eight hours.  Both he and Jude were exhausted, but nothing was going to stop him until he rode into John Meek’s yard.  John and his wife Rita were gracious people.  They were generous about the use of their landing.  The homesteader was also a good judge of character.  He’d size up a man and take his measure in the space of two heartbeats.  If Wade Bosh had come through there with Joseph, the odds were John would have been suspicious of the seaman and his charge.  There were even greater odds Meek would remember his son.  Joseph was, after all, distinctive looking with those brilliant green eyes, winning smile, and that mound of tousled chestnut-brown curls.  He and Little Joe had visited the Meeks not all that long ago.

Of course, John and Rita might be away from home.

Ben scoffed.  There was nothing like good old common sense to make mincemeat of hopeful expectations.

As they rounded the last corner and John’s place came into view, Ben reined in his horse.  As he did, his dark gaze went to surrounding trees and then to the lake that stretched out on the east end of the property.  It looked just as tranquil from this side.  No one would have known what horrific event had played out there the night before.

Jude came to a halt beside him.  He lifted a hand and pointed.  “There is smoke in the chimney.”

Relief flooded through the rancher, nearly bringing him to tears.  “They’re home.”

His old friend nudged his mount forward.  When he passed him, Jude paused and looked back. “Benjamin?  Are you coming?”

He swallowed hard and then nodded.  What if there was no news or, worse, what if John had found his son’s slender body washed up on the shore?  On the other hand, what if Joseph had been rescued and was sitting in Rita’s kitchen right now wrapped in a warm woolen blanket, drinking milk and eating her famous molasses cookies?

Ben straightened in the saddle as he urged the animal he rode toward the Meeks’ humble home.

There was only one way to find out.

 

Joe was on the run again.  He’d been horrified to find that he’d fallen asleep, and then terrified to realize just how long he’d slept. The sun had slipped farther down the sky toward the west.  It was mid-afternoon and he’d been out at least a couple of hours.

Plenty of time for Bosh to awaken and come after him.

Joe had found when he got up that all the aches and pains from the perilous passage over the lake were catchin’ him up.  His head was throbbing and his chest felt like it would burst.  Both made the going tough.  But Joe Cartwright was nothin’ if not tough.  Hoss  had told him once that all the scrapes he’d been through were gonna make him strong as leather.  After watching his pa and brothers tan hides, and now helping with the process himself, he understood what his middle brother meant.  If a man could survive the skinning, curing, soaking, drenching and picklin’, he’d come out strong.  The first skinnin’ for him had been his ma dying.  Everythin’ since then had seemed pretty tame, though he was sure his pa and old Doc Martin would disagree.  So, in spite of the fact that he wanted to fall down and lie flat on his face and just give up, Joe kept moving.  The Meek’s place couldn’t be that far away.  In fact, he though he could see smoke rising from a chimney.  It had to be their house.

Not so much running as dragging, Joe moved doggedly forward.

 

“Ben!  Ben Cartwright!  What brings you to our side of the lake?”

Ben had watched John Meeks come to the door with a rifle in his hand. The weapon was lowered now and John was smiling.  He and Rita lived apart from any other settlers and, while they were always wary, they were just as glad of company.

He only wished his visit today had been social.

As they approached the house, Ben saw John’s gaze shift to Jude and watched it turn quizzical.  The former cabin boy had toned his attire down and was dressed more as a Western dude than a European one, but he still looked like a Beau Brummell in his dark gray Coburn great coat and dress shirt.

“Who’s this?” John asked as they both dismounted.

Ben watched Jude stiffen.  The Englishman awaited the usual outcome of meeting a stranger – prejudgment, rejection and, perhaps, outright hostility.

He was in for a surprise.

John held his hand out.  “Looks like you aren’t from around here, friend.”

Jude visibly relaxed as he took the offered hand and shook it.  “No.  I am from London.  My name is Jude Randolph.”

The homesteader was busy sizing him up.  “Somehow I think you came from London via a long route.”

“Jude was a cabin boy on one of the ships I served on,” Ben offered.  “He settled in London when the voyage ended.”

John grinned at him. “With a little help, I imagine.”

Ben nodded impatiently.  He glanced at Jude before asking, “John, you haven’t by chance seen that youngest son of mine, have you?”

“Would that be the pretty one with the curly hair?” Rita Meeks asked as she came out, dishcloth in hand.

Hope swelled in his breast.  “Yes.  Yes, Joseph.  Have you seen him?”

Only a deaf man could have missed how desperate he sounded.

Rita came forward to place a hand on his arm.  “Ben, we haven’t seen the boy.  What’s wrong?  Has something happened?”

Disappointment robbed him of his voice momentarily.

“Joseph has been kidnapped,” Jude said plainly.  “The man took him across the lake.”  His eyes went to the shimmering water. “We had hoped to find him here.”

John Meeks looked ill.  “Good God!  When was this?”

“Several days ago,” Ben answered, finding his voice.  “The man took Joseph from the stable.  He…shot Adam.”

“Is Adam all right?” John asked.

As Ben nodded, Rita asked, “Has there been a ransom note?”

He shook his head.  “No.”

“Sadly, it is more complicated than that,” Jude interposed.  “The man’s name is Wade Bosh.  He is the former second mate of the ship Independence, who served under Benjamin.  While first mate, Benjamin freed a boy Bosh had taken.  Now he has returned to take, as he told Adam, his ‘just due.”

John was eying Jude.  “Were you that boy?”

Jude nodded.

The homesteader turned to Ben then.  “I’m sorry to say we haven’t seen or heard anything, but we’ll keep our eyes and ears peeled.  You can be assured if that man shows up with your boy, I’ll stop him from going any further.”

Ben nodded his thanks and then stumbled.

Rita’s hand shifted to prop him.  She looked into his face.  “How long has it been since you’ve eaten a meal or had any real sleep, Ben?”

Before he could answer, Jude did.  “The night the boy was taken.”

Ben snarled.  “We ate on the way here.”

“What?  Crusty old jerky, I’ll bet. And I can tell by your eyes they haven’t seen sleep in hours.”  Rita’s voice was tender.  “Come inside, Ben, take a rest.”

He shook his head adamantly. “I can’t.  Joseph….”

Rita didn’t move.  She waited until he met her stern gaze.  “Now, what would that wife of yours – and the boy’s mother – say about your running yourself into the ground?”

Rita and Marie had been friends.  Their visits to this side of the lake had been more frequent before her death.  “I promised her….”

“I know what you promised Marie.  You promised her that you would look after her boy and nothing would harm him.”  Rita’s voice softened.  “You promised her the same thing, too, didn’t you, before she died?”

That he would look after Marie and see no harm came to her?  Yes, and it haunted him.

“The Good Lord gives and He takes away, Ben.  The best we can do is pray together and ask Him to give Joseph back.”

John’s hand landed on his shoulder.  “Come inside, Ben.  At least sit a spell and eat some food before you start out again.”

Numbly he nodded, and didn’t resist when Rita began to draw him toward the house.

 

Joe was out of breath and nearly done.  As he stumbled forward, he’d heard the sound of someone breakin’ through the trees behind him, hard on his trail.  It didn’t matter now how tired he was, how his head was pounding or how he couldn’t draw a deep breath, he was runnin’ full tilt like there was a grizzly comin’ for him.

A grizzly named Wade Bosh.

He was pretty sure John Meek’s place was just beyond the next stand of trees.  They were tall ponderosas, and he’d noticed them that time Mister Meek had taken him and his pa down to the landing.  Mrs. Meek had come and got him, knowin’ he’d be bored soon enough, and had taken him into their house and fed him black molasses cookies.  They’d been her son’s favorite before Ted Tyler decided to go East like Adam and never come back.  They’d laughed and sung a few songs, and then she’d told him everything she remembered about his mama.  He’d hidden his tears when his pa and John Meeks came bustin’ through the door laughin’ and jokin’, but Mrs. Meek had seen them right enough.

She told him his mama would be proud of how deep feelin’ he was.

With a glance over his shoulder, Joe put on an extra burst of speed.  As he did there was a roar, like a bull elephant, and he knew he was in trouble – big trouble.  As he exploded out of the stand of trees that was about a half a mile from the Meeks’ house, he noticed four figures standing in front of the wooden structure.  There were two horses too.  One of them he thought he recognized.

He was pretty sure it was his pa’s new horse, Buck.

Joe started to wave his arms as he ran forward, shouting into the wind that was blowing’ from west to east.

They didn’t hear him.

His heart in his throat, he yelled louder, “Pa!  Pa!  I’m here!  Pa, see me!  Please, Pa!

Massive arms circled his legs, catching him just above the knees and driving him to the ground.  Joe screamed into the grass as Wade Bosh took hold of him and flipped him over and then drove him back to the ground with a hand clamped so tightly over his mouth he feared his teeth would break.  Bosh’s eyes were wild – just like that cougar’s had been the time he’d perched on a rock and had almost jumped Pa.

Joe saw his death in those eyes.

 

Ben halted at the door to Rita and John’s home and looked to the east.  He thought he’d heard something.  Rita urged him on, but he firmly held his footing, listening.

“What is it, Ben?” she asked, her eyes following his.  “I don’t see anything.”

He shook his head.  “I thought I heard someone calling me.”

The woman gave him a sympathetic look.  “It’s the wind and the water through the trees. You don’t know how many nights I’ve come out looking for the passerby I thought was on my doorstep.”

Ben’s dark eyes went to her face.  “It sounded like…Joseph.”

He had heard it clearly, or so he thought.  Someone shouting ‘Pa!’.

Rita turned in the same direction.  They both stood there until John and Jude rejoined them.

“What is it, Benjamin?” Jude asked.

His ears were tuned to the sound of his son’s voice.  When he didn’t hear it, the rancher shook his head.

“Ben thought he heard Little Joe calling him,” Rita said  He could hear the woman’s pity in her tone.

John took a few steps toward the lake.  He looked back.  “Do you want me to look, Ben?”

He was being foolish.  He knew it.  Of course, he hadn’t heard his son.  It had been the wind through the trees just as Rita said – and his wishful thinking.  If Joseph had been there he would have seen him by now; seen that precious face, those curls – heard his son’s unmistakable giggle.

Gone.  They were gone.

Joseph was gone.

John Meeks caught his arm.  “Come inside, Ben.  There’s nothing out here.”

Ben gave in.  John was right.  There was nothing out there.

Nothing but a vain hope.

 

Wade Bosh rose and stared down at the unconscious boy who lay crumpled at his feet.  He’d warned him.  He shouldn’t have tried to get away.  When he’d awakened on the shore and found the boy gone, a fury had arisen in him stronger than the gale that had all but killed them both the night before.  He’d saved the boy’s life and he’d run from him.

Ingratitude.  That’s what it was.  Plain ingratitude!

Here he was, giving the boy a chance to travel at his side and see the world; freeing him from the constraints of that stolid holier-than-thou pa of his and a landlubber’s life of drudgery and dirt.  He should be grateful.

He’d better be grateful.

He’d teach him to be grateful.

It was obvious the boy was mouthy and ill-behaved.  He didn’t know his place.  He’d asked around Eagle Station and been told Joe Cartwright was a spoiled brat; that his father indulged him on account of his mother dyin’ when he was young.  Bosh’s hammy fingers formed into fists.  Ben Cartwright was going to ruin the boy, just like he’d ruined Jude Randolph.  He couldn’t believe what Jude had become – a soft, cosseted, and indulged son of wealth, not fit to swab a deck or clean the head.

That wouldn’t happen with this one.

The ship was waiting in port.  Once they were on it first mate Cartwright could bellyache all he wanted, but there wasn’t a thing he could do.  The Sun Princess was due to set sail in two days’ time and he and the boy would be on her.  She was bound for southern climes; her voyage one of exploration that would last three years.  By the time  they returned, Joseph Cartwright would have forgotten all about his life on a ranch in the West; forgotten the names of his brothers and father.  The boy would learn to think of him as his pa.  He would have Ben Cartwright’s son for his own, since Cartwright had taken away his son all those long years ago.

The boy stirred at his feet.  His eyes, masked by a fringe of chestnut curls, opened.  They were dazed and feverish.   He licked his lips and looked up at him and whispered, “Pa?”

No, Bosh thought as he bent and lifted the boy into his arms and carried him away.  No, not yet.

But soon.

 

 

EIGHT

“Mistah Hoss no go!  Promise lawman he be here when he come back!”

Hoss stopped by the door.  He had his heavy coat on and had donned his hat and belt and was headed out.  He knew what he had promised.  Hop Sing didn’t have to remind him.

But it had been too long.

“Dang it, Hop Sing!  It’s goin’ on suppertime.  Deputy Roy’s had plenty of time to get back with that search party.  I got me the Ponderosa men and we’re headin’ out.  Roy can just catch us up!”

“How he know which to go look for, Little Joe or Mistah Adam?  How you know which you go look for?  What if deputy find Little Joe!”  The Chinese man drew a breath.  “What if Little Joe hurt, need big brother?”

That was striking below the belt and Hop Sing dang well knew it.  He knew how he felt about Little Joe – but he loved Adam too.

Hoss sighed and crossed over to their irate cook.  “Hop Sing,” he said, startin’ slow, “Little Joe might need me, but I know Adam does.  ‘Sides, Pa’s lookin’ for Little Joe and once he gets him back here, he’s got you.”  He drew a breath and then finished.  “Adam ain’t got no one but me.”

“Send men then.  Mistah Hoss not go.  Too much danger.”  Hop Sing shook his head.  “Father be velly velly angry with number two son.”

He was right there.

“Sure, Pa’s gonna tan me from here ‘til kingdom come, but that ain’t gonna stop me.”  His eyes returned to the stain on the floor.  “Adam’s bleedin’.  He’s bein’ forced to ride.”  He paused.  “Maybe he ain’t got so much time left.”

Hop Sing wasn’t a big man.  Compared to him he was about knee-high to a grasshopper.  Still, he was bigger than any of them when it came to his heart.  “Hop Sing have to try,” he breathed.  “You go, Mistah Hoss.  The ancestors go with you.”  A look came into his eyes – fiercely protective.  “You find Mistah Adam and you make men who take him pay!

Hoss placed a hand on his shoulder.  “I will, Hop Sing.  You get those bandages ready and boil some water.  I’m bringin’ big brother home.”

As the man from China nodded, Hoss turned back to the door, opened it, and stepped through.  A half-dozen men were waiting for him outside, mounted and ready to ride.  They were all he’d been able to round up, fear for his brothers keeping him from riding further than the nearest camp.

“We’re ready to ride, Hoss,” Ed Waters said.  “How about you?”

“More than ready, Ed,” he answered.  Ed was about his pa’s age.  So were half the men ridin’ with him.  The others were younger.  All of them were good men.  Among them was a couple of sharpshooters and at least one who could track as good as he could.  Right after Deputy Roy rode away, he’d gone out and followed what tracks there were.  Like he’d thought, Adam had taken the men along the road for a bit and then headed up into the rocky country.  He was sure his brother was aimin’ for one of the trails the three of them had scouted out.  Most likely the one Pa didn’t know about as he would have told them it was too dangerous.  It led up to the top of a ridge and there was a secret way back down.  He figured Adam was thinkin’ of usin’ that to get away from them men what held him. There were only two problems – that rock shaft was barely wide enough for Little Joe’s skinny little hiney to shinny through and it was a long, hard drop to the bottom.

If Adam got caught and he was bleedin’ bad….

“What’s your plan, Hoss?” Joe Suggs called out, stirring him from his thoughts.

Hoss smiled.  These men were ten and twenty years older than him, but they were lettin’ him take the lead.  Not just ‘cause he was the boss’ son, but ‘cause they knew him and trusted him.

“Me and Adam, we got us ways no one knows about other than Little Joe.  We kind of swore each other to secrecy.  I’m thinkin’ Adam’s on one of those trails.”  He paused and a smile lit his summer blue eyes.  “Now, you understand, you gotta swear you ain’t never gonna tell a livin’ soul about them.”

Ed snorted as Joe placed a hand over his heart.  “I swear on my old sainted mother’s grave,” the older man said.

Another voice, Jimmy Wheats’, came from behind.  “Your ma ain’t dead, Ed!”

“Well, I’m still gonna swear on it.  She ain’t got all that long!”

Hoss was touched.  These were good men.

“Fellers, I….”

Ed nudged his horse forward.  “Hoss, you don’t have to say nothin’.  Adam’s missin’ and Little Joe.  You’d have to hogtie the bunch of us and roast us rare to get us to stay behind.”

“And Ed’s too old and stringy for supper!” Joe Suggs proclaimed.

Hoss laughed.  He eyed his morgan percheron.  She was already saddled and ready to go.

That was another thing he owed these men for.

 

It was late afternoon when they topped the ridge.  Adam eyed his companions from across the fire they’d kindled in order to fix a meal.  While Hal and Jake were used to ranch work – inefficient as they were – they were not used to mountain climbing, even on horseback.  He’d made sure to take the most circuitous route he could think of so they would have to work their mounts hard, winding them through the rocks instead of coming straight up.  Both animals and beasts…er…men were worn out.  Even though they’d stopped briefly at noon for jerky and coffee, the pair had decided to rest before going on.  They’d brought him a plate of beans and a cup of coffee and he’d done the best he could with his hands tied.  Adam knew he had to keep his strength up.  Still, his wound, which was constantly bleeding now, was sapping his strength.  He was tired – really tired.  He had to break free soon.

If he didn’t, he was afraid when the time came to make an escape attempt, he wouldn’t have the strength to do it.

Leaning back, Adam closed his eyes and rested his head on the rock behind him.  It was unbelievable what the last forty-eight hours or so had brought.  When he’d gone out to the barn to fetch his little brother in for supper, he’d expected an argument and bit of a fight to get Little Joe to obey, but not….

This.

It was all a blur.  Try as he might, he couldn’t see Joe’s kidnapper clearly.  He wasn’t sure why it mattered other than seeing him – maybe recognizing him – might give him some small sense of control.  Still, he was pretty sure he had never seen the man before.  One day he and Joe had jokingly talked Hoss into stepping onto the horse scale.  Their then thirteen-year-old brother had topped out at over two hundred pounds.  Hoss was big.  The man who took Joe was bigger.

And Little Joe was, to put it bluntly, about as small as a ten year old.

They’d done their best to build him up.  Hop Sing kept slinging steaks and he and Hoss pushed the kid mercilessly, making him do heavy lifting, baling, and everything else they could think of to increase his muscle strength.  Adam’s lips curled in a smile.  He’d even provoked a fight now and then to teach the little scamp the finer art of defending himself.  One thing they had not had to teach Joe was how to be fast.  That was a gift from God.  Little Joe ran like the wind and at times it seemed he might even be able to fly.

God, he thought, let Joe fly.  Give him wings and let him fly back to us!

It was a silly thought but somehow, strangely comforting.

Adam opened his eyes and shifted in an attempt to put his back at ease.  When he did, pain shot through him.  Frowning, he sat up a bit and used his bound hands to pull at his now tattered wine-red shirt.  It came away from his skin with difficulty, indicating the deep red color was more than just dye.  He could feel fever licking at the edge of his senses.  He’d been sick enough often enough to know it was a mild one, but he knew as well his rising temperature indicated infection was setting in.

Another reason to be on the move.

Through heavily-lidded eyes, Adam watched his captors.  They were busy with various mundane chores.  He’d thought it through and decided to make his escape attempt the moment it became dark.  The men who had taken him kept his hands bound, but had left his feet free so he could ride.  He’d pretended to be even weaker than he was in the hope that they would grow complacent and think him too ill to try to get away and leave them that way.

Adam snorted.  He probably was too ill to try to get away!

From what he remembered the chute or natural rock shaft was about two miles along the top of the ridge.  At the rate they were traveling, and with night coming on, he thought he could slow them enough to reach it just about the time it got dark.  The chute lay about twenty yards within the trees to the left of the path.  It was hidden by a dense growth of underbrush.  There was an overhang and then you entered it and it was about forty feet straight down.  He still marveled Little Joe had survived the drop.  But then he marveled that Little Joe had survived to be nearly thirteen at all.  The kid was a walking magnet for trouble.  Fortunately, it seemed God had balanced that penchant for danger with a charmed life because he came out of every scrape bruised, battered, and sometimes scarred, but stronger.

He loved his little brother.

He was so frightened for him .

“You awake, Cartwright?” Hal’s rough voice called, stirring him from his thoughts.

Adam replied – and then he replied again after clearing his throat.  It surprised him how weak his voice sounded.

“Yeah, I’m awake. What do you want?”

“Well, if Mister high-and-mighty don’t sound put out,” the more evil of the two men sneered, affecting a foppish pose.  “Sorry, your lordship, did I wake you?”

Hal Wilmot’s voice dripped with venom.

Adam effected a weak pose with his shoulders slumped and his head barely lifted.  Not that it was too much of an affectation.

“Do we really have to move on?” he whined.

Wilmot’s gun was in his hand.  He walked over to him and placed it against his forehead.  “I can put you to sleep forever, Cartwright, if that’s what you want.”

“Hal!  You cain’t kill him.  We won’t ever get that treasure!” Jake Kusky called.  Jake was beginning to break the camp.

Hal was eyeing him.  “I ain’t so sure there is a treasure.  I’m thinkin’ mister high-and-mighty here was just tryin’ to save his skin.”

Oh, how wrong he was.  He was trying to divert them from following his father.

“Come now, Hal.  We’re talking about a seaman here who has traveled the world,” Adam countered. “You know as well as I do how many ships go down and how much gold is found.  What makes you doubt me?”

Wilmot crouched before him.  The outlaw reached out and caught his hair in his hand and forced his head back against the rocks.  The gun moved from his temple to under his chin.

“ ‘Cause I know you Cartwrights.  You ain’t worried about money ‘cause you got so much.  I’m bettin’ it’s that little brother of your’n you’re worried about most.  Maybe you’re tryin’ to save him somehow.”  He paused, suddenly inspired.  “Or maybe it’s that pa of yours.”

That was all he needed – for Hal Wilmot to turn out to be an idiot savant.

Adam swallowed over his rising fear.  “I told you.  Jude Randolph is a rich man.  Wade Bosh wants the gold he has.  Jude came here to the Ponderosa and hid it and then came to my pa to ask him to join him in getting Bosh off his tail.  Pa and Jude are old friends.”

“Should’a knowed your pa’d be  friends with a darky,” Wilmot spit with disgust.

“That ‘darky’, as you call him, was adopted into one of the wealthiest families in England.  Anyhow, when Bosh found out Pa was involved, he took Little Joe to force my father to turn Jude over to him.  Jude and Pa took off to come up here, get the gold, and then go look for Joe and Bosh.”  Adam paused.  He added this for the sake of the man holding him whom he knew would believe it. “Pa means to betray Jude, take the money, and pay the ransom for Little Joe.”

Please God, Adam thought, his head  reeling, make him believe me!

“It sound right, Hal,” Jake said. “You know Cartwright, he’d do anythin’ to get that brat of his back.”

Hal continued to stare at him for several long heartbeats.  Then he lifted the gun and rocked back on his heels.

“I guess so,” Hal said, not entirely convinced.  “Still, seems your pa’s got more than enough money.”

Adam formed his features into an avaricious grin.

“Can a man really ever have enough?”

That, Hal Wilmot understood.

Standing, the outlaw looked at his companion.  “You got everythin’ ready to ride?”  When Jake nodded, he turned back to him and waved his gun.  “On your feet, Cartwright, it’s time to ride.”

He didn’t know if he could.  Standing up seemed no less imposing an idea than climbing a mountain at that moment.  Still, if he didn’t, he was pretty sure Wilmot would put a bullet through his head.  Gathering everything that was left in him, Adam forced himself to his feet and then stood there, rocking, until his head cleared enough that he could move.

Wilmot caught his arm and thrust him toward his horse. “Mount!” he ordered.

Adam looked at the fifteen and a half hand horse he was riding.   He sighed.

Another mountain to climb.

 

“What are you tellin’ me, Hop Sing?  That Ben’s other boy is missin’ now too?  Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat!”

“Mister Hoss not missin’!” the little China man shouted back.  “Take men!  Go look for Mistah Adam since lawman late!”

Roy Coffee scowled.  He had him on that one.  It was mighty late.  In fact, the dark was comin’ on and there weren’t much they could do tonight to search for either of Ben’s boys.  He’d gone to town to round up men for the hunt for Little Joe and run smack dab into an amateur bank robbery.  The outlaws turned out to be two teenage boys – hardly older than Ben’s youngest – who’d taken money from their father’s safe and gone on a bender and then panicked when they found he was comin’ home sooner than they thought.  They’d gone into the bank and ordered the clerk to put all the money in the safe in a bag they was carryin’.  Trouble was they didn’t put no guard on the door and one of the customers just walked out and went to get help.  He’d arrived just in time to keep the two boys from gettin’ themselves killed for their stupidity.

Why, their guns wasn’t even loaded!

Anyhow, by the time he’d sorted things out and the boys’ folks had come to claim them, the day was almost gone.  He’d went through the crowd recruitin’ men what thought they could be away for a day or two and ridden hard back to the Ponderosa not even stoppin’ for supper, only to find Ben’s middle boy had got ants in his britches and started out without him!

Leastwise the boy’d been wise enough not to go on his own.

Roy shook his head.  “So, I’m supposin’ Hoss told you what way they was goin’?”

Hop Sing nodded.  With a raised finger, the China man indicated he should follow.  Roy did as he was told and traipsed over to Ben’s desk.  It was then he saw a map of the Ponderosa laid out there.

Ben’s cook’s finger traced a pencil course across it.

“Mistah Hoss make marks.  Say he go this way.”

Roy leaned over the map, but he couldn’t see nothin’.  He took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes.  Once they were settled back on his nose, he looked again.

There it was.  A light scratching in gray.

As his finger traced it, he whistled. “This ain’t no beaten path.”

Hop Sing’s dark head bobbed up and down.  “Mistah Hoss say way known only to him and Mistah Ben’s other sons.  Play there.”

‘Play’ there?  Roy whistled.  Ben bred them tough.  The path the pencil followed went up into God’s country that weren’t nothin’ but bone and stone.  It was a good thing it wasn’t summer.  Anyone up there would roast in an hour or two.

“How come he’s goin’ this way?” he asked, eying the map with trepidation.

“Mister Hoss go look at tracks.  He say Mistah Adam take path.  Maybe Mistah Adam think he lose bad men in rocks.”  Hop Sing had seemed pretty confident.  Now, his voice wavered.  “Mistah Hoss say there quick way down from ridge.”

Roy felt the color drain from his cheeks.  “Not Diaz’s Dodge?”

The China man’s eyes were narrow by nature.  They narrowed ever further.  “Deputy Roy know of chute?”

Oh, he knew about that shaft.  It had been a long time since he’d thought about it, but he remembered it well.  He’d been a young man, about Adam’s age, and just come to the Nevada territory when an old Indian told him about it.  Seemed there’d been this crazy Spaniard, had a lot of money.  He betrayed his men and was abscondin’ with the loot. They caught up to him at the top of that ridge.  There was a shoot-out and he worked his way back into the trees and then literally stumbled into it.  Seein’ a chance to escape, Diaz worked his way down it until he was about twenty feet from the ground and he got stuck.  His friends sat at the top and took pot shots at him and then listened to his screams until they died away and he died too.

Some said it was a year or two before his bones fell apart enough for him to take the plunge the rest of the way down.

“Adam ever been in that chute before?”

Hop Sing shook his head.  “Little Joe go down it.’

‘Course he had.  That boy was a pistol.

“Now, Hop Sing, Adam’s a sight bigger than that little squirt.  Odds are he ain’t gonna make it down without gettin’ stuck.”

Makin’ Ben’s oldest a target for whoever’d taken him.

“Mister Adam slender like sapling.”

The boy didn’t need to be a sapling – he needed to be a reed!

Roy sighed as he lifted his finger from the map.  It was a right good plan – if the boy could make it.  He turned and glanced out the window in Ben Cartwright’s office.  The night was comin’ on.  If they left now, they’d make it to the bottom of the ridge before they had to call a halt.  There weren’t no way they could travel that country at night, so’s it would be another six hours or so before they could set out after the boy.

The lawman sighed deeply.

An awful lot could happen in six hours.

 

Hoss was kneeling on the ground.  He righted himself and looked up.  There were very few tracks – a hoof print here and there and the outline of a boot in the dust.  He’d found a dark stain on the side of a rock as well.  He’d almost missed it as the light was going.  The big teenager scowled.  He almost wished he had.

It was blood.

Unexpectedly, a hand came down on his shoulder.  “I’m sorry, son.  It’s looks like your brother’s bleedin’ bad.”

Hoss nodded.  What Ed said came as no surprise to him.  He wondered if Adam knew.  Since the shirt his brother was wearing was the color of blood, there’d be nothin’ to show how much he was losin’, just a sense of weakness – a feelin’ like things weren’t right.  He’d been shot once in the leg.  It were an accident while huntin’.  He and his brothers had been pretty far out and the horses had bolted with the sound.  He remembered how he just kept gettin’ weaker and weaker as Adam steadied him and Little Joe danced desperately in front of him, urgin’ him to keep goin’ until they reached home.

And he wasn’t bleedin’ this much.

“We gotta keep goin’,” he said, determination in his voice.

“Hoss, there ain’t now way we can,” Ed replied.  “It’ll be dark soon and you know this area, ain’t no lantern gonna light it well enough to travel at night.  You can’t go on.”

His fingers formed a fist.  He shook his head. “I cain’t stop, Ed!  I gotta keep goin’.  Adam needs me!”

“Does he need you dead?  ‘Cause that’s what you’re gonna be, boy, if you try it.”  The older man paused. “What about your Pa?  What if….”  He hesitated.  “What if you’re the only boy he’s got left?”

It was like Ed had punched him in the gut.

His eyes teared up.

Ed sighed.  “I’m sorry, son, but it had to be said.  You gotta do what you can to take care of yourself, Hoss.  Your pa needs you.”

A world without Adam and Little Joe was beyond thinkin’.

“Ed, I cain’t….”

“I know, boy,” he said as he lifted his hand.  “I’ll get your bedroll.  You need to eat and then get some sleep.  Come mornin’ we’ll do all we can to find that brother of yours.”

Numb, Hoss watched the older man walk away.  Around him there were the normal sounds of a camp bein’ made – someone was cookin’, he could smell the coffee and stew.  Someone else was tendin’ to the horses.  Ed was layin’ out their bed rolls.  Life went on.

How could it?

What if Ed was right?  What if Adam…died and they never got Little Joe back?  Mama’s death had just about killed their pa, what would losin’ two of his sons do to the older man?

What would it do to him?

Hoss’ jaw grew taut as he fought to keep the tears from fallin’.  There were so many things ragin’ inside him – fright for his brothers, hate for the men who took them, a sort of helplessness when he thought about his pa and how he wasn’t gonna survive this, and a real deep fear that what was left of his pa wouldn’t be anythin’ like the man he loved and knew.  In the space of less than two days his whole world had turned upside-down.  He didn’t know where to turn – what to do – and he had to do somethin’.  He couldn’t sit here and eat his supper and then lay down to rest like Ed wanted.

If he did, he was gonna explode!

Hoss eyed the other men.  They were all busy with their various chores.  He thought about boltin’ right there and then, but realized it would be better to wait just a little while.  He’d pretend to do all those normal things so’s they wouldn’t suspect what he was about.  He’d wait ‘til they was all asleep and then he’d go.  He’d take his horse and his gun and he’d mount up and head out in the dark whether or not anyone thought he was loco.  The moon was up.  It was enough to light his way.

Even if it wasn’t, nothin’ could have stopped him .

He was a Cartwright and plain and simple, a Cartwright never said ‘can’t’.

 

They’d stopped for the night.  Adam knew it was now or never.  He’d been so weak when he dismounted his horse that Wilmot had simply dumped him on the ground and walked away.  Hand over hand he’d crawled away from the horses’ hooves, eventually righting himself so he sat against a rock.  Jake had brought him some food and he’d forced a little of it down.  He hadn’t wanted it, but consuming it actually made him feel better and he was ready to try.

To try to escape.

He’d been sitting for a few minutes watching the pair.  They’d argued about just about everything.  In the end Jake had gone to care for the horses and Hal was sitting, brooding over a cup of coffee.  Neither of them had paid him any attention for at least ten minutes.  Shifting ever so slightly, the black-haired man turned and looked over his shoulder.  Before the dark had fallen, he’d gotten a bead on where he was.  There was a tall pine that had been split by lightning, one half of which had fallen and looked like a natural bridge.  The rock chute was behind it.  He remembered hanging onto the withered trunk and looking down, fearing he would find Little Joe, his body broken beyond repair, at the bottom of the shaft.  Of course, in the dark, there was a pretty good chance he was going to step too far out and plunge down rather than lowering himself into it.  Still, as much as he didn’t want to die, it would be better to do so by his own choice than at the hands of Hal Wilmot.

And, with Wilmot, it was only a matter of time.

Adam looked at the men again.  Hal’s head was nodding and Jake was nowhere in sight.  He’d probably gone off to relieve himself.  Fortunately for him, the men’s fatigue had caused them to forget to bind his feet.  Planting his teeth firmly in his lower lip to stifle any unintended cries, Adam began to shift to the right.  It was hard.  He was weaker from blood loss than he cared to admit and knew the fever that had licked at his senses had burst into life in the last hour or so.  The odds were he wasn’t going to survive this.

Still, what other choice did he have?

 

Hoss waited until his Pa’s men fell asleep and then sneaked out of camp.  Ed had left one of the men on watch at the edge of it, but he’d made it past him without any trouble.  His head was droopin’ too.  The men he’d recruited had been workin’ day and night drivin’ cattle.  They was plumb wore out . He hated to cheat them, but there just wasn’t any way he’d be able to sleep and since he couldn’t, then he might as well be on his way.

