Mark of the Devil (by A_Starry_Night)

Summary:  The struggle to be left-handed is a very real one, but Little Joe Cartwright is going to meet his greatest adversity against it when an old mountain man crosses his path.

Rating: T Word Count: 18,617

“Mark of the Devil”

~/~/~/~/~

‘For thou hast possessed my reins; thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made… My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.’

Psalm 139

~/~/~/~/~

“It is not right!” Ms. Madine exclaimed in frustration. She was not an overly tall woman but her irritation seemed to make her grow, and she was an admittedly formidable woman anyway. “I know that you want what’s best for Joseph, but I can assure you that this is certainly not in the boy’s best interests!”

She was in her own turf, this little school house—otherwise Ben Cartwright suspected she never would have dared challenge him so bluntly. Seeking calm he breathed deeply through his nose before he responded. “Ms. Madine, Joe being left-handed is of no concern of yours. It is mine; mine and my family’s.” He was thoroughly disgusted with this same debate; it had been going on for several weeks now, ever since the latest school teacher had arrived in Virginia City.

Judith Madine was a homely, thin woman who was close to thirty—far too old to be married by society’s standards and it was clear she had no interest nor desire for potential courters if there had been any in the first place. She was a woman, too, used to speaking her mind: “That may be so, Mr. Cartwright, but you must realize that allowing your son to use his left hand could signify you have no respect for—”

“I trust you will not finish that sentence, ma’am,” Ben warned her sharply, well and truly angry now. He stood at his full height with his fingers crushing the brim of his hat where he gripped it, and his dark eyes were bright.

The homely teacher had the good sense to listen, realizing too late just how far over the line she had been prepared to step. She had the decency to look ashamed. “I- I am sorry, Mr. Cartwright, I didn’t mean to presume—”

“But you did. I will not be having this discussion with you again, Ms. Madine. Have a good day.” Bowing slightly he placed his hat back on his head and closed the school house door shut crisply behind him. Immediately he noticed what was out of place. “Joseph?”

The shout brought about nothing; there was no sign of Ben’s youngest son and the frustrated father drew in another deep breath in an attempt to calm himself.

“Blasted boy,” he muttered furiously. Standing tied to the hitching post his mount Buck flicked his ears in Ben’s direction, alerted to his master’s voice; beside the buckskin, Joe’s own roan pony Drifter waited patiently. Ben was grateful that at least his son hadn’t gone somewhere too far off but Joe was definitely in trouble with his father now. “Joe! Where are you, boy?”

Still no answer. If Ben had told him once, he’d told him a thousand times: don’t wander off by yourself. He knew that his youngest son rankled something fierce with that particular order the older he grew. At ten years of age Little Joe very much considered himself old enough to go walking by himself, and lately he seemed determined to test his father’s patience whenever possible.

“Joseph!” Ben’s agitation was becoming tinged with concern now the longer he went without a reply. Test of patience or no, he knew none of his sons would deliberately keep silent when he called.

He was just preparing to walk over to Sheriff Coffee’s jail to ask his help with finding his son when he heard an odd scuffling sound far off to his right. By the small creek bed that ran parallel to the school yard. Frowning to himself, Ben made his way over, his fingers brushing the holster on his hip.

“Joe!”

His son was seated awkwardly along the side of the bank, one leg bent beneath him as if he’d fallen while trying to stand. His jacket was ripped in the sleeve and his clothes were covered in dirt and wet with water. He cradled his left hand close to his body, hunched into himself protectively. When he turned to look at his father, Ben looked into a face devoid of color. Wide, wet green eyes met his gaze.

“Pa,” he choked out tearfully.

“Heavens above, boy, what happened to you?” All of his irritation vanishing in the face of his son’s pain he hurried over and crouched beside the boy. When he attempted to draw Joe’s arm away from his body, however, the boy rebelled.

“No!” The ferocity of the exclamation startled Joe just as much as it had Ben; his voice was considerably quieter when he explained shakily, “I th-think they’re broke, Pa. My fingers…”

“Let me take a look at them, son. Please.”

Joe was right. His arm was fine but his index and middle fingers were very obviously at least dislocated if not actually outright broken. They were already stiff and swollen to twice their size and he could already see a vivid purple bruise appearing there. Ben sighed. “We’re going to have to stop at Doctor Martin’s now, Joseph. You need to get these splinted. What on earth were you doing to hurt yourself this way?”

Joe gulped down the tears of pain that were still trying to break loose. “Nothin’. Honest, Pa, I wasn’t doin’ nothin’ but walking along here and I- I musta tripped on a root or somethin’. I tried to catch myself but I landed in the water.”

Only his youngest son. Ben shook his head in fond exasperation and helped Joe to stand, brushing the boy’s dusty clothes off. “I swear, Joseph,” he told him tiredly, “you’re the only boy I know who can hurt himself just by walking.”

~/~/~/~/~

“Pa, I can’t do it! It’s too hard!”

Joe’s voice had recently started to change a bit—his tone shifted into an octave higher than usual as he glared up in frustration at his towering father.

Ben certainly did seem to tower over him as he stopped himself from pinching the bridge of his nose. “Joseph, I realize it’s more difficult to complete your homework at the moment but it has to be done. Work with your right hand for now.”

“I ain’t gonna!”

“The correct phrasing is ‘I will not’ and you most certainly are going to do your homework, young man! You will not leave this table until it’s completely done, and correctly, and that means you can’t go riding with Hoss this evening until you do!”

Joe’s mouth fell open at the news of this betrayal. “But Pa-!”

“No buts, Joseph! If you won’t work you don’t enjoy the free time afterwards. Now, get started.” Without waiting for a reply he turned and left the dining room where Joe sat at the table and stepped outside onto the porch just as Adam rode up.

“Afternoon, Pa.”

“Hello, son. Everything running well at the mill?”

Adam nodded with a pleased grin. He had been home from college for only two months but he was satisfied with the fact that his father clearly still trusted him with the responsibility of the importance of the Ponderosa’s latest mill. “Couldn’t be better, Pa.” His expression sobered when seeing his father’s distracted nod. “Doesn’t seem to be the same with you, though. What’s wrong?”

Ben sighed. “Oh, your brother.”

Adam frowned, glancing at the closed front door. “What’s the kid done now?” His tone clearly conveyed his growing impatience with Little Joe’s attitude. His youngest brother had certainly kept Ben on his toes as a six-year-old but there was a tiredness to Ben now that the ten-year-old Joe’s growing rebellion was causing.

Ben finally gave in to temptation and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I went to speak to Ms. Madine about Little Joe’s declining performance at school and it turned into the usual debate.”

Adam rolled his eyes, well aware of that particular battle. “I’m sure it did as much good as the last two with her have.”

“Probably so. While I was inside the school Joe wandered over to the creek and ended up falling and hurting his left hand. One broken finger, one badly dislocated. He’s trying to use the excuse that he can’t complete his homework since he can’t use his left hand.”

Adam’s mouth thinned. “I’ll go talk to him. Maybe I can show him it’s still possible to write with your other hand.” The door clicked softly shut behind him as he went inside leaving Ben to lean tiredly against the post beside him. Five minutes later he heard Little Joe’s voice raised in a shout and then a door slammed shut. Alarmed he headed inside to find Adam fuming at the table with Joe’s homework papers strewn half-hazardly around the floor.

“What on earth happened, Adam?”

Adam glared angrily up at him. “Little Joe being an immature child, as usual,” he grated out. “I tried to show him how to use his right hand comfortably and he had the gall to tell me that that I was laughing at his situation. He told me he didn’t need help and stormed up to his room.”

Ben’s temper rose. “That’s it,” he growled, stomping up the stairs. Little Joe had already disobeyed his instructions to remain at the table and now he was fighting with his older brother with no provocation. Hopefully a grounding and the threat of a tanning would set his youngest straight again.

Ten minutes later he was pouring himself a cup of coffee in the kitchen and wishing it was something stronger when he and Adam heard the sound of another rider in the yard. A horse nickered and the front door opened to reveal Ben’s middle son Hoss.

“‘Lo, Pa,” he said cheerfully, taking off his large hat.

“Hello, Hoss.” Ben managed a smile in his direction, trying to hide his irritation. Hoss, however, was curiously able to immediately sense the atmosphere in the room and his wide gap-toothed grin faltered slightly with confusion.

“Everythin’ alright?”

“It’s Little Joe.” Adam took to explaining their pa’s mood so that Ben wouldn’t work himself up again. “He’s hurt his left hand and now he’s trying to get out of finishing his schoolwork by saying he can’t use his right.”

Hoss frowned. “Well, we outta believe him, shouldn’t we?” he asked, half-jesting. “After all, we cin barely read what he’s wrote even with his left hand.”

Ben shook his head. “That doesn’t matter. What matters is your brother is refusing to obey what I’ve told him. Your ride this afternoon is going to have to wait until next week, Hoss.”

Hoss knew not to fight against his father’s authority but it was clear he didn’t side with Ben’s decision. He held Little Joe in a very special place in his heart. He simply nodded. “I’ll go and talk to him.”

“Hoss—”

‘Just for a mo’, Pa. Ya know how he gits—let him rant some steam off. Otherwise he’ll jus’ bottle it all up down deep and explode when we least expects it.” He was already heading up the steps and knocking on his brother’s closed door. Adam shook his head in silent disagreement of Hoss’s actions, but Ben was thoughtful as he pondered the truth of his middle son’s statements of Little Joe’s temper.

Thirty minutes passed before Hoss descended the stairs again. He said nothing at first to Ben or Adam but both of the latter could clearly see the troubled frown on his round face. He joined them at the table. “That boy’s a right mess,” he finally blurted out, fingering the tablecloth.

“We already know that, Hoss,” Adam said shortly. “Little Joe’s attitude has been getting worse for weeks—”

“Nah, I don’ mean that, older brother.”

Ben leaned forward. “What do you mean, son?” When Little Joe was angry or upset with Ben it was always Hoss he turned to, and his middle son had a knack for seeing the boy’s so called ‘dilemmas’ differently but mostly correctly.

Hoss’s frown deepened. “Well, Pa, it’s got me wonderin’,” he began thoughtfully, “if anyone’s been talkin’ to Little Joe face-to-face about his bein’ left-handed. Y’know, tellin’ him it’s evil.”

“What?”

“‘Cause he asked me just now, Pa. He looked ’bout ready ta cry and I barely heard the words but he said ’em: ‘Is bein’ left-handed a mark of the Devil?'”

“What? No, of course not, you know we’ve always been careful to keep Joseph away from that sort of talk—”

“What about the kids at school?” Adam questioned softly. His own frustration at Little Joe’s behavior was temporarily forgotten in the light of Hoss’s news. He hated the bigotry of superstition badly. “You know how cruel they’ve been to him already about his size, maybe they’ve overheard their parents talking about it.”

Ben’s mouth thinned. “I suppose that’s a possibility.”

