The Darker Angels of Our Nature (by McFair)

Summary: An angel. A messenger. Sent to bring news, sometimes good, often bad. Which was this, the one who gazed at me? Had she come to reward or punish me? To return me to my family or cut me down as I deserved? Forgive me, Adam, Pa. Mama, forgive your little Joseph. If only, I had known….

Rated PG-13 for brutality and violence, minor torture, and some uncomfortable language.  Story contains words in use by some people in the South during the 1860s such as ‘dusky’, ‘bright’, and so on when referring to African Americans.

Word count: 71,074

This story is set in season one of Bonanza and follows the airing dates of the first 18 episodes.  It is a WHN for ‘A House Divided’.  References are made to several of the earlier episodes including ‘The Truckee Strip’ in which a very young Joe Cartwright intended to marry Amy Bishop before her death.  Some fans have placed ‘A House Divided’ in 1861 due to Frederick Kyle’s mention of  states seceding from the Union.  What he actually indicates are that states are thinking of leaving the Union, not that they have.  Due to this, I have placed this tale in 1859 very shortly after Kyle’s initial appearance in Virginia City.

The anachronistic use of a paraphrase of Lincoln’s inaugural address as the title and quote are intentional.

 

 

The Darker Angels of Our Nature

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”  A. Lincoln

 

One

Late September, 1859

 

“Hey Adam!  You seen Little Joe around here lately?”

Adam Cartwright paused with one hand on his saddle horn and the other in the stirrup.  He’d been getting ready to ride out of the yard with the intention of heading into town when he’d heard the door to the house open.  It could have been Pa instead of Hoss.  It wouldn’t have mattered.  The question and his answer would have been the same.

“He’s out with those two new friends of his,” he replied succinctly, while being only slightly successful at hiding the accompanying sigh.

“Again?” Hoss asked.

The way middle brother wrinkled his nose with disgust when he asked made it look like Hoss had come upon a dung heap and mistaken it for a posy.

The black-haired man removed his foot from the stirrup and turned to face him.  “Again.”

“What’s Little Joe see in them two anyway?”

‘Them two’ being Val and Ab Latham.  They were twins, about Joe’s age, and about as useless as a four card flush.  He knew the minute he set eyes on the pair that hiring them had been a mistake.  Pa was away and the current foreman, Jake Bowers, whom he’d left in charge, had taken them on as he was in need of young muscle for a couple of jobs, including clearing out the residue of a collapse at one of the mines.  Pa’d given him that power, so there was nothing he could say.  Well, that wasn’t entirely true.  He had said a lot, it was just that the foreman didn’t listen.

Little Joe, of course, had taken to them in an instant.

“Like a moth to flame,” he muttered, not quite as under his breath as he thought.

“You talkin’ about little brother?” Hoss asked.  “You think them two are gonna get him in trouble?”

Adam snorted.  “Oh, no.  Joe doesn’t need any one to ‘get’ him into trouble.  He comes by it naturally.  You remember how it was with Marie?”

Hoss cocked his head.  The gesture was comparable to him pulling back the trigger of a gun.  “Now don’t you go bad-mouthin’ mama, Adam.”

He held his hands up in a gesture of peace.  “I’m not.  I assure you.”  Adam paused.  “We knew Marie, what, all of six years?”

The big man’s lips pursed as he counted it up.  “Pert near.”

“And in that time how many times did she get trouble?”

Hoss’ frown deepened.  “I don’t rightly remember her gettin’ into no trouble.”

Adam’s dark brows winged heavenward.  “No?  What about that wild buggy ride that nearly killed her just after Pa brought her to the Ponderosa?”

Hoss shoved his hands into his pockets.  A sure sign he was growing uneasy.  “Now, Adam, she couldn’t help it none if the horse done got spooked.”

“The horse Pa told her not to use?  The one that wasn’t ready for the harness?”  He paused, thinking.  “And what about the time Marie defied Pa and rode into Winnemucca’s village because she wanted an Indian rug to hang over the stair rail and almost ended up being given to one of the chief’s sons?”

The big man chuckled.  “It sure was funny to see old Winnemucca’s braves turn tale and run after they brought her back.”  Hoss’ smile died and he sighed.  “I miss her somethin’ fierce, Adam.”

The black-haired man nodded.  He missed her too.  But it was Little Joe who missed her the most of all, and mostly because he knew her the least of all.  Joe had no memories of his own.  Only theirs.  He might have suckled at Marie’s breast and known the beat of her heart, but he knew very little of her.

Which could prove dangerous.

“All I am saying is that Little Joe gets caught up in the moment.  He…leaps without looking, so to speak, and that leads to trouble.”

Hoss was nodding.  “And when he gets in trouble, he’s too dang stubborn to admit he needs help, and so he just digs himself in even deeper.”

Adam couldn’t help it.  His lips twitched with a smile.  “Exactly.”

Hoss was gazing south.  Adam wondered if he knew more about where Little Joe was than he was telling him.  “You really think them two is trouble?  Ab and Val?”

He hesitated.

“Adam, speak your mind.”

He did it with a little shrug.  “They’re from the South.”

Hoss looked stunned.  Then he rolled his eyes.  “Adam, I thought we agreed we weren’t gonna take no sides.  I thought we put all that behind us when that sorry son-of-a-snake Frederick Kyle rode out of town last month.”

He nodded.  “So did I.”  Adam’s gaze went to the south-east, beyond their father’s lands and past the New Mexico territory, through Texas and on into the southern states.   “But I’m not so sure Little Joe has.”

“Have you two had words again?”

It was Adam’s turn to grimace.  Had they had ‘words’?

He’d never told his father or his middle brother, but that day he’d been ready to ride off and leave the Ponderosa behind had been just about the worst in his life.  He and Little Joe had sparred that day – to his everlasting shame – before the corpse of Frederick Kyle’s wife had had time to grow cold.  It was bad, but that wouldn’t have been enough to make him leave.  He and Joe had gotten into it later in the barn as they stabled their horses.  Joe had taken his ‘Northerner’s’ opinion of the South and southerners as a personal slight against his southern-born mother, Marie.  Joe’s attack had been instant and actually rather well-thought out, dragging up old pain and reopening scars he had long thought healed.  In retaliation he had said things to Joe  about Marie, things about where she came from and her…dubious beginnings….  Things he would regret until his dying day.  That’s what he’d meant when he’d told his Pa, ‘Things can’t be the same between us.  There’s no other way.’ 

Adam snorted.  Good old Pa, he’d made another way.

But the rift was still there.

Oh, he and Joe pretended it wasn’t.  And they were good at it – pretending.  They worked together.  They even played together.  They sat together at the table and in the church pew, but they weren’t…together.

Maybe they never would be again.

“You’re awful quiet, Adam,” Hoss said softly.

He sniffed and ran a finger under his nose and then turned back to Sport.   “Damned changeable weather.  Think I’m catching a cold.”

Hoss wasn’t fooled, of course, but he pretended he was.

That’s what brothers did.

“You think I oughta go lookin’ for baby brother?” the big man asked.

Baby brother.  Little Joe would turn nineteen in about a month’s time.  He’d matured a lot in the last year, since the whole thing with Julia Bulette and Amy Bishop’s death.  Joseph Francis Cartwright was an intelligent, intuitive, incorrigible, incredible bundle of anger and joy mixed with a thousand other contradictions that stood poised on the brink of manhood.

There was only one problem with the brink – one nudge the wrong way and a man went over the edge.

“Nah,” he said as he settled into the saddle.  “I’m heading out anyway.  I’ll see if I can find him.  I think Jake assigned Ab and Val to one of the mining crews.  I’ll head over that way and see if I can find them.  Sad to say, Little Joe’s probably with them.”

Hoss caught hold of Sport’s reins and held him back.  “You think them two are fillin’ Joe’s head with that there rebel nonsense, ‘cause of his mama bein’ from the South.  Don’t you?”

Their Pa had never said, but it was pretty likely the de Marigny’s had slaves.   Living in Louisiana, it would have been unusual if they hadn’t.   He’d been too young when Marie was alive to consider asking her about it.  He wondered now if she would have believed owning another human being was acceptable.

Could her son?

“Adam, I think I better go with you,” Hoss said, his tone concerned.  “You’re thinkin’ too much for your own good.  You’re gonna fall off of that horse or hit your head on a low-lyin’ branch or somethin’.”

The black-haired man forced a smile.  “No.  I’ll go. Little Joe and I need to…clear the air about a few things.  Maybe this will give us the chance.”

Hoss was silent a moment, then he asked, “Adam, what happened between you two that day after you went for each other?  What was it made you think you and Little Joe couldn’t live under the same roof?”

It humbled him still to think it had been Joe who had offered the olive branch to him – after all that he’d said.

“I just figured there wasn’t room enough for both our big heads.”  Adam made a kissing noise as disentangled Hoss’s fingers and backed his horse away from his brother.  “Pa should be home soon.  Don’t tell him where I’ve gone or why.  He’ll be mad enough to eat the Devil with his horns on when he realizes Joe went off without his permission.  Just let him think he’s out mending fences or something.  Okay?”

“Sure ‘nuff.   You find little brother, Adam, and you haul that skinny little hiney of his back here.  You hear me?  Don’t you let him go and give you none of his guff.”

Adam crossed his heart with his fingers.  “Though, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll haul all of him back here and not just his skinny little hiney.”

“How come?  It’s the only thing Pa needs to take to the woodshed,” Hoss said with a wink.

Poor Joe, Adam thought as he let his horse take the lead.

So much for being grown-up.

 

So much for being grown-up.

Little Joe Cartwright felt as green as spring grass.  Laughter followed him to the river as he ran to it and dunked his head, surfacing and spluttering as the icy cold water ran from his spiraling curls into his eyes and nose.  It had been all he could think of to do.

That, or he could’ve laid on the ground and puked his guts out.

It had all started out innocently enough.  Ab and Val were good guys in spite of what his stone-cold blue-blooded Yankee brother thought.  They knew Adam wanted to fire them and they’d all had a good laugh as Val described Adam’s face when Jake said he couldn’t.  If it had stopped at that he would have been fine, but it didn’t.  Ab, who was the older twin by about ten minutes, had gone on about New England women and feeling the frost down south and Val had joined right in makin’ references to Adam’s mother and how she must of thawed at least once.

Now, that didn’t set right with him.  After all, he and Adam had nearly come to blows after Adam said, well, what he said about his mother.

Val, who was closer to his age by that ten minutes, seemed to get a sense that they’d gone too far and that was when he pulled out a bottle of coffin varnish and passed it around and, well, bein’ a man, he couldn’t rightly turn it down as it went round and round.

And then the world started goin’ round and round.

And he ended up at the river.

It was gettin’ dark and the sun was setting.  It must have been nigh onto seven and he was gonna get it good for missin’ supper when he got home.   Unless Pa was still away.  Adam would lecture him, but he wouldn’t really care.

Of course, there was Hop Sing to consider.  When it came to missin’ a meal, Pa paled in comparison.

A shadow fell across him as Joe looked up through the fringe of sodden brown curls that dangled in front of his eyes.  It took him a second to recognize Ab.  Bein’ twins, Ab and Val looked just alike.  Both had long, lean faces and a scrub of beard his pa would have tanned his hide for not shaving.  Both had pale blue eyes and sandy eyebrows and hair the color of a buckskin in winter.  Sitting in the middle of both brothers’ faces was a boney nose that flared at the end.   But it was there the similarities ended.  Val always had an easy way about him and a ready smile.

Ab near always looked like he was sizing you up and considering whether or not to shoot you.

“Seems like Val was wrong,” Ab droned in that lazy southern way of his.  “General Lee don’t need no sissy boy what can’t hold his liquor in his ranks.  Then again – seein’ as how you’ve had it so easy – them Yankees would fill you so full of holes the first time you stepped on a battlefield, it’d come leakin’ out right soon enough.”

He was thinking about it.  Going with them to defend his mama’s home and way of life.

Or he had been.

“You take that back,” Joe growled between chattering teeth.

“Or what, sissy boy?” Ab snorted as he lifted the near-empty bottle to his lips and took a deep drink.  “You gonna do somethin’ about it?”

He might be chilled to the bone, but he was also steaming.  Here, he’d thought these men were his friends.  But now they were…well…  Joe drew a deep breath and held it against his rising anger.

They were drunk as a skunk just like he was and probably had no idea what they were saying.

“Leave him alone, Ab,” he heard Val remark.  “Don’t say somethin’ you’ll regret later.”

Ab stared down at him for several heartbeats.  Then his face broke into a smile.  “You oughta see your face, Cartwright!” the blond snorted as he reached out a hand to help him up.

Once he had a head building, it was nearly impossible to blow it off.  Still, he tried.  Joe drew several more deep breaths and reached out – only to have Ab take his hand and shove him backwards so he ended butt-down in the water.

“Didn’t that college-educated brother of yours ever tell you the first rule of war is that its based on deception?” Ab laughed.  “Never let your enemy know what you’re thinkin’.’

“I didn’t think I was your enemy!” Joe countered sharply.

Ab sneered as he lifted the bottle to his lips.  “You ain’t signed up yet.”

Val was pushing past his brother.  “Here, Joe, let me give you a hand,” he said.

Ab stopped him.  “Leave him be, little brother.  Cartwright’s got some thinkin’ to do.”   The older twin pinned him his pale, cold eyes.  “We leave day after tomorrow for Virginia.  You need to decide if you’re comin’ with us or not – if you are a true son of the South or not – or if livin’ among all them Yankees has made you soft as a snake’s underbelly and good for nothin’ but some blue coat wipin’ his feet clean on you.”  The blond paused and then asked, “You ever killed anyone, boy?”

I could kill you now’, Joe thought.

“Sure I have,” he snarled and then instantly felt guilty for feeling proud of it.

Ab was looking at him, but it seemed he was also looking through him to some distant place.  “The fields will run red with Yankee blood, Joe.  It’s the only way.  Those northerners want to destroy our way of life – the life your mama loved.  We have to keep it safe.  It’s a sacred trust.”  The pale man’s eyes sought him out.  “You think about that, Cartwright.  You think about your mama.”

“Ab, come on.”  Val was pulling at his brother.  “Come on.  You’re drunk as a peach orchard sow .”

Ab stumbled a bit as he gave in to his brother.  He went a few paces and then turned back and saluted.  Joe began to right himself as the two brothers headed for their horses.  Ab mounted and so did Val just as he cleared the muddy bank and headed for them.  Then, Ab did something he hadn’t expected.

He pulled his gun and shot it off, sending Cochise flying toward the Ponderosa.

“Nothin’ like a nice long walk to give a man time to think,” Ab said as he and Val rode away and his voice receded into the growing darkness.  “Johnny Reb will be here waitin’ for you tomorrow, Cartwright, if you got the balls to put on the gray.”

 

Ben Cartwright stood in the doorway of his elegant timber home watching as his middle boy slowly walked an elegant golden brown horse in circles around the yard.   She was favoring her left foreleg after a mishap where she bolted and took her rider into a fence.  The mare couldn’t really be blamed.  There had been a disagreement about a bet that had been placed on how quickly Charlie could break her.  One of the hands had become angry and drawn his gun.  It had gone off unexpectedly.  Needless to say that man was no longer employed on the Ponderosa, and the rest of them had been severely reprimanded after being reminded that no gambling was permitted on the Ponderosa.

Leaving the porch, the older man approached his son and asked, “How’s she doing?”

Hoss’ face lit with a brilliant smile.  “She’s just about happy as a fly in a current pie, Pa.  That leg of hers is gonna be fine in a day or two.”

“Let’s hope the same can be said for Charlie,” he said with a wry smile.  Their hand had broken his leg when he went flying into the fence.

“I sure hope so, Pa,” his son replied, sobering.  “I sure wouldn’t want to have to put Charlie down.”  A moment later, the smile returned.  “Then again, maybe he’s just buckin’ for a cushy job.”

This time he laughed out loud.  Charlie was one of their best wranglers and bronco riders.  Getting him to take a ‘cushy’ job would be tantamount to getting Little Joe out of bed in the morning without a battle royale.

Joseph….

Ben looked at the stable and then to the path leading up to the house.

“Hoss, where exactly are your brothers?”

Hoss had bent down and was checking the mare’s leg.   He didn’t look at him.  “Little Joe was out mendin’ fences last I heard.  Adam was headed to town.  He said he’d stop by and tell Joe it was time to head home.”

The rancher eyed the setting sun.  “And how long ago was this?”

Still, his son didn’t move.  “I ain’t right sure, Pa.  Four, maybe five o’clock.”

“Hoss, put the mare’s leg down and look at me.”

Ben watched his giant of a son grimace and then do as he was told.  Hoss wiped his hands on his brown pants as he came toward him.

“Yes, sir?”

“What aren’t you telling me?”

From the time he’d been a little boy, Hoss had always made faces.  Sometimes they were comical.  At other times, heart-wrenching.  The one he favored him with now was somewhere in-between.

“Well, Pa, it’s like this, there ain’t really anythin’ to tell.  Little Joe weren’t home yet and Adam went to fetch him.”  Those mountain spring clear blue eyes met his.  “If you remember right, Pa, you told Little Joe that south fence needed mendin’.  Adam figured he’d gone out there and…”

Ben’s dark eyebrow peaked.  “Figured?”

Hoss gulped.  “Yes, sir.”

“Did your brother go out to mend fences or not?  Surely he told you before he left.”

“Well, that’s the problem, Pa.  Didn’t neither one of us see him go off.  Little Joe just sort of – go’d, if you know what I mean.”

Yes, he knew what he meant.  Joseph had some burr under his saddle and he’d flown off the handle yet again.

What was he going to do with that boy?

Ben corrected himself.   Joseph was almost nineteen.

Young man.

“You ain’t sore, are you, Pa?” Hoss asked, sounding and looking like that cherubic-faced little boy he remembered so well.

Ben glanced at the sun.  It wasn’t quite set yet.  There was still time for both of his sons to make a late supper.  He shook his head.

“No, I’m not.  At least not yet.”

 

He was finding out that it was a mighty long way back to the Ponderosa on foot.

Joe wasn’t sure exactly how far he and the Lathams had been out from the ranch when they parted.  Seven, maybe eight miles at most he guessed.  On a bright sunny day he could have done it in two, maybe three hours, but it wasn’t sunny, it was night and black as pitch and he had to watch every step he took since his steps were, well, less than straight.  He’d flown out of the yard in a hurry without eating, anxious to be on his way before Hoss or Adam could ask him where he was going.  He didn’t lie.  Well, he didn’t like to lie and really didn’t do it much.  He just made it a habit of kind of not telling the whole truth when it suited his purposes.

Like when he was meeting up with a couple of men who were trying to talk him into signing up to fight for Frederick Kyle’s grand ‘Cause’.

The whole thing with Kyle had left him confused.  The man had seemed genuine enough.   Even with how it ended, Joe found it hard to fault a man for standing up for somethin’ he believed in so strongly.   While they’d been together, wooing the mine owners, he and Fred – that’s what Kyle said to call him – had time to talk.  Fred explained that what northerners said wasn’t true.  The war wasn’t about slavery.  It was about the threat to a way of life that was centuries old.  There wouldn’t be a United States without the South, he’d told him.  After all, it was a southern state – Virginia – that had first proposed  independence.

How could her cause be wrong now?

As Joe plodded along, ruminating, he was seized with a sudden desire to escape it all.  He was so torn up inside he didn’t know what to do.  He loved his family.  He loved the life he led.  He didn’t want to be anywhere else.

But.

But there was somethin’ in him that called him to the place his mama had called ‘home’.  The people in Virginia City, they liked to call him names.  Kids mostly, but sometimes the grown-ups did it too.  ‘Course, the only time they did it was when they thought he couldn’t hear.  He couldn’t count the number of times he’d gotten into a fight over some hurtful word hurled his way like a knife meant to cut deep.  Pa always said words couldn’t hurt you.  That you had to be a man and grow strong enough they  bounced right off of you.   But Pa was a Yankee too.  He was like Adam in some ways; like a great granite boulder that nothing could touch.  He wished he was more like his pa.

It was Pa always told him he was like his mama.

Joe halted in place as he felt a drop of moisture hit his nose.  He looked up at the sky and saw a change coming.  A bank of black clouds had moved in and it looked like they were going to have one of those cold late September rains.

“Great.  Just great,” he sighed.  “So much for God looking out for drunks and fools.”

A he pulled the collar of his coat up more tightly about his throat, Joe looked around.  There wasn’t much either way.  A small pile of rocks to his left with a bit of an overhang about three feet off the ground offered the best possibility of shelter.

Sniffling – and shuffling – the weary young man left the road.  Dropping to his knees, he squeezed his thin frame into the opening and was asleep before he knew it.

So fast, in fact, that he missed the brown bay that went riding past not five minutes later with his oldest brother on its back.

 

 

TWO

Ben Cartwright sat bolt upright as the front door to the ranch house opened.  He didn’t realize he had fallen asleep in the chair before the fire.  The blanket laying across his legs was mute testimony to the fact that he’d been there so long Hop Sing had crept in and covered him up against the chill.  The fire had been banked but it was still alive, which was a good thing since the sound of the rain on the roof indicated the shower that had finally arrived was a hard one.  Shifting, he looked toward the door, eager to see his two boys no matter how angry he was at the younger one.

He was sorely disappointed to see only his eldest.

“Adam?” he asked as he rose.

It was Adam’s turn to start.  “Oh.  Pa.  I didn’t know you were there.”  After he hung his hat and coat, his son turned back to him, the expression on his handsome face halfway between troubled and a smile.  “Though I could have guessed.”

Ben looked past him.  “Is Joseph in the barn?”

The half-smile vanished.  “I didn’t find him.”

Worry wrinkled his brow.  “You mean Joe’s out there – in this?”  Adam was soaked to the skin.  His son shivered as he watched.   “Forgive me,” he said, heading toward him.  “Come.  You need to sit by the fire.”

“Thanks, Pa.”  Adam ran a hand through his wet hair and then followed him to the area of the hearth.  “It’s cold out there.”

“Was your brother wearing a coat?”

“I don’t know, Pa,” he said as he sat on the stones so his back was to the fire.  “I didn’t see him leave.  Neither did Hoss.”

His youngest was notorious for heading out of the door ill-equipped for the weather.  “Well, let’s just hope Little Joe found a safe harbor somewhere that’s dry until he can make the ride home.  It’s been a long time since he had pneumonia and I’d like to keep it that way.”

“Joe’s smarter than he was when he was a kid,” Adam said.  “Or at least I think he is.”

Ben took a seat.  “And what is that supposed to mean?”  Adam’s lips were pursed.  His mind was somewhere other than where he was.   “Son?”

His oldest glanced up.  “Sorry.  I didn’t find Joe, but I did find Ab and Val.  They were drunk.  When I asked, they said they’d spent some time with Joe but they didn’t know where he’d gone after they split up.”

“Ab and Val?”  Ben felt the steam building.  “Little Joe was with Aberdeen  and Valentine Latham?  If you knew – ”

Adam winced.   “Hoss and I didn’t know, Pa.  We…suspected.  Little Joe’s been spending a lot of time with them.”

“In spite of my telling him not to.”

Adam paused.  “Probably because you told him not to, Pa,” he answered with a lop-sided grin.

Ben crossed his arms.  “I take it you find this amusing?”

“Pa, no.”  Adam held up a hand.  “Joe’s just, at that age.  I mean, how old were you when you struck out on your own?  Twenty?  Joe’s nearly there.”

The rancher pursed his lips.  “Adam, I know your brother is nearly the same age but, Joseph is….”

“He’s not a child, Pa.  Much as you or I may think it.”  Adam hesitated.  “Or want it.”

Did he?  Did he want his youngest to remain just that – young?  Was he unable to surrender the last tie to the ‘boy’ he loved so – unwilling to see him as a man?

No.  It wasn’t that.

The rancher drew in a breath.  It was hard to admit, but it had to be said.  “I’m afraid, I’ve spoiled your brother.”

Adam blinked.  “What?”

“I’ve…spoiled him.  I’ve regretted so how hard you and Hoss had to work.  How neither of you had a childhood.  I wanted to make sure Joseph did, and it seems I may have done him a disservice in doing so.”

Adam was quiet for so long he was afraid he agreed.

Finally, his eldest blew out a little breath.  “Pa, I admit Joe has been…indulged in some ways.  You’ve let him get by with things that would have left Hoss or I unable to sit for weeks.  But,” he held a hand up to stifle his response, ‘he’s not spoiled.  He’s a good kid.”  Adam snorted.  “A good man.”

Ben thought a moment.  “Even if he defied me to spend time with the Latham brothers?”

“Joe’s not thirteen anymore, Pa.  None of us can tell him who to spend his time with.  We can only…encourage him to choose the right company.”

He considered for a moment whether or not to say what was on his mind.  In the end, he didn’t have to.  Adam said it for him.

“You’re worried because they’re from the South.”

Ben nodded. “Your brother came home when Frederick Kyle left.  I’m not sure….  If Kyle hadn’t left, well, I’m not certain your brother might not still have been under his spell.  Little Joe’s  last words to me on the subject of where he belonged were ‘I think I know that now,’ when I told him his place was here.”

“That trump card of handing Joe Marie’s portrait did a lot of damage.”  Adam paused.  “Did you ever figure out how he came by it?”

“I asked Joseph.  He said Kyle told him he’d had it many years.  He said he knew Marie.”  Ben thumbed his chin.  “I’m not so sure he did.”

“Oh?  Why?”

“For one thing, he was from Kansas, not New Orleans.  And from what I was able to find out about him, his life was there and it was there he did most of  his rabblerousing.”

“Maybe they knew each other when Marie was young.  She looked young in the portrait.  Like a girl.  And her hair was darker.”

“Maybe.  But if you ask my opinion, Frederick Kyle is a zealot who would use any and every means he has at his disposal to get what he wanted.  I asked your brother if Kyle ever said anything personal relating to his mother.  Your brother’s  answer was only that Marie had been a ‘gracious and beautiful woman.’  Anyone could have said that.”

“So you think he got the portrait from someone else?”  Adam paused.  “Someone who knew Little Joe was her son and sent Kyle looking for him?”

It was his fear.  Most likely it was an unfounded one, but then again, when it came to Joseph most times his intuitions proved correct.

Adam stood.  “I better go back out.  If someone’s targeted him – ”

“Now, Adam, don’t go off half-cocked.  I could be….”  Ben’s voice died away as the front door opened again and Hoss blew in with a chill wind.  He expected his middle son to remove his coat and hat as well, but he just stood there.   “Hoss?  What is it?”

“I just brought Cochise in,” the big man replied, his crisp blue eyes narrowed with worry.   “Joe weren’t with him.”

 

It was one of the most miserable nights Little Joe Cartwright had ever spent in his life.   Oh, he’d been soaked before – plenty of times – but those were times he remembered with joy.  Him and his family camping out when a sudden cloudburst took them unawares.  He and his brothers going fishin’ and ending up walkin’ home in the rain.  That time him and mama went berry picking and ended up taking shelter in a cave until Pa came and rescued them with lots of hugs and kisses.

This time he was alone.  He wasn’t good at bein’ alone.  He yelled about it enough, tellin’ everyone that he wanted to be, but he didn’t.

Not really.

When he was alone he had too much time to think, and that wasn’t a good thing since his thinkin’ was as much of a battlefield as sleepin’ was.   Just like in his bed, everything pulled away from the edges and got twisted and turned around him so that he couldn’t find a way free.  That was what had happened just a few minutes before.  It was just before dawn and he’d started out walking again, headed for the Ponderosa.  He’d covered about a half-mile when he stopped in his tracks.  He knew what waited for him if he went back to his father’s house.  He’d be scolded like a little boy and sent to bed without any supper.  His pa would lay the law down, saddlin’ him with chores and what-not, while his older brothers snickered behind his back and agreed with his father that he couldn’t be trusted to clean the snot out of his own nose.  Pa would forbid him to go into town and tell him he couldn’t see his friends, and life would go on as it always did with Joseph Francis Cartwright as everyone’s whipping boy.

Joe drew a deep breath and turned his feet in the opposite direction.

Or, he could walk away.  Just plain walk away and never go back.  He could go somewhere else – somewhere where he wasn’t anyone’s baby boy or brother; where they took him for what they saw and saw that he was a man.

It was mighty tempting.

With a shake of his head to dislodge the still wet curls than dangled there, Joe reached into his pocket and drew out the portrait of his mother Fred had given him.  She looked awful young in it.  Not quite his age.  He wondered what she had been like then.  From everything his pa had told him it was a sure bet she had been headstrong and completely sure she knew what she wanted – which at that time was marrying Jean de Marigny.  Joe let his fingers trace the fine lines of the face he wished he remembered.

She’d come to regret that decision soon enough, after Jean’s family poisoned him so he turned his back on her.

Just like he’d regret turning his back on his family.

Joe bit his lip and sucked in a breath.  No.  If he was going to leave, he’d do it honest.  He’d tell his pa to his face and let him have a goodbye.  He wouldn’t be much of a man if he slunk off in the night like a coward, as if he was ashamed of what he was doing.

Now, would he?

With one last glance at the portrait, Joe tucked it back inside his shirt where it would be safe and then turned his feet north again.  It was at that moment that he heard the rig coming.

It was a moment too late.

 

Adam had just left the kitchen. As he rounded the corner, he found his father buckling on his gun belt and reaching for his hat.   The older man was already wearing his coat.  The black-haired man’s hazel eyes flicked to the scene just outside the opened front door and then back to the determined older man.

It was still dark.

“Pa, what are you doing?” he asked after he swallowed the half-piece of bacon he ‘d bitten off.

“Going to look for your brother.”

“It’s still dark.”

His father looked at him the same way his English professor had the first time he’d used ‘ain’t’ in a sentence.

“I’m not unaware of the hour of the day.  Your brother didn’t vanish just outside the door.  By the time I get to the last place we knew Joseph was, it will be light.”

“The rain probably washed away most of the tracks.”

Pa’s hand was on the latch.  He pivoted back.  “And what do you suggest?  I abandon your brother to those fates you are so fond of?”

That stung.

“No, Pa.  I just meant…why don’t you wait on Hoss?  He can track a snake’s trail on a sand dune.  If anyone can find Joe, it’s him.”

“And just who do you think taught your brother to track?” his father snapped.  A second later the older man passed a hand over his face.  “I’m sorry, Adam.  I’m worried about your brother.  He could be injured.”

He tried a smile.  “More likely he’s footsore and more than a little bit mortified.”

“Cochise might have thrown him.”

“I didn’t see no evidence of that , Pa.” Hoss said as he descended the stair to join them.  “The saddle and cinch looked fine.  Didn’t see no signs of anythin’ out of the ordinary.”

“Except your brother’s horse without your brother.”

“There was that,” Hoss admitted.

“Look, Pa,” Adam tried.  “I just came from the kitchen. Hop Sing has a hot breakfast ready to put on the table.  If you don’t want to start a civil war all of our own here on the Ponderosa, I would suggest you put off leaving long enough to eat it.”

“That bacon smells mighty good, Pa,” the big man beside him said.

“I promise, once we eat, all three of us will go look for Joe.  Okay?”  Adam grinned.  “After all, what difference can an hour or two make?”

 

“An hour or two will make no difference,” the gray-haired woman proclaimed as she took her seat in the carriage, her voice stiff and indifferent as the starched white petticoats she smoothed as she spoke.   “Someone will come along to help.  We can’t get involved.”

Margaret had not let her get out of the rig.  Sarah was sitting on the padded seat at the back, her knuckles white where they gripped its open side.  The light was just dawning and it was hard to see, but she could just make out the crumpled form of the man they had hit that lay beside the road.  Maggie’s husband, Thomas, was with him.  The older man had been pushing the team hard, seeking to make up for time they had lost in the storm.  They’d come around a blind curve and he’d just been standing there, in the middle of the road.  She’d never forget the sound it made when the carriage wheel caught him and he screamed.  Her body still shook with the thought of the pain-filled cry.  She’d been afraid he was dead until she saw the older man rise and nod, indicating whoever it was, was still alive.

Turning, Sarah caught the arm of the stern woman sitting next to her.  “We can’t get involved?  We are involved!  We’re responsible, for goodness sake!”

Margaret Spencer was a pretty lady.  Or she had been before she’d forgotten what it was to laugh.   A persistent fear pinched the skin about her big brown eyes and creased the ends of her once full lips, turning them down in a perpetual frown.

It had only gotten worse since they had taken her in.

The older woman sighed.  Her head dipped and then she turned to look at her.  “You know you can’t be seen.  I told Thomas it was wrong to bring you out in the buggy, but he insisted.  A ‘nice jaunt in the country’, he said.  What could be the harm in that?”

Sarah was peering through the dark, trying to see the man they’d hit.  She’d caught a glimpse of him earlier and he looked young – maybe younger than she was.

“You can’t leave him out here!  He’s someone’s son!  Maybe even someone’s husband and father!”  She paused, knowing she tread on thin ice.  “What if that was Evan lying there?”

“You will not mention my son’s name!” the older woman snapped.  She drew a deep breath and held it.  A little air came out with each word as she spoke.  “I am only thinking of your own good, Sarah.  We have no idea who this young man is.  What if he’s…one of them?”

Sarah bit her lip.  She thought fast and furiously.  “What if I promise not to see him?  I’ll stay hidden for as long as he’s with us.”

“Sarah, you can’t – ”

“Yes!  Yes, I can!”  She gripped the older woman’s arm with both gloved hands.  “Please, we can’t leave him to die.  It wouldn’t be…”  Sarah paused, thinking of something to tip the scales in her favor.  “It wouldn’t be Christian.”

Margaret Spencer blinked and coughed.  The ice didn’t break, but it definitely began to thaw.  “Child,” she said, “I feel for the young man as much as you, but our welfare must come first.”

“Maggie.”

They both turned to find Maggie’s husband had come alongside the rig.  Without preamble, he said, “I know the boy.”

The stern woman stiffened as Sarah asked, “Who is he?”

He answered her, but continued to look at her companion.  “It’s Ben Cartwright’s youngest son.  We can’t leave him here to die.  We’ll have to take him home with us.”

“No!  Leave Sarah here with me.  You can take him to the Ponderosa and – ”

“His leg’s injured, Maggie.  It’s bleeding badly.  He needs attention now and our place is much closer than –”

“No!”

The older man reached in and placed his hand on his wife’s arm.  “Maggie, no one knows Sarah is here.  All she has to do it remain hidden until the boy’s family can come to get him.  It will be one day.  Maybe two.”

“I can do it.  Please!  You have to help him!” Sarah pleaded.

Thomas Spencer’s gaze was steady.  “It’s the right thing to do, Mags.  It would be even if I didn’t owe Ben Cartwright.”

The scowl remained firmly planted on the older woman’s face.  “Where will you put him?”

“In back with Sarah.”

“No!  You can’t!”

“He’s out of his head with pain, Maggie.   Even if he sees her, the boy will think it’s part of a dream when he wakes.  Now, come on, I need help to get him to the carriage.”

When Margaret failed to move, Sarah did.  As she left the rig, her companion’s hand caught her wrist.  “Not a word,” she warned.

With a nod, Sarah finished her descent and went to help.

The sight of the young man’s body, twisted, and lying in the mud as if no one cared, nearly broke her heart.  In spite of Margaret’s warnings, Sarah leaned down and placed a hand alongside his muddy and bloodied face.

“What’s his name?” she asked, her voice a breath on the wind.

“I think it’s Joseph,” the older man said as he set about securing the injured man’s leg so they could move him.

“Joseph, “ she whispered as she shifted a lock of tangled brown curls off of his brow, which  was wrinkled with pain.  Then she said it again, louder.  “Joseph?”

A little moan was her answer.

“Joseph?  Can you hear me?  You’re going to be all right.”

He moaned again, and then his long eyelashes fluttered.  Finally, his eyes opened on a world filled with pain.

They were startlingly green.

As he lifted a hand toward her, he breathed, “Mama…?”

Catching his hand, Sarah pressed it between her own as she said,  “No.  My name is…Sarah.  The Spencers and I…found you beside the road.  You’re going to be all right.  We’re going to take care of you.”

“Sarah….”

She glanced at the man who had taken her in.  He shrugged and then continued in what he was doing, drawing a startled cry from the younger man as he shifted his leg so he could bind it between two branches.

“I’m sorry, Joseph.  We have to make sure your leg is secure before we can move you.”

“No….”

She shifted so she was seated on the ground beside him.  ”We do.  I’m sorry.  We – ”

“No.  Just…Joe.  Pa only…calls me…’Joseph’ when he’s…mad….”

Tears were streaming down her cheeks.  She turned to Thomas Spencer.  “Will he be all right?” she asked.

The older man shrugged.  “I can take care of his leg, but there’s no knowing if he’s torn up inside.  Only time will tell.”  With a grunt, he stood.  “There.  It’s ready.”

“Will it hurt him?” she asked, still clinging to Joe.

A gentle hand fell on her head.   “I won’t lie to you, Sally.  Yes, it will,” he replied, using the nickname she’d been given by Master Burl.  Looking down at Joe Cartwright, he added softly, “If the Lord is merciful, he’ll pass out before he knows it.”

And that was just what Joe did.

 

Adam led the way back to where he had come across the Latham brothers the night before.  Both of them had been so drunk you’d have thought walking was a lost art.  While his father disapproved of his ranch hands drinking, there was really nothing he could do about it when they were off the job.  Of course, Ab and Val had been sent out to work by their foreman, but there was no placing a time on when they’d started drinking.  Still, between their misconduct and the unfavorable influence their father feared they had with his little brother, the black-haired man figured the twins would soon be looking for another place to work.

Preferably one far away.

From the point where he had encountered the Lathams, they continued on until they came to the lake and were forced to turn back.  Pa had some notion Joe might have gone to his mother’s grave to talk to her.  It made sense.  Joe usually went there when he was troubled or had an important decision to make.

Like whether or not to run off and join up with Johnny Reb.

He didn’t really think Joe would do it.  Not without saying goodbye, at least.   Still, there was no accounting for his little brother when Joe was in one of his ‘moods’.  In any case, they hadn’t found him there and were now headed back to the ranch.  Hoss continued to search the ground for signs as they went.  At one point the big man had found a shallow depression under a rocky shelf where someone had lain.  They’d followed the man’s tracks until he encountered a rig and then they disappeared, so they figured he must have climbed aboard.   There was no reason to suspect it was Joe, other than that the man had been a lightweight and on foot.  His father had contemplated following the buggy to its destination, but decided against it since it hadn’t headed for either the Ponderosa or town.

It only made sense Joe would have been heading one way or the other.

They rode now, three abreast, down the Virginia City rode, aimed toward the Ponderosa.  No one really had anything to say.  Even though Little Joe was absent, he was present in all their thoughts.  Hoss rode between him and his father, acting as the buffer he always was, tolerating their silence but offering an encouraging word of his own now and then.  After a while Adam stopped hearing anything his brother had to say.  With each clop of Sport’s hooves on the packed earth, he was driven back to that day – the day he and Joe had nearly come to blows over an idea that, until that day, neither one of them had entertained – an idea that loomed larger than their love for each other and threatened to drive a wedge between them where no wedge should be driven.  An idea that, should it become reality, would separate brother from brother forever.

It was funny, though.  It wasn’t the last argument with Joe that thudded through his brain as he rode, resounding through him with each strike of a hoof on earth.  It was one he had had with Marie shortly after their pa had brought her home as his new wife.  He’d been thirteen then – a bad age to spring anything unexpected on.  If he was honest, he’d have to admit he’d felt betrayed by his father’s easy dismissal of his feelings on the matter.  A tight smile quirked the corner of his lips.  In a way, he’d been like Little Joe then – a bit of a mouthy hothead.

Marie had cut him right down to size.

He could see her standing in the doorway to his room.  He had his back to her and was packing a satchel.  He’d remained that way, waiting for the inevitable pleading, for her protestations that she hadn’t meant to call him a child and anger him so; that his father couldn’t live without him and please, please, please would he stay.

Instead she walked over to his dresser, opened the drawer, and began to hand him his clothes.  When he’d asked her ‘why’, she’d said he was a man and a man had a right to make his own decisions.

Just like his father.

It didn’t solve everything between them, but it did make him think.  And in time he grew to see how wise she was and to love her deeply.   Pa was always saying how much like his mother Joe was.

He could only hope he was right.

 

 

THREE

He decided it had to have been an angel he saw.  It was the only thing that made sense.  He had a clear picture in his head of a pretty brown-haired woman leanin’ over him, holdin’ his hand and speaking low while she brushed the curls back from his forehead with her whisper-soft fingers.

It was definitely not the matronly women staring at him now with disapproval written into every line of her pencil-thin form.

“I have never heard such nonsense!” she huffed.  “Obviously, the boy is out of his head.”

“Yes, Mags,” the older man who moved at the periphery of his vision said.  “I’m sure that’s it.”

Joe cleared his throat.  His voice was kind of weak.  Since the woman didn’t want to talk about the girl, he decided he’d ask her the other burning question he had on his mind.

“What…happened?”

The woman’s pale eyes flicked to the man before settling on him.  “What do you remember?”

He frowned.  It was hard to remember anything with his back hurting and his injured leg pounding and demanding his attention.  The woman had confirmed he’d hurt it.  He couldn’t remember how.

“I was…walkin’ home,” he said, licking his lips before he continued.  “I stopped and….”  The throbbing pain seized all of his attention for a moment.  With a whoosh of breath, he let out, “I can’t remember…anything else.”

“We found you beside the road,” the woman said quickly, cutting off whatever the man had been about to say.  “You have no idea how you got there?”

He thought about shaking his head, but decided against it.  “No, ma’am.”  Raising his head a bit, Joe looked down at his leg, which was bound tightly between two boards.  “How bad…is it?”

“Thomas did the best he could,” the woman replied.  “The bleeding has stopped.  We’re too far out to send for a doctor.”

The older man saw his worried look.  He smiled.  “I was a soldier once, son.  You’ll be fine.”

Joe gave him a little nod.  Then he frowned again.  “I’m sorry.  I never…thanked you for helping. me.”  He paused to look from the one to the other.  “Thank you.”

That was stupid.

Or maybe not.  Miracle of miracles, the woman smiled.

“Thomas says you are Ben Cartwright’s youngest boy,” she remarked.

“Yes, ma’am.  Do you know my Pa?”

“Are you cold, son?” the man asked him.  When he nodded, Thomas went to toss another log on the fire.  “Your father helped me many years ago.  I was a struggling homesteader then.  Maggie and I wouldn’t have made it through the winter of ’41 to 42 without him.”

He noted how the older woman stiffened – and quickly changed the subject.

