Summary: A Hillbilly family seeks revenge after Joe kills two of their members. A WHN story for ‘The Spitfire’
Rated: T (19,990 words)
Joe opened his eyes and stretched as he tried to clear the sleep from his head. He yawned widely and turned his head to look at the window and then smiled. Judging from the sunlight that was already streaming through it, it promised to be another beautiful day. He scratched his head as he sat up in bed and stretched again, frowning as he thought back on the events of yesterday.
He had been so scared when he’d ridden into the Hoads’ camp. Afterwards Pa had called it reckless and Adam had said that it had been downright stupid, but Joe knew that it was just something that he had had to do. After all, it had been his fault that those two men had died and he had felt a great responsibility to make things right again by speaking to the family about it. He made a face as he realised that Pa and Adam were probably right. Even though things had worked out in the end, another man was dead because of his actions and he couldn’t help but regret his impulsiveness once again.
Pa always said that he didn’t think things through and Joe knew that he was right. He honestly didn’t mean to be like that … he just found himself doing and saying things before he could stop himself and someone always had to pay the price for it. He smiled ruefully as he thought back over all the times that the person had been himself and he sure was glad that he was too old to receive a tanning from Pa any more.
There had been a moment yesterday when he had thought he was going to get one anyway … no matter what his age. Pa had sure been furious before Grandma Hoad had arrived at their house. They had all thought that she had come for revenge and you could have knocked Joe down with a feather when she had made it clear that she hadn’t. Not that he would have blamed her if she had. Two of her sons were dead and whichever way he looked at it Joe himself was responsible for the shootings.
He wondered why she had decided to change her course of action and forgive him in the way that she had. She had said that she wasn’t tired of all the killings and everyone had breathed a sigh of relief at that. Yet there was a part of him that didn’t quite believe what she had said. To go from such hatred to forgiveness in such a short space of time didn’t really add up in his mind and he knew that the others must be thinking the same thing. Still …. She seemed genuine enough and he supposed that was mattered.
The Hoads had spent last evening at the Cartwright ranch and no one could have doubted Grandma Hoad’s genuineness by observing her reaction to everything. Joe thought that she had even ….
‘Are you going to sit there all morning or are you going to get dressed and join us downstairs for breakfast?’
Joe turned sharply at the sound of his father’s voice. ‘Morning Pa,’ he said with a smile.
Joe looked confused. ‘Well what?’ he said after a moment.
‘Are you going to come downstairs for breakfast?’ answered his father with an amused expression on his face.
Joe reached for his pants and began to pull them on. ‘Sure,’ he said. As he struggled to pull them up he looked over at his father again. ‘Hey Pa?’
‘Yes?’ asked Ben as he leaned against the doorframe.
‘The Hoads sure seemed ta like last night don’t ya think?’
Ben nodded slowly. ‘Yes they did,’ he replied. ‘I don’t suppose they’ve had the opportunity to see some of the modern conveniences that we have here at The Ponderosa.’
Joe giggled as he pulled off his nightshirt. ‘You mean like the kitchen,’ he said. ‘I thought that Hop Sing was gonna have a fit when Grandma Hoad talked bout cooking up some turnip greens in there.’
Ben waggled his finger at his youngest son. ‘Well you shouldn’t have given her the idea,’ he said. ‘The poor woman was very embarrassed when she realised that Hop Sing was so protective of his kitchen.’
Joe giggled again. ‘And I thought she’d swipe me one when I showed her the contraption that Hoss used when we gave Willow her bath,’ he said.
Ben frowned. ‘You could have told the poor woman that it was Mrs Shaunessy who actually supervised it,’ he said. ‘I don’t blame Grandma Hoad for being angry with you.’
Joe stopped laughing and sat down to pull on his boots. ‘Yeah I spose,’ he admitted. ‘But it was only a joke.’
‘It wasn’t that funny,’ said Ben. ‘Particularly as the woman was trying to mend bridges with us.’
‘Yeah,’ said Joe thoughtfully. ‘I’ve been thinking bout that Pa. Why do ya reckon she was? I mean … I killed two of her sons and all and yet she was willing ta forget it.’
Ben shook his head. ‘She wasn’t forgetting it Joe,’ he explained. ‘The same as I could never forget it if one of you boys were taken from me. The thing is though that she was willing to look beyond it and realise that the whole thing needed to be brought to an end. To be honest I don’t think she has forgiven you … but for the sake of both our families she was willing to say enough is enough.’
Joe nodded ‘Like you were saying,’ he said. ‘The killing would have just gone on and on otherwise wouldn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ said Ben. ‘And that’s something none of us want … Grandma Hoad included. It takes a lot of courage to do what she did last night son. I hope you appreciate that.’
Joe nodded again. ‘I do,’ he said. ‘I’ve been thinking Pa. Maybe I’ll ride on out there today and see if there’s anything I can do for them.’
Ben shook his head. ‘You’ll stay away from the Hoads,’ he said firmly. ‘The last thing they need are outsiders today. They need to attend to the … burial … and I think they’d rather be alone at a time like this.’
I guess so,’ said Joe. ‘It’s just that … well I reckon they could do with some help Pa. After all with two of em gone they’re going to need … well, they must need help in some way.’
‘Give them time son,’ said Ben. ‘When they’re ready we’ll be here for them. It’s the least we can do after everything that’s happened.’
‘Do you think Grandma Hoad will take you up on the offer of that piece of land you said she could have?’
‘I’m not sure. The Hoads are travelling people and they might find it hard to settle down. We’ll leave it up to them to decide and I guess they’ll need time to do that. In the meantime I’ve let them know that they’re quite welcome to stay down near the lake where they’re camped.’
‘I still think I should go down there and …’
‘You will stay away from them Joseph and that is an order!’ said his father firmly. ‘Understood young man?’
Joe sighed. ‘Understood,’ he said. He gave his father a cheeky grin. ‘Well aren’t you coming for breakfast Pa? You know that Hop Sing hates to be kept waiting.’