He’d kind of chuckled as he took off.  He was the good son, or so the town folks said.  Adam… Well, older brother had his own head and so did his pa and they butted them more often than not.  People knew when the Cartwrights came into town, they could expect at least one shoutin’ match, sometimes in anger but most of the time in fun.  And Little Joe?  Well, that boy wasn’t bad.  They didn’t come more lovin’ or deeper feelin’ than him.  But ‘cause Joe feelin’s ran so deep, the boy just didn’t think – he acted.  It was like all that lovin’ and feelin’ just rose up in him and shot out like a bullet at full speed.  Trouble was, too often, he had a hard time when he hit.

Now him?  He always heard people talkin’ when they walked by.  He was the one they was sure would still be with his pa when he was an old man, takin’ care of him.  That was okay with him, and sometimes he thought that too.  After all it was Adam that had the wanderlust and Little Joe who was always lookin’ for fun.  Still, sometimes, he dreamed too.  Not of seein’ the world, but maybe goin’ off on his own to live in the mountains away from people and all their notions.  Animals was easier than people, and they’d be his companions way up there.  Still, he thought as he took a swig from his canteen, he knew he’d never leave the Ponderosa.  He just couldn’t leave his pa and brothers. They were part and parcel of his soul.

Were…not had been.

He’d save them both yet.

As he hesitated, a little ways in front of him Hoss saw a glint of moonlight on metal.  A second later, there was a shot.  And then another.

Capping his canteen, he dropped it to the ground beside the rope and satchel containing whiskey and bandages he’d brought with him, and then he lit out like a house on fire.

“Damn kid!  God damn, kid!  Can you see him, Jake?”

“I can’t, Hal.  But he’d gotta be down there!”

Adam winced.  Stupid as he was, Jake Kusky was right.  He was ‘down there’.

He hadn’t gotten very far.

Adam sighed as he looked past his feet.  When he went over the edge and into the shaft – fortunately under his own power – something must have alerted Wilmot to his absence.  He had no more begun to work his way down it than he heard the man shout that he was gone and call out to Kusky.  After that they lit lanterns and began to beat the brush.  He’d huddled against the wall of the shaft as they moved in ever-widening circles, knowing that eventually one of them would stumble – literally – onto the entry of the chute.  They couldn’t know he had gone down it and it was too dark for them to see him.  His only hope lay in them taking a good look at it and dismissing it as a possibility – which it appeared they were doing until Hal Wilmot decided that he just might be down there and had started to fire his gun into it on the off-chance that he would hit him.

So far he had not.

He was anchored to the western wall, about ten feet down, his boots balanced precariously on a bit of rock that jutted out.  When they looked down, the men would actually be looking over him as the small shelf was mirrored by one above his head that was covered with grass.  So long as it was dark, he was safe – unless, of course, he lost his footing and plummeted all the way to the bottom.  There was another problem too, Adam realized as he adjusted his grip and the trembling fingers that held onto a root that jutted out of the mountainside.

He might not have the strength to last until help arrived.

Another bullet bit into the rock near his feet, sending up a spray of sharp shards.

“You down there, Cartwright?”

Like he was going to answer.

“Cartwright!”  A pause.  Then, “You get yourself down there, Jake!”

Adam heard an exclamation of surprise.  One his father would not have approved of.

“I ain’t goin’ down there!  You’re crazy!”

“Crazy or dead.  Your choice!”

The black-haired man sighed.  No honor among thieves. Wasn’t that how it went?

“What’re you gonna do?  Shoot me?  I ain’t –”

There was a shot.  Then another one.

Then silence.

Then, maybe thirty seconds later, a voice.  A beloved voice.

“Adam, you down there?”

Relief almost made him let go.  “Hoss?” he called weakly.

There was a smile in the reply.  “Now, older brother, just what do you think you’re doin’ down there?  You tryin’ to outdo Little Joe for sheer cussedness?”

That was a title he would gladly acquiesce to the youngest of the clan.

“I knew you were comin’,” he replied, his breathing a bit ragged.  “Thought I’d just hang around.”

Hoss snorted.  Then a note of alarm entered his tone.  “How far down are you?”

Adam looked between his feet again.  The risen moon lit the bottom of the shaft.  “About ten feet down, I think.  Looks like thirty to the end.”

“You just hangin’ on, or are you on anythin’ firm?”

‘Firm’ was a matter of opinion.

“My feet are on a shelf.”

“Don’t move, Adam!  I got a rope.”

“What about Hal and Jake?” he called back, fearing for his brother.

There was a pause.  “They’re dead.  Hal killed Jake.  I had to shoot….”

“It’s all right, Hoss.  You did what you had to do.”

Silence again.  Then finally, “Yeah.  You stay put, brother.  No dancin’, you hear?  I’ll be right back.”

The black-haired man was surprised how terrified he felt when his brother disappeared.  It was the relief, he told himself, of knowing rescue was on its way.

He told himself that, but more likely it was the fact that his muscles had reached their limit and he was losing his grip.

“Hoss, hurry, I’m –”

Adam didn’t have time to get the word out before he fell.

 

PART THREE

 

NINE

The first thing he was aware of was the smell of wood – dank, musty wood.

The second was that he was in the dark.

Third, he was bound hand and foot and a rag had been placed between his teeth and tied behind his head, silencing him.

Fourth, he was moving, bouncing up and down like the road they were on was a mountainous one.

Joe licked his lips as he shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position.  His ears were ringin’ and his head felt like someone had taken a hammer to it.  After catching him Bosh had lifted him up like a rag doll and tossed him over his shoulder.  It had been a mistake, but he’d started kicking and bucking as hard as he could the minute he did.  He’d manage to throw Bosh off-kilter and they’d both landed in a heap.  Quick as a rabbit, he’d tried to skedaddle, but his kidnapper had been faster.  The seaman caught his legs, dragged him back, and hit him upside the head plunging him into darkness.

He’d only just awakened to he fact that he was trussed up and laying in the bed of a wagon.  Joe tried to get a sense of whether it was day or night, but realized pretty quickly it was pointless.  Since his hands were bound behind him, he couldn’t reach up and test what was above him.  He was pretty sure it was a tarp.  If it had been sky, he would have seen something – stars, moonlight – something.

Seemed Bosh wasn’t gonna take a chance on anyone seein’ him.

Joe scrunched his nose up and fought a sneeze.  It was cold in the wagon bed and he didn’t feel so good.  His clothes were damp and the cut on his head was hot and he was pretty sure he was catchin’ a cold or somethin’.  As he lay there thinkin’ about how miserable he felt, he noticed the wagon slowin’ down.  It continued rolling a few more yards and then he felt a jolt as it came to a stop.  There were voices.  A man and a woman’s.

All too quickly they moved away.

Desperate that someone know he was there, Joe fought to work himself into a seated position.  He began to panic when he found he couldn’t.  His hands and feet were tethered to the wagon bed by ropes that had been drawn through metal rings.  Since he couldn’t move much, he tried to make noise.  That didn’t work either.  The muffled sounds were pitiful even to his own ears.  Joe shivered as tears entered his eyes and spilled over onto his filthy cheeks.  I was useless.  Even if someone had been standin’ right by the wagon they wouldn’t have been able to hear him.

Abruptly the tarp was drawn back.  Bosh’s face appeared inches above his.

“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep quiet, boy,” he growled menacingly.

Then the tarp went back in place.

Joe froze as he heard a door open and close.  Seconds later a man said something.  The sound of his voice was close; then he moved away.  Shortly thereafter he heard a nicker and the whinnying of horses, as well as the clatter of harnesses.

Bosh must be hiring a new team!

Wherever the seaman was heading with him, Joe feared it would be far away.  He didn’t remember all that much about what had happened since he’d been kidnapped, but he had a sick feeling that the seaman was taking him to a sailing vessel.  Joe knew from the tales his pa had spun of his time on shipboard the that the voyages the tall ships went on were often two or three years in length.

If Bosh got him on one of them….

Recklessly – heedless of Bosh’s whispered warning – Joe squirmed with all his might and made as much noise as he could, driving the heels of his boots into the wagon’s bed and shouting into the gag.  He heard the man’s voice rise in a question and Bosh’s answer.

Then, a gun went off.

A woman screamed.

Then, there was another shot.

Several pounding heartbeats later the tarp was withdrawn.  Wade Bosh took the end of his smoking gun and shoved it under his nose.

“Are you happy now, mate?  These nice people are dead and it’s all on account of you!  What’s your precious pa goin’ to think of that?”

Joe’s eyes were wide with horror.  He didn’t….

He hadn’t.

He had.

Joe choked back tears as he turned his face into the fetid boards that lined the wagon’s bed.  A man and woman had been murdered.  They were dead because of him. He hadn’t pulled the trigger, but he was every bit as much a murderer as the one who did.

How could he ever go home?

 

Deputy Roy Coffee stared at the lone figure  what occupied a rock at the far end of the camp he and his men had just come upon.  Ben Cartwright was sittin’ on it, starin’ off into nothin’; his lean figure a black shadow in front of the risen moon.  It had been two days since they’d left the Ponderosa and that meant Little Joe had been missin’ for nigh onto five.  He didn’t know about Adam.  Thing was, he didn’t know about Hoss neither and Roy wasn’t sure just how he was gonna tell those boy’s pa that all of his sons were missin’ and probably in danger and maybe, just maybe dead.

Roy glanced back at the men who was settlin’ in at the fire.  He’d lost about half of ‘em along the way.  They’d set out in pursuit of Ben and that Jude feller, but when it became clear that the man who’d taken Little Joe had crossed the lake and was headed up into the Sierras, several of them begged off, sayin’ they had crops to tend and animals to care for and a wife and young’uns of their own to worry about.

He let them go.  They’d done what they could, even if it wasn’t enough.

The men who’d stayed with him were a hard lot – ranch hands mostly.  They were tough men, used to sleepin’ on the ground and goin’ without food and drink for days on end if called for.  Most of them had been in his jail a time or two for fightin’ and brawlin’.  The lot of them had worked for Ben Cartwright at one time or another, and all of them knew those boys and loved them.

That little squirt most of all.

He’d told the men to bed down for the night and then had a word with Jude Randolph.  The English man had been tendin’ to his horse and Ben’s.  Jude told him how they’d left Meek’s Bay and headed out, hopin’ they’d catch up to that Bosh feller what took Little Joe before he got too deep into the mountains.  They’d stopped at every cabin or camp along the way and asked if anyone had seen a man and a boy that looked like Joe.  What they found was a long line of angry trappers and a few homesteaders who’d had supplies, horses, and even a wagon taken at gunpoint.  Several of them mentioned the man what robbed them was a giant.  One of the homesteaders, name of Jed Horner, said he’d seen that giant loadin’ somethin’ into a wagon.  When he asked him about it, the stranger said it was a sack of feed.  ‘In a pig’s eye,’ Horner had said.  That there feed sack looked suspiciously like a body.

Size of a girl or maybe a young boy.

At the last place Jude and Ben had stopped there’d been a woman name of Rosey O’Rourke.  She was a tough old bird who’d lived by herself in the mountains for years.  Fought off men and Indians, she said, and weren’t afraid of nothin’ or no man.  She’d been suspicious and had offered to feed Bosh so she could pump him for information.  She hadn’t got much out of him before he reared up, knockin’ her chair over, and stormed out of the house, but she was sure he was travelin’ with someone and he had them in that wagon.  Bosh mentioned the sea to Rosey.  He mentioned a name as well – the Sun Princess.

Ben said that sounded like the name of a sailing ship.

Roy paused at the edge of the clearing where the rancher sat.  They were well into the Sierras now.  About halfway to Placerville.  The odds were Wade Bosh was near two days ahead of them from what Rosey had said.  Roy let out a low whistle.  The man must be flyin’ like a demon, stopping only to catch a wink of sleep before pressin’ on.  Seemed he was bound and determined not to be caught.  Not to give up what he took.

Roy worried what that meant for Little Joe if and when they did manage to overtake the seaman.

“Evenin’, Ben,” he said as he idled toward his friend.  When the other man didn’t respond, Roy cleared his throat and tried again. “I said, ‘Evenin’, Ben’.”

The rancher stirred.  The look the rancher turned on him was blank and, well, a little frightenin’.  Ben Cartwright was a man of action and he looked lost.

Plain lost.

Ben blinked several times before askin’, “Roy, is that you?”

“Sure is, Ben.”  He stepped into a shaft of moonlight.  “How are you doin’?”

His friend’s eyes were glistenin’, with tears no doubt.  He huffed.  “I’ve been better, Roy.  I’ve been better.”

The lawman nodded.  He didn’t know what to say.

Ben looked behind him, expectin’ no doubt to see his middle son.  When he didn’t, his friend’s near-black eyes narrowed.  “Where’s Hoss?” he demanded as he rose to his feet.

Roy drew a breath.  “Well, now, Ben, I think maybe you ought to sit yourself back down – ”

Stark fear entered those eyes.  “What’s happened to Hoss?”

Roy held up his hands. “Nothin’ I know of.  Least not for sure, Ben.  He went after Adam – ”

“Went ‘after’ Adam?”  The rancher was still on his feet.  “Where did Adam go?  He was injured!”

This wasn’t gonna be easy.  “Ben, I need you to calm down.”

“Calm down?  Calm down!” he bellowed.  “ Roy, where are my sons?”

Rollin’ thunder had nothin’ on that voice of Ben’s.

It took a bit to explain it.  Ben was right unsettled by the end.  It was plain he was torn between pressin’ on to find Little Joe and goin’ back to make sure the other two were still breathin’.  It weren’t really a contest though.  Adam was over twenty and Hoss was about there.  Those two were men.  Little Joe, well, he was just a boy.

He needed his pa most of all.

Ben ended up sitting back down where he’d begun.  He was about as pale as that moon that shone behind him.  “These men – the ones you think took Adam – you’re sure they had worked for me?”

That seemed to be stickin’ in his craw just about as much as anythin’.

“Sorry to say, Ben, but I’m sure.  You got yourself an awful lot of hands.  Cain’t be as you’re expected to remember all of them, or to know for sure what kind of men they are.”

He was shaking his head.  “Wilmot and Kusky?  You would think I would remember.  It’s not like they’re named Smith and Jones.”

He knew Ben tried his best to hire honorable men, mostly ‘cause he knew they’d be workin’ with his boys.  But good men were trusting and bad men were good liars and it just wasn’t always possible to know just what you were gettin’, no matter how hard you tried.

“Odds are they minded their Ps and Qs,” the lawman snorted.  “They was probably some of the best behaved men you had, Ben.  You cain’t know what a feller’s plannin’.”

“And there might have been no difficulty if not for me,” Jude Randolph remarked quietly as he joined them. “I am sorry, Benjamin.  I raised the ire of those two.  I could have simply walked away.”

Randolph was an interesting fellow.  With his wild curly hair and light brown skin and that outfit he was wearin’, he looked like he belonged in one of those novels the school girls was fond of readin’ – like some kind of lost prince of the Caribbean.

“It’s not your fault, Jude,” Ben stated.

“I disagree.  If I had not insulted them, they would not have come looking for me and Adam and Hoss would not now both be at risk.”  The English man scowled.  “I have put your entire family at risk by coming here.  It was selfish of me.”  A slight smile curled the ends of his lips.  “I could have sent a letter, but I so longed to find the man who saved me so I could thank him.”

“You ain’t responsible for what those bad men have done, son.  They was workin’ at the Ponderosa. Who knows, they might of been plannin’ somethin’ like this all along,” Roy ventured.

A light of hope entered Jude’s eyes.  “Perhaps.”

Ben Cartwright rose to his feet.  He turned and looked to the west.  “Adam and Hoss are men,” he said softly.  “Joseph is…so very young.  I have to trust my two oldest to look out for themselves.  Little Joe needs me to find him before it’s too….”  He swallowed hard over his fear.  “Before Wade Bosh gets him on a ship and he is lost to us forever.”

“I knew you were a good father when I talked to you,” an unexpected voice remarked.

They all turned on their heels to look toward the trees and were right startled to see a slender figure standin’ there.  From what the lawman could tell, whoever it was measured about five and a half feet tall and had long dark hair hanging down on both sides of their face like an Indian.  Only it weren’t any Indian.

It were a woman.

 

Ben Cartwright drew in a breath at the sight of the woman who had stepped out of the woods.  He knew her instantly.  There was no mistaking the deep red and blue Indian shirt covered in ribbon work, the faded blue pants made of janes, or the worn leather chaps topping them.  The woman wore a pair of army-issued gloves and a wide white hat as well.  She was tall for a woman, with rich dark hair and golden skin.  Her eyes were dark as well and cradled in fine lines that suggested she’d known an equal portion of laughter and pain.  Decades of living in the West, surviving its brutal heat and harrowing winters had matured her like a fine wine.   She’d once been pretty.

She was beautiful now both without and within.

“Rosey,” he said as he stepped forward.  “What are you doing here?”

This was the woman – the homesteader – they had spoken to earlier.  She was the one who had told them she suspected Bosh intended to take Joseph to a harbor in order to board a ship.

Rosey’s voice was husky; rich and ironic.  “I figured a bunch of men like you’d go off and get lost.  Figured you could use a guide.”

She’d been one – a scout for the army actually, in her younger years – hence her somewhat surprising attire.

“That’s very kind of you, but I can’t….”  Ben’s words trailed off.  There was something in her eyes.  A sadness.

A need.

Rosey shrugged.  “That’s just it.  I ‘can’t.’  I couldn’t forget about that young’un of yours that’s gone missin’, or about his pa who’s lookin’ so hard to find him.”

“Now look here, Madame,” Roy began.

“Madame!   Laws…Madame?”  The former scout snorted.  “No one’s called me that since San Francisco.”  Her rich brown eyes sparkled.  “Back when the word fit.”

Ben hid his smile.  What a tale this woman could tell!

“All right then, Rosey,” Roy tried again.  “This here is an official search –”

She looked him up and down. “Are you the official lawman?”

The deputy straightened up.  “It just so happens I am.”

“Well, tell me, lawman, have you taken the road through the Sierras and on to California before?”

“I been to San Francisco,” Roy protested.

“In a coach or wagon, I warrant,” she said.  As Rosey continued, her eyes sparked like flint.  “I’ve done it on foot, takin’ all the passes no one knows about.  I can get you to the coast in three days instead of five and,” her eyes moved to him, “I’m thinkin’ that boy who’s missin’ would appreciate his pa comin’ sooner than later.”

“Did you lead the army through?” Ben asked.

“Traveled with them.  Kearney and his dragoons, back in forty-six in the dead of winter.  I left them before they…. Before they all died.”

“At San Pasqual?”

She nodded.  “I was in San Diego when Carson made it there.  Came back out with them.”  Her eyes flicked to Roy.  Ben noted the lawman had grown silent out of respect.  “Helped to dig those poor boy’s bodies up and move them.”  Rosey was eyeing Roy.  It was a measure of the woman she was, what she said next.  “You can trust me.  I know what I’m about.”

The deputy was frowning.  “Now ma’am –”

“Rosey,” she corrected gently.

“Rosey.”  Roy was scratching his chin.  “I ain’t exactly sure these men here are gonna want to follow a woman.  They’re a pretty hard lot.”

She scoffed.  “Lawman, there ain’t nothin’ tougher than a bunch of soldiers who have walked all the way from Kansas to California, draggin’ ordinance behind them and livin’ off grit and mule meat.”  Rosey’s eyes flicked to Ben.  “Still, if I’m not wanted….”

He stepped forward to offer his hand.  “Mrs. O’Rourke.” At her look he amended it, “Rosey, you are most welcome.  Thank you for coming. You didn’t have to.”

There was that look again.  Aggrieved.  Culpable, even.

“Yes, I did,” she said as her fingers gripped his.  “Mister Cartwright.  Yes, I did.”

 

Wade Bosh pulled the tarp covering his young charge back and stared at the boy.  Dawn was breaking in the sky and the pale morning light illuminated his slender figure where it lay on the wagon bed.  The seaman’s eyes went to the boy’s hands and feet.  Both were bound and tethered to the weathered boards by ropes leading through metal rings.  He’d had to do it.  Havin’ sprung from the loins of that molly Ben Cartwright, he’d not expected the boy to have the tools to buck him.  It had been a ravin’ surprise to find Joseph Cartwright had the stuff to fight back even when he knew he’d get the monkey for it.

And get the monkey he had.

Bosh reached in and wrapped his fingers in the boy’s curly hair and turned his face into the light.  He was a real beauty.  Looked like one of them statues he’d seen when he sailed to Greece.  He’d have to watch the boy close – keep him hidden away – once they boarded the Sun Princess.

The john-and-johns would be lookin’ for a fresh catch and he’d be ripe for the net.

When the boy made no sound and failed to respond, Wade placed his fingers on his neck.  The little nipper’s skin was hot, though not so hot as to worry him.  He’d need to clean the cut on his head again and see if he could force some liquids into him.  Since the night before, when he’d killed the man who owned the stable and told the boy it was all his doin’, he’d refused to eat.  It was no nevermind.  Once he’d gone long enough without, his hunger would rule him.  In Newgate Prison he’d seen men crawl like dogs through the dirt and tear each other apart for a scrap of putrid meat they’d sworn they wouldn’t touch the day before.  It had been the same on the ships he sailed.  The first month off was spent fightin’ like dogs, establishin’ who was leader of the pack.  A man had to fight for what was his.  Bosh fingered one of the boy’s chestnut brown curls.

He was goin’ to make this boy into a man whether he wanted it or not.

He’d started to do that with Jude Randolph.  He’d taken that boy and separated him from everything that could make him weak – from the lily-livered Captain Peak and his pompous first mate, Benjamin Cartwright.  They were soft, the pair of them.  They wanted Jude to be soft.  Soft as that brother of his who folded at the first strike of the lash.

Bosh’s gaze returned to the boy in the wagon.  This one wouldn’t fold.  He’d jut that chin out and strike poison like an eel and take down any who tried to harm him.  He didn’t want to harm him.  He loved the boy.  He only wanted to make him stronger.

The pain Joe Cartwright felt today was the strength he would find tomorrow.

As he continued to stare, the boy shifted and moaned.  His eyelids fluttered, but he didn’t come awake.

That was good.

Wade’s eyes shifted to the duffel bag in the upper left-hand corner of the wagon.  It contained the drug he’d used to quiet the boy when he took him from his home.  He didn’t want to use it.  A drop too much – or one too many times – could be deadly.  Still, they were nearing the end of the mountains and would soon be passing through occupied territory.

Territory occupied by his enemies who wanted to take the boy away.

To take his son away.

The seaman swallowed as saliva flooded his mouth.  He looked west, seeing in his mind’s eye the ship he was headed for – the tall ship named Sun Princess that would bear them away.

He’d kill the both of them before he let that happen.

 

“Mister Cartwright?”

Ben turned to find Rosey O’Rourke standing directly behind him.  It was morning and they were preparing to move out.  He’d freshened up as best he could and just sat down to finish his coffee when she appeared.  When he and Jude had stopped at her house, he’d had a good chance to look at her.  Last night, her features had been hidden, but today with the sun, they were clearly visible.  She reminded him, to his amazement, of Elizabeth, his first wife.  She was not a beauty in the traditional sense of the word. Though lovely, she had what some would call a ‘mannish’ look.  The rancher smiled at the thought.  Most often that meant that the woman was highly intelligent as his wife had been.  Rosey’s nose was straight and her lips full.  Her hair was the same deep brown as Elizabeth’s as well.

Thinking of his lost love, Ben sighed.

“I’m sorry if I am distrubin’ you,” she said and turned to leave.

“No.  Please.  There’s some coffee left in the pot.”  He smiled a greeting.  “No point in wasting it.  Won’t you join me?”

She thought about it a moment and then nodded and sat down.  Ben poured the coffee and gave her a cup.  They sat in companionable silence for a moment before she said, “So tell me about this boy of yours. The one who’s missin’.”

Her request stabbed him.  He blinked back tears.  “He’s my youngest.”

“How old?”

“Not quite thirteen.”  Dear God, he thought.  “Just a boy.”

Rosey nodded.  “And the other two?  Adam and Hoss, was it?  They’re his brothers?”

“Half-brothers, though you’d never know by how much they love one another that they had different mothers.”

The older woman grinned as she took a sip.  “So you’ve got a tale or two to tell as well?”

He couldn’t help but return it.  “A few.”

“So what’s he like, this youngest boy?  ‘Joseph’, did you say?”

“Yes, Joseph.”  Ben fell silent, seeing Little Joe with his mind’s eye.  “He’s slight, like his mother.  Five feet tall, perhaps a bit more.  Smaller than the other boys.”

“So he’s strong.”

Ben looked at her.  “What?”

“He’s strong.  He’d have to be.”  Her eyes reflected a mind that wandered to another time or place.  “A small man has to be to survive.”

“Joe’s only twelve.”

Molly’s eyes flicked to his face.  “That’s a man in some men’s books.”  The woman took another sip.  “So, what’s he look like, this little man of yours?  Like you?”

Ben laughed.  “No, like his mother.  Joseph has…delicate features.  Sometimes his eyes are green as the forest at spring.  At other times, more like green leaves turning to gold.”  He smiled.  “That boy, he has three heads of hair, curly, and chestnut as a bay.”

“You love him.”

Tears threatened again.  “Deeply.  As I do all my sons.”

For a moment he thought she was going to tell him something – something about her – but the moment passed as Roy Coffee called for them to mount and ride.

Ben reached out and caught her shoulder.  “Rosey?”

She turned back to look at him.  Her tone suggested she was not open to questions.

He asked one anyway. “Is there anything I can do to help you?”

For a moment her face was glacial. Then it melted and shone with a smile.

“You’re lettin’ me help search for your boy.  The good Lord knows, that’s more than enough, Ben.  He sent me to you and, I think, maybe you to me.”  Her hand covered his.  “Yes, sir.  It’s more than enough.”

He stood there, watching her walk away, amazed again by the goodness of God.  He’d been praying for a miracle – for some way they could pass through the mountains and on to the coast at lightning speed.  It was at that moment Rosey had appeared.

The curious thing was, it seemed she had been praying too.

 

 

TEN

Adam Cartwright held his breath as a stream of pebbles cascaded down the length of the rocky chute beneath him.  He’d fallen another ten feet or so and become wedged in the natural channel at its narrowest point, held in place by three jagged fingers of rock.  Two were pressing into his flesh near his waist, driving his gun belt up. The other poked into his side right below his ribs.

Just about where Wade Bosh’s bullet had entered.

There was blood on the rock.

He knew that because the sun was rising and he could see his surroundings, which was a good thing – sort of.  Adam’s gaze slipped between his boots.  Below him the shaft opened up, enough so that there was no way he could ease himself down even if he could get free.  He’d just plummet straight down.

It was a testament to his little brother’s physical prowess that Joe hadn’t been killed by the fall.

Gathering what meager strength he had, Adam looked up, searching the area at the top of the shaft for a sign of his middle brother’s face.  Hoss had been gone some time and he was worried about him. There was no proof that Wilmot and Kusky had operated alone.  There had to have been other men in Eagle Station the day Jude came to town.  Men who had probably been just as offended by the ex-slave’s existence.  He hoped his brother hadn’t run afoul of any of them.  Hoss was big – very big – and very strong, but he was still just a kid.

A formidable kid, but just a kid.

That thought took him to another one and it made him moan.  He’d watched Hoss and Joe fight, testing each other’s strength and ability.  Joe’d won once or twice, but little brother didn’t know that the times he’d won, middle brother had let him.  Hoss was a foot taller than Joe and outweighed him by about a hundred pounds.  He could have snapped him in two if he’d wanted to.

The man who had taken Little Joe was bigger and stronger than Hoss.

The black-haired man licked his lips and swallowed as a wave of nausea washed over him at the thought of his brother in Bosh’s hands.  He didn’t protect Joe.  Pa was away and he was supposed to have protected him.

If his little brother didn’t make it home it would be his fault.

“Adam!  Hey, Adam!  You down there?”

Adam closed his eyes, sought a shaky center, and then looked up again.  There it was, what he’d been waiting for – his brother’s cherubic face framed by a soft halo of reddish-blond hair looking down at him.

“I thought about taking a stroll,” he replied, his tone laconic.  “I decided to stick around instead.”

Hoss was leaning precariously far out over the jut of land at the top.  “I cain’t see you very well.”

“I can see you!  Stay where you are!  You come tumbling down this shaft, that’ll be the end of me!”

“Now come on, Adam.  That’s just what I was thinkin’ of doin’!  I’ll pop you out of there like a cork out of one of them fancy bottles of champagne!”

As a joke, that fell rather flat.

Adam swallowed again.  The nausea was mounting thanks to a rising fear and the stony finger poking into his injured side.  “Did you bring the rope?”

“Sure did.  It’s a pretty long one.  How far down are you, you think?”

How far down?  Well….

Adam looked again, though the sight of what lay below him made his head swim.  “About twenty feet, I think.  There’s about…twenty more to go.”

“You know, that little brother of ours must be born to ride a whirlwind.  Imagine him makin’ it all the way down without ending up flat as one of Hop Sing’s pancakes.”  There was a pause and then a quiet, “Sorry ‘bout that, Adam.”  A second later he heard the rope begin to snake down the chute.  It was followed by Hoss asking, “How are you feelin’, older brother?”

Ah, to be or not to be – to answer truthfully or to lie through his teeth?

Adam chose to take a leaf from Little Joe’s book.

“Fine.”

“Would that be ‘fine’, like I feel right as rain?” his brother asked as he played out the line.  “Or ‘fine’ like I just dropped an anvil on my toe only I ain’t gonna admit it hurts?”

Adam’s eyes went unwillingly to his side.  There was a steady stream of blood running over the top of the rock jabbing into his side.

“Just…fine.”

“Can you see it yet?”

Adam looked up and was rewarded by the tale end of the rope striking him between the eyes.  He reached up and caught it in his fingers.

“Got it,” he said, breathing hard.

“Can you tie it around you?”

Could he?  Adam shifted a bit to look, to judge the distance between him and the walls of the chute. As he did, his gun belt moved up and he fell another half inch.

Unfortunately, he also cried out.

“Adam?!”

“Okay.  I’m okay.  I just….”  He hoped he’d fastened his belt very tightly that morning.  “I moved and lost a little ground.”

“Get that rope tied around you!”

“Trying.”

It was hard.  Every movement was agony.  In the end he succeeded, though he had no idea if the knots were strong enough.  By the end his hands and the rope were covered in blood.

“Can you climb up?”

Somehow he doubted it.  “How about you try pulling?”

There was a pause.  “Adam, is there somethin’ you ain’t tellin’ me?  Are you hurt bad?”

Again, he looked between his feet.  Panic was not something he wanted to incite.  “My side is hurting.  I’ll be all right when you get me up.”

He heard his brother moving at the top of the shaft, digging his feet in and taking up a position.  “You ready?”

No.

“Yes.”

“On one, two, three….”

Excruciating pain shot through him, stealing his breath away, as the upward movement drove the finger of rock deeper into his side.  Adam gasped and drew in air.  The first time he tried, his shout was a whisper. Then he managed it.

“Stop!  Hoss, stop!”

His brother’s face appeared again, mooning above the opening.  It was paler than before.  “What’s wrong?”

He guessed he had to admit it. “It looks like I’m pinned.  I…I can’t go up and….”

Adam looked between his boots again.  Weak as he was, he would have no strength to guide his falling body or slow himself down.  He was bigger and heavier than Joe and would fall faster, plummeting down to his death.  He couldn’t go up and he couldn’t go down.

All he could do was hang there like the Spaniard Diaz and die.

“Adam?”

He drew a breath and held it against the pain.  Hoss was only seventeen.  He really didn’t want him to see what was going to happen.  He had to get him away – away where he wouldn’t feel responsible.

“You’re…going to have to go get…help.”

“I cain’t leave you!”

“You can’t stay!  You can’t get me out of here alone!  You said you had some of the men with you.  Go back and find them.  Then come back.”

Hopefully that would take him long enough to avoid…well…what he wanted him to avoid.

“I don’t know, Adam….”

“Hoss, you can’t pull me up and I can’t climb up.  I’m going to have to…”  He swallowed again.  “I’m going to have to go down.  If we have several men, they can do something to break my fall.”  Adam closed his eyes. “Please, Hoss.  You have to go.”

Please, Hoss, go!

There was a momentary pause and then his brother’s response.  “Okay, but don’t you go chasin’ no girls or nothin’.  I wanta find you here when I get back.”

As his belt shifted again and he slipped another half-inch or so, Adam called back.  “You got a deal unless it’s Amy Prentiss.” She was the pretty girl he’d been flirting with at the Saturday night dances of late.  “Then the deal is off.”

“You take care of yourself, brother.  I’ll be back soon as I can.”

With that, silence descended again.

Except for the sound of the steady stream of pebbles cascading down the rocky chute beneath his feet.

 

Hoss Cartwright ran for all he was worth back to where he’d left his horse.  He’d left the morgan horse in a place with sweet grass and water, clove-hitched to a skinny stump of a tree.  The animal was waitin’ for him there, lookin’ fat and sassy and ready to ride.  With a final glance over his shoulder at the point above where the shaft lay, the big teenager mounted and began to work his way down the ridge.  He didn’t want to admit it to Adam, but he was still feelin’ mighty shaky.  All the while he’d been workin’, he’d been aware of the shady spot behind him that he’d pulled Jake Kusky and Hal Wilmot’s bodies into.  He’d covered them up with some branches and long grass so’s the animals wouldn’t get them.  He didn’t know what he was gonna tell his pa when they got back to the ranch house.