“We’ve  sent word to your father that you’re here.  I’m sure he’s concerned.”

Joe twisted so he could look out the window.  The sun was bright.  He figured by the angle it must be nearly noon.

“Yes, ma’am.  Pa will be worried sick.”

“Did he expect you home last night?”

Joe hesitated.  “Yesterday afternoon, ma’am.”

The look she gave him was worthy of Abigail Jones checking his examination paper.  “I see.”

And she probably did.

“Now, Mags, you’re going to wear the poor boy out with all your questions.”  Thomas took the woman by the arm and drew her to her feet.  “Are you hungry, Joseph?”

“Just ‘Joe’, sir.  And yes, I am.”

A look passed between the couple.  One he had no idea what it meant.  The woman nodded.  “I’ll go get you some stew.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” he said as he watched her go.  Then he gave the man a crooked little smile.  “She…doesn’t like me much…does she?”

The older man smiled at him as he sat on the edge of the bed and reached out to place a hand on his forehead.  “No fever so far,” he said.  “That’s a good sign.”  Thomas let his hand fall to his lap and remained silent for a moment.  “We had a boy like you once.  Long ago.  He died.”

“I’m…I’m sorry, sir.”

“Thom, please.”  He glanced toward the kitchen where the woman was rattling pans.  “Maggie blames herself.  She’s, well, she’s never gotten over it.  She’s grown hard as the winter’s barren earth.  It’s the only way she can bear it.”

Thom’s confession drove Joe into silence.  He closed his eyes and rested his head on the feather pillow beneath it.  As he did, that face came back to him – the one belonging to the angel.

“She was…real pretty,” he said, not knowing that he said it.

“Who?  Maggie?”  Thom chuckled.  “Yes, she was.  Like a May morning.”

Joe’s eyes popped open.  He smiled.  “I bet she was, but I meant…my angel.”

Something entered Thom’s eyes.  He glanced at the door before asking, “What angel?”

Joe’s eyes slid closed again.  With them shut, he could see her.  “She had…long curly hair that fell on her shoulders.  It was…brown as my saddle and shone just like it, copper in the dawn light.  Her eyes were brown too.  Brown…as my pa’s.”  He drew a breath and let it out slowly.  “She…she told me I was gonna be all right.”

When he opened his eyes again, the man was gone.  The light was gone too, so Joe figured he must have lost consciousness.  He knew when his stomach rumbled and twisted, makin’ his belly ache, that he had slept through lunch and dinner too.  Slowly, carefully, lest he disturb his splinted leg, Joe pulled himself up into a half-seated position.  There was a bowl on the table beside the bed.  It was probably the soup Maggie had mentioned earlier.  Since there was nothing wrong with his arms, he figured he could get hold of it and feed himself.  Even cold, it would taste like the best steak as hungry as he was.

The thing was, he was going to have to sit up to reach it.

He’d had a leg splinted before.  He knew how to move without disturbing it.  Trouble was, he didn’t reckon on how weak he was and before he knew it he was lying on the floor, gasping like a fish out of water, waiting for that stern old Maggie to come in and scold him.

Instead, he was visited by an angel.

“Silly boy,” a soft voice said as gentle hands touched his flesh.  He started as they did, though whether it was from surprise or something else, he wasn’t sure.  “What did you think you were doing?”

“I was hungry,” he answered, wondering how come an angel didn’t know that.

Didn’t they know everything?

“Let me help you back into the bed,” she said.

Joe didn’t resist.  He let her lift him and did his best to help, sliding back under the covers and feeling like a naughty little boy as she ‘tsked’ and tucked him in.

“Are you real?” he asked.

“Real as you want me to be,” the brown-haired angel replied as she reached for the bowl.  Taking the spoon in hand, she filled it and then moved it toward him.

Joe caught her arm.  It seemed solid enough.  He blinked back fatigue as she disengaged his fingers and held the spoon to his lips.  After taking a bite, he stared at her, fixing every feature in his mind.  Her hair was naturally curly, not made up in rolls like some of the girls he had courted.  It was pulled up at the sides in combs and cascaded like a waterfall to the shoulders of a pale green dress.  She wasn’t pretty like he’d thought.  She was beautiful as a Lake Tahoe sunrise, with big brown eyes and lightly tanned skin that seemed to glow.  Her lips were pink and perfect and her nose, well, her nose was like his – tiny with a little turn up at the end.

“Who are you?” he breathed after she had finished helping him eat and sleep sought to claim him.

“No one,” she replied, her voice taking on an odd tone.  “No one at all.”

He snatched hold of her hand as she started to rise.  “But…I can feel you.  You’re here.”

She slipped her slender wrist easily from his grasp and then bent over to plant a kiss on his forehead.   “No, I’m not.  You’re dreaming. “  It startled him when a tear struck his cheek.  “I don’t exist.”

Joe struck out for her again, but she was gone as if she had never been.  He tried to lift his upper torso so he could scan the room, but the effort was too much and he fell back to the bed exhausted.

And into a fitful sleep.

 

“All right, where is he?”

Ben Cartwright’s stentorian voice echoed off the walls of the bunk house, rousing the half-dozen tired men who slept there from a sound sleep.  Valentine Latham ran a hand through his scrub of hair as he flung his blanket aside and planted his bare feet on the floor.  He knew just which ‘he’ Mister Cartwright was looking for, but he wasn’t about to answer.

Ab would take it out in his hide if he did.

Feigning sleep, Val looked out from under the bush of blond hair hanging in front of his eyes and watched as his brother stepped up.

“Who you lookin’ for, Boss?” Ab asked, casual as could be.

“You know full well who!”

Ab took a moment.  “Oh,” he said, like it had just dawned on him.  “You mean Little Joe?  Like we told Adam, we had some fun with him last night, but he went his own way about sundown.”

Little Joe would be the last one to admit that all three of them had been drunker than a fiddler’s clerk and that he’d been stupid enough to be left stranded on the road.  What Ab had done – chasing away Joe’s pinto – had been right mean, but there was nothing for it once it was done.  He only hoped it didn’t make Joe sore at them.

Too much was riding on their friendship.

“Then can you explain to me why my son’s horse came in without him a few hours later?”

Ab shrugged.  “He was sure havin’ himself a high-heeled time.  Probably fell off of it.”

“Are you suggesting my son was drunk?”

Watch it, Ab, Val thought.  Watch it.

“I ain’t suggestin’ nothing, Mister Cartwright.  I’m tellin’ you.”  His brother paused and then added,  “A man’s got a right to get drunk if he wants to after the job’s done.  Don’t he?”

Ben Cartwright looked from one of them to the other.  “You two will pack your things and be gone by tomorrow morning.  Come to the house later and I will give you what pay is owed you.”

Val swallowed over his fear.  This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.   “Ab, maybe you better apologize to Mister Cartwright.”

The older man turned and looked directly at him.  “I’m sorry, son.  I don’t know what part you have played in this, but I will not put up with such subordination from one of my hands.”

“Sub-ordination.”  Ab snorted.  “Seems you got enough of that in that fancy ranch house of yours.”

Val had heard of Ben Cartwright’s temper.  Now he saw it in action.  “You will be gone by sundown and you will never set foot on Ponderosa land again!  If I catch you on my land, you will be subdued and delivered to the sheriff and charged with trespass.”  The rancher drew a breath and then bit off the next five words.  “Do I make myself clear?”

Ab saluted.  “Clear as mud, sir!”

With nary a backwards glance, Ben Cartwright stormed out of the bunkhouse.

Val grabbed his brother’s arm and spun him around.  “How are we gonna stay close to Joe Cartwright now?” he demanded.   “You just got us thrown off the ranch!”

“You see Joe around here?  Think about it, Val.  He’s decided to sign up.”  Ab snorted.  “We’ll just head to the meeting place.  You’ll see.  Joe will be there.”

“You sure?”

“Sure, I’m sure.  I ain’t cut out to be a cowpoke anyway.  Now, get your things together and let’s get out of here.”

A few of the men bid them fare well.  There were those they worked with who didn’t like the Cartwrights and their high-falutin’ ways, though they were more than happy to take their money.   Those were the ones who would be glad to see the patriarch of the Ponderosa taken down a peg or two.  But there were others who watched their departure with a mixture of curiosity and relief, chief among them Ben Cartwright’s oldest son.  Ab jauntily tipped his hat to both Adam and Hoss, who stood beside him, as they rode out of the yard.  A moment later they whooped, gave a rebel yell, and kicked their horses into high gear as they rode away to meet with the man who had hired them to steal old man Cartwright’s greatest treasure and make him pay.

Even though they had no idea for what.

 

It was morning when Joe roused again.  He shifted his aching body up onto the pillows until he was sitting up and then sat there listening to the sounds of the waking house.  It wasn’t a big one.  Probably no more than four or five rooms.  He knew that because there were windows on three sides of the one he occupied and the door was on the other wall with a staircase showing through it.  He’d been so out of it the night before that he hadn’t paid much attention to his surroundings.  Now, as he did, he decided the room must belong to a woman.  There were those little touches here and there that he remembered from his mama.  A fringed shawl cast over the back of a chair.  One of those funny little doilies placed under a box on the dresser.  Now that he thought about it, other than those few items, the room seemed kind of empty – like it had been recently abandoned.  As he wondered what that might mean, Thom’s gray head appeared in the open doorway, rising up on the stairs like a ship cresting a wave.  The older man smiled when he saw he was awake.  He had a tray in his hands.

“And how are you this morning, Joe?” Thom asked as he sat the tray down on the bedside table.

“Fine,” he replied.

Thom smiled as he shook his head.  “Evan used to say that too.  Whenever he did, I knew he wasn’t ‘fine’.”

“Evan?”  Joe thought a moment.  “Was that your son’s name?”

He nodded.  “ Don’t use it in front of Maggie.”

That puzzled him.  He couldn’t imagine his pa – if he died – not wanting to talk about him.  “Do you mind if I…”  Joe paused.  “I mean…how did he die?”

“He didn’t,” Thom said, confusing him further.  “He was murdered.”

“Oh.  I’m…I’m sorry.”

“So am I.  But he died for what he believed in.”

“He had a…cause, you mean?”

The older man looked at him.  “In a way.  Why?  Do you have a ‘cause’?”

“Not really, but I met a man who did.  He was…willin’ to do anythin’ for it.”

“You mean die?”

He frowned.  “That…and other things.”

“Joe, a cause can be a noble thing, if it is taken up for the right reason.  And it might even be worth dying for.”

“But?”

“But it can also possess a man…make him blind.”  Thom was thoughtful for a moment.  “The man who killed Evan had such a cause.”

“But killing a man just because you believe somethin’ and he doesn’t, isn’t right.  Is it?”

Thom picked up the bowl of soup.  The look he gave him reminded him not of Pa, but of Adam.

“Joe, how else could man fight wars?”  When he lowered his head, Thom asked him, “I never got a chance to inquire what you were doing in the middle of the road in the middle of the night.  Were you running away?”

“No.  Yes.”   He waited a moment and then added.  “I don’t know.”

“Are you angry at your father?”

His gaze shot to the older man’s face.  “No!  This has nothing to do with Pa.”

“Then, were you running toward this man – the one with the cause?”

Having nothing to say, he shrugged.

Thom handed him the bowl and spoon.  “Do you think you can feed yourself?”

Joe nodded.

“Well, the other is none of my business really.  I did send word to the sheriff in Virginia City last night that you are here.  I imagine he will get word to your father.  I hope that was all right.”

He nodded again.

Right now all he wanted to do was go home.

Thom rose and went to the door.  He paused there to look back.  “Joe, may I say one thing more?”

He was staring at the soup.  He really had no appetite.

“Go ahead.”

“I’m an old man and I have seen a lot of things.  I will tell you what I’ve learned.  There is nothing so sacred as family, no tie as strong; no cause as great.  If you feel you need a purpose in life, I pray you will look to that first.”

A single tear trailed down his cheek.  “Yes, sir.”

“Now, eat your food.  Maggie will have both our heads if she comes up here and finds that bowl full.”

Joe watched the older man go.  He was grateful when Thom pushed the door partly closed on his way out.  He’d kind of felt on display before.  He looked at the soup and even took a bite, but it turned his stomach and so he sat the bowl down and fell to studying his hands.  What Thom had said was something he knew in his heart.  It was what made him chase Adam down even after the hurtful things his brother had said to him.  Even though they had different mothers – different blood flowing through their veins – they had the same blood too and it was that tie – the one from their pa – that was the strongest.  The problem wasn’t that he didn’t feel like he belonged – like he was part and parcel of Pa and Adam and Hoss –it was that a piece of him was missing and he kept searching for it, even knowing that he’d never find it.

Knowing that it was buried six feet down on the shore of Lake Tahoe.

Restless, Joe tossed his covers aside and carefully sat up.  After several deep breaths, he swung his legs over the side of the bed.  Sitting there, he tested putting weight on the good one.  When he didn’t pass out from the pain, he grinned and then used his arms to push himself up so he was standing.  For a moment or two he wobbled and then he found his balance and hobbled the short distance to the window, drawn by the fresh air and the crisp smell of pine.  As he leaned on the windowsill, trying to determine which direction home lay in, he saw a flash of something colorful.  It drew his attention and he looked down just in time to see someone vanish into the trees.  He couldn’t say for sure, but he thought it was a woman.  A young woman.  One with curly brown hair and lightly tanned skin.

His angel come to earth.

 

A knock on the door startled them all, including Hop Sing who threw a piece of bacon halfway across the table.  They had returned home late in the day, passed a restless night, and then risen with the intent of heading out again.  At this point Ben knew if they found Joseph he would have a hard time chastising the boy.

All he wanted was his youngest safe and sound and home in his own bed.

Adam tossed his napkin down.  “I’ll get it, Pa.”

He put out a hand to stop him.  “No, I’ll get it.  You boys finish your breakfast. “

“You all stay put!” their cook ordered.  “Hop Sing’s job when Little Joe not home.  He get door!”

Hoss picked up the piece of bacon and popped it in his mouth.  “Seems like you  got your marchin’ orders, Pa,” he said with a grin as he munched.

They listened as the door opened and then saw Hop Sing step outside.  Ben was just about to leave the table to investigate when the small man reappeared, followed by Sheriff Roy Coffee.

Ben’s heart went to his toes.

Roy must have sensed it.  “Now you sit yourself right back down, Ben, and enjoy that breakfast.  It ain’t bad news I’m bringin’ you.  ‘Sides, I think you might need your strength for the ride.”

It was Adam who spoke first.  “Why?  Is Pa going somewhere?”

Roy was just about ‘bustin’ a gut’ as Hoss would put it.  The lawman was rocking back and forth on his heels and grinning.

“I hear you got a Cartwright missin’,” he said.

All of them were on their feet.

Amidst a chorus of ‘Have you found him?  Where is he?  Is Joe all right?’ Roy held up his hand for silence.  “You gotta give me room to speak for me to tell you!” he declared.

Ben stared his two older boys into silence.  “Well?” he roared.

“Seems Little Joe had a bit of an accident.  Some nice folks found him and fixed him right up.  Sent me word by a man passing by last night that he was at their place.”

“An accident?”  Ben asked, thinking of how Cochise had come in alone.  “We thought he might have been thrown from his horse.  Was that it?”

“I don’t rightly know, Ben.”  Roy fished in his pocket and came out with a note.  He handed it over.  “Folks by the name of Maggie and Thomas Spencer.”

Ben scowled as he read the note that stated simply that Joe had been found, he was all right, though injured, and that they should come and get him.  “Thomas Spencer.  Why does that sound familiar?”

“You remember, Pa,” Adam said.  “The Spencers came here shortly after you brought Marie home.  You helped them survive that first winter.”

Ben’s dark brows popped as he looked at his son.  “How is it you remember something so clearly that I seem to have all but forgotten?”

Adam’s cheeks turned a deep shade of pink.  “Marie wasn’t too happy about it.  Apparently she and Maggie Spencer didn’t hit it off.  She made it clear…”  Adam shrugged.  “Well, you know how she was.”

Yes, he did.  And he remembered it now.  Margaret Spencer was a hard woman.  She was one of those who had ostracized Marie because of her Creole blood.  The Spencers were southerners.  They’d come from Virginia where such things mattered.  New Orleans, though not immune to slavery – over eighty percent of the African population in the state were held as slaves – still had a more liberal view toward people of color.  Many were free and even the slaves could marry – and married couples could not be parted or their children sold away from them.

Ben drew a breath.  It had been years since he had seen Thom or his wife.  It seemed fate had determined that they would meet again.

“The note only says Joseph was injured,” he said as he turned back to Roy.  “Not how.  Did the man who gave it to you know anything else?”

“Said Thom told him Little Joe was pretty banged up when they carried him into the house, but he thought it weren’t too bad.”  Roy scowled.  “Sorry, Ben, that’s all he knew.”

He clapped his friend on the shoulder.  “It doesn’t matter, Roy.  We know where Joseph is now and we know he’s in good hands.”  He turned to his sons.  “Mount up, boys.  Let’s go bring your brother home.”

 

Sarah Spencer put a hand to the door of the upstairs room and pushed, quietly moving it in.  She stared at the prone figure on the bed, watching the even fall of his chest to make sure he was sleeping before entering.  Quietly, so as not to wake him, she sat in the chair beside Joseph Cartwright.  For several minutes she simply stared at him, noting how his small-boned face matched his tight, slender form.  She studied the way the waning light struck his hair, pulling bronze highlights out of the deep brown waves, with just a bit of a burnished silver tipping the ends of a few of the spiraling curls.  His skin was lightly tanned.  The color nearly matched her own.  Of course, while hers was natural, she knew his came from long days spent under the sun.  She’d held his hand before and knew it was callused from hard work.  This was no landed man; no lord of the manor who owned and ruled others with an iron fist.  This was a man who toiled and labored like those she knew and loved.  A man she could love.

If only she could.

The man who took her in had told her, before she came up, that he had sent for Joe’s family.  That was why, in spite of the danger, she’d come to the injured man’s room one last time.  She wanted to remember him and the best way to do that was to use the talent the good Lord had given her – the one she had been taken to Paris to refine.  The talent that made her a valuable commodity.

The talent she both loved and loathed.

As a child, it had transported her.  She would sit for hours using a pencil and paper, recording the world around her with all its wonders – trees, hills, streams, beasts of the field and the birds of the air.  There was a man who came to visit her mother.  He was a kind, gentle man who encouraged her.  After the days chores were done, she would sit and sketch everything she saw and when he came, he would praise her and tell her that one day she would be a great artist.  He told her too that one day he would come and take her and her mother away.

He came.  But he was the one who went away.

Sarah closed her eyes as a shudder ran through her, chilling the core of her being.  She hadn’t picked up a pencil and put it to paper since that night.

Until now.

Until Joseph Cartwright.

For some time, with the late afternoon sunlight streaming in the window and the dust twinkling as it danced along its beams she sat, sketching, making sure she recorded every nuance of the face she loved but knew she would never see again.   The one she knew she dare never see again.  Not if she wanted to be safe.

Not if she wanted Joseph Cartwright to be safe.

A familiar sound caught her attention, bringing Sarah to her feet.  She crossed to the window and saw three men in the distance, riding hard.  A sad smile lifted the corners of her lips.  It had to be Joseph’s family.  They’d gotten Thomas Spencer’s message and lost no time in coming.  That was what family did.  They looked out for one another.

Just as her father had tried to look out for her and her mother when the bad man came.

Crossing softly over to the bed, Sarah stood beside it.  After a moment, she leaned down and planted a kiss on the sleeping man’s forehead.  He stirred and reached out as if he knew she was there, even though he believed her nothing more than a dream.

Nothing more than an angel.

 

 

FOUR

Carter Burl gazed at his left hand a moment before employing the slender sterling silver tool he held to work a bit of stubborn dirt out from underneath the third and fourth fingernails.  As he did his cold gray eyes flicked to the pair of ill-bred western louts who stood ill-at-ease before him.  An unpleasant smile quirked his thin patrician lips as he considered how his very presence inspired fear in the men he employed.  Fear was a valuable commodity.  Almost as valuable as the commodity that had brought him to the Nevada Territory and required him to deal with such refuse to begin with.

Almost.

As he moved on to the mine the dirt from the next fingernail, Carter watched the shorter of the pair shuffle his feet.  The dark-haired man’s lips parted as if he intended to speak, but closed as a well-placed jab of his boney partner’s elbow warned him to remain silent.

Ah, the bouquet of the mastery of men.

Finishing with the pinky, Carter withdrew a small velvet pouch from the inner pocket of his heather-gray rifle frock coat and placed the silver tool in it.  Taking his time, he returned the pouch to his pocket and then turned his attention to the pair of ruffians.

“I understand you were recently in the employ of a man named Frederick Kyle.”

The pair exchanged glances before the shorter of the two replied.  “Mister Kyle made use of our services briefly,” he said, his tone cagey.  “Due to a disagreement as to how best to achieve the results he desired, we parted ways.”

Not so boorish as he looked, this shorter, darker one.

“The ‘results’ he desired…which were, if I might ask?”

“None of your business,” the tall boney fellow growled.

“Gorman, mind your manners.  Can’t you see Mister Burl here is a southern man of quality, just like Mister Kyle.  Why, I bet the two of you are good friends.”

“That depends,” Carter replied, “on what ‘results’ he achieved with or without your help.”

Gorman, a tall lanky drink of unwashed cowboy scrubbed his stubbled cheeks with his fingers and grunted, “Huh?”

“I presume Mister Kyle employed you to…shall we say…apprehend someone.”

Both men looked decidedly uncomfortable.  The shorter man, whose name was Regis, twisted his lips and scowled while his oafish partner blurted out, “You can’t blame us for that man’s death.  We didn’t go nowhere near that stage!”

Man’s’ ‘death’.

Hmm.  Not what he had expected.  Fear gripped him for a moment.  Kyle would not have dared….

“And who precisely is it that died?”

“A northern Senator, name of Hennessey,” Regis said, watching him.  “Something went wrong with the stage wheel and he and the other passengers died when the coach went over a cliff.”

Gorman was nodding.  “What he said.”

Carter breathed out the fear that had gripped him momentarily as he carefully considered what the man had said, wondering what Frederick had been up to, dealing with a senator from the North.  Then again, he supposed, the other man might have been looking after his own interests while working for him.   Frederick had some notion that he would find support for the Confederate cause among the financially powerful men of the West.  He believed the territory’s self-made men would stand on the side of state’s rights and lobby to have Nevada enter the union as a slave state.  Frederick was a naive fool.  The blood of businessmen ran cold.  They could care less who fought and who died – or on whose side. Their only interest in the coming war would be the cold hard cash that rode the backs of the valiant men who ‘gloriously’ fought and died.

Pinning the shorter and smarter of the pair with a look, he asked, “Was there anyone with the senator?”

Gorman snorted.  “Can’t you read, mister?  It was in the paper.”

Regis struck his oafish partner in the mid-section, evincing a satisfactory, ‘Oof’.  “Mister Burl just got here, you idiot!  How could he have read the paper?”  The shorter man looked at him.  “There was a woman, name of St. Clair.”

“No one else?”

Regis was shrewd.  His eyes narrowed with understanding – and greed.  “Do you want someone else dead, Mister Burl?”

Carter scoffed.  “Dead?  No, certainly not.”  A moment later his eyes narrowed as well, with both intent and malice.  “Destroyed would be a better word.  Mister Kyle was to see to the means for his destruction while I pursued…another matter of importance.  It appears he failed.”

“Well, he’s gone, if that’s what you mean,” Gorman said stupidly.

Regis was studying him.  “Wait a minute.  Cartwright?  It’s Ben Cartwright, isn’t it?  He’s the man you want destroyed,” he said, evidencing more intellect than he had given him credit for.

Carter Burl’s jaw tightened at the hated name.  Yes, he wanted Ben Cartwright totally and utterly destroyed and he had thought Frederick Kyle the man to do it.  Kyle was a charismatic zealot, completely consumed by his passions, as easily manipulated as he was good at manipulating others.  Though they differed in much, yet they had much in common, including a period of their lives spent in New Orleans.  While in the Crescent City they had dined in the same restaurants and frequented the same establishments, appreciating all that elegant metropolis had to offer

Including the beautiful Marie de Marigny.

Burl made a fist and his hand began to shake.  He knew it the moment he shared a bed with her.  She was to have been his – would  have been his if not for Benjamin Cartwright.  On top of the secret Cartwright discovered during his time in the city, Marie had another – and he had the papers to prove it.  She would have had no choice but to come to him once she knew what he had the power to do.

“Mister Burl?”

Carter snapped back to the present.  “Since Kyle has failed me and my professional attention is needed elsewhere, I wish to employ you to complete his task.”

“If you don’t want someone killed, what do you want us to do?” Gorman asked.

Fall into a cistern and drown in the muck, Burl thought, but resisted saying.

Instead, reaching into his pocket again, Carter produced a leather wallet.  He opened it and removed a  number of high dollar bills and handed them to Regis who proceeded to count them and then whistle in appreciation.

“That’s half,” he said.  “You’ll receive that much again when you delivery the young man to me.  The time has come to take drastic measures.”

“Young man?” Regis asked with a lift of his salt and pepper eyebrows.  A moment later, a greedy light dawned in the man’s pale eyes – quickly followed by a flicker of fear.  “Oh.  You mean – ”

Carter’s grin was as wicked as his selfish shriveled soul.  “The means to his father’s destruction.  Joseph Francis Cartwright.”

Regis removed his hat and swept it before him as he bowed.  “It will be our pleasure.”

As the two men began to move away, Carter called the shorter darker Regis back to his side.

“Yes?” the man asked.

“This is between you and me.  There is an additional thousand in it for you if you keep it from your..dubious partner.”

Avarice danced in the small man’s eyes.  “Name it.”

“You are capable, I assume, of accomplishing more than one task at a time?”

“I can juggle with the best of them,” he sneered.

Carter drew a flier from his pocket and handed it to him.  “Well?”

The dark-haired man appeared perplexed.  “You want me to find a runaway slave?”

“A special runaway slave.  One I have invested a great deal of time, money, and…interest in.  Keep your eyes open.  Let me know if you see or hear anything.”

“May I keep this?”

The southerner nodded.  He knew the flier’s contents by heart.

Missing, one dusky beauty who goes by the name of Sally or Sarah.  Fine of form with dark hair and eyes as befits her origins.  Bright skinned.  Intelligent.  Can read and write and is proficient in the art of rendering.  A fine example of a quadroon female.

After all, he had written them.

 

Ben Cartwright closed the door to his youngest son’s bedroom and then made his way along the hall and down the staircase to the main floor of the ranch house.  Adam and Hoss were waiting for him, as he knew they would be, with anxious looks on their young faces.

“What’d the Doc say, Pa?” Hoss asked, near bursting with worry for his little brother.  “How’s Joe?”

It had been an arduous ride home, especially for his youngest.  They’d left the ranch so quickly after Roy told them Little Joe had been found, that they hadn’t considered how they would bring him back.  Thom Spencer had insisted that they take his rig, and they had.  Still, the long ride back to the Ponderosa in the small cramped vehicle, which was meant for little more than an afternoon’s jaunt, had taken its toll on his youngest.  Little Joe had been spiking a fever when they pulled into the yard, and by the time they had gotten him into the house and settled in his bed, he had developed a non-productive cough that wracked his weary frame.  Joseph insisted he was ‘fine’, as usual, and that it was just a cold.  Ben feared it might prove to be something far worse.  He knew from experience that an ague brought on by a chill could well prove fatal, and so he had sent one of the hands to Virginia City to fetch Paul Martin even before he had Joseph settled.  The older man had arrived a short time before and gone immediately up to see his patient.  After making certain their mounts were cared for and giving Hop Sing a few instructions, he had followed his old friend up the stairs and waited to hear his verdict before joining his other sons.

“Paul’s not sure.  Your brother could have a severe cold or, it could be influenza.”

Adam frowned.  “Influenza?”

“Apparently it’s in the area,” he responded with a sigh.  “Paul has treated a number of cases.  Some of them quite close by.”

“But the Doc’s not sure?  Right?” Hoss asked hopefully.

“No, Paul’s not sure, though he says Joseph’s symptoms are suspicious, especially with their sudden onset.”

“Little Joe’s just worn out, Pa,” Hoss replied.  “That’d explain ‘em, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes, son, that could explain it, and we’ll trust to Providence that’s all that it is.”  Ben moved to his chair and dropped into it.  He supposed it would have been too much to have hoped that Joseph would come through a night spent in the drenching rain hale and hearty.  “Knowing your youngest brother, he’ll be right as rain and complaining about being restricted to his bed in short order.”

“Can I go up and see Little Joe, Pa?” Hoss asked.

“When Paul comes down, son.  Not before.”

Obedient, but unhappy, Hoss nodded.   “You s’pose Joe’s hungry at all?  I could ask Hop Sing to fix somethin’ for him.”

“Hungry or not, your brother needs to eat to keep up his strength.  I think that’s a good idea, son.”

A grin spread over the big man’s face as he realized there was something he could do.  “I’ll go fetch him somethin’ then.”

As Hoss vanished into the kitchen, Adam turned to him with a smile. “You just made two men very happy – Hoss and Hop Sing.”

“I doubt Little Joe will agree.”  Ben looked up the stairs.

“How is Joe, really?”

The older man shook his head.  “Only time will tell.”

“Did you get anything out of him, Pa?  I mean, about what happened?  Where he went after he left Ab and Val?”

He’d sat in the back of the Spencer’s rig with his son, propping him up as they traveled.  They’d talked a little, but when it came to particulars, Joseph had seemed not evasive, but simply confused.

“I don’t think your brother remembers, Adam.  Perhaps the accident.  Maybe he hit his head…. “

“He did.  Little Joe has a good knot blossoming on the back of his skull as well as a good many other scrapes and contusions besides a couple of cracked ribs and that injured leg,” Paul Martin said as he descended the stairs.  “If you ask me, I would say something struck him hard.”  The older man paused as he reached the bottom.  “I think your boy was very lucky to come out whatever happened alive, Ben.”

“Cracked ribs?  Not broken?” Ben asked as he began to rise.

Paul Martin waved him back into his chair and then took a seat himself.  “Relax, Ben.  I didn’t say that to scare you.  It’s just that it’s apparent Joseph was struck by some sort of vehicle.  It’s plain in the bruising.”

“Would you like a brandy, Paul?” Adam asked as he rose.

The doctor nodded.  “Thank you, Adam.  These old bones of mine don’t handle an autumn chill like they used to.”

“You say Joseph was…run down?” Ben asked, appalled.  “And whoever did it didn’t bother to check and see if he was alive?”

“There are marks of a wheel on his flesh, Ben, so, yes.  As to whomever did it stopping to help….  It’s fully possible, with the wild weather that night, that they didn’t realize they had hit anyone.”

Ben watched the doctor’s face.  “Possible, but not probable.”

Paul took a sip and nodded again.  Then he said, “It’s not likely.  Hitting a stone or a rut in the road is very different from hitting a man.”

“Or a boy,” Adam added, his teeth gritted in anger.

“I can’t imagine just…riding away and leaving someone,” Ben growled as he thought of his boy lying there by the side of the road, alone and injured.  “What kind of a man could do that?”

“A scared one,” Paul replied.  “Someone who was afraid of the consequences, or maybe had something to hide.  Anyhow,” the physician finished his drink and placed the crystal stemware on the table before the settee, “Little Joe is here, safe, and he’ll be fine in time.  Now, I need to go finish my rounds.”

Ben stirred himself from where his dark thoughts had taken him.  “What do we need to do until you return?”

“Keep an eye on that boy of yours until I get back.  Don’t leave him alone for too long.  I want him in that bed and, knowing Little Joe, he will be out of it quicker than you can say Jack Robinson.  Also, I want to know if his fever goes any higher or if he experiences any trouble breathing, or pain in the chest or belly.  I’m hoping the only thing brewing is one heck of a cold and Hop Sing can take care of that.”  The physician met his troubled gaze.  “Those other symptoms, Ben, are a warning that it could be something more.”

“I’ll send one of the men to find you if something changes – and pray that it doesn’t.”

“That’s the ticket,” his old friend said and then added softly, “I’ve never seen anyone as resilient as that youngest boy of yours, Ben.  Even if it comes to the worst, that and God will see him through.”

“Thank you, Paul.”

After seeing the doctor to the door, Ben turned back into the great room just in time to see Hoss emerging from the kitchen carrying a tray.  Steam rose from it.

“I got Little Joe some broth, Pa, and some of that there herb tea Hop Sing says will cure anything this side of the Mississippi.”

“Thank you, son.  See that your brother takes some of both.” A slight smile curled the older man’s lips.  “And if he won’t, then you come and get me.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Pa?”

The rancher turned to look at his eldest son.  “Yes, Adam?”

“If it’s all right with you, I think I’ll take the rig back to the Spencer’s.  I’m sure they can use it and I’d like to take another look at the place where Little Joe was…struck…now that it’s daylight.  Maybe I can figure out what happened.”

Ben nodded.  “Though I’m not sure that it matters.  Whatever happened, the people who so wickedly abandoned your brother will be long gone.”

“I know, Pa.  It’ll just….”  Adam gave him that little self-effacing smile that was only his.  “I’ll feel better if I try.”

“You go ahead, son.”  As his eldest started to move away, he called him back.  “Oh, and son?”

“Yes, sir?”

“While you’re in town why don’t you pick up the mail – and let Roy Coffee know what happened.  I imagine running someone down counts as a crime.  He should know about it.”

Adam gave him a nod and then exited through the door.

It troubled Ben, thinking someone could be so callous as to abandon a young man to his fate after striking him with their vehicle.  With the weather being what it was, most likely it was an accident and not a deliberate act.  No one would expect someone to be walking on the road in the rain, and from what he understood, the accident had happened at a bend where the driver’s vision could have been occluded.  So why run?  As the doctor suggested, perhaps whoever had struck Joseph had something to hide.

Ben ran a hand over his slightly stubbled cheek and sighed.  Oh, well.  He supposed they would never know.

“Pa?”

Hoss’ troubled voice brought his reverie to an abrupt end.  “What is it, son?”

“Joe’s thrashin’ from side to side, Pa, and I cain’t wake him up.”

The rancher’s eyes went to the door.  He’d heard Paul Martin’s buggy pull away, but Adam should still be out there.

“Adam’s outside getting ready to head to the Spencer’s.  Tell him to go after Paul.  I’ll see to your brother.”

 

She was there standing just at the bend of the road, her slender form a watercolor wash of rain and moonlight.  Joe fought against the strong wind and the pelting rain that held him back.  He was desperate to warn her.

Someone – some thing was coming around that bend any second now and she had to get out of the way!

Into the wind he called, swallowing rain and choking on it, spitting it back out and trying again.  He had to make her understand that she was in danger – that just beyond that bend there was some great dark thing rolling their way that would hit her with the force of a sledgehammer hammering a steel spike.  He began to scream,  urging her to run, but she just stood there – lifting her hands, begging him come to her where she stood.

Begging him to rescue her before it was too late.

She begged him.

His angel.

 

Ben turned toward the door as his middle son reappeared.  Hoss had returned just in time.  Joseph was struggling against him, desperate to break free of his grip.

“Hoss!  Help me hold him down!”

“You think he’s delirious, Pa?” Hoss asked as he grabbed his brother’s free hand that was flailing in the air.

The heat rising from his son’s skin seemed no greater than it had before, but Ben feared this might just be the beginning of a life-threatening fever.

“I don’t know,” he answered.   “You hold him down.  Let me see if I can wake him.”

Hoss nodded as he put a knee on the bed and took Little Joe’s other hand in his own.

With both hands now free, Ben caught his youngest’s sweat-soaked face in his fingers and spoke clearly.  “Joseph.  Joseph!  It’s Pa.  You’re safe.  Do you hear me, boy?  You’re safe!  Joseph, you need to wake up!”

 

Someone was calling him.  He wanted to turn around to see who it was, but he was afraid if he took his eyes off of her, that something coming around the bend would get her.  Frantic, Joe continued to press forward, only to find that something else was holding him back – an immoveable force that pinned his arms to his sides and nailed his booted feet to the muddy trail.

“No!” he shrieked as his tears mingled with the rain as it streamed down and fell from the tips of his sodden spiraling curls.

“No!”

Ben sat on the edge of the bed and leaned in closer.  He was convinced now that Joseph was simply caught deep in the throes of a nightmare – perhaps reliving whatever had happened to him.  The fever was not high enough for him to be delirious and so, taking a deep breath, he tried one more time to use words to rouse him.

“Joseph!” he said in his woodshed voice, ‘wake up, son!  You need to wake up now!  Joe!”

When that failed to work, he struck him on the cheek.  Once.  Twice.

The third time – hard.

With a gasp, Little Joe’s green eyes flew wide open.  For a moment they were filled with the panicked fear of a wild animal facing a hunter’s gun and then they focused on him and his son seemed to see him – really see him.

“Pa…?”

Ben nodded at Hoss who relaxed his grip, though he kept his hands on his brother’s arms.

“Do you know where you are, son?” he asked gently.

Little Joe blinked several times.  Then his lips curled with a weak imitation of his usual smile.  “In trouble?”

The older man reached out and ran his fingers through his son’s damps hair, moving the darkened curls away from his eyes.   “Not yet,” he chuckled.  “How do you feel?”

It took Little Joe several seconds to answer.  “Confused?”

Before addressing his son’s concern, he nodded to Hoss who let go and took a seat on the other side of the bed.

“You took quite a knock to the head.  That’s understandable.”  As Joe reached for his hair, Ben caught his fingers and directed them.  “Gently.”

“Ooh!  That smarts,” Joe wailed.  He blinked back tears and then added with a grunt and a shallow cough.  “Everything smarts.”

“Someone done near run you over, little brother,” Hoss said, anger sharpening his usually benign tone.  “I sure wish I knew who it was.”

“Ran me over?”  Joe seemed genuinely surprised.

“Didn’t the Spencers tell you?” Ben asked, surprised himself.

Joe frowned.  “Well, if they did, I don’t remember it.  They just said they found me beside the road and took me home.”  As his son tried to sit up, he sucked in another breath as both his side and his injured leg protested.  “Did a horse kick me on the way through?”

Hoss beat him to helping Joe sit up.  “More like a buggy wheel, little brother,” the big man said as he plumped a pillow and positioned it behind Joseph’s back.  “Doc says you can see it in them bruises you got.”

Joe grunted as he pulled out his nightshirt and looked inside.  “Can’t see much.”

“They’re there,” Ben said, his tone dark.  He’d seen the impression of the vehicle’s wheel written in purple and black along his son’s left side.  “Along with a couple of cracked ribs.  Paul says you were lucky.”

Joseph was frowning.  He seemed to concentrate for half-a-dozen heartbeats and then shook his head.  “I can’t remember.”

“What do you remember, son?”

The boy laid his head back.  It was obvious he was tiring.  They would have to cut the interview short.   With a sigh, his son said, “You aren’t going to like it.”

“I already know you were with Ab and Val Latham.”

Joe’s eyes popped open. “Oh.  Sorry.”

“Are you?”

His son nodded.  “Yeah, I am, Pa.  Really sorry.”

“What happened after you left them?”

Again, a pause.  “I didn’t.  They left me.”  Joe glanced at Hoss.  “Help me sit up more, will you?”

“Joseph, if you’re too tired….”

“No, Pa.”  Joe grunted as Hoss finished and then coughed again.  It was still non-productive, but didn’t sound ominous.  “I didn’t think I could be any more stupid than I was with Fred…with Mister Kyle…but I found a way to do it.  I thought Val and Ab were my friends.”  He snorted.  “Some friends.  They…”  Ben waited as his son’s eyes met his and then looked away.  “We were drunker than skunks.  Ab and Val decided I needed some time to think, so they spooked Cochise so he’d run away and left me on foot to make my way home.”

“Time to think about what?” the rancher asked, though he was afraid he knew.   Aberdeen and Valentine Latham made no bones about their undying support for the Confederacy and their intent to sign up and fight as soon as war was officially declared.  He reached out to place a hand on his son’s.  “Joseph, you aren’t still considering joining up with Frederick Kyle’s cause, are you?”

His son winced and his eyes teared up.  “It ain’t Kyle, Pa.  It’s –”

“Your mother.”  As Joe turned his face into the pillows, Ben looked at his middle boy.

Hoss nodded.  “I think I hear Hop Sing callin’.  I’ll just go see what he needs.”

As the door closed behind the big man, Ben drew a deep breath.  Letting it out slowly, he said, “Joseph, look at me.”  When his son failed to comply, he said it more sternly.  “Joseph.  Now.”

Little Joe glanced at him and then his head returned to his chest.  “I am sorry, Pa.”

“So am I, Joseph, if you think your mother would have had any part in supporting a cause whose chief aim is the continuation of a practice that enslaves hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children.”

The boy’s head came up.  There was a spark of life in his eyes.  “Fred said the fight wasn’t about slavery.   That it was about –”

“The threat to a way of life centuries old.”  Ben sighed. “I’ve heard that argument.  Do you know what that ‘way of life’ is and how it is supported?”

Joe nodded, and then slowly shook his head.  “No, sir.  I guess I don’t.”

“This country, son, was founded on high ideals.  It was, and is, the most remarkable country on the face of the earth.  But as with everything formed by the hands of man, it is flawed.  It’s greatest flaw is the institution of slavery.”

Ben paused.  He’d seen it firsthand.  No one who sailed the seas could escape the trade, and while he had never served on a slave ship, he knew plenty of men who had – most of whom had taken full advantage of all that nefarious institution had to offer.  He’d seen the decks of incoming ships filled past capacity with human cargo, their hands and feet chained; their dark eyes turned upward, pleading with the God who was their only hope of salvation.  He had to remember that his son had no notion of such things.  The few Africans Joseph had met in his lifetime were freemen.  Slavery was little more than a word written on a page to this young man of eighteen.

Ben thought a moment.  He shifted to the chair where he was more comfortable and then asked, “Can I tell you a story about your mother?”

His son had been looking away.  Now he looked at him.  “Please.”

It was not an easy one to tell.

 

 

FIVE

1841

 

Benjamin Cartwright stepped off of the stage that had just rolled in and turned around to offer his young bride a hand out.  Marie’s broad smile was matched by the one of his own face.  However, as she placed her delicate fingers in his and took in her new surroundings, it faded quickly.  Marie was from New Orleans where she had been born and bred and married into one of the Crescent City’s most influential families.  She was used to the finer things life had to offer – millineries and haberdasheries, elegant eating establishments, and open air markets where one could obtain goods from all over the world.  He was fearful at that moment that he had not prepared her well enough for what awaited her at the end of their honeymoon journey.  What lay before her was nothing more than a gathering of crude domiciles, some of which were finished and most of which were not, that – along with a few businesses and a tavern that served as saloon, inn, courthouse and, at times, jail – made up the slowly but steadily growing settlement of Eagle Station.