Ben swatted the youngster’s behind as he went past him and gave a short laugh as he followed him down the hallway.
Grandma Hoad stood with her head bent with Willow beside her. ‘I reckon we need ta say a few words,’ she said as she stared into the hole in front of her. ‘Dodie was a good son Lord,’ she said as she crossed her hands. ‘He never meant no harm ta anyone and he didn’t deserve ta die. Lord knows he was a might foolish sometimes like he was yesterday when he drew on that young Cartwright feller, but he didn’t mean nothing by it Lord.’ She hesitated for a moment as she thought. ‘Take him inta ya care Lord. Amen.’
‘Amen,’ said her granddaughter Willow beside her.
‘Fill in the hole now Bud,’ directed the woman as she turned away. ‘Willow, I want ya ta come with me.’ She led the girl over towards their wagon and motioned for her to sit down beside her. ‘We need ta talk,’ she said.
Willow looked at her grandmother. ‘What about?’ she asked.
‘You and that Cartwright feller,’ said Grandma Hoad. ‘The young pretty one that shot my boys.’
‘Little Joe,’ said Willow. ‘What about him Grandma?’
Grandma’s eyes narrowed. ‘Last night he was talking bout you in that house when you was living there,’ she said. ‘What exactly went on between you two?’
Willow looked embarrassed. ‘Nothing Grandma!’ she declared.
Grandma Hoad leant forward and looked deeply into her granddaughter’s eyes. ‘Don’t you lie ta me,’ she said in a low voice.
‘I ain’t lying Grandma!’ declared Willow. ‘Little Joe and me is just friends. It’s Bud I love. Ain’t we done told you that we want ta get married?’
Grandma Hoad nodded thoughtfully. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘So ya did.’ She stared at Willow for a few moments and the girl’s eyes never faltered. ‘I believe ya,’ she said finally. ‘I just hadta be sure that’s all.’
‘When can Bud and me get married?’
‘Not yet,’ said Grandma Hoad thoughtfully. ‘Ain’t proper ta celebrate a wedding so close ta all this death in the family. Sides … we need ta decide where we’re gonna live first.’
Willow looked confused. ‘But …’ she began. ‘But didn’t ya tell Mr Cartwright that we’d be settling on that piece of land he offered us?’
‘I said I’d think about it,’ replied Grandma. ‘I ain’t sure yet.’
‘What’s the use of land ta us iffen we ain’t got any men ta work it?’ said Grandma.
‘We got Bud and the others,’ replied Willow indignantly.
Grandma snorted. ‘It’s not enough,’ she said. ‘Without my boys we just couldn’t make a go of it nohow.’
‘Then what we gonna do Grandma?’ asked Willow. ‘How are we gonna survive?’
Grandma Hoad stood up and began to pace up and down. ‘I been thinking on it,’ she said after a moment. ‘Reckon we’s gonna need help ta decide. I’m thinking I might send a letter to ya great-uncle Clem and see if he’ll come and help us.’
‘Where he be now Grandma?’ asked Willow.
‘Over Colorado way last I heard,’ replied her grandmother. She nodded to herself. ‘Clem’ll know what ta do. He always did before.’ She looked over at Bud who was putting the finishing touches on the grave. ‘Bud can take a letter inta that town tomorra and get it posted,’ she said. ‘Until we get a reply we’ll camp here on this Ponderosa land of the Cartwrights. I reckon it’s the least they can let us do considering.’ She looked over at the lake. ‘Sure is mighty fine land,’ she mused and then gave a slight nod. ‘We’ll see,’ she said in a soft voice.
‘Penny for your thoughts,’ said Adam as he held a coffee cup out to his father.
Ben looked up, surprised. ‘What?’ he said. ‘Oh thank you son.’ He took the cup as his eyes drifted back to the barn where Hoss and Little Joe were doing their chores. ‘You’re not supposed to be out of bed this soon.’
‘I’m fine,’ said Adam as he sat down gingerly next to his father and stretched his wounded leg out straight in front of him.
Ben gave him a sideways glance. ‘Well be careful,’ he warned. ‘A bullet wound isn’t to be taken lightly.’
Adam gave his father a smile. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘It’s not the first time I’ve been shot you know Pa.’
Ben acknowledged his son’s words with a half smile. ‘I was just thinking about Little Joe,’ he said.
‘What’s he done now?’ asked Adam.
‘Well if he hasn’t done anything wrong and he obviously hasn’t hurt himself, then what’s the problem?’ said Adam with a short laugh.
Ben gave his eldest son a half-smile. ‘I suppose I’m just worried about the way he’s handling this business about the Hoads,’ said Ben.
Adam lifted an eyebrow as he looked over at his brothers. ‘He seems to be okay about it,’ he said.
Ben nodded slightly. ‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘I just know that it’s a hard thing when you’re Little Joe’s age to know that you’ve been responsible for someone’s death.’
‘It’s a hard thing at any age,’ mused Adam.
‘Yes, that’s true,’ replied his father. ‘Knowing Joseph as I do though, I’m sure that he’s not being completely honest about being at peace about it.’
‘The Hoads seemed okay though.’
‘I didn’t mean them. I meant your brother being at peace with himself.’
‘Oh I see. Well .. you know what Joe’s like Pa. He’ll come through this.’
Ben sighed. ‘I hope so,’ he said.
‘Have you thought about going over to see the Hoads yet?’
‘No. I told Joseph to stay away from them. I think they’ve needed some time to themselves.’ Ben frowned. ‘But it’s been over a week now. I really thought they’d have been in touch with us by now.’ He thought for a moment. ‘I think I might go over there tomorrow and check on them.’
‘You want me to go with you?’
Ben shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You’re not ready to sit on a horse yet. Besides, I can handle it son. I’m going to ask Hoss to keep Joe busy tomorrow. The last thing I want is for him to go bounding over there until I’m sure everything is all right.’