He’d just killed a man.

He’d been with his pa when Pa’d been forced to do it.  Pa didn’t cotton to gunfightin’ or the fast draw or nothin’ like that, but he’d taught them to defend themselves and told them a day might come when they’d have to do it with deadly intent.  Pa was mighty fast and sure with his gun.  He said most often that was enough.  If a man looked you in the eye and he saw you wouldn’t back down, most often he would.  Trouble was, Hal Wilmot hadn’t been lookin’ him in the eye.  The outlaw’d been bendin’ down, tryin’ to kill Adam.  He’d shot the man in the back.

He lost his supper after that.

Still, he knew, there weren’t nothin’ else he could have done.  Another thing Pa taught them was that the West was a pretty lawless place.  That’s why it was so important for them to follow the laws.  In time, Pa said, men like Hal Wilmot wouldn’t find a welcome here in Nevada – after the territory became a state and more civilized folks moved in.  As his horse slipped on some stones and he rode them down the ridge, the teenager righted himself in the saddle and began to pay more attention.  It wasn’t gonna do Adam no good for him to go plummeting off the side.

After all, he was the only one knew his brother was there.

Pulling on the reins a bit, Hoss directed his mount to the side of the path.  As he did, he saw movement in the distance.  A big smile broke on his face as he recognized Ed Waters and the other men who’d come with him from the Ponderosa.  Rising up in the saddle, Hoss took his hat off and waved it.

“Ed!  Yo!  Ed!”  Urging his mount forward, he called out again.  “Ed!  I found Adam!”

Ed was waving too – kind of frantic-like.  A second later, the older man’ voice reached him, riding on the wind.

“Hoss!  Behind you!”

The teenager turned – a second too late.  He sensed more than saw Hal Wilmot step out of the trees.  Hal looked like one of them ghosts men said they seen, risin’ up out of the dark all covered with blood; their eyes wild and their skin white as bone.

There was a gun in his hand.

Hoss heard Ed shout again even as he felt somethin’ slam into his shoulder.  The impact knocked him from his horse and to the ground.  As he lay there, his vision fading, Wilmot appeared above him.  He stared hate down at him even as he raised his rifle and turned it butt down.

“Okay, Cartwright,” Hal breathed.  “Let’s see just how thick that skull of yours is!”

 

Shots echoed across the land above him.  First one and then another, and then half-dozen more.  Adam twisted to look up, as if that was going to do him any good, and only succeeded in slipping another inch.  His gun belt was working its way over his hips, riding up toward his slender waist.  It was hard to gauge whether the slight difference between his waist and his hip bone would be enough to send him plummeting to his death.  He still had the rope tied around him, but there was no one above holding onto it. Unless, of course, Hoss had tied it off.  Still, even if his brother had tied the rope to a tree, the jolt as he fell – tearing into his wound and undoing the last of the stitches that held – would probably cause him to bleed to death in a very short time.

Unless God intervened, he was done.

Dangling there with his heart pounding, Adam listened again.  The shooting had stopped.  Silence echoed across the rocky landscape.  He hesitated, knowing it was probably not the brightest thing to do, and then he shouted, “Hoss!  Hoss!  Are you all right?”  The black-haired man waited.  “Hoss?”

More silence.

Adam looked up and then down.  He had to do something.  His brother needed him!  Above him was a twenty foot climb.  Even if he could escape the rocks and the rope was secured, he doubted he had the strength to hand over hand it and make it to the top.  Conversely, if he did manage to drop safely to the ground below, he was going to be forty feet under his brother.  Still, once on the ground he could gather his strength and make the climb back to the top.

Right.

What was that rhyme Marie liked to quote to Little Joe?

If wishes were horses?

For a moment he was stumped.  Logic seemed to be taking him in circles.  Adam didn’t like to admit that there were insoluble problems, but he thought he might just have encountered one.  He knew what his pa would say.

When you eliminated everything possible, the answer, no matter how impossible was to pray.

Pray for a miracle.

Hoss believed in them.  He said he saw them everyday in nature, when a caterpillar turned into a butterfly, or a baby foal was born.  Little Joe believed in them too.  Adam snorted.  His little brother thought by just believing something and wanting it bad enough, you could make it happen.  That was why he went to Mama’s grave so frequently.  He was trying to believe her back into being.

Him?  Well, he believed in God.  He just wasn’t sure he believed in miracles.  They went against everything he had been taught in college and really, against his own practical and pragmatic nature.

Adam looked down again.

He surely needed one now.

As he felt himself slip again, the belt riding up toward his ribs, Adam closed his eyes and his lips moved in prayer.  It wasn’t for himself, it was for his brothers.  He asked God to make sure Hoss was safe and that Little Joe was found, and that his father wouldn’t have to go through loosing all three of them and most likely, ending his life as a broken man.  He asked that, when he fell, none of his family would find his shattered body – that they wouldn’t have to live with the memory of that sight.

As the belt slipped over his hips, as he felt himself start to fall, Adam’s lips curled with an ironic smile.

“Into your hands,” he said.

A second later he jolted to a stop.  A hard stop.

Gasping, Adam looked up and found Ed Waters, his pa’s old ranch hand, holding the rope and staring down at him.  Behind him was Joe Suggs, and leaning over Joe’s shoulder was Jimmy Wheats.

Tears entered his eyes and he gave them a smile.

Just before he passed out.

 

Hoss groaned his way back to consciousness.  His shoulder hurt like the dickens and he felt sick.  Not sick enough to lose his supper again – didn’t have any left anyhow – but sick like you did when you was fightin’ the ague and the world wouldn’t stop spinnin’.  Seemed to him he might have a little fever and he wondered for just a moment if he’d caught that flu that had been over in Reno.  The town folk had been mighty worried about it leapin’ over the Truckee to Eagle Station.  Seemed to him though, if he was layin’ sick in his bed, he ought to be a sight more comfortable.  Pa always fussed like an old mother hen when they was sick and he’d have him layin’ on a thick feather tick with a quilt pulled up to his chin.

Not layin’ on the ground with sticks and stones pokin’ into his back.

In an instant it all came back – Adam caught in Diaz’s Dodge, Hal Wilmot risin’ up from the dead, hearin’ a shot.

Bein’ shot.

“Adam!” the teenager shouted, sitting up and pulling off the thin blanket that covered him.  A second later a pair of strong arms pinned him to the ground.  “Hey!  You let me go!” he yelled, fighting back. “My brother needs me!”

“He’s here, Hoss,” a familiar voice said. “Right beside you.  Look!”

Hoss froze.  He turned and looked.  Adam was there all right, layin’ beside him with a blanket pulled up to his chin.

He looked dead.

Still, since the blanket was at his brother’s chin and not over his head, he figured he was breathin’.

Laying his spinning head back down, he asked, “Is he okay?”

It was Ed Waters who held him.  His eyes flicked to Adam and then back.  “Best as can be expected. The boy’s lost a lot of blood.”

“Did he fall?” he asked.

“We kept him from fallin’,” Jimmy Wheat said as he crouched beside him.  “Ed, he held the rope so Adam couldn’t go nowhere while me and Joe went to the bottom of the shaft.  I got on Joe’s shoulders.  We were about ten feet shy, but Ed let your brother down real slow and we caught him and got him out safe.”

It was only then, when he knew Adam was safe and alive, that Hoss relaxed and the pain he had been keepin’ at bay coursed through him, taking his breath away.

“Damn!” he breathed, and then added with a shy smile.  “Ed, don’t you go tellin’ my pa you heard me say that.”

Ed crossed his heart with his fingers.  “Hope to die,” he said.

Hoss wrinkled his nose.  His eyes move to his brother.  “Let’s just hope none of us do that.”

The teenager didn’t know when it happened, but he fell asleep after that.  When he woke up, the light was almost gone.  Ed had lit a fire and it cast a warm glow over the camp.  Somethin’ was cookin’.  He could smell it.

His stomach rumbled.

“If I ain’t like to fade away from hunger,” he mumbled as he struggled to lift himself up on one elbow.

“No…chance,” a quiet voice remarked.  “There’s…too much…of you.”

He looked around, expectin’ to find it were Ed or one of the other men who’d spoken.  Then he realized it hadn’t been any of them.

“Adam!”

His brother winced.  “…headache.  Can you…keep it down?”

The teenager shifted and laid a hand on his brother’s arm.  “I thought I’d lost you, older brother.”

“Thought I…lost you.”  Adam’s voice was weak, but he was determined.  “I heard…shots?  What…?”

Hoss shook his head.  “You know how I thought I’d killed Hal Wilmot?  He sure was a mean cuss.  He got up with a bullet in his back, got on his horse and rode down, and was waitin’ for us.  When he see’d me alone, he took a shot.”

Adam’s hazel eyes rolled his way.  “Did he…hit…you?”

“Yeah.”  He shrugged.  “Ain’t nothin’.”

“You’re…fine,” Adam’s lips curled in a smile as his eyelids drifted shut.

“Ed and the men were comin’ up the ridge.  I kind of gave them the slip last night,” he admitted with chagrin.  “Come first light they started trackin’ me.  I was wavin’ at Ed when Hal came out of the trees.  Them other shots you heard were Pa’s men takin’ him down.”

For a moment, he thought his brother was asleep.  Then Adam roused again.  “Any word on…Joe?” he asked.

‘Course there weren’t no way they could have any word on punkin.  But Adam was hurt bad and he couldn’t remember that.

“Pa’s gone to fetch him home,” he said, squeezing his brother’s arm.

Adam’s lip twitched.  “Asked God,” he said.

Hoss frowned.  “You asked God for somethin’?”

There was a small – a very small nod.  “Miracle.”

He couldn’t help it. “I thought you didn’t believe in miracles, older brother.  Somethin’ change your mind?”

“Impossible I’m here,” he said, his voice breathy.  “But…I’m here.”

“You asked God to get you out of that chute alive?  So did I….”

He felt a return squeeze. “No.  Asked for Joe.  God saved me…. He’ll…save Joe….”

Hoss reached out and lifted one of Adam’s lids.  His brother was unconscious again.

Leanin’ back, he thought about what Adam had said.  It sure seemed there was no way to get Adam out of that chute, but here he was.  Just like it seemed there was no way his pa could find Little Joe when a mountain range and a lot of land lay between the Ponderosa and wherever Wade Bosh was takin’ him.  But God did work miracles.  He saw it everyday.  It was a miracle every mornin’ when the sun rose, and another one when the moon chased it off at night.  Every time a calf or foal was born.  Each time he watched one of them little worms wiggle into its house and then emerge a while later as a big beautiful, brilliant butterfly.  God made miracles happen all the time.

“Just one more,” the big teenager whispered as sleep sought to claim him too.  “Please God, just one more.”

 

Adam moaned and opened his eyes.  At first, he had no idea where he was, but then he realized there was a soft ticking under him, a warm fire blazing beyond the foot board of the bed, and a very familiar and slightly exasperated gray-haired man standing over him, holding his wrist in one hand and a watch in the other and shaking his head.

“You have no idea how surprised I was, young man,” Doctor Martin said, noting he was awake, “when I got the call to come to the Ponderosa and found it was you instead of that adventurous younger brother of yours in need of my services.  I thought you were on the road to recovery!”

“How’s Hoss?” he croaked.

“Oh yes, and him too!”  Doctor Martin laid his hand gently on top of the bed cover.  “Tell me, Adam, just what made you go against every order I gave you?”

He winced as he straightened a bit.  “Jake and Hal didn’t give me much choice.”

“So they forced you to go with them?”  One white eyebrow cocked.  “From what Hop Sing said, you volunteered.”

“I had to do something to protect Pa –”

“Because your pa can’t take care of himself.”

He frowned.  “I didn’t say that.”

“No.  I did.”  The older man crossed to the window and threw open  the curtains.  Outside, it was dark.  Turning back he asked, “Do you know what day it is or, rather, was?”

As a matter-of-fact, he didn’t.  “No.”

“Five days later than the last time I asked you that question.”

Adam started.  “What?”

Doctor Martin’s voice was soft.  “Son, you almost died.  You tore all your stitches open.  You nearly bled out.”

He winced.  “But I didn’t.”

“Through no fault of your own!”  The physician’s tone was stern.  “Didn’t you think about your father?  He’s already lost one son –”

“Joe’s not lost!”  Adam sat up in the bed, ignoring the fact that his head was swimming and the room was going dark – and that he was defying the doctor again.  “Don’t you dare say Joe’s dead!”

Paul was at his side in a second, pressing him back to the bed.  “I’m sorry, Adam.  I didn’t mean to upset you.”  The older man dropped into the chair beside him and in a rare moment of emotion, choked out, “I saw that boy into the world.  I’m more worried about Little Joe than I can say.”

It felt odd to be comforting the comforter.  Adam placed a hand on the older man’s sleeve.  “You know Joe.  He’ll pull through.  He always does.”

Doc Martin nodded his head.  A moment later the doctor reached toward his nightshirt and began to unbutton it.  “I need to check your stitches.  I want to make sure there’s no residual bleeding.”

Adam leaned his head back against the pillows as the doctor began to examine him.  He didn’t want to admit it, but he was exhausted.   When the older man had finished and began to close his shirt, he said, “You didn’t tell me how Hoss is.”

“Well enough to take Amy Prentiss to the dance tomorrow night,” a familiar voice replied.

The doctor rolled his eyes as he turned toward the door.  “And what are you doing out of bed?”

Hoss was standing there, leaning heavily on the jamb.  As he spoke, he moved in and dropped into the chair on the opposite side of the bed.

“I heard my big brother talkin’,” he replied.

“So you risked your health to see that Adam’s health was better?”  Paul threw his hands up into the air.  “I give up!  You Cartwrights are impossible!  I’m going down for a cup of coffee.  When I get back I expect you,” he pointed at Adam, “to be asleep and you,” Hoss was next, “to be in your own room doing the same thing!  Am I understood?”

They both murmured, “Yes, sir,” meekly as the physician left the room.

“He sure can be cantankerous,” Hoss sighed.

“You have to admit we give him a lot of reason.”

His brother’s lips pursed in a smile.  “I reckon it’s our God-given job to keep him on his toes.”

Adam fell silent.  He turned his face toward the window and for a moment they both sat there.

Finally Hoss asked, “Did I say somethin’ wrong?”

“I was just thinking about miracles.”

The teenager looked a bit startled.  “You too?”

Adam’s hazel eyes narrowed.  “You think we’ve used up our share?”

Hoss rose and walked to the window to look out.  “Pa will find Little Joe, Adam.  We’re gonna see him again.”

He said it, but his words lacked conviction.  Their hearts yearned for a positive outcome, but their heads knew better.

“There’s one thing I am sure of,” Adam said, straightening up in the bed a bit.

Hoss turned toward him.  “What’s that?”

“Pa won’t ever give up.”

A silent void opened before them –a world in which they had neither their brother nor their father; only an empty void where one had been and an absent presence in the other.

It remained until Doctor Martin returned to chastise them both.

 

 

ELEVEN

Ming-hua, whose name meant ‘tomorrow’s flower’, lifted her dark head from the piece of embroidery she was working on to watch the door of the salon open and a large man walk in.  He stopped just inside it and surveyed the smoke-filled room filled with white men and the China girls who brought them pleasure.  He was an unpleasant looking man, ugly as a dugong and big as an elephant.  Just one of the large hands that hung below his dust-covered deep blue coat would have circled her waist.  At fourteen, she was glad she was not old enough to service the men who came into Madame Ah Kum’s establishment in the Chinese quarter of Sacramento.  Ah Kum had purchased along with two of her sisters from her father.  There were too many mouths to feed in his house and most of them were worthless females, and so they had been sold.  She earned no wage yet, but both older sisters commanded a high price.  Biyu and Dandan, or Jasper and Cinnabar as the salon’s patrons called them, were beautiful, tall, and slender.  Biyu was eighteen and Dandan, twenty.  It was Biyu’s dress she was working on.  Biyu had chosen a deep red silk, to match her name and she was embellishing it with rampant golden dragons.

Ming-hua sighed.  Deciding to take a break, the young Chinese girl laid her sister’s dress in her lap and folded her hands over it.  One day she too would be made to bring pleasure to the men who paid.  Dandan had told her the day was still years away and for that she was glad.  Madame Ah Kum owned her sisters.  They had been forced to sign a contract when they arrived in America.  It said they would pleasure the men who came to the Delectable Dragon for a term of ten years.  For every day they were sick, two days were added to that time.  If they were sick for two, it became a month.  And if they tried to run away and were caught?  The girl drew a breath and let it out slowly.  They would be held as a slave for life.

She was already a slave for life.  She knew it.  Even if she did not try to run away.

Madame Ah Kum was powerful, but there were people more powerful than her.  She too was a slave.  She had been married to one of the richest Chinese men in San Francisco before his death.  He had been one of the Tong.  There had been a war.

He had lost.

Ming-hua returned her gaze to the big man.  She did not know why he intrigued her.  Perhaps it was the fact that he acted like he had a secret.  His narrowed eyes scrutinized the men and women in the room as if seeking to discern their thoughts.  ‘There are no secrets of the soul that conduct does not reveal’, her grandmother used to tell her.

As she continued to watch him, one of the lesser China girls – her name was Xiofan, which meant little and ordinary and she was both – went to greet the stranger.  The top of her head did not reach his chin.  Xiofan spoke a few words.  When the man nodded, she headed for the counter behind which they kept many kinds of liquor and what little food their cook prepared.  There were many hotels and other establishments in the town where one could get a meal.  Madame Ah Kum’s served soup and small delicacies, tea, and a few sweets.  It was enough.

The men who came to the Dragon sought to satisfy a different kind of hunger.

When she looked back, the big man was gone.  Ming-hua frowned, puzzled, and then realized he had only stepped outside.  A moment later he reentered the room.  This time he was not alone.  With him was a white boy.

She could not help but stare at him.

The boy was a shoot of bamboo next to the man’s Banyan tree.   He was small in stature and had skin the color of milk.  His hair was dark and curly as a mountain goat’s horns.  The clothes he wore were ragged and hung on his slender frame.  He was not clean and looked as though he lived in the streets.  Ming-hua scowled.  Perhaps the man had found him and in kindness taken him in.

But no, she did not think so.

The young girl started as a hand came down on her shoulder.  “Are you finished yet?” her sister asked.

She looked up at Biyu.  “A moment more.”

“If you kept your mind to your task you would be done.”  Her tall, attractive sister leaned in to finger the golden thread of a dragon’s mane.  As she did, she whispered, “You will stay away from that man.  The one who just came in.”

Ming-hua’s eyes flicked to the stranger.  He had led the boy to a table and placed him in a chair.  The boy stared listlessly at the floor.

“Who is he?”

Her sister smirked.  “He is trouble.  That is all you need to know.”

“Ming-hua!” a voice called.

She glanced at Biyu and then turned to find Madame Ah Kum gesturing to her.  The man who tended their bar had placed two drinks on a tray.

“Take this to that table!” the salon’s mistress ordered.

She looked at her sister.

Biyu scowled. “Do as you are told.  Then leave as quickly as you came.”

Ming-hua rose to her feet.  She placed her sister’s dress on the chair and went to pick up the tray.  She was young and pretty and dressed in a heavily embroidered blue silk gown that was slit up her thigh on one side to reveal her legs.  Her hair was wound high upon her head and decorated with silk flower petals and pearls.  She wore no makeup yet and only a simple pair of black pearl earrings.  Madame Kum had bought her when she was eight years old and was grooming her for the time when she would serve her as did all the other China girls.  The men in the salon watched her as she delivered the drinks, drooling like dogs in summer heat.  She kept her eyes on the table as she crossed the room, and on the boy who sat there still as stone.  The big man said something and when the boy did not respond, he snarled like a wolf as he caught the boy’s brown curls in his fingers and thrust his head back.

The boy, like her, must be a slave.

Ming-hua arrived at the table and put the tray down.  “Your drinks, honored guest,” she said and turned to walk away.

“Sit down,” the big man said a he reached for the taller of the two glasses.

The Chinese girl stiffened.  She shot a look at her sister who was leaning against the bar watching her.  Biyu shook her head.

“Honored sir, I have work to attend to,” she said, giving him a little bow.

As she started to move away, his hand shot out and caught hers.  “I said ‘sit’.”

The look in his eyes made her shiver.

“Leave her be, Wade,” her sister said as she came to her side.  “She’s only a child.”

The white man’s eyes assessed her and then went to Biyu.  “Jasper,” he said, sneering.  “It’s been a while.”

“Not long enough.”

Ming-hua was surprised by her sister’s words.  They were taught to be respectful to white men no matter what their words or actions.

The man Biyu called ‘Wade’ leaned back in his chair.  His eyes went to the boy who was looking at the floor and still had not touched the drink placed before him, and then settled on her.

“This your little sister?” he sneered.  “Seems old enough to have a man show her what it’s about.”

“Show me a man and I might consider it,” Biyu replied.

For a moment it looked like the white man would grow angry and strike her sister.  She had seen it happen many times.  Once, a China girl had been killed by such a blow.  Instead, he began to laugh.  When he slapped the table, the boy sitting there did not jump even though she did.

“Damn my eyes!  If you ain’t full of yourself for a fancy girl!”  Ming-hua watched as Wade reached out and caught her sister’s hand.  “Come here!”

Biyu did not flinch. “Show me your gold first,” she said, refusing to allow him to draw her in.  “Maybe then I will.”

The man reached into his pocket and tossed several coins on the table.  “You, a bath, a meal and a room.”

Her sister picked them up.  She counted them and then placed the coins in the small purse she carried.  With her head, she indicated the boy.  “What about him?”

Wade’s lips curled in an unpleasant smile.  “I want to rent a crib as well.”

Ming-hua shuddered.  The ugly girls, the ones men did not want to look at but only to use, were sold to crib owners.  A ‘crib’ was a small wooden shack with one locked door and a barred window.  There was a narrow bunk with a thin mattress filled with straw within, as well as a chamber pot and a small table with a bucket holding wash water.  These girls were made to stand at the barred window and call out to the men walking by, baring their nakedness, and then doing whatever the man wanted for the wage of ‘two bits’.  The cribs were filthy and often the home to rats and insects.

“He’s too young,” Biyu replied, disgusted.

Wade snorted.  “I don’t want a woman for him.  I just want him in a crib until we’re done.”

Biyu eyed the boy, who still had not moved or made a sound.  “Is he yours?”

The white man’s sneer brought the chill of winter to her heart.  “Sure, he’s mine.”  Wade reached out and lifted the boy’s head by his chin and said, “Tell the lady who I am, boy.”

His eyes were green as jade, dull as stone, and rimmed in sadness.

“You’re my…pa,” he replied woodenly.

On the last word he flinched.

“That’s right, boy,” the man said as his hand dropped to the boy’s arm.  Ming-hua watched his fingers dig into the boy’s fragile flesh.  “And don’t you forget it!”

Her sister watched with indifference.  Since coming to America, Biyu and Dandan had both grown hard as diamonds, as she would grow hard one day.  Biyu’s fingers curled and wiggled.

“Another coin for the crib.”

The white man’s eyes narrowed and then he laughed again.  Reaching into his pocket he pulled out another coin.  “You’re robbin’ me blind.”

Her sister’s lips twisted. “Good.  Then you will not see when I switch places with the crib girl whose house you have just bought.”

Wade stood up.  “Same room?” he asked.

Biyu inclined her head toward the stair.  “Second floor, second on the right.”  She started to follow him and then, almost as an afterthought, turned back.  “Ming-hua, take the boy to Zhu’s crib.”

The girl became pale.  Zhu had died the week before.  She had been very sick.  There had been talk of burning that row of cribs down.  Her wide eyes went to the boy.  Her sister read the words in her stare.

A hand came down on her shoulder.  “He is with Wade Bosh.  Perhaps the ancestors will be kind and he will sicken and die,” she said softly.

With that, Biyu walked away.

A moment later, Longwei appeared beside the table.  He was one of the men Ah Kum hired to throw out those who did not pass the test of the water.  Ah Kum told the China girls to put alcohol in the water with which they bathed the men who came.  If they cried out – and were unclean – Longwei or one of his brothers would throw them out.  Longwei was not quite so large as the white man who had gone away with her sister, but he was very tall and very strong.

He was there to make sure the boy did not run away.

Ming-hua sat for a moment and then she reached out and touched the boy’s hand.  At first, he did not move.  Then he lifted his head and looked at her.  She saw again his pale skin and the darkness that cradled his eyes.  There was something else  she saw, and she knew the crib held little fear for him.

There was a wish for death in his eyes.

“You must come with me,” she said softly, her eyes flicking to Longwei as she touched his hand.  “You must come now.”

It seemed then that he noticed her for the first time.  Something else entered his eyes – perhaps a spark of the fire that had once been his.  The boy’s lips parted and he said, so quietly she almost did not hear.

Bāngbāng wǒ.”

Help me.

Please.

 

They were less than a day out of Sacramento.  Over the last five, Ben had grown increasingly desperate.  The trail they’d been following had disappeared and he was all for scouring the earth until he found it again.  Rosey stopped him.  She knew the lay of the land and said that Joe’s kidnapper was taking the Humboldt Trail, most likely in an attempt to escape notice.  It was a less traveled route and paralleled the river of the same name. The Humboldt River took a crooked, meandering path west across the arid Great Basin.  He knew from what others had told him that the river was good for neither man or beast.  There wasn’t enough timber along it to make a snuff-box or enough vegetation to shade a rabbit.  The water was alkaline and undrinkable.  He had been terrified for his son when he realized that was the route Wade Bosh had chosen.

Rosey assured him it was the hand of God.

He had to admit he had not been very kind.  He had all but accused the woman of being insane.  The former army scout had taken it in stride.  Think about it, she’d said.  The Humboldt trail was a long and winding one.  If they stuck to the more traveled path, they would make better time and would have a chance of catching up to Joseph and the man who took him.  Both trails bottomed out at what used to be called Sutter’s Fort; the town that had recently come to be known as Sacramento.

Blood and bread’, Rosey said with a smile.  The town was named after the Holy sacrament.

God’s promise of life out of death.

They were, perhaps, fourteen hours out from the fast-growing city.  Sacramento had been prospering since the late eighteen-forties.  When gold was discovered it boomed, and then settled back down to a reasonable size and began to grow fat and content with commerce.  It had seen its share of epidemics, riots, and fires.  Hop Sing had traveled there once to aid a relative – one of his seemingly thousand cousins.  When he’d mentioned this to Rosey she smiled.  She was familiar with the Chinese quarter of the city.  They were good people, she said, and – if necessary –would help in the search for Joseph.  Ben drew a breath against his fear.  If Wade Bosh succeeded – if that madman managed to take Little Joe to San Francisco or another port and get him on a ship….

A week.

It had been over a week since he had seen his son.

He didn’t even know if the boy was still alive.  If Joseph had been…killed, he could be buried anywhere along the trail.

He’d never know.

Ben sniffed and ran the back of his hand under both eyes, striking away tears.  He was bone tired.  But more than that, he was afraid.

Afraid for his boy.

“Supper’s ready, Ben,” Rosey said as she approached.  When she noted his demeanor, she added, “Take heart.  We’ll be in Sacramento by noon tomorrow.”

They’d stopped for the night.  He didn’t want to.  He wanted to press on, but Rosey said the path was too dangerous to attempt in the dark.  Not so much due to the land as to the highwaymen and evil doers who inhabited it this close to the city.

‘If you die, Ben, who will there be to rescue your boy?’ she’d asked in her soft husky voice.

“I’m not hungry,” he replied.

She came closer to him.  Her hand reached out and touched his arm.  “I know you aren’t, but you need to eat.”  She frowned. “There’s no knowin’ what awaits you tomorrow.”

There it was again.  The way she said things – like she’d been through what he was going through.

Ben’s smile was wistful.  “Will you ever tell me?” he asked.

Rosey’s keen eyes narrowed.  She thought a moment.  “When we find your boy.  I’ll tell you then.”

When – not ‘if’.

Accepting that, he asked, “Do you have an idea of where to begin looking in the city?”

“I have some friends I mean to talk to,” she said and then hesitated.  “Ben, you know, I haven’t led what you would call a righteous life, not even a half of it.”

“San Francisco?” he asked.

She nodded.  “I was a working girl, if you know what I mean?”

He did.

“Girls like me, we hear everything.”

“Your friends?”

“Same as me. Working girls, only Chinese.  There’s a place called The Delectable Dragon, run by a woman named Ah Kum.  She’s okay, though the man who owns her is involved with the Tong.”  At his look, she shrugged.  “The West ain’t exactly kind to women who’ve got no man.”

It was a sad truth.  Ben nodded.  “Go on.”

“If I was a bettin’ woman, and I’m not.”  She smiled.  “That’s one vice Jesus won’t have to forgive me for.  But if I was, I’d bet Wade Bosh frequents the Dragon.  It’s the place all the seamen go.”

“You think someone there might know about Joseph?”  Hope sprang in his heart.

Rosey removed her hand.  “That’s what I’m thinkin.”  At his look, she cautioned, “Now, even if Bosh visited, he may be gone before we arrive.  But maybe – just maybe – we can find out somethin’ about him – if he has your son with him, where he’s headed; what his plans are.”  She shook her head.  “A man don’t mind his mouth much when he’s busy thinkin’ with his other parts.”

Was it possible?  Could he be only one day away from finding out where his youngest son was – and more importantly, that Joseph was alive?

He hardly knew what to say.  “Thank you, Rosey.  I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

“You would have gone on,” she said, her eyes and tone serious.  “To where there be dragons, I imagine.”

Yes, he would.

For his son, he would have gone to the ends of the Earth.

 

Ming-hua persuaded Longwei to leave her alone with the boy.  Longwei liked her and she had told him she would let him touch her and kiss her if he walked away for an hour and did not tell anyone that he had.  The crib was filthy.  It had not been touched since Zhu’s death the week before.  The walk to the alley the small shacks lined exhausted the boy and he wanted to lie down immediately, but she did not let him.  She made him lean against the wall as she covered the polluted ticking with a blanket and cleared away the chamber pot. The crib had a small stove in it, less than worthy to heat the tiny eight foot square space.  She brought firewood and lit a fire and then took hold of the boy’s arm and led him over to the cot.  As he sat on the edge of it, his eyes pleaded with her.  His lips formed the words again, spoken in Chinese, and then he fell over and was still.

Tears fell as she stared at him.

She had thought him a beggar at first, but now she knew better.  The large shirt he wore had been tossed over his other clothes to hide them.  They were threadbare but fit well, and were of fine workmanship.  They told their own tale, but this was not the tale that spoke the loudest.  His hands, though they showed he was not a stranger to work, were soft and refined; the fingers long, the nails unbroken.  His features were refined as well – a small straight nose that turned up at the end, full lips, and a strong-boned face.  She had seen his eyes, even though now they were covered by thick black lashes which shaded their haunting green depths.

Like the jade eyes of the dragon.

Ming-hua wondered what his name was.

The time would not be long now before Longwei returned.  And it would not much be longer until Biyu and the man were done.  She would be forced to leave him then and might never see him again.  The young girl chewed her lip.  She did not believe the boy belonged to the big white man.  Like her, she knew he had been taken from his home.  She wanted desperately to do something to save him, but she did not know how.  She was a China girl.  She was owned by another.  She was powerless.  No more than a slave.

Still….

Ming-hua placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  His skin was slightly hot, as though sickness waited to pounce like a hungry tiger.  Moving her hand, she brushed the wet brown curls off his forehead and asked in Chinese, “Nǐ jiào shénme míngzì?”

What is your name?

A slight smile curled his lips.  “Joe,” he answered, his voice soft as a whisper.

Her fingers lingered in the thick curls.  “Only Joe?”

The smile turned to a frown.  She thought he was in pain.  His head shook.  “Can’t,” was all he said.

“Does he beat you if you tell?” she asked, recognizing his fear as one of her own.

Joe nodded.

Ming-hua glanced over her shoulder.  Longwei was returning.  She heard his footsteps, even amidst the cries of the other crib girls and the ones who used them.

Leaning in close, she said, “You must tell me.  I will keep your secret.”  The girl drew in a breath.   “And, should you go to meet your ancestors, I will keep your memory.”

Those jade green eyes stared into her as if they could discern her soul.

“Cartwright,” he said at last, flinching with the name as if it was a blow itself.   “Joe Cartwright.”

Longwei was placing the key in the lock.  In a second he would draw her away.  Quickly she kissed the boy’s fevered forehead.

“May your luck be as immense as the eastern sea, Joe Cartwright,” she breathed into his ear.  “You will not be forgotten.”
Joe lay where he was, quiet and unmoving.  All he wanted to do was to go to sleep and not wake up.  He was sick, but that wasn’t what had brought him to this pass.  What had was the loss of somethin’ he didn’t really even know he had, it was such a part of him.

Hope.

In the mountains they’d run across a man from the East named Cunningham who was lookin’ for gold.  He had a black man with him named Billy who was his cook.  Bosh untied him before they entered the men’s camp.  The big man took hold of his shoulder and gripped it hard and used his eyes to indicate the pistol he kept anchored behind his belt, indicatin’ he’d better not say anything or make a break for it or he’d die.

At least that was what he thought Bosh meant.

Billy was about Adam’s age and he sensed something was wrong right away.  The black man brought him his food and then sat down beside him and started to talk.  With his eyes on Bosh and Cunningham, Billy began to ask him questions.  In spite of trying to hide it, it quickly became clear to the stranger that Bosh wasn’t his father and that he didn’t want to be with him.  Billy told him to lay down and go to sleep and he’d talk to Cunningham and see what they could do.  He’d laid his head down without despair for the first time in a week that night.  He’d still had it then – hope – alive and beatin’ in his chest.