“I’m afraid it’s not much to look at,” he said.

The smile returned to her face as his new wife met his eyes.  “I’m not looking at ‘it’,” she replied in her charming French accent.

“Watch where you step,” he told her as she began to debark.  “The road is mud.”

Marie’s rose-petal lips quirked with a smile.  “I have stepped in ruder things, Benjamin.”

With a laugh, he caught her in his arms.  Easily swinging her petite form up, he carried her over the rain-soaked street and placed her feet on the boardwalk.

Taking in what lay around them with a broad gesture, he apologized, “It’s not exactly New Orleans.”

Marie’s lips held the smile.  “C’est bon, mon amour.”

Behind him, Ben heard a sharp intake of breath.  He turned to find two women gawking at them.  He knew one of them.  She was the wife of the pastor currently filling the pulpit at the only church in Eagle Station.  The other he thought he recognized as the spouse of a businessman who frequented the settlement.  They  had a house on the outskirts, near one of the area’s larger establishments.

“Benjamin Cartwright! I’m surprised to see you,“ Mildred Masters said, chiding him as if he was a recalcitrant student who had neglected to complete his homework.  “The reverend and I paid a visit to your house only two days ago.  Your young son said you were not due back for another fortnight.”

“We caught a fast wind,” he laughed, feeling no need to explain himself to the woman.

“We?” Mildred’s friend asked, her eyes on Marie.

His diminutive wife fit nicely under his arm.  She was huddled there now, one hand on his chest and the other wrapped around his waist.  He grinned broadly as he introduced her.

“This is Marie de Marigny…”  Ben laughed.  “Forgive me, darling.  Marie Cartwright.”

The pastor’s wife’s graying eyebrows aimed for her widow’s peak.  “Oh?  A relation, I presume?”

“You might say so,” he replied, giving Marie a little squeeze.  “She’s my wife.  Marie, this is Mildred Masters, our pastor’s wife and , forgive me, I don’t think I know your name?”

“Becky Stableford,” the other woman said, offering nothing else, not even her hand.

“I understand you’ve just come from New Orleans?” Mildred fished, addressing Marie.  “Are you from the city?”

Marie gave a little nod.  “Oui.”

A glance passed between the women.  Mildred’s forced smile curdled.  “Oh, you’re French?”

Before he could reply, Marie pushed away from him.  Going toe to toe with the woman she replied –  “Oui.”  A heartbeat later she added, “Do you find something wrong with that?”

Mildred sputtered for a moment, then managed to say, “I was just thinking about you attending services, my dear.  I’m afraid we have no venue for Papists, which, I assume you are.”

Ben stiffened.  “What Marie is, is my wife!”

Mildred smiled sweetly.  “Then, she will be converting?”

He sucked in his exasperation and anger and was more than ready to spit them both out, when Marie stopped him.

“I have no need of your ‘services’, Madame.  I have my own personal altar,” his wife said sweetly.  “I brought it from the Bayou along with my voodoo dolls and needles.”

Needless to say, Marie’s reply rendered him speechless.

It had the same effect on Mildred and Becky.

As the two women waddled away, whispers on their lips, she snarled, “Crétins!”

He didn’t know whether to scold her or laugh.  “Marie!”

“Well, what would you have me do?  Stand by and take their insults?” she snapped, her temper rising.  “Paysans ignorants!”

It was at that moment that Benjamin Cartwright, patriarch of the Ponderosa, realized he might have bit off more than he could chew when he made Marie de Marigny his wife.

He knew it for certain a week later when he came home to find her packed and ready to return to New Orleans.

When he asked her ‘why’, Marie threw her hands into the air and launched into a long list that began with Adam’s surly behavior and ran through his hiring of the son of Hop Ling to be their cook.  He’d noticed how high-strung she’d been the last few days and thought the addition of Hop Sing to their home would leave his young wife time for the more enjoyable aspects of her new role as the woman of the house.

Instead, she took it as an insult to her cooking.

C’est impossible!” Marie declared as she and the valise bumped down the last few stairs to the wooden floor.   “I can do nothing right!  Your son hates me and you hate my cooking, and I hate the narrow-minded backbiting citizens of what your Nevada territory laughingly calls a settlement!  I will never be accepted here.  I shall go back to my own!”  Before he could gather his wits to comment, Marie came alongside him and pushed him out of the way as she headed for the door, doggedly dragging her over-sized and heavily burdened traveling case behind her.  Near the front door she did battle with a chair that happened to be in her direct-line-of fire.

The chair won.

As the petite woman passed it, the latch of her valise caught on the openwork of the Chippendale chair’s elaborately carved leg and it opened, spilling its contents out in a cascade of silk and lace.  Marie took one look at the puddle of gowns, underpinnings, and petticoats surrounding her and then plunked down in the middle of them and began to cry.  A moment later, drawn no doubt by the heartrending wails his new wife was emitting, his two sons appeared at the top of the stairs.  Adam paled and remained rooted to the spot while Hoss – seeing his new mama in distress – burst into tears as well and gave Marie a run for her money.

An hour later, after an apology from Adam and a rather prolonged session of reading, hugging and reassuring Hoss that his new mama wasn’t going anywhere, Ben found himself both exhausted and seated with his wife in front of the fire.  After her outburst Marie had become very subdued.  Something was troubling her, but she was unwilling or unable to tell him what, and so he talked about everything and anything he could think of – about their new life together, about the boys; about why he had hired Hop Sing, and how he had hoped she would feel welcomed and loved and was distressed that she did not.

It was at that point that Marie lifted a finger to his lips and shushed him.  She drew a shuddering breath and let it out slowly before speaking.  “I know I am loved, mon cher,” she said softly, “and I love you all.  That is why I must leave.”

He turned her in his arms so she was facing him.  Marie looked down, but he lifted her chin with his finger.

She was crying.

“Marie, what is it?  What happened today while I was gone?”

His beautiful wife opened her mouth to answer, but then shook her head.  She caught his face with her hands and pulled his head down into a kiss and then bolted up the stairs, leaving him stunned.   Ben thought about following her, but decided in the end it would do no good.  He was out of practice with women.

He had no idea what to do.

“Mistah Ben right to worry about Missy Marie,” a soft voice said.  “She very sad lady.”

The rancher shifted so he could look toward the kitchen.  Hop Sing was standing by the table, dishes in hand.

“I’m sorry, Hop Sing,” he said as he rose.  “I didn’t know you were there.”

“Hop Sing not drop eaves.  Come in to set table.”

Ben held up a hand.  “It’s all right.”  His smile was chagrinned.  “I imagine the good people of Eagle Station wouldn’t have had to eavesdrop.  Marie has no trouble making her opinions known.”

“Missy go back New Orleans?”

Ben glanced at the top of the stairs.  “I hope not.”

“She happy this morning.  Came to kitchen to help.  Would have, if knock not come at door.”

The rancher scowled.  “We had company?”

The man from China nodded.  “Church ladies.”  He scowled.  “Old women jealous of Mistah Ben’s pretty young wife.  Say many things.  Make Missy cry.”

“Cry?”

Hop Sing nodded.  “Missy Marie invite them in.  Tell Hop Sing bring tea.  When he does, he overhear church ladies tell Mistah Ben’s wife she not belong here.”

Ben faltered.  “They…they did what?”

“Tell Missy to go.  Pastor’s wife say, before he die, Mister Jean tell husband all about woman he married to. “  Hop Sing hesitated.  “There more.”

Ben’s temper was rising.  “More?  What more?”

“Call Missy Marie ‘Papist’ and tell her Creole of Color not wanted in Eagle Station.”

“Good God!  How dare that woman come into my house and cast aspersions on my wife’s character –”

“It’s true, Benjamin,” a soft voice remarked.  “What the pastor’s wife said is true.”

He and Hop Sing exchanged a look.

“Hop Sing, go put kettle on now.  Think Missy Marie need tea to calm nerves.”

As the Chinese man disappeared into the kitchen, Ben turned toward the stair and his wife.  “Marie, will you please come down here and tell me what this is all about?”

Slowly, reluctantly, she descended the stairs.  When she came to his side and he took her hand, he found she was trembling.  Taking hold of Marie by the waist, he led her to the settle and sat down beside her.  With a smile, he reached out and brushed an errant lock of honey-gold hair from her eyes.

“Tell me,” he said simply.

Marie drew a breath.  She met his eyes and he saw real fear in hers.  “It is said that my arrière grand-mère came from France to New Orleans shortly after your American revolution ended and that she was a Creole of Color.”  His wife winced, awaiting his reaction.

“And?” he replied.

“Benjamin, did you not hear me?  She was a woman of color!  In New Orleans, this means nothing, but here?”  A tear escaped her eye to trail down her beautiful face.  “Here, it means everything.”

He reached out to drive it away.  “It means nothing to me.”

Non!  It must!” she declared.  “Our children –”

He caught her face in his hands.  “Marie, this is not the North or the South, it is the West.  This is a land of new beginnings.  It doesn’t matter what we were, only what we are and what we can become. “

“But those women….”

Ben smiled.  “Those old biddies.  They’re jealous.  No one will pay them any mind.  Let them say what they will.  We know the truth, you and I, and that’s all that matters.”

Marie’s long black lashes fluttered.  He saw the hint of a smile.  “And what is this truth that we know?”

He squeezed her fingers.  “That what God has put together, no man – or biddy – can put asunder.”

His wife laughed.  “I love you, Benjamin Cartwright.”

He pulled her toward him, relishing the fit of her petite form against his own.

“I know you do.  And Marie, I love you too.”

 

1861

 

Joseph was very quiet.  Those dark brows of his were knitted together in the middle and he was thinking hard.

“Son?”

It took a second for that curly head to turn his way.  “Yes, Pa?”

He hadn’t told Joseph everything that had transpired, but enough to know that somewhere in his veins ran the blood of a person of color.  He had no idea if it was Jamaican or African or something else entirely.  It hadn’t mattered to him then and it didn’t matter to him now.

He could only pray it didn’t matter to Joseph either.

Little Joe pursed his lips and sighed.  “I was talkin’ to Adam the other day.”  He glanced at him and there was a flash of that sheepish smile.  “Well, yellin’ at him really ‘cause he said somethin’ like that.”  So intent was his son on what he had to see that he failed to see him startle at his words.  “I hit him for it.  I guess I need to apologize.”

“Adam mentioned your mother’s background?  And put it in a disparaging light?”  He was astonished.

“We were both yellin’, Pa.  Don’t blame him.”  Joseph was looking at his hands .  “I said some pretty mean things about his ma too.”  His son sighed and leaned back on the pillows.  “I don’t know what happened.  It was like we went crazy or somethin’.”

“Nevertheless….”

Little Joe looked straight at him.  “Don’t make this about Adam, Pa.”

He drew a deep breath and nodded.  He would deal with Adam later.

“Do you have any questions?”

His son thought a moment.  “Just one.  If I’d been born in the south, would I have been a slave?”

Ben was taken aback.  “No.  Of course not.”

“Why not?”  Joseph straightened up against the pillows.  “Adam said that in the South if your mama was a slave, you were a slave no matter how much white you had in you.”

“But your mother wasn’t a slave.”

Joe snorted.  “Only because she lived in Louisiana and came from New Orleans.  If she’d been born in…say…Virginia instead… she would have been.  Right?”

It was Ben’s turn to be stunned.  He had never thought of it that way.

Joseph was right.

Reluctantly, he nodded.  “If Marie’s great-grandmother had come into the country as a slave and lived in one of the slave states, it certainly would have been possible.  But she didn’t and your mother wasn’t.”

“It’s funny, Pa,” his son said, his voice showing his obvious fatigue as he leaned back against the pillows.  “All the times back at school when the kids used to call me names and say things about my mama, they were using the wrong ones.”

Ben leaned forward to take his son’s hand in his own.  “Joseph, look at me.”

Those great green eyes fastened on his.

“Son, the idea of a purebred line is a myth.  None of us know who the people were who came before us.  That information might be contained in us somewhere, to be discovered someday, but even if it is, there is no way to access it now.  The only thing you need to know is what our Heavenly Father told us in Psalm 139.  ‘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: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.  My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth’.”  Ben drew a breath and released his son’s hand.  “God knew who and what you were before you ever drew a breath, Joseph.  Remember that.”

Little Joe was silent a moment and then he said, “I’m all right, Pa.  Really.”

Ben almost laughed .  “Not ‘fine’?”

“That too,” his son breathed as his eyes closed.  “I’d…I’d kind of like to be left alone, if you don’t mind.”

He hesitated and then reached out and placed a hand on his son’s forehead.  When Joseph didn’t shrug it away, he knew the boy was almost asleep.  His temperature was down, thank the Lord, and right now rest would be the best thing for him.

Rising he leaned over and planted a kiss on Little Joe’s smooth brow.  A gesture he had not done in quite some time.

“I love you, Joseph.  Get some sleep.”

“…’kay, Pa.  …love you…too….”

 

The minute the door closed Joe’s eyes popped open.  There was so much turmoil within him there was no way he could sleep.   He needed to get up – to move – anything but lie in bed where he couldn’t escape his thoughts, but his injured leg prevented it.   Doc Martin had said it would be a couple of days before he could put his weight on it, and maybe a week before he could ride.

He thought he might go mad.

Pa, of course, would say God’s timing was perfect and that the Almighty had planned it for him to be laid up so he’d have to lay here thinkin’ over all his past sins, chief among them the last few weeks he’d spent with Frederick Kyle and the fact that he’d actually considered accepting Kyle’s offer to go with him and fight for the South – for his mama’s people.

His mama’s people.

How could he possibly have known?   He couldn’t have guessed.

Maybe he should have.  New Orleans was, from what he understood, like a great big pot with a little of everything in it and every kind of person in-between thrown in.  People lived as they wanted to there.  They didn’t care what the rest of the country thought.  That was why the old holier-than-thou biddies at church didn’t like it.  Why they hadn’t liked his mother.

They didn’t like him either.  They never had.

Now he knew why.

A loud knock on the doorjamb made his head jerk up.  He found Hoss standing in the open doorway, checkerboard in hand.

“Hey, there, little brother.  I just knew’d you were foolin’ Pa.”  Hoss held out the board.  “I came up to see if you were awake and felt like a game of checkers.  Pa said your fever was down and he’s thinkin’ old Doc Martin’s full of beans about you maybe havin’ that there influenza.”

Influenza?  It was the first he had heard of it.

“Heck no,” he said, forcing a smile.  “I’m dandy.”

“Dandy?”  Hoss snorted as he came into the room.  “What kind of a word is that?”

“Hey, Hoss, can you help me sit up further?”

The big man nodded.  “I knew you’d be feelin’ up to checkers.”

As he settled in against the pillows, Joe said, “Sorry, I’m really not.  I’m pretty tired.  I’d just like to talk.”

Hoss put the board on the nightstand and sat on the bed beside him.  “What about?”

“There’s somethin’ I need you to do for me.”

His brother held up one of his large hands.  “Now, Little Joe, I ain’t sneakin’ you out of here –”

“I don’t want you to sneak me out of here!” he snapped.  Then he snorted.  “Well, actually I do, but I wasn’t gonna ask you to do that.”

Hoss pursed his lips and nodded.  “So what is it you want me to do?”

 

Ben Cartwright sat in the darkened great room thinking.  He was a man of the world – or at least, he had been one before he chose to settle in Nevada.  He had seen a good piece of it and found it lacking.  The silver-haired man glanced at the book in his hand.  He’d retrieved it from his bookcase and tried to read, but found the exercise futile as his mind kept straying to his youngest son, wondering how Joseph was dealing with what he had told him.  The book was titled ‘The Ingenious Nobleman Mister Quixote of La Mancha by Cervantes’.  He’d remembered one passage in particular and had turned there, only to find the words offered less comfort that he had hoped.

He opened it again and read.

‘Life as it is. I’ve lived for over 40 years and I’ve seen life as it is. Pain. Misery. Cruelty beyond belief. I’ve heard all the voices of God’s noblest creature. Moans from bundles of filth in the street. I’ve been a soldier and a slave. I’ve seen my comrades fall in battle or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I’ve held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no brave last words, only their eyes, filled with confusion, questioning “Why?” I do not think they were asking why they were dying, but why they had ever lived. When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness.  To surrender dreams – this may be madness; to seek treasure where there is only trash.  Too much sanity may be madness!  And maddest of all – to see life as it is and not as it should be!’

Life as it is and not as it should be. This house he had built, this haven he created for his wife and children, he had thought it a place where life could be lived ‘as it should be’.  He’d done his best to rear his boys with both compassion and grace, instilled discipline in them, and been fair and, he hoped, kind in doing so.  They were all men now facing men’s choices and yet he longed to protect them.

Ben shifted in his chair and glanced at the stairs.  He had to admit, he longed to protect Joseph most of all.  Joseph who –  so like his fiery mother – was at one and the same time the strongest and yet most fragile creature he had ever encountered.  Adam was the rock his younger brother so often accused him of being, but not because he was unfeeling or didn’t care.  It was because Adam had been forced to be a man before he had time to be a boy.  Adam had seen the ‘life as it is’ the same as him, only through a child’s eyes, and he had erected barricades to protect himself from it.  Hoss had fared better, being the child of his second wife and middle years.  By his nature, his giant of a son saw life always as it ‘should be’.  But Joseph….

Ah, Joseph.

Joseph, it seemed, had sprung from the womb certain that it was madness to accept life as it is.  There was something in his youngest that railed against the unfairness of it all.  Something that had deepened and grown darker and turned to an often silent rage with the premature death of his mother.  He was no longer a boy.  In fact, Joseph would turn nineteen soon and he was doing his best to think of – and treat him as a man.

It had been hard letting him stay in that room when he spoke to Frederick Kyle.  Harder yet to say ‘You’re a man now.  After you hear what I have to say, you can do as you wish,’ knowing full well his son might walk out that door with Kyle and go off to eventually die on some battlefield; his life’s blood spilled for what?

Life as it is.

“Pa?” a soft voice inquired.

Ben stirred.  He smiled at his middle boy as he put the book down.  “I was reading.”

“I seen that.  You know, Adam usually gets that same kind of look when he’s got his nose in one of them there books he likes so much.”  Hoss scratched the back of his neck.  “For the life of me, I cain’t figure why a feller would want to read somethin’ that makes him look like he ate somethin’ sour.”

The rancher laughed.  Succinct as always.

“I think you’re right.  I think I would be better of doing instead of thinking.”  He glanced up the stairs.  “How is your brother?”

“He ain’t coughin’ so much, Pa, and his fever’s near gone.  You think Doc Martin got it wrong this time?”

He clapped a hand on the big man’s shoulder.  “Let’s hope so.  Now, how about you come out to the barn with me and look at that mare that went lame?”

Hoss hemmed and hawed a moment.  “Well, Pa, it’s this way.  I done made a promise to baby brother and I need to keep that first.”

Instantly suspicious, Ben asked, “What promise?”  Visions of his son climbing out of his bedroom window and dropping to the ground to make an escape danced nerve-wrackingly before his eyes.

“It ain’t nothin’ bad.  Joe just wants me to get him somethin’.”

“Do you have to go to town?”  It was getting late in the day, and with town three hours or so away….

“Nope, it’ right here on the Ponderosa.”  Hoss hesitated.  “Joe swore me to secrecy, Pa.  I gave my word.”

Ben studied his son and sensed no duplicity.  “So long as it can’t bring your brother any harm.”

“You know I wouldn’t do nothin’ like that.  He said it’d help him sleep.”

Throughout their lives his sons had kept secrets from him.  Apparently this was going to be one of those times.

“Be back before supper – if you can.”

“Sure will, Pa.  It’ll only take an hour or two.”

The rancher watched his son exit the house and then looked up the stairs, toward his youngest’s room.

Whatever were they up to this time?

 

Four hours later, after supper had been brought up to him and he’d forced himself to eat a few bites, Joe Cartwright lay in his bed, propped up on two plump pillows, and stared at the nightstand beside it.  On the wooden surface was a lovely hand-painted china vase full to bursting with rich red columbine.

The flowers came from his mama’s grave.

Joe had asked Hoss to go and gather them for him.  He needed to feel close to his mother and, since he couldn’t travel to her grave, he thought that….  Well, if he brought a little of her grave to his room it might be the same.  As he stared at them, he saw a flash of her – coming down the stairs, all gussied up and ready to go to town with his pa.  She’d loved red and was wearing it that night – a big, flowing mass of it with plenty of crisp white petticoats beneath so her skirts flounced as she descended the stair.  Her hair was the color of honey.  He remembered that in spite of the portrait Frederick Kyle had given him.  Pa said people’s hair changed as they got older – sometimes growin’ lighter and sometimes, darker.  He remembered because it always looked like the sun was setting on her golden hair and lightly tanned skin.

Like his lightly tanned skin.

Only now he knew, it wasn’t a tan.  Adam and Hoss were a lot paler than him.

He knew why that was now too.

Shifting, he pulled his bandaged leg up a bit, rolled over, and managed to reach out and pluck one of the blossoms from the vase.  Joe studied it for a bit and then pressed it to his heart.  He lay there, fighting back tears, trying to find just one new memory of the woman who had given him life, but he couldn’t.  Everything that came to him was something he had been told – only now he knew there was so much more he hadn’t been told.

It still called to him, the South, but not for the same reason.  Taking up arms for the confederacy wouldn’t be supporting his mama’s people.  In a way, it would be fighting against them.  He still wanted to go to New Orleans.  Not to fight or stay, but just to see the place his mama had come from.  To understand and to know.

To know her better.

“One day,” he promised himself as his fingers brushed the flower’s delicate skin.  “One day, mama.”  Joe blinked as fatigue and a longing so deep he didn’t understand it overwhelmed him.

“Mama, I love you.”

 

 

SIX

“I’m gonna be real careful with little brother, Pa, I promise.  I’m just gonna sit Little Joe in that there wagon and let him help me with some of the light chores.”  At his look Hoss added quickly.  “If he gets too tired, I’ll be sure to park him under a tree where he can’t get into no trouble.”

Ben was dubious.  It had been less than a week since the accident that had almost claimed his youngest son’s life.  “This is Joseph we’re talking about, you know.”

Hoss ran a hand through his thinning hair and then planted his ten gallon hat on it.  “Ah shucks, Pa, the poor little feller’s just about stir crazy from bein’ cooped up in the house.  Doc said his leg’s all better.”

“Yes, but your brother is still weak and you know Little Joe.”  Ben scowled as he envisioned all of the possible scenarios.  “He’ll be testing himself before you know it.  I don’t want him to reinjure those ribs or that leg.  Paul suspected a fracture.”

As they talked, the object of their concern exited the ranch house and headed toward them.  Little Joe was dressed in his usual tan and green . He paused just beyond the porch to look up at the sky and smiled as he drank it in.  Then he made his way toward them with slow, deliberate steps.

“Thanks, Pa, for lettin’ me out of jail,” he quipped as he arrived.

Ben pretended to be put out.  “I would hope you don’t think of your home as a prison, son.”

Joe made a little huffing noise as he shook his head.  “I don’t know, Pa.  I was pretty sure I saw some bars on my bedroom window.”

Now why hadn’t he thought of that?

The older man stepped forward to place a hand on his son’s shoulder.  “How do you feel?”

The usual answer was on his son’s lips, but he thought better of it.  “I feel a little weak, but I think that’s from laying in bed for so long.  Thanks for letting me go with Hoss.  Work will make me feel better.”

“Very little work, you remember that.  I don’t want you overtaxing yourself.”

“Yes, sir.  I promise I’ll hold the nails while Hoss does all the hammering,  And I won’t even hand them to him.  He can reach,” he answered with a grin.

Ben studied his son – for so long Little Joe began to squirm.  “Are you all right…with everything?” he asked at last.  They hadn’t had a chance to talk at any length alone since the night he had spoken to him about his mother.

Joe’s green eyes flicked to his brother.  Hoss was checking the harness on the horse that was pulling the wagon and paying them no mind.  After a moment the boy shrugged.

“I thought, on the way home – if it’s okay – I’d have Hoss take me up to mama’s grave.  I’d…”  His son frowned.  “I’d like to talk to her.”

He’d been there himself, the night after he told Joe about Marie.  He’d felt the same need.

“Certainly, son.  Just don’t be too late.”  Ben tugged at the collar of his lightweight coat.  It was proving to be an exceptionally cold September.  “I don’t want you or your brother taking a chill.”

“It’s take an ice storm to chill that big old bear,” Joe snorted.

“You just get your skinny little hiney up there and plunk it down in that there wagon seat, little brother, or you’ll find out just how  much of a big old bear I am.”

Little Joe frowned and then coughed – melodramatically.  “Now, you wouldn’t go hurtin’ an invalid, would you?”

Ben shook his head as Joe began his slow ascent into the wagon.  “Get going you two.  Those fences won’t mend themselves.”

“Say, Pa,” Hoss said as he took hold of the reins.  “We’ll be over by the Spencer’s place.  You want us to see what’s keepin’ Adam?”

They’d talked about it at breakfast.  After the excitement had died down, Adam had gone ahead with his plan to return the Spencer’s rig to them and then go to town to pick up a few supplies.  He should have been back, at the latest, the night before and he was growing worried.

“Yes, why don’t you do that.  I’m wondering if something is wrong with Thom or Maggie.”

“Maybe they got that influenza the Doc was worried about Joe havin’,” Hoss suggested.

“I hope not.  Neither of them are young anymore.”  Ben thought a moment.  “I know Adam intended to look at the site where the accident occurred.  Maybe he found something there that delayed him.”

“That’s be good news, wouldn’t it, little brother?” Hoss asked, and then repeated, “Little brother?”

Joe started and looked guilty.  He’d been staring off into the distance.  When he replied, it wasn’t to the question put to him.  “I hope nothing’s wrong with the Spencers.  They were good to me.”  After a second, he added, “I’m glad we’re stopping by.  It’ll give me a chance to thank them.”

“Well, either way, when you find your brother tell him I need him back here.  Now that you’re on your feet, Joseph, we have a lot of catching up to do.”

“Sorry I haven’t been pulling my weight, Pa,” his youngest said.

He placed a hand on the boy’s knee.  “You have no need to apologize.  I’m just thankful you weren’t hurt any worse.”

“I had an angel lookin’ out for me,” Little Joe said and then seemed to regret it.

Before he could comment, Hoss snorted.  “Ain’t that angel tired of watchin’ out for you yet, little brother?  As much as you get into trouble, it’s a surprise you ain’t run the poor thing to death.”

Ben drew a breath.  There was some truth in that statement.

“Take care, you two, and Joseph….”

“Yes, sir?”

“If you do discover that the Spencers are ill, you keep your distance.  In your weakened state you’d be susceptible.”

“Sure thing, Pa.  I’ll keep the fire going and let Hoss clean out the chamber pots,” he replied deadpan and then broke into a grin. “I promise I’ll be careful, Pa,” his youngest said as his brother made a kissing noise and got the team rolling.  As they passed out of sight, Little Joe called back, “Aren’t I always?”

Ben let out a deep sigh.

Heaven help them all!

 

The mornin’ went pretty quickly.

Hoss brushed his hands together to free them of debris, and then rubbed the remainder of the dust from the old rotten wood he’d just finished loading into the back of the wagon off on his pants before looking up at the sky.  They’d been at it since six in the morning and it was getting to be midday.  Time to move on to the Spencer’s place and see what they could find.  He’d been kind of disappointed that they hadn’t run into Adam along the way.

Hoss winced.  His gaze went to his little brother who was dutifully sitting under the tree where he’d left him, gazing off into the distance.

Bad choice of words.

They weren’t that far from where the accident happened.  The bend in the road was back about a half mile as the crow flies.  Joe’d got real quiet when they came to it and hadn’t said much of anythin’ since.  When he asked him about it, he said he was tired.

Right there and then, he knew little brother was lying.  He didn’t never admit he was tired!

Still, a man had a right to his own thoughts and so he’d finished this section of fence on his own and let Little Joe stew in his own juices.  At least the boy wasn’t complainin’ and bitin’ his head off , so there was somethin’ to be thankful for.

After pulling his leather vest back on, Hoss headed over to the tree.  Joe didn’t stir as he approached.  In fact, he didn’t think the little feller even knew he was there.  He was sittin’ with his back up against the tree and his eyes closed and looked, well, a mite puny.

Leaning down, he placed a hand on his shoulder.  “Hey, Little Joe!  You okay?”

His brother didn’t snap awake.  He blinked several times and then looked up at him as if he didn’t know him.  A moment later, he gave him a little half-smile.

“Guess I took a nap.”

Hoss shook his head.  “Pa was right.  You shouldn’t ought to have come today.  You ain’t mended yet.”

“What do you mean I ain’t mended?” Little Joe snarled, coming fully awake.  “For gosh sakes, can’t a man take a nap without everyone thinking he’s got one foot in the grave!”

The big man rocked back on his heels and grinned.  Now that was more like it!

“Hand me that canteen, will you?” he asked.  “Some of us been workin’ and we’re mighty thirsty.”

“Yeah, well, others of us would have been working if someone hadn’t told them to go sit under a tree,” his brother groused as he reached for the required item and supplied it.

Hoss took a drink and then eyed his brother.  “Anybody ever told you, you ain’t pretty when you wake up?”

Joe started to snap back.  Then he snorted.  “Everyone.”

“I sure enough do pity whatever poor woman finally makes a husband out of you,” Hoss said as he capped the canteen.

The smile froze on Joe’s face.  He blinked and then turned away.

Hoss felt like a heel.  He reached out and placed a hand on his little brother’s shoulder.  “Sorry, Joe.  I didn’t think.”

He could see his brother’s lips trembling and felt him draw a deep breath.  Joe started to say something, couldn’t, and then leapt to his feet and headed for the wagon.

“Come on, you big galoot,” his brother tossed back over his shoulder, doin’ a fair job of keeping the sorrow out of his tone.  “Time’s a wasting!”

As Joe scrambled into the wagon, Hoss shook his head.  Little brother done had a nap while he was fair worn out.

That boy sure enough did have an angel watching out for him.

 

Adam Cartwright hesitated a moment and then ducked behind a clump of bushes.  He didn’t think the men he was trailing were aware of his presence, but it never hurt to be cautious.  He’d picked up their trail about two miles back – near the spot where Little Joe had been struck – and had followed them for close to an hour now.  They were on Ponderosa land.  They weren’t supposed to be on Ponderosa land.

He wanted to know why they were.

He regretted the fact that his absence was no doubt adding fuel to the fire of his father’s worry.  Pa had enough to think about with Little Joe.  He’d gone to town and on the way back delivered the rig to the Spencers.  Mister Spencer hadn’t been feeling well and so he had stayed to help him with the evening chores.  By the time he left, the moon had been up and he was anticipating the lecture he would receive from both Pa and Hop Sing, when he’d spotted the two men.  Unsure to begin with of who they were, he’d trailed behind.  When they made camp, he had to make the choice to either greet them or turn back.  Once he realized who they were his curiosity got the better of him and so he had bedded down nearby and then, after awakening in the morning, followed them to see what they were up to. The odds were it had something to do with his little brother.

The odds were, whatever Valentine and Aberdeen Latham were up to, it was no good.

It still surprised him that Pa had agreed to take them on in spite of the fact that they were obvious Confederate sympathizers.  Still, his pa was nothing if not impartial.  He liked to think he was the same, but at the time it had seemed – to him – unwise to allow the foreman to hire anyone who might fan the misguided flame of southern pride that burned in his little brother’s chest.  And, of course, the three of them had taken to each other like bees to honey.

After Pa let them go, he’d asked around and while there was nothing he could pin down, he’d gotten the distinct impression that the brother’s interest in Little Joe was far from altruistic.  Apparently they had asked where Joe lived as soon as they arrived in town – as if they had some prior knowledge of his existence, though they later denied it.  Adam’s lips curled with a tight smile as he thought of what his little brother’s reaction would be if he knew what he was doing.  The stable probably wouldn’t have a roof!  What Little Joe didn’t understand was that he had been looking out for him since he’d been born and, short of either one of their deaths, he would never stop looking out for him.

The black-haired man chuckled.   More than likely that was why the kid needed looking out for.

Drawing a breath, Adam held it as he peered out from behind his leafy cover.  The Latham brothers had moved on and so did he.  They’d tethered their horses about a hundred yards back and begun to move on foot and so he followed suit.  He could hear them talking, but now there was a third voice.  Another man.

Another southerner.

Drawing his pistol, Adam moved closer so he could listen.

 

His brother held him back with a hand to his chest as he started to hop down out of the wagon.

“Somethin’ ain’t right, Joe,” Hoss warned.

Joe looked around.  “What do you mean?  I don’t see anything.”

The big man inclined his head.  “The Spencer’s front door’s flappin’ in the wind.”

He’d seen that.  “So?”

Hoss looked at him like he had a hole in his head he could see right through.  “Use your noggin’, little brother.  You think right and proper ol’ Maggie Spencer would let her door bang like that if she could do anythin’ about it?”

That would be like Abigail Jones letting you cross an ‘i’ and dot a ‘t’.

“What do you think’s wrong?”

Hoss shook his head.  “I’m hopin’ it ain’t that influenza that Doc was worried about.”  As his brother left the wagon behind, he issued an order.  “You stay here.”

“Why?”

“Cause Pa said so, that’s why,” Hoss growled.  “Don’t you never listen to nothin’ or nobody?”

“Hoss, I was here already.  For days!  Don’t you think I’d already be sick if I  was gonna catch something?  It’s probably safer for me to go in there than you!

His brother was thinking.  “Maybe they wasn’t sick then.”

“Well, maybe there are now and they need our help!”  Joe headed for the door that was slowly opening and closing with the breeze.  “I owe the Spencers,” he threw back over his shoulder, “and a Cartwright always pays his debts!”

Neither one of them was prepared for what they found when they entered Mister and Mrs. Spencer’s home.  The older woman was lying just inside the front door.  From a back room, someone – probably Thomas Spencer – was feebly calling her name.

“Joe, you go tell Thom we’re here.  I’ll help Maggie.”

“There’s another room upstairs, Hoss.  That’s where I was.  Maybe….”

Hoss nodded as he placed his arms under Maggie Spencer’s slender form and lifted her up.  “Best to keep them apart.  Just in case.”

Joe frowned with worry as the older woman moaned and then headed for the back room.  Thomas Spencer was awake, but Joe wasn’t sure if he was aware of what was going on.  The older man’s eyes were fever-bright and the room reeked of recent sickness.  Rushing to the window, Joe opened it and took in several gulps of fresh air before turning back into the room and going to sit at the sick man’s side. Even before he touched the older man’s forehead, he knew what he would find.

Thomas Spencer was burning up.

Dropping his hand, Joe circled the older man’s wrist with it, feeling his thready pulse, and then said, “Mister Spencer.  It’s Joe Cartwright.  Can you hear me?”

The sick man’s head tossed from side to side.  He lifted his free hand and grasped at thin air.  “Sally…Sally’s sick….have to go…have to help….Sarah….”

Joe caught his flailing arm.  “We found your wife.  She’s sick too.  Hoss took her up to the spare room.”  He paused.  “Mister Spencer, you hear me?  Maggie’s all right.”

He continued to thrash.  “No…not Maggie….  Sarah….”

“How is he?”

Joe pivoted to find his brother’s large frame filling the doorway.  “Out of his head.  He keeps callin’ for someone named Sally or Sarah.”

“Maybe that’s Mrs. Spencer’s middle name?”

Joe shrugged.  “Maybe.”  But he didn’t think so.  Leaning in, he asked, “Mister Spencer, who’s Sally?”

The older man winced.  He groaned.  “No…can’t….”

“Joe, one of us needs to go get the doctor.  I think it oughta be you.”

He shook his head.  “I already told you.  I was here for days.  I been exposed.” He looked directly at his brother.  “You need to get out of here.”

“I cain’t leave you here, boy.  Pa’d have my hide.”

“And I can’t leave!”  He regretted snapping, but it couldn’t be helped.  With a look at Mister Spencer laying there in the throes of misery, he added quietly, “Hoss, I haven’t been entirely honest.  I ain’t felt too good.  The…odds are I’m carryin’ this thing.  I can’t…I don’t want to take it to anyone else.”

Hoss’ voice was remarkably calm.  “Punkin, if you got it, then I probably got it too.”

Joe was grasping at straws.  “But I was here, for days, in the same house as them.  Maybe you and…Pa and Adam, well, maybe….”  He swallowed over his fear.  “We don’t live all cooped up.  We’re outside a lot.  Maybe…the fresh air?”

His older brother was staring at him – hard.  “I still think you oughta go and I oughta stay.”

“Hoss, please,” he said as he stood up.  “Like I said, I wasn’t tellin’ the truth before.  It’s a long ride into Virginia City and who knows if the Doc’s in his office or you’ll have to go find him.  I’m…tired.”

“All the more reason you shouldn’t stay here.”

“So what do you want me to do?  Walk away and let these people to die?”  He knew he sounded desperate.  He was.  “They saved my life!”

And a Cartwright always paid his debts.

 

Fifteen minutes later Joe Cartwright watched as his elder brother reluctantly drove away in the wagon, headed for town.  They were closer to their house than to Virginia City, but they both knew it would take Doctor Martin to deal with this outbreak of influenza.  The contagion needed to be stopped so it didn’t turn into an epidemic.  He really had no idea if he was less likely to catch it than Hoss, though his reasoning made sense to him.  He’d been exposed a week before and was just fine.  Still, he was happy to see middle brother drive away, knowing the distance Hoss put between himself and the Spencers would make him all that much safer.

Turning around, Joe rolled his sleeves up and set to work.

An hour and a half later Mister Spencer and his room were cleaned up and the older man was resting as comfortably as possible.  Mrs. Spencer was sleeping.  Once he was sure they were both settled, for the moment at least, Joe brought in a load of firewood and stoked the fire to take the chill from the air and then went to the kitchen to see if he could find something to fix that both of his patients could eat.  It troubled him a little to go through their cupboards without permission, but he knew – once they began to recover – that the older couple would need something in their stomachs to give them strength.  Broth would be best.  He’d seen some chickens wandering around outside and figured he’d have to catch and kill one in order to make it, but for now he was just looking for some kind of tea.  Hop Sing always made him tea when he was sick, so he figured it couldn’t hurt.  He finally found what he was looking for in a cupboard mounted above the stove.  It was kind of tall and he was, well, kind of short, and so he had to go up on tiptoe to reach into it.  When his fingers landed on something that felt like a tea canister Joe pulled it forward and then yelped as a pile of cards, ribbons, bows and lace cascaded down like a waterfall nearly burying him.

Well, not quite, but it sure felt like it.

Joe stared uncomprehendingly at the pile of paper surrounding him for a moment and then crouched and picked up one of the cards.  It was a frilly little thing made of cut paper with ribbons glued on and it was addressed in a childish hand to Mrs. Spencer from….

Sarah.

Joe knelt and began to pick up the items from the floor, examining each as he did.  Most were from Sarah, though a few were signed ‘Sally’.  Still, the handwriting was the same.  The only change in it was that the letters grew bolder and straighter, as if the writer had grown older and more sure of herself as the years passed.  Rising with one of the cards in his hand, Joe turned toward the room where Thomas Spencer lay.  The older man had been worried about someone named Sarah or Sally.  What was it he had said?  Joe thunked his head with the card as he tried to remember.

“Sally,” he said out loud.  “Sally’s sick.  Have to help Sarah.”

Joe bolted into Mr. Spencer’s room.  He hated to wake the invalid, but a thought had seized him and he had to know.  Sitting on the side of the bed, he reached out and touched the older man’s arm.

“Mister Spencer?  It’s Joe Cartwright.  Can you hear me?”

For a moment there was no response.  Then the older man’s watery eyes opened.  He looked confused at first and then gave him a little smile.

“Joe.  What…are you doing here, boy?”  Mister Spencer drew in a shaky breath and coughed before going on.  “…dangerous.”

“I know, sir, but someone’s got to look out for you and Mrs. Spencer.”

Fear entered the older man’s eyes.  “Maggie?”

“She’s upstairs, sir.  I’m looking after her too.”  Joe paused.  He held up the card.  “I came to ask you if there is someone else I should be looking after.”

Thomas Spencer reached out with palsied fingers to clasp the card.  “Where?” he asked.

“I’m sorry I was looking without permission,” Joe said.  “I was huntin’ some tea to make.  I reached up into the cupboard above the stove and a whole box of these came tumbling down.”

“…kept them…all these…years,” the older man sighed as his eyes closed.

Joe felt like a heel.  He shook him gently.  “Mister Spencer.  Who is Sarah?  Where is she?  Is she sick too?”

Slowly the older man’s eyes opened again.  “So tired….”

“I know, sir.  I’m sorry.  But if Sarah is here and she’s sick, then I –”

“Child,” he said.  “My…child….house.”  The older man coughed again.  As he did, he turned his face away and said in a whisper, “In…trees.”

Joe shook him gently again, but he was unconscious.  Gently he pried the card from Mister Spencer’s feverish fingers and then went upstairs to see if Mrs. Spencer was awake.  He found her bathed in sweat and pitching and moaning.  Running back down the stairs, Joe located a basin and filled it with cold water and then went back up and sat with the older woman, placing cool cloths on her forehead until she calmed down.  As he rose to place the basin on the nightstand, Joe stumbled, and it was then he realized just how tired he was.

“Gotta get some sleep,” he muttered to himself as he staggered over to a chair placed in front of the window so its sitter would look out.  Dropping into it, he hung his head for a moment and then peered out the window.  As he did, he realized this was the same view he’d had out of the window in his room that last day – the day he thought he’d seen his angel running into the woods.

A minute later the chair was empty, the front door was banging in the wind, and Joe was gone.

 

Adam inched closer to the trio.  He couldn’t see them yet, but he was fairly certain he knew who the Latham’s meeting was with and he was not happy.

It was Frederick Kyle.

After Joe came to bring him home, as he and his kid brother rode back to the Ponderosa, neither one of them said much of anything.  They rode in companionable silence – he supposed – afraid that if they spoke they might break the uneasy truce formed between them.  He shuddered now to think of the things he had said to Little Joe in anger.  He meant it when he told Pa that it had been a kind of madness that had seized him – a political madness.  He’d said things he didn’t mean; didn’t even believe.  It was like every rumor he’d ever heard about his step-mother found it’s way onto his tongue and out of his mouth including the ones questioning both her morals and her parentage.  He didn’t know why.  Maybe he was trying to convince Joe that Marie’s way of life had not been worth dying for.