‘You still think the old woman is angry?’
Ben shook his head. ‘I’m not sure. She seemed all right the night she came into the house … but .. well if it was me who’d just lost two sons I know I’d still be feeling resentment towards the family who were responsible for it. I just think it’s best if Joe stays away from them for a while that’s all.’
Adam nodded ‘Hoss can take him out to the South Pasture for the day,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry Pa. I’m sure everything is over now.’
Ben smiled at his son. ‘I’m sure you’re right Adam,’ he said.
Ben looked both right and left as he rode into the camp. There was a small fire in the middle of the clearing and a pot was hung over it. The wagon had been placed near the shelter of the trees and the Hoads’ horses were tethered near it. There seemed to be no one around and so he dismounted and called out to no one in particular. ‘Anyone here?’
He turned sharply as a noise behind him startled him and he smiled to see that it was Grandma Hoad. ‘Hello,’ he said politely. ‘I came to see if everything was all right with you.’
‘We’s fine,’ said the woman with a slight nod of her head. ‘Willow and the boys are down by the lake catching a mess of fish fer supper.’
Ben nodded. ‘You need anything?’ he asked.
She frowned. ‘Anything we need we can git,’ she said gruffly. ‘We don’t need no charity from no one.’
‘I wasn’t offering charity,’ replied Ben carefully. ‘I was just trying to be a good neighbour.’
‘We ain’t yer neighbours,’ said Grandma Hoad. ‘Leastways not yet. We ain’t decided iffen we’s staying or not yet.’
Ben took off his hat and scratched his head. ‘I see,’ he said. ‘Well the offer of the land is still there if you want it. It’s the least we can do considering everything that’s happened.’
‘I reckon you’re right about that,’ said Grandma Hoad. ‘We’ll decide when Clem gits here.’
‘Clem?’ asked Ben.
‘My brother-in-law,’ explained Grandma Hoad. ‘He’s acoming ta join up with us in a few days. Reckon he’ll know what ta do … whether we should move on or stay.’
‘I see,’ said Ben. ‘Well tell him when he gets here that he’s more than welcome to stay if he wants to as well.’
Grandma Hoad nodded. ‘I will,’ she said. They stood looking at each other for a minute before Ben cleared his throat self-consciously.
‘Well I’d better be going then,’ he said. ‘Lots of work to do.’ He mounted up on his horse. ‘Remember … if there’s anything we can do you need only ask,’ he said.
‘I’ll remember,’ said Grandma Hoad as she watched him ride away. ‘I’ll remember all right.’
‘Grandma? Who was that?’ Willow came and stood beside her grandmother.
‘That Cartwright feller,’ replied the woman. ‘He come ta offer us some charity.’
Willow sighed. ‘He ain’t giving charity Grandma,’ she said. ‘He’s jest being neighbourly like Little Joe and the rest of em was ta me. I told you how they gave me all them fancy clothes and suchlike didn’t I?’
‘You told me,’ replied Grandma Hoad. ‘But we don’t need any of that stuff. Them Cartwrights can jest stay away from us now. They’ve caused enough problems. Specially that pretty little feller …. that Little Joe.’
‘Little Joe didn’t mean ta shoot my Pa and Dodie Grandma,’ protested Willow. ‘You said so yourself. Ya said that ya couldn’t hold no anger agin him.’
‘I know,’ replied Grandma Hoad and then sighed. ‘I’m trying girl … truly I am. It just seems that they got all and we got nothing. It ain’t right. Now that my boys is dead we ain’t got nothing.’
‘You still got me and Bud and the others.’ Said Willow. ‘We’re still here Grandma.’
Grandma Hoad nodded her head. ‘Yes,’ she admitted. ‘I still got you. Clem should be here in a couple of days and we’ll see what he’s got ta say bout it all. Come on girl, let’s get them fish cooked now or we’ll get no supper.’
‘Clem!’ Grandma Hoad stepped forward to greet her brother-in-law as he dismounted from his horse. ‘Ya made a good pace ta get here so quick!’
Clem Hoad looked around the camp before replying. ‘When we got the news bout Dodie and Jeb we came quick as we could,’ he said. ‘You member my boys don’t ya Aggie?’
Grandma Hoad looked at the three large men standing behind her brother. ‘Sure do,’ she said. Seems like they grown a mite since I saw em last though.’ She motioned behind her. ‘This here’s Willow my granddaughter. And over there’s Bud.’
Clem tipped his hat to the others. ‘So it’s true then,’ he said. ‘Where’d ya bury em Aggie?’
Grandma Hoad motioned with her finger towards the lake. ‘Over there,’ she said. ‘We’ve sure had a lota grief since we saw ya last Clem.’
Clem sat down next to the fireplace and Grandma Hoad sat next to him. ‘So where’s the scum that did this?’ he asked in a low voice. ‘Where’d ya bury them what’s responsible?’
‘We didn’t bury no one,’ interrupted Willow. ‘We made our peace with them what done it.’
Clem gave the girl a piercing look that made her instantly take a step backwards. ‘I was talking to ya grandma girl!’ he said angrily. ‘You keep outta this.’
Grandma Hoad waved Willow away. ‘The girl’s speakin true Clem,’ she said. ‘We done with killing round here. Way I figure it there’s been too much already.’
Clem’s eyes narrowed. ‘Ya mean ta tell me that them what did this is still alive?’ he said. ‘How come ya gone soft Aggie?’
Grandma Hoad looked confused for a second and then her eyes narrowed. ‘I ain’t gone soft,’ she declared. ‘It’s just that losing two sons is enough fer anyone ta cope with Clem. I can’t stand any more killing.’
Clem stroked his chin. ‘I see,’ he said. ‘Still and all .. them what’s responsible should oughta pay fer what they’s done. Tell me who they is and I’ll see to it.’
‘The name’s Cartwright,’ said Grandma Hoad. ‘Big landowners round here.’