Hoss was looking at one of Joe’s discarded papers from when the boy had been attempting to use his right hand. His head turned from left to right, then right to left. “Is that supposed ta be his name?”

Ben sighed again. “Yes. He must have spent five minutes attempting to write it.”

“Chapter 2”

~/~/~/~/~

Little Joe was very nearly tempted to skip school entirely the following day. It was impossible to hide the heavy splint Doc Martin had wrapped his left hand in and even if his pa didn’t believe it, he knew it: he simply couldn’t use his right hand. The boy was very well aware that his normal handwriting was horrid but that didn’t bother him because Joe could read it and that was all that mattered. But using his right hand was another matter; he couldn’t write what he’d written. Why did he have to present that to the other students in the class?

As much as he wanted to skip, however, he could easily recall the sting of his father’s belt against his pants and knew he would be risking a worse tanning if Pa ever found out. So he went to school and gritted his teeth against the curious looks his way and the snickers of his classmates as they noticed his appalling handwriting.

Ms. Madine was visibly pleased at his predicament even though she spoke nothing of it aloud. She had already threatened to tie his left hand behind his back to force him to use his right three times this year. Little Joe smirked to himself. Let her be happy for now; when he turned in his homework she wouldn’t be smiling then.

Adam came to pick him up at the end of the day, a fact that further rankled him. It was part of his punishment, Pa had told him last night. For two weeks one of his family would be there to ride home with him. He mounted Drifter with a sullen greeting flung in his older brother’s direction, missing Adam’s look of irritation as he did so.

Struggling to keep a level tongue around Little Joe, Adam urged his horse down the road towards the Ponderosa. The streets of Virginia City were busy with the afternoon rush of families and children and it was always slow going. They often had to stop for those on foot.

Near the edge of town Adam abruptly realized that Little Joe had stopped his pony and was several paces behind him. His patience already wearing thin Adam turned to snap at his brother to get a move on—and the words died in his throat.

Joe was staring at the porch of one of the houses, white-faced. Confused, Adam glanced in the same direction and saw an older, grizzled man standing in the doorway with a rifle but when he did a double take no one was there. Troubled and taken aback, he rode up to his brother.

“Joe, we need to get going.”

His brother jumped. ‘What?”

Adam frowned. “I said we need to get going. Pa expects us to finish our chores before dinner.” Little Joe’s attention was still elsewhere. “Hey, what’s the matter with you, kid? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

The boy shook himself. “Ain’t nothin’, Adam. I’m fine.”

His left hand was protectively curled against his stomach and his gaze was still unsettled as he glanced at the porch again. Suspicion started to grow. “Little Joe, was there a man on that porch just now? Do you know him?”

“It’s just my hand, Adam, honest! It twinges sometimes.”

It would have been a believable lie, the older brother reflected, if it hadn’t been blurted out so quickly. Nor did Little Joe meet his gaze when he said it. Adam looked back at the house, trying to picture the stranger. He hadn’t gotten a good enough look but he abruptly remembered Hoss’s words from last night. “Joe,” he began slowly, “if somebody is bothering you—”

“There’s nobody botherin’ me ‘cept you, older brother,” Little Joe snapped irritably, the porch and the man forgotten for the moment. “Are we headin’ home now or what?” He kicked his pony into a brisk trot, leaving Adam to clench his jaw in frustration. That kid surely knew how to test his patience. In his renewed irritation he forgot about the mysterious old man entirely, not to realize what a mistake that was until it was far too late.

~/~/~/~/~

It was nearly three weeks before Paul Martin deemed it all right to take the splint off Little Joe’s hand. “You’re a lucky boy,” the doctor told his antsy patient with a grin. “Children spring back from broken bones quickly.”

‘So I can use my left hand again now to do everything?” The question was asked with so much hope that Paul was sorry to mildly disappoint him.

“Not quite yet, Little Joe. Your finger’s healed but you haven’t used that hand for quite some time. You’ll need to strengthen it so you don’t strain the muscle.”

“Oh.” Thoroughly disappointed, Little Joe looked down at his feet where they hung so far off the floor. Standing beside him Ben stifled a grin. Then the boy looked back up. “Doc?”

“Yes, Little Joe?”

The boy’s feet knocked together in a rare moment of self-consciousness. “Why are some folk born usin’ their right hand and some ain’t? Is there somethin’ wrong with me since I use my left?”

Ben’s mouth opened in dismay hearing his son’s last question. He shared a quick, concerned glance with Paul before the doctor replied carefully. “Well, Joe, I can’t say for certain what makes some use one hand and others the opposite. It’s just- nature, I suppose. You’re not the first southpaw I’ve met.”

“South—what?”

Ben answered. “Southpaw. It’s another word for someone who uses their left hand.”

“Exactly. But like I said, I’ve met others who like that and they’re as normal as you and me. I suppose only the Good Lord knows exactly why some of us use different hands.”

“Oh,” Little Joe said again. He looked serious for a long moment, much more so than normal, then abruptly he nodded as he decided the doc’s words made sense. “Thanks, Doc. I hope I don’t have to come back.”

“Joseph!” Ben exclaimed, but his rebuke was lost in Paul’s laughter as the boy slid off the table and walked towards the door.

“I certainly don’t envy your pa, Little Joe,” the doctor chuckled, “keeping up with a scamp like you.” He said his goodbyes to Ben and shut the door of his office behind them, still laughing to himself.

On the ride home in the buckboard, Ben sat quietly in the driver’s seat for a long time, troubled by his son’s questions for the doctor. “Joseph.”

The boy looked up at him. “Yeah, Pa?”

“Has there been anyone who has been talking about you using your left hand? Has there been anyone who’s said that there’s something wrong with you?”

Little Joe looked down, listlessly kicking at the panel. “I’ve been hearin’ stuff,” he muttered. “Not by no one I know, just whispers sometimes. Sayin’ it ain’t right to be a- a ‘southpaw’.” His tongue tripped slightly over the still unfamiliar word.

To hear his son’s confusion broke Ben’s heart. ‘Oh, Marie,’ he thought to his wife, ‘help me give him the strength to overcome this senseless bigotry.’ He looked back down at Little Joe. “Joseph, I want you to listen to me. You have nothing to be ashamed for just because you use your left hand. It doesn’t make you unwell, or wrong, or a child of the Devil.”

Joe glanced at him sharply. “Hoss told you ’bout that, huh? Shoulda known.”

“I’m glad he did. Anyone who tries to tell you that being a southpaw is a mark of the Devil have no idea what they’re talking about.”

“But—”

“No buts, Joseph. The Devil may be able to interfere sometimes in our lives but it was the Lord that made us all while we were in our mother’s womb. Yes?”

Little Joe nodded, his brow creasing in his confusion as he tried to guess the direction of his pa’s words. “Yes, Pa.”

Ben softened the lecture with a small smile. His son didn’t know that only a few days ago he had attempted to use his left hand to write something when he was by himself. The attempt did not turn out very well, the words shaken and barely discernable. “Now, if the Good Lord was the one who created you, that means He decided to let you use your left hand. Right?”

“Yeah.”

“And the Lord’s ways are always good. So if the Lord decided to let you use your left hand, could His decision also be from the Devil?”

The point clicked. Little Joe’s eyes lit with understanding and Ben finally saw his son’s sunny smile. “It couldn’t be.”

The satisfied father ruffled Joe’s unruly curls, smiling himself. “Don’t ever forget that, son.”

~/~/~/~/~

It was raining on the evening everything fell apart at the Ponderosa. It had been a quiet day for the most part; being a Saturday both Adam and Hoss had headed out to check fence while Ben finished with the books. Little Joe had been given a list of chores to do and finishing them he had begged his pa to let him join his brothers and help them. He had practically skipped out the door in his excitement of being allowed even when it was raining and had promised Ben he would be careful.

Four hours later, Adam and Hoss came to the ranch house to tell their father that Little Joe had never made it to them. An hour after that Drifter wandered back into the yard without her rider. Frightened for his son Ben rode out in the darkening evening as the rain slowed to a drizzle for the first time since it had started. Adam and Hoss followed closely behind him but they searched for hours and still they found nothing. Not even tracks remained.

Little Joe had vanished seemingly into thin air. The Cartwrights had no leads nor clues to act upon. Night enveloped them and stopped their search, and the rain continued to fall.

~/~/~/~/~

‘Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
To help me on to God?’

It was a thin, reedy voice that sang the words that slowly brought Little Joe back to awareness. It was a voice with a tone he didn’t like, a roughness that sent a chill down his back. Then he realized that the world wasn’t simply swaying because his head was pounding and he felt like he needed to be sick.

“Hey! Let me go!”

He was slung like an unimportant sack of grain over the back of a nag. Rope bound his hands and tied him securely to the saddle that smelled of sweat and wet horse.

‘Onward Christian soldiers
Marching as to war…’

“Hey!”

His captor continued to ignore him. Even craning his neck as far as he could, Little Joe wasn’t able to catch sight of the man calmly leading the horse, able only to hear the scraping of worn soles on the rocky path intermingling with the plodding of hooves. Straining to find purchase to at least raise his head away from the overwhelming stench of a wet horse, the boy found he couldn’t even do that.

And still that man’s reedy voice continued singing.

The swaying of the horse proved too much for his roiling stomach; Little Joe retched into the grass beside the trail. With his head still pounding painfully he slipped away into oblivion again.

“Chapter 3”

The boy had put up a good fight, he had to admit that. For such a scrawny ten-year-old he had a lot of strength, and a lot of gumption. He had seen such fire in many a wild stallion before he broke them.

The Good Lord had created the lesser to be ruled.

A child so far adrift from the Lord’s ways was included in that. He would show this child of the Devil the true path to enlightenment and freedom. No one else was qualified to do so.

He would be the savior of this untamed boy.

~/~/~/~/~

The next time Little Joe managed to wake up his head felt less heavy and his stomach wasn’t as upset, but his throat was dry and scratchy and his clothes were damp from the rain that had been falling. He was still tied facedown over the back of that dadburned horse, his nostrils filled with the scent of its hair and his curls dangling into his eyes.

The sun was shining now, its heat welcome after too much chill, but from his vantage point Little Joe quickly realized that they were headed towards the desert and were far from the Ponderosa’s border. They were far even from Virginia City at this point, away from help and away from the family who he knew right now must be missing him. Poor Adam and Hoss hadn’t even known he was riding out to meet them, and his pa…

“Pa,” he groaned, squeezing his eyes shut against the sudden urge to cry. “Pa.”

“Your pa isn’t here, boy,” his captor said, having overheard his weak pleas, “and he isn’t going to be here. You’re mine to deal with now.”

Joe’s blood ran cold as he realized as he knew that voice; his still-tender left hand throbbed with remembered pain. “You ain’t gotta right to take me anywhere!” he shouted—or tried to shout, anyway, his throat was too dry to make better than a croak. “Take me back!”