Instead, he ended up saying that Joe’s mother had not been worth dying for.

His mother.

Emotion was a foreign thing to him, but he had felt it that night as he struggled against his father’s hand – the hand that tied him to the Ponderosa, to Pa and Hoss, to Little Joe.  He didn’t deserve it and he knew it.

To this day, he didn’t understand why his brother had forgiven him.

Adam wiped away a telltale trail of moisture on his cheek with the back of his hand and concentrated on the matter at hand.

It was what he was good at.

“You assured me that upon my return you would have Little Joe with you,” he heard Kyle remark.  “It’s important I speak with that young man.  I had no chance with his father in the room.”

“Little Joe’s been laid up, Mister Kyle,” Ab Latham said.

“What did you do to him?”

Ab held his hands up.  “Whoa, there.  We didn’t do nothin’.”

“Someone hit Little Joe with their carriage,” Val interjected.

Kyle seemed genuinely distressed.  “Is the boy all right?”

“We wouldn’t know.  Old man Cartwright kicked us out,” Ab said and then spat.  “He don’t cotton to no southerners hanging around his baby boy.”

“Ben Cartwright is a fair man.  You must have done something to distress him.”

“Same thing you did,” the elder replied.  “Left his baby boy high and dry.”  Ab snorted.  “Well., not so dry.”

Kyle faced Valentine.  “What does he mean by that?”

Val actually looked a bit abashed.  “We were trying to get Little Joe to come with us, you know, to join the Cause.  He got cold feet and Ab got him drunk.”  Val paused.  “Then he left him to make his way home on foot.”

Pa had told him of Frederick Kyle’s temper.  In his short dealings with the man, he’d never seen it.  He saw it now.

Kyle exploded.

“Imbecile!” the southerner shouted as he struck out with his walking stick, hitting Ab on the knee and dropping him to the ground.  As the blond man went for his pistol, the cane whipped out again, taking the weapon from his hand.  In a split second Aberdeen Latham was on the ground and Frederick Kyle was on top of him.  “If any harm comes to that boy because of you, you are a dead man!  Do you understand me?!”

Ab Latham spat out blood and nodded as Kyle backed away.

“Now, where were we?” the older man asked nonchalantly while straightening his coat with his remaining hand, almost as if the entire incident had not happened.

“You were talking about my kid brother as if he was a valuable commodity that could be bought and sold,” Adam said as he stepped out of the trees, his tone just the other side of civil.  He raised his weapon and pointed it at the Southern sympathizer.

“And now, you are going to tell me why.”

 

Joe really had no idea where he was going.  He thought he was probably crazy.  There was nothing connecting the Spencer’s mysterious Sarah to his angel, other than the vague notion that he had seen someone sprint off into the trees the last day he had stayed with the older couple.  Other than that the only times he had seen the beautiful brown-haired woman was in his fever dreams.  Still, there had been something about her touch – about her presence in his room.  He was sure she was real.

He thought she was real.

Joe stopped short.  Before him, glimpsed through the leaves, was a small cabin, barely bigger than one of their line shacks.  The pale blue curtains in the windows were tattered and the door hung half-open on its hinges.  A broken rocking chair lay abandoned in the yard.  Anyone passing by would assume it was unoccupied and maybe even haunted.  As Joe approached the porch, a chill wind struck him and he shivered.

At least that’s what he would have thought if he’d seen it as a child.

As he pulled the collar of his green jacket up about his throat, Joe heard a sound, something like the whimper a wounded animal would make.

It came from inside the house.

Joe’s fingers fumbled at his left side.  He’d left the Spencer’s home so quickly he hadn’t thought to put on his gun.  It was laying on a sideboard by the door.  The curly-haired man snorted.  Old habits died hard.  He bent as he walked and picked up a branch, knowing he could run into anything inside the old cabin from an ditched cat to a rabid wolf.  Joe tested the boards of the porch before putting his weight on them and, when he found them solid enough, crossed to the door and put his hand to it.  As it creaked open he heard the sound again.  Muffled.  Frightened.

Someone crying.

The door went in about a foot and a half and then stopped when it struck something solid.  As he hesitated, he heard a voice – soft, sad.

Sick.

“Help…me….”

Joe turned his body and squeezed through the opening.  Once in the darkened cabin, it took a moment for his eyes to adjust and then he saw her, laying there on the floor, with her back up against an overturned chair.

Sarah.

His angel.

 

 

SEVEN

Ben Cartwright was at his desk when he heard a wagon roll into the yard.  He rose and headed for the door, glancing at the tall case clock as he went.  It must be Hoss and Little Joe.  They were later than he would have liked, but at least they’d have time for supper.

The older man smiled.  Hop Sing had been holding it – and his temper – for about an hour now.

As he opened the door, the older man noted how crisp and cold the air was.  They were approaching October and it looked like the winter was determined to set in early.  September was one of those months you couldn’t count on – hot as blazes one year and frigid the next.  No wonder it was also a month that often brought illness and, sadly, at times contagion.

The first thing he saw when he stepped out was a very weary-looking Hoss.

The second was the empty seat beside him.

His giant of a son held his hands up, stilling his question. “For you ask, Pa, I’m gonna tell you.  I left Joe at the Spencers.  They’re both down with the influenza.”

“You…you did what?” he stammered.

“I know you’re mad, Pa, and you got every right to be.  I done went against your orders and I know what that means, sir.  But Joe, well, he made sense and in the end I went with what he said.”

He was still dumbstruck.  “Joseph…made sense?”

“Yes, sir.  He told me he’d already been exposed and he wasn’t sick, so there was a good chance he wasn’t gonna be.  Someone had to ride to town fast for the doctor, Pa, and it wasn’t gonna be Little Joe.  He was plumb wore out by the time we got to the Spencer’s place and found them both laid low.”

He held up a hand of his own.  “Let me get this straight, both Maggie and Thom are ill?”

Hoss nodded.  “Yes, sir, they’re both right sick.  I rode to town to get Doctor Martin so’s he could look at them and then came straight here to tell you,.”  The big man frowned.  “Only trouble was, the Doc weren’t in.  I paid the livery boy to go out to the Jennings place and let him know and then I came right here to tell you.”  His son shook his head.  “The Jennings got the influenza too, Pa.”

“Good God,” he breathed as he thought of his weakened son taking on the gargantuan effort of caring for two desperately ill people.  “Little Joe was all right when you left?”

“He sure was, Pa.”  Hoss paused.  “You know how little brother is.  He felt he owed the Spencers for taking such good care of him.”

That would be Joseph.

Ben thought a moment and then he said, “You wait here.  I’ll get my hat and gun and we’ll go to the Spencers.”  He was halfway to the house when he thought to ask, “What about Adam?  Did you find him?”

Hoss shook his head.  “Not hide nor hair, Pa.  We figured something must have come up.”

Wonderful.  Another son to worry about.

It took no more than fifteen minutes to tell Hop Sing what was happening and then grab his belongings. As Ben headed out the door, the man from China shoved a sack in his hand with the words, ‘You eat.  No good anyone if you no eat.’  He added that he had included several small bags of herbs that should be brewed into a tea and fed to those who had the ague.  The rancher thanked him and then headed out the door.

After a short trip to the bunkhouse to instruct the foreman as to what to do in their absence, he and his son set out for their neighbor’s spread.

As they rode, Ben thought about the Spencers and how he had come to know them.  They were from the deep south – Virginia, to be precise – and had very different ways.  They were friendly enough, but had kept mostly to themselves.  He didn’t even know if they had children.  Thom was easier to know than his wife, the severe and almost painfully reserved Maggie.  The woman hardly ever smiled and conducted herself as if every person she met was looking to disapprove of or condemn her.  He and Marie had tried to befriend them, but Maggie made it all too clear that she wanted nothing to do with his ‘French Quarter’ wife.  Thom had come to the funeral to express his condolences when Marie died.  Maggie had not.

After that, he had given up trying.

And now, here he was, riding to their place because Marie’s son was risking his life to care for both Thom and Maggie.

Life was filled with ironies.

Several hours later they pulled into the Spencer’s yard.  It was empty save for Joseph’s horse, Cochise.  Regrettably, Doctor Martin had not made it yet.   Ben had swung out of the saddle and headed for the door when his middle son’s voice – tight, frightened – stopped him in his tracks.

“Pa!  Look!”

The older man turned and was startled to find two figures emerging from the woods.  One was his son.  Joseph was carrying someone else.  A girl, he thought.

As he watched his boy stumbled and fell to the ground.

“Hoss!”

Before Hoss could react, Ben was running.  He crossed the yard and sprinted toward the trees like a young man of twenty, arriving at his son’s side in less than a minute.  Joseph was laying on the ground, shaking, his arms wrapped around the girl.  He looked up at him and gave him a half-hearted smile.

“Hi, Pa.”  Little Joe drew a breath.  “This is Sarah.  Isn’t she…beautiful?”

Ben looked at the girl.   She was pale; her skin fevered and covered in a sheen of sweat that plastered her brown curls to her cheeks and forehead.

“Who is she, son?” he asked as he placed his hand on Joseph’s cheek, checking for fever in his son as well and thankfully finding none.  “Who is Sarah?”

The grin widened into a smile.

“She’s my angel.”

 

Adam let Kyle send the Latham boys away.  He could deal with them later.  They were nothing but muscle between the ears.

While Frederick Kyle was the brain.

“What do you want with my brother?” he asked, firing the question point-blank.

“I love your brother,” Kyle answered, startling him.

“Love?  You barely know the kid.”

“But I knew his mother.”  The southern sympathizer paused.  “I loved his mother.  Little Joe is her son.”

“Is that how you came to have Marie’s portrait?”

“The portrait was mine to give,” Kyle said, his answer evasive at best.

Adam tried to pin him down.  “Meaning she gave it to you?”

The southerner seemed to think that through.  Finally, he admitted, “It came to me through a third party. The man wanted Little Joe to have it.”

“Who is this man?”

Kyle hesitated.  “Someone you do not want to run afoul of,” he said at last.

If someone could have seen into Adam’s brain, they would have been astounded to find how fast the wheels were turning.  “So it’s this man – the one who had Marie’s portrait – who is interested in my brother?”   Using the barrel of his pistol to make his point, he demanded, “If so, I want a name!”

Frederick Kyle didn’t flinch. He wasn’t afraid in the slightest.  At least not of him.  Adam had the distinct impression he was afraid of this other man.

“As a gentleman, I can’t reveal the name of a business partner,” Kyle said smoothly.  “What I will do is tell you that everything I have done since I came to Virginia City has been in the name of protecting Marie’s son.”

“And I’m supposed to believe that?” Adam scoffed.  “Talking Joe into supporting your scheme to channel money through foreign countries to build a war chest for the Confederacy?  Talking him into leaving his home?”

Kyle met his fierce stare.  “I didn’t have to do that.  You did it for me.”

“You have no right…” Adam growled.  “What’s between my brother and me, is between my brother and me.”

“He told me, Joe did, some of the things you said to him,” Kyle continued.  “How you said his mother was nothing more than a trollop who had used her feminine wiles to entrap your father.  How she wasn’t fit to share his bed.”

Kyle threw his wild words back at him quietly, coldly – efficiently.

“I was angry,” he said, knowing it was no excuse.  “I said things I would never have said had I had been in my right – ”

The southerner’s pale eyes pinned him.  “Joe told me, Adam, how you pride yourself on being in control – on being the master of everything.  Tell me, what caused you to lose control?”

He didn’t know.  God, he wished he did, but he didn’t.

“I’m..I’m not sure,” he stuttered.

“I am.  It’s in your blood, son, just as it’s in your brother’s.  We are not the captains of our own ships or the masters of our souls.  Where we were born is deeply rooted in us.  You know your Bible, son, I’m sure.  It says in Leviticus ‘For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement…it is the blood that makes atonement….’ “  Kyle spoke with a manic passion.  It shone out of his eyes like a holy fire.  “Marie’s blood runs through your brother’s veins.  He belongs to the South.”

“Plenty of madmen have used the Bible to justify their actions,” Adam responded, tight-lipped.  “You’re not the first and you certainly won’t be the last.”

Kyle blinked and the madness left his eyes.  “Trust me, son, you’d rather have your brother go off with me than stay here to be found by my associate.”

Associate?  Was Kyle admitting he was in someone else’s employ – someone else who had an interest in Joe?

Why would he do that?

The answer came a moment later when he felt the nose of a revolver shoved into his back.

“Miss me, Cartwright?” Ab Latham asked.

A second later, everything went black.

 

“I’m fine, Pa. Really.  I just want to get back up there to Sarah.”

They’d deposited the sick young woman in the room with Maggie Spencer and then he had forced his son to come back downstairs.  Joe looked terrible.  His wide expressive eyes were cradled in dark shadows and his coloring was off.  He was very pale and his hands were trembling.  Still, thank God, there was no fever!

At least not yet.

“You shouldn’t have come, Pa.  Now you and Hoss have been exposed.”

“Don’t you worry about me,” Ben replied. “I’m healthy as an ox.  It’s you I’m concerned about.  How do you feel?”

Those eyes met his.  In them there was no spark of vitality, just fatigue.

“Tired.”

“You need to sleep.”  Ben caught Joe by the arm and practically lifted him out of the chair and propelled his son into the Spencer’s sitting room and onto the sofa that sat before the fire.  “You won’t do that young lady any good if you come down sick.”

“Pa?”

He turned to look at his middle boy.  “Yes, Hoss?”

“I got some of that tea of Hop Sing’s brewed. I’m gonna take it up to Mrs. Spencer.”  The big man paused. “She ain’t doin’ so good.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t have put Sarah in with her,” Joe said, rising.  “I’ll go –”

“You will go nowhere, young man,” Ben ordered in his sternest voice, “other than to sleep!” He waited until his son sat back down and then added softly, “Sarah is already sick.  Being exposed to Maggie will make no difference.”

“But what if….”  Joe sucked in a breath.  “What if Mrs. Spencer dies, right there, next to her?”

He hadn’t the heart to tell his son that, at the moment, Sarah was unaware of anything other than her own pain.

“The doctor will be here soon, Joseph.  He’ll take care of them both.”

He hoped.

Little Joe didn’t resist when he took hold of his legs and swung them up and onto the floral sofa.   Pulling a pillow out from under his son’s back, the rancher placed it behind his head and then wagged a finger at him.

“You get some sleep.”

Little Joe caught his arm.  “You’ll wake me, if….”

He patted his son’s hand.  “I will, if I need to.”

As Ben turned his head, Joseph coughed.  He wheeled back to look at the boy who was wearing a sheepish grin.

“Sorry.”

Ben sighed.  He only hoped they wouldn’t all be sorry for daring to step straight into the lion’s den.

As he approached the Spencer’s kitchen, the older man heard a heavy tread on the stair.  A moment later Hoss was at his side.

“How’s Little Joe?” his son asked.

“Asleep, I hope,” he replied while inclining his head toward the sofa.

“He sure looked plumb tuckered out when we got here.”

“How’s the girl?” Ben asked, knowing that was the first answer his youngest would demand upon waking.

“Holding her own.”  Hoss scowled.  “Sorry, I cain’t say the same for Mrs. Spencer.  She don’t look right, Pa.  Any sign of the Doc yet?”

Even as he shook his head, Ben heard the sound of wagon wheels rolling into the yard.

“Let’s hope,” he said as he hastened to the door and opened it.  Thank the Lord, Paul Martin was just stepping out of his rig.

“Can’t say I’m happy to see either of you, Ben,” the older man said as he glanced at both of them.  “I got Hoss’ note.  You think it’s influenza?”

“Labored breathing, confusion, high fever, and everything being evacuated in both directions,” he reported.  “All the signs you said to watch for with Joseph.”

“Where is the boy?” Paul asked as he hung his hat on the rack by the door.

Again, he indicated the sofa by the fire.

“Good,” Paul said.  “Best place for him.  Has he shown any signs?”

Ben nodded.  “He coughed a while back.”

“That’s all?”

“Yes.”

“Could just be a relapse into that cold he was fighting.  I’ll see to the others and then check him out.”

“Mrs. Spencer’s awful sick, Doc.  I think you should look at her first,” Hoss suggested.

“Thom seems to have passed the crisis,” the rancher agreed.  “Oh, and there’s a young lady in with Maggie.  Joe found her in a small cabin in the woods close by.”

“Really?”

“I have no idea who she is.  I don’t think the Spencers had any children.”  He paused, seeking a way to say what he wanted to say and remain charitable.  “Maggie is not exactly the…mothering type.”

Paul doffed his coat and rolled up his sleeves.  He looked at Hoss. “Well, young man, show me the way!”  At the top of the stairs the physician paused. “Oh, and Ben.”  When he looked up, Paul went on.  “I quarantined the Jennings’ place.  Most likely I will have to do the same here.  We can’t have this getting out of hand.”

He understood.  He didn’t like it, but he understood.  At least Paul was here.  There had been times when other homes with contagion had been guarded so closely by the frightened citizenry that no doctor could get in.  Mass casualties had been the result.

Ben watched the physician climb the stair, followed closely by his middle son, and then he turned back into the room.  After checking to make certain Joseph was truly asleep and not just pretending, he stepped outside and drew in a breath of fresh, clean air.  It was at times like this that one’s faith was tested.  Disease was a killer against which no one could prevail.  There was no hope of fighting back against an unseen assailant.  Perhaps one day it would be discovered just how these things started and how they could be stopped, but for now, there was nothing to do but pray and trust to the Almighty

“Ben.”

He turned at the sound of his friend’s voice. “Paul?”

“I’m afraid we’ve lost Mrs. Spencer,” he said, sounding apologetic, as if it were somehow his fault.

“Sarah?”

“Still with us.  In need of a friend.”

“I’ll go to her,” he said without hesitation.

Paul’s smile was weary but heartfelt.  “I knew you would.  Hoss is going to take care of…what’s necessary.  I need to see to Thom.”

“Will you tell him?”

The physician shook his head.  “Not yet.  He’s too weak.  There’s time.”  Paul paused.  “There’s all the time in the world.”

Ben placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder and then moved past him into the house.  As he did, Hoss came down the stairs bearing his light burden in his arms.  “Doc suggested I take Mrs. Spencer to the cabin ‘til we can do right by her.  You goin’ up to Sarah?”  At his nod, his son added, “She’s pretty sick herself, Pa, and she’s takin’ it hard.”

It was only by God’s providence that Joseph was still sleeping.  “Watch your brother when you get back.  Don’t let him come up until I tell you it’s all right.”

“Sure thing, Pa.  He’s gonna take it hard too, ain’t he?”

“I imagine so.”  Ben watched his son head out the door and then turned and slowly mounted the stairs.  As he drew close, he heard the young girl weeping.  After pushing the door partially to, he headed over to the bed and took a seat.  His gaze strayed to the empty space beside her and then returned to the ailing girl.  Reaching out, Ben brushed the sweat-soaked locks of brown hair off her forehead.

“Sarah,” he said.

Her eyes popped open.  They were bright with fever, but she was lucid.  “Who…are you?” she asked.

“I’m Little Joe’s father, Ben Cartwright.”

“Shouldn’t…be here,” she said.

“I’ll be all right.  I’ve weathered a lot of sickness in my time.”

“No.”  She coughed.  “Little Joe…shouldn’t be here.  Why…is he?”

“He and his brother came by to check up on the Spencers today and found them sick.”

“How did he…find me?”

“It was something Thom said in his delirium.”  Ben looked at the girl.  He could see why his son had been so quickly taken with her.  She was beautiful, with large dark eyes and soft wavy hair, and a complexion that seemed naturally tanned in spite of the sickness.  Much like Marie’s had been.  “Thom told Joe where to look.”

She seemed surprised.  “No one was to know.”  Sarah ran her tongue languidly around her chapped lips before continuing.  “Not…safe.”  He’d been reaching for a glass to give her a drink of water when that last word came out.  Ben pivoted in the chair.  “Not safe?”

She swallowed painfully and then, just before her eyes closed, repeated, “Not safe.” A moment later she added, “hunted.”

“What does she mean, Pa?  Hunted?”

The rancher turned back to find his youngest barely on his feet.  Joseph was hanging onto the door jamb for support.  Springing up, he went to him and ushered him over to the chair in front of the window and made him sit down.  Little Joe didn’t protest when he pressed his hand against his forehead.

“I got a fever, right?” he asked, looking up sheepishly through a fall of curly locks.  “Do you s’pose that means I got the influenza?”

Ben sighed.  “We’ll know soon enough.  Any other symptoms?”

He shook his head.  “Tired, but then, I got a right to be.”

“You certainly do.”

Joe was staring at the bed.  “How’s she doing?”

“She seems to have a milder case than either Maggie or Thom.  Let’s hope it stays that way.”

His son’s gaze was locked on the empty space in the bed.  “Mrs. Spencer?”

Ben shook his head.

Little Joe’s eyes teared instantly.  His voice cracked as he asked, “Mister Spencer?”

“He’ll make it,” a gruff voice announced.  They both turned to find Paul Martin standing in the doorway.   The doctor’s eyes were on his wayward boy.  “And what do you think you are doing up here, young man?”

His son shrugged.  “Keepin’ the chair warm for you?”

Paul pointed toward the door.  “Out.  Both of you.”

Ben slipped his arm around his son even as the boy began to protest.  At his look, Joseph clamped his mouth shut and let him lift him up and head toward the door.  Just as they made it to it, Paul’s hand shot out and caught hold of his son’s wrist.  Then he pressed his palm to his head.  The look he gave him was sympathetic.

“I suppose it was too much to hope that my favorite patient would manage to avoid the need of my services this time,” he sighed.  “Get him downstairs, Ben, and onto that sofa.”  As they started to move, he added, “Oh, and be sure you bind his ribs.”

Ben halted. “Bind his ribs?”

“They may not be fully healed yet.  If Joe should happen to start coughing….”

Paul’s dire prediction hung in the air between them as he turned his son and headed for the stair.

 

“You understand I don’t want Mister Cartwright hurt,” Frederick Kyle said, “and that there will be consequences should he be.  I just want him held until I have time to approach his brother again.  I’m certain if I can be alone with Little Joe that I can convince him to accompany me to Virginia. That boy has a good head on his shoulders for business.  He will make an excellent partner.”

That was ‘his’ little brother Kyle was talking about.

Adam opened his eyes and blinked several times in an attempt to clear the stars that were circling in the scope of his vision like wagons anticipating an Indian raid.  He must have let out a groan since three sets of eyes fastened on him.

“He’s wakin’ up,” Valentine Latham said, sounding somewhat relieved.

He wished he was.

“Joe will never go with you,” he said, or thought he said, though it sounded more like ‘oh’ll ne’er go-ooh.’  Adam licked his lips and tried again.  “My brother will never go with you.”

“Because you have given him reason to stay?  You loathe the very essence of him.”

“I do not.  I love my brother!” he protested.

Kyle sneered.  “An odd kind of love, that dismisses the very heart and soul of a man.”

“You’ve known my brother, what?  Two or three weeks?  I reared that boy!  I was there when he was born.  Don’t you dare tell me that you know Little Joe better than I do!”

Kyle looked at Ab Latham.  “I think a gag would be in order before Mister Cartwright informs the entire Nevada territory of our position.”

He fought against it – furiously – but a man with his hands and feet bound has little hope of winning.

Once Adam was subdued, Frederick Kyle came to  stand before him.  The man in the elegant gray suit bent down to his level and said.  “Did you know your brother hates being called ‘Little’ Joe?  That he feels it belittles him?”  The southerner paused.  “But then, what else would he expect of you since you refuse to see him as a man?”

The words cut because they were true.  Not entirely.  But true enough.

“Take him up into the hills to that cave we scouted out,” Kyle said as he pulled on his gloves and headed for his waiting carriage.

“You don’t want us to take him to the rendezvous with Burl?” Val asked as he headed for him.

“My association with Mister Burl has come to an end,” the southerner said as he took his seat and picked up the reins.

“Does Mister Burl know that?” Ab asked, his tone slightly derisive.

“That is between Mister Burl and me,” Kyle replied.  “As to you two, I pay you.  You only allegiance is to me.”

“Sure thing, boss,” Valentine answered with a salute as the southerner drove away, leaving him alone with the Lathams.

Adam watched Ab as he grunted and rubbed his jaw where it was black and blue.

Dissension in the ranks.  Maybe he could use that to his advantage.

At some point.

As Kyle pulled away, the older of the Latham twins took hold of his arm and pulled him to his feet.  “Get Cartwright’s horse, Val.  We’re gonna tie him to the saddle.”

“You think that’s smart?  What if someone sees us?  We gotta use the main road to get to the cave.”

“We ain’t going to the cave.”

Val stopped what he was doing.  “We ain’t?”

Ab was still feeling his jaw.  “I got a feelin’ Captain Burl’s gratitude will be worth a whole lot more than Mister Kyle’s money.  After all, we got us Joe Cartwright’s brother and here’s bettin’ that runt will come runnin’ the moment he knows it.”  Ab came right up in front of him and looked into his eyes.

“Lessin’, of course, he don’t want him.”

 

Ben Cartwright was sitting on Thom and Maggie’s porch.  He’d just returned there after helping Hoss bury the poor woman’s body.  Paul was concerned about further contagion and with the condition Thom was in, there was little to no chance he would be well enough to attend any kind of funeral service, even should there be one.  After they’d finished, Hoss had opted to remain outside and do what he did best – tend to the Spencer’s animals.  Life went on no matter what.  There were things that had to be done so the living could resume their life once an appropriate period of mourning had passed.

He’d been through it enough times to know.

Ben shifted and glanced over his shoulder into the house.  Upon his return, he’d gone in to check on Joseph only to find his son’s fever had risen precipitously.  He’d wanted to stay to attend him but Paul had ordered him out, saying three patients was two too many for one doctor to handle.  Five would be impossible.  So far neither he nor Hoss had shown any signs, but he knew it was too early to tell.  It had been just under a week since Joseph was exposed.  Paul said that, on average, it took five to seven days after exposure for infectivity to occur.  And so they were stuck here, out of communication with the Ponderosa and the town.  His only hope was that one of their men would come looking for them.  Hop Sing knew where they were and when they didn’t return after a reasonable time, he would most likely send someone out to check.  It was important to get word to their workers.  Life, as he said, had to  go on.  But more important than that, it was important for him to know if Adam had reached home.

Looking out at the trees, the rancher sighed, “Where are you, son?”

“How are you feeling, Ben?” a soft voice asked.

He didn’t look.  He knew who it was.  “I’m fine, Paul.”

The physician chuckled. “Taking a page from your youngest’s book?”

Ben turned to look at the physician. “How is Joseph?”

“I took the liberty, Ben, of helping him upstairs,” Paul replied as he came abreast him.  “He’s in the same bed as the young lady.”

“What?”

“It’s easier for me to attend the two of them together.  The progression of the contagion is not that far apart.  Thom is almost able to get out of bed.  I didn’t want to chance a new corruption.”

“So it doesn’t last too long?”

“Three or four days.  Maybe less, I’m hoping, since my remaining patients are young.”  Paul looked out toward the newly dug grave.  “Poor Maggie, she didn’t have a very happy life.  It’s a puzzle why some people put such constraints on themselves.”

Ben shifted so he could see his friend better.  “Constraints?”

“Since she’s dead, I guess it won’t hurt.  And I know Thom won’t object.  He’s wanted it out in the open since the beginning.”  Paul met his puzzled gaze.  “Ben, did you know Maggie and Thom had a son?”

He shook his head.

“He died before they came here.”  The physician shifted away from the door and took a seat on the step.  “I only know because I treated Maggie for melancholia when they first arrived.  Thom was worried she might harm herself because of what happened.”

This was news to him.  Margaret Spencer had always seemed to have everything together.  “Can you tell me?” he asked.

Paul nodded.  “As you know the Spencers came from Virginia.  Maggie was a Burwell before she married Thomas.  They’re FFV, you know?  Come from a lot of money and more land.  They had the one boy, Evan.  His life was planned out for him.  He was heir to all of it, but he didn’t want it.  What he wanted was a young woman named Betsy.”

“Was she poor?”   Ben knew how that would have gone against the mold.

Paul pursed his lips.  “You might say that.

“She was a slave.”

 

 

EIGHT

Ben was still chewing over Paul Martin’s words the next morning as he sat at the Spencer’s kitchen table and sipped a cup of coffee.  The house for the moment was quiet.  Sarah seemed to have made it through the worst of the contagion and was sleeping normally.

Joseph was still quite ill.

Fortunately, neither he or Hoss had shown any signs of becoming sick.  His youngest had been so weakened by the accident, it was not a surprise he had.  Now, he just had to see Little Joe through and then life – hopefully – would have a chance of returning to normal.  Though it seemed otherwise to him, Paul had assured him before heading back to town for supplies that it was his belief that Joseph’s case was moderate and he thought the boy would rally in another day or two.  A day or so after that he would officially proclaim them all clean and they would be able to head for home.

He and the physician had talked a bit before Paul left.  His old friend didn’t know much more about the Spencer’s situation, just that Evan’s desire to be with a woman who was branded a slave had, in the end, brought about his demise.  It was really none of his business, of course, though it did give him a bit more understanding of Maggie’s negative reaction to Marie.  His southern wife probably evoked unpleasant memories, and the fact that she was Creole would have made it worse.

Though the united states were considered a melting pot – a gallimaufry, really, of people from every nation and of every color – New Orleans was unique in his experience.  While most of the country was mired in the darkness of prejudice, in that city people of all colors had a chance to rise to the highest ranks.  There were white Creoles, Creoles of Color – those who were a mix of Jamaican, African, and so on – and African freemen.  The latter made up more than ten percent of the city’s population.  Marie came from the middle group.  Jean and his family, the first.  Unfortunately, though the city was enlightened, the de Marigny’s had not been.

Jean’s mother had been one of the most bigoted women he had ever met.

Ben finished his coffee and then rose and stretched.  It was time to make his own ‘rounds’ again.  Hoss was outside doing what needed to be done to keep Thom’s ranch running until the older man was well enough to take over.  Several Ponderosa ranch hands had come by earlier to check on them, as he knew they would.  A couple had remained behind to help his son.  He’d shouted orders at them, the chief one being to keep their distance from the nest of contagion the Spencer’s house had become.

Thom’s house had become.

The older man had asked about his wife the night before and it had been his reluctant duty to tell him Maggie had not survived . Though he had grieved, it was odd to see that, in a way, his old friend seemed relieved.  He hadn’t spoken to him since then.

It was time he did.

After taking time to fill his cup with fresh coffee, Ben headed for the bedroom at the back of the stairs.  When he pushed the door open and looked in, he found Thom was awake.  He was sitting up and staring out the window toward the woods beyond.

“Good morning, Thom,” he said, forcing a note of cheerfulness.  “It’s good to see you sitting up.”

The older man nodded.  “How is Joseph?”

“As well as can be expected,” he replied as he approached the bed.  Holding the cup out, he asked, “Coffee?”

Thom looked haggard.  He’d lost weight over the course of the nearly weeklong sickness, plus he was dealing with grief.

A grief he knew all too well.

“Not right now, Ben.  Put it on the table and I’ll have some in a bit.  Thank you.”

Ben did as instructed and then took a seat in the chair by the bed.  “I’m sorry about Maggie.”

A rueful smile curled the older man’s lips.  “I am too.”  His pale eyes shifted so he was looking at him.  “Not that she died – she’s with the Lord now – but that she never lived.”

“What do you mean?”

Thom drew a breath and let it out slowly.  “First, how is Sarah?”

He had told Thom the night before how he had saved the young woman’s life by alerting Little Joe to the fact that she existed and might be in need of aid.  Thom didn’t remember doing it, but he had been obviously relieved that he had.

“She’s getting better.  Sleeping soundly now, which is what she needs.”

“With your boy?”

Ben winced.  “I apologize for that.  Paul thought…”

Thom raised a shaking hand.  “No need.  I know Little Joe is a gentleman.  Besides, perhaps Sarah can help with him once she’s on her feet.”  He paused.  “As recompense for our sins, so to speak.”

“Sins?” Ben asked, confused.

Thom looked directly at him.  “It was my rig that hit Little Joe and nearly killed him.”

The rancher blinked.  Several times.  “What?”

“We were coming home.  Maggie was in a hurry to get Sarah back here and she urged me to push the horses to go faster.  I knew the bend was coming up and there was no way, with the light fading, that I could see what was up ahead.”

Ben was still processing, but he said, “There was no way you could know Joe would be on foot.”

“It wouldn’t have mattered much if he’d been mounted,” Thom countered.  “Thank the Lord he was to the side of the road and we didn’t hit him full on.”

The rancher remained silent for a moment as he thought of the young woman upstairs.  He’d found a stack of paper items on the table, cards and such.  Most of them were signed by either Sarah or Sally.  Sally, of course, was a common pet name for Sarah.

“Who is Sarah, Thom?” he asked gently.

The older man closed his eyes.  When he spoke again, he sounded totally and utterly weary.  “She’s my granddaughter, Ben.  She’s Evan’s child.”

“Your…granddaughter?”

Thom opened his eyes and looked at him.  “I know Paul told you something about our son.”

He nodded.  “Yes.  How he fell in love with a woman Maggie did not approve of.”

“A slave, Ben.  A ‘woman’ to you or me, yes, but a commodity to most people in the South – including my wife.”

It was impossible to understand, how one human could consider another nothing more than an item to be bought and sold.

“Her name was Elizabeth, but Evan called her Betsy.  She worked for the Burwells – Maggie’s family.  We were poor cousins, so to speak.”  Thom drew a breath and laid his head back against the pillow.   “Still, in Virginia family is family and so we were often invited to the plantation house for celebrations.  Betsy was a house slave.  I tell you, Ben, when I first saw her I thought she was white.  She was a beautiful girl.”  He paused.  “Of course, you have seen her child.”

“A beautiful girl in her own right,” he said of Sarah.

“She favors her mother.”  Thom shifted and tried to sit up.  After he had helped him to do so, the older man continued.  “After that first time, Evan began to go the big house more often.  He was good with his hands and offered to assist Carter with a project to remodel the great hall.”

“Carter?”

“Maggie’s first cousin once removed and the current owner of Burwell Hall. Carter’s name is Burl, which is a form of the family name.  His mother was the Burwell.  Carter’s father was a sea captain and the boy grew up in Jamaica.  He wasn’t in the direct line, but after all of Maggie’s uncle’s sons died, it passed to him.”  Thom’s jaw tightened.  “Carter’s blood may be pure, but he’s a bastard nonetheless.”

“Did Evan and this Betsy marry?”

Thom’s sad smile returned.  “You might say they jumped the broom.  It was a ceremony conducted among, and by the slaves.  They managed to keep it hidden from everyone until Betsy became pregnant.  She was young and hadn’t yet been singled out by her master.”  The smile faded.  “Carter beat her when he found out, demanding she tell him who the father was.  She never did.”

“But someone else did….”

“Eventually, yes.  It was one of the other slaves.  You see, Ben, Carter wanted Betsy for himself.  That’s why she’d been moved to the big house, for ease of…access.”

“And Evan helped her to escape.”

Even as Thom spoke, his hands gripped the coverlet as if to steady himself.  “It took years, but he tried.  My boy had no idea the night he came to the house for Betsy and Sarah, that they were being watched.  Carter waited until they had stepped through the gate to make his move.  Betsy and her child were recaptured and Evan was killed.”  Thom looked at his hands.  “Carter Burl claimed it was his right to execute a thief caught red-handed.”

Ben remained silent for a moment.  “Was there a trial?” he asked.

“After the fact.  It was a mustang court, carried out in a hurry and conducted by his peers.  Carter was exonerated completely.”

Ben’s throat was dry.  Words, hard to speak.  “And Betsy?”

Thom shook his head.  “My son’s child was turned over to Betsy’s mother to rear.  In time, Carter forgot about Sarah, and the child was allowed to grow up as best she could in her circumstances.”

“Did you ask Carter to allow you to have her?”

Thom was silent a moment.  Then he shook his head.  “Maggie would have none of it.  She never acknowledged the child as Evan’s.”

“I saw the cards and letters from Sarah to Maggie,” Ben said.  “Joseph found them hidden above the stove.”

This seemed to come as a shock to Thomas.  “What?”

“Dozens of them,” he explained, “hidden in a box in the cupboard.  Little Joe said he showed you one.”

“I don’t…remember that.”  Thom’s head sank into his hands.  “I never knew.  I thought she hated the child.  I….”

“Who were they sent through?”  He paused.  “And who taught Sarah to read and write?  I thought that was illegal to teach a slave such things.”

Thom looked up.  “The sender was a man who favored Sarah’s grandmother as much as he disliked Carter Burl.  We would get a letter from her now and again, when the man could sneak one out.  I thought Maggie had burned them all.”

Ben leaned back in his chair.  So the Spencers had lived in Virginia and their son had had the audacity to fall in love with an enslaved  woman of color who appeared to be white.  Their child, with even more white blood in her veins, had been born into slavery and remained there since her father’s mother would have nothing to do with her.

And now she was here.

“How did Sarah come to be with you now, Thom?” he asked.

“We received a letter from her, not long ago.  About two years ago, on her deathbed, Sarah’s grandmother told her everything.   She had seen the unhealthy interest Carter Burl was taking in her grandchild as she matured and feared for her.  Sarah was only fifteen, but Burl had begun to groom her to work in the plantation house just like her mother.  He even went so far as to apprentice her to a painter and used her natural talent as an excuse.”

“How did she get away?”

“As you know, there are channels for slaves to use to escape.  A tradesman who worked in the house and guessed Carter’s intentions approached her.  He’d known Sarah’s father and had been instrumental in helping dozens of slaves to freedom and wanted to help her.  It takes time.  More than a year and a half passed before there was an opening.”  Thom looked at him.  “And then she had to have somewhere to go.”

“And you thought Nevada would be safe.”

“My wife was against the idea.  I…I did what I should have done fifteen years before.  I told Maggie that I was going to go get the girl and there was nothing she could do to stop me.  In the end, she agreed, since this was only supposed to be a stopover on a longer road to freedom.”

“Supposed to be?”

“Sarah’s been with us about a month.  She was to have joined one of the trains to Canada in about two weeks.  We’ve been keeping her hidden.”  Thom looked thoughtful.  “If it hadn’t been for the rig running into your boy, she’d be hidden still.”

Providence’s hand, it seemed, was everywhere – even in the darkness, if you only knew to look.

“Thom,” he began, “we’ll do everything we can to help you make sure that happens.”

His old friend looked relieved.  Still, concern wrinkled the skin at the corner of his eyes.   “Thank you, Ben, but I am afraid I must ask you something more – something that could place you and your sons in danger.”

“What do you mean?”

“We think Carter Burl has discovered where Sarah is.  There was a man in Virginia City asking questions and he fit Burl’s description.  That’s why we were running so fast to get home.  Sarah has to go somewhere else.”

He sensed what Thom was about to ask.  “And you’re thinking the Ponderosa?”

“Your spread is huge, Ben.  Certainly you have somewhere you could hide her out for a few weeks, until the agent from the resistance movement comes?”  He paused.  “I know I am asking a lot, old friend.  If you’re discovered aiding and abetting a fugitive slave, you could be liable to punishment – would be, if Carter has anything to do about it.  He would pursue it to the full extent of the law.”

He knew about the fugitive slave law.  An amended version of the 1793 bill had been passed nearly ten years back as a part of the Compromise of 1850, the result of which was a strengthening of the law.  It stated that any person aiding a runaway slave by providing such meager aid as food or shelter was subject to the minimum sentence of six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.  Under certain circumstances, it could be more.

Ben remained silent for a long moment.  “I’ll have to think about it, Thom.  If it were just me….”

“I know.  You have your sons to think about.”  Thom smiled with chagrin.  “But this is my granddaughter – my only son’s only child.  You understand?”

“Entirely.”  Ben rose from the chair.  He patted Thom on the arm.  “You get some rest.  I’ll give you an answer by tomorrow.”

The older man slumped a bit beneath the covers.  “Thank you, Ben.  I’ll abide by your decision.”

His decision.

Ben was still thinking about it that evening as he sat bathing his youngest son’s fevered body with tepid water, trying to cool him and ease his discomfort, and the next morning when he employed fresh cloths to wipe away the drenching sweat that had accompanied the fever’s breaking.  Hoss had helped him to move Sarah to his grandfather’s bed where she could get more rest and so he was alone with his boy.  Hoss had wanted to stay, but he’d told him to go back outside.  So far his middle boy wasn’t sick and he wanted to keep him that way.  The period of incubation for influenza that Paul Martin had described would expire the next day, so it seemed the two of them had dodged that particular bullet.

He wondered again about Adam.  His eldest had come into contact with Thom when he dropped off the rig.  It was his prayer that he wasn’t out in the wilderness alone suffering from the same ailment that had carried Maggie Spencer away.

Reminding himself that the Good Book said not to borrow trouble, Ben dismissed the thought and left his firstborn in the hands of Providence.

A very good place indeed.

Fingers brushing his elbow made him look down.  Joseph was looking up at him.

“Welcome back, son,” he said softly.

“Hey, Pa,” Little Joe answered, and then added somewhat confused. “Where…I been?”

“A number of places, it seems,” he replied with a slight chuckle.  His son was prone to nightmares and during his delirium the night before they had visited a good many scenes that would not bear repeating.  “But all of them in this bed.  Your fever’s just broken.”

One corner of Joseph’s mouth quirked in a weak smile.  “That’s good, isn’t it?.”

He touched his son’s face.  Yes, it was cooling.  “It’s very good.”

Joe thought a moment and then his tired eyes rolled to the other side of the bed.  Ben saw him start and then the boy turned back to him with wild eyes.

“Sarah!”

He placed a hand on his son’s chest.  “She’s all right, Joseph.  Hoss and I moved her last night when you became…agitated.”  He’d almost said ‘violent’.

His son seemed to relax.  “She’s okay, then?  She didn’t die like Mrs. Spencer?”

So, he remembered that.  “No, she didn’t die.  And I am thankful you didn’t either.”  There had been times the night before at the height of the fever when he had doubted, much to his chagrin.  “Now, you need to get some rest.  Some real rest,” he said as he started to rise.

“Hoss?” Little Joe asked.  “He didn’t get it?”

“Heck no, little brother, you know this ol’ Hoss’ carcass is too tough for a little old bug to bite,” his middle son said, announcing his arrival.  As Ben turned to look at him, the big man released more words in a sigh of relief.  “You sure do look better than you did last night, little brother.”

“You were here too?”

Hoss nodded.