‘They offered us some land,’ said Willow in spite of herself. ‘We got the chance ta settle down here.’
Clem glared at her again. ‘You shut up!’ he said. ‘There’ll be no settling down on any land given by murderers!’
Grandma Hoad touched her brother-in-law on the arm. ‘That’s what we need ta talk bout,’ she said. ‘Seems ta me that this land is mighty fine Clem. We could have a fine life here.’
Clem brushed her hand off. ‘I can’t believe I’m hearing ya say this Aggie,’ he said. ‘You’d take land from murdering scum like them Cartwrights?’ Grandma Hoad said nothing as he continued. ‘What bout California?’ he said. ‘I thought you was bound ta get there?’
Grandma Hoad nodded. ‘True,’ she admitted. ‘But that was before everything changed. I can’t do it Clem,’ she said. ‘Not without Dodie and Jeb. It just ain’t possible.’
Clem thought for a minute. ‘I’m making fer Mexico meself,’ he said. ‘But maybe we can help ya out Aggie. How bout I lend you one of my boys fer the trip and once you’re settled they can make their way back ta me?’
Grandma Hoad nodded. ‘That’d sure help Clem,’ she said. ‘But won’t ya miss his help?’
Clem’s eyes narrowed. ‘Nah!’ he said as he spat into the fire. I reckon we’ll make out jest fine. Let’s think on it a bit.’
‘Willow!’ said Grandma Hoad. ‘Let’s get some grub fer there hungry men. Hurry up girl!’ As she stood up she placed a hand on Clem’s shoulder. ‘Thanks Clem,’ she said. ‘I knew I could count on you ta make things seem clearer.’
Clem nodded as the women walked away. ‘Pa?’ He turned at the sound of his son’s voice behind him. ‘How come ya ain’t gonna kill them Cartwrights like ya said?’
Clem frowned at him. ‘I never said I wasn’t gonna get revenge on em,’ he said. ‘I’m jest gonna do it quiet like so as not ta upset Aggie. Don’t ya worry son,’ he said. ‘The one what killed ya cousins is gonna pay!’ He fingered his knife that was tucked into his belt. ‘He’s gonna pay big time!’
‘But Pa,’ said Joe. ‘It’s been two weeks now. Surely there’s no harm in going over there ta see if they need help!’
Ben frowned at his youngest son. ‘I’ve told you before Joseph. When they want our help they’ll ask for it,’ he said. ‘The Hoads are proud people and we can’t just force it on them.’
‘Do ya reckon they’re gonna take up your offer of land ta settle on?’ asked Hoss through a mouthful.
‘I’m not sure,’ said Ben. ‘We’ll just have to wait and see. Grandma Hoad said something about her brother coming to join them, so I guess they’ll make their decision when he arrives.’ He glanced over at Adam. ‘You feeling all right?’ he asked.
Adam nodded. ‘I’m fine Pa,’ he said. ‘Stop worrying about me. Paul said the wound had healed and it was all right to start back at work remember?’
Ben nodded. ‘I remember,’ he said. ‘But just you remember that it’s light chores only. No riding out for a few days.’
‘Yeah,’ said Joe with a cheeky grin. ‘You can get all our chores done now. Me and Hoss have been covering for you for two weeks so it’s about time.’
Adam lifted an eyebrow. ‘Well it hasn’t been my fault younger brother,’ he said. At his words Joe went pale and hung his head, staring at his plate in front of him. Adam gave his father a stricken look as he realised what he’d said. ‘I’m sorry Joe,’ he said after a moment’s hesitation. ‘I didn’t mean to say that. What I meant was ….’
Joe lifted his head and gave his brother a half-smile. ‘I know what you meant,’ he said. ‘Its okay Adam.’ He shrugged. ‘After all it was my fault that you got shot and there’s no getting around that fact is there?’
‘It was not your fault that your brother was shot!’ said Ben angrily. ‘I want you to get that thought out of your head Joseph.’
Joe looked at his father. ‘Well it’s a bit hard to do that Pa,’ he said. ‘Seeing as how all of this was my fault.’
‘You couldn’t help what happened,’ said Adam quietly.
Joe shrugged. ‘But it still did happen,’ he said. ‘If I hadn’t been up there that day I would never have shot Dodie Hoad.’
‘And The Ponderosa could have been destroyed by fire because of it,’ said his father.
‘Well Adam wouldn’t have been shot if I hadn’t shot Jeb,’ said Joe. And then I had to go and shoot Dodie as well.’
‘He drew on you first,’ said Hoss.
‘I shouldn’t have gone up there like Pa said,’ said Joe. ‘I guess I acted before I thought like you always say I do Pa.’
Ben placed a hand on his son’s arm. ‘Joe we can’t go back and change the past,’ he said. ‘All we can do is try to make the best of it and look to the future.’
‘But don’t you see Pa?’ said Joe. ‘That’s just what I’m trying to do. I feel responsible for all of this and I want to help the Hoads now. Can’t you see that?’
‘Of course I can see that,’ said his father. ‘But…’
‘I have to do something to make up for what has happened,’ said Joe. ‘I just want to try!’
Ben sighed. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘We’ll go up there together.’
Joe gave his father a grin. ‘Thanks Pa,’ he said.
Clem Hoad put his hand up to shade his eyes as he stared at the two approaching riders, while behind him the other members of his family continued loading the wagon. ‘Riders coming,’ he said.
‘Grandma Hoad came to stand beside him. ‘It’s them Cartwright fellers,’ she said. ‘I reckon they’ve come ta see iffen we’re taking them up on their offer of that land or not.’
‘Which one is the scum who killed em?’ asked Clem.
‘The young pretty looking feller,’ said Grandma. ‘Goes by the name of Little Joe.’ She looked at Clem anxiously. ‘Ya done promised me Clem. Ya done said there’d be no more killing.’