“There’s nothing but heathenish belief and acts with your household, boy. I’ve rescued you to give you the chance to escape the Devil’s clutches.”

What the heck was the old man ranting about? The boy felt fear settle in his stomach as he realized anew what had been already obvious—this stranger, whoever he was, was like mercury, his moods swinging madly every so often; sometimes gentle, understanding… then at others his anger made him dangerous.

Little Joe needed only to remember the middle finger of his left hand snapping like a twig to know that.

“Please,” he choked out, trying to keep his voice from trembling. “Please, just let me go back.”

The horse stopped, drawing a gasp of relief from the haggard boy, and the old man stepped into view. Tall and thin with wispy hair and a fluttery beard he was deceptively frail-looking but Little Joe knew that his hands, at least, held astonishing strength. His blue eyes, a shade which the boy had never seen before, were cold and flinty. “I won’t let you go, boy. Not when I know that you’ll only go back to that heathenish household. I’d told you once not to continue using the Devil’s hand, didn’t I?”

Joe’s hand twinged again. He hadn’t entirely understood this peculiar man’s rants on the day out by the creek beside the schoolhouse and right now was in no particular mood to do so now, either. “I couldn’t use my left hand for three weeks ’cause of you,” he retorted. “I’d say I followed your orders pretty well.”

The old man grabbed hold of his left hand again, jerking it upwards. Joe groaned at the ache that the new position sent shivering down his back. “But you began using it again just as quickly! The Lord made man to use his right hand—to use the other is the greatest sin and is of the Devil, boy!”

“I was usin’ my left hand since I was little,” Joe protested. “How did the Devil have a say in that?”

The old man shook him roughly. “We are all born in sin, boy. It is up to your elders to teach you the ways of the Lord and lead you away from Satan. Your father has no true respect for His Words if he allows you to use the Devil’s hand.”

“My pa is a wise man!” Little Joe protested furiously. “He don’t hold to any stupid beliefs that ain’t even in the Bible!”

“Your pa is misled and a lost soul. I will lead you to the path of perfect righteousness and if that means breaking your fingers again I’ll do it.” The slightest pressure bent back the boy’s finger right where it was still tender, and Little joe struggled to swallow down a cry of pain. His eyes filled with tears as he tried to jerk his hand away.

“Don’t! Please!”

Remarkably the plea gave the old man pause, a peculiarly blank expression sliding over his face as he met the boy’s green eyes. Dimly the old man remembered a young voice asking the same thing, the little girl’s voice raised on a sob, and he felt his stomach twist recalling the confusion and betrayal in her tepid eyes.

He let go of the boy’s hand as if scalded, the vision of the little girl gone but by no means forgotten. She would be back to haunt him again as she often did.

~/~/~/~/~

“The old man? Sure I know him.” Nonplussed by the three anxious and angry faces gazing back at him, pale-haired Ronny Stewart spat into the dust by his feet and hid his confusion behind a squint. “Been livin’ up in that there ol’ house fer seven months now. Bit o’ a recluse, ya know?”

“What is his name?” Ben Cartwright fought to keep his temper from fraying and was only partly successful. A deep breath barely helped.

“Calls hisself Walt. Walt Sears. Ornery ol’ cuss if I ever met one an’ not in a good way, neither. Always yammerin’ on anyone who’d so much as curse or drink, spoutin’ off scripture like he was the preacher!”

Ben’s stomach tightened. “Where is he? I’d like to speak to him.”

But Ronny shook his head. “Ain’t here.”

“Where did he go?”

“Ain’t none o’ my business, izzit, mister? He lit outta here two days ago on that ol’ nag o’ his and he ain’t back yet. Me an’ the boys, though, we ain’t missin’ him, that’s fer dang sure…”

“Thank you,” Ben interrupted coldly and without waiting for a reply he turned and left the porch with his two eldest sons close behind him. Ronny shrugged to himself and spat into the dirt again. “We’ll go and talk to Roy,” Ben decided aloud. “See if he’s got any new leads for us to follow.”

“I should have realized something was wrong that day when Little Joe stopped his horse beside that old man’s house,” Adam said, angry with himself for being so lax in remembering details. “I knew then that something was wrong but I just brushed it off.”

“Blaming yourself isn’t going to help any of us, Adam,” his father admonished him gently. “Focus on getting your brother back safely.” He opened the door to Virginia City’s jail and stepped inside. “Roy?”

“Howdy, Ben. Boys.” Roy Coffee sat at his desk amidst a small pile of wanted posters and telegrams, one of which he held in his hands with a troubled frown.

Ben leaned against the desk, his eyes lit with worry and hope that the sheriff had found some new information. “Please tell me that there’s something you’ve found that will lead us to Joseph.”

Roy sighed wearily. “No, I’m afraid not, Ben. Whatever tracks the boy and his captor may have left have all disappeared. I take it you haven’t found anything, either.”

“We may’ve found a suspect, sheriff,” Hoss spoke up. “A feller called Walt Sears.”

Roy straightened, his frown twisting with surprise. “Well, now, that mighty peculiar namin’ him, Hoss.” Before any of the Cartwrights could demand what he meant from that he waved the telegram in his hands. “Sears has been givin’ me trouble for weeks now. Had to arrest him a few times for disorderly conduct. Even tol’ the reverend that he wasn’t preachin’ right. I did me a little pokin’ round to see about the old drifter and I got a bit to read back.” He handed the paper over.

Ben finished reading the telegram first. “Ohio?” he demanded. “He’s from Ohio?”

“Pa?” Adam asked carefully. “What’s so surprising about that?”

“Yeah, Pa, I’m not sure why how his home state’s got anythin’ ta do with this,” Hoss agreed.

Ben set the telegram down, troubled. “It’s relevant, son. See, the Sears’ family is well known in Ohio. There’s a branch of the family who lived near enough to my father’s homestead to know what they were like. I wasn’t expecting any of the Sears family to travel all the way out here.”

“Well, what are they like, Pa?” Hoss demanded impatiently. Even Roy was leaning over in interest.

“Rough. Most are settled in the Appalachian Mountains in upper Virginia, and they’re mostly mountain men. Gritty and tough, my father used to say, but half of them are drunks. They married with the Cheyanne Indians out that way. If it was a Sears who took Joseph…”

“Now, we don’t know that for sure, Ben,” Roy cut in, trying to settle his friend before he could work himself up. “We’ll follow up this lead but it may not be who we’re looking for at all.”

“I hope so,” Ben said tightly, “because the Sears family is not one to be tangled with lightly.”

“Chapter 4”

The Cartwrights had searched every available direction that was possible in three days’ time and there was still no sign of either Little Joe nor of the mysterious Walter Sears. The storms of a few days ago had long since passed and thoroughly erased any signs of where the child and his captor could have gone.

It was Sunday, the Lord’s day, but for the first time in a very long time Ben Cartwright was too anxious to listen to the reverend’s sermon in church. He prayed only for his little boy’s safety—if that made him a poor Christian he would feel badly about it at a later time. He just wanted Joseph sitting beside him in the pew no matter how fidgety the boy could become in his boredom.

The only promising thing about the situation, no matter how morbid the thought was, was the fact that they had not yet discovered a body. That alone gave Ben hope that Little Joe was still alive.

But the fact that there was no ransom note, nor of any hint at all as to why the boy had been taken in the first place, was disconcerting. There was no wish for money, no notes declaring twisted retribution. It was as if Little Joe had merely run away on his own, but that was one possibility that Ben knew in his bones was not why his youngest son was gone. No, he had been kidnapped for only God knew what and Ben was determined to find Little Joe and bring him home safely.

It was difficult for the family of three that still remained at the Ponderosa. Adam wrestled with a sense of guilt that he had not tried harder to discover why his kid brother had seemed so nonplussed by the old man standing on the porch all those days ago; Ben had tried to console him but he was still angry with himself that he had allowed Joe to irritate him past the point of even wanting to confront him. Thinking about it Adam had wondered if perhaps it had been Sears who had broken Little Joe’s fingers. He didn’t need to talk with his father about that to know that Ben suspected the same thing, and the Cartwrights wanted the old man arrested and punished for that one simple fact.

No one hurt one of their own and got away with it. No man should be cowardly enough to hurt a ten year old child.

Ben didn’t sleep. At night the two brothers could hear him pacing downstairs and occasionally hear the scraping of a chair on the floor, and there was once or twice when Adam could hear his door creak open as his father looked in. It was the first time Ben checked up on his sons to see that the ones remaining were safe, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last as the years passed. Hoss, though only sixteen, had a natural aptitude towards tracking and frequently asked Ben for permission to go out and look for clues that could help lead them towards his missing brother.

“I’ll go with Hoss this time, Pa,” Adam spoke up the fourth morning this occurred. Ben had all times before refused to allow Hoss to look, stating that their searches would be done together or not at all, and now Adam hoped to put some weight in favor of going. Little Joe had been gone too long now— they had to find him soon. “You know how Hoss is, you know. All this worrying is going to wear him into a shadow if he keeps it up.”

“That’s right, Pa,” Hoss agreed (only partly joking). “I’m liable to jest start faintin’ now I’m worryin’ away so much. We’ll find Little Joe. We jest gotta.”

It was his middle son’s optimism that broke through Ben’s stubbornness. Hoss was the last to ever lose hope, and where both Ben and Adam had been doggedly ignoring the possibilities of Little Joe being lost to them forever, Hoss looked instead at the knowledge that his kid brother would be found safe and unharmed. There could be no other outcome.

“All right, son,” Ben finally caved beneath both Adam’s and Hoss’s gazes. “I’ll ride into Virginia City and see if Roy came up with anything. Just- be careful.”

~/~/~/~/~

To Adam’s surprise, Hoss chose not to check along the Ponderosa’s borders or in the direction of the Indian’s grounds. He simply stated that those areas had already been perused and that they needed to think like a man who had just kidnapped a child. He turned his horse’s head towards the direction of the desert.

“The desert? Hoss, I can’t see why an old man would take a kid out there, it’s hard enough for a healthy man to survive—”

“That may be true, Big Brother,” Hoss said as he rode, “but if it was Sears who hurt Little Joe before he oughta know that our little brother is slippery as an eel when he wants ta be. I don’t think that the old man woulda taken the kid along the woods where it’s easier ta lose someone in. And we both know that Little Joe will have tried to get away.”

“True,” Adam admitted reluctantly. His brother’s words were working on him now, though, and his careful mind sifted through the possibilities that were born because of them. Hoss’s instincts for Joe were uncanny sometimes, nearly as in-tune as Pa’s were, and he was right— Little Joe would have tried to get away from his captive the first chance he could seize. “The desert would make sure that Joe was dependent on him,” he thought aloud. “No food, no water— only the things Sears would have brought along to begin with. Take him out far enough in the desert and Joe would have to do whatever Sears wanted him to in order to survive. No more attempts to escape.”