He’d been there all right.  Holding Joseph down as he thrashed.  Ben shook the memory away.  Looking from his middle to his youngest boy, he said, “Well, since it seems sleep is out of the question for the moment, are you hungry?”

“I sure am,” Hoss replied and then grinned.

“Me too,” Joseph admitted.  “I feel like I could eat that ol’ hoss.”

This was good news!  Ben turned again to his giant of a son.  “Why don’t you go get your brother some broth?  There’s a pot sitting on the stove.”

“I know’d it, Pa,” Hoss said.  “That and the smell of flapjacks was what done brought me to the house.”

Ben scowled.  “Flapjacks?”  Now that he thought about it, he could smell them too.  “How?”

“That little gal, Pa, she’s up and on her feet and makin’ breakfast for everyone.”  The big man shrugged. “Weren’t no stoppin’ her.  I tried.”

He was going to protest, but then he thought about it.  Sarah lived as a slave.  There were no days off, no matter how sick you were.

“I…I don’t know about flapjacks, Hoss,” Joe said, downhearted.  “Kind of makes my stomach turn.”

“Just broth for you, young man,” Ben ordered, “and when you prove you can keep that down, we’ll talk about flapjacks.”

“Thanks, Pa.”  Little Joe hesitated and then he asked quietly, “Could you have Sarah bring it up?”

Ah, there was the rub.  Joseph was already attached to the girl and, knowing his youngest, already thinking about engagements and proposals.  The boy hungered for a woman’s presence in his life as much as a man lost in the desert hungered for water.

If he brought the girl into their house, what else might she bring with her?

“I think we’ll have your brother bring it up this time,” he replied, trying to sound offhand about his dismissal of his son’s request.  “Sarah needs her rest too.  I’m going to see if I can get her to eat something herself and then make sure she lies down.  We wouldn’t want her to have a relapse.”

“No, sir,” his son replied, a little too eager.  For a second Joseph frowned, aware that he might have given away too much.  Then fatigue and the euphoria of recovery overtook him and he admitted, “I really like her, Pa.”

“I know you do, son.  I like her too.”

It was true.  Sarah seemed a lovely competent, young lady from what he could tell, but she came with chains attached, just as surely as if she were still enslaved.  If Little Joe truly fell in love with her, he could lose his son to Canada, to prison.

Or worse.

 

Ben waited until Hoss had returned to leave.

When he reached the bottom of the stairs he found Sarah, just as Hoss had said, on her feet and at the stove.  She didn’t notice him at first and then, when she did, she gave him a wary smile.  It took him by surprise at first but then he realized that, in spite of the fact that he had taken care of her for the last few days, they were, after all, strangers.

“Good morning, Sarah,” he said.  “It’s good to see you on your feet.”

She nodded as she shifted the cast iron skillet back on the stove, away from the fire.  “There’s hot coffee on the table if you’re interested,” she told him.

“Thank you.  I am.”

As he sat down she moved the flapjacks from the skillet to a plate and then brought them to the table.  As she placed them before him, she said, “I should go check on Mister Spencer.”

“Have you eaten?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“Then why don’t you join me?  You’ve made plenty.”

“It wouldn’t be….  I….”   Sarah scowled.  “I mean, I’m not hungry.”

Ben smiled.  “I think you are.”  He waved his hand toward the other chair at the table.  “Please, join me.  I promise I don’t bite.”

Sarah hesitated and then sat down.  She said nothing as he took two of the flapjacks and put them on an empty plate for her.  After using the syrup himself, he moved it to her side of the table.  Ben studied her as she shook her head and reached for the bowl of butter instead.  Sarah was pekid, but otherwise seemed to have made a remarkable recovery.

They ate in silence for a few minutes until she finally gathered the courage to say, “Thank you for looking out for me.”

He nodded.  “You’re welcome.”

“You’re Little Joe’s father, aren’t you?”

Again, he nodded.

“You need to get him out of here,” she said, unexpectedly.  “You all need to get out of here.”

Ben dropped his napkin to the table and leaned back.  “Would you care to tell me why?”

“I heard you  talking to Mr. Spencer….”  Sarah paused.  “To my grandfather.  You know why.  It’s not safe here.” She shuddered.  “No one is safe where I am.”

“Sarah, Nevada is a long way from Virginia.”

“Not to Carter Burl.”  Her jaw tightened as she fought back tears.  “He’s a greedy selfish man.  Once a thing is his, he won’t ever let go.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a business deal, a piece of land, a woman or…a slave.  It’s a point of pride.”  The girl was bold.  She looked him straight in the eye.  “He’s killed before and he’ll kill you or Little Joe if you get in his way, and then get the law to sanction it.”

Ben did not dismiss her words, but neither did he dismiss his duty.  In spite of the fact that the Spencers had inadvertently caused Little Joe’s accident, they had saved his son’s life.  He owed them.

He owed this girl.

“Your grandfather has asked me to provide you with shelter until the agent from the resistance movement makes contact.”

She looked stunned.  “He had no right!”

“He has ever right.  He loves you.”

“Mister Cartwright, no!  I can’t ask you to do this – to put yourself, your family at risk because of me.  You don’t even know me.”

Ben reached over and took her hand.  “I think I do, and your words just proved it.”  He hesitated and then added, “There is just one thing I would ask of you.”

She hesitated and then nodded.  “Anything.”

“Think before you answer, Sarah.  It’s a hard thing I am going to ask.”

“Okay….”

“Don’t fall in love with my son.”

Sarah remained completely still for several heartbeats before she nodded, and then she abruptly rose and fled into her grandfather’s room.

Ben sighed and ran a hand over his stubbled cheek.

Too late.

 

It took another day before Little Joe was strong enough to travel.  Ben spent the better portion of it fattening his youngest boy up and then, as night fell, reluctantly deposited him in the back of the wagon he now occupied.  They would travel after dark in order to mask their movements, with Sarah lying down in the back seat of the  rig her grandfather was driving, covered by a dark blanket.  They only awaited Hoss finishing his instructions to the two hands they were leaving behind at the Spencer place before they could set out.

In the end he had decided the best thing to do was to take both Sarah and her grandfather to the Ponderosa.

Thom had explained that it didn’t matter where they were.  The man who was to contact him was to place an ad in the Territorial Enterprise in two weeks time that would contain code words to let them know when and where to make contact.  While the main route for conductors moving ‘passengers’ or ‘cargo’, as the slaves were referred to, lay to the east, there were agents operating in the west as well.  Though Nevada was neither a free or a slave state – in fact, it wasn’t a state at all – that didn’t stop Southerners from coming West and bringing their human chattel, as they thought of their slaves, with them.  Indeed, there were horror stories of slavers kidnapping free persons of color and taking them back to work on the plantations of the South.  Once captured, these people were doomed to lives of hard labor and bare subsistence.  Slaves had no right to a trial.

There was nothing they could do.

“I’m ready, Pa,” Hoss announced as he came alongside the wagon.  Looking at the precious cargo in its bed, bundled in so many blankets he had nearly disappeared, he asked, “How’s Little Joe?”

When no reply came from the wagon bed, Ben said, “Your brother is worn out.  He’s sleeping.”

Hoss inclined his head toward the rig.  “You sure Mister Spencer is strong enough to drive that buggy?  I can hitch up Chubb behind it and do it for him.”

“I’d rather you be free to run shotgun, so to speak,” the rancher said with an eye to the impenetrable darkness surrounding them.  “There’s no reason to suspect this man Burl knows where Sarah is, but just in case….”

“Got ya.”  Hoss gave their surroundings one quick survey and then added, “I’ll just go mount up then.”

“Thank you, son.”

As Ben took the reins in hand, he heard a rustling sound behind him.  Turning, he saw his youngest son’s eyes shining in the darkness.

“Thanks, Pa,” he said, his voice a breath, “for helping Mister Spencer and Sarah.”

Little Joe didn’t know the truth about Sarah yet.  He wasn’t sure he ever should.  He had taught his sons to care too deeply and too well.  With Hoss it was stray animals – any beast that was hurt and in need of succor.  With Little Joe, well, his young knight errant couldn’t resist coming to the aid of a damsel in distress no matter what the odds.

Picking up the reins, Ben made a kissing noise and urged the horses on.  As the jingle of their harnesses sounded on the cold night air, he considered once again the choice he had made.

And prayed to God that it was the right one.

 

 

NINE

Adam Cartwright was just about as uncomfortable as he had ever been.  He’d spent two days trussed up in a cold damp cave, and then the next two or three  – he’d lost count – either tied to his horse’s saddle or, as he was now, lying prone under a tarp in the back of a wagon that had bumped and jogged along unknown roads, taking him to only God knew where.  At times he felt like they were moving in circles, as if the distance covered was far less than the hours warranted.  It made sense if someone was trying to keep him from knowing where they were going – or if they were in fear of being pursued.  Sadly, he knew no rescue would come from the Ponderosa.  His family had no way of knowing that he had been taken and was being held against his will.  These men were not kidnappers.  They didn’t want his father’s money.

They were zealots and what they wanted was his little brother.

Why, he had no idea.

It wasn’t that Joe wasn’t worth wanting.  In fact, his little brother was about as zealous as they came.  Turn him loose and there would be no stopping him until whatever he felt needed doing was accomplished.  But Joe was just one among many young men, any one of which would have done the same thing.  So there had to be something special about Little Joe.  Frederick Kyle had gone on about the blood in Joe’s veins that tied him to the South and so the  only thing he could come up with was Joe’s mother.

Marie.

He had the distinct impression Kyle had been in love with Marie and therefore took a special interest in her son.  Maybe he’d wanted to marry her.  She was a stunningly beautiful woman.  Perhaps Kyle wanted Joe to fill the hole left by the death of his own son – to be his heir, so to speak, and to fight at his side for the ‘Cause’ that was Frederick Kyle’s very heartbeat.  He’d come to Virginia City looking specifically for Joe, so that said a lot, and done his best to drive a wedge between Little Joe and all of them – almost succeeded, in fact.  It would have been a satisfactory explanation if it had not been for one thing.

The fact that Kyle himself had said there was someone else behind it.

Adam shifted to ease the pain in his back.  He’d been in several wagons and this was the most ramshackle of them all.  He’d been tossed in the back along with bags of flour and feed and even a few chicken cages and then covered with a tarp that was tied to the wagon’s sides.  Along their journey he’d heard the sounds of a city, but of late those had faded into a silence broken only occasionally by the distant crow of a rooster.  They were in the country…somewhere.  It could have been California for all he knew, or maybe just outside his back door.

God, let him still be on the Ponderosa.

His biggest fear was that he had been transported to some distant place, days away from home, and he wouldn’t get back in time.

Little Joe could already be gone.

Adam’s jaw tightened with resolve.  If that was the case he’d follow the kid, even if it meant walking onto a battlefield, and bring him home.

Unless he was really gone….

Adam closed his eyes and forced air through the gag between his teeth.

‘Madness,’ he thought.  ‘Sheer madness.’

Even as the thought crossed his mind, he heard the wagon driver call the team to a halt.  The vehicle jolted, thrusting him up against the driver’s seat so he banged his head.  As he waited for it to clear, the tarp was removed and the bed flooded with light.

So, it was daytime.  He’d had no idea.

“Get out, Cartwright,” Ab Latham ordered, pistol in hand.

He struggled into an upright position and then, using the back of the driver’s seat to brace himself, managed to climb to his feet.

“Slow and easy, off the bed and to the ground,” the southerner told him.

Since nothing could be accomplished by defying the elder Latham brother, Adam complied.  His time would come and when it did, he would make them sorry they had ever heard the name of Cartwright.

“Over there.”

Adam looked and then he blinked several times to make sure he was seeing what he thought he was seeing.  In the middle of the wilderness, surrounded by tall pine trees and several rough piles of boulders, sat an officer’s tent.  It was well-made and of a decent size.  In front of it rested a small Chippendale table with a silver tea service on it.  Behind the table a man of African extraction stood at attention, his head up, his eyes looking at nothing, and his hands linked behind his back.

It was absurd.

Adam glanced at his two abductors.  Valentine Latham looked uneasy.

His brother looked unimpressed.

A moment later the colored man turned on his heel and peeked his head into the tent.  “Captain Burl, sir, Privates Latham have returned.”

Privates?

A moment later a tall lean man exited the tent.  He wasn’t wearing a uniform, but was dressed in a suit such as a southern gentleman might wear, cut from gray windowpane wool with a wine vest and tie to match.  He wore a similarly colored low derby anchored somewhat absurdly on the back of his graying head.  He was neither young nor old, thick nor thin.  He was not attractive or unattractive for that matter.  In fact the most distinguishing thing about the man was his eyes.

They were the same cool gray of his chosen ensemble.

As Captain Burl approached him the Latham twins snapped to attention, though Ab maintained a bit of a slouch out of defiance.  Burl hardly looked at them.  His attention was solely and squarely on him.  He circled him several times before he spoke.

“This isn’t Marie de Marigny’s son,” he said, the statement both a question and a comment at one and the same time.

Valentine answered.  “No, sir.  It’s his brother.”

Burl’s right eyebrow twitched.  “Did I ask you to bring me his brother?”

“No sir, you didn’t,” Ab replied, a bit cheekily.  “This one fell into our hands, so to speak, and, well, we figured you could use him to get to the other one.”

Burl’s pale stare settled on Valentine.  “So to speak?”

“Kyle had him and he was gonna keep him,” Ab drawled.  “I told you before that one ain’t to be trusted.”

Faster than he could follow Burl moved and had Ab Latham by the throat.  “And I have told you before that you will not address me as an equal.  Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir!” Ab squeaked.

Releasing him, Burl turned back even as Ab hit the ground.  He looked at Valentine.  “Remove his gag.”

Val did as he was told.

The southern captain turned to him.  “Your name, sir?”

He licked his lips.  His voice was rough from disuse.  “Adam.  Adam Cartwright.”

Burl stared at him.  Hard.  “Yes, I can see it.  There is something of your father about you.”

“You know my father?”

“Knew him.  Many years ago.”  Burl’s lip curled back in a sneer.  “I didn’t like him.”

“I’m sure the feeling was mutual,” Adam replied.  He didn’t know what reaction he expected.  It certainly wasn’t the one he got.

Captain Burl threw his head back and roared.

Valentine and Aberdeen looked as uneasy as he felt.

“Damn Yankee arrogance!” Burl snorted.  “You think you know it all, boy, don’t you?  Think there’s nothing you can’t handle?  Your father was the same.  That arrogance should have killed him.  It would have at the Oaks had Marius Angerville not intervened.”

Adam knew the story of how his father had been maneuvered into a duel he could not win by a man named Darcy while in New Orleans.  A man his father called a ‘white-livered cowardly disgrace’ to himself and his so-called code of honor.  Darcy was the man who instrumented the smear campaign against his step-mother run by her own mother-in-law.  But how did this man know of it?  There was only one other person he could think of who could have been party to the information.

The man Marie found in her bed.

“Pa said Darcy told him the man who had accosted Marie that night was in Haiti.  That wasn’t true, was it?”

“Yes, it was.  I went away until the heat died down and by the time I came back, Marie had married your father.  She should have been mine, Adam Cartwright.  Would have been if your father had not interfered.  That boy of hers, he should have been mine too.  And he will be mine.  I hired Frederick to ask nicely, but it seems that has failed.  Don’t think that leaves me without means.  I have a new vocation.  One sanctioned law.”  Carter Burl reached into his pocket and produced a paper.  It was old, he could tell.  The Southerner unrolled it and held it out for him to see.  It was dated in the late 1700s and was a bill of sale for a woman of color named Francoise.

Adam was almost afraid to guess.  “Who was she?”

Burl’s thin lips curled in triumph.  “Your little brother’s great-grandmother.  She was a slave.

“And if I say so, so is he.”

 

Ben closed the door on his youngest son’s bedroom.  Joseph was finally asleep and he had left Hoss to watch over him while he went downstairs to meet with Roy Coffee.  They’d found the sheriff knocking on their door as they drove into the yard.  Ben had greeted him and explained in a few short words what had happened and then ushered his son up to his bed.  When he came down he found Hop Sing had made his old friend comfortable.  There was a tray of sandwiches on the table and a pot of steaming coffee.

Unfortunately the food looked far more comfortable than Roy did.

Before he could say anything, Roy blurted out. “Ben, I gotta ask you, is Adam home?”

Out of nowhere, he was struck with a presentiment of danger.  “No, Roy, he’s not.”

“How longs it been since you seen him?”

He hated to admit it, but he had lost count.  “Several days.  Near a week, I guess.”

Roy’s bushy eyebrow reached for the sky.  “You guess?  You mean, you don’t know?”

“No, Roy, I don’t know!” he snapped.  “How do you suppose that makes me feel?  Doctor Martin quarantined us at the Spencers due to the influenza.  Adam went missing a day or so before that.”

“Missing?”

“He went to the Spencers to return their rig.  We know he made it that far.”  Ben dropped wearily into his chair.  “After that, I have no idea.  I was hoping he would be here when we got home, but….”

“Couple of my deputies, Jim Lobaugh and Phil Carver, think they seen him ‘bout three days back.”

“Good Lord!  Where?”

“Riding with two other fellers.  They said Adam looked tired.  Like he was having trouble stayin’ in the saddle.  The two fellers with him was practically holdin’ him up.”

Ben leaned forward in his eagerness.  “Where was this?”

“Over near the Truckee Road.”

“What would Adam have been doing over there?”

Roy tossed his hands in the air.  “I don’t know, Ben.  That’s what I come out here to ask you.”  The sheriff shook his head.  “The boys came into town to tell me ‘cause they thought Adam might be in trouble.”

“Did he make any contact with them?”

“They didn’t get that close, Ben.  But they said they had a thought who the two with him might of been.”

“Who?”

“You ain’t gonna like it.”

“I don’t like any of this!  Who were they?”

Roy blew out his disgust. “Them two southern fellers you asked me to keep an eye on while they were in Virginia City.  The Latham boys.”

“I fired them,” he stated simply.

“Don’t mean they ain’t allowed on the Truckee.”

Ben’s head was spinning.  First Frederick Kyle had appeared and tried to woo his youngest son to support the Confederacy, and then Aberdeen and Valentine Latham had been caught doing the very same thing.  Kyle had claimed to know Marie, but he had no memory of the man and had no idea how he had come to have her portrait.  Of course, he didn’t know every facet of her life, but he had spent a good deal of time in New Orleans with her before they came out West and met most of her acquaintances and friends.

What was going on?

“I know that, Roy, it’s just that…well…Valentine and Aberdeen spent little or not time with Adam.  They only seemed interested in Little Joe.”

“How’s the boy doin’?  Hoss says he had a right bad bout of that influenza.”

“Healing, by God’s grace.”

“Sad thing about Mrs. Spencer, she was a God-fearin’ woman.  I hear tell you got Thom here.”

They had decided to admit that much.  It was only logical Thom would have come back with them to recover.  “Yes.”

Roy thought a moment.  It looked like he had been about to say something else, when he said, “Well, I best be gettin’ me back to town.  I just wanted to let you know what the boys thought they saw.  Say, you want any help checkin’ it out?”

“Not yet, Roy.  I’ll send Hoss and a couple of the hands.  If they don’t find out anything, I’ll get back to you.”

“You do that.  That Adam, he’s one of a kind.  Wouldn’t want anythin’ to happen to him – or to any of your boys.”  As they approached the door, Roy hesitated.

“What is it?”

Roy pursed his lips.  “I had me a strange visitor yesterday, Ben.  Another southerner.  Older man, dressed somethin’ like that Kyle feller.  Came into the jail bold as you please and slapped an affidavit down on my desk.”

Ben stiffened slightly.  “Oh.”

“Seems he owns one of them plantations down there in Virginia.”

“What is he doing in Nevada?”

“Looking for a runaway slave.”  Roy paused.  “It’s his right.  Federal law says it’s so.”

“A slave so important that he came all the way out here to find them?  That seems absurd.”

“Thought so too until I read the flier. This here slave’s a female, can read and write.  Seems he spent a lot of money training her to paint portraits and such.”  Roy hesitated.  “Seems she’s right pretty too.  Brown-haired and light-skinned as a white girl.”

“Why isn’t he looking in the east, or north toward Canada?  I understand that’s where the fugitive railroad operates.”

“Seems the girl had family moved out here some while back.”

Ben’s heart was pounding in his chest.  “Did he know who they were?”

“Not so’s he said.  Older people, he thought.  Maybe grandparents.”  The lawman held his gaze.  “Ben, if you know anythin’ it would be right smart to share it.”

“Me?  Why would I know anything?”

“Well, I got me to thinking, now just who in this area might have a conscience and be willin’ to risk helpin’ someone like that.”  Roy’s brows danced again. “You and your boys are on the short list.”

It went against his nature – and his faith – to lie.  But what else could he do?  “Sorry, Roy.  I don’t know anything.  If something comes up, you’ll be the first to know.”

Roy nodded.  He opened the door and then looked back.

“Let’s hope for your sake, Ben, that I am.”

Ben let out the breath he didn’t know he had drawn as he closed and locked the door.

“He knows, don’t he, Pa?”

It was Hoss, of course.  “How’s your brother?”

“Sleepin’.”  Hoss came to his side.  “What are we gonna do, Pa?”

“What we have to do.  What is right.  We can’t turn that girl over to a man who has no more regard for her than he would a cup or a china plate he could crush underfoot.  And that’s all Sarah is to the slaver –  his property. “  Ben sighed.  “Still, we can’t blame Roy.  He’s only doing his duty.”

“How come we got us a law like that, Pa?  A law that lets another man own someone else?  It ain’t right.”

“No, it’s not right, but, due to the large amount of slaves in the Southern states, they have greater populations and more votes in Congress and they have been able to protect their abhorrent way of life.”

“That’s what this whole thing is about, ain’t it?  What got Little Joe and Adam so hot they near killed one another.”  Hoss paused.  When he spoke, there was tremendous hurt in his voice.  “You think little brother understood what he was standin’ up for?  You think he really would have gone off to fight to keep all them people slaves?”

Ben had wondered that too.  “I have to believe….  I have to believe that he didn’t, Hoss.  It’s either that or I don’t know my youngest son at all.”

 

Joe Cartwright stood concealed by the shadows at the top of the steps, tears running down his cheeks.

He’d only pretended to fall asleep when Hoss was in the room.  In spite of the fact that his father had ordered him to bed and told him to stay there, he was determined to see for himself that Sarah was all right.  Hoss said she was in the room at the end of the hall, while her grandfather was downstairs.  It had been too much for the older man to make it to the second floor.  He had pulled on his pants, shirt, and slippers and was just going to go knock on her door and ask her how she was feeling.  He’d been headed there when he’d heard his father speaking to Roy Coffee about a girl.  As he listened, it all fell into place.  The Spencers had been hiding her.  When they ran into him, they’d been forced to take him to their home.  Though they’d done their best to conceal her presence – and probably forbid her to make an appearance – she’d come to him and cared for him.

She was his angel.

And, she was a slave.

He didn’t know what to do.  He couldn’t face her now.  He couldn’t face anyone.  His Pa and his brothers had to be so ashamed of him.  To think he had even contemplated, ever thought about going with Frederick Kyle.  That he had spent a week of his life working for the man, drumming up support and trying to raise money to support a way of life that fed off of the labor and lives of men and women who had no choice.  Men and women like Sarah and her family.

Like his own.

A sob escaped him, loud enough to cause a door to click at the end of the hallway and a head with dark wavy hair to appear.

“Little Joe?” Sarah asked as she stepped into the upstairs hall.

He couldn’t look at her.  He…couldn’t.

“Go away,” he breathed between clenched teeth, more to himself than to her.  “Go away.”

She wasn’t listening.  There she was, heading down the hallway, concern for him etched into every line of her beautiful face and she didn’t know that just a week before he had been ready to sell her and her people down the river – ready to die for the men who said she was of no more value than one of his father’s cattle.

Maybe less.

Joe shook his head.  He backed away.  “No.”

“Little Joe?  What’s wrong?” Sarah asked.

What was wrong?

He was.

Turning on his heel, without his boots and dressed in only a thin shirt and his pants, Joe turned and ran down the stairs – past his startled brother and father – and out the front door and into the night.  He heard them calling him, urging him to stop, but he kept on running.  Running until he entered the trees.  Running until he left the ranch house behind.  Running until he felt his heart would burst.  Running for all he was worth to escape something he could never hope to escape.

Himself.

 

Back at the ranch house Ben and Hoss were scrambling.  Hoss had taken off for the barn to saddle their horses and Ben was gathering up supplies in case they ended up searching all night.  He knew from experience that if Joseph didn’t want to be found, they would not have an easy task of doing it.  Sarah had followed Joseph down the stairs and stood in the middle of the great room looking like a little girl lost.  Her grandfather stood with her, his arm around her shoulders.  Thom had been awakened by all the confusion.

Before he headed out the door, Ben went over to her.  “Sarah, do you know what happened?  Did you speak to Joseph?”

She shook her head.  “I tried to.  He just kept backing away.”

“Was he in your room or were you in his?”  He didn’t care about propriety right now.  He just needed answers.

“No.  Little Joe was in the hall.  At the top of the stairs.”

“Good Lord,” he breathed.  Joe must have heard him and Hoss talking.  Maybe him and Roy.  He cast his mind back, trying to remember what they had said, but it was gone, driven out by a very real fear for his son.

Abruptly, he realized Sarah was crying.  “I shouldn’t have come,” she said in a strangled whisper.  “I bring trouble wherever I go.”

Ben looked at Thom.  Sarah’s grandfather nodded as he released her and then stepped back.  The rancher came to her and took her in his arms.  “This is not your fault, child.  None of this is your fault.  It’s the fault of greedy, self-centered men who care only for their own comfort and ease and nothing for the ones they must crush to have it.”  He pulled back and looked at her, and then brushed a tear from her cheek with his thumb.  “Joseph had a hard lesson to learn.  You’ve been a part of teaching him, and for that I am thankful.”  Ben’s voice shook as he added, “I have my boy back again.”

“But, Little Joe’s run away!” she protested.

“In body, yes, but in spirit, he’s just come home.”

He wasn’t sure she understood.  He wasn’t certain he did entirely, but he knew what he said was true. The threat from Frederick Kyle and the Latham brothers was over.

Marie’s son, Joseph, would never fight for the South.

 

Adam swallowed over the bile that had risen in his throat.  It had two sources – Captain Carter Burl and his campaign to use his little brother to destroy his father, the man he blamed for taking Marie away from him.  In his anger he had used his step-mother’s Creole heritage to taunt his little brother.  He felt deep shame now for having done so.  And yet, even in that anger he had never considered the consequences.  Marie had not been a slave.  Therefore, even if she had been a Creole of Color, there was no threat to her son.  But now, with Burl holding a paper that proved that Marie’s great-grandmother had in fact been purchased in an auction, that changed everything.  It might not hold up in a northern court of law, but if Carter Burl managed to get his brother into one of the southern states, there was no telling what would happen.  Burl could use that paper to justify his claim that his brother was enslaved and sell him.  Joe might vanish into a land where every man they sought answers from belonged to a secret brotherhood that kept its secrets close; where white men held supremacy and anyone with a hint of color was regarded as nothing more than a commodity to be bought and sold.

He had to get away.

Burl had ridden away a few hours before, headed he knew not where.  He’d watched as the southern officer had instructed the Latham brothers.  As usual, Valentine had paid close attention while Ab had affected a pose of indifference.  Ab was the weak link, though it appeared otherwise.  Valentine was cautious where his slightly older brother was impatient.

Which meant he would be easy to rile.

Since they were in the middle of nowhere, his gag had been left off.  Carter had actually told him to go ahead and yell his head off if he wanted to since no one would hear him.  He thought he knew where he was.  Even though one tree looked much like the other, there was a bend in the river close by that he thought belonged to the Truckee.  Burl could have no idea that he and his brothers had explored every inch of that river when they were boys and he might recognize it.  If he was right, in spite of the days they had traveled, he wasn’t that far from home.

For a minute or two he watched the Latham  brothers as they went about their business.  When Valentine entered the woods, leaving Ab behind, he saw his chance.

“Tell me, Ab,” he began, “what’s in this for you.”

Aberdeen Latham glanced at him.  “A chance to see the mighty Cartwrights brought low,” he snorted.

“That’s not it.  You were working for Burl before my father fired you.  Why?”

“Listen, Yankee, I don’t need to tell you nothin’.  You just keep your mouth shut or I’ll shut it.”  Ab sneered.  “Maybe permanently.”

“Joe’s not a Yankee.  Why have you turned on one of your own?”

“He’s not my own!” the southerner sneered.  “He ain’t no better than that woman Burl is huntin’. But then you wouldn’t care, would you, Yankee?  That Northern pa of yours, he sure didn’t care when he rode that Creole gal.”

Adam bit his tongue.  Ab’s bigotry infuriated him, but now was not the time.

Later.  Later, he would pound him.

“You know, you may not believe this, but I agree with you,” Adam said, turning on the charm.  “Ask anyone.  I didn’t accept Marie as my step-mother.  And I was ready to leave home just a few weeks ago because my father sided with her son instead of me.”  He was hoping Ab might have heard something of the recent fight he had with Joe.  He knew the men were talking about it.  He steeled himself and added, lacing his tone with disgust.  “Joe deserves what he gets.”

Ab had halted what he was doing and was staring at him. “You’re just sayin’ that.”

“Give me a Bible and I’ll swear on it.  You know how us Yankees are about our Bibles.”

“Yeah, all those Boston blue-bloods always bring them along on the slave ships they sail to Africa and back,” the other man snorted.  “They think God will forgive them if they pray hard enough.”

Sadly, what Ab said was true.  If not for northern greed the South could not have sustained its hateful way of life.  Adam shifted, partially with discomfort from his thoughts, but mostly to see if he had managed to work his hands free from the ropes that bound them.

It was nowhere near close enough.

“So, I didn’t quite understand your Captain Burl.  Apparently he was in love with my step-mother in spite of her…unusual attributes.”

“Shows what you know.  Burl ain’t got an ounce of human kindness in him.  He don’t know nothin’ about love.  When he sees somethin’ and he wants it, he gets it.  He don’t ever lose.”  Ab turned and looked at him.  “’Cept one time, to your Pa, and he’s gonna make him pay.”

“By winning my brother over to the South’s Cause.”

“That was the plan in the first place.  May still be, dependin’ on your brother.  Either way that runt would be better off dead.”

Latham’s words chilled him.  “Why would Joe be better off dead?”

“If he enlists, Burl will see he’s on the front lines and that’ll be an end to him.  If not….”

“If not?”

“He’s gonna sell him.”

 

“Where Missy think she go?”

Sarah stopped.  The front door was partway open and her hand was on the latch.  She closed her eyes and sighed, and then turned back into the Cartwright’s great room to face Hop Sing.  Her grandfather had felt weak and returned to his bed.  She’d seen to him and then, when she came out of the downstairs guest room, had checked to make sure the first floor was empty before donning her coat and hat with the intention of heading out the door in search of Little Joe.  Hop Sing must have been hiding, or maybe he’d stepped out when she peeked into the kitchen.

Either way she’d been caught.

“I was…just going out for a breath of fresh air,” she said, adding a little too quickly, “the doctor recommended it.”

Hop Sing’s queue danced as he shook his head.  “Doctor not recommend night air.  Night air not good for Missy Sarah.”  The Chinese man came over to where she was.  With one hand he pushed the door shut.  “You stay inside.  No good girl go look for Little Joe.  It too dangerous.”

Sarah smiled at his misplaced concern.  “I can take care of myself, Hop Sing.  I’ve been doing it for a long time.”

He was staring at her so intently, it almost made her uncomfortable.  “Mistah Ben tell Hop Sing missy special.  Keep safe.  Keep here.  He say, bad man outside.  Look for her.”  He jabbed the air with his finger.  “You no go outside!”

“But Little Joe….”

“Little Joe take care of himself.  He do it for a long time too.”  The man from China paused.  His voice grew soft as he said, “Number three son not want missy to put self in danger.  He like her too much.”

“No, you’re wrong,” she said, a tremble in her voice.  “I don’t know what it was, but he couldn’t even…wouldn’t look at me and when I tried to talk to him.  He ran away.  If he liked me, why would be run?”

Hop Sing took hold of her elbow.  “Missy come sit on settee.  Little Joe come home when he ready and not before.  Very stubborn boy.”

She could be stubborn too.  “No.  I have to find him and talk to him.”

The Chinese man held her gaze.  “Little Joe not want to talk to missy.  That why he run.  He too ashamed.”

“Ashamed?”

The small man nodded.  “Missy come sit.  Have tea.  Hop Sing tell her why.”

Sarah glanced at the door.  Little Joe already had a half hour lead and it was getting dark.  She supposed it would be foolish for her to venture out.  She just wished she could have ridden with his father and brother.  She hated feeling useless.  Doing nothing.

With a nod, Sarah let herself be led over to the settee.  She remained there while Hop Sing went to the kitchen to prepare some tea and then accepted the steaming cup he handed her with a little nod.  All the while he’d been gone she’d tried to puzzle out what Little Joe could possibly feel ashamed of.  He’d been a gentleman with her and had done or said nothing wrong so far as she could recall. Sarah waited until the Cartwright’s Chinese man servant had taken a seat on the low table in front of her before speaking.

“Tell me about Little Joe,” she said.

Hop Sing nodded.  “Little Joe very special boy.  Big smile.  Big heart.”

“Yes.”

“But heart have hole in it.  Almost fourteen year.  Hole not mend.  Maybe not ever mend.”

Sarah frowned.  “Why?”

“Little Joe mama fall from horse outside of house.  He watch her fall.  See her die.”  Hop Sing sighed and shook his head.  “Boy should not see such thing.”

She closed her eyes, seeking to stave off the image the Chinese man’s words caused to flash before her eyes.  “I saw my mother die as well,” she said, her voice small and tight.

Hop Sing reached out to touch her arm.  “Very sorry,” he said.

Sarah nodded.  “But what does Little Joe losing his mother when he was small have to do with him being ashamed now?”

“Little Joe not remember his mama.  He too little.  Only remember one or two things.  So he listen to father and brothers and make up rest.”

She nodded.  She knew all about that.   “I was nearly six when my mother…died.”  She didn’t use the word ‘murdered’.  A slave couldn’t be murdered by the man who owned her.

“Little Joe not yet five.  He listen and dream about mama and where she come from.  He want to be like her in every way.”

“Where was she from?”

“Come from South.  From Louisiana.  Little Joe think he like to be from the South.”  Hop Sing’s dark eyes sought hers.  “He think maybe his mama be happy if he go fight for it too.”

Sarah stiffened.  “Oh.”  So that was it.  Joe had found out…what she was and he wanted nothing to do with her.” She rose abruptly.  “I understand.  I’ll tell Grandfather we should go.  We –”

“Missy not listen.”

“Of course, I’m listening!  You just told me that Little Joe is going to go off and support the Confederacy.  He’s ashamed to be anywhere near me.”

“Yes.”  The word stopped her.  “Little Joe ashamed.  Number three son live on ranch whole life.  Not know many things.  Not realize his mama like missy in some ways.”

Sarah frowned.  “What does that mean?”

“Mrs. Cartwright come from New Orleans.  Much life, many different people there.  She very pretty lady like Missy Sarah,” he said, and then added softly, “Like missy in other ways too.”

It took a moment.  “Was she Creole?” she asked at last.

Hop Sing nodded.

“She not welcome here because of what she is.  Come home crying when go to town alone.”  His chest puffed out a little bit.  “Tell Hop Sing.  Not tell Mistah Cartwright because he be mad.  He have hot head just like Little Joe!”

She understood now, the way Joe had looked when she’d seen him in the hall.  Why he’d stuttered what he had and run from her.

It made her want to find him even more.

It made her love him even more.

“Missy understand now?” the Chinese man asked.  “Little Joe need time alone.  He sort things out and come back.  You no need worry.”

Sarah smiled.  “I’m sure you’re right.  Thank you for telling me.”

He was watching her.  “Missy stay in house now?  Not go outside where cold?”

She surprised herself by yawning.  It made her laugh.  “I guess I should go to bed.”

“Missy do that.  Little Joe back in morning.  You see,” Hop Sing proclaimed as he rose and bent to retrieve the tea tray.

Sarah smiled again as the Chinese man headed into the kitchen wing of the Cartwright’s home.  She waited until he had disappeared and then counted to twenty for good measure.

Then she opened the front door as quietly as she could and slipped outside.

 

Adam Cartwright was laying on his side, breathing as shallowly and as evenly as he could.  Ab Latham had discovered his loosened bonds and let him know what he thought of his escape attempt.

Which was not much.

There was one easy weapon to use with a man who was bound hand and foot and sitting on the ground and Ab had used it with abandon, literally kicking him while he was down and enjoying every moment of it.  He didn’t think he was seriously wounded, though he was sure that he had at least one cracked rib since it hurt like hell to draw a deep breath.  After unleashing his anger, the southerner had bound him more tightly than ever and left him to his pain while he went about readying his horse to ride.  He supposed that meant the others must be returning sometime soon, or at least Valentine.  Carter Burl troubled him.  The man seemed slightly…unhinged.

Adam closed his eyes and began, again, to work at the ropes that bound his wrists.  Captain Burl was a clear and present threat to both his father and his younger brother and he had to – at all costs – get away.

 

 

TEN

Joe was a fast runner – had to be since he had been bully-bait since he went to school.  He could outrun just about anyone if he wanted to, but he knew he couldn’t outrun his father and brothers when they were mounted.  So, as soon as he could, Joe made for the hills.  He was a good climber too.  Hoss said he must be part mountain goat, and so it was nothin’ for him to scramble up and over boulders, taking a path that would be near impossible for his family to follow on anything other than foot.  He needed time.  He  just couldn’t face them.  Not yet.

Maybe not ever.

Joe glanced down at his lightweight tan shirt and pants and then at his bruised and bloodied feet.  Of course, runnin’ away on a cold September day when you took off in barely more than your birthday suit and a pair of slippers wasn’t smart.  In fact, it was downright dumb.  He could just see older brother Adam, arms crossed, with that ‘look’ on his face, shaking his head and tellin’ him to take time to consider his actions and their consequences.  In other words, to look before he leaped.

He was really good at leapin’, just not so good at lookin’.

The curly-haired man anchored his hands on his hips and breathed in as he looked around.  He had no idea where he was going.  He’d really wanted to visit his mama’s grave so he could apologize to her.  He knew she’d forgive him even if no one else would.  But he couldn’t do it.  He knew that was the first place Pa would think to look.  So instead, he’d taken off in the opposite direction, which put him on the side of the ranch closest to the Truckee Road.  There wasn’t much here.  Tall pines.  Fading grass.  Rocks and boulders and more trees.  There was a line shack fairly close by, but he figured his pa or brothers would think of that too.  Scowling, Joe remained still as he considered what he should do.  A shiver shook him and he wrapped his arms around his middle for some warmth.  As he did, a wee small voice in the back of his head urged him to swallow his damn pride and go back home before he died of exposure.

Unfortunately, the great big voice of his guilt quickly shouted it down.

Shrugging off another shiver, Joe turned in all directions.  He and Adam and Hoss used to play in this area when they were boys.  He kind of remembered it.  Adam, being older, had been in the lead most of the time.  If he remembered right, there were caves along the river’s bank that would offer him some shelter until he decided what to do.  He doubted his family would think to check them as they weren’t one of his usual haunts.  Without warning, as a vision of his father and brothers riding slowly, looking for his tracks rose before his eyes, and Joe felt an immeasurable sadness.  He didn’t want to cause them pain and that’s what he would do if he continued on his present course.  He knew how his pa was when he went missing – he’d come home before to the older man’s bent back, gaunt cheeks, and red-rimmed eyes cradled in shadows.  Hoss was probably out of his mind.   And Adam?  Well, Adam didn’t know, but if he did, older brother probably would have said, ‘Good riddance!’

He wondered if he would ever get a chance to talk to his older brother again to tell him how sorry he was.  To tell Adam….

He was right.

Joe’s jaw tightened and he sniffed in tears.  He thought a moment and then, fists closing, came to a decision.

He had to go back.

He was doing the same thing Adam had done after they’d had that fight – running away – and he’d thought older brother a bit of a coward for doing it.  It was him who had gone to find Adam and bring him back.  He knew Pa couldn’t live without Adam and that their pa would blame himself somehow for one of his sons going away.

Pa would blame himself for him going away too.

It was hard to admit, but he was behaving like the child everyone accused him of being.  A man would face up to what he had done and, if he was wrong, admit it and make it right.  If everyone hated him after he’d done that, well, then he would leave.  Joe snorted as he shivered again.

But this time, he’d wear a coat!

As he came to his decision, a sudden weariness overcame him.  It wasn’t all that long since he’d had the influenza and running a couple of miles in the bitter cold was probably not on Doc Martin’s list of things to do for a speedy recovery.  If he hadn’t been so cold he would have laid down and taken a nap.  As it was, he was cold enough that the only thing he could think of to do was start walking.  Maybe he’d run into someone who could give him a lift to the Ponderosa.  He could offer them hot coffee and a bite to eat when they got there.  Joe grinned.  Hop Sing was sure to have something ready in the kitchen for when he came to his senses and went home.

He wanted to be home.

Drawing a deep breath, Joe struck the remnants of tears from his cheeks and began to scramble back down the boulders.  When he reached the road he took it, hoping he would run into his pa and brothers.  He hadn’t gone too far when he heard the approach of horses.  Halting, the curly-haired man waited to see who it was.  When the riders appeared, he knew right away it wasn’t his family.  Still, the two men looked vaguely familiar.  He’d seen them before, but he couldn’t remember where.

When they saw him, the pair reined their horses in.

“Hey,” Joe said, giving them a little wave before placing his fingers back in the crook of his arms for warmth.

The shorter and darker of the pair favored him with a smile.  “You’re Ben Cartwright’s boy, aren’t you?”

Joe nodded.  He knew they looked familiar.  “Yeah, that’s my pa.  I’m Joe.”

The two men exchanged a look.  Both smiled.

“Son, what are you doing out here without a coat – and boots?” the man asked.

How did he explain it without sounding like an idiot?  “My coat’s on my horse.  So are my boots.”  It was kind of the truth.  Well, it was probably the truth.  Knowing his pa, he’d brought both along as well as Cochise for him to ride when they found him.

“Ah, I see.  Spooked and ran off, eh?”  The man looked at his companion.  “Gorman, you think the boy could ride with you?  You’ve got the stronger mount.”

“I can walk,” Joe protested, because he thought he should.

“Nonsense.  Gorman here would be happy to let you ride with him.”  As the tall thin man nodded, the short dark one said.  “My name is Regis.  As it happens, we were headed to the Ponderosa anyhow.”