Clem turned to her and nodded. ‘I meant it,’ he said shortly as his eyes narrowed. ‘There’ll be no killing. There’s no need fer that.’ He studied the riders as they came closer. ‘I don’t want anyone ta make a move understood?’
‘But Pa!’ said his son Zac behind him. ‘That youngun killed Dodie and Jeb. Ya ain’t aiming ta let him get away with it are ya? Ya can’t!’
Clem turned to him and glared. ‘I said no one makes a move,’ he said. ‘Get back to the packing and let me handle this!’ His eyes narrowed as he turned back and watched Joe and Ben dismount.
‘Howdy,’ said Ben as they approached. He held out his hand. ‘Cartwright’s the name … Ben Cartwright … and this is my son Joseph.’ Clem stared at the outstretched hand and said nothing. Ben looked at Grandma Hoad and cleared his throat. ‘I take it this is your brother-in-law?’ he asked.
Grandma Hoad nodded ‘This here’s Clem,’ she said. ‘And them’s his boys.’ She indicated the men standing at the wagon.
Ben nodded and withdrew his hand when it was obvious that Clem wasn’t going to shake it. ‘We just came to see if there was anything we could do,’ he said.
‘I reckon ya’ve done enough,’ said Clem behind gritted teeth. He gave Joe a menacing look that made him swallow and take an involuntary step closer to his father. Ben also noticed the look and instinctively checked his gun without trying to appear to do so.
‘We didn’t come for any trouble,’ he said.
‘Ya won’t get none here then,’ said Clem in a tight voice. ‘But you’ll excuse me iffen I don’t act too friendly to the ones what killed my nephews.’
Ben gave a short nod. ‘I can understand how you feel,’ he said. ‘I’d feel the same way if had been one of mine.’
‘Would ya?’ said Clem with another long look at Joe.
Ben shot Grandma Hoad a look. ‘Seems like you’re moving on,’ he said. ‘Not going to stay on the land we offered?’
‘No one here needs ya land Cartwright,’ said Clem before Grandma Hoad could speak. ‘We’re all headed for California.’ Grandma Hoad shot him a puzzled look as he continued. ‘We’re leaving today.’
Joe stepped forward. ‘I’d like to say goodbye to Willow,’ he said to Grandma Hoad. ‘Is that okay?’
Clem put his hand up to stop him. ‘You’re the one what done it, ain’t ya?’ he asked.
Joe swallowed. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It was me. I’m truly sorry it had to be like this Mr Hoad. I didn’t mean to kill them.’
Clem said nothing, but merely stared at him with narrowed eyes. After a moment Joe tried again. ‘Is it all right if I say goodbye to her then?’
Willow stepped forward at his words. ‘Bye Joe,’ she said. ‘Thanks fer the dresses and suchlike.’
Clem turned sharply. ‘What dresses?’ he asked.
Willow looked at her uncle. ‘Joe gave me some dresses and other stuff,’ she said haughtily. ‘Ain’t nothing wrong with that!’
Clem turned on her. ‘You shut your mouth!’ he said. ‘Why’s he giving you stuff anyways? What do ya do with him ta make him give ya presents? You answer me girl!’
‘I ain’t done nothing wrong,’ said Willow, blushing deeply. ‘It’s Bud I love and I’m gonna marry him. Nothing’s going on between me and Joe.’
Clem gave her a push. ‘Ain’t better be!’ he said sharply. ‘You!’ he shouted as he turned back to Joe and Ben again. ‘You’d better get outta here fore I change my mind and decide not ta hold my anger agin ya in no more. Get!’
Joe looked at his father who was staring at Grandma Hoad. ‘Ma’am,’ said Ben as he tipped his hat at her and ignored Clem. ‘If ever you’re back this way the offer of land still stands…. Joseph come along.’ He beckoned to his son to follow.
‘But Pa,’ said Joe as they reached the horses. ‘This is our land. He can’t just tell you to get …’
‘Joseph get on your horse,’ said Ben sternly. ‘It doesn’t matter at the moment. They’re leaving now so none of it matters.’ He mounted up and watched as Joe did the same. ‘Ma’am,’ Ben said again and tipped his hat a second time as he turned his horse. With one last look at the Hoads Joe did the same and rode off after his father while Clem stared after them in silence.
‘Clem?’ said Grandma Hoad ‘Why’d ya say we was all goin ta California? You and yourn are on ya way ta Mexico ain’t ya?’
‘Ain’t none of his business where we’re headed,’ answered Clem as he spat onto the ground. He walked over to his sons. ‘Get this wagon loaded and outta here,’ he said to them in a low voice. ‘We got work ta do.’
‘We gonna kill that pretty little Cartwright fellar Pa?’ asked Ike with a sneer.
‘Nope,’ said his father. ‘We ain’t killing him… though he might wish that we was.’ He spat onto the ground again.
‘Joseph please!’ said Ben in frustration as Joe leant across the table and swiped a roll off Hoss’ plate. ‘Is there any need for that?’
‘If I wanna get anything to eat there is,’ said Joe as he stuffed it into his mouth. ‘Hoss doesn’t need three.’
Hoss gave his brother a dark look. ‘I need ta keep up my strength,’ he said haughtily.
‘Yeah right!’ said Joe with a cheeky grin.
Ben sighed. Much and all as he was pleased to see Joe bouncing back in this way now that the Hoads were gone, his youngest son’s exuberance was sometimes a bit too much this early in the morning. ‘Just settle down,’ he said sternly. He turned to Adam. ‘Are you sure you’ll be all right getting the supplies today?’ he asked.
Adam gave a small sigh and tried not to look frustrated at his father’s words. ‘I’m fine Pa,’ he said. ‘Really. Besides, Hoss will be with me.’
‘Yes of course,’ said his father. ‘And you young man,’ he continued as he turned to Joe. ‘You are to meet me up in the North Pasture at noon with that lumber for the fences. I won’t be expecting you to be late … understood?’