“And Joe don’t know the desert all that well,” Hoss interjected, pleased that Adam had caught on to his thinking. Clever old Adam. “He wouldn’t know the way back home no how even if he did manage to give the old man the slip— least ways not in the time it would take to get back.”

“And Roy and the posse didn’t check out there,” his older brother added, warming up to the subject. Sense was falling into place piece by piece. “Maybe Joe’s captor was counting on that.” He made a conscious attempt to stop himself from labelling Walter Sears as Little Joe’s kidnapper— there was still no conclusive evidence to actually label the old man as guilty, and the founding fathers had purposely stated that any man was innocent until proven otherwise. He had remind himself that anger served no purpose when there was no known target for it yet.

It was harder than he thought it would be.

“They never found any evidence that Joe was in those ares.” The final piece of knowledge fell between the two brothers as they rode along, hanging there like a sign. The desert, Adam decided, never seemed so far away in his life.

They rode for nearly six hours, making their way steadily lower and lower out of the Ponderosa’s trees and out of the mountains entirely. Finally the wide expanse of sun-bleached sand spread out beyond them, hot and unforgiving, and Hoss and Adam glanced at each other nervously.

“Where could they have gone for shelter?” Adam questioned aloud. “There aren’t any cabins or the like on this side of the desert.”

“Then we’ll look on the other side,” Hoss replied with dogged determination. “Little Joe didn’t jest disappear offa the face of the earth, Big Brother. He’s here and we’ll find him. C’mon.”

Hoss’s determination proved to be in their favor. As the sun finished its rise and started its descent for the afternoon, Adam let out a sudden shout of surprise. Over a slight ridge nearer the edge of the desert than in it he spotted a disturbance in the sand, the evidence of a scuffle spread out before him and on a cactus that stood sentinel above it all he grabbed a long strip of soft blue jacket from its spines.

“Hoss!” he cried. His heart was beating frantically in his chest as his brother hastily dismounted beside him, and he heard Hoss’s sharp intake of breath when the latter caught sight of what Adam held.

“He’s out there, Adam. He’s out there!” There was a mix of excitement and nervousness in his voice as he latched even more securely upon the fact that at last they had some evidence that Little Joe was close by somewhere. It took everything Hoss had not to mount back up and ride like mad farther out into the desolate sand but common sense prevailed. He and Adam had not packed enough supplies to make a long trip into the desert and their canteens were low on water anyway. And he knew, too, that Ben would want to be with them when they found their brother.

“If that old man has hurt little Joe…” he growled, but he left the threat unfinished hanging in the air.

Adam didn’t need to hear it completed anyway. He swallowed down his own anger and fear seeing the torn jacket and instead focused on the simple fact that there was no blood on the cloth he held. Hopefully their kid brother had done exactly as Hoss had hoped and had chosen to leave part of his jacket behind to leave as a marker for anyone following behind.

“Smart, kid,” he whispered to himself, knowing in his heart that that was what had happened exactly. “Hold on, Little Joe. We’re coming.”

~/~/~/~/~

If Joe Cartwright could have heard Adam’s words, he would have been tempted to reply with something sarcastic, but he would have nonetheless then heart from them. He loved his oldest brother— even though ever since Adam had come home from college and they hadn’t been getting along real well recently, it still stood that Little Joe couldn’t imagine a life without Adam there. As much as they fought and bickered and his oldest brother criticized his actions, all Joe needed to do was imagine Adam injured or even dead and the horror of those thoughts would successfully banish his anger before it could deeply root itself.

Yes, he loved Adam, and he would have ultimately chosen to love the words Adam had spoken aloud if only he could have heard them.

The old man had led the sway-backed nag farther and farther into the desert, along a route the boy was not familiar with, and had finally stopped when reaching a small outcropping of rocks nestled below a cliff, housing a small, rundown cabin that seemed to blend into the surrounding land. Sun-bleached wood shone a dirty grey and seemed to lean awkwardly on three of its corners where one of the cornerstones had worn away.

The door was heavily bolted from the inside by rusted locks that screeched in protest as Sears drove them home. He had deposited the boy roughly into a corner of the small, dusty cabin, sure that Joe wouldn’t be able to get up to run anywhere.

Joe’s hands ached and throbbed painfully from the punishment he had inflicted upon himself. It had been his decision to fall of the nag when he did, directly in front of that cactus, and although he had been successful in leaving a flap of his jacket sleeve latched onto its lower spines (luckily at an angle Sears in his anger missed) he had managed to impale several of them in his palms at the same time. Pulling them out had not been easy and it had been painful, and Sears refused to use any of the water he had to wash off the blood from Little Joe’s hands. He had been sure that the old man was going to tan him good when Sears hauled him upright from the sand, and had nearly shrunk away when the old man’s voice rose spouting off some Scripture about boys obeying the laws of those the Lord placed above the lesser, and respecting those older than themselves.

He would have liked it better if Sears had started cursing instead. He didn’t know if he would ever be able to listen to another sermon in church after this.

“This is the Lord’s day, boy,” Sears told him shortly as he turned from the door. His grey hair sat crazily about his head and his blue eyes were cold with warning as he looked at the boy. Little Joe wondered if there was a warm bone in the old man’s body at all. “You will observe it. You will respect it. You will not give in to any of your heathenish ways while in this cabin. When you see the sun again you will have learned to let go of the Devil in your soul and embrace the Lord. You will no longer have the mark of Satan.”

“I never had it!” Little Joe exclaimed for what seemed to be the hundredth time. His fear and frustration rose for every response to Sears’s rants but he couldn’t keep silent in the face of such blatant hatred of what Joe’s own father said was innocent. What did it matter if he was left-handed? Was one hand really that much more important than the other? If God really was a merciful, just God, then how could He form someone already evil? It was illogical to believe the use of one hand over another was evil, and Little Joe realized what Ben had been trying to tell him.

He didn’t suppose that Sears would be willing to listen to reason, though. Like administering medicine to the dead. Little Joe couldn’t remember who had written those words but they suddenly seemed very appropriate for the trouble he found himself in.

His thoughts turned briefly to his father, wishing Ben was there to protect him from this madman’s ravings, but then he thought again about what Ben had told him before. God was in control.

Little Joe didn’t have the faith that Ben Cartwright did, but at that moment he prayed that the Lord would be with him in this cabin until Joe’s father could arrive.

“Chapter 5”

There was fire in the distance, small, flickering flames that danced in the wind blowing hard and teased the waiting man’s unsteady eyesight. Voices called and shouted, loud and angry, and his work-roughened fingers tightened compulsively around the handle of his rifle. The chair he sat upon was hard and uncomfortable. Sweat sickened his palms.

He lifted the rifle when the man in front of the mob stepped forward into view— Harry Styles, his kindly face now dark with fury. “Walt Sears!” he called, his voice echoing like a cannon shot in the chill autumn air. “Walt, I warned you once, dind’t I? I done told you and you didn’t listen! Listen, Walt— I got a rope here with me, and now I plan ta hang you!”

The rifle spilt the air in answer, its ear-splitting boom enough to stop the small mob in its tracks.

Styles, however, didn’t back down. “You’re drunk, Walt!” he said loudly. “That shot wouldn’t have hit your house if you’d tried. You’re gonna pass out where you’re sittin’— and when you do—” he motioned roughly to a tall, bare tree standing in the shadows of the deepening twilight, “I’m gonna hang you from that same tree there.”

His hands were shaking where they gripped the handle of the rifle; the alcohol dulling his senses wasn’t enough to dispel the fear of the encroaching mob. Vaguely he remembered Harry’s voice threatening him several weeks back but repenting to said man was far too late now.

He was going to die.

But he was born of the hardy Sears’ stock, the meanest and orneriest of his generation; he wasn’t going to go quietly if he had anything to do about it. His only answer was to heft the gun more securely against his shoulder, looking down its sights at Styles’ cold, furious eyes. But his vision was blurring and his stomach was roiling, and it wouldn’t be very long before he was overwhelmed.

~/~/~/~/~

The shuddering and groaning of wood woke Walt Sears from restless dreams, confusing him momentarily as he struggled to reassure himself of the fact that he was no longer faced with that mob or the vengeful Harry Styles. Moonlight, dusty and strained from the dirt caked on the window, splashed across the small cabin’s dirty floor and fell across the old man’s legs. The barrel of his rifle glinted coldly where he had set it in his lap.

That rifle, his only companion when the mob had come for him. His wife and sons had run from the house and hidden as Harry Styles waited for him to pass out from too much drink. It hadn’t been any of Harry’s business, what Walt had done to his wife in his own household, but he’d appointed himself both judge and executioner that night as he led the mob to the Sears’s little rundown cabin in the woods in Ohio.

Harry Styles would surely be Judged himself for his actions that night.

Curled up in the farthest corner away from his reach, the boy— Joe Cartwright, he reminded himself— was caught up in his own uneasy dreams. His hands were tied in front of him and the chill night air was making him shiver where he lay. His palms, Walt noticed, were dark with dried blood. Walt had been taken aback by the boy’s tenacious stubbornness and his sheer will, facts only compounded by his earlier attempt to escape. The boy had had no way of escaping from Walt while in the desert but still he had attempted to.

The torn jacket and bloody hands were the boy’s punishment for disobeying. He wasn’t entirely sure that he had learned his lesson; there was still a sharp defiance in the boy’s eyes that warned the old man of further troubles.

Just like the look that Walt’s eldest son had given him the night a father’s sons had turned on him.

He would have to show the unruly child who it was he depended on. Maybe Walt would force him outside without water for a couple of hours when the sun rose. The thought was satisfying in a way. The boy would have to come to respect him eventually, if only because he feared Walt.

Respect.

It was all a man like Walt Sears wanted. To be respected. He had turned his back on all things sinful, had he not? He’d renounced his old way of living and started a new path under the ways of the Lord and was bringing order and salvation wherever he went. It wasn’t his fault that those around him continued to sin; those wicked jezebels, his nieces who so gleefully sullied themselves with dirty unsaved men, and those drunkards who knew no other road but continued to walk towards their own Hell. They were the ones who needed saving now.

And this boy. Raised with a heathenish father who allowed his child to write with the Devil’s hand. It was not, ultimately, this boy’s fault for his lack of salvation. It was the father’s.

But of course Ben Cartwright would not listen to a man like Walt. He’d known that from the very beginning and so he had been careful to stay out of the man’s way. Men like Cartwright were swelled with their own pomposity, deaf to God’s true Word, and he was sure the rich rancher would bluster and become angry if Sears told him that he truly didn’t know God.

For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

He had instead focused on speaking with the youngest son, this left-handed abomination, and he’d put the fear of the Lord in him. Breaking the boy’s fingers had been relatively easy when he thought back to the mistakes he had made in the past.

But still the boy continued to use his left hand. And it was all because of the father.