It died along with the two men.

Bosh told him he was the reason they were dead.  Four people were dead because of him and his stubborn pride and there’d be more.  The big man warned him that – anytime he tried to tell anyone anything, if he ever looked anyone in the eye, if he told them his name….

They were dead.

Joe closed his eyes and sighed.  Bosh kept tellin’ him he was never going to see his family again, that they weren’t even trying to find him.  And if they did, it wouldn’t matter.  Once they knew, they wouldn’t want him.

Who’d want a snivelin’ sorry murderer like him?

Tears formed in Joe’s eyes and traveled along his feverish cheek to strike the rough blanket Ming-hua had placed on the cot.  He was scared for her.  Bosh had gone off with that woman so he didn’t think he knew the Chinese girl had stayed behind at the crib and talked to him, but he couldn’t be sure.  He’d put her in danger.  If she died, he didn’t know what he would do.  He’d just wanted to be with someone other than Bosh – someone who didn’t yell at him or tell him his name wasn’t what he thought it was.  Someone who didn’t tell him he was all he wanted and then treat him as if he was worthless as the offal from a butchered cow.

Joe swallowed hard over his fear.

Truth to tell, he thought the seaman was insane.

At first Bosh had called him by his name and seemed to know who he was.  Lately – since he’d been forbidden to talk about his pa and brothers or mention their names or use his last name – Bosh seemed to have, well, lost track.  Most of the time he called him ‘boy’, like he was nothin’ and didn’t even have a name.  Every once in a while he’d call him ‘Joseph’, but then, without warning, he’d call him ‘Jude’.  Joe didn’t know who Jude was, but he was afraid he was someone like him who Bosh stole away from his family and maybe killed.  He’d tried to ask once and been backhanded for it.  Since they’d left the mountains the big man had become more unstable.  When he didn’t move fast enough or answer right away he got angry.

And when he was angry, Bosh hit him.

Sometimes the big man would lose his temper and forgot to stop and then he’d beat him until he was lyin ‘ on the ground, breathin’ hard.  The worst pounding had come the night after he’d killed Billy and Cunningham.  Bosh told him to call him ‘Pa’ and waited for him to do it.  He wasn’t about to.  He told him he only had one ‘Pa’ and he wasn’t a murderer!  That sent the big man into a fury.  He struck him and struck him and struck him until he forced the word out of his mouth.

Somethin’ broke in him then.  Joe wasn’t sure what it was, but he thought it might have been his spirit.  Layin’ there, his lip bleedin’, with Bosh looming over him, he’d said it.  He’d called the seaman ‘Pa.’

The word didn’t have any meaning anymore.

Another tear trailed down Joe’s cheek to wet the blanket.  Bosh would come for him soon.  He didn’t know where they were goin’, but he was pretty sure it was out to sea.  The closest port city was Vallejo.  San Francisco was a little farther west.  He didn’t really care which one it was.  He knew there was nothin’ left for him.  He couldn’t go home and he didn’t want to go forward.

He just wanted to die.

Drownin’ was a good a way as any.

 

 

TWELVE

Rosey O’Rourke stopped outside the doors of the Delectable Dragon and took a deep breath.  This wasn’t one of the dens of iniquity where she’d worked, but the sights and sounds and smells were the same.  Sweaty men.  Stale tobacco.  Whiskey, both cheap and over-priced.  Powdered hair and perfumed women.

Lust and despair.

As a young girl she’d found herself on her own.  Her family perished on the journey out west.  They’d been among the first to try it in the late eighteen-twenties and paid the price for the nation’s inexperience.  The O’Rourke family hadn’t been large – just her, her ma and pa, and two brothers.  Both Rory and Sean, who were younger than her, died along the way.  Her parents made it to the coast only to depart this life in one of the epidemics that swept through the gathering of wooden houses, tents, and hulks of ships that in time would become San Francisco.

So there she was, a seventeen year old girl; one husband shy of respectability.  The only thing she had to offer was what she’d been born with and that was what she used to survive.

Just like the China girls at Ah Kum’s.

She’d been pretty as a filly then, with dark masses of hair that cascaded down her back, a waist small enough for a man to circle with two hands, and breasts that were little more than a mouthful.  In the beginning the owner put her to work on the first floor, delivering drinks to tables and so on.  She didn’t mind.  It was all right.  A year later she graduated to the second floor.  It didn’t take her long to discover that what she was expected to deliver there was a horse of a different color.  Before she knew it, she was laying on her back every night looking at the ceiling and tryin’ not to think about what was going on.  The ceiling had a pretty painting of a lake on it.  She’d dream she was swimming there, floating on her back and starin’ at the stars.

One day – when she couldn’t take it any more – she’d tried to swim away.  One of the girls had been beat so bad she’d nearly died.  The Doc who cared for her had left a bottle of laudanum on the bedside table.  She stole it and drank it all.  When she woke up she was lying in bed and there was a man bending over her.  He was lifting her eyelids and callin’ her name.  She was pretty sure he actually called her back.

She’d been furious.

Years later when she sat beside that same man in their home, safe and loved in the crook of his arm, she remembered that night.  She’d cussed him up one side and down the other, shouting at him that he should have let her die.  She told him he had no right to bring her back and he’d damn-well better be prepared accept the responsibility for doin’ so!  Doctor Patrick Johnston O’Rourke, with his braw Scottish accent and winning smile, his deep auburn hair and gentle hands, took her up on the challenge.

They were married six weeks later.

Rosey stirred.  She glanced into the smoke-filled room.  This was the first time she’d had to face the life she’d led since Patrick passed and, even though this wasn’t the San Francisco hell-hole she’d spent her lost youth in, in many ways it was.  She saw herself in the blank stare of every China girl that walked the floor.  They lived in that same place – lookin’ at that lake on the ceiling and dreaming of their own Patrick O’Rourke.

God, she missed him.

A disgruntled sound behind her made Rosey turn and look.  Ben Cartwright was gettin’ impatient.  It had been all she could do to get the rancher to promise to wait in the street with Roy and Jude while she went inside.  If the man who took his son was there and he saw him, it would be over.  Most likely Wade Bosh wouldn’t have the boy with him and, if he escaped, they’d lose Joseph forever.  She didn’t know that the seaman was here, of course, but she thought he probably was – or at least had been.  The Dragon was a fancy house that catered to sailors.  Ah Kum’s current husband ran a shipping yard and owned a number of vessels.  There was word on the streets that he ran other ‘businesses’ as well including one that bought and sold the China girls and another that crimped American men.

Rosey caught the rancher’s eye and held up five fingers, indicating the amount of time she wanted.

Ben scowled and then nodded.  As he did Jude Randolph placed a hand on the older man’s shoulder and drew him back.  There was a bond there.  A deep one.  It reminded her of….

No.

Not yet.

Drawing a breath of fresh air before entering, Rosey swung open the salon doors and stepped into the smoke-filled room.  She was looking for a pair of young women.  A month or two after her marriage, she and Patrick had come to Sacramento.  He was there to attend a week-long medical conference.  Left to herself during the day, she’d decided to frequent some of the cat houses in the rapidly expanding city.  It had become a mission of sorts for her, seeing if she could free other women who were trapped as she had once been.  In one house she encountered a pair of Chinese girls; sisters who had just arrived.  She thought at first that they were twins, but later found out there was a year between them.  Cinnabar and Jasper, they were called by the men who used them.  She knew them as Biyu and Dandan.  Though they had refused her help, something about the pair had touched her and she’d kept in touch with Biyu over the years.  She’d received a letter not all that long ago and so she knew the pair were at the Dragon.

If Wade Bosh had visited Ah Kum’s establishment, Biyu would know it.

Rosey smiled as she passed through the crowd of men on her way to the counter.  It caused a little stir.  There weren’t too many white women would darken the Dragon’s doorstep.  Not if they wanted to remain acceptable in society.

‘Course, she hadn’t been considered acceptable for a long time.

There was a young woman behind the bar.  She had her eyes averted and was polishing one of a pair of glasses.  Rosey waited patiently for her to look up and acknowledge her.  As their eyes met there was a flash of fear.  The girl buried it quickly in her work.

“How may Shuchun help you?” she asked, her voice soft.

Shuchun.  It meant ‘fair purity’.  Now, there was a name for a China girl.

“I heard a couple of my friends are here,” Rosey replied.  “I came to pay them a visit.”

Shuchun frowned.  Her eyes flicked up and then returned to her work.  “What are your friends names?”

“Biyu and Dandan.”  She deliberately used their Chinese names and not the ones their owner had given them.

“Did I hear my name?” a sultry voice asked from close behind her.

Rosey turned on her heel.  She gasped at what she found, but recovered quickly and turned it into a little cough.  She should have used ‘Jasper’.

The woman before her looked hard as stone.

It had been, maybe, nine years since she’d seen her.  She’d prospered, obviously, for Biyu was dressed in a finely-embroidered dress of rust-colored silk and had diamond and ruby encrusted combs holding up her shining black hair.  She was still beautiful, but it was the hard beauty of a porcelain mask.

“Do I know you?” Biyu asked.

Rosey smiled.  She was over forty now and felt like she’d lived twice that many years.  She supposed she had changed to.

“It’s Rosey,” she said with a smile.   “Rosey O’Rourke.”

The porcelain cracked and Biyu smiled.  She reached out and took her hands. “Rosey,” she breathed.  “Forgive me.”

The older woman shook her head.  “There is nothing to forgive.  How are you?  How are those sisters of yours?  Dandan and, Ming, was it?”

Biyu’s smile faded.  “Ming-hua.”

“Is something wrong?”

With her head the Chinese woman indicated a pretty girl serving food to two men nearby.  She looked to be fourteen, maybe fifteen years old.

“She is here.”

And that said it all.

As she opened her mouth to say something more, Rosey noted a decided silence settle over the room.  He older woman closed her eyes and sighed.  She knew what had happened before she looked.

Ben Cartwright’s patience had run out.

It was funny.  He was just a man, but it only took one look at Ben to know he hadn’t come to the Delectable Dragon lookin’ for an evening of amorous congress.

Biyu’s eyes reflected her fear.  “I must go.”

Rosey gripped her hand.  “Biyu, there’s a boy missin’.  That’s his pa.  We think the man who took him might have come here.”

“I know nothing!” Biyu declared as she tried to pull away.

“You’re mighty skittish for someone who knows nothin’,” she replied, her tone dark.  “Tell me the truth.”

“This is the truth.  You must go away.”

Why must I go away?  Can’t a woman have a drink and a chat with an old friend?”

Biyu’s eyes went past her to Ben.  She seemed to size him up quickly.  “The man you seek is not here.  He was, but is gone.  But this man, you must get him away.  For his own sake.”

Rosey glanced around the room.  She noted three large Chinese men occupying a corner of it.  They were sizing up Ben.

“Crimpers?” she asked.

Her old friend nodded.  “There is a ship in the Vallejo harbor.  It sets sail this week.  Longwei and the others have been paid to find men to fill her crew.”

Rosey turned to look and saw Roy Coffee and Jude standing just outside the Dragon’s doors, keeping an eye on their friend.  The lawman especially looked concerned.

Ben was almost at her side.

Biyu leaned in to kiss her cheek.  “You are not safe.  Leave this place.  Go now!”

She did not release her hand.  “Not until you answer this – was there a boy with him?  A boy with green eyes and curly hair?  Tell me!”

The China girl nodded and then pulled free.

Rosey watched as Biyu gathered up her sisters and disappeared into the kitchen.  Then she swung about and faced Ben.  Anchoring her hands on her hips, the older woman put on her best frown and declared, “Aha!  I knew I’d find you here!”

Ben halted, stunned.

Rosey glared at him.  Come on, she thought.  You’re a smart man!  Play along!

“I knew you were lying!  I knew this was what you’ve been doin’ all those nights you came in late!”  She shook  a finger at him.  “After hours meetings of the cattleman’s association, my eye teeth!  You’ve been makin’ time with these Chinese hussies!”

He was slow on the pick-up, but he had it at last.

“Darling,” the rancher said as he advanced into the room, “I assure you that you are mistaken.  I came in here looking for a friend.”  Ben lifted up on tiptoe and looked around.  “He doesn’t appear to be here.  Now, why don’t you and I go home –  Oh, there he is!”

Roy had just stepped in.  Jude was close on his heels.  The elegant Englishman turned more than one head – most of them female and Chinese.

The lawman raised a hand and waved it.

By this time the entire room was watching them, including Longwei who was eyeing Ben like a side of beef.

“See?” the rancher asked.  “You remember Roy, don’t you, darling?  We were at the meeting together.  He asked me to meet him here.”

Rosey held her frown for a moment and then let it melt into a sigh.  She went over to Ben and reached up and touched his face.  It was simple gesture – an act – but the thrill that went through her was very real.

“Men,” she sighed.

Ben wrapped her arm around his and patted her hand.  “Let’s go home.”

Rosey glanced at Longwei as they headed for the door.  The older woman didn’t read suspicion in his stare, but she did see a hunger.  Ben Cartwright was a strong, well-muscled man; over six feet in height.  Just the type the crimpers looked for.  They’d have to be careful.

They didn’t need another Cartwright to go missing.

 

It was dark when they left the Delectable Dragon.  Ben didn’t want to go, but bowed to Rosey’s greater knowledge of the establishment when she said nothing more could be accomplished there that night.  He reluctantly took his small party to the better end of town and rented a suite of rooms at a respectable hotel.  After a week on the trail ‘rank’ didn’t even begin to describe them.  He and Roy shared a room while Rosey and Jude each had one of their own.  After they’d freshened up, he and Roy went down to the dining room.  Jude soon joined them.  He’d taken a walk, he said, to clear his head.  It was late, but a little extra cash in hand persuaded the hotel owner to keep the kitchen open for another hour.  There were very few patrons in the dining room, which suited him fine.  In a far corner two men sat with their heads together.  They were conducting business.  Behind them was a able with a handsome white-haired woman and her children.  Her three young sons reminded him of his own.  There was an older studious-looking boy with black hair, a middle boy with an easy smile, also black-haired, and a much younger one with curly brown hair.  The woman had a babe in arms that might have been a girl.  Ben turned away as the sight struck him to his core.

He so missed his boys.

“How much longer do you think Rosey’ll be, Ben?” Roy Coffee asked, his tone clearly impatient.  Rosey had promised to fill them in on what she’d learned from the Chinese woman she’d talked to.  He had been slightly piqued with her when she refused to go into it before, but had finally accepted the fact that she had her reasons.

The main one being she was a woman.

“We’ve both had wives, Roy.  You know how long it takes a woman to make themselves presentable.”

“Seems to me that a woman like Rosey don’t worry much about things like that.”  Roy shook his head.  “Imagine her bein’ a scout for Kearney back in forty-six.”

The idea had surprised him – momentarily.  Women were capable of anything a man was for the most part, but social custom usually prevented them from attempting anything that might engender scandal.  They had to keep a close watch over their reputation.

Rosey laughed when he brought the subject up, saying she had no reputation to watch.

She was a fascinating woman.

He knew from what little Rosey had told him that she’d been on her own by the time she was seventeen, fallen into harlotry to survive, and then left that dubious profession to build a better life.  There had been a marriage and maybe a child, but something had happened and she’d been left alone again.  After that she’d shunned society and taken to living in the mountains.  He wondered what she would do now.  She seemed invested in finding Joseph, but as of tonight her task was done.  She’d brought them safely through the mountains to Sacramento in record time.  He knew his way to Vallejo and San Francisco from here.  She was free to go.

But would she go?

The middle boy at the woman’s the table rose abruptly and sped toward the door.  His mother’s voice followed him, calling for him to slow down.  He was looking back over his shoulder and was quite unaware of the dark-haired woman in a simple blue frock who had just stepped into the dining room.  With a speed Ben would not have expected, the woman moved out of the way, avoiding the collision and sending the boy tumbling to the floor.  He ended up at the feet of a well-dressed gentleman who offered up a very familiar sigh.

That of a long-suffering father.

Reaching down the man caught the boy’s arm and lifted him to his feet.  “Nicholas, apologize to the lady,” he said in a stern tone.

The boy ducked his dark head and mumbled something.

“Stand up straight.  Speak clearly.  I’m not breeding idiots.”

There was a snicker from behind him.  It came from the curly-headed youth who received a cuff from his older brother and fell silent.

Nicholas opened his mouth to apologize, but Ben didn’t hear what he said.  He’d only just realized who the woman in the dark blue dress was.

Rosey O’Rourke.

The older woman moved like grace itself to their table and grinned as the three of them jumped to their feet.  Roy was the first to regain his tongue.

“Well, now, Miss Rosey, you clean up right nice.”

She smiled at the lawman as Jude pulled a chair out and she took a seat.  After arranging her skirts, Rosey looked at him.  Her hair was loose and it lay in a dark wave across her exposed shoulders.  When the candlelight that illuminated the room caught it just right, streaks of silver shot through it like summer lightning.  Rosey had a neat, trim figure that was enhanced by the cut of the dress with a waist that would have been the envy of any girl.

She was, in a word, breathtaking.

“Cat got your tongue, Ben?” the older woman asked, her lips twitching with a smile.

He became aware that his mouth was hanging open and closed it.  “You look lovely.”

Rosey looked at the dress and then back up at him.  Her eyes were wide and inviting.  “I haven’t worn it since Patrick died.  I figured, what with comin’ to town, there might be a need.”

Ben dropped into his chair.  “A need?” he asked.  If it had been any other woman, he would have thought she was flirting with him, but this was Rosey.  She knew there was nothing on his mind but Joseph.  There had to be something else.

A movement to his side drew Ben’s attention as a young woman stopped beside the table.

“The chef asked if you were ready to order yet, Mister Cartwright?”

The hotel manager had supplied them with a menu upon their arrival.  After Rosey had a chance to look at it, they indicated their choices to the waitress and sent her off to the kitchen.  Ben watched her go and then glanced at the table behind them.  Nicholas and his father had taken a seat.  Coffee and dessert had been served.

Turning back to Rosey, he said, “So what is this need you speak of?”

The older woman held his gaze.  “Things didn’t quite go as planned tonight at the Dragon.  I need to go back and talk to Biyu or Dandan.  Considerin’ I was wearing chaps and trail dust before, I figure – looking this way – no one will recognize me.”

“You’re goin’ back?” Roy asked, incredulous.

As she nodded, Ben shook his head. “No.  It’s too dangerous.”

Rosey leaned over and caught his wrist in her fingers.  “No one’s gonna crimp me, Ben.  I’ll be safe enough.”  She leaned back.  “Besides, you forget, I know my way around a place like Ah Kum’s.  We need to know if your boy is there.”

“Will they not question why you are there?  Why would a woman, such as you appear now, enter such an establishment?” Jude asked.

The older woman shook her head.  “Men.  Innocents, all of you.  ‘Women such as ‘me’ run establishments such as ‘that’.  I’ll tell them I’m looking for some girls and willing to pay a handsome price.”  She looked at the rancher.  “I assume you’ve got some money I can flash, Ben?”

He was uncertain what he thought of her plan.  He was desperate to find news of Joseph, but not at the risk of Rosey’s life.

“Rosey, I thought you said there was nothing more that could be done tonight.”

She smiled.  “By you.  Not by me.”

“You can’t go there alone.  Really, I –”

Ben stopped. There was a disturbance in the hotel’s foyer.  He could hear the manager’s voice; it was raised.  He exchanged a glance with Rosey and then rose to his feet.  As he passed her chair, she stood and followed.  By the time they got to the lobby the manager was moving toward the door, dragging a Chinese girl behind him.

“What do you think are you doing, girl?  We don’t want your kind here!” he declared.  “No one with any respectability will set foot through the door of this hotel if they know one of Madame Ah Kum’s ching chong girls was here!”

God bless him, Ben Cartwright stepped right into the middle of it.  “No one with any respectability would treat a woman that way!”

The manager rounded on him.  The man looked slightly embarrassed and wholly discommoded.  “Mister Cartwright, as a patron of this fine establishment, I would think you would wish for it to maintain a sense of decorum and reflect a code of decency.”

“I would.  That’s why you are going to let go of that young lady right now.  Otherwise,” Ben loomed over the smaller, slighter man and used what his sons called ‘the voice’, “you might have to deal with an incident that would bring not only bad press but the long arm of the law into your fine establishment.”

“No one cares about a piece of trash like this!” the man spat.

It was a good thing Rosey chose that moment to appear at his elbow.  She took hold of it and kept his balled fist from swinging up and into the man’s smug face.

“Benjamin, mind your manners,” the older woman said softly as she stepped in front of him, sounding for all the world like the patient wife of a hot-headed husband.  “You’ll have to forgive my friend, Mister…?”

The manager shot a glance at the girl he held.  She was quiescent, and so he let her go in order to reach up and pull at his tie.

“Pennington,” he said stiffly.  “George Pennington.”

Rosey sidled up to him and completed the straightening of his tie.  “Mister Pennington, a mistake has been made.  This lovely child,” she nodded toward the girl, “has been employed by me as a maid.  Someone was supposed to have brought her here so there would be no…misunderstanding.  I apologize for the disturbance this has caused.”

“Madame, that is a prevarication!  I happen to know what she is and I – ”  Pennington stopped and went red in the face.

Rosey batted her eyelashes.  “Yes?”

Ben stifled a snort.  He had caught it too.  It was obvious that the ever-so moral George Pennington had frequented Ah Kum’s establishment.  Otherwise, how would he know who and what the girl was?

The hotel manager’s demeanor changed in an instant.  “Forgive me, Madame.  If the girl is with you –”

“She is,” Rosey said.

Pennington’s eyes darted to the dining room.  The family with the children was just coming through the door.  The two businessmen were gathering up their papers.

“Do you intend for your…maid to dine with you?” the bigoted man gulped.

Rosey glanced at him.  “What do you think, darling?  I’m a bit weary.  Perhaps we could have the food delivered to our suite?”

The woman never ceased to amaze him.  “I agree.”  Ben turned and found that Jude and Roy had joined them.  “Gentlemen, the lady would like to retire for the night.”

The pair came toward him.  Roy met Ben’s gaze and said, “I feel a might restless, Ben.  Think I’ll take me outside and have a stroll around the town.  Just to stretch my legs, you understand?”

He understood only too well.   Roy was going to see what information he could find.  “Be careful,” the rancher responded.  “There are villains afoot in a town this large.”

Roy nodded.  He tipped his hat to the Chinese girl who stood silently by, her eyes averted and her slender body trembling, and then disappeared out the door.

Rosey walked over and placed a hand on the girl’s arm.  “Come with me, my dear.  I’ll show you to your room.”

The girl’s head came up.  There was so much in her stare – surprise, relief, gratitude and, sadly, fear.  She nodded once and then obediently followed Rosey up the stairs.

Jude was at his side.  “The girl was at the Delectable Dragon tonight, Benjamin.  I noticed her as she is so young.  What do you think she is doing here?”

Ben shook his head.  He didn’t know.

He could only pray it had to do with Joseph and his return.

 

Rosey raised her eyes and looked at Benjamin Cartwright.  He was angry with her.

No, he was furious.

Of course, he had every right to be.

They’d come to the suite and begun to settle in when the men came in.  She’d watched the girl, whose name was Ming-hua, closely as they did.  Her body went rigid.  Having worked in an establishment like Ah Kum’s, Rosey knew that the girl had an ambivalent attitude toward the male of the species – they provided women like her and her sisters with a living, but at a price no one should have to pay.  Ming-hua was young enough it was unlikely she had made it to the second floor, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t been abused in other ways.

So many other ways.

Ben had been all for questioning the frightened girl the moment he arrived.  She’d stopped him, reminding him that the child had her needs as well as him.  When the food arrived, she’d split her meal with Ming-hua and then sent her to her room to wash up.

It was then she told Ben Cartwright what Biyu had told her – that Wade Bosh had visited the Delectable Dragon and that his son had been with him – and that both were gone.  Ben had pressed her and she’d been forced to admit that was all she knew.  He’d wanted to go back that very moment to Ya Kum’s and tear it apart and then set out after his son.  It had been all she could do to stop him.  After a while Jude had joined in and assured Ben that, even if they found out something new, there was no way they could track Joseph’s kidnapper at night.  In a town like Sacramento every street was covered with literally hundreds of boot and hoof prints.  They couldn’t possibly know which ones belonged to Wade Bosh.  She told him she’d planned on going back to the establishment after dark, in spite of any danger to herself, to seek out Biyu and question her again.  Information was what they needed.  What had Bosh told her exactly?  Had he mentioned where he was going?  What plans did he have for the boy?

Rosey’s eyes went to Ming-hua.

God had been kind.  Instead, He had sent that information to them in the form of one small, terrified Chinese girl.

The older woman drew a breath and held it as she met Ben Cartwright’s righteously angry stare.  He wanted to question the girl.  She’d told him he was gruff as a grizzly and just about as terrifying to a child like Ming-hua and that he’d do nothing but frighten her and cause her to shut up like a clam.  She’d told him, in so many words, to shut up and sit down.

Grumbling something that sounded like acceptance, the tall handsome rancher went to a chair and dropped into it.  Every line of his body leaned forward in anticipation.

Rosey smiled at him and then went to the girl.  She sat on the settee beside her and took her hand.  After a moment, she asked, “Ming-hua, who sent you here?”

The girl wouldn’t look up.  She spoke to her hands.  “Biyu.”

So she’d surmised.  “Did Biyu have a message for me?”

The girl nodded.  “Biyu sent me here to tell you to leave Sacramento.  That what you seek is long gone and questions will only bring trouble upon all our heads.”  Ming-hua glanced up.  “Already Longwei has beaten my sister.”

Rosey glanced at Ben.  He had paled.

“Is she all right?”

The girl nodded.  “It is not the first time.”

Nor would it be the last.

“Is there anything more?” she asked.

Ming-hua shook her head, but she didn’t move.  Her fingers twisted the silk fabric of her dress as her white teeth gnawed her lower lip.

“Did you see my son?” Ben asked.  “Did you see Joseph?”

The girl’s head came up and her eyes went to him.  The rancher’s tone was gentle, loving…

And filled with need.

The girl tensed beneath her hand.  She remained silent a moment and then said, “If Ming-hua speaks, she cannot go back to Ah Kum’s.”

“Did your sister tell you that?”

The girl nodded.

Rosey glanced at Ben as he rose and came over to where they were sitting.  Catching a chair from the desk, he pulled it up and sat so he would appear less threatening.

Rising, she left the pair alone.

 

Ben Cartwright sought permission with his dark eyes and then took the girl’s hand in his.  Ming-hua was trembling; shivering like a frightened bird.  The child was absolutely lovely with her shining black hair and large expressive eyes.  Still, that loveliness was marred.

Her eyes and face were cast in fear.

He squeezed her fingers and asked, “Do you want to go back ‘home’?”

She shrugged.  The gesture reminded him so of Joseph, it was a physical pain.  He had to remember to go slowly, even though everything that was in him insisted on speed for fear he would be too late.

“That youngest boy of mine, Joseph?  He’s something special.  Oh, all the girls go on about how handsome he is, but that’s not what I mean.”  He smiled at her.  “He’d have my head if he knew I said this, but Little Joe’s a sweet boy.  Loving.  Gentle.”  Ben choked as an image rose up before his eyes – his sweet boy in the hands of a madman.   He drew a breath to steady himself and let it out as he straightened up.  “Joseph is strong as well.  Determined.  If there is a way, he will survive.”

Ming-hua looked straight at him.  He watched a dozen emotions war in her eyes.  At last, pity won.

“You must hurry,” she said softly.

The rancher stiffened.  “You were with him?”

She nodded.  “He is…unwell.”

Ben’s heart skipped a beat.  “Is it bad?”

Again, she nodded.  “Like Biyu, someone struck him.”  She reached up and, surprisingly, touched his face.  “His skin is hot.”

Beaten.  Infected.

Dear Lord….

Ben drew a another breath.  “Do you know where Bosh has taken him?”

It was the question everyone in the room was hanging on.

Ming-hua sighed.  “The big man….”  She shuddered.   “As he used her, he told my sister things – things Biyu said I must not repeat.”

“If you want to go back?”

“Yes.”

“But do you want to go back, Ming-hua?  If not, I promise you, I will find a way to removed you from Ah Kum’s establishment and find a place for you.”

Her jaw was tight.  Tears hung in her eyes unshed.  The girl was conflicted.  She wanted to leave that life, but doing so meant leaving her sisters – the only family she had. Still, leaving meant a chance at freedom.  Something she very much wanted.  He felt for her.  Ming-hua was very young.  This was a momentous decision – to give up everything and everyone she knew in order to save the life of a boy who was little more than a stranger to her.

Rosey returned and sat beside her.  She took the girl’s hand in her own.  “I’ll take care of you, Ming-hua,” she promised.

The girl looked at him.  Then at Rosey and back.

Then, God be praised, she nodded.

And began to talk.

 

 

THIRTEEN

For the longest time he’d felt nothing but a jarring motion.  First on foot, then on horseback, and then in a wagon.

But that was gone.

The jarring motion was gone.

Now, he felt like he was floating.  It was a nice feeling, he supposed.  Better than the one before.  When you were floating, the world seemed to disappear.  There was only the water beneath you and the sky above.  There was only the present.  No future.  No past either.

Past.

He had a past.

When he closed his eyes he saw a big log house amidst the pines, with a big room inside that held a blazing fire.  It wasn’t clear, but like he saw it through a mist.  There were men inside.  Three men.  Two were his brothers and the…other…was….

Joe winced as if he had been struck.  He inhaled rapidly and puffed the breaths out, fighting the panic rising in him; the panic that word brought with it – the word he had once loved more than any other word in the world.

Pa.

A word that now brought only pain.

As his breathing evened, Joe let the flow of water carry him again.  He lay there, drifting, wondering where he was.  He must be injured.  That’s all he could figure.  He’d been hurt a time or two before and it always felt like this.  You woke up not knowing where you were.  Your whole body hurt.  Your tongue always seemed too big for your mouth and your throat was dry as the desert.  Licking his lips, Joe opened his mouth to speak.  Then he clamped it shut and moaned.  He’d was gonna call for the one who brought him comfort; the man who was always there for him; the one who dribbled cool liquid between his lips, checked his forehead for fever, and brushed back his sweat-soaked curls with a gentle hand.

No.

No.

Never again.

Joe shifted his body.  In doing so, he discovered his body wasn’t the only thing that hurt.  His head hut too.  It was pounding like someone was driving nails into it with a hammer.  He groaned and attempted to lift his hand so he could touch it.

Terror gripped him when he found he couldn’t.

It was then Joe remembered that both his hands and feet were bound, and there was a gag pulled taut between his teeth.

With the thunder of a hundred stampeding hooves, it all came rushing back.  Wade Bosh in the stable, grabbing him, taking him prisoner.  Watching  Bosh shoot Adam and then being dragged away.  The long trip over the mountains.  The beatings.  The cold nights when he couldn’t sleep.  His night in the crib, surrounded by the sounds of men’s hunger and women’s despair.  Then, a thick canvas sack being dragged over his body and then….

Then, Bosh puttin’ something over his mouth and him breathing it in as the world faded from white to gray to black.

Chloroform.  That’s why he felt so sick.

Gritting his teeth, the curly-haired boy drew his knees up and kicked out, hoping to make contact with something.  He was rewarded with a sharp yelp and then punished as thick fingers closed around his throat.

“Almost there, boy,” a gruff voice growled.  “You want to add to your tally, you just go ahead and cry out.”

He froze.  He’d forgotten.  How could he have forgotten?  The livery owner and his wife, Billy, and Cunningham.

The people he’d murdered.

Joe swallowed hard over a dry and dusty throat.  He could hear men speaking now.  Whoever they were, they were in danger because of him.  If one of them suspected he was in the sack or, worse, found him, Bosh would kill them for sure.

“You keep quiet, Jude.  We’re almost home.”

Joe frowned.  There it was again – that name.  Since they’d left Sacramento, Bosh had begun to call him ‘boy’ less and Jude more and more.  He’d tried to tell the giant of a seaman that it he wasn’t his name.  Once, he’d tried.

It had been as bad a choice as tellin’ Bosh that he wasn’t about to call him ‘Pa’.

He’d wondered when that last beating happened, if he giant of a man had broken his ribs.  Since some time had passed, he didn’t think so.  His ribcage was sore, but he was able to breathe just fine.

Well, as fine as you could when you were trussed up like a pig in a poke.

An unexpected jolt turned Joe’s attention back to what was happening.  Rough hands gripped him.  Something was being looped around his shoulders.  He heard a man shouting.  Wade Bosh replied and then, suddenly, he was in the air.  Moments later he was dumped onto something hard.  Joe held his breath to keep from crying out, terrified whoever it was Bosh was dealing with would wind up dead.  It was agony.  He wanted to scream, to shout, to tell the world what this monster was doing, but he couldn’t.  He just…

Couldn’t.

The hands returned, gripping his shoulders, loosening the rope, and lifting him up.  The next thing he knew he was slung over someone’s shoulder hard enough for the wind to be forced out of him.  For a moment he fought for air.  As he did, sounds filtered in – men calling out commands, others answering; the creak of wood and the snap of canvas in the wind.  Unbidden, the image of the watercolor painting in his room sprang before his eyes.

They were on a ship – a ship gettin’ ready to sail off the California coast and straight to Hell!