‘Sure thing Pa,’ said Joe with a grin. ‘I’ll be on time like I always am.’
Ben raised his left eyebrow and tried not to look sarcastic at his son’s words. ‘Just be on time,’ he said as he stood up. ‘Come on then boys, let’s get the day underway.’
Joe reached over and picked up another roll from Hoss’ plate. ‘Hey!’ said Hoss. ‘Leave that alone!’
‘Oh,’ said his younger brother with a contrite look. ‘Was that yours? Sorry!’ He stuffed it into his mouth as he bounded over to the front door, picking up his hat and jacket on the way. ‘Bye Pa!’ he called. ‘See you at noon!’ He slammed the front door behind him.
‘Now Pa?’ Ike looked at his father anxiously.
‘I said ta wait!’ ordered Clem. ‘Zac needs ta stop him first.’ He looked down at the trail below them where the buckboard was slowly making its way west and grinned nastily. ‘There’s plenty of time,’ he mused. ‘He ain’t going nowhere but where we want him to. You get on down there now and help ya brother.’
As he spoke, a rider down below came out of the bushes next to the trail and stopped in front of the buckboard. Joe pulled the horses to a halt and looked at him uneasily. ‘I thought you’d already left,’ he said warily.
‘Did ya?’ said Zac as he brought his horse around to the side next to Joe. ‘Well what do ya know, the pretty little Cartwright fellar thought we was gone.’
‘We ain’t,’ said Ike casually as he rode up and stopped beside his brother. He spat on the ground in front of Joe.
‘What do you want?’ asked Joe after a moment.
‘He wants ta know what we want,’ said Zac. ‘How bout that Ike?’
‘Yeah,’ said Ike. ‘How bout that?’
‘Get out of the way,’ said Joe, feeling more uneasy by the minute. ‘I’ve got work to do.’
‘Really?’ said Zac as he leant close enough so that Joe could smell his bad breath. ‘Where ya going? Out ta see ya daddy with that lumber?’
‘As a matter of fact yes I am,’ said Joe. ‘Now get out of the way before I run your horses off the trail.’
‘I wouldn’t be thinking like that young fellar,’ said a voice behind him and Joe turned sharply to see Clem sitting there on his horse. Clem aimed a rifle at him. ‘Get down off that there buckboard young Cartwright,’ said Clem. Joe hesitated but got down quickly as Clem cocked the gun. ‘Now take off that fancy shooting pistol,’ said Clem. Joe did as he was told and handed it to the man.
‘My Pa and brothers will be along in a minute,’ he said.
Clem shook his head and grinned nastily. ‘No they won’t,’ he said. ‘Your daddy is out that way,’ he gestured with his hand. ‘And them two brothers of yourn took off into the town. They ain’t about ta come anywheres near here.’
Joe swallowed uneasily. ‘If you kill me my Pa will see you dead,’ he said, trying to keep his voice in control and not them hear the panic he was feeling.
Clem ignored his comment and beckoned to Ike. ‘Get that rope,’ he said. ‘Hurry up and tie his hands behind him.’ He watched as his son did as he bid him. ‘Now git him up on that horse,’ he said. Ike hoisted Joe up on his horse and then mounted behind him.
‘My Pa will kill you for this!’ Joe declared. ‘He won’t let you get away with it!’
Ike hit him on the side of the head with a blow that nearly sent him sprawling down onto the ground. ‘Shut up!’ he ordered. ‘Ya open ya mouth again and I’ll close it fer ya!’
Joe steadied himself in the saddle and shut his mouth. It was obvious to him that the man meant what he said and he wasn’t about to push him to see if he would do it. Suddenly his hat was ripped from his head and he turned to see Clem throw it to the ground. ‘I’d love ta see ya daddy’s face when he sees that!’ he said with an ugly grin. ‘Maybe he might feel like Aggie did when she knew she’d never see her boys agin.’
Joe swallowed. ‘What are you ….’ Another blow on his head made him stop in mid-sentence.
‘I told ya ta shut up!’ said Ike angrily. ‘Ya only speak when I tell ya to … understood?’
Joe nodded slightly and looked straight ahead of him as Ike turned his horse. The four men rode off into the distance, leaving the buckboard and horses behind them.
Ben Cartwright rode slowly along the trail towards the house with anger in his heart. That boy!’ he said under his breath. ‘I’m going to give him a piece of my mind when I see him!’ He squinted his eyes against the sun as he looked into the distance and saw a buckboard coming towards him. ‘About time!’ he said angrily as he continued to ride towards it. He frowned as he realised that it wasn’t Joe, but Adam and Hoss in the supply wagon. ‘I thought it was your brother,’ he said as they pulled up beside him.
‘He hasn’t brought the lumber to you yet?’ asked Adam in a surprised tone.
‘No he hasn’t,’ said Ben shortly. ‘And I’m going to have a piece of him when he does! Did you see him on your way?’
Hoss shook his head ‘Nope,’ he said. ‘He’s probably still loading it Pa.’
‘Well he should have finished by now!’ said Ben angrily. ‘That boy can never be trusted to be on time anywhere.’ He turned his horse around. ‘Well I may as well come along with you two back to the house for lunch. No doubt we’ll find him there.’
Hoss hitched the reins up again and they set off back towards the house. After several minutes, Adam put his hand up to his eyes and stared off into the distance. ‘Isn’t that the buckboard over there?’ he said, pointing across a meadow. ‘Under those trees?’
‘Now why on earth would your brother have stopped there?’ asked Ben as he stood up in the stirrups and looked across that way. ‘What on earth would he be thinking?’
‘Pa!’ Hoss’ call made Ben turn sharply. ‘Look!’ They all looked at the side of the trail where Hoss was pointing. There in the grass was Joe’s hat.