Oh, to be able to have words with Ben Cartwright!

But he would be able to, soon. After he had broken the boy of his heathenish, unsaved ways Walt would bring him back to Ben Cartwright and show the man his faults.

It would be Walter Sears, after all, who would save this boy’s soul in the end.

~/~/~/~/~

Ben finished tightening the cinch on Buck’s saddle just before Adam walked into the barn. His oldest son was fully dressed complete with his gun tied to his leg and his hat on his head, and the cool look on his eyes let his father know he knew what Ben had been planning to do. He stopped on the other side of Buck and looked over the saddle at him.

“You know, sneaking out before it’s light out isn’t very nice of you.”

“Go back inside, Adam.” Ben moved around to the buckskin’s mouth to make sure the bit hadn’t slipped and sent a stern look his son’s direction. “I’m only going to speak to the sheriff.”

“Yeah, and then you’ll head out to the desert. I saw that look in your eyes last night, Pa, when Hoss and I told you where we’d found that part of Little Joe’s jacket. The only reason you didn’t leave right then and there was because it would be impossible to track well at night.”

“I’m not leaving Joseph out there with that madman any longer. I’m going to find him and I’m going to bring him home.”

“And are you prepared for that, Pa?” Adam countered quietly. “Do you have supplies? Food? Water? Enough for both Little Joe and the old man?” When his father made no reply, he shook his head. “You can’t do this by yourself. It’ll only take Hoss and me a minute to saddle up.”

“Oh no, there’s no way I’m allowing my sons to go out—”

“Joe’s our brother, Pa. We’re not going to wait for you here.”

Sometimes Ben wished Adam hadn’t inherited so much of his tenaciousness. Or learned how to apply logic to a conversation so well. Sighing he impatiently waved for his eldest to go to his waiting horse. “Well, go on, then!”

Hoss came through the open barn door at that moment, carrying the supplies and food and extra water that Adam had just mentioned. With a grunt and a roll of his eyes, Ben wondered how his sons had gotten to know him so well. Without hesitation Hoss walked over to his own gelding and set the bags on a hook while he grabbed a bridle. “Got enough here ta last us a coupla days, Pa.”

How had the boy known Ben was going to lose that argument with Adam? Perplexed and annoyed, Ben sighed and gave in, mounting up. His sons knew him too well— that was how. “If it looks like it’s going to be dangerous out there in that desert, I want you boys to be careful. Especially if we end up finding that old man.”

Hoss grinned to put Ben at ease. “Aw, c’mon, Pa. He’s just a little ol’ man. How dangerous could he be?”

~/~/~/~/~

“You are determined to defy your elders, boy!”

Sears’s shout seemed to rattle the thin dirty window in its place. Dust swirled in the air as the old man slammed a fist down onto the debilitated table. He was severely regretting not following through on his original idea of shoving the boy outside for a couple of hours, but it wasn’t too late to do so.

Curled up in the far corner, rubbing his wrists where they had finally been freed from the ropes, Joe glared up at him hatefully. His hands were sore and his fingers were stiff, and his wrists were painful from rope burn, but instead of cowering from the old man’s powerful voice he found his own temper rising. He was tired, hungry, and still cold from the freezing desert night, and Sears’s ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude was baffling.

“I only respect someone who gives me reason to!” he retorted just as hotly. He knew his pa would give him what-for for being so blunt but his temper, already ferocious for a ten-year-old, was frayed. He didn’t care what was respectful.

He just wanted to go home.

“The Lord demands all to respect those above them. You shame your family by using the hand of the Devil!”

The old man had drawn out a long coil of rope from the saddlebags from the sway-backed nag, preparing to tie Little Joe’s left arm behind his back, and the boy had planted himself firmly on the dirt floor, scrunched in between the wall and the table. So far Sears wasn’t angry enough to move the table away but unease was fizzling down Joe’s spine; he knew it was only a matter of time before his captor reached his breaking point.

Would Sears break his fingers again?

“My family don’t care that I use my left hand! My mama taught me how and I ain’t gonna let you tell me I can’t!” He was tired of being bullied; sick of being judged for something that others were afraid of. He didn’t want to be called ‘backwards’ anymore. He certainly didn’t mind the fact that he wrote with his left hand, so why did everyone else try to tell him he couldn’t?

Sears went oddly quiet— a bad sign, he realized; the old man grew very quiet when he was mad. “It’s unnatural like, boy. Man is made to use the hand God ordained.”

“Doc Martin said there’s nothin’ wrong in me bein’ a- a southpaw.” Again there was the slight hesitancy over the unfamiliar word. But he sloughed on, raising his chin defiantly. “Says there’s plenty of other folk out there who are the same as me.”

“Thou shalt not lie!” Sears roared, his eyes burning with feverish rage. His skin flushed red and his blue eyes glinted darkly. Joe couldn’t help but jump at the sheer power behind the shout. Sears spun sharply on his heel and stalked along the opposite wall, muttering under his breath.

If he was honest, Walt Sears was taken aback by the ferocity of the boy’s shouts; he was quickly growing tired of his stubbornness and the old man was angry over his refusal to learn leaving his heathenish ways. His icy blue eyes seemed to flatten in the light when he abruptly decided that only drastic action would solve the problem of this boy’s salvation. “Very well, boy,” he said softly. “It seems you haven’t learned anything from my earlier attempts to save your soul… and the Lord as my witness knows I’ve tried. Only Satan’s followers refuse salvation, and it is your own actions that are killing you.” Walking over to his saddlebags, he reached into it and pulled out a long knife, one he often used while skinning an animal for meals. Turning back to the boy where he sat in the corner, he stepped forward. “You’re a child of the Devil and that has led to your spiritual death— you will burn in the depths of Hell unless you repent.”

The words were the ranting of a madman, and if Little Joe hadn’t been completely terrified before, he was now. Dread was twisting his gut and making him tremble; for a moment he watched the sun glint off that wicked looking blade, then he scanned the small run-down cabin for any way to escape.

Sears was very nearly on him now. “‘But the sons of Belial shall be all of them thrust away, because they cannot be taken in with hands.'” His soft reedy voice was terrifying in its quietness as he fell again to quoting Scripture, and Little Joe shrunk against the wall. The man’s voice suddenly rose as he started to reach out. “All those who refuse the Lord, all those wretched drunken men and filthy Jezebels, will burn for all eternity and curse their sinful ways! I can only save those who do not recognize their own need by cutting out the sickness—”

A startled grunt cut his sentence short; bracing himself, Joe had waited until he had a clear shot and then booted Sears hard in the stomach. Knocking the wiry old man away, he watched Sears teeter off balance for a moment before finally gravity pulled his captor down flat on his back.

The door of the cabin had been barricaded. To prevent the boy’s escape, Sears had pushed the table up against it, and even with his hands freed there was no way he could escape that way— the old man was already starting to pick himself up off the floor, and he was reaching for the knife where it had fallen. The dust of the floor swirled as Little Joe lashed out with his foot and kicked the blade away into the far corner, nimbly avoiding Sears’s reaching hand. With fear leading him on he picked up one of the saddlebags up and swung it up at the little shack’s window. Glass, brittle with age, shattered easily outwards; unmindful of the shards and splinters that lacerated his palms, Little Joe scrambled through it. The ground was hard enough to knock the wind out of his lungs, but Sears’s shriek of rage from within made him jump to his feet and sprint off, desperate to escape the madman.

But there was only desert surrounding him, he had no way of finding his way back out, and he had no water.

It was only a matter of time before Sears either caught up to him, or he died.

At this point, he thought the latter was the better fate.

“Chapter 6”

The desert was like a golden sea to Ben Cartwright’s eyes as he looked at it. Vast and dangerous, it seemed impossible to tame it. Nor should man try. He had always believed that Man should never try to corral Nature to his own gain, and instead work with her to survive.

The sea had taught him that Nature was her own master, and no man could tell her how to act.

But he wished that his youngest son was not currently out in the worst of the West’s places. There was no water to be found but for what a man would bring with him and Little Joe was in the hands of a a stranger they knew nothing about besides the fact that Walter Sears was a fervent churchgoer and unapproachable old man who also happened to belong to one of the roughest families established in both the mountains of Virginia and Ohio.

Dear Lord, he thought to himself, keep him safe. Be with him. Protect him.

As a father, he could only place his trust in God and let Him do the rest. The Lord had performed incredible miracles and helped those who loved Him in the past, and although Ben Cartwright had met with tragedy after tragedy in his life he still believed that God could and would protect his loved ones.

He couldn’t lose his youngest son. Not now. Not so soon after Marie.

Marie had been the breath of fresh air the Ponderosa had needed. For years it had only been Ben and his two sons living in the small cabin on the land he was determined to make into an empire. Adam and Hoss had been without a mother for most of their lives but Ben remembered and missed a woman’s touch in both bed and in his home. Meeting Marie in New Orleans had been a blessing of the Almighty, a third chance at a marriage that he had begun to doubt would ever come to be.

But Marie had consented to be his wife, and it had awakened the Ponderosa like nothing else had. She was a vivacious Creole of delicate beauty and encompassing warmth, but she had an equally lively temper which gave her an edge that Ben had rarely seen in a woman. Now the ranch house rang with a woman’s laughter and her decorations, and he had someone to help raise his two sons. Hoss had immediately attached himself to the beautiful blonde and called her Mama without any trouble; Adam had taken longer to convince that Marie was an appropriate match for his strong and sturdy father but when he finally came to see her as something more than a stranger he could be counted upon to defend her if rumors of her started to circulate.

It had been Marie who had first noticed Little Joe’s tendency to use his left hand. Ben’s youngest son had been the glue that held everything together, the last cinch in the belt that helped them all to understand that they were, in fact, a family. As a babe of only a few months it was clear that Little Joe was a handful. In the womb he would frequently kick out if he became frustrated or angry— Ben could still smile when he remembered the times when Marie would say the unborn child had the hiccups and was throwing a tantrum at the fact— and at four months of age he staunchly refused to lay on his stomach. Little Joe had resented having to be placed on his stomach from the very beginning and by three months bawled if he was laid on his back. He had fought to sit up by himself and watch his surroundings at four months of age and he always listed towards his right if Marie carefully let him try to keep himself upright. Picking up something, reaching out, sucking on his fingers— it was all done with his left hand. By the time Little Joe could write, Marie had taught him to use his dominant hand herself. She ignored the whispers and pointed looks when it became clear that her son was left-handed and instead was proud that Little Joe would be different from others.

‘It is nothing to be ashamed of, mon cheri,’ Ben had heard her whisper to Little Joe one night. ‘Be thankful that God has given you a special gift, for it is a special gift indeed.’

When Marie died so unexpectedly, Ben had forever afterwards continued to allow his youngest son to use his left hand and defended his use of it from the blue-blooded society of the still-small town of Virginia City.