“Oh?” Joe asked as he approached the pair.  “What for, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“We have a message for your father.”

He was beside the tall man now.  Gorman was leaning over, offering him a hand – or so he thought.

A second later Joe was on the ground, reeling from a kick to the side of his head.  He heard more than saw the two men dismount and come to stand over him.  The shorter, darker one knelt beside him and took his shirt collar in hand and lifted him up.  Joe grew nauseous from the movement and his body started to shut down.

Guess he knew what the message was.

 

Sarah sighed.  She’d just added to her list of ‘crimes.  The first, of course, was stealing her head, hands, feet, and body from the man who ‘owned’ them.

The second one?  Stealing a horse!

Due to the fact that most of her life had been spent on a plantation in the South as one of a part of a family of ‘privileged’ house slaves, she knew how to ride and how to do it well.  After her father’s death, her grandmother had feared she’d be punished.  Instead, she seemed to be favored.  While Carter Burl seemed to pay little attention to her as she grew, he saw to it that she was taught to read and write and to behave in a civilized fashion, which included how to ride.  Her grandmother warned her that this special treatment would have a price and that one day Burl would order her to the big house to serve and to provide service to him.  She had feared that was his intention when he took her to France with him the year before, but it turned out not to be the case.  He had recognized her natural talent at portraiture and taken her along to apprentice to a painter he admired.  Carter Burl had invested considerable money in her and he made it clear that, when they returned to the States, she was to use her talent to portray the members of his prestigious Virginia family.  She’d been fine with that – until he made it clear that once she entered Burl Hall she was also to become his concubine.

That she was not willing to do.

When she told her grandmother that the day had come, the older woman instructed her as to what to write, and then persuaded one of the white plantation workers to post a letter to her grandparents.  The first reply that came back was from a neighbor, telling them the older couple had moved to Virginia City, Nevada.  Determined, her grandmother had written to the local sheriff there and he  had managed to track down the Spencers and deliver the post.  Of course, the sheriff knew nothing of her situation.  It would have been interesting to see her white grandmother’s face when she read the letter.  In all the years that she had written to her father’s mother – sending her cards and notes when she could – she had never received an answer.  She’d assumed the older woman wanted nothing to do with her.

And she’d been right.

Sarah shifted uneasily in the saddle.  She’d ridden a couple of miles before she realized she had no idea of where she was going.  Little Joe could have run anywhere.  She had headed in the direction of the lake because she’d heard he often took solace at his mother’s grave, but it felt wrong somehow.  The handsome curly-haired man would know that would be the first place someone would look for him.  And so she was at a standstill.

Just like she’d been at a standstill in her hope of escape.  It took months for a reply to come from her white grandparents.  When it did, her slave grandmother had cried and shouted ‘Hallelujah!’  The letter, of course, was from Grandfather Thom.  It contained only a few words, written cagily in case the note was intercepted.

Of course.  The door is always open.  Tell her to come in.’

And so it began – the search for a way for her to ‘come in’.  Finally, the same man who had carried the letters and posted them agreed to help.  His name was James and he was sweet on her slave grandma.  He was also a man who felt uncomfortable in the role he had to play and tried his best to ease the lot of the colored men, women, and children who bore the brunt of the hard labor that kept Burl Hall going.

Sarah smiled sadly as she urged her mount forward.  When the time had come, she had almost chickened out.  The immensity of what she was doing – not only escaping, knowing the hunt for her would be intense, but traveling all the way out West alone by train and stage coach.  When she’d come about halfway, she’d stopped in at the telegraph office to send a message to the Spencers to tell them she was on the way and give them an approximate time of arrival.  She’d been delighted and not a little bit surprised to find there was a post waiting for her.  Grandfather Thom had reasoned she would take the stage line and left messages – again, with guarded wording – for her along the way.  He talked about the farm, the neighbors, and about a package he was to pick up on a certain date.  He said, if it didn’t arrive, he’d wait just outside of town at a local trading post along the route until it got there.

And so, she had arrived – not as an unwanted stranger, but as family – to Grandfather Thom’s open arms and a ready smile.

He told her on the way to the house how he had wanted to rear her.  That the blood in her veins was the same as his and it mattered not one whit who or what it was mingled with.  The older man told her as well that his wife, Margaret, was a different story.  That she still grieved for her son and blamed the woman he had fallen in love with for his death.  Maggie, he said, was ashamed – and he used that word, blunt as it was – that her son had been involved with a slave woman and died as a criminal trying to help her escape.  He told her she would have to be patient with her grandmother.  That she was a good woman who would come around in time.

Perhaps, now that Grandmother Margaret was in Heaven, she finally had.

Tightening her grip, Sarah pulled back on the reins.  She’d heard the sound of horses’ hooves coming from the direction of the bend in front of her.  Panicked, she took a moment too long to come to a decision and before she could conceal herself, a man came into view riding a horse.  Little Joe had been on foot, so she knew it wasn’t him.  The man slowed his mount’s progress until he came to a stop alongside her.

Tipping his elegant gray wool hat, that matched his equally elegant gray suit, he said, “Afternoon Miss.  Are you out here alone?”

His accent was southern.

Sarah was apprehensive.  She was pretty sure of herself.  After all, growing up on a plantation with all that entailed had made her tough.  Still, even though the man was slender, he both outweighed her and was taller by a good five inches or more.

Smiling prettily, she answered, “Yes.  I’m out for an afternoon’s ride.”

“Unescorted?”  He shook his head.  “That’s hardly proper for a young lady of your status.”

“My grandfather doesn’t care,” she replied.  After all, it was the truth.

The man was eying her, looking from her mount to her clothes, and then to her face and hair.  “Your grandfather.  Now, that wouldn’t happen to be Thomas Spencer, would it?”

Sarah stiffened.  A shiver ran down her spine.  “I don’t think I need to answer that.”

The man reached into his inner coat pocket and produced a snub-nosed derringer.   “Now, Miss, I think you do.”

 

Adam opened his eyes.  A moment later he groaned as reality bled back in and all of the various bruises and cuts he had taken in the beating made themselves known.  He hadn’t realized he had fallen asleep, but then one’s body did that sometimes when it was pressed beyond what it could bear – issued orders instead of carrying them out.  The black-haired man blinked away both nausea and fatigue and then righted himself.  Something had awakened him.  Some…noise.  Ignoring the pounding in his head, he concentrated.  Yes, there it was again.  Someone was approaching the camp.  At least two someones.  They were mounted and almost here.  Was it Burl and Valentine Latham, he wondered?  Neither man had returned yet.  Val’s brother was just stirring too.  Ab had laid down by the fire and fallen asleep shortly after their encounter.  As he watched, the southerner rose to his feet and took a few steps in the direction of the sound.  Then he hauled up short and snorted.

“Looks like you got company, Cartwright,” he sneered.

Before laying down Ab had bound him to a nearby tree, with his hands tied behind the trunk.  Bound as he was he couldn’t shift to look at whoever had just pulled into the camp.  He heard two men talking, a chorus of cruel laughter, and then a dull thud as something struck the ground.  That was followed rather quickly by a rustling of leaves as that something or – as he was beginning to suspect – that someone was dragged in his direction.

“Got a present for you,” an unschooled voice said a moment before dropping his baby brother’s badly battered form at his feet.

Little Joe was pale; his breathing somewhat shallow.  There was a large, odd-shaped bruise darkening from red to purple on the left side of his face.  His tan shirt was stained with blood that had flowed downward from a split on his cheek.  His hair, as well as his shirt and pants, were liberally dusted with dirt and covered in bracken.

“Pretty boy’s sound asleep,” the man’s thin lips curled at the end.  “Been that way since I put my boot to his head.”

Adam’s eyes flicked to his brother.  Joe was pale – and this was so unlike his younger brother – not moving.  At least he wasn’t dead.  A kick to the head that left a bruise like that could have easily snapped his neck.  Steeling himself, Adam kept up his earlier pretense.

“I hope you had more luck knocking some sense into it than I usually do,” he growled.

The thin man watched him closely.  “You ain’t mad?”

He made a face.  “Hell, no.  Like I told, Ab, I’m with you.  I’m sick to death of my pa pampering the brat.  It’s no more than he deserves.”

The tall thin outlaw’s lips twisted as he dropped into a crouch by Joe.  A second later his dirty fingers laced through Little Joe’s chestnut curls and he placed his gun barrel against Joe’s temple.

“You want I should pull it?”

“Gorman, you idiot!  Get up!”  Adam’s bit back a sigh of relief as his gaze went to the speaker.  It was the man he’d seen with Frederick Kyle in Virginia City.  The one called Regis.  He looked disgusted.  “Burl isn’t going to pay as much for damaged goods,” he said as he dismounted and headed for them.

Gorman spit off to the side.  The thin man ignored his partner and looked right at him as he said, “Might be worth it.”

Adam held his breath as Regis reached out and knocked the gun from Gorman’s grasp.  It could so easily have gone off!

Gorman shot to his feet . “What’d you do that for?” he demanded. “Besides, who made you God?”

Regis was shaking his head.  He tapped his temple.  “This makes me God.  I’m the brains.  You’re the brawn, Gorman, and don’t you ever forget it.”  The dark-haired man looked down at Joe as if his brother was a prize steer just roped.  “This one is going to buy our way out of obscurity and into independent financial freedom.”  Regis’ eyes shot to him.  “I’m sure Mister Cartwright here would be just as happy to see his spoiled younger brother sold into slavery as shot.”  Kyle’s compatriot smiled.  “This way his suffering will be never-ending.”

Adam’s jaw tightened.  He nodded, unable for a moment to find words.  Then, after swallowing, he said, “The boy’s never worked a day in his life.  He’ll work now.”

Regis’ eyes never left him as he replied.  “With his looks, I doubt he’s for the field.  There’s plenty of plantation owners out there with…unusual…appetites.  From what I understand, it should come naturally to him, considering who his mother was.”

Rage fought to rein in his emotions.  Giving  them their head at this moment would just get both him and Joe killed.

He forced a wicked little smile.  “Joe’s pretty proud of the French Quarter mother of his.”

As he spoke, Little Joe moaned.

“Gorman, tie the kid to the other side of the tree!” Regis ordered.  “Carter won’t be back until nightfall.”

Joe moaned again as the tall thin man complied.  Gorman was unnecessarily rough with Little Joe, thrusting him so hard against the tree he could feel the reverberations as his brother’s head hit the trunk.

This time Joe cried out loud.

The sound of a hard slap silenced him.

“Sorry he’s upwind,” Gorman said as he moved away.  “You’ll just have to put up with the stink of that Creole blood.”

Adam counted…very slowly…as the lowlife walked away.  He made it to thirty before he called out softly, “Joe?  Are you awake?  Can you hear me?”  When he got no reply, he tried again.  This time his whisper was fierce.  “Joe?”

A moan.  It was like a whole conversation!

“Little Joe?”

“I…can hear you.”

“Keep your voice down.”  He shot a look at the two men, but they were talking to Ab and ignoring them for the moment.  “How bad is it?”

“Seein’ stars….”  He could tell his brother wet his lips.  “Pain in my head.  I can…take it.”

Of course, Joe would say he could ‘take it’, even if he’d been run over by a train and there was just enough left of him to scrape off the tracks.

“Listen, Joe, I have to tell you something.”  Adam wet his lips too.  What did he say?  He was so ashamed, but there was no time to explain or apologize.

“What?” his brother growled.  “Like you’d…rather see me dead?”

Good Lord!  He must have been awake….

“Joe, I didn’t mean –”

“What’re you two blabbin’ about?” Gorman’s surly voice demanded.

Adam stiffened and looked up.  “Just checkin’ to see if the kid’s awake.”  He tried to make his voice match his pretense, but worry and fear for his little brother were calling his bluff.

Gorman swung around the tree.  He gripped Joe’s curls and pulled hard.  When his brother yelped and then cursed, the thin man snorted, “Yep, he’s awake.”  As he released Little Joe’s hair, the outlaw bent down and struck his brother so hard on the cheek the sound reverberated through the clearing.  “Or he was!” he chortled.

The list of men he needed to see dead or in jail was growing longer by the minute.

“What’s up with these two?” Ab Latham asked as he halted at Gorman’s side.  “Can’t a man get a wink of sleep?”

“The little one was trying to wriggle free,” the thin man lied.  “Had to teach him to mind his manners.”

“Which you’re fine with, right, Cartwright?” Ab asked him.

Adam shrugged – as nonchalantly as he could.

Aberdeen Latham was staring at him.  “Gag them both!” he ordered.

“No!” Adam said, a little too enthusiastically.  “There’s no need to gag me.  I won’t yell.  I’m on your side, remember?”

“I remember.  I remember all right,” the elder Latham said as he dropped to the grass beside him.  “I remember watching you and that little brother of yours back at the ranch.  You may not like him, but you don’t want to see him dead – not matter what you say.”

“You’re wrong.”

“Maybe I am, and maybe I’m not,” Ab replied as he took the bandana from his neck and began to fashion it into a gag.  “It’s no nevermind anyhow.  You don’t need to talk and I need to sleep!  Open up or I’ll let Gorman have his way with the kid.”

Adam’s gaze flicked to Gorman who looked all too eager.

“You’ll regret this when Burl gets back,” he warned.

Ab shrugged as he shoved the gag between his teeth and tied it in a tight knot at the back.  “Maybe.  Not likely though.”  He chuckled.  “An ‘overabundance of caution’, boys.   That’s Carter Burl’s byword.”

As the two men walked away, Adam heard his brother groan.  Here he was, inches from Little Joe, and he couldn’t tell him why he was acting the way he was.  What must his brother think, he wondered?

That he hated him. That’s what.

 

Sarah sat on a low boulder, her spine stiff and her hands folded neatly in her lap, listening to a man she was beginning to think was slightly mad – at least where Little Joe was concerned.  Apparently this was Frederick Kyle, the southerner she had heard the Cartwrights speak of.  He’d spent the last so many weeks trying to woo Little Joe to the cause of the South, apparently succeeding enough that it had brought Joe and his brother Adam – whose mother had been from New England – to blows.  As Kyle spoke, Little Joe’s deep regret began to make sense to her.  From what the southerner said, the handsome young man had all but enlisted in the man’s campaign, ready and willing to leave his loving family behind for the memory of a mother he had never known and the place where she had been born.

It was a thought that would never have occurred to her, but then, men were different, or so her grandmother had told her repeatedly.  Still, to leave a haven of safety such as the Ponderosa for a far-off land and a people you knew nothing of – to fight for a cause that was not your own – well, that made no sense to her.

Maybe she didn’t know Little Joe as well as she thought.

Still, that didn’t change how she felt about him or her growing anger with this man who thought he knew what was best for a young man whom he had only just met – again because of this woman, Marie.

She must have been something, Little Joe’s mama.

It was obvious Frederick Kyle had been, if not in love with, then enamored of this mystery woman.  He had been traveling west on other business when he met up with Carter Burl, but the two men had quickly discovered they had something in common – a fascination with Marie De Marigny.

Only with Master Burl, it was an obsession.

The man pacing in front of her had agreed to work for the plantation owner partly because of that commonality, but mostly to woo Marie’s son to return to ‘where he belonged’ – and, maybe, to save Little Joe from Burl.  After the Cartwrights figured out what Kyle was up to and Little Joe’s father ordered him off his land, never to return, the southerner had been unable to leave.  He was desperate to make Little Joe understand that he was not a liar and a schemer and that his ‘Cause’ was real.  In order to do this, Frederick Kyle hired two men by the name of Latham to befriend Joe and bring him to them.  When that failed, he decided to take a chance and come to the Ponderosa himself to speak to Little Joe and that was when he encountered her. With his gun pointed at her, Kyle had demanded she tell him what she knew.  She’d thought about it a moment and then told him, honestly, that Little Joe had run away and she was trying to find him.  It wasn’t a betrayal.  The southerner knew more about Joseph Cartwright than she did and she hoped he might be able to lead her to him.  What she’d do once they found Little Joe, she had no idea.  Kyle knew who she was.  And more than that, he knew what she was.  If Little Joe or any of the Cartwrights were caught trying to help her they would go to prison.  After all, they would be violating federal law in aiding and abetting a fugitive slave.

Or worse they could be killed like her father and there was nothing anyone could say or do about it.

Sarah drew in a breath and held it as Frederick Kyle turned and pinned her with his pale eyes.  They were lit with a fanatical fire.

“I know where he is,” he announced.

“Where?” she breathed.

“Captured,” he said.

“Captured?”  Sarah rose to her feet.  “I told you he ran away.”

The southerner watched for her reaction.  “Carter Burl has men looking for him.  That’s part of what brought me to the Ponderosa.  I was coming to warn him.”

“Why didn’t you say so before?” she demanded as her heart sank to her toes.

Kyle pinned her with a stare that said she was less than the dirt under his feet.  “Why would I tell a quadroon anything?”

“Because I can help you,” she shot back knowing that, with his monumental ego, the southern man would believe her.  “Joe Cartwright meant nothing more to me than a way out of slavery.  He can’t give that to me now, but I think you could – if you wanted to.”

“And why would I want to?”

“Because Little Joe will come to me and he won’t come to you.”  God help her, it was the truth.  She could only hope that when the time came, she could come up with something that would help them both escape.

“Why should I trust you?” Kyle demanded.

Sarah bowed her head, assuming a stance she knew he was familiar with – one he would find compelling.  “Because…master, you have the power,” she said softly.

Frederick Kyle remained where he was for several heartbeats and then crossed to stand before her.  He reached out and caught her chin and lifted her head so she was forced to confront his fervent gaze.  As his lips curled with pleasure, he laid a hand on the skin exposed above her neckline.  Though he thought of her as less than human, she could tell he was attracted to her.

She supposed, in a way, she was not so different from the mysterious Marie De Marigny.

“Yes,” Frederick Kyle said, nodding.  “Yes, I do.”

ELEVEN

 

It seemed his lot somehow, to end up bound hand and foot and tied to a tree.  Of course, this time older brother Adam was in the same position, only on the other side.  The tree divided them.  Just like the love of their northern and southern mothers divided them.  Or at least it had until now.  And there was no way he could tell Adam.  No way to apologize.

No way to let older brother know just how much he loved him.

Oh, they’d made up after he went to get his stubborn New England born brother and brought him home.  They were polite and didn’t argue anymore – at least in front of Pa – but the hurt had remained, and it seemed no matter how much either of them tried to ignore it, even deny it, it still stood between them.  Joe knew the fault was mostly his.  Adam thought things through, came to a conclusion, and then acted on it.  Him?  Well, everything was always a jumble.  He thought sometimes that if he could have thought somethin’ through that clearly then he might have been able to make a clear decision and stick to it, but it wasn’t gonna happen.  No matter how much he tried, his ‘passions’ – as his pa put it – overwhelmed him.  He’d think about something all clear-like and then things would start roiling like water in a kettle over a fire and suddenly and without warning, explode.

‘Mercurial’, that was a word older brother liked to use when talking to someone about him without Adam knowin’ he was listening – as unpredictable and as changeable as the mercury in a thermometer or the weather.

It shamed him to admit his brother was right.

No wonder Adam didn’t want anything to do with him.  Joe glanced over his shoulder at his brother and then closed his eyes as he rested his battered head against the rough bark of the tree and tears welled up and overflowed.  The world around him might be out of focus, but one thing was crystal clear.

Older brother Adam hated him.

He’d been mostly out of it when he’d Regis and Gorman had dropped him at his brother’s side, but he’d been awake enough to hear Adam tell the older man, ‘I’m with you’, and then go on to make it sound like he was some spoiled little rich kid who deserved whatever he got.

Joe blinked back tears and sniffed in snot.  Maybe Adam was right.  Maybe he was a brat like some of the hands liked to call him.  He wanted so much for his brothers and father to think of him as a man and here he was acting like some no-count kid who could care less about his family and who only wanted what he wanted because he wanted it.

No, that wasn’t fair either.  He didn’t really give one damn about the South or its high-and-mighty ‘cause’.

He just missed his mama.

A movement behind him made Joe swing a bit to the left.  Adam had shifted.  His older brother grunted softly as he wiggled against the tree, reaching for something.

It startled Joe to realize it was his hand.

Joe blinked his eyes, freeing tears from his lashes to cascade down his mud and blood-stained face.  He hadn’t really meant to pull away from Adam – he loved Adam just as fiercely as he did his pa and his middle brother – he’d done so out of guilt and shame.  Adam shouldn’t be offering him any comfort.  Adam had a right to be mad.

He’d been a fool.

Joe let the tears fall freely.  Crying was just something he did, and he knew for the length of his life he would be made fun of for it – but he didn’t care.  It was like the tide of emotions in him was so strong it just had to rush up and crash against the shore or he’d go crazy.  A little smile twitched the corner of his full lips.  He hoped one day that he’d find a girl that understood – really understood him.  Then he remembered.  Amy had, but Amy was gone.

Gone like his mama.

Grief overwhelmed him.

 

Adam was barely able to brush Little Joe’s fingers with his own, but he had to do something!  He could hear his baby brother’s soft sobs, and the sound of Joe’s sorrow was like a stake through his heart.  How many times had he held that little curly-headed boy close and heard just that sound as Joe cried his heart out over some real or imagined hurt?  They were so different – as different as their mothers – and yet, in many ways, they were just the same.  If the truth were known he felt things just as deeply as Joe did – sometimes he wondered if it was not even more deeply – but the pain and loss and the constant drive to be strong for his father as they forged the life Pa envisioned for them had left scars – tough, rock-hard scars that were nearly impossible to penetrate.

Even for him.

It had been easier when Joe was a little boy, even though all the earmarks of the young man his brother would become were there.  When Marie had died and Pa was left so bereaved he couldn’t think of anything but his own pain, Little Joe had turned to him.  Oh, Hoss was Joe’s best friend and always would be, but to fill the hole – to bridge that huge chasm of unthinkable and unimaginable parental loss – that curly-headed little boy had turned to him and clung on as if life itself depended on it.  Joe had a way when he was hurting or afraid of digging his fingers into your skin until it hurt.  Baby brother needed that connection – that touch – to know he was okay.  Adam snorted.  Touch, the one thing he disdained.

Well, didn’t really disdain.

Feared.

It was all he could give Little Joe now and he hoped it was enough.  There had been so many things – too many things said between them.  Words, as he’d told his pa, that weren’t even his own.  Anger was its own kind of madness, but the anger that was building between the North and the South was something else entirely.  It pit not only state against state, but house against house and brother against brother.

Adam found Little Joe’s fingers again and gripped them this time.  Not this house, he tried to communicate through that grip.

Not this brother against his brother.

 

Ben Cartwright nodded to his remaining son and then went to kneel beside the lonely grave on the hillside overlooking the lake.  It had been too much to hope that they would find Joseph here.  The boy would know this was the first place he would look.  It was one of his youngest son’s ‘safe’ places.  He couldn’t count the times he’d found the boy here after they’d argued or he’d been forced to administer a severe discipline, which usually included the instruction not to leave the house.  In some ways Joseph was as wild and untamed as the wilderness into which he had been born – the child of his latter years, the child of his prosperity.

The child of Marie.

He’d loved all his wives.  He’d cherished competent and compassionate Elizabeth and soft spoken, no-nonsense Inger, no less than Marie.  They had been his partners, equal in every way.  Marie….

Ben let out a sigh.  “Ah, Marie….”

There had been something extraordinary about his young New Orleans bride; a vulnerability that made him feel – rightly or wrongly – that she needed him in the way no other human being ever had; that she needed him to assure her of her worth, especially after her treatment at the hands of the De Marignys who counted her little better than a street trollop.  Madame de Marigny couldn’t see it.  She believed Marie had married her son for his money and not for love.

Marie was love.

Ben reached out to place a hand on her tombstone and brush aside the vines that had attached themselves to its already worn face.  A little more than thirteen years ago – when their son had not yet turned five – he had laid her here and then gone away, leaving Elizabeth’s equally compassionate and competent son in charge of his other two boys.  Adam could handle it, he’d told himself.  He wouldn’t be gone long – just long enough to come to grips with his loss, to find himself so there was something there to give to his sons.  Ben released the tombstone and rose to his feet.  He stood still a moment and then looked out over the lake.  Hoss had fared the best.  Inger’s sweet boy was more concerned about his brothers than himself, and when he returned, he had run to him and hugged him as if he had never gone away.  Adam had come out of the house carrying his youngest.  Joseph’s tousled head was resting on his shoulders.  His oldest son had offered him his hand and welcomed him home.

‘Welcome back, sir,” he’d said.

Sir.

Ben shook his head, regretting again the choice he had made that had robbed his eldest of the last vestige of his childhood and, in a way, forced Joseph into an unending one.  Marie’s boy was the most damaged of all, left with a deep-seated fear of abandonment and an almost visceral need to know that he was loved.

“Joseph, you are,” he said softly to no one but the wind.  “Come home, boy.  You’re needed and you’re loved.”

“Pa.”

It was true and constant Hoss, of course.  Ben struck away a tear and turned to face Inger’s son.  “Yes?”

“The men are waitin’ for orders.”

They’d brought a half-dozen ranch hands with them.  They were waiting at the bottom of the rise.  He’d sent them in the opposite direction in search of his other missing son.  Adam was never far from his mind, though at the moment finding Joseph had to take precedence.  Adam was a man and could take care of himself.  Joseph was….  Ben turned and looked at the stone again.

Joseph was Marie’s son.

“We’ll split up,” he answered.  “There’s no sense in covering the direction Adam went.  The men are already doing that.”  The rancher paused. “You know your brother, son.  Where do you think Joseph would go?”

“Nowhere’s he’d think we’d think of lookin’ for him, that’s for sure,” the big man sighed.

“Are there any favorite places you boys had?”  Ben smiled.  “Any I don’t know of?”

“Plenty,” Hoss admitted with a shy smile.  “Mostly old mines, river caves and the like.” He thought a moment.  “And there’s that old cave up in the hills near the line shack and others along the Truckee.”  His son scowled.  “Why’d that little ornery cuss have to go and run away, Pa?  What was he thinkin’?”

“Joseph wasn’t – thinking, that is.  His mother used to do the same thing.  Don’t you remember?”

Hoss’ smile was wistful.  “I sure do.  I ‘member searchin’ the house for Ma and then, when we’d find her out sittin’ under a tree or in the stable.  She’d always apologize for scarin’ me.”

“Marie didn’t mean to frighten you.  It was more that – more that she had to get away from herself, if you understand what I mean.  Or at least try.”  He chuckled.  “It’s pretty hard to run away from yourself.”

“But Joe ain’t learned that yet, has he, Pa?” Hoss asked soberly.

“Joseph is very young.”  Ben walked to Hoss’ side and placed his hand on the big man’s shoulder before adding with a smile, “And he has a lot of his mother in him.”

Hoss sighed deeply.  “I sure do miss her, Pa,” he said.

“I know, son,” he said before moving off to deal with the hands.  “I do too.”

 

He was worried about Joe.  For some time they sat there with their hands touching, unable to say anything except what that touch said – that they were brothers; that they were there for one another no matter what unkind words had passed between them and would always be.  Then, without warning, Joe’s fingers had gone slack.  He supposed he must have fallen asleep or worse, passed out.  His brother had a head wound that, as of yet, had not been attended to.  From the bruising and amount of blood on Joe’s face and neck, he had taken a pretty bad blow.  There was no telling if he had a concussion or not, or how bad it was if he did.

He had to get them out of here.

But how?

Adam blew out a sigh.  Lack of both food and sleep occluded his thinking.  He’d been these men’s prisoner for so long it was embarrassing.  Still, he had to keep in mind that they were, for all intents and purposes, slavers.  After all, that’s what Carter Burl was and he had hired them.  They were used to dealing with runaways slaves and knew all the tricks.  That was the reason he had hoped to convince them he was on their side – at least so far as Little Joe was concerned.  He’d thought that, if he could make them think he wanted them to succeed, they might let their guard down.  Adam shifted, touching his brother’s limp fingers again.  But that had been before Joe entered the picture.  He had to get the kid out of here and to a doctor.

There had to be way.

As he sat there, gnawing his lip, Adam noticed Ab Latham tense and rise from his position by the fire.  Ab signaled to his brother and they both took up their weapons and turned toward the east.  He’d expected Carter Burl to make an appearance.

Instead, it was Frederick Kyle.

 

Relief coursed through Sarah’s slender form as they stepped into the clearing.  She had feared Master Burl would be there and was relieved to find that he was not.  Still, the two men with guns who faced them worked for him and she knew what that meant.

Her days of freedom were over.

Sarah cast her gaze over the camp, noting the elegant tent that most certainly belonged to the plantation owner, before they halted on the figure of a man tied up to a tree.  His skin was slightly tanned like hers, but she didn’t think he was a slave.  It had to do with the way he held himself.  The man boldly met her gaze, projecting his outrage and demanding something be done about the injustice he was suffering.  A slave would have dropped their head, looked away – done anything to keep from drawing attention and receiving punishment.

She was disappointed it wasn’t Little Joe.

“What is he doing here?” Frederick Kyle demanded of the man closest to him.

He was southern too, as was evidenced by his drawl.  “Kept him as bait.  Would have worked too, ‘cept Regis and Gorman found the kid before he found us.”

Sarah stiffened.

Kid?

Kyle’s color was up.  He drew his walking stick and wielded it like a weapon.  “Those two miscreants are here?  Tell me where!”

“They’re under my protection, Kyle,” a man said, his voice coming out of nowhere.

The sound of it sent chills down Sarah’s spine.  Regardless of how much she detested Frederick Kyle, she felt herself pulling closer to him, seeking whatever protection the southern man could offer.

“Hello Sally,” Carter Burl drawled.  “Long time, no see.”

 

Adam watched the scene unfolding before him with keen interest.  He had no idea who the young lady with Frederick Kyle was, but it was evident from her rigid form and the terror in her eyes that she was scared stiff of Carter Burl.  He wondered if this was the mysterious ‘Sarah’ he had heard both Burl and the Lathams speak of during his time with them.  If so, she was an escaped slave, though to look at her you would never have known it.  While she had dark wavy hair and eyes, her skin was just a shade darker than his would have been in the early spring.  She must have been a mulatto or quadroon; a slave who had only one grandparent who was colored.  It was an unspeakable injustice that such a woman would be doomed to a life of servitude simply because of her lineage and the state into which she had been born.

Such a woman or – Adam’s fingers brushed his brother’s gently – such a man.

Unexpectedly, Joe moaned.

Adam gritted his teeth.  No, Joe, no!  Now is not the time to come to!

Aberdeen Latham chucked a finger in their direction.  “Sounds like sleeping beauty is waking up.”

Frederick Kyle’s attention returned to him.  The southerner looked puzzled.  Then he must have seen something – Joe’s arm, a head of curls showing on the opposite side of the tree.  The southerner paled even as Carter Burl began to laugh.

“I didn’t need you after all, Kyle.  The boy walked right into my hands.”  Burl paused, and his tone darkened.  “Our deal is done.  You will remove yourself from my presence.”

“What do you intend to do with Little Joe?” Kyle demanded, and for a moment Adam felt sympathetic toward the man.  He seemed genuinely distressed.

“Whatever I choose to do,” Burl replied.

“Why are you holding him prisoner?  You said you wanted him to join our Cause….”

Your cause, Fred,” the plantation owner growled.  “It’s always been your damn cause.”

“But….”

“You know what my cause is, Frederick?” Burl snarled as he came so close the other man had to take a step back.  He made a fist and shook it in Kyle’ face.  “What it’s always been?  Making Benjamin Cartwright pay for taking Marie from me.”

“She went of her own accord, Carter.  You –”

Kyle was on the ground, wiping blood from his mouth before he could finish the sentence.

“Say that again,” Burl breathed fire, “and you’re dead.”  Adam tensed as the bully turned his attention to the girl who had cowered behind Kyle’s back.  “And you,” the plantation owner said, his tone deadly, “how dare you run away from me!”

Sally seemed to shrivel into herself.  “I’m..sorry,” she stammered.

“Not as sorry as you will be!” Carter shouted and then he lashed out, striking her and driving her to the ground.

“Not as sorry as you will be.”

 

“Pa, look!  I swear that’s little brother’s boot print!”

Hoss was so excited, Ben hated to tell him that the boot print he was looking at might well have been Little Joe’s, but then again, it might just as easily have belonged to any other small, slender man.

“What makes you think it’s your brother’s?” he asked as he knelt at his son’s side.

“You know Joe, Pa.  You know how you told him to go get that heel fixed the last time we was in town?”

Ben nodded.  “Yes.  I take it he didn’t?” he asked as he looked at the uneven pitch of the heel print dug into the dirt and the small crack that was clearly evident.

Hoss nodded.  “He got to talkin’ to Jenny at the bank.  She was right upset, Pa.  Joe didn’t tell me what about, but he took her over to Miss Beth’s pie shop and they talked until it was time to head home.”

Ben rose to his feet.  “Did your brother say about what?”

His son looked mystified.  “Joe’s a gentleman, Pa.  He don’t talk and tell.”

That would be his Joseph, always ready and willing to help – and to get out of doing something he did not want to do.  Though why Little Joe would avoid getting his boot heel fixed mystified him.

Ben blew out a breath and looked at the prints again.  They’d followed Joseph’s trail up and into the hills, and then back to the road again.  It looked like Little Joe might have changed his mind and been heading home – at least that’s the direction the boot prints were headed.

But, like a shadow on the sun, the prints were overridden by others – a pair horses.

And then they disappeared.

“Is one of the horses bearing an extra load?” he asked, wanting and yet not wanting to hear his son confirm his fears that his youngest had been taken captive.

“Looks like it, sir.”  Hoss rose and dusted off his  knees.  He pointed.  “They went that way.  Toward the river.”

They’d sent the others on and then decided to try the river caves.  No real reason why, other than Hoss had a ‘feeling’.  He’d learned years ago never to dismiss one of his middle son’s intuitions – they often proved true.

“Joe could have been willin’,” Hoss suggested.  Then, as he knelt again, his son asked, “Pa?  What’d you find?”

He stood up, rubbing it between his fingers.  Then he tasted it.  Blood.

His son’s blood.

 

Consciousness returned to a slap in the face and a man breathing his name with hate.

Joe’s head spun and he blinked to clear the stars before his eyes.  He’d figured he’d wake up to find he was in Frederick Kyle’s control, but Kyle was on the ground staring at him, those intense eyes of his filled with something…fear… maybe dread.  Maybe regret.

Maybe all three.

“You won’t honor Marie by bringing harm to her son!” Fred shouted.  “Let the boy go!”

“You were more than willing to use him to your own ends,” the man who had him gripped by the collar snarled.

“I was….”  Fred swallowed as his eyes locked on him.  “I was wrong.  I wanted to tell you, Little Joe, before I left.  But your father…”

Someone had taken the gag out of his mouth and untied his feet.  Joe wet his lips and spat, “You leave my Pa out of this!” he shouted.  Behind him, Adam grunted a warning.  Joe shot him a look.  For someone who said he deserved what he got, older brother sure seemed worried about what was happening.  A second later, Joe’s eyes returned to the man who held him.  “And don’t you dare mention my mama.  You ain’t fit to have her name on your lips!”

“I had more than that on my lips,” Carter Burl, his gaze never wavering.  “I’m the man the whore’s first husband found in her bed.  I had her!”

“That’s a lie!” Joe shouted as he fought against his remaining bonds.  “You’re lyin’!  You never knew my mama!”

Burl’s upper lip curled in a sneer.  “How do you think Frederick came by her portrait?” he asked, his tone soft as a snake slithering through the grass.

Joe’s gaze went to Fred, who was just rising.  The southerner dusted himself off and then nodded.

“It’s true,” Kyle admitted.  “I didn’t lie to you.  I…knew your mother, but the portrait belonged to Carter.  He gave it to me to use to lure you away from your father.  I’m…I’m sorry, Little Joe.”

The wind went out of his sails.  All of the sudden Joe’s throat went dry and a wave of heat washed over him.  He wasn’t just a fool kid – he was a complete fool!

Unexpectedly, everything dark and angry and uncertain churned in his belly and worked its way up into his throat and out.

Disgusted, Carter Burl released him as he vomited.  Joe struck the ground hard and laid there, heaving.  Behind him, he could hear Adam struggling to break free, crying something against his gag – probably trying to reassure him that what the man said was a lie. Or maybe, he was gonna tell him it was the truth.

Maybe that was why Adam had hated his mother.

Why he hated him.

Fouled by the contents of his own stomach that had betrayed him, lost, alone, and without hope, Little Joe Cartwright laid facedown in the grass not caring whether he lived or died.  Vaguely, above him, he heard voices.  Carter Burl’s again, arguing with Kyle, then barkin’ an order, and then, then…

Cool, kind hands touched his face.

“Little Joe?  Little Joe, look at me.”

It took everything that was in him to comply but he did, and he found himself looking up into the face of his angel.

“Sarah?”

Her dark eyes shot to the side.  “Master Burl told me – ordered me to look after you.  Can you sit up?”

“He ordered…you?”

“He doesn’t know about…us.”  She looked again and then turned back.  The beautiful brown-haired woman frowned as her hand touched his hair that was matted with blood and he winced.  “Sorry.  Does it hurt terribly?”

He grinned like an idiot.  “Not anymore.”

Sarah rose to her feet.  She held onto his arm and pulled up as she stood.  He came with her and managed on his own for a moment, and then wobbled and had to take hold of her shoulder for balance.  He let Sarah lead him over to a wagon where she sat him down and propped him against the wheel and then went to get some water and a cloth.

“Sorry,” he mumbled as she came back.

“Whatever for?” she asked as she moved her fingers through his hair.

“I stink.”

Sarah looked down at him.  “Not half as much as Master Burl does,” she replied, her lips twisting up on one end.

“Sarah, I –”

She pressed a finger to his lips.  “Shh.  He’ll get suspicious if we talk too much.”  Sarah’s dark eyes fastened on his as she bound his hands to the wheel. “Little Joe, I promise you this.  I will get you out of this.  It’s all my fault.”

“No, it ain’t!” he protested quietly.  “Burl’s out to hurt my Pa.”

“He wouldn’t have come to Nevada if it wasn’t for me,” she countered quickly.  “And he’ll go if I….”

Joe stiffened.  “If you what?”

Sarah glanced behind again and then, assured that no one was watching them, gave him a quick kiss.

A second later she placed a gag between his teeth and quickly tied it behind his head.

“Orders,” she apologized and then rose and headed for Carter Burl’s tent.

For the tent of the man who owned her.

 

 

TWELVE

Night had fallen.

After Sarah left him, Valentine Latham had come and untied his hands and then retied them higher up to the wagon itself.  It forced him to sit at an odd angle and he hurt everywhere.  It also turned him in such a way that he was facing older brother Adam.  He’d moved in and out of consciousness for while.  His head was poundin’ like a herd of startled beef and sleep seemed to be the only thing that stopped it.  Every time he woke up it was to find his brother’s steely hazel stare fixed on him.  Just like  it was now.  With the light gone, it was hard to tell what Adam was thinkin’.  It had become a kind of game, guessing.

Anything to keep his mind off of what was happening in Carter Burl’s tent.

Joe blinked back tears and forced his mind back to Adam.  Was his brother mad?  He didn’t think so.  Scared?  Not Adam.  Agitated and anxious?  Yes.  Hurting?  He thought so.  Joe looked again.  His brother’s lean form was rigid.  He was straining hard against his bonds.   Adam’s teeth showed above and below the gag that silenced him as if he would consume it to be free of its restraint.  He had no idea if Adam was injured or not.  There wasn’t any blood showing, just a pale gaunt face with fierce cold eyes locked directly on him.

Where had they gone wrong, Joe wondered?  His heart had near broken when Adam left for college and burst with joy when he came back, but all too soon the differences between them had surfaced and they’d begun to drift apart.  Adam treated him like a kid, like he was…well…his kid.  He didn’t want another pa. He had the best one around.  He wanted his older brother back.  He wanted his friend, his….

Savior.

Joe sucked in air and fought back tears.  The memory of those long days after his mother died – without his pa – was something he carried deep inside.  Though he could only remember bits and snatches, the full impact of their devastation was imprinted on his soul.  Pa had come back, but he was different, and for a time he’d needed more love than Pa could give.  Adam had been his rock.  His anchor in the storm.  And then…Adam had abandoned him too.

Without him, he had been lost.

He was still lost.

Still…lost.

And now, not only lost, but without a home.

Joe’s gaze returned to his brother who was sitting with his head tipped back against the tree he was tied to.  His eyes were closed.  Adam hated him.  Pa probably did too.  Here he’d thought that joining with Frederick Kyle would be somethin’ he could do that would make his mama proud and instead…instead, it would have shamed her.

Just as he had shamed his family.

Just as he had shamed Sarah.

God….

Sarah.

Burl….

Unwillingly, Joe’s eyes returned to the tent.  He’d seen the shadows on the canvas walls.  He knew what was happening inside, what she was…willing to give to save him.  Just as surely as he knew it was in vain.  Burl would take her and use her for his own pleasure and then kill him anyhow – probably in front of her – to make her pay for daring to dream that she might love someone of her own choosing.

That she might be free.

“Little Joe.”

Joe stiffened at the sound of a voice.  It had come from close behind him.  He knew it.  It was Frederick Kyle.  Joe glanced at the tent as he felt Kyle’s fingers brush his wrist.  The light inside had gone out.

“Don’t move.  I’ll have you free in a moment.”

Hope surged through him.  Fred was freeing his hands!  Then, with a glance in older brother Adam’s direction, he remembered to think.  Why was Kyle freeing him?

What was in it for the southerner?

As he waited for Kyle to remove his gag, Joe felt a hand on his shoulder.  “Little Joe,” Fred said.  “I truly regret what has happened.  I was…angry with your mother, for not loving me.  When Carter approached me I thought, if I had you with me, it would be like having a part of her.  I knew then that he meant your father harm, but not that he meant to harm you.  I thought he wanted you with him like I did because that’s where you – as Marie’s son – belonged.  I thought…”  Fred paused and when he spoke again, there was anger underlying the tone.  “I thought he believed in the Cause, but he’s just another traitor.”

Joe gritted his teeth, tasting the filthy rag.  He reached up with his hands to remove it, but Fred caught them and held him back.

“I’m letting you go.  Run, boy.  Get away from here!”

He shook his head violently and nodded toward Adam.

“With you gone, Carter won’t care about your brother.  He’ll be on your trail like a hound, boy!  You have to run hard and fast!”  When he shook his head again, Fred took hold of his chin and met his defiant stare.  “You know when I give my word, it’s good.  I promise you, I’ll see to Adam.”