Ben’s heart froze for a moment and then he turned his horse and galloped over to where the buckboard and horses were standing. Hoss turned the horses and he and Adam followed their father. ‘Joseph!’ called Ben as he approached the buckboard. ‘Joseph are you here?’ He dismounted quickly and grabbed the reins of the horses as Hoss pulled the other buckboard to a halt behind him. ‘He’s not here,’ said Ben, trying to keep the panic out of his voice.
‘We had a quick look Pa,’ said Hoss. ‘There’s three sets of prints back there on the trail.’ Ben was silent as the truth dawned on him and his worst fears were recognised. ‘The Hoads,’ he said quietly.
‘Looks like it,’ said Adam thoughtfully. ‘Seems like maybe they hadn’t gone after all.’ He hesitated. ‘We’d better …’ he glanced at Hoss with a despairing look before continuing. ‘Pa? We’d better take a look around.’
Ben looked at his eldest son silently. He knew exactly what he was getting at, but his head and his heart refused to acknowledge the fact that his youngest son’s body might be close by. He stood still as Adam and Hoss got down. ‘Pa?’ said Hoss. ‘We haveta take a look around.’ Ben nodded, but still didn’t move. His legs wouldn’t obey him and at that point it was beyond him to force them. Instead he stood and stared at his two sons as they scouted around the area.
After ten minutes Adam and Hoss came back. Adam shook his head. ‘Nothing Pa,’ he said as he put his hand on his father’s shoulder. ‘It’s all right. There’s nothing here.’
Ben let out the breath that he’d been holding and momentarily closed his eyes. ‘Then they didn’t kill him,’ he said.
Adam looked at Hoss. ‘Not here anyway,’ he said in a low tone.
Hoss put his hand over his eyes for a moment and drew a deep breath. ‘I’ll kill em!’ he declared. ‘I’m gonna….’
Ben’s mind snapped back into action. ‘He could still be alive,’ he said as he mounted up. ‘We don’t know for sure that he’s dead. They might have just taken him for some reason.’ He turned his horse and motioned to his sons. ‘Get that buckboard back to the house and pick up your horses,’ he instructed. ‘I’ll start following their trail and you can catch up to me. Let’s ride!’
Ike reached up and pulled Joe down from the saddle and watched in amusement as he fell like a sack of potatoes onto the ground with a thump. ‘Hurt yaself?’ he asked and gave the youngster on the ground a swift kick with the toe of his boot. Joe saw it coming and tried to roll away from the impact, but didn’t manage to do so in time. The kick connected with a force that took his breath away and he hadn’t had time to recover from it before him felt himself being hauled to his feet and shoved away from the horse.
Ike pushed him towards a tree and tied the rope that held his hands around the base of it. ‘That’ll hold ya,’ he said nastily and kicked him again before walking away. Joe eased himself to a sitting position and looked around. They were camped in a small clearing that backed onto a high wall of rock and Joe guessed that they would be well hidden in case they were being followed. He hoped that Pa and his brothers had realised by now what had happened and were coming after him and he only hoped that he would remain alive until they caught up with them. He didn’t know why the Hoads had kept him alive so far, but he was sure grateful that they had.
Joe sensed Clem staring at him and he looked back at the man, worried at the look that he saw in his eyes. It was a look of pure hate and Joe knew that in the man’s eyes he deserved it. After all, he had killed his nephews and Clem was well within his rights to feel that way. Not that it made it any easier for Joe … he realised that he wasn’t likely to come out of this and the thought made him sick with fear. Yet he was determined that the Hoads wouldn’t see his fear and instead stared back at the man until he turned away.
‘We gonna feed him?’ asked Zac suddenly. He was handing plates of food to his father and brother and held one for himself as well. Joe looked at Clem and sensed the man’s hesitation before he replied.
‘Yeah,’ said Clem as he took his plate. ‘No use him holding us back. We gotta keep him alive and healthy fer now. Feed him.’
Zac came over to Joe and put a plate of food on the ground in front of him. He took out his pistol and aimed it at Joe’s head while he untied the rope that bound his hands with the other. ‘Hurry up and eat,’ he spat at him. ‘I ain’t got all day!’
Joe clenched and unclenched his hands quickly to get the blood flowing back into them. ‘Hurry up!’ said Zac again and Joe quickly picked up the plate of food and began to eat while Zac pointed the gun at him. When he’d finished he looked at the man. ‘Now put ya hands behind ya back agin,’ instructed Zac.
‘I ….’ Joe hesitated, not sure of whether or not to push his luck. ‘I need to go,’ he said feebly.
‘I said ta put ya hands behind ya back!’ said Zac, gesturing with his gun. Joe did as he was told and winced as the man tied the ropes tightly. It seemed that his personal needs would have to wait. Zac stood up and picked up his own plate and began to eat.
‘We made good time taday,’ said Clem between mouthfuls. ‘Should be outta the Territory in a couple of days if we keep up this speed.’ Joe wondered where they were headed and why, but didn’t dare ask. Clem pointed with his knife back towards the way they had come. ‘I reckon them Cartwrights is well on their way after Aggie and the others by now.’ He gave a short laugh. ‘Hope that Ben Cartwright listened when I told him we was all headed fer California.’
Joe’s heart sank as he realised that was exactly what his family would do. They’d follow the trail of Grandma Hoad and the others, not realising that Clem and his boys had gone in the other direction. As far as he could make out they had been headed south all day and at this rate they’d eventually get to Mexico given enough time. Clem’s next words realised his greatest fears. ‘I reckon we’ll be outta the country in a couple of weeks,’ said Clem easily as he eyed Joe off. ‘Yer daddy won’t be finding ya down there down there in a hurry will he young Cartwright?’
‘My Pa will find me no matter where we go!’ said Joe in spite of his resolution to keep quiet. ‘You can’t take me far enough away that he won’t!’