He could only hope that this experience would not drive Little Joe from using his left hand; Ben knew his son liked being a southpaw, and the only one of his family no less, and to have him suddenly decide to stop being one would be in its own small way a tragedy.

He wondered why those who claimed to be God’s children would be so hateful towards something that had no Biblical basis whatsoever.

Beside him Adam looked over. “It was cold last night,” he remarked softly, and it was only in his eyes that his father could see the worry that that remark had brought up.

Hoss was a few paces ahead of them, looking for more traces of Sears and their missing family member. For a moment Ben looked at him hoping that his middle son hadn’t overheard Adam’s remark, and when Hoss made no sign of having done so turned back to Adam. “I know,” he said simply. He tried not to think of the torn piece of Little Joe’s jacket that his sons had brought to him.

He didn’t suppose that Sears would be kind enough to bring blankets for his captive.

It showed how much Adam worried when he continued: “He’ll be okay, Pa. Little Joe’s smart, and he’s fast. He was able to leave us a trail so far.”

He has to be all right.

The words were left unspoken but they were there, a silent weight that pressed down on both of them.

Little Joe had to be okay. There was no other outcome possible.

~/~/~/~/~

The cabin was still a spot in the distance no matter how far Little Joe seemed to run. The sun was rising in the sky, its heat already brutal to a boy who hadn’t had any water for several hours and only a single meal since the day before; adrenaline alone kept him on his feet but even for all of his determination and youthful stamina his desperate run was already taxing his body. A searing stitch in his side tore through him every time he took a breath and he was quickly becoming dizzy and light-headed.

It was Sears’ howl of rage as he escaped that kept him going. He knew the old man was going to pursue him with his skinning knife and he knew too what was intended.

He couldn’t be caught.

The edge of the dune he was running along crumbled beneath his feet, the shallow roots of the desert grasses too frail to keep the sand intact. Tumbling headlong down its side he reached the bottom with the breath knocked out of him and sand stinging in his wounded hands, and it took him a long moment to convince himself to get up again.

He desperately wished Pa would find him. He needed his pa there to be here to help him, maybe even convince Sears to back down. He had never seen such insanity before and it scared him.

Scared him worse than the knife the old man carried.

Scared him worse than dying.

Lifting himself up was the hardest thing he’d ever done but rise he did, determined to put as much of a fight up as possible. He couldn’t hear if Sears was following him but he had left an obvious trail of which he could do nothing about, so he was stuck simply running and hoping the old man would fall before he did.

~/~/~/~/~

He had been defied before, but never this strongly. Certainly not by anyone who was as young as the boy was. Such temper in a child was rare, or so Walt Sears had seen. It was another sign of a parent’s weak hand. ‘Raise up a child in the way they should go.’ That’s what Solomon had written in Proverbs, and clearly Ben Cartwright had not done so.

It was an insult to the Lord.

It was the fault of the mother as well, however. The boy had said that it was his mother who had first told him the use of his left hand was sinless; clearly she was an unsaved Jezebel too, just as Walt’s nieces were. Perhaps he would pay a visit to her when all of this was said and done.

The boy’s tracks were obvious and he had no trouble following them. But Joe Cartwright was heading farther out into the desert rather than towards its edge— there would be no escape for him out that way. Certainly not from the Devil either, and if the boy died unsaved and unrepentant then his soul would be damned to burn in Hell for all eternity.

For a moment Walt’s vision blinked and he saw again the tear-streaked face of the little girl. She had visited him last night pleading for forgiveness, her bright eyes glazed with tears, her long reddish hair tangled and matted. He had scorned her presence and evoked the name of God to drive the demon away. And she had gone, although her cries echoed through his dreams that night.

Would this boy scream too?

He came to the top of a dune where the boy had slid down to its bottom. The footprints were hazy and uncertain and he could see Joe Cartwright must have crawled a while before climbing to his feet. Carefully making his way down Walt climbed to the other side with the knife still clutched firmly in his hand.

He had been the best tracker in his family while out in the untamed woods of Ohio. There wasn’t an animal he couldn’t track nor any situation he couldn’t out-stubborn. His pa had always said that such tenaciousness would serve him well in the future and it had certainly proven to be so.

Only Henry Styles had out-waited him. He had woken the next day in the sheriff’s jail cell with rope burn around his neck and the headache of a hangover pounding at his temples. Old Toby had told him that Harry had strung him up on the branches of the old tree and it was only the mob’s intervention that allowed Walt to see the dawn.

‘They didn’t think he were really gonna do it, Walt,’ Toby had said. His expression had been hard and unforgiving. ‘When he hoisted you up they stopped him and cut you down again. Your wife and sons are in protective custody.’

Harry had been punished for his attempted hanging. Walter Sears was not a loved member of the small community but even they were not lenient on a man who had attempted to hang another. Wife beater or not, Walt was a man with his rights and so Harry Styles was sentenced to a year in prison. And for five years Walt had been careful not to raise his hand against his wife, knowing that Harry was still watching him.

The boy was slowing. He had traveled a couple miles by now; the sun was high and unforgiving. He needed water. But he was close; he could hear the faltering footsteps of the boy. Quickly he circled around to the top of another dune where he knew that the boy would be climbing up.

Joe Cartwright probably fancied himself scot-free as he climbed; but Walt was waiting, and as the boy clambered up the hill, hampered by the sifting sand, he lashed out with his free hand and caught the boy across the face. Joe fell with a startled cry and tumbled backwards again, narrowly missing a rough patch of overgrown weeds on his way down, and then the old man was on him. Pinned beneath the old man’s bulk with his belly in the sand, Joe struggled for purchase, any way to escape from Sears’ grasp, but his right hand was caught and pinned as well beneath a sharp knee, and his left wrist was held down stretched before him.

“The Lord shall smite all those who sin against him!” Sears screeched, and the knife flashed in the sun as it arched downwards—

And suddenly Walt felt an agonizing pain shoot through his calf before the blade could fully strike. With an outcry of pain he forgot about the struggling boy beneath him and twisted around to see what had struck him. Then he heard an ominous hollow rattling and knew that his fate was already decided.

The rattlesnake had been disturbed first by Little Joe’s fall down the hill when he nearly crushed the grass it was lying in, and had then itself been nearly trampled by Sears’s boots. Angry and spitting at the disturbance near its home it had struck the closest appendage it saw: the old man’s leg.

Howling his agony to the sky, Sears struck out with his opposite leg, trying to dislodge the fangs dug into his calf but the rattler was latched on tightly and wouldn’t let go. Desperate, Sears flung himself off of the boy and struck out with the knife, striking it viciously on the head. Hissing and spitting the rattler twisted and shook itself, and he struck it again, and again, until finally he had almost severed its head from its body.

And finally silence fell.

With a sob of horror and shock Little Joe scrambled to his hands and knees and crawled until he couldn’t crawl anymore. Blood was drawn in a long thin line along the pale flesh of his wrist— the edge of the blade had struck him so closely that he had been injured by it. Drops of it were running into the sand. Trembling uncontrollably and fighting tears he drew in shaking breaths and tried to keep himself from falling apart completely.

Sears groaned softly, grimacing where he lay upon the desert floor. The snake lay silent and still between them, hacked to pieces by the discarded knife, as slowly Joe raised him self to hands and knees. The silence was unnerving and he struggled to keep from sobbing as his adrenaline fully fled.

“Boy…”

The old man’s whispery voice was frail and weak with pain and Joe couldn’t help his sharp intake of breath hearing it, fearful that Sears would still harm him. But the old man stayed where he was.

“Boy… please. Help me…”

There was nothing in sight, no one able to help. They were miles from the nearest road and they had only two canteens back at the cabin. The only thing possible to do was go back.

Go back to the cabin and pray that someone would track them there.

For a moment the terrified boy was tempted to leap up and run away from the old man, unwilling to approach the one who had intended him such harm, but just as he braced himself to do just that, Sears caught his eye. Old, tired eyes looked back at him, bright with unshed tears. Little Joe briefly entertained the possibility of seeing remorse there and abruptly pity stirred deep in his gut.

Silently he crawled carefully to Sears’s side, being cautious passing the snake husk, and laid a hand on the man’s arm. Sweat was standing on the man’s wrinkled forehead. “I’m gonna check your leg,” he said shakily and he hoped he could keep his terror from his voice.

Joe had never seen a snake bite before but he had grown up hearing stories told by the cowhands of men they had seen die by a rattler’s bite; Pa himself frequently warned all of his sons about how careful they must be around nature’s most dangerous snake in the west. He knew a rattler’s venom killed slowly and with a lot of pain, but he unprepared to see Sears’s leg already starting to swell and turning a bright, unhealthy red.

There was no doctor to call. Sears was going to die.

The old man knew it too. Pained eyes met his own again and read the ghastly truth before the boy had a chance to hide it. Grimacing again, Sears licked his dry lips. “Help me up, boy,” he gasped.

“My name ain’t ‘boy’, it’s Joe.” The retort slipped out from Joe’s mouth before he could stop it, born of his fear and frustration. His breath tore harshly from his lungs and once again he glanced wildly around in the hope that somebody— anybody— would show up to take control.

But there was no one, just as he’d already known, and he would have to bear the responsibilities of what happened next. Forcing himself to calm his still-racing heart, Joe looked down at Sears and set his mouth in a thin, stubborn line.

He was only ten, yes, and he was in a situation impossible to resolve, but he was still a Cartwright.

And Cartwrights managed the impossible.

“Chapter 7”

Sears’s leg was swollen to nearly three times its size and the poison was only spreading. Helplessly, Little Joe could do nothing but watch as the old man’s body shut down. Muscles spasmed and clenched and trembled as his thin limbs thrashed and waved like prairie grass in a high wind; Sears’s head shook violently from side to side in his agony, protected only by the threadbare blanket the boy had bunched up beneath his neck.

Years later, when captured by a group of conquistadors who wanted to use him as a hostage, Joe would fall literally into the path of a rattler and watch it bare its fangs; he would remember what it was like to watch someone die from its poison and he would swear to himself that he would rather be shot to death in that moment than suffer such an agonizing end.

But for now it was all he could to help the old man to the run down cabin. It had taken nearly two hours to half-drag, half-help Sears back to the only bit of safety they had. He was still rather small for his age and supporting the taller man had been so hard, but his dogged determination had not yet broken and so they had reached their destination in the end.

Somehow Little Joe managed to tuck away the pain and horror of the past few hours and had first grabbed the knife that had lain stained with blood and snake meat in the sand, then he had torn off a long strip of the old man’s shirt and tied it tightly around Sears’s thigh, remembering Hoss showing him how to make a tourniquet. When it was obvious that the old man’s leg was going to swell larger than his pants’ leg would stretch he had used the sharp edge of the knife to cut open a long strip in the cloth.

The canteens that Sears had left in the cabin were still full when Little Joe grabbed hold of them, but he had used some of the water to first wipe away the congealing blood on his wrist and then used some on the wound on the former’s leg. The snake bites were still bleeding. He used some more of the water to wipe away the sweat from the old man’s brow.