Joe swallowed.  There was more.  He had to know.  ‘Sarah’, he spoke into the cloth.

Kyle looked toward the tent.  “She’s lost, son.  As lost to you as Marie is to me.  If I can, for you – for Marie – I’ll help her, but I can’t make any promises.”

Again, he shook his head.  Fred tightened the grip on his arm.  “You get runnin’, boy, or I’ll shout out loud that you’ve escaped and you and your brother and that mulatto girl will all die!”

His body tense, his nostrils flared and blowing out his anger, Joe sucked in a breath and nodded.  He’d take Fred’s offer of freedom and he’d run.

He hadn’t promised in what direction.

 

“There’s another one with them, Pa.  See here.”  Hoss pointed at the ground and then looked at his father.  Pa’d aged this past few weeks, what with Joe and Adam at each other’s throats and all that had happened since.  He looked old tonight.

Old and scared.

“Pa?”

The older man startled.  Then he smiled with chagrin.  “Sorry, son, I was thinking about your brothers.”

“They’ll be fine, Pa.  Don’t you worry.”

He didn’t know it, of course, but it’s what Cartwrights did – said what needed to be said to comfort and prop up one another.

“Will they?  I have to wonder why your brother ran.  Was it to escape himself or…us?”  His father hesitated.  He drew in a breath, and then continued.   “I should have told him sooner.  I…”

“Told him what, Pa?” the big man asked as he rose.

The older man thought a moment.  “Do you know what it means for someone to be Creole, Hoss?”

It was just a word to him.  He knew his mama had been one, but he didn’t care what it meant, she was just his mama.

“I ain’t right sure, Pa.”

“New Orleans is unique, son.  The lines that are drawn in other places – other states and territories – are blurred there.   Oh, it might matter to some, but to most a man or woman’s faith, their lifestyle, their…color, doesn’t matter.”

He’d never thought about it.  Now, as he did, Hoss remembered some of the mean things the kids had said about their ma.  He’d asked someone once about one of the words, a funny one – ‘quad’ somethin’.

No one was willing to tell him what it meant.

“You mean mama was, well, colored?”

It took a moment, but his father nodded.  “In the eyes of many white men, yes, though there was very little blood in her veins that was not the same as theirs.  Marie’s great-grandmother was a woman of color and in the eyes of the men whose cause your youngest brother was so determined to support, she would have been no better than a slave.”  Pa hesitated.  He looked him square in the eye.  “If your brother had been born in any of the slave states, son, that’s what he would have been …a slave…because that’s what Marie would have been.”

You could have picked his jaw up off  of the dirt.   It wasn’t that the thought of Little Joe havin’ some kind of blood that was different in him that done it.

It was the fact that it mattered.

“You think Little Joe might think,” he swallowed hard over the lump in his throat, “that we’d think any less of him ‘cause of that?”

“I don’t know, son.  I’m grasping at straws.  I can’t understand why he ran out the way he did.  I know Joe’s impulsive, but –”

“That ain’t it, Pa,” he said, sounding as sure as he felt.

Hope entered his father’s eyes.  “It isn’t?”

“Nope.  You know Little Joe, Pa.  I’m bettin’ it had to do with that little filly.  You know, Sarah?”

“Oh?”  Pa smiled a little.  “And why do you think that?”

“Well, sir, you saw her after Little Joe done run out.  She looked like a kid caught with their fingers on the cookies.”

“Guilty, you mean?  You think Sarah said something to make your brother run?”

“No, sir, if you pardon me, that’s not what I mean.  I think Joe took one look at that little gal and well, just like mama used to do, ran ‘cause he couldn’t stand still.”

His father nodded.  Hoss could see that, in his heart, the older man thought so too.

The big man paused, and then he said, “Let’s go get baby brother and bring him home, Pa.”

 

Joe crouched down in the tall grasses that ringed the clearing Carter Burl’s tent lay at the heart of.  Though it was still night, the morning light was dawning and he knew he had little time in which to make his move.  He’d watched the tent and for some time and there’d been no movement within.  Regis and Gorman had ridden away with cash in their pockets and the Latham brothers were curled up in their bedrolls.  Adam’s head was on his chest, so his brother was asleep too.  Adam was the only thing that bothered him about his plan.  Leaving his brother in Carter Burl’s hands was like arguin’ with the shadow of death, but there was nothin’ for it.  Adam could take care of himself.

He had to take care of Sarah.

Shifting, Joe parted the grasses and crept closer to the tent.  He knew that – after what had passed – Carter Burl would be sleeping hard.  He should be in his deepest sleep now, just before dawn.  At least that’s how it was for him.  Often it was when his worst nightmares came.

Like now.

Joe drew a deep breath and then he stood up and walked into Carter Burl’s tent.

 

Adam fought for a word to describe what he was feeling.  Terrified didn’t cut it.  Petrified, panic-stricken didn’t either.  Aghast?  Yes, that was it.

Aghast.

What the hell did Joe think he was doing?

Ben Cartwright’s oldest son struggled against his expertly tied bonds as he watched his little brother – the baby brother he had held a few minutes after he entered the world – walk into the lion’s den bold as brass.  He’d nearly fainted with relief when he’d  realized what Frederick Kyle was doing.  After he was freed, he’d watched his fiery little brother argue with the man and then bolt off into the trees as if the devil himself was on his tail.

Safe.  Joe was safe.

He should have known better, of course.  He’d seen how Joe looked at the girl with Kyle.  If his baby brother had a core flaw – Adam fought an ill-timed smile, thinking of Joe’s many unique qualities – it was his need to connect with a woman.  It had seemed for a time to be only older women and he had surmised it had something to do with Marie, but then there had been Amy.  Such a sweet, lovely young thing.  Adam drew a breath as he saw her in his mind’s eye and held the image against what had happened.  He could hardly stand to think of what his brother had witnessed.  Joe, seeing her impaled.  Seeing her….

Die.

It had changed him.  In the months that followed Little Joe had become withdrawn, even sullen.  It was part of what had come between them, though he bore as much, if not more of the blame.  He was older.  He should have been able to make allowances.  He should have known how deeply both Marie and Amy’s deaths had wounded his brother.

He should have known how much he needed him.

“God, Joe,” Adam sobbed into the cloth that silenced him, even as he strained to break free and be that savior his brother needed, “don’t die…”

 

She was there.  Laying half-clothed, curled up and turned away from the man who had abused her.  For a moment Joe wanted to fly into a rage, to take hold of Burl and ram his head into the ground until it was nothing but a bloody pulp, but Adam was close in his thoughts and he heard his older brother’s voice in his head, as clearly as if he stood in the tent with him.

Think, Joe.  Don’t act.  Think!

If he pounded Carter Burl into the dirt it would wake the Lathams and alert Frederick Kyle to the fact that he hadn’t left.  Most likely, they’d both die. – and Sarah too.

As quietly as he could, Joe crept to the far side of the bed where she lay and stood looking down at Sarah.  She was asleep.  Every once in a while she made a soft little sound and he realized that, even in her sleep, she was crying.

It broke his heart.

Dropping to his knees, he reached toward her.  Words were dangerous, so Joe meant to use as few as he could.  He covered her mouth with one hand while using the other to gently stroke her hair.

“Sarah,” he whispered.

Her eyes flew open.

So she hadn’t really been asleep.

It took a moment, but even in the darkness of the tent she recognized him.  Her head shook from side to side as a tear slipped down her cheek.

Go,’ she mouthed.

He smiled and did the same.  ‘No way.’

Little Joe…

Reaching out, he touched her face to brush away a tear.  ‘Come with me.’

Sarah glanced at Burl and then shook her head again.  The man stirred a bit at the movement, but quickly slid back into the torpor that followed the unforgiveable thing he had done.

Little Joe.  Go!

I’ll wake him,’ he warned.

Her brown eyes went wide.  ‘No!

He offered his hand again.  ‘Then come with me.’

Sarah drew a breath.  ‘Go,’ she repeated and then added as he frowned.  ‘I’ll followI promiseIt’s safer this way.’

He hesitated.

Go!

Still unsure, Joe nodded and started for the tent’s opening. With one last look, he stepped outside.  As he did, he heard Sarah stir.  She murmured something and then he heard Burl’s surly reply.

A moment later she appeared wearing a robe.

Coming close, Sarah whispered in his ear.  “I told him I had to relieve myself.  Joe, you need to – ”

“Not without you,” he declared.  “Never.”

It took a moment for her to understand that he meant it – that he’d give himself up if she wouldn’t come – and then she nodded.  “All right.”  Sarah frowned as he hesitated.  “What is it?”

“Adam,’ he replied as he looked toward the tree where his brother was tied.  “He’ll never know.”

He felt her hand on his cheek.  “He knows,” Sarah said close to his ear.  “He’s your brother.”

Joe nodded and they were gone.

 

He couldn’t believe it.  Joe had done it.  He’d gone into Burl’s tent and come out alive.  A moment later the dark-haired girl had joined him and the pair of them had disappeared into the trees.  Adam let out the breath he’d been holding against disaster and once again rested his head on the tree’s rough bark.   It was only a matter of time now until the slaver awoke and realized what had happened, and there was no doubt there would be hell to pay.  It didn’t matter.  Little Joe was free.  There was no doubt either that Pa and Hoss were out there somewhere – maybe somewhere close by.  After all, the two of them were missing and there was no way their father and brother would have remained at the ranch.  Joe would find them.  He’d find them and bring them back and this whole ordeal would be over.

Or that was how it would have played out in an ideal world.

It was hard to describe the sound that issued a second later from Carter Burl’s tent.  There was something in it of disbelief, but mostly it was a roar of pure primal rage.  The slaver burst out of the tent, his trousers undone and his shirt tale flying, waking the Lathams with his curses.  The brothers scrambled to their feet and hustled toward the plantation owner as he began to bark orders.

It was at that moment Adam felt fingers brush his skin.  He said nothing and formed his face to appear as if nothing unusual was happening.

“I’ll have you free in a moment,” a southern voice guaranteed.  He couldn’t be sure, but he thought it was Frederick Kyle.  True to Kyle’s word, the ropes on his hands fell away and then the ones on his ankles a moment later.  As he reached for his gag, the southerner caught his hand.  “No.  Worry about that later.  Run, man.  Run!”

Rising quickly, with only a glance at the Lathams who were in an intense discussion with Burl, Adam stepped into the trees.  Still, he couldn’t help but stop and turn back before he disappeared into them.

He was certain Kyle could read the question in his eye.

Why?

Kyle held his gaze for a moment before speaking. “For Marie,” he said at last.  Then the southerner turned his back and walked into the camp as if that was where he belonged.

It wasn’t where he belonged.

Adam pulled the gag from between his teeth and ran like hell.

 

“You hear that, Pa?  Sounds as prody as a loco steer.”

Ben’s lips were drawn into a tight line; his look grim.  Fear for his missing sons gripped his heart.  “That’s no steer, son.  It’s a man.  A man, angry enough to kill.”

Hoss’ blue eyes crinkled with concern.  Concern for him.  “Ain’t no reason to believe Adam or Joe’s got anythin’ to do with it,” his giant of a son said.

The older man acknowledged that truth with a nod.  It was his prayer too.

Neither of them believed it.

“It sounds like we’re close.  Better dismount and we’ll go on from here on foot,” he replied as he pulled his boot from the stirrup and swung his leg over the saddle.

Once Hoss was on the ground, his son removed the rifle from his holster and came his way.  As he did the same, the big man said, “I sure wish we’d brought some of the hands with us.”

He’d thought about it before sending the men on their way but, in the end, had chosen to travel alone with his son.  He had no idea what shape Joseph would be in when they found him.  It was his fear that the family might well need its privacy.

“If the odds are overwhelming, one of us can stay and keep watch while the other goes for help,” Ben said though he hoped it didn’t come to that.

“Yes, sir.  I –”  Hoss fell silent as the sharp report of a weapon split the air.  His fingers tightened on his weapon as he asked in a voice hushed by fear.  “What do you figure that’s about?”

Ben shook his head as he gripped his rifle.  He motioned to his son that they should move but halted almost as quickly as he had begun.  Someone or something was coming toward them.  From the sound of it, whoever it was, was running.  Another bullet flew, this one striking a tree about twenty feet to their left.  With a quick glance at his son to make certain he was doing the same, Ben melted into the shadows to his left and crouched in the tall grasses.  It didn’t take long for the running man to appear.

It was Adam and he was being pursued.

The rancher heard his middle son’s grunt of dismay and saw the morning light reflect off of the barrel of Hoss’ rifle as he lifted it to his shoulder and took aim.  The lag between the time Adam ran past and his pursuer’s arrival was brief – mere seconds really – but it seemed an eternity.  He would have liked to have given the man a chance to surrender, but his pistol was out and aimed at Adam’s retreating back.

“Hoss, shoot!” Ben shouted, making the decision so his kind-hearted son wouldn’t have to.   “Hoss!”

The rifle spit fire and the man fell.  Silence reigned in the woods except for one blessed sound.

“Pa?” Adam called.

Ben left the grasses and stepped out into a cleared space.  Adam wasn’t visible.  He was probably holding back since he couldn’t see to identify them.

“Adam, yes!  Adam, it’s me and your brother.  You’re safe now, son.”

A moment later a weary, bedraggled form in wine and black appeared.  The boy had lost weight and looked exhausted, but he was whole and, what was more important, he was here.

As Hoss shouted a greeting Ben began to move.  Within seconds he had his oldest in his arms.  As he expected, Adam’s return hug was reserved and yet spoke volumes of what he had been through.  His son took a moment to gather himself and then disengaged and limped over to the man lying on the forest floor.  Ben followed and when his son flipped the body over nearly cursed.

It was one of the Lathams.

“It’s Valentine,” Adam said as he knelt by the man’s side.  He pressed a hand against his chest and then looked up and said, “He’s alive.  Barely.”

As Hoss joined them, Ben too knelt by Valentine.  He hated to be the cause of any man’s death, especially such a young one.  But there were consequences to a man’s choices and actions.

As Val had just learned.

As he crouched there, the dying man opened his eyes.  “Mister…Cart…wright?”

He caught his shoulder in his hand.  “Yes, Val?”

“S…sorry.  Liked…Joe.  Didn’t want…to…hurt him….”

The rancher stiffened.  ‘Liked’?  Was Joseph…?

He felt a touch on his arm.  Adam was shaking his head.  “Joe’s alive,” he mouthed.

“…did it for…the money.”  Val chuckled.  “Got me…a…girl.  Meant to set…her up real…nice.  Now…”

Ben began to move.  “It’s all right.  We’ll get you help.  You….”  He stopped as the dying man’s fingers bit into his arm.

“No.  I’m…done for.  Ab….”  The younger Latham drew in a shuddering breath.  “Ab, he…enjoys killin’.  He’s with Burl…lookin’ for Little Joe….  You gotta…stop him!”

He was going to ask more, but Adam moved in before he could, taking Val’s collar in his hands and lifting him up.  “Burl’s gone after Joe?  By himself?”

A little sigh escaped Val’s lips.  It wouldn’t be long now.

“Said he…wasn’t gonna let…no Cartwright stand between…him and…what was his again.”  Val’s pale fingers gripped the deep wine fabric of his son’s ragged shirt.  “I should have…said…somethin’…stood up to…him.  Too late,” he breathed as his fingers went slack.  “Too…late….”

Adam shifted and placed the back of his fingers against Val’s throat.

“He’s dead, Pa.”

“What did he mean, Pa, about Little Joe standin’ between him and somethin’ that was his again?” Hoss asked.

Adam stood up.  “I can answer that.”  His son’s hazel eyes flicked to him and remained locked on his face.  “Sorry to have to bring this up, Pa.  Apparently Carter Burl was the man Jean De Marigny found in bed with Marie.  It was more than just a job to him.  It seems Burl wanted her for himself and he’s never forgiven you for taking her away from him.”

Ben rose as well.  “I was told that man had been sent away so he couldn’t implicate Jean’s mother.”

“He was, but he expected Marie to be there when he came back.  When she wasn’t, black envy began to eat him alive.  And now, well, whoever that young girl is that Little Joe seems so attached too, Burl claims ownership of her.  He came to Nevada to get her, met up with Kyle and….”  Adam cleared his throat.  “Pa, Carter Burl forced that young woman to stay with him in his tent last night.”

“And your brother was aware of this?”

Adam nodded.  “Joe rescued her this morning.  The last I saw of them they were running into the trees in the opposite direction of the one I took.  Pa….”

“Yes?”

“I didn’t get a chance  to talk to him.  Joe….  Well, I think he still thinks I hate him.  I got the feeling when he looked at me just before he took off that….”

Ben’s heart pounded hard.   “Yes?”

“That he thought it would be for the last time.”

 

 

THIRTEEN

Joe stood in the shadows at the mouth of the cave looking out.  He knew this land like the back of his hand.  He and Hoss had spent endless hours here exploring, winding their way deep into the old mine shafts and through the networks of caves.  Sometimes Adam came along but Adam was old enough to know better and while he’d participate, he’d keep them from dong anything that would turn Pa’s hair a shade whiter.  He knew they would be looking for him and that Hoss would think of looking here.

Now he just had to decide if he wanted to be found.

Turning slightly, Joe looked back into the cavern he occupied.  Sarah was asleep in the back corner.  He’d built a small fire nearby, banking it well to make sure the smoke didn’t escape the cave mouth and alert someone to their presence.  It was about all he could think of to do to warm her.  Neither of them was dressed for the weather.  He had rags wrapped around his battered feet and she was dressed in a muslin shift and light robe.  As the day moved toward night, the temperatures had plummeted.  It had been a cold autumn and Pa’d said just a week or so back that it looked like old man winter was impatient this year.  Joe’s lips twitched at the thought.  When he was little, the idea of old man winter had frightened him.  All he could think of was this big old angry face with white hair and whiskers, hangin’ in the air, blowin’ and blustering strong enough to take down the pines.

Kind of like Pa when he was mad.

As he watched her, Sarah shifted and murmured something in her sleep.  The sound of it was troubled and so he went to her side and knelt and placed a hand on her shoulder.  He meant it to comfort her – instead it terrified her.

“No!” she cried out before he could stop her.  “No!  Get off of me!”

He knew he didn’t dare let her cry out.  Carter Burl could be close by.  Taking hold of Sarah’s arms, he shook her gently, saying her name, but it only infuriated her more and she began to fight, striking out with her hands.  At as loss as to what to do, Joe did the only thing he could think of – what his Pa did with him when he couldn’t get him to wake up from a nightmare.  He held her as close as he could and wrapped his arms around her and began to speak, slowly and softly, talking of things that had nothing to do with the horror she had experienced or the trouble they were in.  He spoke of the Ponderosa, of his family, and of the beauty of the pines and the mountain streams and, as he did, she quieted and began to listen.  By the time he’d finished, Sarah’s eyes were open and she was leaning her head against his chest.

Her wavy hair was soft as a goose-hair pillow; its color that of a rich deep soil after the rain.  Her eyes were the same – so brown they were almost black – and her skin, well, it looked like his after the first month of summer sun.  Sarah was just about the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.  It broke his heart to think that so short a time before he had been thinking of joining up with a man who would have seen her as nothing more than a piece of property to be used and disposed of as he wished.

Men like Carter Burl.

His fingers must have tightened on hers.  Sarah made a little sound and looked up at him.  “What’s wrong?” she asked.

He forced a smile and meant to make a joke of it, but in the end simply answered, “Me.”

Sarah shifted so she could look at him.  “What’s wrong with you?”

He sucked it in, but the tear fell anyway.  “Everything.  I’m…stupid and impulsive and I never think things through, I just…do.”

“Like you just did when you rescued me from Master Burl?” she asked gently.

He shook his head.  “That’s not what I’m talking about.  I –”

A finger pressed to his lips silenced him.  “It doesn’t matter what you’re talking about.  It’s in the past.  We all make mistakes.”  Her brow furrowed with a little frown.  “Like when Grandfather Thom ran you down and Maggie said to drive away.”

So much had happened since they’d met.  Her family dead, the Lathams’ betrayal; Carter Burl’s arrival.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t rescue you…in time to prevent…” he said, his voice choking.

Sarah reached up and took his face in her fingers.  “Look at me, Little Joe Cartwright.  You look at me.”  When he did as he was told, she went on, “What happened was not your fault, it was my choice.  I ran away from Burl for just that reason – to have a choice,  to be free.”  She was silent a moment.  “If it meant your life, I’d do it again, willingly.”

“Sarah, I need to talk….”

“No, I need you to listen, though it won’t be easy for you to hear.  This is not the first time.  Do you hear me?  I grew up on Burl’s plantation.  My mother, her mother, and her mother before her were slaves.  I had no right to say ‘no’ to him or anyone else.”

Suddenly it opened up before him, tens of thousands of people just like Sarah – beautiful, brilliant, creations of God, His sons and daughters just as much as he was – treated as if they had no more worth… no, not even as much worth as his father’s steers and horses.  Used, abused, beaten, broken….

Taken.

He began to sob.  “Sarah, I’m…sorry.  I….”

Again, her fingers touched his lips  “Shh,” she cooed as if he were a little boy, just before giving him a kiss.  “That’s enough.”

 

Hoss Cartwright hung his head.  He hated moments like this when he had to fess up to his pa that as a little feller he’d been just as disobedient as Little Joe, only he never got caught.  Worse, in fact, since he was six years older and had cheerfully led his little brother into a lot of places that could have turned deadly if somethin’ had gone wrong.

Surely it was God’s angels who had kept that from happenin’.

His pa was lookin’ at the range of stone before them, the one near the Truckee that was dotted with caves.  “It’s a good thing I had no idea what you boys were doing, leading your little brother astray.  Neither of you would have been able to sit down until you came to maturity.”

“It weren’t Adam so much as me, Pa.  Adam was always tellin’ us we were takin’ too many chances, but you know Little Joe.”

His father glanced at him and then he smiled.  Yes, they both knew Little Joe, and they both knew how tightly the younger version of their impulsive, charismatic and incorrigible brother had had Adam wrapped around his little finger.  It puzzled him, the fact that the two of them could do nothin’ but butt heads like Billy goats lately.  Adam said it was because Joe resented him being older, and Joe said it was because Adam resented him being younger.

He thought it was because the two of them added together were more stubborn than a whole pack of cussed mules.

“Your younger brother may be…trying…to this old man at times, son, but his heart’s in the right place.  Adam seems to think Joe may be trying to get this girl to safety.”  His father paused.  “Proud as that would make me, I hope he’s wrong.”

“Why’s that, Pa?”

The older man’s black eyes narrowed with pain.  “The only ‘safe’ place for Sarah is Canada, Hoss.  If Joseph chooses to take her there….”

Little brother might never come home.

“You think he’d do that, Pa?  I mean…leave us?”

His father suddenly looked twenty years older.  “I would hope not, but you know your brother.  Right now he thinks we’re all ashamed of him.  He’ll be bound and determined to do something to make that right and I imagine taking Sarah to Canada would present itself as a viable option.”

They’d all wondered if there was another ‘viable’ option.  If Little Joe might run off with Fred Kyle after all and in spite of everythin’.  They knew better when they got to Carter Burl’s deserted camp and found Kyle drawing his last breath. He told them everythin’ – how he’d been workin’ for Burl from the beginnin’, how he’d agreed to come to Nevada to take Joe from them, and how he’d come to regret ever  meetin’ the slaver once he knew his real plans for Joe and turned on him in the end, lettin’ little brother and Sarah escape.

How he’d paid for it with a bullet in his back.

Just before he died, the southerner told Pa how sorry he was.  He’d never meant to hurt Marie’s boy, he said.  He’d just wanted to get to know Joe – to have a piece of her with him.  Fred’s hand had pawed at Pa’s shirt sleeve and he’d looked up into Ben Cartwright’s impassive face and begged forgiveness.

Hoss glanced at his pa.  Kyle died before he could give it.

He wondered if Pa would have given it anyway.

So, they’d let Adam rest while they buried both Kyle and Valentine Latham and then set out and traveled as far as they could by night, makin’ it to the bend in the Truckee below the cave.  It was then his pa had touched his arm and nodded toward Adam.  Older brother had a wound that had never been tended. It had healed, but left him pale and he was shaky from days without food.  Much as they wanted to push on, Pa said he was tired and ordered them to make camp.

Adam had fallen asleep before they could get any food into him.

The night had passed since then and the sun was just risin’.  The day was provin’ as cold as the night had been.  The air and the land glistened like it had a sheen of sweat and shone like a copper pot sittin’ near the fire.  They were eager to get on their way, but Adam was still sleepin’ and Pa – torn between his worry for his oldest and youngest sons – had made the choice to wait until older brother woke on his own.

It was near killin’ him.

Hoss crossed over to the older man and rested a hand on his shoulder.  “Little Joe ain’t gonna leave, Pa.  I know it in my heart.  Don’t you worry.”

His father’s black eyes flicked to his face and then returned to the horizon.  “Right now, Hoss, to be honest, I would prefer that your brother be on his way to Canada with Sarah, rather than be anywhere close where that madman Burl can get his hands on him.”

Carter Burl had Ab Latham with him too.  Why in God’s heaven, the Lord chose to take the younger of them two brothers, he didn’t know.  Valentine hadn’t been all bad.  It was just that Ab led him like a steer with a ring in its nose.

Ab on the other hand….

A soft grunt made them both turn.  His Pa nudged him and pointed to Adam who was just stirring.  “Take your brother some coffee and food.  I’ll start breaking the camp.”

Hoss hastened to the fire to do as he was told.  By the time he approached Adam, his older brother was sitting up, looking around.  His eyes were slightly dazed, and that sheen of sweat the land wore?  Well, older brother was wearin’ one too.

Before he could stop him, the big man reached out and felt his forehead. “You got yourself a fever buildin’ up there.”

Adam scowled. “Don’t tell Pa. You know how he is.”

“You mean worried about a man travelin’ when he ought not to be?” he asked with one brow lifted.

“It’s nothing.  Just my  body fighting off infection.  I’m fine.”  Adam’s eyes went to the hills.  “It’s Joe we have to worry about.”

Hoss stifled a chuckle at older brother answerin’ with younger brother’s ‘fine’.  “He’ll tan you if he finds out,” he said in all seriousness.

Adam looked up, startled, then he laughed. “Yes.  Yes, he will. So we just have to make sure he doesn’t.”

There was what older brother liked to call a ‘camaraderie’ between the three of them.  He liked the sound of that.  There were four Cartwrights, but there was somethin’ special about just them three.

“Any news of Little Joe?” Adam asked suddenly.

Hoss shook his head. “I’m figurin’ he headed for one of those caves we used to explore.  He’s got Sarah with him.  He’d of been worried about her bein’ cold and such.”

“I imagine Sarah can take care of herself,” his brother said, his tone odd.

“What do you mean?”

“The girl is a slave, Hoss.  She would have no protection other than what she could provide for herself.  If she’s survived this long in that world, she’s tough.”

“So maybe she went along to look out for little brother?” he asked with a half-smile.

Adam was silent a moment.  “Maybe.”

The thought startled him.  “You really think so?”

“I watched the two of them, Hoss.  Joe was tied behind me at first.  We were both tethered to the same tree.  Then Sarah came for him and he was tied to a wagon wheel directly across from me.  She….”  He paused.  “She loves him.  I’m not sure how exactly – like a sister or a lover – but I’m willing to bet she’d give her life for Joe.”

“There’s some comfort in that,” a deep voice proclaimed.

Adam looked a little guilty.  “Pa.  I didn’t hear you approach.”

“That would be because I didn’t want you to.”  Their pa knelt at older brother’s side and placed a hand on his shoulder.  “How are you, son?  You had us worried.”

Adam had told them about how he’d been taken by the Lathams while he was out huntin’ Joe and been held as bait, to bring little brother to Carter Burl.  He’d told them how he’d been tied up to a tree, so close to Joe he could have hugged him, but hadn’t been able to say a word.  Adam didn’t tell them how that made him feel, but he could tell it had just about killed him.

“I’m okay, Pa,” older brother replied as he shifted and started to rise.  “Don’t worry about me. We need to find Little Joe.”

Their father pointed at the untouched plate at his side.  “You eat first.  Then we’ll go.”

“But, Pa….”

“No ‘buts’, young man.  You need your strength, and your brother and I have to break camp.  You’ll do us no good if you fall out of your saddle the moment we get moving.”

Pa was right, of course, but it wouldn’t have sit with him any better than it did Adam.  Little Joe, well, no one Cartwright was more important than the other but Little Joe, he was their heart.  If that boy didn’t come home, it would just kill Pa.  And him and Adam?  Weren’t no way they’d ever be the same.

Adam nodded and picked his plate up.  He held his fork above it and watched as their father moved away, and then returned the fork to the plate.

“Pa’s right, Adam.  You need to eat.”

“I just keep seeing Joe,” he sighed.  “Looking at me like he thought I hated him.  I couldn’t speak to him, Hoss.  I couldn’t apologize for the hateful things I said.  I couldn’t tell him how much,” Adam drew a breath, “how much I love him.”

“He knows, Adam.”

“Does he?”  His brother’s tone was sharp.  “Really?  The last time we spoke – really spoke – all we did was argue and fight and I said things about him…about Marie…that I will regret until my dying day.”

“We’ve all said things we regret.”

“Yes, but we’ve always come together afterwards.  Always had a chance to apologize.  This time, with Joe gone….”

“Little Joe ain’t gone. Don’t you go sayin’ that.”

“I knew in the end it would come down to one or the other of us.  It’s why I tried to leave.”

“And it was Joe what brung you back!  We’re brothers, Adam.  Ain’t nothin’ gonna change that.  You hear me?  You’ll see Little Joe again and you can tell him to his face.”

“I hope so,” Adam said as he picked up his fork and poked at the beans on his plate.

Hoss laid a hand on his shoulder.  “I don’t Adam.”  When his brother looked up he smiled.

“I know so.”

 

Sarah awoke in Little Joe’s arms.  She laid there for a while, looking at him.  His hair was nearly as deep brown as her own, but where hers fell in waves, his consisted of spiraling curls large enough to wrap around two or three fingers.  Deep within it there were strands of silver that glinted like ice on dark tree bark.  His face was small and his features chiseled.  His well-muscled body was much the same.  Joe looked just like the marble statue in Master Burl’s house, the one that had the name ‘Adonis’ attached on a brass plate at the front.

He was so beautiful.

Still, that wasn’t why she loved him.  Oh, she had to admit, it was what had attracted her to him at first. But she loved him for who he was – sweet, gentle, compassionate and caring; a man of deep feeling who, when confronted with a truth, was able to say he’d been wrong.

She knew how rare that was.

Sarah shifted and pulled out of Little Joe’s embrace.  He murmured a bit, but didn’t wake.  Rising, she crossed the floor of the cave and went to stand in the opening and stared out at the new day, knowing what it would bring.  Master Burl would find them.  She had no doubt.  He was the nephew of the man who had owned Burl Hall and as such had not been born to privilege and wealth.  He’d had several jobs as a young man and failed at every one of them, until he found his calling.

Being a slaver.

Carter Burl had taken to hunting down human beings like a cat to cream.  It was not only his vocation, but his passion.  Master Burl thrived on humiliating and subjugating everyone to his will.  It was what had first brought him into contact with Madame de Marigny.  He’d been hired by the older woman to run down an escaped slave.  New Orleans was an oddity so far as she could tell. A place where free people of color walked with, and worked hand in hand with, others just like them who were held in servitude.  The de Marigny’s had southern ties and so they kept slaves.  It had never been stated, but Master Burl told her the tainted blood in Jean de Marigny’s wife’s veins was one of the main reasons his mother had hated her.  Marie had been Creole.  Sarah shifted and looked back at Little Joe where he lay sleeping.  In another place, at another time, he too could have been enslaved.

Thank God he was not!

She believed, in spite of what he said, that it was what Master Burl had first intended when he recruited Frederick Kyle and sent him to make contact with Joe.  In his blind rage Burl could not see that Joe was Marie’s flesh and blood.  All he could see was that Joe wasn’t his and for that, he wanted to destroy him and the man who had given him life.  Burl had told her himself after he’d taken her, spelling out the plans he had for Ben Cartwright’s son.  She’d planned on freeing Little Joe herself that night and would have if Frederick Kyle had not beaten her to it.

Even if it had cost her life.

Sarah raised her head and looked out onto the angry, violent unjust world into which she had been born.  It had already claimed her.

It would not claim him.

She’d considered running, but knew it was pointless.  He would just follow her.  She had to protect him – keep him alive – long enough for his family to find him.  She knew they were out there now, searching, and that they would never give up.  She had seen real love in the time she had been at the Ponderosa and desired to be a part of it, but she knew that was pointless too.  Even if Master Burl died, there would be others – other slavers who, for the price of a few days wages, would hunt her down and drag her back to the plantation world she had left behind.

Death was a more welcome thought.

“Sarah….”

His voice sent shivers through her.  Crossing over to him quickly, she knelt by Little Joe’s side.  “I’m here.”

He yawned and blinked and then turned his wide innocent eyes on her – those eyes that were the color of the depths of the forest.  “You shouldn’t have let me sleep.”  Joe shifted and sat up.  “We need to get going.  I have to get you somewhere safe.”

She wanted to tell him that there was no where safe, but she nodded instead, because safety for her meant safety for him.

“Yes.  But where?”

“What about the man your grandfather was supposed to meet?  The one who would help you make it to Canada?”

She had no idea who he was and had no way to contact him.  “The date has passed when Grandfather was to meet him.  He’s probably long gone.”

“I….”  Joe cleared his throat and squared his shoulders.  “Then I’ll take you.”

Sarah allowed herself the vision.  She and Little Joe, sitting on a porch somewhere in the wilds of Canada, surrounded by their children – free and safe from harm.  But only for a moment, for that’s all it was – a dream.

“I think…we should try to find your father and brothers.  They have to be looking for you.  Your father told me he would help me fight extradition from the Nevada territory.  He said he had friends in the government.”

Joe warmed to the idea immediately as she knew he would.  “That’s right.  Pa knows the governor.  If he says Burl can’t take you, then he won’t be able to.”

She smiled. Such beauty.

Such innocence.

“And maybe,” Joe went on, “maybe Burl won’t expect us to do that.  He’ll think for sure we’re headed for Canada, right?”

“Yes,” she replied, regretting the catch in her voice.

“Sarah?”  Little Joe reached out and cupped her face with his hand. “What is it?”

“Nothing.  I’m tired.”

Those green eyes were piercing.  “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

Little Joe rose to his feet then and walked to the cave mouth.  “We still have a little while before the light is gone.  We should get going.”  He walked back to her and held out his hand.  “I’m sorry I can’t give you any food.  If only I hadn’t run out without my gun….”

She took his hand and stood.  “Those are the two saddest words in the world.  ‘If only.’  If only I hadn’t been born a slave.  If only you hadn’t argued with your brother, or met Frederick Kyle.  Think about it.  If you hadn’t done both, I wouldn’t have met you.”   Sarah squeezed his hand.  “It all happens for a reason, Little Joe.  Never doubt it.”

He was staring at her, amazed.  “With all you’ve been through, after Burl….  How can you believe that?”

She lifted his fingers to her lips and kissed them.

“It brought me to you.  How can I not?”

 

Ben cast a glance at his oldest son as they mounted and then turned to his middle boy.  “Do you think Adam is fit for the ride?”

Hoss snorted.  “It don’t matter if he ain’t, Pa.  Short of tyin’ him up again there ain’t no way you’re gonna stop older brother from comin’ with us.”  The big man paused.  “He’s feeling powerful upset about that last argument he had with Little Joe.”

His father’s look was sharp.  “I thought they had mended their bridges.”

His son shrugged.  “They’ve been avoidin’ each other for the most part.  I think they’re both feelin’ guilty.  What they need is to talk and….”

“And they can’t.”

“Yep.”

“Ready, Pa,” Adam called down to him from Sport’s back.  They’d brought Adam and Joe’s horses along ‘just in case’.  Ben cast a longing look at Cochise and his empty saddle.  Tethered on it was a bag with Joseph’s coat and boots since the boy had run out without either.  It wouldn’t be long, he told himself, not long at all until he saw his youngest seated there, grinning his cheeky grin.

God willing, not long at all.

Hoss mounted Chubb and looked at his older brother.  “I’m thinkin’ them caves along the river we used to explore.  Seems to me that if Joe wanted to hide out, that’d be where he’d go.  What do you think, Adam?”

“We have to start somewhere.  It’s as good as any guess.”  Adam paused.  “My fear is….”

“Yes, son?” Ben asked.

“My fear is that Joe doesn’t want to be found. If that’s the case, there are a thousand places he could hide that we’d never find him.”

Ben crossed over to his oldest son and laid a hand on his leg.  “Adam, the Ponderosa is Little Joe’s home, and it’s his heart.  It’s my guess he’s looking for us just like we’re looking for him.”

Adam pursed his lips and nodded curtly.  “I hope you’re right, Pa.”

As Ben mounted his own horse, he looked toward the river and imagined the caves beyond.

He hoped so too.

 

Joe stopped and drew in a deep breath.  He was doing his best to keep up with Sarah, but was quickly falling behind.  He tried to ignore it, but his head was pounding and he felt light-headed.  The swelling on the back of it hadn’t gone down, but gotten bigger and the wound throbbed in tune with the beating of his heart.  From the way his vision blurred now and then he figured he was sportin’ a good size concussion.  Still, he didn’t dare let Sarah know.  He had to keep up.

Had to keep moving.

She was looking back at him, her hand poised to lift a branch over the path they had chosen through the woods.

“Little Joe, are you all right?” she asked.

He’d been a shoo-in at foolin’ Abigail Jones into thinking he was sick. Surely he could convince this beautiful woman that he was well.

“I twisted my foot,” he lied.  “Took a second to right it.  Keep movin’.  I’m right behind you.”

Her frown told him she wasn’t convinced.  “You’re hurting.”

“I’m find as frog’s hair,” he insisted.  Gathering what energy he had, and borrowin’ a bit from later, Joe caught up with her and moved on past.  As Sarah stared at him, he ducked under the branch and headed for the bend ahead of them that was marked by a pile of rock at its center.  Turning back, he said, “Come on, slowpoke.  Do I gotta wait all day on you?”

Sarah gave him a look that reminded Joe entirely too much of his missing father and made his heart ache for home.

That was, until she paled and her eyes widened with horror.

“Little Joe!” she screamed.

Just before everything went black.

FOURTEEN

 

If he’d thought his head hurt before, when he opened his eyes again, Joe found out what ‘hurt’ really meant.  It felt like his head was a fence post and Hoss was wieldin’ the hammer.  Joe blinked, trying to clear his vision of a field of stars.  It took a few seconds, and what he saw when it did clear was something he’d rather not have – Ab Latham, standing right in front of him, with a gun pointed at his head.

Beside Ab was Carter Burl and behind Burl – bound and gagged and tied to a slender pine – was Sarah.    Burl had a riding crop with a heavy tip in his hands.  He was flexing it and snapping it against his leg.

The look in the southern man’s eyes was the same one a stallion got when he was gonna kill you.

As Burl headed for him, Sarah strained against her bonds.  Tears streamed down her beautiful face as she cried into the gag.  Joe tried to tell her with his eyes that it was okay.  She was alive and it looked like she was going to stay that way.  He’d been afraid the target of Burl’s crop was her.  After all, the slaver had been made a fool of and someone had to pay.

He was just glad it was him.

The plantation owner stared at him a moment and then shoved past Ab Latham.  As he came to rest before him, Carter Burl caught a handful of his curls in his fingers and jerked his head up sharply, causin’ the stars to shoot again.

“I see nothing of her in you,” Burl snarled.  “Benjamin Cartwright’s son.”

Joe wasn’t gagged.  Idly, he wondered why.  “That’s right,” he declared.  “I am my father’s son.  But I’m my mother’s too.”  His gaze flicked to Sarah and back.  He had to do this for her.  “Thank God, I’m not yours!”

“I hold your life in my hands, boy.  I can keep you alive and take you to the South and sell you.”   Burl laid the crop against his battered left cheek.  “Or I can take my pleasure and kill you nice and slow here.”  The slaver laughed as he released him.  “I’ve done it plenty of times before.”

“What about Sarah?” Joe dared to ask.  She was staring at him, pleading with her eyes for him to remain silent and not antagonize Burl.

“She’s mine to do with as I please, and I please to keep her for now.”  The slaver leaned in.  “She knows how to pleasure a man.  I taught her right well.”

Joe swallowed over the bile that rose in his throat.  “How could you?” he snarled.  “You’re not a man.  You’re a beast.  No, that’s unfair to beasts.  You’re a monster!”

“You gonna let him talk to you like that?” Ab Latham drawled.

Carter Burl’s eyes flicked to the other man.  A second later the slaver’s lips curled with a sneer.  “A condemned man’s always allowed to make a statement.”

Joe sucked in air and bit his lip as Burl unexpectedly brought the handle of the leather crop down with force, striking his collar bone sharply.

“Take off his shirt!”

Sarah was struggling against the ropes that held her, her rich brown eyes wide with terror.  Joe tried to send her a message.  ‘It’s okay,” he attempted to project.  ‘Just so you’re safe.’

Of course, she wouldn’t be safe.  But he had to try to convince himself she would.

His death had to count for something.

Joe closed his eyes as the last of his shirt was ripped away from his skin.  The cold September air struck him immediately and set him to shivering.  It was only then, as he tensed his body, awaiting the first blow, that he realized why he wasn’t gagged.

Carter Burl wanted to hear him scream.

And he did a second later as the lash attached to the crop bit into the flesh of his back.

 

“You hear that, Pa?” Adam asked, shaken.

He had.  It could have been an animal.

Could have been.

Hoss winced as the sound came again.  “Someone’s hurtin’, Pa.  They’re hurtin’ bad.”

Again and again it came – each cry louder, longer – the last making the horses shy and buck.  It was a kind of shriek, filed with anguish and a bit of surprise – or maybe not.

Maybe it was disbelief.

Ben nodded toward the water.  “From over there, you think?”

“Hard to tell,” Adam answered immediately.

They waited, hoping to, and hoping not to hear it again.

It came.  This time followed by words.

God!  Stop!

God….

It was as if an arrow had pierced all their hearts at one and the same moment.

Hoss looked sick.  “Pa, that’s….”

Little Joe.

 

He could feel the blood running down his back.  Carter Burl was expert with the modified crop, knowing just how and where to wield it to bring the maximum pain.  As he hung there, tied between two trees, Joe began to cry, not from the pain – though it was bad enough – but from the thought of the hundreds of men and women who had been at this man’s mercy.  Men and women no different from him other than the fact that their skin was a different color.  Men and women like those in Sarah’s family.