A large bang startled him.  Then he and Bosh began to descend, winding down from noise into silence.  Rung by rung they jolted into the belly of the great ship.  Joe began to cough and struggled mightily to contain the sound, fearful some poor seaman passing by would die because he was weak.  Once the ladder ended, his kidnapper set off at a quick pace.  Joe couldn’t see or hear much of anything and so, as they moved ever deeper into the bowels of the great ship, his sense of smell grew startlingly strong.  There were familiar odors mixed with unfamiliar – Bosh’s sweat, the  iron scent of blood, the stale smell of urine rising from the dried matter on his shirt and pants, sodden wood, rusting metal, and the unmistakable smell of rotting fish.  They made him want to retch.  So it was both a blessing and a curse when Wade Bosh dropped him, untied the sack he was in, and let the canvas fall to the wooden floor of the sailing vessel.  At first even the pale light cast by the lantern his kidnapper had hung on a nail on one of the ship‘s wooden ribs was enough to blind him.  Joe’s head screamed at the betrayal of the darkness and began to pound.

A few seconds later he was sick.

Bosh held him as he vomited, supporting his injured ribs with his big hands.  When he was spent, the seaman turned him around and shifted him back until he was braced by the ship’s outer hull.  Joe’s relief at Bosh undoing his hands and feet turned to horror as chains replaced the ropes and were secured to a metal ring driven into the floor.

Joe knew what was coming.  He didn’t think he could live through it.

Blinking back tears, his voice a strained whisper, he pleaded, “Please don’t leave me here!”

Bosh reached for his hair and began to stroke the matted curls as he spoke.  “Shh.  Hush.  This is where you belong – where you’ve always belonged.”  There was a pause.  “I’ve brought you home, Jude.”

Joe wanted to shout, to strike out, to kick and drive him away – to keep Bosh from touching him.  And yet, when the big man began to pull away, he panicked.  Bosh was going to leave him alone – all alone in the dark!  He couldn’t – he just couldn’t!  The seaman was his only connection to the world outside, to the sky and the light –

To life.

Bosh was reaching for the lantern.  “No!” Joe shouted, desperation robbing him of all pride.  “I promise I won’t try to get away.  Please!  Take me with you!  Don’t leave me here alone in the dark!”

The hand that had struck him so many times and the voice that had commanded he obey, touched his face and spoke to him gently.  “It’s for your own good, boy.  You don’t trust me.  You need to trust me.  You’ll learn to do that down here.”

Joe strained against the chains that bound him as Bosh lifted the lantern from the nail and began to move away.  “No!” he shouted.  Then he screamed, “NO!”

“Go ahead and cry out, Jude.  No one will hear you,” Bosh said as the light receded into the darkness.  “When you’re tamed, I’ll let you go.

“When you’re tamed.”

Joe continued to struggle until he was spent.  Then he fell, exhausted, to the ship’s floor.  Curling into a ball he lay there, listening to the waves lap against the underbelly of the ship.  In time he slept.

And dreamed of that journey to Hell.

 

Hoss Cartwright sat bolt upright.  He blinked and looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings he found himself in.  It took him a moment to remember that he wasn’t in his own room, but in Little Joe’s.  He’d come to his baby brother’s bedroom the night before to pray, pleadin’ with God that Joe be found alive and well, and must have fallen asleep.  As usual, morning had come and God’s silence was deafenin’.  He wanted so to believe with the same deep conviction his pa had, but it seemed he always found himself wantin’.  Seemed to him the one lesson he’d learned from his mama’s death was that, even though God answered all prayers, a lot of the time you didn’t get what you wanted.  He’d prayed the whole time he watched his mama bein’ carried into the house, and prayed while the Doc checked her over.  He’d seen his pa’s face fall when the doctor shook his head and known the answer to those prayers was ‘no’.  He was old enough to understand that Mama wasn’t gonna make it and all the prayers in the world weren’t gonna change God’s mind one whit.  Pa told him that night that prayer was for you and not for God, not really.  God knew what He was about and He was gonna do whatever brought Him glory.  Prayer was a way to grow closer to the Man upstairs, to get to know your Heavenly Father and for Him to get to know you.

Hoss,’ his pa had said after he’d walked him to Joe’s room and had him climb in beside his sleepin’ baby brother, ‘your mama has to go.  Her body’s broken and, if God granted your prayer, she’d be in more pain than she could stand.  It’s God’s gift to take her to Himself.  We want her here, but in Heaven she’ll have a new body and she’ll be free to run and laugh and sing forever.  It’s selfish for us to pray for Mama to stay.’

It might have been selfish, but he’d done it anyway.

Last night, even though it brought tears to his eyes, he’d prayed that same prayer for Little Joe.

Rising to his feet, the big teenager stretched.  He scratched the back of his neck as he headed over to the window and looked out on the new day.  Joe’d been gone near two weeks now.  It seemed sometimes like it wasn’t’ even real, havin’ a little brother.  Like he’d dreamed him up somehow.  It was just him and Adam like it had been before.  Pa’d always been workin’, tryin’ to build his dream.  The pair of them had leaned on one another in order to grow straight and tall and make him proud.

Hoss lifted his hands and held them out before him as if he cradled something, picturin’ in his mind the little bundle of piss and vinegar Marie had placed there nearly thirteen years before.  His baby brother had come early and he’d been no bigger than a minute.  He’d been closin’ in on five foot tall at the time and topped one hundred on the scale.

He’d been scared to death to hold Little Joe for fear he’d break him.

But he didn’t.  Dang that little cuss, if he wasn’t twice as strong and three times as determined as he looked!  Joe’d grown and thrived and he loved him more than his own life, and it was just about killin’ him that he didn’t know where his little brother was and if he was okay.

Most of all, though, it was killin’ him to stay put.

Hoss turned and looked at the door that led into the hall.  Adam was a lot better, but Doc Martin hadn’t given him a clean bill of health yet.  There’d been some infection come back into the wound after Adam’s adventure in Diaz’s Dodge.  Coupled with exposure, older brother had been right sick for nigh onto a week.  He was better now, but not good enough for the Doc who’d threatened big brother with everythin’ but jail if he left the house and took off after their pa.

He didn’t want to leave his oldest brother, but his heart longed to be doin’ just that.

It was a quandary.

The sound of the front door closin’ told Hoss someone had left the house.  Most likely it was Doc Martin.  The older man said he’d be by early and, by the clock on the wall, it was half-past nine.  Stirring, Hoss regretfully left his baby brother’s room and headed down the stairs.  When he got to the landing, he looked into the great room.  Adam had opened the door again was standing half-in and half-out of it, looking west.  His brother didn’t move as he finished his descent or when he came to stand beside him.

“The doctor’s gone,” Adam said, his tone even and controlled.  “He told me to stay home for two more days.”  His brother drew in a breath and then pivoted on his heel.  “Like hell!”

“Now, Adam, if the Doc says you ain’t ready –”

“I’m more than ready, Hoss.  In fact, I’ve been more than ready for days.  I’m goin’ after Little Joe.”

He knew that set of his brother’s jaw.  It weren’t no use arguin’.

“Pa’s gonna be right mad if you make yourself sick again,” he hazarded.

“Let him!  I can take it.  What I can’t take is sitting here helpless for one more minute, waiting to find out that I could have done something but didn’t, and now it’s too late!”

“What number one and number two sons talk about?” Hop Sing asked, startling them as he came into the room.  “Hop Sing see doctor ride away.  He say Mister Adam good to go?”

Adam hesitated only a second.  He squared his feet and met Hop Sing’s doubtful gaze.  “Yes, Paul’s given me a clean bill of health.  Hoss and I are going to go look for Joe.”

The man from China nodded.  “Number three son in much trouble.  Need brothers to help save.”

Hoss met his brother’s sideways glance.  They both knew that Hop Sing knew that Paul had done no such thing. The Doc was always careful to tell their cook the same thing he told them so they couldn’t weasel their way around it.

His sentence had been purposefully wooly.

Adam nodded.  “Yes, Little Joe needs us.  Would you mind fixing us some food for the road, Hop Sing?”

“How soon you leave?”

His brother’s eyes sought his.  Adam’s were deep wells of worry.  “As soon as possible.  The others have quite a lead.”

That was an understatement, since they had no idea what route Wade Bosh or their pa and the others had taken.  They’d talked about it before and he and his brother thought Joe’s kidnapper would take him to a harbor somewhere.  The seaman would fit right in and no one would question the fact that Joe was signin’ on as a cabin boy.  The closest harbor was Vallejo, followed by San Francisco.

Both were more than a week away.

If they were lucky.

“Mister Cartwright’s number one and number two son be sure to dig well deeply before they are thirsty.  Both remember, a vengeful army will certainly win.”

Yeah, that’s what he and Adam was.  A vengeful army.  And come Hell or high water, that’s what they was gonna do.

Win.

 

The dark that surrounded him was cavernous.

The only sounds Joe could hear were the lap of the waves against the hull and his own heartbeat.  They echoed in his ears and off the walls of his damp, wooden cage, driving him closer and closer to madness.  He was weak – so weak.  He couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten.  Bosh had given him a drink of water before he disappeared, but that had been hours…minutes…days ago.  He couldn’t be sure.  There was nothing in this place but the wet floor, the damp walls, the cold iron chains that cut into his wrists and ankles, and now and again a scurrying sound signaling that he had unwelcome and unwanted company.

Nothing to do but to listen for a new sound – somethin’ that would indicate his tormentor and savior was comin’.

It shamed him, but he had begun to hunger for Bosh’s presence.  Joe knew the man was evil and that the big man was the one who had ripped him from his home, but he knew as well that the seaman was the only person on the face of the Earth who knew where he was and the only one he could count on to ease the pit of loneliness that gnawed like a cancer in his belly.  Every time there was a sound, no matter how small, he tensed, waiting – waiting for the sound of Bosh’s voice, the touch of his hand.  It didn’t matter if it was a caress or a cuff.

That hated, beloved touch was all that grounded him to reality.

Sinking back, Joe sighed as he let the chains that bound him clank to the floor.  Listen to yourself! he thought.  Listen to what you’ve become!  It was hard to admit, but he was pretty sure Bosh wasn’t going to let him die – not if he could help it.  He was going to keep him here until he broke him.  Unless he could find somethin’ sharp to cut himself so he’d bleed out, or break free and make his way up the ladder and jump over the side, the seaman was goin’ to own him.

Just like he’d owned Jude.

The thought brought a flicker of hope, but it was dashed soon enough.  From the way Bosh talked, sometimes he could believe Jude got away.  At other times – when his thinking was clearer – he knew he hadn’t.  Joe licked his lips and looked around, seeking to pierce the darkness.  Maybe, just maybe, Jude held out and didn’t give in and his bones were chained to the floor a yard away.  Maybe Jude was watching him, his lipless bones smilin’, waitin’ for him to join him.

Tears formed in Joe’s eyes but wouldn’t fall.  He was drained dry.  There was nothing left to cry.

Nothing left to shout.

Nothing left to hope.

Nothing….

Only Bosh.

 

Left alone in the Cartwright’s home,  Hop Sing returned to the sanctuary of his kitchen.  He ‘d gathered up Mister Hoss and Mister Adam’s saddlebags and intended to fill them with as much food as he could, some fresh, but more dried and preserved and ready for the long journey that lay before the two boys.  The cook’s lips curled at his last thought even as he headed for the steaming kettle on the stove.  Mister Adam would not like being called a ‘boy’.  His head was filled with the knowledge of books and he thought himself a wise man.  Hop Sing had lived long and seen many things and he knew that, while there was a place for wisdom words, there was another wisdom of higher importance.

Mister Adam must learn to listen to his heart.

Using a thick cloth, Hop Sing lifted the steaming kettle from the stove top and carried it over to the block table.  Carefully, he went through the ritual of preparing tea.  He had chosen Longjing or Dragon Well tea in honor of the boy he loved who was missing.  His heart ached for all his family, but for the youngest boy there was a special place.  In the almost eight years since Mrs. Cartwright had gone to join her ancestors, he and the boy had spent many hours together, so many he could not count.  The house was empty without his smile and his laughter.  Like a small hole opened in the ground, the loss of his boy would lead to a vast cavern miles below – so vast there would not be enough earth in all the world to fill it.  In time, the ground above would collapse and draw after it all there was, mountain, lake, plain and meadow, the tall pine trees, Mister Cartwright’s humble home; the man he worked for and his remaining sons.

Until there was nothing.

The man from China rose and went to the shelf where he kept the shrine to his ancestors with its golden flower, incense holder, and small plate for food offerings.  Upon it were physical memories of family members no longer with him – beads from his father’s abacus, a bamboo brush belonging to his mother; a piece of his grandfather’s silk coat.  These were the mementoes of his family.  But there was more.  A beautiful white woman watched him from above these simple things, her eyes radiant and full of life.  On the plate beneath the photograph lay a lock of her golden-blonde hair, glinting in the light of the kitchen fire.  Moving to the ice box, Hop Sing reached in and removed a small container.  In it were the remnants of the summer’s flowers, faded now but no less beautiful.  Opening the box, he drew out two violets.  They had been among Mrs. Cartwright’s favorites.  After returning the receptacle to its cool home, he turned and went to the shrine and placed the flowers in the dish that awaited them.  Then he pressed his hands together and bowed his head.

Asking mercy from the dead.

 

Joe awoke to the sound of scratching.  He fought to come awake, desperate to find out who had come to his prison.  He’d grown so accustomed to the dark that he could see in a way – like a man did on a moonlit night when clouds veiled the orb’s round white face.  Pinpricks of light, squeezed between boards or left in the absence of popped nails, dotted the ship’s floor.  They glinted off the myriad eyes that watched him, while illuminating the dozens of whiskered noses that twitched at the scent of the bit of bread and butter on the plate beside him.  Joe wasn’t really interested in the food or the rats.  He didn’t have the energy.  But watching the living wave of gray that undulated across the sodden boards gave him something to think about other than how cold and miserable he was and so he concentrated on them, smiling wanly at the antics of the first few who reached his side.  The small creatures stopped just short of the plate and sat up on their haunches, waiting for him to make a move.  When he didn’t, first one and then another broke ranks and attacked the rancid butter and stale bread.

The sight of it made him sick and he retched.

Sick as well of the constant smell of his own vomit and filth, Joe dropped his head, scrunched up his shoulder, and buried his nose in his tattered shirt.  The relief was as momentous as it was momentary.

But then again, consciousness was momentary too.

All too soon he felt himself drifting off again.  As his eyes closed, Joe seemed to rise up out of the refuse to float out of the ship and across the rippling waves.  In the distance there was a light and it called to him, a light he thought was home.

Suddenly he was there, opening the door, rushing over the threshold to the hearth and falling into his mother’s arms.  She planted a thousand kisses on his head and a hundred more on his cheeks.  Beside her and before the flickering fire stood a handsome man – tall, with gray hair going silver.  His face was broad.  A smile broke across it and his near-black eyes danced with love.  He caught him from his mother’s arms and tossed him high into the sky – so high he thought he was flying – but in time he came down into that safe, protected embrace, knowing there was nothing that could touch him so long as he was inside those walls, cherished by his mama – the pretty lady with golden hair – and kept safe from harm by his….

By his….

The fire roared and a log crashed to the hearth.  In the light it cast, the man before the hearth grew taller, broader, stronger.

Darker.

His hair thinned as did his lips, becoming a knife’s edge, and his eyes lost their color as rage replaced love.  The big man’s embrace, once cherished and longed for, became a prison of chains that pinned him to a rotting wall of wood lined with the skeletal remains of other boys who had been taken from their homes and stripped of their identity.

His identity.

He had an identity.

What was it?

Who was he?

Into the nightmare world the boy inhabited, another sound came.  This one was that of footsteps, heavy, large, falling at leisure.  Half-aware, he heard a snort of disgust and heard the rattle of the tin plate beside him as it was upset and those who had remained to dine on the dregs of the feast scattered.  Someone took hold of his hair and lifted his head by it.  A hand cupped his chin and turned his face from side to side.  There was a sound.  Disgust mixed with fear.  The hand released him and whoever it was moved away, their footsteps echoing in the dark and moving with a purpose of their own, taking away his only link to humanity until there was, again, nothing but silence.

The boy lay there for some time, drifting in and out of consciousness, his ears tuned to the creak of the ship and the lap of the waves.  They were the song his mother sang.  Beckoning him to her side.  Calling on him to surrender.  To rest.

To find peace.

Joe’s eyes flashed open as the hand returned without warning.  Fingers pressed the sides of his face, forcing his mouth open.  A bottle was placed between his lips.  Gagging at the taste, he tried to turn away, but the fingers held him fast and would not let go.  A pungent, fiery liquid ran down his throat and burned its way to his gut.  He coughed, gasping for air, but still the man did not relent – not until it was all gone.

Exhausted, the curly-haired boy fell to the wet boards beneath him, gasping and panting for air.  The hand that had harmed before now offered help, lifting him, placing him against the wall; taking a soothing cloth and wiping his fevered brow, cleansing the sweat from his neck and chest.

The boy’s eyes opened slowly.  It was a man.  A large man with large hands.  Love shone from his eyes.

“You’ll be all right now, son,” the giant of a man said softly.  “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Son.

Which man was this?  The one who tossed him in the air or the one who threatened him?

Were they the same?

The boy’s lips parted.  At first there was no sound.  And then, only one word.

“Pa.”
Adam Cartwright stood looking out over Lake Tahoe, back toward their home.  When it came to it, he’d decided it would be best for them to find a boat and cross the lake in order to save time.  The day was calm.  The weather chilly but not unseasonable for autumn.  They’d rented the boat from a man who kept a shack near the placid body of water and promised to leave it in Meek’s Bay.  He was sure John Meek would know something.  Surely, their pa would have stopped at John’s house to inquire if he or Rita had seen Little Joe.  On top of that, they would have need of fresh horses and John always kept a ready supply on hand.

The black-haired man turned away from the lake to look at his brother who knelt at his side.  Hoss had been none to keen on crossing the lake.  A quick dip in its tepid waters to cool off was about all he needed or was comfortable with.  It had taken a bit to convince him, but in the end Hoss’ love of his baby brother and their need for speed had won out over his fear of the briny deep.

They knew now that Joe had made it across, a fact that should have lifted their spirits.  It would have had it not been for the fact that they’d found the boat Wade Bosh had ‘borrowed’ on this side of the lake splintered into a dozen pieces.  Hoss was sifting through them now in case there was anything to be found that might point them in one direction or the other.  Barring some discovery, they would move on to the Meek’s and pray the homesteader and his wife could tell them something.  If John and Rita couldn’t, then they’d strike out for the nearest harbor and hope against hope they’d find Joe there.

Hoss was on his feet now and walking toward him.  He held a scrap of fabric in his hand.  It was filthy, muddy, and stained with a dark brown substance.

“What’s that?” he asked.

His brother’s clear blue eyes were moist.  “It’s what’s left of Little Joe’s shirt.  Well, a scrap of it anyway.”

Adam looked closer.  To tell the truth, he had no idea what Joe had been wearing when Bosh took him.  “Are you certain?”

Hoss nodded.  “It’s that blue one Pa got him for the end of the last school year.  He was growin’ out of it, but it was one of his favorites and he’d done about worn it through at the elbows.”

Was.

There was a whole world of grief in that one word.

His hand went to his brother’s shoulder.  “We’ll find Joe, Hoss. One of us.  Pa and Jude, or you and me.  We won’t stop until we find him.”

The big teenager nodded even as the tears spilled over and ran down his cheeks.

“Hoss?”

His brother sniffed and nodded.  “I ain’t doubtin’ we’ll find him, Adam.  I know Pa.  He won’t stop ‘til he does.  But, there’s no guaranteein’ we’ll find him a….”

The sentence was left incomplete.  Just as their lives would be.

If Little Joe was dead.

 

PART FOUR

 

FOURTEEN

As Ben Cartwright urged his mount forward, calling on it for speed that was long past, he cast his mind back to the night before and the words Ming-hua had spoken.  It had taken some coaxing, but slowly the child had told been convinced to tell her tale.

Wade Bosh had come to the Delectable Dragon, seeking an assignation with one of her sisters, and brought Joseph with him.  Ben scowled.  For a moment he’d wondered if the boy Ming-hua described was Joseph for the words she’d used were all wrong – unresponsive, passive, and submissive.  These words were the antithesis of his youngest boy who was vibrant and full of life, fiercely determined, and headstrong.  Still, as she went on, painting the picture of a slender twelve-year-old boy with eyes like jade and a head of unruly chestnut-brown curls, he had to accept the fact that it was Little Joe she had met and that his son was in mortal peril.

That sentiment only deepened as she went on to describe the boy’s condition.

Joseph was weak, she said.  And sickly.  It was no surprise to hear that he had been beaten, though the thought of a man as large as Bosh striking a twelve-year-old boy made the blood boil in his veins.  Ming-hua said Little Joe’s clothing hung on his thin frame, he was listless and his eyes were bright with fever.  She’d done her best, risking her own safety to tend to him when Bosh had him locked in a disease-infested harlot’s crib.  Ben shuddered at the thought.  While there was nothing good about the establishments that catered to men’s carnal appetites in Eagle Station, thanks to the sheriff and his deputies there were no crib rows.  The council had come to a decision and appointed the lawman to clear the squalid wooden shacks out several years back for fear the fetid conditions would bring disease to the budding town.  In one night, twenty or more were put to the torch and the women who occupied them turned out.

The councilmen, of course, had cared little what happened to those wretched souls.

Ben glanced at Jude who rode at his side.  The Englishman leaned forward, pressing his mount for greater speed as well.  They both felt it.  They were close.  Very close.  But just as close as they were to finding Joseph, they were to losing him.

Vallejo harbor was in sight.

It had been a long night and they’d ridden through most of it.  As he’d continued to talk to Ming-hua, his fear for his son’s life had grown along with a deep-seated sense of guilt.  This was happening because of him – because of the choice he had made on the ship Independence all those long years ago.  The girl told them that, as he lay with her sister, Wade Bosh had boasted that he had stolen the one thing in the world the great Benjamin Cartwright could not live without.  Bosh had revealed to Biyu his plans for Joseph.  He meant to take him to sea on the Sun Princess.  The ship was to set sail today out of Vallejo!  Once on board Joseph would be completely dependent on Bosh for food, for water – for his very life.  Ben had watched Jude as Ming-hua spoke.  The Englishman had paled at her words, the memory of his own captivity still fresh enough after twenty-odd years to bring tears to the former cabin boy’s eyes.  A steely determination had entered those eyes and Jude had vowed to find Joseph no matter what it cost him.  There was nothing, he said, could turn him away.  Deputy Roy Coffee was another matter.  Roy had returned to Eagle Station.  A letter from the sheriff had caught up to them, recalling him to his duty.  Ben told his friend he understood.  It had been two weeks.

No one in their right mind would think they would ever find Joseph, and certainly not that they would find him alive.

By the time Ming-hua had finished her tale, the girl was exhausted.  They put her in Rosey’s room.  After the girl fell asleep, the older woman had joined him and Jude and they’d discussed their options.  In the end it was decided Rosey would take the child and return to her home in the mountains.  It was doubtful Longwei and his bully boys would follow them there.  As he and Jude departed, he’d left an envelope with the manager of the hotel and asked it be delivered to Madame Ah Kum’s.  It contained two hundred dollars.

More than enough, he hoped, to buy the freedom of one China girl.

Ben returned his attention to the road as his mount weaved to avoid something.  Before him, nestled in rolling foothills, lay the city of Vallejo.  Once considered for the capital of California, it had been passed over and had become instead a hub of naval activity.  As the tall ships with their gigantic masts and sails unfurled topped the horizon and came into view, the rancher drew his mount to a halt.  The sight drove him back two decades to his time as a sailor, to Elizabeth and her stern but loving father; to the life he thought he’d been destined to live.

Jude’s mounts sides heaved as he drew the horse to a halt beside him.  Ben looked down.  Buck’s sides were heaving too.  The rancher felt a pang of guilt as he realized how he had neglected his friend.  Leaning forward, he patted the buckskin’s neck.

“Thank you, boy,” he said softly.  “Thank you.”

The nose of Jude’s horse was aimed toward the harbor.  The Englishman lifted a hand and pointed to something in the distance.  It was just after noon and the light reflecting off the water was nearly blinding.  Ben had to raise a hand to shield his eyes before he could see what it was the other man had noted.  It took a moment and then he spotted it.  A single vessel, perhaps a half-mile out, ambling like a lady on promenade out of the harbor with one sail unfurled.

Ben’s near-black eyes went to his companion as fear gripped him.  “There’s no reason to suspect that Bosh is on that ship,” he breathed.

“And no reason to believe it is not,” Jude replied.  “I went to the local office and inquired as to the ships’ schedules.  There were two due to set sail today, the merchant ship Jupiter and the Sun Princess, which is a vessel of exploration bound for the West Indies and beyond.”  The former cabin boy narrowed his eyes.  As Ben followed suit, he said softly, “The vessel underway is of the right size and type for the Princess.  There would be many places to hide a boy on such a ship.”

The rancher was shaking from head to toe.  A torrent of emotions rolled through him, not the least of which was despair.  His mount sensed his unease and began to chew the bit nervously.   “No.  No!” Ben proclaimed as his fingers tightened on the reins.  “No!  I won’t believe Joseph is lost!”

“I said I made inquiries regarding the ships in Vallejo, my friend.”  Jude waited until he turned toward him.  “Those inquiries did not stop with the Jupiter and Princess.”

Ben hardly heard him.  His eyes were riveted on the tall ship as it moved inexorably out of the harbor carrying his heart with it.

“Benjamin!”

The spell broken, Ben returned his gaze to the other man.  “What is it you’re trying to tell me, Jude?”

“There’s a one-masted vessel, the Bloodhound, laying at anchor.  She’s a cutter and flies fast as the wind, or so I was told.”

His head was reeling.  His son was being taken from him and Jude was talking about sailing vessels?

“Who told you?  Why….”

Jude’s lips curled in a half-smile.  “Her captain.  Do you remember when I was late to supper in Sacramento?  I went to track him down.”  Jude reached out to take hold of his arm.  “Benjamin, listen to me.  I spoke to Captain Ford and I’ve hired her.  Do you hear me?  I’ve hired her.  She’s waiting for us.”  At his incredulous look, Jude went on.  “I was concerned Bosh would outpace us and be underway before we could arrive, as it seems he has.  I have apprised the captain of the situation.  He is willing to take us out.  Ben, listen to me!  All is not lost!”

The rancher blinked, unable to believe what he was hearing.  “You…hired a ship?”

“Yes.”

“Jude, I….”  He drew in a steadying breath.  “How can I thank you?”

The Englishman grew sober.  “I know what Joseph faces.  Saving him from Bosh will be thanks enough.”

Ben nodded, tears in his eyes, and turned his buckskin’s nose toward the harbor.

 

Captain Liam Ford was waiting for them.  He was a young man in his early to mid-thirties.  The Bloodhound was a cutter, fast as a Hansom coach and no more than a child herself at three years in service.  Ford’s father had come West and made a fortune in the Gold Rush.  When he died, Liam’s older brother took control of the family business, leaving him free to pursue his dream of sailing the world.  He took a part of his inheritance and bought the Bloodhound and a smaller gig.  Jude said he’d considered waiting until night fell and then using the fast-flying gig to catch the Sun Princess and board her unannounced.  After he and the captain had spoken, it had been decided a better approach was to ride the tide and pursue the Sun Princess during daylight hours under the cover of delivering goods that had arrived late on the dock.  That way, they could approach the captain of the sailing vessel.  Liam knew Captain Howard and said he was a good man who would not conscience what Wade Bosh was doing.  It was only fair to give him a chance to make things right.  Once Howard understood, Liam was certain the older man would order a ship-wide search and Joseph would be found.

If he was aboard her.  They had no proof.

God willing, he was.

Ben finished pulling on his able seaman’s uniform.  The coat was dark blue and had pants to match.  The outfit was completed by a white shirt and a small ribboned hat that was a little jaunty for his taste.  Jude was similarly attired, though he wore a dark shirt instead of a white one.  While it was not unusual to see a sailor of mixed parentage, the former slave was sure to draw attention.  It had been decided Jude would hold back when they first boarded.  They had to be careful.  If Bosh spotted them before they spotted him, he could move Joseph to a place where they would never find him.

Or kill the boy to prevent his rescue.

Jude’s hand came down on his shoulder.  With a nod, the Englishman indicated the vista of water spread out before them.

“We’re gaining ground,” he said.

It was true.  The Sun Princess had been little more than a spec on the horizon when they’d left the harbor.  Now, as the sun set, she loomed massive as Melville’s white leviathan.  The winds were right and they would reach her within the hour, just as the light faded and it became night.  He and Liam would board and seek out the captain.  Jude would board discreetly after that and begin the search for Joseph.

Captain Ford tipped his hat and smiled as he came alongside them.  He was a handsome man, tall and with an air of daring.  His dark blond hair was cut short, the ends winging forward to surround a strong-boned face that bore several days worth of scruff.  His eyes were not quite blue, but neither were they hazel.  A man might have called them teal.  Their unusual color was enhanced by the crisp navy-blue uniform he wore with its high collar, buttons, and cuffs of gold.  They had talked before and, though there were ten years between them, he and Liam had found they had much in common. For one thing, they both had boys who were twelve and eighteen.  Liam’s boys lived with their mother in San Francisco and he was keen to see them again, just as he was to find Joseph and return with him to his brothers.  It rankled.  His youngest son’s kidnapping had forced him to abandon Adam and Hoss to fate.

No, he corrected himself, not fate – they were in the hands of God.

Liam held up a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a glass in the other.  “Whiskey for your thoughts?” he asked.

Ben shook his head.  “No, thank you.  I want my wits about me.”

The Bloodhound’s captain raised his light brown brows.  “If you take my advice, Ben, you’ll drink it.”

“Oh?  Why?”

“You have the look of a man on the edge,” the blond man said.  “One gander at you will start chin’s wagging and set the seamen talking.”  He pushed the glass toward him. “You’ll want to speak to Captain Howard if you’re to help that son of yours, not end up in his brig.”

Reluctantly Ben took it.  He sipped the whiskey, relishing its fire in spite of himself.  After a second sip, he nodded.  “Thank you.”

“This way, you’ll smell like a real seaman, ” Liam laughed as he poured a glass for himself.  “I have several bottles.  We’ll take one to Old Ironsides.  It will loosen him up as well.”

He’d heard that term used with other men, mostly naval officers.  “Did Captain Howard serve in the war?”

The blond man nodded.  “With distinction.”

Definitely not the kind of man, then, to countenance Joseph’s kidnapping.  Sadly, there were some who would – so long as coins crossed their palms and the law remained ignorant.  Many ships that sailed had crimped or shanghaied crews.  Ben took another sip and permitted himself a smile.  Rosey had been afraid for him.  That was why she had hurried him out of the Delectable Dragon.  She’d feared Ah Kum’s men would try to take him.  The thought amused him.  He could take care of himself.

For a moment, he considered what it would be like to take care of her.

Ben sighed.

“More thoughts?” Liam asked, offering the bottle. “More whiskey?”

He shook his head.  One was enough.

Liam looked toward the horizon.  The Sun Princess had grown larger.  They were almost upon her.  “I’ll go get that fresh bottle.  It looks like it won’t be long until we board.”

Ben nodded absent-mindedly as he turned to see for himself.  At the fore of the cutter, his slender form cut in silhouette against the rich red light of the sea at nightfall, stood Jude Randolph.  In that moment, where color and feature were hidden, Ben was struck by the resemblance between  the former cabin boy and his son.  The slender build was the same as was the wild mass of unruly and untamable hair.  Due to their age difference, you wouldn’t have mistaken one for the other, but you might have thought Jude was Joseph’s older brother.  Was that what had drawn Wade Bosh to his son and driven him to kidnap the boy?  Or was there something else?  Was it his fault alone?  Had saving the young man who stood before him all those long years ago doomed his child to this…this barbarous act?  Some believed in a cosmic balance.  For everything taken, something must be given in return.  A shiver ran through the rancher as a light breeze rustled his steel-gray hair and Ben pulled up his collar.  The chill was more than skin deep.  Was it possible, he wondered, to emerge from this with both Jude and Joseph whole?

Or would fate demand a sacrifice?

 

Captain Francis Howard stood on the aft deck of his ship the Sun Princess with his arms folded behind his back.  Beside him stood his first mate, Rowan Paul.  Rowan had a spyglass to his eye and had his eye trained on the sleek cutter that was fast approaching them.  They’d noticed it a few hours back but, at the time, had not been certain it was them it followed.  It had become clear within the last sixty minutes that the Princess was its destination and, while there was little to fear from a ship coming out of Vallejo harbor, it was – to say the least – a puzzlement.

“Do you recognize her colors?” the older man inquired as the chill wind snapped the sail on the main mast.  They had yet to unfurl the mizzen or fore sails.

“I know her, sir,” the first mate replied, dropping the glass and turning toward him.  “It’s Captain Ford’s ship, the Bloodhound.”

Howard’s owlish eyebrows popped up toward his receding hairline as his crisp blue eyes narrowed.  “Liam, you say?  You spoke to him on the shore, Rowan.  Did he say anything about setting sail?”

“No, sir.  With the speed of that vessel, perhaps he’s running something to us that we left behind?  Or supplies that arrived late?”

They did have supplies missing – one crate in particular was important as it included several pieces of scientific equipment.

“Perhaps.  Daring though, to set sail so late.”

Rowan nodded.  “That would be Liam.  Brave as a hurricane lantern.”

“Penny wise and pound foolish, if you ask me.”

His first mate attempted to hide his smile.  “I have to admit, he’s more pirate than privateer.”

Howard’s eyes were narrowed.  “There’s someone with him.”

Rowan nodded.  “I saw three men.  Hard to make them out clearly as they’re dressed in seaman’s garments.  One looked older.”

“Well, we’ll know soon enough.  When they board, bring them to me.  I’ll be in my quarters.”

“Yes, sir.  Eh, sir?”

He had started toward the main mast, but paused and turned back.  “What is it?”