The trembling left hand reached out and caught hold of Little Joe’s wrist— a weak grip, so unlike the wiry strength he remembered from before. Sears was trembling so hard that the boy was amazed he could hold onto anything at all. “Using… the water,” Sears choked out. “Why…?”

For a long moment Little Joe merely looked down at him, unable to process exactly what it was the old man was asking; when he finally did find an answer, his fear made it blunt. “‘Cause you ain’t dead yet,” he said shakily, “and my pa always says the Lord looks for us to be kind.”

Sears lay in silence for a very long time following that reply. Heat was spreading through him, making it difficult to concentrate. “Kindness,” he grated out finally, but there was a sudden rawness to his tone. “Ain’t… no such thing…”

“Not if you didn’t show it,” Little Joe retorted. Dimly he realized he was arguing with a dead man but his wrist and hands were stinging and he was aching all over, and his sympathy was low. “You ain’t shown kindness to anybody before, I bet.” He was trembling all over and unable to stop it, wishing that he could just get up and run. He didn’t want to watch this; he didn’t want to see a man die. He didn’t want to see what a rattler’s venom will do.

His mama had died so suddenly that he was now almost glad that she had. At least she had never had to suffer through agony like this. He had very few memories of Marie Cartwright and he never could remember the day that she had ridden too quickly into the yard and fallen, breaking her neck as she landed. He’d asked Hoss about that once, several months ago, about why he couldn’t seem to remember, and Hoss had looked at him all funny and asked, ‘Dadburnit, little brother, why’d ya want to?’

He hadn’t asked again.

Now he realized he was lucky not being able to recall what death looked like.

For a brief moment his thoughts landed upon his pa, of Ben Cartwright’s sturdy presence and the sheer presence he commanded; but then he thought about his pa’s unshakable faith. Faith in humanity; faith in his family, his sons; and faith in God.

Would Pa show mercy to this dying old man?

It didn’t matter, he slowly realized. Not really. Ben Cartwright would never see Sears alive. What mattered now was what Little Joe would do. Pulling his knees up to his chin he drew his arms around his legs and thought. He wanted to hate this man. He truly did. In some moments he thought he actually could. Most of him feared Sears, he feared the old man’s crazed rantings and uncontrollable temper.

How could God expect him to be kind to a man such as this?

In the quiet of the old cabin the answer came as a soft thought, coming upon so gradually that he didn’t immediately realize it was there. But he heard it nonetheless; a verse he had heard several Sundays before.

Therefore if thy enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in doing so thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head.

He’d wondered how it was supposed to help his enemy by setting his head on fire. When he’d asked his pa about it, Pa had laughed and explained that the Lord wasn’t really ordering someone to actually burn their enemy. No, he’d explained, what God meant was that by being kind to your enemy you shamed their actions, and you shamed them.

That way, their own actions came back to burn them.

“Help me,” he whispered aloud. He wasn’t sure who it was exactly he was speaking to but he hoped he would be heard. He had never really thought about God; he knew that Pa believed, and Joe himself had attended church since before he could clearly remember, but he had never truly thought about God as someone he could he could apply to his everyday life. Now he wondered.

Could it really be so simple as asking for His help?

Sears groaned then, long and low, a deep rattle stirring in his chest. Little Joe jumped despite himself, frightened by the sound. Swallowing down panic he shifted closer to his only companion here and checked the leg again.

The veins were turning black.

Bile rose in his throat and he fought it back with difficulty. It wouldn’t be long now.

~/~/~/~/~

“There!”

Hoss’s cry echoed in the air nearly triumphant. As well it should be— they had been scouting the desert for nearly five hours, looking for a trail that would lead them to their missing family member. Desert winds had scoured away most of the footprints that Sears had made on his way and if Little Joe had managed to break away again he hadn’t been able to create anymore clues. But still the three Cartwrights continued doggedly on, determined to catch up with the old man and the boy they all so desperately needed to find safe and well.

They found a snake husk. Amidst upturned sand and footprints there was drops of dried blood and a rattler hacked to pieces, its head nearly severed from its long coils. Kneeling beside it Hoss looked up at his father with serious blue eyes from beneath the brim of his hat, having no need to express what they were all feeling.

Who had been bitten?

“It was the old man,” Hoss stated after studying the tracks. Ben nearly sagged in his saddle as relief spread through him. “See this here? Sears was lyin’ here. Little Joe’s footprints are beside him. And these tracks here? This here’s where little brother helped him walk— his boots were making deeper marks in the sand now. He’s carryin’ Sears’s weight.”

A rattler bite. Ben felt guilt but he couldn’t help but be grateful that it was not his son who had been hurt. But Sears, no matter what he did, didn’t deserve to meet such a horrid end and Ben found himself hoping that the rattler had only given a dry bite.

“But the tracks are fresh,” Adam said. His dark eyes were alight with an eagerness he was trying to suppress; his hands gripped the tens of his horse in an unbreakable hold. “It didn’t happen all that long ago. We can catch up to them now. Come on!”

Ben reached out and grabbed his son’s wrist before Adam could kick his mount into a canter. “No, Adam,” he said firmly, although his own body was straining to follow his son at a run. “We can’t afford to simply fly away on this. One or both of them could be injured. And even if Sears was injured it doesn’t mean that he can’t fight us.”

And he’ll fight to keep us from Little Joe.

The unspoken fact there sat between them for a long moment until Adam finally sagged in his saddle, unable to refute his father’s logic.

It was Hoss, swinging up onto his own mount, who spoke what Adam most needed to hear. “Ain’t nothin’ we can do but keep goin’ way we have been, big brother. We’ll find ’em both soon. Ain’t no use in goin’ half-cocked and missin’ the trail.”

Thank the Lord for Hoss. Adam listened to his brother and nodded, albeit unhappily. It was unusual for Ben’s normally calm and stoic eldest son to behave in such a frantic, impassioned way; it was the way Ben could tell how badly Little Joe’s absence was affecting him.

Dear God, he prayed silently, looking up to the heavens, let them be okay.

~/~/~/~/~

The cabin, when they reached it, showed signs of abuse. Glass winked and shone in the sand from the busted window and the door hung haphazardly from its rusty hinges as if it had been jerked open. A saddle bag sat dejectedly in the shattered glass.

A rifle was dropped in the doorway.

Nearly afraid to look inside the cabin and see the destruction, Ben dismounted and approached the door. Already he could smell something in the air, something pungent and almost sweet, a scent that never grew easier to tolerate. But his need to find his son was greater than his dread of death.

Little Joe didn’t respond to their calls, and the sound of the horses alone should have made him appear. There was no sign of Sears, either, but an old rundown nag was there; the old man hadn’t moved on.

“Joe?” Ben called aloud. “Joseph!”

Adam slid down from his saddle, swallowing past a dry throat. His fingers brushed the pistol strapped to his leg. “Pa—?”

Ben ignored him; coming closer to the cabin door the smell worsened and he could already hear the buzzing of flies. They didn’t know how long it had been since Sears and Little Joe had met up with the rattler; it could have been hours ago.

Snake venom, especially a rattlesnake’s, could kill a lot faster than that.

“Stay where you are,” he ordered his two older sons. When they both started to protest he raised his voice, ordering them again to listen to him. He wanted to spare them the first moment of tragedy if that was what would greet them on the other side of that door.

The first thing he saw when he crossed the threshold was the table which lay overturned and broken where it had been hurled. Beyond it he saw the blackened ashes of a fire long gone cold. And there hidden partially by the table he saw a man’s leg.

A swelled, blackened leg.

Holding his hand to his mouth and nose in an attempt to mask the terrible smell, Ben slowly walked around the table’s edge and saw the body of his son’s kidnapper.

Sears had not died pleasantly.

Beside him, lying facedown in the dirt, was Little Joe.

“Joseph!” The boy’s name came out in a strangled whisper— the loudest Ben’s voice could get. Placing himself between his son and the body he reached out with trembling hands and grabbed hold of Joe for the first time in days. The boy reeked of filth and unwashed sweat; dirt covered his face and mussed clothes and blood marred the palms of his hands. But he was alive, gloriously alive, even though his skin was raging with heat and fever.

“Joe.” Gently Ben cupped his son’s face with his hand, drawing Little Joe close to him. Agony and relief roughened his voice as he called for the boy’s attention. “Joseph, it’s Pa. It’s Pa.” When there was no answer he searched for any other wounds, dreading that he would find that his son had been bitten by the rattler too. When he found nothing he sagged with relief and stood, carrying his precious cargo outside.

Adam and Hoss dismounted as soon as he came outside, their faces alight with concern and fear and their gazes glued to their missing little brother.

“Is he—?”

“Still alive,” Ben answered Adam’s question in a choked voice unlike his own. “Still alive. Hoss, get your canteen. He needs water.” There had been two canteens there in the cabin but they had both been empty.

Adam approached the door of the ramshackle cabin. “Sears?” His one word expressed his desire to teach his brother’s captor a thing or two.

Ben shook his head. “Dead. The rattler got him in the leg.”

It was when Hoss slipped a large, gentle hand beneath Little Joe’s neck to brace it that they received the response they all so desperately needed. Moaning, the boy tried to move away from Hoss’s touch and his eyelashes flickered as he struggled to open his eyes.

“Pa…” His voice was cracked and hoarse from lack of water but it was still the most beautiful sound any of them had heard. Ben swallowed hard and smiled tremulously.

“Yes, son, it’s Pa. You’re safe.”

Those expressive green eyes peered briefly at him, hazy with fever and confusion, but Ben was heartened by the small smile that Little Joe gave him. Adam and Hoss crowded close, desperate to see their baby brother awake and aware. “Heaped… burning coals… on his head, Pa…”

Astonished, Ben stared down at him. “Joseph—?” But his youngest son was lost again to oblivion and could not answer.

“If that don’t beat all,” Hoss breathed.

“Delirium,” Adam suggested. “Pa, we need to go. We need to get him to Doc Martin.”

“Hold him while I mount up. We’ll reach Virginia City before nightfall and we’ll get Roy Coffee to come out wth a wagon and pick up Sears’s body.” Swinging up into the saddle, Ben looked again to the cabin and where he had draped an old threadbare blanket over the old man’s body, and he wondered.

Heaped burning coals…

Briefly he looked heavenward again. It hadn’t been just the Cartwrights looking out for their youngest today, he realized. The Almighty worked in mysterious ways.

“Chapter 8”

It was a nightmare about the old man’s icy blue eyes that woke Little Joe from his sleep. The ranch house was silent and dark; the rest of his family had gone to bed as well. Their own dreams were definitely better than his, of that he was sure. Despite the blankets covering him, he felt cold and he couldn’t seem to warm up no matter how much he tried. He wasn’t sick if Doc Martin was to be believed. Shock, Little Joe had heard the man tell his pa.