Like those in his own.

As the blows from Burl’s crop moved higher, striking his neck and the back of his head, Joe began to lose consciousness.  He fought it as hard as he could, afraid  that if he passed out, he might never wake up.  Then, suddenly, they stopped.  The relief was almost as bad as the pain.  A second later his hair was gripped and Burl pulled his head back.  He held the crop up, turned it end for end, and showed him the raised silver work nailed onto the tip.

Then he began to strike him again.

 

Ben’s hand shot out, holding his middle son back.

“But, Pa!  Joe!”

He nodded.  They had to stop what was happening quickly.  Ben closed his eyes to shut out the sight of his youngest son being beaten to death – for just a moment, so he could think.

“Ab’s too close, Pa.”  Adam’s whisper was tense.  “He could kill Joe or the girl.”

The rancher shuddered as his baby boy screamed again.  His fingers dug into the white fabric of Hoss’ shirt as his middle son flinched.

“I know,” he said, his voice hushed with despair.  “I know.

“Let me go out there, Pa,” Adam said.  “I’ll distract them and you can come in.”

It was the same kind of rash, foolish thing Joseph would have suggested.  “No.  I won’t trade one son for the other.”

“But, Pa….”  His eldest drew in a breath as Joe screamed again.  “We can’t….  I can’t….”

Ben shook his head.  He had to think of something and he couldn’t think straight, not with his youngest screaming and Sarah sobbing and the sick sound of Burl’s crop striking bare flesh as the horses shied and screamed….

“The horses,” he said, his jaw tight.

“What?” Hoss asked, looking at them.  “You think Burl heard?”

Over Joseph’s screams?  No, he didn’t think that.

“Send one out.”

“What?” Adam asked.

Ben didn’t reply.  He stood up and walked over to Buck and loosened his reins from the tree limb.  Pausing for only a second, he said, “Boy, if there was any other way….”  Then the rancher took the flat of his hand and struck his old friend’s rump and sent him flying into the midst of danger.

 

Sarah’s eyes were riveted to the horror unfolding in front of her.  She had seen Master Burl peel the skin from a man’s back before with that crop and then walk away and let the man bleed to death or die of infection.  The worst thing about it was Burl’s face.  It wasn’t lit with a cruel joy or even a self-righteous anger.  His face was completely devoid of expression.

Just as the slaver was devoid of humanity.

Sarah winced and tears ran down her cheeks as the plantation owner’s crop struck Little Joe again.  He was tied between two trees and with the last blow Joe’s knees had given out and he was hanging, suspended by his wrists.  Trails of crimson blood curled around his slender muscled torso in stark contrast to his pallid skin.  She knew if something didn’t happen to stop him, Master Burl would kill Joe just as he had killed her white father the same way for daring to love a woman of color the slaver had called his own.

Closing her eyes, Sarah fought to still her heart – to shut out the horror of what was unfolding before her.  “God,” she breathed.  “Dear Lord, this is Sarah, the child you love.  Please don’t let Little Joe die.  Please.  Save him!”

As she spoke, Sarah heard a sound that brought her eyes open.  Nearby a horse whinnied.  A moment later it burst into the clearing they occupied.  Master Burl stopped what he was doing and moved forward even as Ab Latham raised his rifle and took aim at the wild-eyed animal.  Before he could pull the trigger, three men followed in the horse’s wake with their weapons drawn.  Sarah’s breath caught.  She thought she had recognized the horse as it went streaking past.

It was Ben Cartwright’s.

“Throw that crop to the ground and step away from my son!” the rancher demanded as he closed the distance between himself and the slaver.

Burl remained where he was.

“Seems to me what we have here, Benjamin, is a stand-off.”

He was right.  Ab had his weapon pointed at Little Joe’s head.

“It’s over, Burl.”  She watched as Ben’s eyes took in the sight of his son dangling like a side of beef between the trees.  “What you have done is criminal.  You’ll pay for it.”

“Oh, quite to the contrary, Benjamin, what you and your sons have done is criminal.”  Master Burl’s lips curled in a sneer.  He indicated his pocket with a nod.  “May I?”

Adam stepped forward as did Hoss.  The older of the Cartwright sons aimed his weapon at Burl while Joe’s middle brother covered Ab.  Both men’s color was up.  Both looked fit to kill.

“Go ahead,” Joe’s father said with a nod.

She knew what was coming.  She’d seen this before.  It was the same with her father.

The law was on Master Burl’s side.

The slaver held out the piece of paper he had drawn from inside his coat.  “This is a warrant for that young lady over there.  You know the law, Benjamin.  It’s my right to take her and my right to punish anyone who aids and abets in her escape.”  Master Burl’s eyes flicked to Joe and  back to his irate father.  “Everything I’ve done is completely legal.  You are the ones who will go to prison.”

He was right.  Since 1850 the United States government had been forced to actively assist slave owners in recapturing their fugitive slaves, even within the free states and territories.

“Not if we make sure you never make it to town to tell anyone,” Adam growled, startling him.

“A fine batch of sons you’ve reared, Benjamin,” Master Burl remarked, his tone snide.  “One aiding a slave’s escape, and another considering the crime of murder.”

“It’ ain’t murder,” Hoss said, his voice eerily calm.  “For what you done to Little Joe, you deserve to die.”

Both men’s knuckles were white on the grips of their guns.

“Hoss!”  Ben drew a breath.  “Adam.  No.  Violence only breeds violence.”  His eyes flicked to Ab Latham.  “As you should well know.”

Ab’s eyes were on Joe, but they shifted to the older man.  “What are you talking about?”

Ben prayed he was doing the right thing.  “Your brother is dead.  He died for this man,” the rancher indicated Carter Burl.  “And for what?  For a madman’s cause that wasn’t even his own?”

“Val…Val’s dead?” Ab moved away from Joe, heading for him.  “Who killed him?  Who?  Was it you, old man?”

“It was me!” Adam proclaimed.

It was all they needed and all they were going to get.  Ab turned his back on Joe and faced Adam, and the clearing broke into madness.

 

Adam’s eyes had been on Little Joe as he spoke.  His brother looked…dead.  He couldn’t see his chest rising and falling, couldn’t…  He’d stifled a sob before calling out to Ab.  What if Joe was…gone?  What if his brother had died without knowing how he truly felt?  Without knowing how much he loved him?

Calling Ab out was nothing.  So what if the southerner killed him?

At that moment he felt like he deserved to die.

Hoss was moving beside him, a blur of white and brown headed for Little Joe.  Pa was heading for Burl.  The slaver had whirled around and was running for his horse where, no doubt, he’d left his gun since torturing his baby brother and killing him slowly seemed to be his goal.

Burl deserved to die slowly.

Burl deserved to die.

He had to live.  He had to make sure that madman never harmed anyone ever again.

It was funny how it went, wanting to die one moment and then hell bent to preserve your life the next.  Adam saw the flash of Ab’s gun and leapt to the side as the projectile sped his way.  He almost made it.  As it was the bullet cut a channel through his jacket and burned the skin of his left arm.  He ignored it.  It didn’t matter.

Nothing matter but making Carter Burl pay, and to do that he had to get Ab Latham out of the way.

 

Hoss spun at the sound of the shot and looked.  He saw Adam grimace and then come on like a mama grizzly protectin’ its young, so he figured older brother was okay.  Pa was strugglin’ with Carter Burl.  The older man had the slaver pushed back against his horse and had Burl’s crop in his hand.

Let’s just see how he liked bein’ skinned!

Hoss drew a breath and turned to face his little brother.  He wrapped his arms around Little Joe’s middle and lifted him up so he weren’t danglin’ no more.  As he did Joe’s head lolled to the side and he didn’t make a sound.  Not even a little whimper like he always did when he was hurtin’.  Holding his brother tightly, the big man turned again to check on his older brother’s progress.  Adam gave him a grim but triumphant grin.  Ab Latham’s rifle was in his hands and the older of the twins was on the ground with the barrel of it pressed against his chest and one of Adam’s black boots restin’ beside it.

“Pa. you okay?” Adam called.

Hoss turned toward his father.  Now, he’d seen Pa mad afore.  You might even say he’d seen him rage a time or two, but he’d never seen him lose control until now.  Carter Burl was on the ground and Pa was striking him with that crop like there weren’t no tomorrow.

“Hoss, go stop Pa!” older brother shouted.  “Before he does something he regrets!”

Like kill the man you threatened to?’ he thought, but kept the thought to himself.

“Little Joe’s hurtin’, Adam.  I can’t let him go!”

“Yes, you can.  What’s done is done.  Stop Pa before he kills Burl!”

Hoss did as he was told – but it broke his heart.  He let Joe go and watched him swing slowly from side to side for several heartbeats.

Only another shout from Adam got him moving.

 

Sarah was forgotten.

That was all right.

She held her breath and watched, trying not to gloat, as justice found Carter Burl.  She watched the slaver being beaten as he had beaten so many, saw him take the lash of that dreaded crop, heard him scream for mercy and for the pain to stop.  Ben Cartwright was rage unleashed.  He seemed to have forgotten himself, or perhaps not –

Perhaps he was the hand of God.

As Hoss Cartwright reached his father and began to reason with him, Sarah glanced at Adam who had rolled Ab Latham over and was tying his hands behind his back.  Then her eyes and her heart went to Little Joe.  As she had known she would the first time she saw him, she had brought him great harm.  She hadn’t meant for it to happen, but by her very presence in his life, she had brought him pain.

And it wasn’t over.

Ben Cartwright wouldn’t kill Master Burl.  He wasn’t’ that kind of a man.  Burl would live and he would recover and he return with a vengeance to destroy this good man and his sons.

Unless she stopped it.

“Sarah?”

Adam startled her, being so close.  He glanced over his shoulder at his father and brother who were approaching and then turned back to her.  First he removed her gag and then started on the ropes that bound her hands to the tree.

“I’m sorry,” she said the moment that she could.

“Not your fault,” Adam answered tersely.

She blinked back tears as her jaw set.  “Then whose is it?”

“Burl’s,” he said as he released her.  “And men like him.”

She followed him then over to where Little Joe hung suspended between the trees.  His father was holding Joe up.  Ben Cartwright was spattered with blood – Master Burl’s blood.  The sight of it caused a thrill to run through her – a thrill both of joy and fear.

“Hurry, Hoss!” the rancher said, his throat tight.  “Get him down!”

“I’m hurryin’, Pa.  Them ropes is tight.”

Adam had stepped past them and was staring at Master Burl.  “I’ll go tie him up.”

“No,” Sarah said, taking a length of rope from his hand.  “I’ll do it.”

“What?” Adam turned and looked into her eyes.  He frowned at what he saw there.  “Sarah?”

“Your family needs you.  I’ll take care of Master Burl.”

Just as Adam started to protest, Little Joe moaned.  The sound of it was a knife to her heart.  This was only the beginning.  Burl would see Joe imprisoned and most likely order his murder while incarcerated.  He’d ruin Ben Cartwright, taking not only his son from him, but his will to live and all he had created.  He’d see Hoss and Adam in prison too and they’d emerge broken desperate men.

Adam’s hand landed on her arm.  “Sarah, don’t do anything you’ll regret,” he said softly.

“I won’t,” she replied .

And meant it.

 

“Is Joe breathin’, Pa?” Hoss asked.

Ben nodded.  Yes, his baby was breathing, but it was shallow and every breath was an effort.  A bloody sweat coated his young son’s face and chest, brought about not only by the beating but by extreme stress.  Such a thing rendered a man’s skin extremely sensitive.  When he touched him, it should have produced a moan.

It produced nothing.

Leaning in close to the boy’s pale face, he spoke into his ear. “Joseph, Pa’s here.  Open your eyes and look at me.”

He hoped against hope for an answer.  Ben knew there was more than the beating going on here.  His fingers were entwined in his young son’s hair and they rested on the knot on the back of his skull that was fiery.  They were also bloody, for the monster who had taken his beloved boy had struck his head with that damned crop, inflaming the wound that was already there.

“Joe, come on,” Hoss added, his voice breaking with tears.  “Come on, punkin.  Look at ol’ Hoss.”

Adam dropped to a knee beside them.  “How is he?” he asked.

Ben eyed his older boy.  Adam was pale too and shaking.  There was blood on his left sleeve.  “How are you?

“I’m fine, Pa.  It’s just a scratch.”  The rancher watched as his oldest reached out a hand to touch his brother’s bloody form.  The older man drew a breath as he watched a single tear trail down his eldest’s face.

“Come on, little buddy,” he pleaded.  “You’ve got to wake up, Joe.  I’ve got a lot to say to you.”

“Admmm….”

Ben looked down.  Joe was silent, but he was certain he had heard him speak.  He looked at Hoss who nodded.

“That was sure him, Pa.”

“Joseph.  Can you hear me?”

Little Joe stirred slightly.  His head turned a bit to the right and then he moaned again.  “Hurts….”

That had to be an understatement.

“Hoss, go to the horses and get as many blankets as you can.  He’s starting to shiver. We need to –”

The crack! of a single shot spun him around.  Ben rose to his feet and took a step toward the sound.

 

Toward Sarah, who stood over Carter Burl’s body, holding the slaver’s gun.

 

 

FIFTEEN

Joe woke to birdsong and a cool touch on his face.  For a moment it seemed that he was floating on a cloud, but he came to earth quickly as the dozens of bruises and cuts on his flesh made themselves known.

He moaned.  He couldn’t help it.

“Take it easy, Little Joe.  Don’t try to move.  You’ve been a very sick boy.”

It took a moment for the words and the voice that spoke them to penetrate the fog.

“Doc…?”

“Who else?” Paul Martin asked, his tone light.  “Seems since I brought you into the world, I just can’t stay away.”

The edge of his lips twitched.  “…forgot the…apple….”

The older man’s touch was surprisingly tender.  Joe tried to smile and then began to drift away again.  Just before he reached that blessed place where there was no pain, a familiar voice sought to call him back.

“How is he?”

“It’s too soon to tell, Ben.  But he’s young and strong.  He has a fighting chance.”

Fighting.  He should be…fighting.  Should be winning.

He was losing.

Losing his way.

Joe felt fingers on his forehead; felt them move through his hair in a familiar way.  “His fever’s so high.”

“He was too weak, Ben, to be treated as he was.  The body can only take so much punishment and with that bout of flu he’d just come through….”

Joe heard a familiar sigh.  “When Joseph does something, he does it all the way.”

He felt the bed shift as if a weight had been lifted.  Idly Joe raised his hand like he had in school, wanting to ask what it was. Strong fingers gripped his and the weight returned along with that loving hand.

“I’m here, Joseph.  Is there something you want?”

There was, but he didn’t know what it was.  Something was missing.  Some one was missing.

“Adam…Hoss…?” he murmured, or at least he thought he did.

“Your brothers are fine, Joe.  You rest now.  You don’t have much strength and you need it for the fight.”

He was always fighting, wasn’t he?   Always ready to attack life head on.  He didn’t feel like fighting now.  He felt like….

Giving up.

“How’s the kid doing?” a familiar voice asked.

Joe struggled to recall who it belonged to.  A man. Tall.  Black hair.

“Admm….”

Someone sat on the other side of the bed.  “Hey, buddy.”  Fingers touched his hair again, not the first ones, but so like them they might as well have been.  “You shouldn’t try to talk.  Save your strength.”

For the fight.  He’d fight all right.  Fight to open his eyes.

Something was wrong.  Adam sounded…strange.  Somehow he managed it.  He opened his eyes only to find that Adam had tears in his.

I’m gonna die, Joe thought, panicking.  Why else would Adam be crying?

“Joseph, no!  Hold still.  Don’t use up your strength.”

That was Pa.

Where was Hoss?  And where was….

Sarah.

Suddenly it all came flooding back – being struck by the carriage, ending up with the Spencers, meeting his angel, being captured by Carter Burl and listening while the slaver….

Joe shot up out of the bed and screamed, “Sarah! No!  Sarah!  God!  NO, he can’t!  Nooooo…..”

Strong arms pinned him and held him down. “Adam, go get Paul,” he heard his father say, sounding just as alarmed.  “Tell him your brother is delirious!”

No, I’m not.  There’s a girl named Sarah, Pa. That man…that man he’s….

Joe’s eyes flew open.  His head rocked from side to side.  He wasn’t in his room. He was in the forest.  There was a man after him – a man with a whip and a set of shackles.  He was hunting him and when he caught him he was gonna put those shackles on him and drag him to the South and put him on the auction block right next to his mama.  Joe blinked and he was there, on the block, watching as Carter Burl murdered his father and raped his mother and then….

“Sarah!”

“Move aside, Ben.  I’ll give him a dose.”

“Isn’t it too soon for more laudanum?”

“Yes, but at the rate he’s thrashing, he’s liable to do more damage.  I need your permission, Ben.”

“…do what you have to do.”

Pa!  Pa, no!  Don’t let him drug me.  No!  Someone has to save Sarah!  Someone….

Someone….

The hand returned.  “Go to sleep, Joseph.  Pa’s here.  Pa will keep watch.”

Joe groaned.

How could he, when he was dead?

 

Ben Cartwright dropped into his favorite chair and placed his head in his hands.  He was completely exhausted.  The journey home with Joseph in the condition he was in had been harrowing.  There was no wagon, so he had to put his son on the saddle in front of him and the ride had been sheer agony for the boy due to the multiple cuts, abrasions, and contusions Carter Burl’s brutal attack had left.  Most of the trip had been made in silence.  He and his older sons were stunned.  They didn’t know what to say.

Just as he didn’t know what to do.

Sarah had come back to the Ponderosa with them.  She rode Cochise, her head held high, as if she had not just murdered a man in cold blood.  He was at a loss as to what action to take.  He needed to talk to her to see if there was anything she could tell him that would justify her actions.  When he had run to her side in time to hear the slaver breathe his last, the young woman had looked him in the eye and paraphrased Edmund Burke.

‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that a good man – or woman – do nothing.’

How did you answer that?

As he’d watched that man flail his son to within an inch of dying, he’d known he’d seen Satan at his best.  No man deserved death more, or so it had seemed at the moment he had taken that damned crop from Carter Burl’s hand and given the slaver a dose of his own medicine.

Could he blame Sarah for doing the same?

After all, what had she seen in her short life?  How many of her people, of her family, had she seen that man whip and humiliate and even kill?  If there had been a bounty on Burl’s head, she would have been hailed as a hero.

As it was, if he turned her in, she would be hung as a murderess.

The door opened and a cold wind blew in.  October had arrived and it had brought with it a presentiment of the winter to come.  Adam followed in its wake.  His eldest  had gone to town to order supplies for the upcoming drive.  He hung his hat on the rack and placed his gun belt on the credenza before walking over to him still wearing his coat.  He noted how his son favored his one arm.  It was healing, but not healed.

“How’s Joe?” he asked.

“About the same,” Ben replied, leaning back.  “Sarah is with him.”

“He’s still delirious?”

“Sorry.  No.”  The rancher sighed.  “I’m tired.  His fever’s down a bit, but Paul says it may spike again.  Several of the cuts left by the metal on that crop are infected.”

Adam nodded solemnly.  “I just wanted to see how he was before I took off again.  I need to head back out to check with the men at the camp.”

Ben looked at his eldest.  It was obvious he was worn out from work and worry and his own wound.  He shook his head  “Son.  Sit down.  Rest a moment.”

“I can’t, Pa.  There’s too much to do and with us two men down….”

‘Two’ meaning his sick brother and him, who wouldn’t leave his side.

“Please, Adam.  I need someone to talk to and I think you’re the one I need.”

His son stared at him.  Then he removed his coat, laid it across the back of one of the wine-red chairs, and took a seat on the end of the settee near him.

About Sarah?”

Adam was the most perceptive of his boys.  “Yes.”

“You’re still trying to decide whether or not to tell Roy what she did?”

He nodded.

Adam leaned back and let out a sigh.  “Have you talked to her yet?  Directly, I mean.”

“No.  She was pretty shaken up, and since we’ve been home, she’s spent almost as much time at Joseph’s side as I have.  I’ll get Hop Sing to sit with him later and – ”

“Let me do it, Pa,” Adam said as he rose to his feet.  “I’ll go up and send her down.”

“I thought you had a thousand things to do.”

Adam ran a hand along the back of his neck.  “I do.  I guess….  Well, I just have to put them in the proper order.”  His smile was chagrined.  “I have to admit it’s easier to deal with several hundred stubborn steers than it is to watch your brother suffer when you’re the cause.”

“You need to let go of the guilt you’re carrying, son,” Ben said softly. “It will eat you alive.”

His eldest’s hazel eyes went to the staircase and traveled up to it to the unseen room just down the hall. “I should have understood about Little Joe’s attachment to the South.  It had nothing to do with the Confederacy and everything to do with his mother.”

“And the irony is that Marie was thankful to see the back of it,” Ben sighed.  “She suffered persecution here, but it was nothing like what she knew in New Orleans.”

“I’m…sorry I said what I did about her, Pa,  to Little Joe, I mean.”

Ben’s graying eyebrow cocked.  “What did you say?”

Adam shook his head. “Nothing that bears repeating.  I was angry and exasperated with Joe and I said things I didn’t mean.”  He ran a hand over his face.  “I think those words hurt him worse than anything that Carter Burl did.”

Ben rose and crossed to his oldest boy.  He placed his hands on his shoulders and waited until Adam met his steady gaze.  “Your brother will recover.  There will be time to make things rights.  You have to believe it.”  The rancher glanced up the stair as well.  “We all have to believe it.”

“Oh, Adam, I’m glad to see you,” Sarah said as she came around the bend at the top of the stair.  “Little Joe has been calling for you.  He’s quite agitated.”

“I’ll go,” Ben said and started to.

Adam held him back. “No, Pa.  Joe wants me and I…want to talk to him.”  He glanced at the beautiful woman standing at the bottom of the staircase.  “Besides, you were looking for an opportunity to talk to Sarah and well, here it is.”

Sarah looked startled for a moment, but then her expression quickly settled into one of resignation.

“I’ll wait over by the fire,” she said.

“Don’t wear your brother out,” Ben replied as he released his son.  “And, Adam….”

“Yes?” his son asked as he turned back.

“Come and get me immediately if there is any need.”

“Sure thing, Pa.”

And with that, Adam disappeared up the stairs.

Ben turned to Sarah.  You couldn’t tell by looking at her that she had much of anything in her other than a white man’s blood.  She was a lovely girl with her deep brown hair and eyes and lightly tanned skin.  ‘Dusky’ was a term for such a person and, in a way, it fit.  Sarah was like a late winter evening when the stars were out and their light painted the fallen snow silver-blue.  She was as quiet now as that fallen snow, but he knew a fire burned in her.

One Carter Burl had felt.

Ben sat on the table before the settee where she had taken a seat.  He hesitated only a moment and then reached out and took her hand in his own.

“How are you child?”

The question surprised her.  She had, of course, expected something else.  She thought a moment and then said simply “Tired.”

He understood.  “May  I ask you a personal question?”  When she nodded, he went on, “Are you in love with my son?”

Again, it was not what she had expected.  The lovely girl took a moment before replying.  “Yes, and no.”

“Yes and no?”

“You son, Mister Cartwright – “

“Ben, please.”

Again, she nodded.  “Ben.  Your son is one of the most wonderful men I have ever met.  They all are, but there is something special about Little Joe.”

He laughed.  “’Special’ is a nice way to put it.”

That made her smile.   “I love him with all my heart, but I don’t think…I don’t know if I am ‘in love’ with him.”

“And how does Joseph feel?”

She let out a sigh.  “I think he feels the same way.”  Sarah straightened and met his puzzled gaze.  “There is so much between us, not only where we were born but how we were reared.  Ben, I’m a slave.  I have always been a slave.  As a slave I am not even entitled to get married.”

“What if you were free?” he asked.

She blinked back tears.  “I will never be free.  I…killed a man.  And worse, I killed the man who was my master – who owned me.  There is no hope for me, Ben.  You might as well put me in shackles now and take me to your sheriff.”

“If there is no hope, why did you kill Carter Burl?”  He had hoped she would tell him it had been in self-defense, but it seemed it was not so.  “Did he try to harm you?’

She set her jaw and turned to stare out the window.  “Not then, but before.  So many times before….”

“Then why?” he asked again.

Sarah looked at him as if she knew he would not like her answer.  “For you.  For Adam and Hoss, and most of all for Little Joe.”

Ben shook his head.  “For us?”

“Master Burl had the law on his side.  He could have – would have – sent you all to prison and most likely seen to it that you never arrived.  I could not conscience the deaths of your family – or even the death of your dream – happening on account of me.”  She drew a breath before finishing.  “Master Burl’s name is a little different, but his people are the Burwells.  They are powerful enough to see anything done.  If one of you had killed him, even in self-defense, they would have hunted you down like animals.”

He remembered Thom has said that about Maggie’s kin.  That they were the Burwells of Virginia.  Their line went back before the beginning of the country.  They were wealthy and landed people who believed they were entitled to all they owned – and much they did not.  President John Quincy Adams once called the family ‘imperious’.

“So now they will hunt you down.”

Sarah’s shoulders rose and fell in a little shrug.  “I don’t matter.”

Ben squeezed her hand.  “Of course, you do.”

The look she gave him was wary, as if she were trying to figure out his angle.  “I’m a slave.”

“You were a slave.  We’ll see you get to Canada.  It’s the least we can do for everything you have done for us.”

“Like almost get your son killed?” she asked, her tone sharp.

So Adam was not the only one suffering from guilt.

Without knowing it, he had come to a decision.  He was not one to lie – especially to the law – but there were times and circumstances that demanded it.

This woman had suffered enough.

 

Adam sat at his brother’s side, watching Joe sleep as the late afternoon sun fell through the window curtains and struck his prone form, warming the color of his too pale skin.  Pa was right.  Joe’s fever had stabilized just short of too high.  He was no longer delirious, but it was obvious he was in pain from the way he moved even in his sleep, tossing and turning as if in torment.

He knew the feeling.

Adam sighed and leaned back in the chair and ran a hand over his stubbled cheeks.  He forgot sometimes how young Joe was.  Looking at him now, he noticed how his little brother was still all legs and arms that he hadn’t quite grown into yet.  Of course, that head of tousled curls didn’t help. Even when Joe was on his best behavior, when he looked at you through that curtain of dark curls dangling on his forehead, you braced yourself.  You didn’t know what was coming – the deepest laugh you had ever known or the deepest rage.

God, how he had raged.  He had raged at this kid like he was the spoiled brat, like he couldn’t take a few insults about New England and Yankee blockheads.  Joe’s words had pierced him where it hurt – in that secret place where the dead mother he had never known lived – and he had struck out with everything he had.  Joe had too, of course, but Joe was a kid.

He, supposedly, was a man.

Reaching out Adam took hold of his brother’s hand.  Joe was still very hot to the touch, but blessedly not on fire.  He held his hand remembering the other times he had sat by his brother’s bed – when Joe had the measles, that time when he was in his early teens and he took a spill from Cochise and nearly died; after Adah Menken’s lover beat him within an inch of his life.  The kid had a knack for landing in trouble, and each time they thought they might lose him it drove home to them just how much they loved the little scamp.

How much he loved him.

“Addmm…?”

He looked up to find Joe watching him with feverish eyes.  “Hey, buddy,” he said, falling back to the pet name he had used until Joe told him in no uncertain terms he was too old for it.  “How do you feel?”

Joe bit his lips and then used his tongue to try and wet them.  “Hot.  Thirsty.”

Adam reached for the pitcher and filled a glass, and then lifted his brother up so he could drink.  After replacing the glass, he made to move off the bed but Joe’s grip on his sleeve was so intense he stopped

“You need something else?”

Joe nodded.  “…sorry.  For…what I said.”  His brother sucked in air. “For Fred….”

Adam caught his brother’s free hand in his own. “Forget it.”

Those green eyes, rich and deep as the pines, pinned him.  “Can…you?”

He thought about it a moment.  Then with a smile, he replied, “I think, if you can, then I can.  Do you forgive me Joe for those hateful things I said, about you, about…Marie?”

Joe’s nod was feeble, but it was there.  “You…too?”

“Yeah.  No hard feelings then?”

“Only…if I run into that…blockhead of…yours,” Joe answered with a trace of his usual mischievous smile.

Adam stared at his brother for a moment. “Joe, I’m only going to say this once, and if you tell Pa or Hoss, I swear I’ll tie you to a fence post and let the crows have you.”

Joe’s eyes went wide.

“I love you, kid.  I just wanted you to know.”

His little brother’s eyelids were getting heavy.  Little Joe was close to sleep – real sleep.  A trace of a smiled curled the corner of those lips the ladies longed to kiss.

“…love you…too, blockhead….”

Ornery to the end.

 

It was a long week.  A week of his youngest son’s lingering illness.  A week of Doctor Martin shaking his head and murmuring under his breath each time he visited and checked on Joseph.  A week of worrying about whether or not his son would pull through, and seven days of watching Adam slowly let go of his guilt.  Seven days, as well, of watching Sarah Spencer – the young woman who now had a last name – come to the realization that she was free.

Free.

Roy had come out and grilled him concerning Carter Burl’s death.  Ab Latham had told the story and blamed everyone but himself.  Roy, of course, knew that Lathan was a criminal and he was an upstanding citizen and so when it came to choosing which story to believe, the lawman had chosen to take his word for what had happened.

To believe his lie.

It didn’t sit well with his conscience, but then neither did condemning a beautiful vibrant young woman to a life of servitude, grief, and pain – and maybe death.  When asked about Sarah’s part in what had happened, he told the story they had all agreed upon.  Sarah had gone to tie up Burl and he had drawn a gun. There was nothing they could do but shoot to kill and they had no idea whose bullet had done the deed.  Roy had listened, his keen blue eyes looking out from under the bushy roof of his salt and pepper brows, and said nothing.  If it was as he said, it was self-defense.

If not….

Ab Latham was set to hang the day after next for the murder of Frederick Kyle, whom he was certain was only one among many that the southerner had killed.  At that moment Ab’s voice would be silenced forever.  Carter Burl’s family had been wired.  A representative was due the day after this.  He was coming to claim Burl’s body.  There was no way of knowing what repercussions they might face for the slaver’s death, but face them they would if it came to it.  There was really little anyone could do, and if Burl’s people intended to reclaim what they had lost – Sarah – they would be sorely disappointed because she would be long gone.

It had taken quite a bit, but Roy had located the man Thom Spencer had been set to meet with – the agent from the underground railroad.  He had remained in the area hoping to make contact and had just purchased a ticket to return east after learning of Thom and Maggie’s deaths. He was overjoyed to find that Sarah was alive and safe and offered to see that she made it to Canada and freedom.  In fact, he was waiting just outside the door.

Sarah was upstairs saying goodbye to Joseph.

His son was mending, if not whole.  The combination of the influenza and the beating he had taken at Carter Burl’s hands had left him weak and not quite himself.  After the fever broke, Joe fell into a languor, sleeping a great deal and not saying much.  He knew, of course, that Sarah was to leave him and Ben wondered if that was the real cause of his melancholy.  Still, he wasn’t sure.  Joseph was a boy of deep passions and feelings and trying to get him to talk was like mining for silver – you never knew if you would strike it rich or merely search in vain.

Sarah had gone up this afternoon as Paul Martin came down, announcing the crisis was over.

He wondered what the pair were talking about.

 

Joe pulled himself up a little higher against the pillows so he could see Sarah better.  She was beautiful, sitting as she was in the late afternoon sun that fell through his window.  He’d awakened that morning to the news that she was leaving.  The agent from the railroad needed to return east and he was taking her with him.  Once his business was done in New York, he and Sarah – and several other enslaved men and women – would head north to Canada and freedom.  He wanted it for her so badly he could taste it.

But he didn’t want her to go.

A few moments before he’d asked her to stay with him, to be his wife.  He hadn’t felt this way about anyone since Amy.  He was waiting for her answer.

Even though he already knew what it was.

Sarah took hold of his right hand and then leaned in to brush the curls from his forehead before planting a kiss on it.  A single tear trailed down her cheek.

“I guess a fellow knows when he’s not wanted,” he said quietly.

“Oh, Little Joe, it’s not that,” she replied.  “I love you….”  She held up a hand.  “What I don’t know is how I love you.  As a friend, as a brother, as….  Well, as something more.”

“I know how I feel about you.”

“Do you?” she asked.  “Do you love me, or are you in love with the idea of who and what I am?”

He frowned.  “What do you mean by that?”

She squeezed his fingers.  “You love deeply, Joe.  Fiercely, I might say.  I think you see in me something, or someone you lost.  Someone you couldn’t save.  Except now, in saving me, you have.”

“Huh?”

Sarah laughed.  “I’m not your mother, Little Joe.”

“You think I want you to be like my mother?” he asked, astonished.  What he was thinking about was as far away from that as could be.

“No,” she laughed.  “But I think when you look at me, you see her, and I am not sure you would ever see me as anything else.”

“Sarah, I love you!” he protested.

“I know you do.  I love you too, but I think we need…time.  If we truly love one another as a man and woman ought to, then that love will grow and not diminish with either time or distance.”

Joe sucked in tears.  “I don’t want you to go.”

“I have to.  Not only for me, but for you and your family.  I need to know….”  Sarah paused and then her eyes met his, pleading.  “I need to know that you and your brothers and father are safe.”

“We don’t care –”

She pressed a finger to his lips.  “But I do.”

They fell silent then. So silent he could hear the clock ticking in the hall downstairs.

“When will I see you again?” he asked at last.

“When it’s safe for someone like me to live in the United States. When my people are free.”

Joe scowled. “I’m your ‘people’ too.  If I’d been born in the South –”

“But you weren’t, Little Joe!  Thank God, you weren’t!”

His father’s voice floated through the open door.  “Sarah!  Mister Blevins is ready to leave.”

She smiled at him.  “I have to go.  Freedom is waiting.”  Sarah rose to her feet.  Before she left the bedside she leaned in, he thought to plant another kiss on his forehead.

Instead she kissed him, long, and passionately on the lips.

Sarah’s fingers touched his hair.  She smiled.

And was gone.

 

 

EPILOGUE

Ben Cartwright stood in the open door of the ranch house and drew in a breath of air.  He could smell spring in it.  The front yard was a river of mud, there were still small patches of ice here and there, and the covering of pine needles was still brown, but spring was coming and long overdue!  As he stretched and stepped onto the porch his eyes went to his youngest son, who was leaning against the corral fence.  Little Joe was dressed in his gray pants and deep blue shirt – a color combination for the boy his mother had favored – with his head of tousled curls hanging down.  For a moment he thought Joe was merely reflective or sad – he’d been subdued and somewhat morose for most of the winter – but then he realized he had a letter in his hand.

Someone must have made it to town to fetch the mail.

At that moment Hoss came out of the barn with a bundle of leather strapping in his hands.  His middle boy greeted him as he arrived and then turned to launch a quick glance in Joseph’s direction.

“He sure is in his own world today, Pa,” Hoss said softly.

Ben indicated his younger son with a nod.  “Who’s the letter from?”

The big man shrugged.  “Roy and a couple of deputies was heading out and they came by to drop off the mail that’s been buildin’ up the last few months.  Joe got to him first.”

The rancher looked again.  Yes, there was a pile of letter and newspapers at Joseph’s feet – in the mud.

Ben smiled as he stifled a sigh.  If he sighed every time his youngest’s behavior warranted it, he’d soon run out of air.

“I’ll go rescue the rest of it before it drowns,” he remarked tersely.

Hoss’ lips twitched.  “You do that, Pa.  And while you’re at it, find out who wrote that one little brother’s so danged interested in.”

He nodded as he began to walk, though he was fairly certain he knew who the letter was from.  His suspicions were reinforced if not confirmed when he saw the letter had been penned on colored paper.  Ben halted a yard or so away from his boy and studied him, noting his muscular frame and that face that had come from his mother – just as hers had come from the angels.  He would make a fine man some day.

Ben glanced at the forgotten mail beside his son’s boots.

Some day.

“Joseph,” he said as he bent to retrieve the bundle of letters and papers.

It wasn’t quite the leap that he did onto Cochise’s back, but Little Joe jumped a good foot.  His son looked at him, then at the bundle, and swallowed hard. Twice.

“Sorry, Pa,” he apologized.

Ben had been thumbing through the missives.  “I’ll accept that, but I am not so sure about your older brother.  Adam’s copy of the Boston Herald is on the bottom.”   The rancher turned the bundle to look. “Was on the bottom.”

Little Joe paled.  “He’s gonna kill me.”

“Perhaps.”  Ben suppressed a grin as he nodded at the blue stationary in his son’s hand.  “Sarah?” he asked.

Joe blinked.  “How’d you know?”

That his son would forget everything for a girl?  It didn’t take much.

“I assumed she would write to tell us she had arrived in Canada, if not before.”  They’d had a hard winter.  The snow had come early as expected and fallen deep.  They’d been isolated for months.  “How is she?”

Joseph ran his free hand through his tousled curls, shoving them back as he shook his head.  “Amazing.”

“Amazing?”   That was not the response he had expected.

“Sarah didn’t go to Canada, Pa.  She joined Mister Blevins organization and is working to free other slaves.  She said she can pass for white, so she’s invaluable to them.”  Little Joe paused.  His face screwed up funny and then he looked at him, wearing the intense look he had when, as a child, he had been faced with a sum he couldn’t work out.

“Is that what I do, Pa?  ‘Pass’ as white?”

It shamed him to think it, but thank the Almighty it seemed none of the ranch hands or townspeople had been privy to Ab Latham’s vitriol.  It mattered not one whit to him that Marie had had a great-grandparent who was a person of color.  Most likely many of those who would have shunned his son for being Marie’s were of mixed heritage too, but simply didn’t know it.  The United States was indeed a melting pot with peoples of all races and colors mingling and mating.

Unfortunately, that would make no difference to those who would see his son as something ‘less’.

“Son,” he said, touching Joe’s arm.  “Come inside and we’ll talk.”  At Little Joe’s hesitation he added, “Adam won’t be home until tomorrow at the earliest.”

His boy’s hearty ‘Whew!’ had him smiling again until they reached the fireside and sat down.

As Ben sat in his chair, his son took his usual – and oft-scolded – spot on the table before the hearth.  He let it go this time.

“Joseph, what does it mean to you that your mother had a great-grandmother who was a person of color?”

The boy thought a moment.  “It makes me kind of sad, Pa.”

“Sad?”

“To think that people didn’t see her for who she was.  That they judged her for somethin’ she had no control over.”  He paused. “Just like I would have.”

“Why do you say that, Joseph?  Haven’t I taught you that all men are equal before the eyes of God?”

“Yes, sir.  But, well, I guess, living out here….  I mean, I never met no…”  At his scowl Joe corrected his grammar.  “I haven’t met many ‘persons of color’.  I knew there were people who were enslaved because they were different, but I don’t think I knew exactly what ‘enslaved’ meant.  No, I didn’t know.”   Little Joe hung his head and a single tear escaped his eye.  “Mama would be so ashamed of me.”

“Joe, look at me.”  When his son complied, he smiled. “Your mother would be very proud of you.  Life is about learning from our mistakes.  A wise man once called it ‘profiting by dearly bought experience.”

“A wise man?”

“President Washington, who made more than his own share of mistakes as a young man if you recall.”

His son nodded.  Joseph thought a moment and then he said, “You didn’t answer me.  Don’t you want to?”

Ben frowned.  “Didn’t answer you about what?”

Little Joe nodded.  “Do I just ‘pass’ as white?  Am I…different from Adam and Hoss?”

The older man rose and went to sit beside his son on the table.  As he spoke, he wrapped an arm around him.  “Are you different from your brothers?  Yes.”  As Joe’s young form tensed, he added, “Each man and woman is a unique blend of their parents, and their parents before them.  You three are even more unique as you had different mothers.  Your mother….”  Ben drew a breath.  He could almost see Marie sitting on the settee, looking at him.  “Your mother, Joseph, was a wonderful woman.  She was spirited, intelligent, gifted, and loved.  The Good Book says we are covered in our mother’s wombs.  That we are fearfully and wonderfully made for marvelous are the works of His hand.  Our substance was not hid from him.”  His son was looking at him with those wide sincere and guileless eyes.   He wanted an answer.

Sadly, there wasn’t an easy one.

“If you lived in the South, perhaps even in the East where men are anchored to old beliefs, there might be those who would say you were a ‘person of color’, simply because of the blood that runs in your veins.”  When Joseph shifted nervously, he added, “But you don’t live in the East or the South.  You live in the West where everything is new.  What a man was before, what blood runs in his veins – even what color his skin is – doesn’t count for anything.  It’s what he makes of himself.”

“But there would still be people, even in Virginia City who would….  Well, who wouldn’t want to be around me because of it.  Right?”

“Yes.  Some might prejudge you and shun you as they shunned your mother.  Does that worry you?”

Little Joe was puzzling it out.  Finally he said, “No.  I’ll just show them that they’re wrong.  That’s what mama did, isn’t it?”

He gripped his son’s arm and shook it.  “She sure did.”

At that moment the front door opened and the wind blew in – along with Adam.

Three days early.

“Hey, Pa. The pass was blocked so I came back.”  His eldest hung his hat on the rack and turned to face them.  His eyes lit when he saw the bundle of papers and mail.  “Hey!  I bet my copy of the Boston Herald is in there.”

Ben felt Joe tense.  In a second his son was on his feet and headed for the door.

“Hey, Joe.  Where are you going?” his brother asked.

“I got chores to do!” the boy called over his shoulder as he made good his escape.

Adam winced as the front door slammed and asked, “What was that all about?”

Ben gave into the sigh.

“Just life returning to normal, son.”

4 thoughts on “The Darker Angels of Our Nature (by McFair)”

  1. I don’t normally read such long stories, but your subject matter drew me in. Excellent follow up to A House Divided. You presented a much more credible reason for the degree of disagreement between Joe and Adam. I liked your original characters and especially your portrayal of Frederick Kyle. Sarah’s story line is all the more heartbreaking because of its basis in history. You certainly did your homework. Thank you for writing! 🙂

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read my story. I tend to write complicated tales and it takes a lot of words to work out all the story lines! Thank you also for the kind comments on my writing, my use of the Original characters, the history, and the story itself!

  2. Thank you for commenting. I appreciate your compliments on my writing and the story. As you say, this was a tough one for Little Joe. It was one of those moments when that creature – the young male, who is so sure of himself and his infallibility – is humbled and forced to take the first steps toward being a man.

  3. I think Joe learned the hardest lesson of his life in this story and he certainly learned it the hard way. This is so thoroughly well researched and history seamlessly intertwines with fiction.

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