“I’ve had complaints about second mate Bosh.”

Howard was surprised.  “Already?”

Rowan huffed out a sigh.  “Yes, sir.  The men think he’s…odd.”

“So far as I know there is no naval law against being ‘odd’.”

“Yes…er…no, sir.  I just thought I’d mention it as he’s already come to blows with one of the men under his command.”

Howard frowned.  “He came fairly highly recommended.  Seems he’s good at his job.”  The older man paused.  “While I don’t approve of unnecessary violence, it is sometimes required to use physical force to make the men comply.  Seaman are a hard lot, Rowan.  It takes a hard man to command them.”

The younger man nodded.  “I know that, sir.  I just thought you would like to be informed.”

He’d turned to go again, but swung back.  “How, ‘odd’?”

“He gives orders but refuses to enter into any conversations, preferring – it seems – to speak mostly to himself.  He doesn’t eat with the men and disappears for hours on end with no explanation.”

“Is his work getting done?”

Rowan nodded.  “Yes, sir.  Everything is shipshape.”

Howard considered it.  ‘Odd’ perhaps, but there was nothing illicit or off beam about the man’s behavior.

At least not yet.

“Keep an eye on him, Rowan.  Inform me if anything arises that threatens the voyage.  The Sun Princess’s mission is of vital importance and I won’t have one man – any man – threatening it.”

Rowan saluted smartly.

As his first mate began to move away, Howard called him back.  “Tell me the man’s name again.  It escapes me.”

“Second mate Wade Bosh, sir, late of The Quail out of London.”

 

In the bowels of the Sun Princess Wade Bosh crouched, not sitting but not standing, rocking back and forth, back and forth.  The lantern he carried was made of punched tin.  It cast a pattern much like a snowflake over the saturated floor boards of the hold, spilling out for some six or seven feet – far enough to touch the boy’s sleeping form.  The child’s knees were drawn up and he was curled in a ball.  His curly brown head rested in the nook of one arm.  His breathing was labored as if he dreamed and the stuff of the dreams was a nightmare.

Like the nightmare he’d lived for the last twenty-odd years.

It was over now.  The boy was back.

Jude was back.

Rising, Wade walked over to his treasure.  Crouching again, he reached out and brushed aside the mass of  curls that shielded the boy’s eyes.  He didn’t remember Jude’s hair being quite so dark, but then in this place of safety there was nothing but gloom.  Still, he knew the boy would be safe here.  No one would be able to take him – none could find him.  He winced at the heat radiating from the child’s slim body.  He was concerned that Jude was unwell.   Taking pity on the boy, he lifted his light frame up and removed the tattered and sodden shirt he wore, hoping that would help to cool him.

As he did, the boy stirred and groaned.

Wade ran a hand through the mass of curls – a gentle caress.  “Hush, go back to sleep.”

Jude continued to stir, shifting his head from one side to the other.  Finally, he croaked, “Thirsty.”

The big man rose and returned to where he’d been sitting.  He’d brought food with him, though the boy had refused it for several days.  Catching the flask and a horn cup from the floor, along with a white packet, he returned to where the child lay.  Bosh filled the cup with water and poured the powder he had stolen from the sickbay into it.  Then he lifted the boy again and dripped the clear cool liquid between his lips.

Jude swallowed a few times, and then his eyes opened.  They shone in the lantern light, bright and feverish.  The child lifted a trembling hand and, with his fingers, caught the edge of his coat.

“…Pa?” he pleaded.

Bosh felt a thrill deep within him.  “Yes, son.  It’s your pa.”

A slight smile lifted the corner of his lips.  “You…found me.”

Again, the seaman ran his hand through the boy’s hair, noting how thick it was.  “I found you.  A bad man took you away.  I searched a long time and I found you.”  His jaw set and he made a promise.  “You ain’t got nothin’ to fear.  No one will ever take you away from me again.”

The boy’s brow furrowed.  He blinked several times and then those big eyes of his fastened on his face.  Terror entered them.

“You’re…not my pa!” he cried and, with what little strength he had remaining, tried to pull away.

Bosh gripped his arm.  “You’re sick, boy. You don’t know what you’re sayin’!”

Still, Jude retreated, moving into the shadows, back, out of the circle of light.  “You’re….  No.  No, you’re not my pa.  You’re….”  The boy was breathing hard.  It was all he could do to get the words out.

“You’re the bad man.”

Wade’s hand shot out.  His fingers closed around the boy’s throat.  “Now, you listen here, Jude.  You’re sick!  Your head’s all mixed up.  You’re my son and it was Ben Cartwright who stole you away from me.  He’s the bad man!”

The boy swallowed hard against his fingers.  His eyes were bright, awake.

And filled with hate.

“Not…a…bad man,” he rasped.  “Not…my pa.”

He had to make the boy understand.  He was sick.  Out of his head with fever.  He had it wrong, all wrong.

Had to….

“…please…you’re…choking me….”

Wade Bosh stared down at the boy.  He didn’t know what he’d been thinkin’ before.  There was that tangle of brown curls lit with gold, the coffee and cream skin; those extraordinary green-gold eyes.  Jude’s eyes were starin’ at him, ringed with red and rimmed with tears.

With a shudder and a gasp the seaman drew back, suddenly aware of how close he’d come to killin’ him.

As the boy slumped to the floor, Bosh rose to his feet.  He went to the place where he had been seated and picked up the sack that lay there.  Without a backwards glance, he mounted the ladder and returned to the deck and his duties.  Jude would sleep for a while and then he’d come and see him again.  By then the fever would be better and he’d know who he was.

Imagine a boy forgettin’ his pa.

 

Ben Cartwright stepped onto the deck of the Sun Princess and was instantly transported back by the sights and sounds.  He had never regretted giving up the sea and sailing, but it was still in his blood, and it was his blood that stirred as the mainmast creaked and the mainsail snapped in the wind, as the bosun’s whistle sounded and the ship’s bell knelled seven times, proclaiming the twenty-third hour.

As they stood, waiting, a slender man with reddish-blond hair approached them.  He saluted smartly and grinned broadly.  “Liam!  Great to see you.”

Captain Ford took a step forward to grip his hand.  “Rowan, how are you?  How is your fiancé?”

“Pining away, both of us,” the ship’s first mate answered with sad chuckle.

“You’ve undertaken a long voyage.  It’s certain she’ll know what the life of a sailor’s wife is by the time you return.”

Ben continued to listen to the two men exchange pleasantries for several minutes and then, completely out of character for him, interrupted.

“Liam, I think we should see Captain Howard.”

The man with the reddish-blond hair turned toward him.  “Forgive me, seaman….?”

“This is Benjamin Cartwright, Rowan.  He’s the reason the Bloodhound set sail.”

Rowan seemed surprised.  “I thought you told the bosun’s mate you’d brought missing cargo.”

Liam smiled. “I lied.  The situation is delicate.  I need to speak to Francis.”

The other man looked puzzled.  “All right.  Follow me.”

Ben reached out and caught the mate’s arm.  “Please, “ he said, “say nothing of this to anyone until we finish with your captain.  It is of utmost importance that you don’t.  A boy’s life depends on it.”

Liam exchanged a look with the first mate .  He nodded.

Suddenly serious, Rowan began to move.

“Follow me.”

 

A few minutes after Ben and Liam Ford left the aft deck, a shadowy figure topped the ladder, stepped onto the deck, and quickly ducked behind a large crate.  The sun had set and he was attired in dark blue, so he went unnoticed as he moved among the boxes of cargo that had been stored there that morning.  Jude Randolph knew as well that the less accepted half of his heritage would help to hide him.  His darker skin would be of benefit as he worked his way down through the sunless decks of the Sun Princess to begin his search for Ben’s missing son.  The Princess was a larger ship than the one he and Bosh had sailed on all those years ago.  She had once been a warship and carried twenty guns.  Most of these had been removed to make space for the doctors and scientists who were now onboard.  This time, hers was a mission of peace.

Marred by the war one madman had brought upon her.

Jude wondered if Captain Howard knew yet.  Even if he did, and was amenable to their needs, he and Ben had decided that he should remain anonymous as long as he could.  Ben and Liam would be quite conspicuous as they searched the ship with the help of Howard’s men.  Wade Bosh was clever and crafty as a fox.  When the seaman kidnapped him all those years ago, all hands had been turned out to search.  They’d found nothing.  It was two weeks before Ben Cartwright found out where he was.  The Sun Princess had even more dark corners than the Independence had.  More wells of darkness.

More rooms in Hell.

Ducking down, Jude waited as two seamen passed by.  It was near midnight and the upper deck was mostly empty.  At the aft end of the ship there was a gathering of men.  One of the officers was angry about something.  He could hear the man’s voice rising above the clamor of the seabirds that flew overhead and the waves slapping against the sides of the ship.  He counted to twenty and then moved quickly along the gangway to the poop deck.  Catching a lantern from the wall, the Englishman took the various stairs that ran down and past the Bread Room scuttle.  From there he moved more slowly, walking the lower decks, which he found for the most part deserted.  He passed the Steward’s room with its bounty of provisions as well as the Cock Pit and then stopped, startled not by a seaman or any threat of discovery, but by his own fear.  The mainmast stairs lay before him.  The all but perpendicular ladder would take him down into the very belly of the beast – the lowest deck where once he had been held as a prisoner without light, without food, with only a trickle of water between parched lips, and where he had begged and pleaded for the touch of a hated hand.

Jude was shaken.  He trembled from head to foot.  Saliva formed in his mouth.  He swallowed over it, but all too soon it was filled again.  Stunned, he dropped to his knees and struck out with a hand, steadying himself.

And began to retch.

 

Five decks up and directly above Jude Randolph, Wade Bosh strode across the deck toward the captain’s cabin.  He was infuriated.  He’d sailed the seas for nearly thirty years and never had he seen such a crew.  Milksops and chinless wonders every one of them!  Added together, the lot of them might have reached forty years!  They’d argued with every order he’d given, blowin’ about him not makin’ any sense.  One of them told him to see the ship’s surgeon about gettin’ a new brain.  Bosh’s lips curled in a cruel smile.

That one would be soon be seeing the medic himself!

Somethin’ had to be done.  The coddled and spoon-fed lot of them had gone runnin’ to the first mate and that fancy-boy would bring their tales to the captain. So, he was goin’ to speak the captain first.  He’d give the old man an earful and more.

With any luck, Lieutenant Paul would soon be cleanin’ the head and he’d be first mate!

Wade halted as the door to the captain’s quarters opened and two men stepped out.  The one looked like Rowan and he wondered if the mate had beat him there somehow.  When the sailor turned into the moonlight and he saw the cut of his hair, he realized it wasn’t Rowan Paul, but someone new.

Someone who was not a part of the crew.

Ducking into the shadows, Bosh waited as the two men walked his way.  The first was slender.  He’d seen him before, but he wasn’t sure where.  He thought he captained another ship.  The other was older, thicker-set, with broad shoulders and a determined stride.  There was something familiar about him, but it was like smoke and it slipped through his fingers.

“We can’t wait!” the older man declared.  “We have to begin now!”

“It’s Captain Howard’s ship,” the thin man replied, his tone firm but understanding.  “You’ll do it Howard’s way or not at all.”

“What is the point of waiting until first light to search the belly of the ship?” the older man countered sharply.  “It’s like going into a mine.  The only light we’ll have is what we take with us.”

“I believe it has more to do with the men and the running of the ship.  Francis wants to wait until the next watch.  It’s only a few hours.”

The thinner man halted just in front of his hiding place.  Wade crouched as he did and peered through a crack between two crates.  The older man had walked to the rail and was looking out over the water.  He lowered his head and remained still for a moment.

“You’re a father, Liam,” he said.  “I’m sure you know how it is.  I… Somehow I know even an hour’s delay is too much.  I can feel it in my bones.  Joseph is almost out of time.”

Bosh blinked.

Joseph.

An image flashed before his eyes – a slender boy in a stable, curly-haired, with bold green eyes.

Joseph.

Jude.

A hand of fear gripped the seaman.  Wade looked up to find that the older man had turned into the light.  He removed his hat and ran a hand through hair that glinted like gun metal.

“I’m sorry, Liam,” Ben Cartwright said, “I can’t wait.”

Wade Bosh sucked in air.  He rose and headed for the mainsail stair.

Neither could he.

 

 

FIFTEEN

Jude Randolph leaned against the damp wall of the mid-ship hold.  The stench of his vomit assaulted him, causing him to continue to heave even though there was nothing left in him.  After a moment, he climbed to his feet and stood there, breathing hard, fighting to take command of his emotions.  Tears in his eyes, his jaw tight and his fists clenched, he reproached himself for behaving like the child he had been all those years ago; a child who had felt completely powerless.  He was a man now and there was another child counting on him – the beloved son of the one who had rescued him from the belly of the Independence and brought him up out of the pit into the light.

It was the pit that had broken him then.

As it sought to break him now.

Lifting his arm, Jude wiped his mouth clean on his jacket, picked up his lantern, and forced his legs to move.  It was as if they were weighted with lead.  Every step was a conscious effort, but he wouldn’t quit – wouldn’t give in.  He knew where Bosh had the boy because that had been his prison too.  Past the mid-ship floor riders, beyond the step of the foremast, between it and the keel and dead rising where nothing remained between the ship and the sea but a single wall.  He knew he would find Joseph there just as he had been there, alone, cut off from light and sound, chained and laying in his own filth, beyond hope, beyond caring.

Dying.

Again Jude had to stop and brace himself as a wave of nausea rolled over him.  It angered him.  No, it infuriated him that after all this time – after his escape and his success in England – Wade Bosh was still in control.

Jude shook his head.  No more.

No more.

The Englishman remained where he was and listened.  He was close now, very close.  After assuring himself that he was not being followed, he shuttered the lantern and plunged into the Stygian darkness, ready to confront Charon himself.  As he drew nearer the step of the foremast Jude’s pace quickened.  He wasn’t entirely sure, but he thought he’d heard someone cough.  He wanted to call out, but fear for Joseph stopped him.  Bosh could be there with him.  Without light, this deep in the hold there was no way to tell.  Once past the step, the former cabin boy paused and listened again.  He heard a breath drawn in pain, a stifled moan.

Then silence.

Drawing the revolver he had tucked behind the waistband of his trousers, Jude moved forward into the unknown.

 

Joe bit his lip and fought the urge to cough.  Pain had exploded through his head when he coughed the first time and he really didn’t want to do it again.  He could still feel Bosh’s fingers on his throat cutting off his air.  The sudden attack had left him woozy and lightheaded.  Multi-colored lights filled his vision, bursting like the fireworks he’d seen when he and his brothers had spent the fourth of July in San Francisco with their pa.

A tear ran down his cheek.

Pa.

He had a…pa.

He wondered what he looked like.

The man who came to bring him water said he was his pa, but he knew he wasn’t.  Not really.  He knew he had a father out there somewhere, he just couldn’t remember who he was.  It was like he’d been sucked into a pit and left there so long that everything but the damp and the dark had gone away – everything but the damp and the dark and Wade Bosh and the rats who watched him day and night waiting for him to die so they could have a feast.

A slight smile curled the boy’s lips.  “It…won’t be…long,” Joe croaked, his voice sounding like dry leaves on stone.

Nauseous, he tried closing his eyes to ease the misery.  It didn’t work.  The lights were still there, running in a crazy circle like a horse trying to toss its rider.  It was actually worse with his eyes closed.  It made him feel like he did when he climbed too high and forgot and looked down.  Everything was out of balance and he knew he was gonna fall.

He was falling.

He wondered if he would die when he reached the base of the pit.

At least the rats would be happy.

Joe’s eyes popped open.  He’d just caught himself before he hit bottom.  Still, he knew he was danglin’ right above it and he didn’t know if he had the strength to hold on.  It would be easier to let go.  Easier to…die.  Only one thing stopped him.

Pa.

He wanted to find his real pa.

He wanted to know why his pa hadn’t tried to find him.  Why he’d left him alone in the damp and the dark, hangin’ on for dear life, with the rats waiting to eat him.

They were watching.  Their eyes were everywhere.  They were bright yellow in color and they were on the move, advancing toward him.  Terrified, Joe moved his hands, digging his fingers into the rotten water-logged wood, clawing, crawling away.  He didn’t want them to eat him.  He didn’t want to feel their teeth rippin’ into his flesh and gnawin’ his bones; strippin’ away everything that was his – eyes and nose and lips and skin and hair.  If his pa found him stripped bare, he wouldn’t know him.

He’d leave his bones in the pit.

The yellow eyes were beside him now – they were climbin’ on him!

“No!” he shrieked. “No!  NO!”

 

Jude Randolph stopped, utterly stunned.  He had no idea what delirium Joseph was experiencing, but it had driven the boy to the length of the chain that bound him to the floor and into a corner where he cowered, weakly moving his hands and moaning.  When he’d reached the dead rising and heard nothing, he’d opened the lantern and let its light spill out, forgetting how he too had been terrified by the absence of the darkness.  As he approached the boy Jude closed it, hoping that would ease Joseph’s fear of him.  He hated to touch Ben’s child, for he remembered the blessed horror of that touch in the dark as well, but he had to silence him.

If Bosh was near and he’d heard….

Crouching, the Englishman  reached out and found the boy’s arm and gripped it.  Joseph struggled feebly to get away, batting ineffectively at his hand.  The touch was as light as a butterfly wing on the cheek.  Speaking soft assurances, Jude began to search for his other arm.  When he found it, the former cabin boy slipped in-between him and the wall.  Gently, ever so gently, talking all the while in a low even tone and telling him why he was doing it, Jude cupped his hand over the terrified boy’s mouth.  In spite of his assurances Joseph stiffened.  His body went rigid.  He struggled a moment longer, said something unintelligible, and then slumped lifeless against him.

Jude sat there in the dark, sucking in the dank air and willing himself not to join the boy in oblivion.  He leaned his head back against the wall and reassured himself that he would not be imprisoned again.  He would not die here.  Wade Bosh would not win.  After a moment he pulled the boy into the circle of his arms and willed him, even in his unconscious state, to know that help had come and that he was safe.  He hadn’t met Joseph, but he had seen the daguerreotype that sat on his father’s night stand.  Three handsome young men – ten, sixteen, and twenty-two years of age – looked out of the silver frame.  Both of the older boys took after their father.  They were tall and broad of build.  Benjamin’s youngest son was thin as a spindle but wiry; small and slender with the beauty of a girl.  Joseph Francis Cartwright had grinned at him from that frame, his eyes alight with mischief; his lips pressed into a tight line to try to contain the laughter that bubbled up within him.  Though the photo was nothing more than metal exposed to a mix of chemicals and the light, the boy’s zest for life radiated out of it.

What he held now was a shadow of that child – thin, frail, wasted away; clothed in his own filth and barely holding on to life.

But he was holding on.

Jude leaned forward and brushed the boy’s forehead with his lips, trying to gauge his temperature.  Joseph was hot.  He was also very sick.  He’d been sick too and remembered precious little of his own liberation from the belly of the Independence.  Lights.  A deep voice.  Gentle hands.  Then more light – so much light he thought it would blind him.  He’d lain at death’s door for weeks.  Once he’d recovered and returned to life, he’d been burdened with a different pain.  How could he repay this man who had brought him back from the dead?

It seemed God had given him the chance.

Jude felt for the cuff that circled Joseph’s leg. When he found it, he followed the attached chain to a ring on the floor.  He’d remembered how he had been similarly bound and had come prepared.  Gently slipping out from behind the boy and onto his knees, the Englishman opened the lantern’s door a sliver and then reached into his pocket and drew out a ring of keys and began to try them one by one in the lock.

The unexpected sound of footsteps froze him in place.

Quickly pocketing the key ring, Jude rose to his feet.  He pulled the pistol out from behind his belt, released the safety, and slowly – oh, so slowly – pulled back on the hammer.

Then he waited.

 

As Ben Cartwright moved through the mid-ships on his way to the mainmast stair, memories of a similar journey decades before crowded him like a room full of people.  He’d been forbidden to continue the search for Jude, but he’d done it anyway.  Just as he now defied Captain Howard’s orders to wait until morning to search for his son.  Both times there had been something within him that would not let him wait.

Sitting still was tantamount to being on a bed of nails.

Every parent was tied flesh and bone to their child, as if a cord stretched between them that only death could sever.  He was bound to each of his sons.  Yet, with Joseph, there was something more – an inner sense, perhaps, of the boy’s own need, or maybe of his own.  Whatever it was, he always knew when his youngest was in danger and the clarion bell of that knowledge was sounding in him now, loud and clear.

Joseph was here, on this ship, and he was in mortal peril.

Old ways returned as the former sailor rapidly descended the mainmast stair, gun behind his belt and lantern anchored at his hip.  As he moved down, hand over hand, making a near perpendicular descent, Ben wondered where Jude was.  If all had gone according to plan, the Englishman was on board the Sun Princess and his own search was well underway.  The odds were they would meet up at fore of the keel, which was where he was headed.  He remembered what Jude had told him about his captivity all those years ago.  Considering how unnerving he was finding the journey, Ben couldn’t imagine what the former cabin boy must be feeling.

It had to be like stepping on his own grave.

The rancher grunted mildly as his feet struck the floor of the lowest deck.  Opening his lantern’s shutter, he pointed the light forward and began to move, quickly passing through the mid-ship’s hold and on toward the keel.  Several minutes into his journey, he drew to an abrupt halt.  He’d heard something.  Voices, he thought, raised in anger.  Ben clamped the lantern shut and remained where he was, listening.  There was a shout.

And then a shot.

 

Wade Bosh howled like a wild beast and struck out into the darkness, his hands extended, seeking his throat.  As soon as he realized the madman was there, Jude had shuttered the lantern, plunging the keel into darkness.  The lack of light had made it impossible to take aim and so he’d shot blindly.  He’d was certain he’d hit Bosh, but he had no idea where he ball had taken the seaman or whether it was a fatal or passing blow.  The only thing Jude knew for certain was that Wade Bosh was still on his feet and was as enraged as a bull elephant.  The Englishman didn’t move.  He remained still, listening, trying to determine the big man’s position.  Pinpoints of the dawn’s light were working themselves through small holes in the keel wall behind him.  He waited for a disturbance in the pattern of light to locate him.

And failed.

Desperate to protect Joseph, Jude straddled the boy’s prone form, and tried another tactic.  He called out, hoping the sound of Bosh’s reply would make him a target.

“Surrender, Bosh!  It’s over.  The captain and his men will be here soon.  There’s no escape!”  Jude wet his lips as the old fear rose again – the fear that this man would once again take him and hold him in his sway.  “You’ve felt the bite of my gun once!  I’ll use it again if I must.”

“Who are you?” Bosh asked from out of the dark.

Jude’s jaw tightened and he shivered as he aimed to pistol toward that voice.

“Justice,” he replied.

 

Ben jerked at the second report of a gun.  The sound of the shot rang from rafter to rib and through the hollow underbelly of the Sun Princess.  Throwing all caution to the wind he opened his lantern wide, letting its brilliant light paint the boards before him, and ran the length of the deck, unwilling to stop until he ran into the keel wall or broke through it and plunged into the raging sea.  The scene that unfolded as he rounded the step of the foremast brought him to a jarring halt.  Two men were struggling, one slight of build, the other a veritable giant.  Jude and Wade Bosh.  An upturned lantern lay near their feet.  It had set something on fire and the area was quickly filling with a thick, choking smoke.

There was no sign of Joseph.

Swallowing his disappointment, Ben placed his own lantern on the floor and drew his gun.  “Bosh!” he shouted. “Wade Bosh!  Let Jude go!  It’s me you want!  It’s me – Ben Cartwright!”

The giant’s form went rigid. With his hands on Jude’s throat, he turned to stare at him.

“Let him go!” he repeated, one eye to the smoldering blaze.  Fortunately, the hold was damp enough no fire couldn’t last long.  Once it had burned through whatever dry material was available, it would go out on its own.  “Let Jude go!”

Bosh’s eyes returned to the man he held.

“Jude?” he rasped.  “You’re…Jude?”

The Englishman couldn’t speak.  He nodded as best he could.

Bosh’s grip tightened and then he staggered.  It was only then Ben realized the seaman had been hit.

Like a grizzly, it was going to take more than one shot to bring him down.

Still, he hesitated to shoot.  It would be too easy to miss Bosh and hit Jude.  Closing his eyes briefly, Ben prayed for the chance he needed.

He got it when he opened his eyes.  The bear of a man had dropped Jude and was charging straight at him.

Ben fell back a step.  Only seconds remained before Bosh would plow into him.  In rapid succession, he fired off three shots – the sound of the Cartwrights, indicating there was trouble – and prayed that at least one of the bullets struck the big man.

Then, he was on the floor.  As Bosh hit him, Ben reared back hitting his head.

And knew no more.

 

He wasn’t out long.  Ben awoke a minute later to the realization that he couldn’t breathe.  For a moment he had no memory of what had happened and wondered if he was in one of the Cartwrights mines and there had been a cave-in.  Then he comprehended that whatever was weighing him down was warm, as was the thick, iron-scented liquid flowing down his left arm onto his hand.  It was a man.  It was –

Bosh.

Wade Bosh who had kidnapped his son and held him a prisoner for two weeks.

Bosh who was the only one who knew where Joseph was.

And would never tell.

It was all Ben could do to push the mass of cooling flesh and bone off of himself.  When he stood, his head reeled like he’d been on leave and cleared the saloon of half of its ale.  Walking was impossible, and so he staggered through the dissipating smoke to where he had last seen Jude.  The air was better toward the floor and he relished it as he crouched and reached out, probing the darkness for his friend.  It took a bit, but finally his hand fastened on a leg.  Shifting, the rancher followed it up to an arm and then farther along to a head of curly hair.

“Jude,” Ben called, pausing as a cough racked him.  “Jude, can you hear me.  Are you injured?”

A low moan was his first answer.

The second came from the darkness to his left.  “I’m…all right, Benjamin.”

Puzzled, he turned toward the sound.  If Jude was beside him, then who…?

God.

Dear God.

It must be Joseph.

A moment later Jude Randolph appeared, stepping into a thin beam of light.  The former cabin boy was pale as a ghost, his face soot-streaked and filthy; his wild hair even wilder than usual.  In the Englishman’s hand was the lantern he had brought with him and abandoned.  The shutter was closed . The light leaking through the punches in the tin cast weird shadows on the deck.

As he turned back toward his son, Jude warned, “Prepare yourself, Benjamin.  We may have come too late.”

Ben gasped as the light struck the lean figure of his son and fought to keep the contents of his stomach where they belonged.  Joseph lay completely still, his eyes closed and his limbs askew like an abandoned rag doll’s.  His usually tanned skin was gray as the smoke that whorled above their heads and bruises darkened nearly all of it that was exposed.  His son was thin – so thin.

And hot.

Burning hot.

But alive!

“We have to get him out of here!” he proclaimed as he began to slip his arms under his boy.

Jude’s hand came down on his shoulder.  “You’ll need these,” the former cabin boy said as he offered him a ring of keys.  When he blinked, not comprehending, Jude added, “Joseph’s leg is chained to the floor.”

What Ben needed to do at that moment was free his child and take him out of this hell-hole, up where there was light and fresh air.  Instead he laid Joseph down, rose to his  feet, and started toward the hulking mass of flesh that lay at the bottom of a rider.

Breathing or not, he was going to tear Joseph’s kidnapper limb from limb.

Jude caught his arm.  “Bosh is dead, Benjamin,” he said softly.  “He can’t hurt Joseph anymore.”

He fought for a moment and then quieted.  Jude was right.  With a nod, Ben returned to his son’s side.  Dropping to his knees, he reached out and found Little Joe’s leg and ran his hand along it, wincing as he felt the bone so close to the skin.  He continued on until he came to the iron cuff that chained the boy to the deck.  Finding the right key was quick work. The cuff fell off and struck the boards with a dull thud and Joseph was free.

The rancher leaned in to lift his son, but stopped.  He heard voices.

“It’s Rowan and the search party,” Jude said.  “I’ll tell them.”

As Ben rose with Joseph’s feather-light form in his arms, a memory from the boy’s childhood came to him.  His son had been five, maybe six years old.  He’d heard the boy crying and rounded the barn to find him sitting on the ground with a bird’s broken body in his hands.  A talk had followed, about the fragility of life and about God.  He told his small son about the passage in Matthew and how, in Jesus’ time, you could buy two sparrows for a farthing, and yet their Lord said not one of them would fall on the ground without his Father’s knowledge.

Faith was the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.

He only hoped he had enough of it to carry him through the next few days.

 

Ben Cartwright paced the floor of the passageway outside the tall ship’s sickbay.  It was located to the fore of the Sun Princess, three decks down.  The nightmare that had been bringing Joseph to the ship’s surgeon was still with him.  Every effort to rouse the boy had failed.  On the first mate’s orders, one of the seamen had looped a rope around Joseph’s chest and began to ascend the ladder.  He’d followed, clutching the boy’s legs, guiding him up, all the while praying for a grimace or a groan – anything to indicate that Little Joe was aware – but his young son remained as stubborn in oblivion as he was when awake.

By the time they reached the third deck Ben was exhausted but he had marshaled on, removing the rope from his cataleptic son and then lifting the boy into his arms.  The interior of the ship was dark.  Little light penetrated, and the lanterns the seamen carried only sufficed to cast lurking shadows on the walls.  Near the sickbay one of the former gun ports had been turned into a window and as they passed it he got his first good look at his son.

It was a sight he would never forget.

Joseph’s glorious chestnut curls had grown dull as tarnished brass and were riddled with mud, blood, and debris.  A layer of slime and dirt covered his gaunt form.  His slender throat was marred by finger-shaped bruises that contrasted sharply with his pale skin and there was a slightly bluish tinge to his lips.  As he’d carried his boy toward the sickbay, Ben had noted that the clothing Joseph wore was the same as when he’d been taken over two weeks before.  The shirt and pants were mostly rags; the cloth stiffened with sweat and a noxious mix of excrement and urine.  Joseph’s leg – the one that had been cuffed – was badly chafed, the skin red and angry, and the ankle swollen to twice its normal size.

Ben reached out for the ship’s wall to steady himself.  That had been two hours before. Two hours.  In that time Jude had checked on him several times and Captain Howard had appeared to offer his regrets and to tell him the Sun Princess would remain anchored until such a time as his son was well enough to travel.  As the captain left, First Mate Rowan Paul appeared with the news that Wade Bosh’s body was to be fed to the fishes come the end of the forenoon watch.

He should have felt some satisfaction at that, but he didn’t.  Bosh’s death might bring justice, but it couldn’t undo the damage he had done.  Exhausted and overwhelmed, Ben fell into one of a pair of chairs that had magically appeared in the corridor.  Tears came as he lowered his head into his hands and returned to his own watch.

Sometime later, he had no idea how long, a gentle touch on his shoulder brought it back up.

Ben didn’t know the man who stood before him, but he recognized the uniform of the ship’s chaplain.  The minister was tall and slender, with hair white as a cloud and a long thin face webbed with deep lines and wrinkles.  His eyes were gray.  The sparkle in them made the lines turn up instead of down, marking him as an affable, gentle soul.  In one hand he held a plate with bread.  The other held an earthenware chalice.

“Mister Cartwright?” he asked.

Ben sat up and nodded.

“I’m Father Brendan Blaine,” the chaplain said as he indicated the chair beside him. “May I?”

He nodded.

“I thought, perhaps, you would like to take the sacrament,” he began without preamble.  When Ben frowned, the older man went on, “It’s the Lord’s Day.”

The rancher’s gaze went to the sickbay door that barred him from his child.  Behind it his son was dying.

He shook his head.  “I…can’t.”

The chaplain carefully placed the elements on the floor to the side of his chair and then turned back to him.

“Tell me what you are feeling and, Mister Cartwright, be honest.”  The older man smiled.  “Three decks and a bit of sky aren’t enough to keep God from reading a man’s heart.”

“I…”  Ben cleared his throat.  “I don’t know that I can…give anymore.  Three wives dead and now…this.”  A tear fell as he choked.  “I can’t lose my son.”

Brendan Blaine regarded him a moment. “And this thought, it’s driving you from God?”

Was it?  He hadn’t really thought of it that way.  But, in a way, it was true.  He should have been on his knees pleading for his son’s life – he wasn’t.  Somehow Ben knew that – if Joseph died – the faith hoped for but unseen would wither and turn to dust.

The ranched sucked in a breath.   “How can a good and gracious God let this happen to a child?” he asked.

“There is a reason,” the chaplain said.

It was a platitude he used with his boys.  Now it seemed so shallow.

Sensing his anger, Chaplain Blaine went on.  “There was another beloved boy, grown into a man, who was betrayed, scourged, and wounded unto death though he had done nothing to deserve it.  On the day he died, God and the angels wept.  This man died for the sins of the men who beat him – and for your son’s sins and your own.  In the Father’s eyes, Mister Cartwright, we are all guilty.  A heavy price was paid for our sin.”

Ben’s near-black eyes went to the plate and cup at the chaplain’s feet.  It was there – the price.

Blood and bread.

“Is your son a believer?” the older man asked.

Ben sucked in his fear and nodded again.  “Yes.”

“Then you know, should he pass from this life to the next, that the blood and body of Christ have washed away his sins and he will dwell in the house of the Lord forever?”

Tears threatened to fall.  “His mother is there already.”

Brendan Blaine stared at him, pausing, as if he chose the next words carefully.  “Should you not then rejoice?”

Ben shook his head.  “I want Joseph here with me.”

“As is only right.  But should the worst occur, you know he is secure in the Lord and will live forever.”

The word was wrung from him.  “Yes.”

The chaplain leaned over and recovered the elements.  He held the plate out, indicating the bread with a nod.