He’s been through a traumatic event, Ben, and those days with little water or food didn’t help. Give him time.

It wasn’t the lack of food or water that was his trouble now; although he had been dizzy from thirst and he’d been half-starved after waking up in the safety of the ranch house, Joe couldn’t bring himself to eat or drink anything with appetite. He had an entirely different trouble mocking him now.

He just hadn’t said anything about it to Pa, or his brothers. He thought maybe Doc suspected, since he had had to patch up the various wounds on Little Joe’s person following his rescue.

It was hard to not see the long thin cut along his left wrist and ignore what it could signify. But maybe Doc hadn’t realized, because Joe’s pa hadn’t blown up over it yet. And Ben Cartwright would most certainly lose his temper over what Sears had almost accomplished.

Sears was dead. What did his pa’s anger or sadness accomplish?

He couldn’t really remember the first day or so after his rescue from the desert cabin. He had seen the old man die. He’d seen the thin chest rise and fall and never move again and he’d witnessed the light leave his eyes but by then he’d been ready to collapse himself and it hadn’t been long before he fell into oblivion himself.

Only he’d woken up from his darkness. The old man never would. His pa’s comforting hands had been there leading him from dark dreams and confusion and he’d finally felt safe again. Sleep had come easily then, at least for the first week.

But then the dreams started again. Reminding him about what had almost happened.

The knife Sears had wielded had flashed down so quickly Little Joe wasn’t sure if he could have followed its descent. The old man’s voice had been raised in a crazed shout from above him: ‘And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off-‘

And then the snake had struck, and the knife’s edge had only slightly cut Little Joe’s wrist.

Unable to drift back into sleep now with the memories running through his head, he sat up and slipped out of his bed. The weather was starting to turn colder; the ranch house’s floor was chilly on his bare feet. He thought briefly about maybe sneaking into Hoss’s room- big brother never minded if he needed to share his bed, which at this point wasn’t often at all- but then he thought about what he had recently asked the preacher about on Sunday. Despite Reverend McGivens’ surprise at his inquiry, he had given Little Joe the verse he’d needed for his question.

So now Little Joe was going to find his answer.

Pa’s Bible sat innocently on his desk downstairs, familiar and inviting, and softly Little Joe padded barefoot across the silent living room towards it. The chair was so large that his feet barely hung over its edge but it was full of Pa’s musky scent and it calmed the boy. The Bible was among Ben Cartwright’s prized possessions, a beautiful black leather bound book with silver lining; its pages were dog-eared and crinkled, evidence of a lot of use. Joe knew that several verses were underlined or otherwise pointed out.

Sears had been familiar with several verses Little Joe was already familiar with, but just as many were unknown, one of the many mysteries he had about that pitiful old man.

He wondered briefly why the Lord would allow men to so thoroughly abuse His words but he supposed he would never receive an answer to that question either.

The pages crackled with age as he flipped through the Old Testament and into the gospel of St. Matthew. Who St. Matthew was exactly besides being one of Christ’s followers Little Joe couldn’t guess, but the reverend had given him the verse he needed and that was all that mattered.

Matthew 5:30.

And finally he found his answer. “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off,” he whispered to himself.

Sears had missed speaking one of the words in that verse: right. The old man had manipulated Scripture to fit his own needs, to justify what he had been preparing to do just as the rattlesnake struck. The mark from Sears’s blade would soon disappear without a scar remaining but the memories would continue to haunt him.

“Joseph?”

Ben’s concerned voice broke through his thoughts before they could carry him too far away, and he looked up from the Bible spread open in his lap sheepishly, realizing too late that he had taken up the book to read without permission. “Pa. I’m sorry, Pa, I just wanted to look something up, I didn’t mean-”

“It’s all right, Little Joe,” Ben hastily reassured him; far from being mad, he was instead pleased to see that his youngest son had opened the Bible himself, something he had never done before. Gently he grabbed hold of the book and leaving it lying open on the desk he picked up Joe and sat down himself in the chair with his son in his lap. “Now,” he spoke gently, “what was it you were looking up?”

Little Joe was silent for a long time, contemplating his answer before giving it. “He misquoted somethin’, Pa,” he finally said, looking up to meet Ben’s dark eyes. “Somethin’ here in the Bible. He used it to teach me that bein’ left-handed is bad.” Reaching, he managed to grab hold of the book and dragged it closer with Ben’s large hand holding the spine so that it didn’t fall. Sheepishly he pointed out the verse. “This one, Pa. He didn’t say the ‘right’ hand.”

Ben’s heart clenched horribly as he read the verse, realizing fully what Sears had been intending to do to make that mark on his son’s left wrist. Such a twisted old man to try and go to such lengths trying to prevent what he perceived as evil. Ben thanked the Lord that He had spared his son from such harm. Carefully his other hand cradled Little Joe’s wrist, his fingers wrapping around the bandage Doc Martin had left there for the time being. For a moment he merely gazed down at the pages spread open over his and Little Joe’s legs, unable to speak without giving away the sharp blow to his stomach.

“There are those who will do that, Joseph,” he finally said when he had more control. “Sears didn’t truly know what he was talking about.”

“But why did he think he did? He had to know he’d left out a word. Doesn’t that make it wrong, quotin’ it different?”

Ben hesitated for a long moment. “Yes,” he admitted. “Especially with the Lord’s word.”

~/~/~/~/~

Sears’s body had been shipped back to his family remaining in the hills of upper Virginia with the news of how he had died a firestorm that swept through the streets and homes of Virginia City. Very few people actually knew the details of the old man’s actions except for a few select people.

Roy Coffee was one such man, and he had included a long explanation written out in a letter that he sent back with the body. He had no hopes that Sears’s kinfolk would bother reading it but he received a surprise by a telegram that came back one day several months later. A few weeks after that, he called for Ben Cartwright.

Perplexed and concerned, wondering if either Adam or Hoss had managed to land themselves in jail for fighting in a saloon, Ben rode up to the jail house and tied Buck to the hitching post. Roy let him in with his usual smile and greeting which put him at ease only slightly, until he caught sight of Roy’s guest.

A young woman dressed in a conservative dress of red petticoats and a matching feathered hat was seated in front of Roy’s desk, her reddish brown hair curled down the nape of her neck and her right hand nervously playing with the folds of her skirt. She was young.

“This, ma’am, is Ben Cartwright,” Roy said in his easygoing way. Ben removed his hat. “Ben, this little lady here is a Helen Sears, just come over from Ivydale, Virginia.”

Helen Sears stood with a nervous smile. “It’s a pleasure, Mr. Cartwright,” she said. “Sheriff Coffee had told me that you were the person I needed to speak to about my uncle, Walt Sears.”

She looked nothing like her uncle. Her face was rounder and her mouth kinder, and her eyes were hazel green. “I understand you want to make some sense of your uncle’s actions, Miss Sears,” Ben said a mite stiffly, “but you must realize that he threatened the life of my youngest son-”

“I’m not here to try and understand my uncle’s behavior, Mr. Cartwright,” she interrupted him sharply. “Personally I think that that would be an impossible endeavor and no one should attempt to. I’m here because my ma and pa weren’t able to come due to the farm work, and I wanted to know how badly Uncle Walt affected someone else’s life.”

She was a fiery young woman. Ben studied her for a moment, wondering. Her left hand remained stiff and still at her side. “From what my son Joseph has told me, your uncle attempted to show him the error of his ways for being a southpaw. Nothing more. My son deserved nothing that was given him at Sears’s hands.”

She ignored the sharpness of his voice, or perhaps she understood his sentiments and decided not to comment on them. “Uncle Walt was always fanatical, Mr. Cartwright. He was the town drunk for years until a next door neighbor attempted to hang up for beating his wife. After that he turned around his life and found God, and on the way became the meanest and most hypocritical man you could ever hope to find. He called his oldest daughter a harlot and a demon-possessed witch when she had a child out of wedlock, even though my ma told him he had no right to speak such with all the horrible things he’d done.”

She paused in her story, finally gaining a nervous edge again. She swallowed. “I came here to see that your son was alright. I’d hoped that God had intervened before my uncle crippled another person.”

“Another, ma’am?” Ben was taken aback.

She nodded. “I was born a southpaw,” she explained in a sad, soft voice. “He became enraged, and he continually tried to convince my ma and pa that it was evil. He broke my fingers when I was six.”

Ben thought about finding Little Joe sitting at the bank of that creek clutching his broken fingers and felt sick. “And?”

“I went back to writing with and using my left hand after it healed. My parents didn’t have a problem with it, so why should he? But he did. In a fit of rage he took a hammer and held me down…” With her right hand she lifted her left wrist and removed her glove carefully. “I haven’t been able to use my left hand since.”

Her fingers were bent and atrophied into a claw-like fist, unable to be used for anything. Scars littered the skin along her wist- a long thin mark that stretched across the muscle of her hand.

Tears shone in her eyes from the remembered pain as she tried to smile at them both. “I wanted to make sure your son was alright, Mr. Cartwright, just as I’ve told you.”

~/~/~/~/`

“What did Roy want in town, Pa?”

Adam watched his pa carefully, looking for the reason why Ben had come home so pensive and quiet. He’d hardly said a word since arriving at the ranch in the early afternoon and not even the ranch work was enough to snap him out of his thoughts.

His pa barely moved at all in response to the question. His gaze remained riveted on Little Joe, as the boy and Hoss rough-housed in the ranch’s open yard.

“He gave me the answers I needed to put Walt Sears to rest, Adam,” he finally explained, which in Adam’s mind really wasn’t an explanation at all. “Your brother is safe, and this I can say in absolute surety: the Lord protects and cares for His children. He may not lead them through without harm, but He will find a way to use that harm for good.” he stood up from his chair and strode to the doorway. “Joseph!” he called. “Come inside and change into your good Sunday clothes.”

The boy did as he was told grudgingly, and Adam watched in amusement as his kid brother mounted the steps with a trail of dirt falling behind him. “Going somewhere, Pa?”

Ben nodded. “Back to Virginia City. I think that there’s someone there your youngest brother will want to meet.”

End

~/~/~/~/~

Author’s Notes: The Sears family line does indeed exist in real life in the mountains of West Virginia (which did not reach official statehood until 1863, which is why it’s still called upper Virginia). Walt Sears was a real man and much of his backstory was true.

*”administering medicine to the dead”- a quotation from Thomas Paine.

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4 thoughts on “Mark of the Devil (by A_Starry_Night)”

  1. What an absolutely fabulous story! I particularly loved Joe finding his “answer” You are true to character for each of our guys, and such great JPM. 👍🏻👍🏻😊

  2. Being a “south paw” I can relate to Joe’s feelings about having to write with his right hand and to some of the problems associated with being left handed. I enjoyed this story and thank you for keeping Joe true to himself, and for not wanting to or trying to change to suit others.

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