“Will you not then join me in thanking God for the gift of His son and of eternal life?”  Blaine’s smile was soft, comforting.  “After we have partaken of the elements, if you are so inclined, we will petition our Father together to bring your son back to life just as He did His own.”

Ben nodded and, as the chaplain fell to his knees, he did too.  Bending his head, he quieted his heart and listened to the familiar words, seeking comfort as he awaited word on his son.

‘And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat, this is my body. And he took the cup and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it, for this is my blood of the new testament….

 

An hour later he was sitting at his son’s side.  After they’d finished praying, Father Blaine had gone to the sickbay door and knocked.  The ship’s surgeon had glanced at him where he sat and then let the other man in.  Ten or fifteen minutes passed before the chaplain reappeared and told him he could see his son.  He’d given the man his thanks.  Blaine stopped him as he moved past.

‘Remembered, Mister Cartwright.  Miracles happen,’ he said.

Joseph lay before him, a thick blanket drawn up to his bruised chin.  His son hovered between life and death, his body wasted and his reserves nearly drained dry.  The surgeon had given him a look before departing to get a little food and an hour or two of much-needed sleep.  In that look Ben saw sympathy and condolences.  Science had given up.

There was nothing left but the chaplain’s miracle.

Anchoring his hands on the side of his son’s cot, the rancher closed his eyes and began to pray.  It was forced, but his first words were of praise, giving thanks for a loving and merciful Father and for the gift of His son. Then he began to pray in earnest, pleading, begging, bargaining for his boy’s life, offering the only things he had – his heart, his mind and soul, the time he had left – all the things God already possessed.  In the end, Ben realized he had nothing.  All the land and wealth he had accrued and the hard work it had taken; his determination to be a good man, to be obedient and to follow his God’s commands – none of it meant anything.  He came to God empty-handed, just as he had entered this life and as he would depart it.

Reaching out, Ben took hold of Joseph’s fiery fingers.  His final prayer was a choked sob.

“Thy…thy will be done.”

 

The cry of seabirds woke him.  For a moment, Ben couldn’t remember where he was.  Then he felt his son’s fingers in his own.

They were cooler.

Fear gripped him, for he thought at first it was the coolness of death, but then he saw the boy’s chest rise and fall.  The rancher touched his son’s forehead.  It was still hot, but not so much as before.  During the time the ship’s surgeon had been with Little Joe, the doctor had removed his clothing and washed him down with water to ease his fever.  Even so filth still clung to parts of his undernourished frame.  Ben fingered the boy’s hair and found the beloved curls matted together with blood, sweat, and slime.  Rising, he searched for a basin and then went to the nearby wash stand and filled it with water from the pitcher.  Returning to his son’s sick bed, he pulled the blanket back and began to bathe him with the tepid water.

A few minutes later he was rewarded as Joseph’s eyelids fluttered.

Putting the basin down, Ben caught his son’s thin hand in his.  With his other hand, he reached out to touch the boy’s face.

“Joseph?  Son, can you hear me?”

His son winced.  A moan escaped his lips.

“Joseph?  It’s your pa.”

Ben didn’t know what reaction he expected, but it certainly wasn’t the one he got.  At that word his Joseph’s stick-thin frame stiffened.  The boy cried out and began to thrash from side to side.

“No!” he shrieked. “No!  Get…away from me!  No…Pa!  Don’t….”  His strength almost spent, Little Joe fell back to the cot, still pleading.  “Don’t…hurt me…Pa….  Please…don’t…..”

As his son surrendered to the darkness, Ben Cartwright released his hand and leaned back, stunned.

Joseph had won the battle to live, but it seemed the war to save him had only just begun.

 

 

SIXTEEN

Rosey O’Rourke stopped what she was doing and looked at her helper who stood near the kitchen stove.  It seemed that Ming-hua knew how to do just about everything.  More than that, she did it with  cheerful countenance as if the work was a joy to her.  On top of that, the girl was always thanking her!  She’d told her a hundred times in the two days they’d been home that she didn’t owe her any thanks for makin’ her work hard.  Just as they’d arrived at the house, a light snow had begun to fall.  It had come early this season and she wasn’t prepared and there were a thousand things to do.  Here in the mountains once the snow flew, you were on your own.  Of course, she was used to it.

And this time, she wasn’t alone.

At the moment Ming-hua was fixing tea for them both.  As night fell, the temperature had dropped.  They’d stoked the fire, but its heat hadn’t reached the cabin’s corners yet.  The lovely child had insisted the tea would not only warm them but keep them from catchin’ a chill.  A heartfelt smile curled the older woman’s lips.  She’d almost forgotten what it was to have someone else around.  The life she’d led with Patrick O’Rourke belonged to a past so distant it was a dream.  Drawing her thick shawl closer about her shoulders, Rosey walked to the window and looked out on her yard, which was a solid white.  Proof that the snow was here to stay for at least a few days.  It was dusk and  a hint of sunlight remained, so the landscape was breathtaking in its beauty.  A pale rose-gold light tinted the snow, while lavender shadows banked it underneath.  The older woman opened the front door and stepped out.  The world was hushed as if in anticipation.  With rare exception, there was silence.

That rare exception being the sound of men on foot making their way through the snow.

Whirling, Rosey returned to the house and walked briskly to the corner where she kept her gun.  Picking the rifle up, she checked to make sure it was loaded and then headed back out.  Ming-hua watched her with wide dark eyes, but said nothing.  She knew why.  When you led the life the girl had led for the last few years, you were prepared for happiness to last only a few minutes.

Actually, you expected it to.

“Does Miss Rosey need assistance?” her guest asked.

She shook her head.  “No.  You stay where you are.”  Advancing onto the stoop, Rosey pulled the door closed behind her and waited, gun in hand, for the two men to arrive.  When they came close enough for her to see them clearly, she revised that.

The two boys.

The tallest one was fair-haired, with a round face and a body any prizefighter would have envied.  The puzzlin’ thing was that he was obviously younger than the slender, shorter man who leaned heavily on him.  That one might have been twenty, maybe a year or two more.  He was dark-haired and there was something wrong with him.  His skin was near as white as the snow.

“What can I do for you?” she called out before either of them had time to say anything.

The fair-haired boy reached up and tipped his hat, a gesture that made her lips tickle with a smile.  “I’m sorry to trouble you, Ma’am.  We was travelin’ through to Sacramento when a mountain cat jumped my brother.  It didn’t do too much damage, but it sure scared the daylights out of our horses.  I imagine they’re halfway back to the Ponderosa by now.”

Rosey rested her rifle on her hip as she eyed the young man.  “You say the cat didn’t get him?”

“Just a scratch on his arm.”

“Seems mighty pale for a scratch,” she replied.

“That ain’t from the cat.  My brother was shot a few weeks back and I’m afeared he’s torn some of his stitches loose.”  The big teenager paused.  “You see Ma’am, big brother wasn’t well enough to sit a horse, but he was determined to head out to look for our younger brother.”

It could be a ploy.  It had happened to her before.  There could be a group of adult outlaws waiting in the trees.  She studied the boy’s face.  It seemed sincere.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Sorry, Ma’am.  I wasn’t thinkin’.  My name’s Hoss and this is my brother Adam.”

Her brown brows lifted.  “Hoss..?”

He was puzzled for a second, then he laughed.  “Guess you might want to know that too.  Cartwright, Ma’am, the name’s Cartwright.”

Rosey lowered the rifle.

Would wonders never cease?

 

Ben Cartwright stood outside Captain Ford’s cabin on the cutter Bloodhound with his hand on the latch. It had been a day since they had left the Sun Princess behind and transferred to Liam’s ship and nearly three days since he had found his son.  They were nearing the harbor and he had to make a decision – did he take Joseph to a hospital in San Francisco to recover, or have the boy made the arduous journey home?  San Francisco meant days more heading west and more time away from the ranch and Joseph’s brothers.  He knew what his son would have wanted – at least before.  Physically it would be hard on him.  Mentally, well….

He wasn’t entirely certain Joseph wouldn’t try to run from him somewhere along the way if he had the strength and the opportunity arose.

Of course, as his son was now, he would only make it a few steps.  Though his fever had broken, Joseph was still a very sick boy and not completely out of danger.  The Sun Princess’ doctor had spoken to him as he placed his son in one of the ship’s  rowboats in preparation for debarking.  The physician warned him that what Joseph had experienced in the hold of the Princess was comparable to the solitary confinement prisoners were subjected to.  He was young and, given time, his body would heal.  Perhaps more rapidly than he expected.  Joseph’s mind was another matter.  Such prisoners, once released, often suffered delusions.  They evidenced paranoia and were given to panic attacks.  Sometimes, they even became obsessed with death.  Joseph, the doctor warned, might be overly sensitive to outside stimuli and have difficulties concentrating and remembering.

The latter was certainly true.  Joseph seemed to have no memory of his home before his ordeal began.

And no memory of him.

Ben fought back tears.  His son had been driven down about as far as a human being could go.  He’d been abused, beaten into submission, and made dependent on the one who hurt him.

The man who had misused him and forced him to call him ‘Pa’.

In the endless hours of silence while he sat at his son’s bedside, Jude had come and spoken to him.  The Englishman assured him that Joseph would recover in time as he had recovered.  And yet, when he thought of Jude as he saw him in the hold of the Princess’ after he’d grappled with Wade Bosh, he knew that frightened boy was still within the former cabin boy and most likely would be until the end of his days.  That same monster had taken his bright, ebullient, and confident boy and turned him into a shattered creature that cowered in the corner, jumping at every noise; afraid of the light.

Afraid of his own father.

The rancher remained where he was for a moment and then, with a whispered prayer on his lips, opened the door of the cabin and stepped inside.

At first he thought Joseph was sleeping.  Then he realized his son was playing possum.  Joseph’s breathing had been fairly even when he entered.  Now it came in short, ragged gasps.  He took the chair from beside Liam’s desk and pulled it to the center of the room – a good four feet from the bed – and sat down.  Outside it was nearly night.  The moonlight intruded into the darkened room, dusting all that lay within it with a silvery light.  From outside came the shouts of Captain Ford’s crew as they anchored the Bloodhound in the harbor, calling out orders and answering commands.  In a moment twenty-plus years melted away.  He was a sailor again, sitting in a similar room, waiting for the tortured boy he had rescued from the hold to reach out to him.  Ben closed his eyes and tried to recall what he had done then.  It took  a moment, then he had it.

Nothing.

Folding his hands and placing them on his lap, the rancher waited.

Little Joe was curled in a tight ball, his face turned toward the cabin wall.  The movement was almost imperceptible and took agonizing minutes, but in time the boy turned to look at him.

Ben didn’t shift or make a sound.

The first move had to be Joseph’s.

Fever brightened the green eyes that looked at him.  It was not so high now – not high enough for his son to be delirious – but, coupled with everything else, it still threatened his life.  Liam didn’t have a doctor on board but his first mate, a man by the name of Downing, had been an army medic once upon a time.  It was his belief that the soul – a man’s heart and mind – had just as much to do with his recovery as any doctor’s skill.

Joseph, he said, had not yet made his mind up as to whether he wanted to live.

Another minute passed.

And another.

Then a small voice asked, “Who are you?”

It might have killed him to hear it, but at least he was making progress.  By God’s grace, it seemed that Joseph no longer identified him with the man who had taken him and held him hostage.

“My name is Ben,” he answered, keeping it simple.

His son mulled that over, rolling the name around on his tongue before releasing it.  “Ben….”

“Yes.”

“Why…won’t you…leave me alone?”

The rancher’s fingers gripped the arms of the chair.  “Do you want to be alone?”

A shiver ran through his son’s emaciated body and Little Joe began to shake.  His jaw grew tight and his nostrils flared as he fought back tears.  Ben dug his fingers in deeper.  He wanted nothing more than to run to him and to take the boy in his arms.  But he wouldn’t.

He couldn’t.

Not yet.

Joseph’s dark brows were knitted together.  “No…” he said at last.

“You’d be welcome to come live with me, when you’re well,” he said, deliberately keeping his tone light.  “Unless you’d like to go home.”

A single tear fell.  “I can’t,” he sniffed softly.

Ben hid his frown.  “Can’t or won’t?”

It was a mistake.  His son curled into himself and leaned his head against the wall.  Sobs wracked his broken body.  Ben sat there a moment, at war with himself.  When he could bear it no longer, he rose and went over to the cot and sat on the side of it.  It was a risk, but one he had to take for both their sanities.  The rancher waited until a flick of Joseph’s eyes told him he knew he was there.

Ben shifted his hand so it made contact with the boy’s leg.  “Would you like to tell me about it?”

The only answer was a shake of that curly head.

“It might help.”

Bright feverish eyes peered at him from over a bare shoulder.  Joseph looked at him, but Ben could tell he didn’t really see him.  His son’s eyes had been light-starved for so long, the doctor had told him it was unlikely the boy saw anything but vague, shadowy images.  Recovery of his sight would take time as would his recuperation from everything else Wade Bosh had subjected him to.

Joseph remained quiet for the longest time.  Turning his face away once again, his son said the one thing he could not have come up with in his wildest dreams.

“I’m…a…murderer.”

 

“Adam.  Adam, can you hear me?”

He grunted and shook the fingers off of his shoulder.  “G’way,” he mumbled.

“Adam, I need you to wake up.”

He didn’t want to.  He knew what would happen when he woke up.  He’d be in pain.

“No….”

“Adam, come on.  I need to get goin’ and I need you to listen to me before I do.  Come on, older brother.”

Brother.  Hoss.  Going somewhere.

Snow.

A lot of snow.

Adam groaned and opened his eyes.  He turned his head to find Hoss sitting on the edge of the bed he lay on.  The room around him was unfamiliar – as was the Chinese girl who stood behind Hoss.

“Where are you going?” the black-haired man asked as he raised himself up on one elbow, or tried to.  “Hoss, you can’t…go anywhere.  It’s snowing.”

“I ain’t got time to argue, Adam.  I just gotta go.  But I gotta know first that you’re gonna be all right.”

“You have one stubborn brother, Mister Cartwright,” a woman’s voice remarked.  “I told him the same thing.”

Adam turned his head to the right, an action that sent both it and his stomach whirling.  Swallowing over the nausea, he asked, “Who are you?”

A woman came forward to stand on the opposite side of the bed.  She was fairly tall and slender, with deep brown hair and a trim waist that could have belonged to a girl twenty years younger.  The look out of her eyes told him that contending with her would be an exercise in futility.

As she reached out to place a hand on his forehead, she said, “My name is Rosey.  Rosey O’Rourke.”

“Rosey done helped Pa, Adam,” Hoss chimed in.  “She took him, Roy, and Jude to Sacramento.”  His brother paused.  His voice lost most of its strength as he continued.  “Little Joe was there with Wade Bosh.  That mean feller got away and took Joe with him.  Pa and Jude are followin’.”  The teen’s fingers formed fists.  “There’s no tellin’ what he’s gonna do to Joe.  I gotta go, Adam.  I gotta find Little Joe!”

“I told your brother all he’s going to find out there right now is his death.  The snow is a foot deep.  By the look of the sky, it will begin to melt tomorrow.”  Rosey eyed Hoss. “Best to wait ‘til then.”

Middle brother’s frown was earnest.  It puckered his forehead and pulled his reddish brows down to shield his eyes.  “Miss Rosey, you don’t understand.  It don’t matter about me.  All that matters is Little Joe.”

“How would you…find him, Hoss?” Adam asked.  “Do you know where Pa went?”

“Vallejo.”

Adam shifted in the bed.  He nodded his thanks to Rosey as she helped him to sit up and propped a pillow between him and the headboard.  His weakness had taken him by surprise.  Since his stitches were mostly healed, he’d been sure he could travel.  Riding had been bad enough, but after the cat frightened their horses and they’d been forced to walk, he ‘d had to admit that Doctor Martin was right.  It had been too soon for him to leave the house.  And yet – if he looked at it from the side of Providence – their ending up here, in the home of someone who had seen their Pa and knew about Joe, was an answer to prayer.

“Wade Bosh means to take your little brother onto a ship and sail away,” Rosey said quietly.  “God willin’ your Pa finds him before he does.”

“You see why I gotta go, Adam?” Hoss pleaded.  “Pa and Joe need my help!”

“Pa needs you to…be safe,” he countered, sounding slightly winded.  Adam scowled at the fact that his strength appeared to be waning.  “You…dying in a bank of snow…isn’t going to help Pa or Joe.”

Rosey smiled. “I told him that too.”

Hoss stared at him a moment and then shot out of his seat.  “If somethin’ happens to punkin and I ain’t there, well….”  Those keen blue eyes pleaded with him.  “I just don’t think I can live with myself.”

Punkin.  Joe hated that.  Their little brother was always telling them that he was a man.

He wondered now if he would live to be one.

The Chinese girl had remained quiet during their conversation.  Adam watched as she walked over to his brother and touched his shoulder.

“Guilt has very quick ears,” she said.

The way Hoss looked at her, it was obvious they had spoken before.  “Ming-hua, I know what you think.  Dang it, you told me enough times!”

Adam smiled.  “Have you been coaching my brother?”

Hoss actually blushed. “Ah, shucks, she just told me her story.”

“Ming-hua tell Mister Hoss her sisters in Sacramento are in great danger.  She cannot do anything and so she has asked the Creator to do it for her.”

Adam eyed his brother.  “Sounds like good advice – at least until the snow melts.”

The teenager’s head was down.  He scuffed the floor with his boot.  “I keep hearin’ Pa’s voice in my ear, tellin’ me the same thing.”

“I light a candle for your brother,” Ming-hua said, holding out her hand.  “You come and light one too.”

Hoss’ jaw was tight; his eyes misty.  He balked for a moment and then took the girl’s hand.  As they walked away, Adam returned his attention to Rosey.

“I heard you speaking earlier,” he said.  He had been going in and out of sleep and had overheard her talking with his brother.  “You don’t think Little Joe is alive, do you?”

The older woman hesitated.  “If there is any way to save that boy, your father will find it.  He’s an amazing man.”

From the sound of what little he’d heard, Rosey was pretty remarkable too.

“You should get some sleep,” she said.  “Your father was very concerned about you.  Let’s not give him anything else to worry about, shall we?”

Adam was going to argue with her, but his eyes were already closing.

Outside, the snow continued to fall.

 

“What do you mean, you killed four people?” Ben blurted out.  He couldn’t imagine where his son had gotten such a bizarre notion.  “Joseph, you haven’t killed anyone!”

The boy retreated into himself at the sound of his raised voice.  He covered his head with his hands and whimpered, “I’m sorry.  Don’t hit me…please….”

That had been stupid!  Ben drew a breath, fighting a rising rage, and spoke again – quietly this time.  “No, I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to frighten you and I won’t…hit you.  Ever.  Now, won’t you tell me, please?”

His son’s jaw tightened.  Joseph shuddered again and then began to speak in a voice so low he had to strain to hear it even though he was sitting right next to him.

“There was…this man and woman.  They ran a stable.  I heard them talking to…pa…and…I….”

Ben’s jaw was tight.  “Go on.”

“I made…a noise.  He heard me.”  Joseph winced.  He put a hand to his head.  “Pa…Bosh…killed him.”

Taking the risk, he gripped the boy’s arm.  “And how is that your fault?”

Without warning Joseph reared up in the bed.  He spoke with manic energy.  “Because I made a noise!. He told me not to make any noise or he’d kill someone!  He told me he…Bosh told me…that he killed that man and woman because of…me…and it was my fault!  Just like he killed…Billy and Mister Cunningham.  That was my fault too!”  As quickly as the outburst had begun, it ended.  Spent, Joseph fell back to the bed and began to sob.

Ben couldn’t stand it a moment longer.  Throwing caution to the wind, he reached out and drew his son into his arms.  Joseph struggled against him weakly at first and then fell, exhausted, against his chest and continued to sob.

His hand went to the boy’s head and stroked those tangled curls.  After a moment, when his son quieted,  he said, his tone gentle, “Joseph, your real father won’t turn you away.  He could never turn you away.  Even if you had murdered four people.”

Little Joe burrowed his face into the folds of his shirt as if he sought to disappear.  “My…fault,” he sobbed.  “He…won’t want…me.  No one will want me.”  He gulped in air.  “Bosh wants me.  He’s my…pa.  The only one I…can have…”

Driven to action by his son’s words, Ben gripped the sides of the boy’s face and forced him to look up and meet his eyes.  “Joseph! That’s simply not true!  I’m your Pa, not that madman!” Tears ran down his cheeks.  “Joseph,” he began again, his voice cracking, “look at me, son.  Look.  See me!”

He feared the boy would break and run, or cower in the corner like an animal.  He didn’t.  Joseph held deathly still.  The only thing that moved were his eyes.  He opened and closed them several times and then timidly, tentatively reached out and touched his face.

His son’s mouth opened but no sound came out.

“What is it, Joseph?  Try again.”

The tears that hung on Little Joe’s thick black lashes spilled down his face.

“…Pa?”

It was the sweetest word he had ever heard.

 

Adam sat on the edge of the bed watching Ming-hua as she cleared away the breakfast dishes.  The new day had come and as Rosey predicted, the snow had stopped.  It wasn’t melting yet, but if the rising sun was any indication the thaw would begin soon.  By tomorrow they would be able to ride.  He felt like a heel, but he was playing his weakness for everything he could get.  It was the only way to get his brother to turn around and head back to the Ponderosa.  They’d been foolish trying to follow their father.  Love of their missing brother had driven them to it.  Logic dictated that it was all over by now – either Pa had found Joe and rescued him or their brother was gone.  And if Little Joe was gone, Pa probably was too.  They needed to get back to the ranch.  Someone had to run it.  He knew his father would search the world over for Joe, but one day he would have to return.  He was going to make certain that the empire they had built together would be waiting for him when he did.

Whether Pa cared or not.

“Mister Adam like some tea?” a soft voice asked.

Adam looked up to find Ming-hua watching him.  “That would be lovely,” he said with a smile.

“You stay put.  I bring it to you.”

Ming-hua was in on his plan too.  She knew if Hoss saw him out of bed, he’d make a beeline for the door and be halfway to Sacramento before they could yell ‘stop!’  He couldn’t blame him.  It was what he wanted to do as well.  Both of them felt a great responsibility for Joe.  He was such a little squirt and seemed to find trouble quicker than Moody’s goose.  They’d spent the last twelve years wiping his nose and other parts and hauling his bacon out of one mess after the other.  But it was different for Hoss.  Joe wasn’t just the brother he sought to protect.  Joe was his best friend.

So the loss was twice as deep.

The black-haired girl approached and held out the tea.  As he took it, Adam indicated she should sit in the chair by the bed.

“Honored sir wishes Ming-hua’s company?” she asked, sounding slightly astounded.

“Yes,” he said.  After a sip Adam added, “Tell me more about yourself.”

She blushed and looked at her hands.  “Mister Adam is sweet.  Ming-hua is not exciting.  There is nothing more to tell.”

“You said you had sisters.  Are you close?”

The girl looked up.  She nodded.  “They are much missed.”

Rosey told him that the two young women – Biyu and Dandan – worked in a rather unsavory establishment in Sacramento.  Ming-hua had worked there as well, though as of yet only in a servant’s capacity.

“From what Rosey said, your sisters helped in the search for my brother.  I am sure Pa would help them leave Ah Kum’s if they wanted.”

“Ah Kum would not let them go.  Too many men come to pleasure palace just for them.”

There was a sadness in her eyes that was heartbreaking.  “What will you do then?” he asked.  “Go back?”

Her small shoulders rose and fell in a shrug.  “I cannot go back, and yet I do not know how to go forward.”

He indicated the older woman who was sitting by the fire, mending a blouse, with a nod.  “You could stay here.  I am sure Rosey would welcome you.  She’s told me as much.”

“I like Miss Rosey too much to put her life in danger,” the girl replied.  “Longwei will come for me.”

He frowned.  “I thought my father paid for you.  Er, I mean, paid to buy your freedom.”

The girl nodded.  “Longwei will not care.”

“You could come with us to the Ponderosa.  No one could hurt you there. We have over a thousand acres and dozens of men to guard it.”

Ming-hua turned and looked out the window.  After a moment she surprised him by saying, “I would like that.”

Adam was getting tired.  He laid his head back against the pillows.  “After all you did for Joe, it’s the least we can do.”

“Your father will find him and bring him back.”

The girl sounded so sure it startled him.  He turned his head to look at her.  “How do you know?”

“I asked the ancestors to make his luck as immense as the sea.”

And that seemed to say it all.

“Thank you,” Adam murmured, as sleep overtook him.  “That’s…very…kind….”

He didn’t hear the girl rise, or feel her lips brush his forehead.

But he did sleep a dreamless sleep.

 

Ben Cartwright left his son sleeping in the captain’s cabin.  He opened the door and quickly stepped outside.  Walking to the aft rail he gripped it so hard his knuckles went white.  A rage deeper than any he had ever known filled him, threatening to consume his reason.  His blood was up and it pounded through his veins, driving him toward violence.  He didn’t know what to do with it.  The source of his revulsion was already dead.  Wade Bosh’s giant form lay at the bottom of the ocean, food for the various scavengers that would find it.

It wasn’t enough.

Not nearly enough.

There should have been something beyond death – some desecration.  Bosh should have been scourged and keel-hauled, or better yet, drawn and quartered.  He was glad the seaman was dead.  Ecstatic, really.

He’d never been glad of a man’s death before.

Ben drew in a sharp breath.  Just what did it say about him that he was now?

“Benjamin?  Are you all right?”

Jude.  He had forgotten about Jude.

Turning slightly, he addressed the other man.  “I’m fine,” he replied tight-lipped.

“And how is Joseph?”

The answer should have given him pleasure, but it didn’t.  “Better.”

Jude walked to his side.  Turning, he leaned his back against the railing.  “You know, Benjamin, hate cages all the good things about you.”

He wasn’t buying it.  “Wade Bosh deserves to be hated.”

“Bosh is dead.  He cared little for your hatred in life and cares even less about it in death.”

“What are you suggesting – that I forgive him? “  Ben’s hand shot out, pointing to the cabin in which his son lay.  “That madman did everything he could to destroy my son.  He beat and abused him.  He controlled Joseph by fear.  He made him think….”  He drew another breath and breathed it out through his nose.  “That animal told my boy that he was a murderer.  Joseph believes him.  He believes that, because he asked for help, he is responsible for the death of four people.  That is something I cannot forgive.  Don’t you understand?”

Jude held his gaze.

Ben faltered.  Of course, he understood.

He was the only one who could.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled.

“I do understand, Benjamin.  At first I hated Bosh as well – more than I have ever hated anything.  In time I found out that the price of hatred is loving one’s self less.”  The Englishman paused.  “I decided in the end to stay with love.  Hate is far too great a burden to bear.”

He knew Jude was right.  His hatred would have no effect on Wade Bosh, but it would have an immense effect on him and his sons.  He had seen men consumed by hate; watched them drive their families away and grow old before their time, shriveled up with bitterness.

Jude’s hand touched his sleeve.  “Joseph needs you to focus on him.  He needs your love, old friend.  Bosh has no need of your hate.”

The rancher was shamed.  He thought a moment and then a slight smile curled his lips.  “Thank you, my friend. Thank you for showing me the path.”

The Englishman shrugged.  “You knew it all along.  You just got lost in the darkness for a moment.”

As Jude moved on, leaving him alone, Ben turned to face the water.  For a moment he watched the tall ships sail out, thanking God that his young son was not on one of them.  Then he returned to the captain’s cabin.  Joseph was asleep, though the boy tossed and turned as if in the throes of a nightmare.  Crossing to the cot, the rancher sat on its side and reached out and stroked his son’s hair and began to tell him of the life that awaited him – of the life he had known.  He continued talking until he was hoarse and the boy was still.

And then, finally, Ben gave in as well and slept the sleep of the dead.

 

 

SEVENTEEN

Adam Cartwright opened the door and stepped into the foyer of the Ponderosa ranch house.  He brushed the light coating of snow off of his black hat and tan coat and then hung them on the peg before removing and placing his gun belt on the credenza.  Once he’d done so, he stared at the firearm.  It was funny. With Pa away there was no reason not to wear his weapon in the house, but old habits died hard.

It had been three weeks.

October was gone and they were well into November.  He and Hoss had waited every one of those twenty-one days for the front door to open and their father and brother to appear.  Expectations had run high the first week, been lowered a bit for the second, and very slowly abandoned during the third.  There had been no word.  No messenger had arrived.  No letter come.

Nothing.

Slowly, in spite of everything, life at the ranch had found a new ‘normal’.

He’d been out today checking the winter pastures.  The snow was light so far, which was surprising after that first unseasonably early and hard fall.  The trails were passable for the most part and that had allowed Roy Coffee to come out earlier in the day.  Deputy Roy and the sheriff were as anxious as they were about their pa and Joe.  They’d sent letters to every lawman in every town from Placerville to San Francisco, but had received no replies.  It was like their father and their missing brother had dropped off the face of the earth.  And maybe they had.  If Joe had been taken aboard a ship….

As Pa liked to say, ‘Here there be dragons’.

Adam sighed as he turned back to look into the great room.  The black and yellow checkerboard was on the table.  Everything was in place and ready to go.  Hoss had set it up the first night they arrived home.  In a way it had become a symbol of the hope they were slowly losing.  Both of them felt – irrationally – that if they moved it they would be admitting defeat.  Admitting that they might never see there father or little brother again.

A movement near the hall that led to the kitchen attracted his attention and he realized it was Ming-hua.  The girl from China was heading for the table.  Hop Sing had been, well, startled to say the least when they’d returned home bringing two women with them.  He’d quickly taken to the lovely and humble dark-haired girl.  He treated her more like a daughter than a guest and had given her free reign of the kitchen. And while the man from China wouldn’t let Rosey O’Rourke cook, he had allowed her to take over the upkeep of the house.  Adam smiled.  He admired Rosey even more now.  She’d changed nothing – there were no lace curtains on the windows or antimacassars on the chairs, though there were a few more vases with fresh greens and sometimes wintry blooms from outside.  Rosey had decided to come with them and remain at the Ponderosa for the winter.  She said she had to know the end of the story.

He only hoped it didn’t turn out to be a tragedy.

A noise drew his attention and Adam looked toward the stair.  Hoss was coming down.  His brother had been working in the stable and had come in before him.  It looked like he’d changed for dinner – another habit.  Adam scowled a bit as he watched him.  The newly turned nineteen-year-old had lost weight and there were perpetual circles under his eyes.  Neither of them slept well, of course.  It was hard to walk past those empty bedrooms.  In fact, as of late, Hoss had taken up Joe’s mantle and been plagued by a series of nightmares.  He wouldn’t talk about what happened in them.

Then again, he didn’t have to.

“Supper served in half-hour, Mister Adam,” Ming-hua said and then offered a little bow.  He had tried to get her to stop doing that – calling him ‘mister’ and bowing – but Hop Sing told him to let it go.  It was a mark of respect and honor, and was a way for the girl to repay them for their family’s kindness.

Hoss had gone into the great room and was staring at the checkerboard.

“Thank you, Ming-hua.  I’ll get changed and be ready in time.”

The girl nodded, bowed again, and returned to the kitchen.

Adam turned toward his brother.  The teenager’s grief was palpable.

As he moved toward him Hoss let out a long, heartfelt sigh.  When he looked up, the light struck the unspent tears in his eyes.

The black-haired man plastered a smile on his face.  “It’s about time you showed up for a meal, brother. You’re going to be thin as….” The hesitation was minor, but his brother caught it.  He’d almost said ‘thin as Joe’.  “…thin as a rail soon.”

Hoss sat down in the chair by the board and stared at the place on the table Joe usually occupied.  “I just ain’t got no appetite, Adam.  You know how good Hop Sing’s grub is.  It just seems…wrong somehow to be enjoyin’ somethin’ that much when….”

When we don’t know if our father and brother are alive or dead.

Adam sank onto the settee.  It still seemed impossible somehow, Joe being gone.  It seemed like yesterday that he’d stormed out to the barn to rake his little brother over the coals for being late, only to discover him dangling, unconscious, from his kidnapper’s arm.

In reality, it had been nearly two months.

He would never, in his wildest dreams, have thought it would come to this.  Like his Pa and brother, he believed they would find the man after a day or two, and certainly within a week.  At first they had expected a ransom note, but once Jude arrived it had become all too clear that this was not about money.  It was a personal vendetta against First Mate Benjamin Cartwright.

Adam opened his mouth to reply to his brother but was silenced by the sound of hooves striking the frozen and packed earth of the yard.

“Most likely it’s Roy,” Adam said as he rose to his feet.  The lawmen had probably forgotten to tell them something, or maybe ask them something.  “I’ll get it.”

He was halfway to the door when it opened and a cloaked man blew in with the wind.  The stranger was of moderate height and slender, but that was about all he could tell – everything else was masked by his hat, thick woolen scarf, gloves, and long coat.  Adam’s hand slipped toward his  pistol where it lay on the credenza, hoping he would have no need for it.  Behind him Hoss was climbing to his feet and Rosey, who had begun to descend the stairs, lingered on the landing, watching.

“Who are you?” Adam demanded.  “What do you want?”

The man held up a hand.  He waited a moment and then began to peel away the layers.  What was revealed was a jaw-dropper.

It was Jude Randolph.

Jude cast a look over his shoulder and then stepped into the room.  He looked around for a moment, taking note of the fire blazing in the hearth and several oil lamps burning on the tables.  “Put the lamps out,” he ordered and then swung back and disappeared out the door.

Adam remained where he was, stunned.  Hoss was at his side.

“What do you suppose is happenin’, Adam?  If Jude’s here, where’s Pa?”

A thought had formed in his mind – one past hoping for.  “Put that lamp out, Hoss,” he ordered as he walked to the one closer to the door and did the same thing.

Hoss obeyed, but asked, “What’s this all about?”

His thoughts were too painful to give words – too filled with hope and the despair of that hope dying.

Rosey had descended, she looked at him.  “Adam?”

He shook his head.

A moment later they all had their answers as their father stepped through the door.  In Pa’s arms was a form, swaddled in blankets, with just the barest hint of chestnut curls peeking out at the top.

There was an audible gasp from Hoss, and then a name spoken in astonishment.  “Joe!”

Pa was on the move, headed for the stair.  As he passed him, Adam looked into his father’s face.  He had never seen the older man look so exhausted.  There was something in his stare.  He couldn’t put a word to it.  The only thought that came to mind was that the gray-haired man had been to Hell and hadn’t quite made it back.  His father nodded briefly and then continued on, picking up Rosey along the way and disappearing around the wall at the top of the stair, headed – no doubt – for Joe’s room.

Joe’s room.

Joe was alive.

Joe was home.

Light-headed, Adam staggered back and fell onto the settee and put his head down.  A moment later he felt a large hand on his shoulder.  Looking up he met his brother’s questioning gaze.

“It ain’t over, Adam?  Is it?”

He glanced at the stairs.  “Probably not.  But…at least Joe’s home.”

“Hard to believe, ain’t it?” the big teenager said.  “You s’pose we should go up?”

A new voice intruded.  “I wouldn’t.”

They both turned to find Jude Randolph had reentered the house.  Adam rose, but Jude waved him back to his seat and crossed over himself to drop onto the hearthstones.  He was still wearing his heavy coat, but had left his hat and scarf by the door.  The Englishman looked just about as weary as their pa.

“Why cain’t we go see Little Joe?” Hoss asked.  It was a plea straight from the heart.

Jude opened his mouth to reply, but before he could the voice the very walls and rafters of the house had longer for spoke.

“Your brother is not…himself,” their father said as he came down the stairs.  He paused at the bottom to look around the room and then those dark much-beloved eyes fastened on them.  Pa opened his arms wide and like two little kids they ran into them.  As he embraced them both, he said, “I have missed you so much, sons.  Thank the Lord you are both whole and well!”  He held them tightly for a moment and then backed them off.  As he gave them a second look, the older man’s eyes narrowed with worry.  “You’re both thinner.”

Hoss snorted.  “Adam won’t admit it, but he ain’t quite all the way up to snuff yet.  He had kind of  hard trip back here.”

The black-haired man was scowling.  “Middle brother here hasn’t been eating.”

Their father’s dark brows shot up. “Hoss?  Are you ill?”

“Only with worry, Pa,” Adam answered for him as his eyes walked the stairs.  “What’s wrong with Little Joe?”

It was an assumption, but one he knew was right.

Their father drew in a deep breath.  He let it out in a puff of air.  “Hoss why don’t you go get Hop Sing.  I might as well fill in everyone at once.”

His brother remained still a moment, drinking in the sight of their father, and then did as he was told.

“Do you want me to get Rosey?” Adam asked.

“No, son.  She’s sitting with your brother.  I…don’t want to leave Joseph alone.”

Hop Sing came in with Ming-hua trailing in his wake.  He noted his father’s expression.  The older man’s seemingly perpetual frown was replaced with a genuine smile.

“Rosey told me you were here.  How are you, young lady?”

The girl bowed.  “Much pleased to see honorable Mister Cartwright.  You bring Little Joe home?”

“Yes, Joe is home, but it’s going to be some time before he is…himself again.”

Anger crackled in Hoss’ tone. “What’d that bad man do to him, Pa?”

Hoss probably missed it, but he could see the depth of pain in their father’s near-black eyes.

It was Jude who answered.  “Your brother has been taught that nowhere and no one is safe.  That he will be punished –harshly, physically – if he does not obey, and that there is no obedience that is right or quick enough.  He fears that his actions – even his words – may cause harm to those he loves, and that those he loves have turned their backs on him.”  The former cabin boy drew a breath and then continued.  “In short, Joseph believes that he is worthless and unworthy of love.”

Adam exchanged a look with his brother.  He saw his own horror and disbelief reflected in the teenager’s eyes.

Their father spoke next.  “Your brother’s mind is one thing.  Physically, he has been broken as well.  Joseph was beaten – savagely at times.  He was kept as a prisoner in the dark for several days, left alone with no light or sound or touch, and only  the pittance of food and water Wade Bosh deemed to give him.”  The older man visibly shuddered.  “Joseph was barely alive when we found him.”

“How long ago was that?” Adam asked.

His father turned to Jude who replied, “Two and a half, perhaps three weeks ago.”

“We stayed in Vallejo for several days.  At the end of it Joseph had recovered enough physically to be moved.  I had to make a choice – take him to a hospital in San Francisco or come home.”  Pa looked toward the stair.  “I regret now that it may have been the wrong one.”

“Why is that, Pa?” Hoss asked.

“I wanted to get your brother home, to his own room – to the life he had known.  I had hoped….”  He paused.  “No matter what I hoped, in the end the journey may have been too much for him.  As we passed through the Sierras the weather took a turn for the worst and so did your brother.  He developed pneumonia.  The worst is over now, but he is still a sick boy.”

“Should one of us go for the doctor?” the black-haired man asked.

His father shook his head.  “We ran into Roy on the road.  He’ll be sending Paul.”

“Will boy eat?” Hop Sing asked.

“He needs to,” Pa answered.  “He’s skin and bones.”

The Chinese man’s eyes were moist.  “Ming-hua come with me.  Make good soup with stock for boy.”

“That would be wonderful, Hop Sing.  Let m know when it’s ready.”

Adam felt guilty, but he was like a young horse champing at the bit.   He knew his father was exhausted from travel and worry, but he couldn’t help but ask, “Pa, what happened?  Where did you find Little Joe?  How did you get him away?  What happened to Bosh?”

“When can we see Joe?” Hoss chimed in.

Their father held his hand up, calling for silence.  He glanced at Jude and then very slowly and deliberately began to tell the tale of their brother’s kidnapping and his rescue from the pit.

 

Rosey O’Rourke sat at the bedside of Ben Cartwright’s youngest son, keeping watch.  She’d agreed to do so in order that Ben could go and talk to the child’s brothers.

The handsome rancher had no idea what he asked.

Reaching out, the older woman brushed the sweat-soaked curls off the boy’s forehead.  He was feverish and in a deep sleep that she was not entirely sure was natural.  Ben told her before he left that their family doctor was on the way.  He could come none to soon.  The rancher had given her the barest sketch of what had happened, but she knew the boy’s reserves were almost depleted.  The body could only take so many shocks and it seemed Joseph Francis Cartwright had had just about as many as he could take.

He reminded her so of the boy she had lost.  Somehow, she’d known he would from the moment Ben Cartwright arrived at her house and told her of his son’s kidnapping.  It had all come so close – that was why she’d been unable to stay safe and removed in her mountain retreat.  Rory had been the same age, twelve, and had the same slender, fragile-looking build even  though he’d been tough as nails as she suspected this boy was.

He had been.

The loss had come out of the blue.  She and Patrick had married and moved to a small town in northern California, leaving behind his lucrative practice in San Francisco and the life she’d lived there as well.  Once they were established, he began to care for the people of the area, riding as far as a hundred miles at a time.  Pat always came home with chickens, eggs, milk, and the occasional squirrel in payment.  They weren’t rich, but they were happy, and that happiness was multiplied when she found out she was with child.  Nine months later Rory Patrick O’Rourke was born.  Rosey’s eyes flicked to the boy in her charge.  Her son had had that same thick head of hair, only it had been auburn – a rich burnished red the color of a sorrel horse.  He was a blithe child with a winning smile and a determined streak.  As Rory grew, that fortitude served him well for he was a small, slight boy and the world of men did not look kindly upon that.

In time Rory took to making the rounds with his father.  Patrick’s patients looked forward to seeing him and often plied the boy with sweets and other small tokens of affection.  Rosey turned in her chair and looked at the window.  Rising, she crossed to it and gazed out on the falling snow.  It had happened in November, when there had been a dusting of snow on the ground.  There’d been a knock at the door.  One of Pat’s patients, a woman who lived about ten miles away, had gone into labor early.  She had several small children and a recently deceased husband, and so Rory had gone with his father to mind the little ones while Pat did his work.  She would have gone too, but she was with child again and was no longer young, and Patrick had put his foot down and said ‘no’.  She stood in the door watching the sleigh fly across the snow carrying its precious cargo, worried about the weather.  She needn’t have been.

The weather had nothing to do with the fact that she never saw either of them alive again.

The next day the local sheriff showed up at her door with his hat in his hand, his fingers ringing round and round the rim of it.  She knew instantly it was bad news.  Someone had gone out to the Henderson’s place and found the woman’s children in the house alone.  A quick search of the surrounding land turned up Mrs. Henderson, who had lost the child and clung to life by a thread.

A wider search turned up Patrick’s body.

Rory was nowhere to be found.

Several days passed as Mrs. Henderson struggled for life.  Rosey took her children in and the poor distressed things helped to keep her mind from her own woes.  She buried her Patrick on the day the young ones went home.  There was still no word of Rory.

And then the note came.  Not a ransom note, but a letter of intent.

Intent to harm her and make her life a misery.

She’d fainted when she read it.  The fall was hard and she lost the unborn babe the next day.

A man from her past – from the days when she had sold herself – had come to exact revenge on her for a supposed wrong.  He’d watched as her husband and son pulled away and followed them.  Her husband was dead.  Her unborn child, lost.

Rory, the note said, had died trying to escape and been buried in an unmarked grave.

In a second, everything she had was gone.

Rosey shuddered with the memory.  With her hand anchored on the curtain, she turned to look at Ben Cartwright’s son.  She had had a hand in this, bringing this boy back to the ones who loved him.

There was some comfort in that.

The sound of the door creaking open made her turn to look.  It was Joe’s father.  Ben indicated with a gesture that he wanted her to step into the corridor.  With one last glance at the miracle in the bed, she did so.

“Has he wakened?” Ben asked.

She shook her head.  “No, but he has quieted.  He’s sleeping very deeply.”

Those near-black eyes held her gaze.  “Too deeply?”

Moving to his side, she placed a hand on the rancher’s arm.  “You’ve done everything you can for the boy, Ben.  You’ve brought him home.  If…if the worst should happen, he’s here with you, with his brothers.  That is a gift in itself.”

The handsome man covered her hand with his own.  “You are a gift, Rosey.  You have blessed this family.”

She blushed and looked down.  “I did it for selfish reasons.”

He touched her cheek then.  “Perhaps, one day, you will know me well enough to share your story.”

“I know you, Ben Cartwright,” she said. “You are a man of deep feeling.  A courageous man who fears nothing.  A humble man who is kind to all.  And more than anything, a father.  Your sons are blessed as well.”

Rosey felt it then.  A spark.  It ignited something long lost within her and set her heart to beating wildly, bringing her joy and absolute, stark terror.

Tearing herself away from that gaze and his touch, she said, “I mustn’t leave Joe alone for long.”

He held her fast.  “That’s what I came to tell you.  Paul Martin has arrived.  Hop Sing is getting him some coffee so he can warm up, and then he’ll be up to see Joseph.”

“The doctor?”

Ben nodded.  Then he smiled.  “Paul is deeply invested in Joseph.  He brought him into the world.”

And so, they came full circle.

Rosey swallowed.  “Coffee sounds good.”

Ben nodded. “Hop Sing made a pot.  You go down.  I’m going to wait on Paul.  If you see him, tell him I’m with Joseph.”

Rosey watched the man enter the room.  Somehow, she doubted she needed to tell Paul where he was.

Ben Cartwright could be nowhere else.

 

Adam glanced at his middle brother where he stood outside the door to their little brother’s bedroom.  Hoss looked as green as he felt.

It had been nearly four hours since their father had come through the door carrying Little Joe, and they’d only now been given permission to go in and see him.  Paul Martin’s examination had taken nearly two of those hours.  His conclusion was that their brother was not over the pneumonia and, in his weakened condition, they were going to have a major fight on their hands.  Pa told them what the physician on the Bloodhound had said – that Joe hadn’t made his mind up whether or not he wanted to live yet – was true.  Apparently, on the long journey back to the Ponderosa, their brother had slipped farther and farther away, speaking only to answer questions and preferring to say nothing.  None of them knew exactly what Wade Bosh had done to Joe.  Doctor Martin had assured them there were no signs of any carnal abuse.  There were, however, earmarks of extensive physical abuse.   All of this troubled their family physician, but what concerned him the most was Joe’s mental state.

If their brother was to survive, he was going to have to fight to do so.

Pa’d finally come down to tell them they could go up and sit with Joe.  He’d cautioned them not to question or tease.  Their brother’s mind was delicate, he’d said.  Adam closed his eyes as he reached for the latch.  Behind his lids flashed the image of his youngest brother going toe to toe with him, his chin jutted out, those green eyes narrowed and his nostrils flaring with barely controlled rage.

Delicate?

That was a word he would never have applied to Joe.

“Adam?”

He opened his eyes and looked at Hoss.  His giant of a brother was clearly frightened.

“What if….  What if Joe ain’t…Joe anymore?”

The black-haired man reached out and caught his brother’s arm in his fingers. “He’s Joe, Hoss.  No matter what.  If there’s a ‘new’ Joe, then we’ll love him just the same as the old one.”

Hoss sniffed and nodded. “You’re right, Adam.  Sorry.”

Adam squeezed the teen’s arm.  “No need.  This is new to both of us.”  Turning back, he lifted the latch and the two of them stepped inside.

The room was steamy and smelled of pine.  Both meant to help their brother breathe.  Beside the bed was a tray with a clay pot and tea cup.  Hop Sing had made Joe some Fenugreek tea, which he insisted would help clear the infection from his lungs.  They could hear their brother’s heavy breathing but as of yet, couldn’t see him.

“He’s really here, Adam,” Hoss said, his voice soft with wonder.  “Little Joe’s really here.”

He wasn’t one to show emotion, but he showed it now.  Tears streamed down Adam’s cheeks as he walked to the bedside and looked down.  It was Joe, but it wasn’t.  The mass of brown curls was there and that familiar pert nose, but there was little else he recognized.  Little Joe’s face was gaunt; his thin frame almost skeletal.  There was something otherworldly about him – as if he had only had one foot in this one.  Hoss’ shock was audible.  He drew in a gasp of air and then choked.

“Adam, he –”

Adam shook his head.

Little Joe’s eyes were opening.

Hoss went to the side of the bed nearest the window and sat down carefully on its edge.  He reached out and took Joe’s hand.

“Hey, punkin, how you doin’?” he asked.

Languidly, their brother’s eyelids closed and then opened again.  As he looked at Hoss and then at him, a puzzled expression appeared.

“…dreaming?” he asked.

“Shucks, no, punkin.  We’re real,” Hoss said.

“You’re home, little buddy,” he added.

Joe licked his lips.  His eyes closed again and then opened – seemingly a little brighter this time.  “Home?”

Adam sat on the side of the bed opposite Hoss.  He stroked Joe’s tangled curls.   “You’re on the Ponderosa, Joe, in the ranch house.  You’re in your room.  You’re home and you’re safe.”

Joe’s green eyes were wandering, pausing here and there on familiar objects.  They seemed to linger on the silver frame beside the bed – the one with the photo of his mother – and then moved on to something only he could see.  Adam felt his brother tense.

“Bosh,” he said and began to grow agitated.

“He’s dead, Little Joe.  Wade Bosh is dead,” Hoss said firmly.  “That bad man cain’t hurt you no more.”

Joe was shaking his head.  “No.  Not dead.  He’s coming after me!  He –”

Adam caught Joe by both arms.  Hoss’ tone had been gentle.  His was not.

“Joe!  Look at me!  Now!  Do it, Joe!”

His brother froze at his tone.  The eyes that fastened on him were terrified.  “Don’t hurt me,” Joe whimpered as he struggled to pull away, to curl into a ball – to disappear.  “Don’t…hit me.”

Adam melted.  He’d always used that tone to get his little brother’s attention.  He hadn’t thought what it would do to him now.   With a glance at Hoss, he pulled Joe into a tight embrace and refused to let go no matter how the boy fought him.  Joe’s struggles were pitifully weak.

“Joe,” he said, holding him close, “listen to me.  Do you remember the night that madman took you?  I came out to the stable to find you and Wade Bosh had you in his arms.”

Hoss’ look asked, ‘Adam, what do you think you’re doing?’  He shook his head.

“Do you, Joe?”

“No….”

“Yes, you do, Joe,” he insisted, his voice barely more than a whisper.  “Concentrate.”

His brother’s head was against him.  It shook as did his whole body.  “…yes….”

“He was taking you away, Joe, but you wanted to help me.  I was on the floor, remember?  Bosh shot me.  You didn’t give one thought to what was happening to you, you were worried about me!  I saw you reaching out – trying to reach me!”  He took his brother’s shoulders in his hands and pulled him back gently so he could look into his eyes.  His own were filled with uncharacteristic tears that spilled over and ran down his cheeks in a flood.  “That’s what we are, Joe.  We’re always there for one another.  Hoss and I are here for you now.  No matter what it takes.  No matter how long.  We are here for you.”  Adam drew a breath.  He held his brother’s uncertain gaze. “Do you know what that means?”

That gaunt face.  Those haunted green eyes.  They stared back at him as his brother’s head moved almost imperceptibly from side to side.

“It means we will not let you give up.”

He felt Hoss’ hands on top of his.  “We love you, Little Joe,” the big teen said softly, crying as well.  “Don’t you ever go leavin’ us again.”

Adam wasn’t sure what to expect.  He hoped he hadn’t said too much and frightened the already terrified boy even more.  Joe looked at him and then at their brother.

“Adam?” he said, his voice no more than the touch of a leaf on stone. “Hoss…?”

What followed was the bear hug to end all bear hugs.

 

Outside the door to his youngest son’s room, Ben Cartwright rested his head on the wall.  His lips moved quickly in thanks, and then he left the three brothers alone to heal.

 

 

EPILOGUE

Ben Cartwright stepped out of the ranch house and looked to the left and right.  It was a cold crisp night and there was a thin coating of snow on the ground.  It was Christmas Day and there had never been a better time or more reason to celebrate.  Paul Martin had finally given Joseph a clean bill of health where the pneumonia and his other physical injuries were concerned, and his youngest was going to come down to the great room for the first time since he had returned home.  Ming-hua was busy setting the table.  Hop Sing was cooking away merrily all the while singing snatches of Christmas carols in Cantonese.  Joseph was sleeping and his brothers were nearby upstairs, getting ready and keeping a close watch.  Their younger brother was still fragile.  He tired easily and was often introspective.  Loud noises – raised voices especially – made him wince.  Little Joe had always feared the dark.  He had come now to loathe it, so much so that most nights the house was roused with the boy’s nightmares.

Ben reached up to rub his neck.  Last night had been one of those nights.  The boy’s screams had cut through the silence bringing them all to their feet.  He’d sent everyone else off to bed and sat at Joseph’s side until the sobbing subsided, and then crept out leaving a light burning in his room and in the hall beyond.

Lifting his arms over his head, the rancher stretched and then looked around.  He’d taken a moment after checking on the boys to change his own clothes, putting on his finest silver vest and blue coat for their company and Christmas dinner.  When he returned to the great room, he found both Rosey and Jude missing.  Not that it was surprising that the Englishman was nowhere to be found.  Since their return over a month before, he had grown introspective.  Jude would often vanish without a word for hours at a time.  Ben left him alone, knowing the former cabin boy had his own demons to deal with where Wade Bosh was concerned.

Rosey was another matter.

He found he didn’t want to leave her alone.

In some ways Rosey was a mix of his former wives – dark like Elizabeth, strong and gentle as Inger, and with a past like Marie.  He grinned.  She had a bit of Marie’s fire too.  He’d felt it each time he’d tried to probe into that past.  Something had wounded her so deeply she couldn’t speak of it. He knew it had to do with a child she had lost.

He just hoped that one day she would trust him enough to unburden herself.

Stepping off the porch, Ben looked around.  It took a moment but he spotted her, wrapped in her winter cloak and sitting on the swing just beyond the porch.  She’d brushed off most of the snow, but enough remained to make the wooden structure sparkle.  Rosey’s cloak was made of a deep wine wool.  It was of the Welsh kind, with a large ruffled hood that pulled up around the face.  Like a little girl too long in he cold, her cheeks were nearly as red as her cape.

As he came alongside her, Ben turned and looked in the direction she was looking.

It was at Joe’s room.

“His name was Rory,” she said abruptly.

“Your son,” he replied as he turned back to her.  It was a statement, not a question.

That brought a small smile. “Yes.  You guessed?”

Ben indicated the swing beside her. “May I?”  When she nodded, he sat down.  “You said you were married.  Your obvious interest in Joe’s welfare brought me to the conclusion that there must have been a child and it was a boy.”

She nodded. “Rory was about Joseph’s age when he died.”

The rancher pursed his lips. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to dredge up bad memories.”

“You know, that’s the problem,” Rosey replied, her eyes glinting with tears.  “For so many years that’s all I have thought about – the bad memories.  I forgot what a precious treasure I had for those twelve years.  Your Joseph has reminded me.”

“Do you mind if I ask –”

“What happened to him?”  She drew in a breath against a remembered pain. “I did.  Or more accurately, the woman I was before I met you and your family did.”

He shook his head, not understanding.

“There was a man,” she began.  “He was a bouncer in the sporting house where I worked.  He thought he loved me.  When I married Patrick, he considered it a betrayal.”

“He…murdered your son?  Twelve years later?”

“He was in a brawl and almost killed a man.  He went to prison for a time. When he was released, he found out I’d married and had a son and another child on the way and decided to exact a price for my liberation.”  Rosey paused at his look.  “I lost the baby too.”

“I’m sorry.”  Ben paused.  “Was the man ever caught and made to pay?”

Anger crinkled the edges of her eyes.  She shook her head, at a loss for words.  Rosey remained still a moment longer and then reached out and took hold of his hand.  She blinked back tears as she continued.

“After they all died, I went back – not to that house in San Francisco, but to another just like it.  I met a woman there who’d been an army scout and decided that was the life for me.  Now I’d be leading men instead of being led.  I’d be outside, in the wilds, instead of trapped by four walls.  Outside where –”

“You hoped to die.”

She looked up at him, startled.  Then she laughed. “Is there no keeping anything from you?”

He patted her hand.  “I have buried three wives.  Each time, I felt I couldn’t go on.”  He looked at the house. “My sons saved me.”

“They are fine boys.”

“Yes, they are.  I wish….”  He cleared his throat.  “I wish you could have known Joseph before.  That boy…”  He lost the ability to speak.

Rosey gripped his hand. “He’ll return.  Just as I returned.  Older, wiser, not the same, but stronger.  He’s your son, Ben.  He can’t help but be strong.”

She was looking at him.  The moonlight struck her face, painting it in perfection.  Before he knew it he had taken her in his arms and kissed her.

Rosey pulled back, breathless.  “Why Mister Cartwright!  And here I thought you were the soul of propriety!”

“Obviously, you haven’t talked to the inhabitants of Virginia City,” he replied with a cheeky smile.

It was only a second later Adam called him.  So quickly, he knew his son could not have missed what had happened.

“Pa!  Hoss is bringing Joe down!”

Rosey rose to her feet and pulled him after her.

It was time to go in.

 

Adam had turned back into the house.  He grinned as Hoss carried Little Joe down the stairs.  He’d been listening outside the door when middle brother went in to get him.  Joe had protested at being carried.  It hadn’t’ been very loud or lasted too long.

But he had protested!

They couldn’t have had a better Christmas present.

As Hoss placed Joe in the big red chair by the fire and settled him in, tucking a blanket around his thin frame to keep him warm, their father walked through the door hand in hand with Rosey O’Rourke.  Adam hid his smile.  He’d caught them kissing.  He didn’t know what the future held for the pair, but it wouldn’t have bothered him one bit if Rosey came to stay.  She was a remarkable woman.

“Melly Chlistmas!” Hop Sing proclaimed loudly as he came into the room carrying, of all things, a blazing figgy pudding!  Ming-hua trailed after him, bearing a stack of plates and forks.

“What’s this?” their father asked. “Dessert before dinner?”

The man from China paused before the settee.  His dark eyes drank in Little Joe.  “Special day.  Special present for number three son.  Hop Sing want him to know how much he is loved.”

Joe was doing better.  He was still brittle physically and jumpy as a bee-stung stallion, but little by little he was mending.  Paul had given them strict instructions that he was to stay inside, probably until spring.  Late last night, when Hoss was snoring and he was reading in his room, he’d heard the click of a door.  And then another opening and closing.  He’d poked his head out into the hall just in time to see a shadow passing onto the stair.  Following quietly, he’d looked around the stair wall and seen the front door closing.  Padding after whoever it was, the black-haired man had gone to the office window and peered outside.  There, in the falling snow, stood his father with Little Joe in his arms.  Joe had a thing about snow.  He loved being out in it.

It was the first time he had seen a genuine smile on his little brother’s face since he’d come home.

His father’s voice returned Adam to the present.  The older man had moved to Joe’s side.  Sitting on the hearth beside little brother, Pa reached out and took hold of his hand.  Then he looked at each of them in turn – him, Hoss, Joe.  They all knew what he was thinking.  No presents needed.

They all had the only thing they wanted.

Joe was home and he was going to be all right.

 

They all thought he was going to be all right.

Joe wasn’t so sure.

The curly-haired boy stared at the dying fire.  After a moment, he shifted and sighed, his face a study in concentration.  He was better, he knew that.  He had come to accept the fact that Wade Bosh had done more damage to his mind than his body.  And, though it had taken a long time, he’d finally come to grips with the deaths of the four people who had been killed because they’d tried to help him and to believe that it wasn’t his fault.

That was the easy one.

Joe drew in a deep breath and held it like it was something precious before slowly expelling it along with some of his fear.  And he was afraid.  He was afraid that the people he loved were lying to him, that they didn’t really understand – that they thought he should have fought harder, been stronger; that he was weak and useless and wouldn’t ever be useful again.  Sometimes he would catch them watching him with pity in their eyes and, at other times, with what he thought was disgust.  Adam, Hoss and…Pa.  Joe swallowed over the other half of that fear.  It was still nearly impossible to say that name and when he couldn’t say it, something dark rose up in him that made him wonder if what had happened to him hadn’t changed him forever.   He would start shaking and seeing red and the only thing he could think of was taking Wade Bosh by his fat neck and squeezing until he choked – until the seaman’s eyes popped out and his tongue turned black and he died.

But Bosh was already dead.

And so, there was nowhere for that anger to go but inside.  Inside, where it tugged him back toward the pit and the peace it offered.

He’d gotten good at pretending.  He’d smiled for everyone tonight and opened his presents and acted like he was having good time.  He’d joked with his brothers on the way up to bed and then snuggled down in his covers like he was content when his father bid him goodnight.  Then he laid there, thinking.  Once it got quiet, he’d left his room and come downstairs.  The trip nearly wore him out, so much so that when he got to the great room he’d stumbled over to the settee and fallen onto it.  He’d been here ever since, leaning his chin on his knee and thinking about everything that had happened and how, sometimes, it seemed like it was still happening and that it would happen forever.

That he would never be free.

Joe sniffed as tears ran down his cheeks.

“It will fade in time,” a soft voice said.

The curly-headed boy jumped.  “Who…?”

“I am sorry if I startled you.”  Jude Randolph, the feller his father had saved from Bosh when he’d been about his age, was coming out of the kitchen.  He had a cup of tea in his hand.  Crossing over to the red chair, he sat down.  “Sleep is not always a welcome companion, is it?”

Joe sniffed again and ran a hand under his nose.  “How’d you know?”

“About the nightmares?”  Jude smiled.  “I know about them, for they are my own.”

“Still?” Joe asked.

Jude placed the cup on the side table.  “Still, but not so much as before.  They are…occasional unwelcome guests now, not family.”

Family.

That was a hard one.

Joe hesitated and then asked, “Did Bosh make you call him ‘Pa’?”

The Englishman nodded.  “Yes.”

“Did you….  Does that…word…still make you….”  What did he say?  Wince?  Cringe?

Cry?

Jude stood. He came closer and indicated the other end of the settee.  “May I?”

Joe nodded.  He studied the man as he sat down.  In the last of the firelight, he could see the resemblance between them.  Jude’s skin was darker and his features heavier, but he had the same wide eyes and hair that made him look – as his father would put it – like a riverboat gambler.  When he was a boy, they had probably looked even more alike.

“Like you,”  Jude began, “I was haunted by the memory of Wade Bosh and what he had done to me – what he…took from me.  Then, I realized one day that he hadn’t taken anything that I hadn’t freely given.”

Joe frowned.  “What do you mean?”

Jude held his gaze.  “Joseph, your father loves you more than life.  You know that, don’t you?”

He nodded.

“And yet you doubt it, because of the things Bosh told you.”

“I don’t doubt he loves me!” he protested.

“He.”  Jude paused.  “Don’t you see?  When you hesitate or choose not to call your father ‘Pa’, Wade Bosh wins.  He is in the grave.  You are alive and here – but you are not free.  Bosh holds you prisoner still.”

Joe blinked back tears.

“I know it is hard.  But you must set aside what happened and try to remember your life before that madman took you.  My grandmother was a woman of deep faith and wisdom.  She told me once that we’re all enslaved, and she was right.  Even if your body is not owned as hers was – as mine was for a time – a man can be owned in many other ways.”  Jude reached out to lay a hand on his shoulder.  “Right now, Joseph, you are enslaved.  Wade Boss owns your mind and, perhaps, a part of your soul.”

His tears were flowing now. “What do I do?”

“Find a memory from the time before you were taken.  One of you and your father.  Dwell on it.  Let it blot out the memory of the man who used that word to break your spirit.  You’re stronger, Joseph, but you will never be healed until you can do this.”

He thought a minute.  “Are you healed, Jude?”

The former cabin boy smiled.  “I was healed the day we set you free.”

 

Ben Cartwright roused from a deep sleep.  He thought he’d heard the sound of the latch being engaged.  Cracking one eye, he looked toward the hall and found his door open and a slender shadow occupying the frame.  With a start, he realized it was his youngest son.  Feigning sleep, the ranched remained still, curious to find out what had drawn the boy to his room.

Joseph hesitated and then entered.  His son stood at his bedside for a moment before sitting on the edge.  Several heartbeats passed before the boy reached out and tentatively, gently, touched his face.  It took everything that was in him, but Ben didn’t move.  His heart ached for his child and he wanted nothing more than to roll over and take Little Joe in his arms.

Something stopped him.  Some inner instinct that told him Joe had to come to him.

A moment later the bed bent beneath the boy’s knees.  Joe moved closer and then lay down beside him.  His son’s arm reached out and circled his waist.  For some time they lay there, completely silent, and then Joseph spoke.

“You awake?” he asked.

Ben’s placed his hand over his son’s.  “Yes.”

Joe’s voice was sleepy.  He was not long for this world.  “You know somethin’?”

His heart was racing.  “No.  Why don’ you tell me what it is?”

His son reared up so he could look into his eyes.  There was a trace of a smile on his lips.

“I love you, Pa.”

 

In the spring Jude returned to England and the life he had left behind.  Rosey and Ming-hua left the Ponderosa as well, but not before announcing their intention to move to Virginia City.  They would return to the older woman’s mountain home for a time in order to take care of everything, including the sale of her house and stock, and be back and in place before the summer’s end.  Hop Sing cried as the wagon pulled out of the yard, carrying with it the lovely girl he had come to think of as a daughter.  Ben shed tears too – of thankfulness.  Each was an outstanding woman.  He would look forward to the homecoming of both, but Rosey most of all.

A most outstanding woman.

Ben turned and looked toward the stables where his sons were roughhousing.  He could hear the whoops and hollers and took delight in his youngest’s most of all.  Nearly six months had passed since Joseph’s ordeal and, true to his nature, his young son’s spirits had soared as the world was renewed.  The boy was still not quite himself, but every day he watched him grow stronger and his laugh – that blessed and beloved laugh – rang out more often than not.  He could hear it now, and hear Hoss bellowing in mock rage as he chased his brother toward the house.

Yes, indeed, everything was going to be all right.

 

Next Story in the Blood and Bread Series:  

Keep Your Eyes on the Sun
Thirty-Six Ways to Get Out of Trouble

 

6 thoughts on “Blood and Bread (by McFair)”

  1. This was a compelling story with many important life lessons vividly presented. I liked your original characters of Rosie, Ming Hua and Jude very much; you did a fine job of fulling fleshing them out to make them come alive as real people.

  2. I was riveted to this saga from the very beginning. It took a lot of will power to put down the story so I could go to work, cook, eat and, of course, sleep.
    The story kept pulling me in and kept me anxious as to what was going to transpire.

  3. I think this is probably my favourite story of yours as it showed that Ben would go to the ends of the Earth, if need be, to find and save his son. Your OC’s were wonderful and need their own story. The fact you created a villain with aspects to his character that were somewhat sympathetic is a credit to great writing.

    1. Thanks for taking time to comment and for your compliments. I think of Ben Cartwright as a primal force where his sons are concerned – he would indeed go past the point where ‘there be dragons’ to save any one of them. There is a special bond between Joe and his pa, as there often is with the youngest in a family, but Ben would move Heaven and Earth for any of them. Thanks for the compliment also on my OC characters. Most will be back in a kind of sequel to this. They wouldn’t let me rest! As to Bosh, I am indeed complimented that so many have found him somewhat sympathetic – of course, that says as much about the reader as Wade Bosh!

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