Clem leant forward and stared at him. ‘Ya reckon?’ he said. ‘Well we’ll see.’ He sat back again. ‘Sides,’ he said easily. ‘Iffen he does eventually find ya, he may not like what he sees.’ He gave a nasty laugh and picked up his knife as he scrunched over to where Joe was tied. He pulled Joe’s head back by his hair and held the knife to his exposed throat. ‘I could kill ya right now kid,’ he said menacingly. ‘Ya know that don’t ya?’ Joe tried to swallow, but couldn’t. He stared back at the man silently. Clem’s eyes narrowed. ‘I reckon I should,’ he said in a low voice. ‘But I got other plans fer ya.’ He spat into the boy’s face and began to trace a line with the knife from his throat up along his cheekbone towards his hairline. Joe felt his blood go cold at the cold touch of the metal and he closed his eyes involuntarily.
‘What’s the matter?’ asked Clem. ‘Scared are ya?’ He laughed again. ‘Never ya mind youngster, I ain’t killing ya. Not unless ya force me too.’ He stared into Joe’s eyes. ‘I reckon it’d be a shame ta kill ya though. Pretty young fellar like you has gotta fetch a good price down in Mexico.’ He felt Joe’s arm. ‘Healthy,’ he said. ‘Some big ranchero owner is gonna love having you working fer him. Young and strong like ya is.’ He drew back from the frightened youngster. ‘Just ya behave yaself and ya’ll make it down there in one piece,’ he said.
Joe felt his heart begin to beat rapidly as he leant back towards the tree behind him and away from the man. ‘You’ll never make it that far with me,’ he said. ‘My Pa will hunt you down.’
‘Mebbe,’ said Clem in an easy voice. ‘But iffen he does then we’ll just kill ya. Don’t make no difference ta me either way.’
Joe looked up at Clem as he stood up and began to walk away and his heart sank as he realised that the man spoke the truth. He would kill Joe in the blink of an eye. Joe resolved not to provoke him to want to do it. He shivered as he realised that the sun was going down. It promised to be a cold night.
‘It ain’t no use Pa,’ said Hoss mournfully as he scanned the rocks in front of them. ‘They knew what they was doing all right when they headed up there. We’ve been up and down this part six times and there ain’t no way we can track em on them rocks.’
Ben slammed his fist into his hand in sheer frustration. ‘Well we’ll just have to try again,’ he said. ‘We have no other choice.’
Adam shook his head. ‘Yes we do,’ he said. ‘They said they were headed for California didn’t they? All we need to do is head west and we’ll catch them eventually. Those wagons of their’s can only go a couple of ways through the mountains after all.’
Ben looked at him thoughtfully. ‘True,’ he said. ‘All right, we’ll head west. Adam, you’d better stay back at the house and leave this to Hoss and myself. You’re not up to it yet.’
‘I’m coming,’ said Adam in a low voice.
‘No,’ said his father. ‘You’re going back to ….’
‘I’m coming Pa,’ repeated Adam in a determined tone. He stared at his father unblinking.
Ben gave a short nod. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘Let’s ride.’
Ike dragged Joe to his feet roughly. ‘Come on Cartwright,’ he said. ‘Time ta get going.’ He pushed him towards the horse and Joe stumbled and almost fell. ‘Hurry up,’ said Ike and pushed him again.
Joe turned to face the man, determined to speak his mind. ‘I …. I gotta go,’ he said with a tinge of embarrassment. He had no intention of spending the day with the discomfort he presently felt.
Ike gave a short laugh. ‘Ya don’t say?’ he said. ‘Tough.’ He made to push Joe again, but the youngster stepped sideways. Ike frowned at him and grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him roughly. ‘I said ta hurry up,’ said Ike.
Joe put his head down in a resigned fashion and turned towards the horse, but as he did so he heard a voice behind them. ‘Untie his hands and let him go,’ said Clem. ‘I told ya we need him healthy.’
Ike gave Joe a dark look and began to untie the rope while Clem covered them with his gun. Joe felt the blood pounding back into his hands as his bonds were loosened and he tried to move slowly to give himself more time before they were tied again. ‘Hurry up,’ said Ike behind him and pushed him forward towards the tree where he’d been tied the night before. Joe did as he needed to and no sooner had he finished than his hands were tied again behind him and he was shoved back towards the horse.
‘Don’t think we’re gonna waste time like that every time ya want us to,’ said Ike as he pushed him up onto the horse and climbed up behind him. ‘We ain’t got time fer babying ya all the way.’ He hit Joe on the side of the head as they rode out of the camp.
By that afternoon, Joe ached all over from trying to keep upright in the saddle without his hands to steady him. He was mighty glad when they finally made camp for the night, even if it meant being tied to a tree again. At least they were feeding him and giving him water, he reasoned.
As he sat and watched the Hoads that night he was struck by the resemblance between them. It was obvious that they were father and sons as they all shared the same weak chin, the same watery blue eyes and the same thinning hair …. Not to mention the unkempt look they all had. Their clothes were tattered and even torn in some places and all of them were barefoot. He sensed them sizing up his own appearance even as he scrutinized them and looked away so as not to appear obvious about it.
As if they were reading his mind, Zac suddenly spoke. ‘Mighty fine boots ya got there young Cartwright,’ he said. ‘I reckon they might just fit me. What do ya reckon Pa?’
Clem shrugged. ‘Reckon so,’ he said.
‘I reckon I might jest have em then,’ said Zac with a sneer. ‘Ain’t much use ta you any more after all is they Cartwright?’ Joe said nothing, but stared over his shoulder rather than look at the man.
‘How come you get em?’ asked Ike. ‘I reckon I should have em!’
‘Look at em,’ said Zac as he pulled one off Joe’s foot. They ain’t near big enough fer you! Ya can have something else.’
Ike scrunched over to Joe and fingered his shirt. ‘Reckon this’ll do me,’ he said, his eyes glinting. Joe tried to move away from the man, but found it impossible to do so given the way he was tied up. ‘Reckon I’ll jest relieve ya of that too,’ said Ike with a grin. ‘You cover him Zac while I get it off him.’ He reached around and untied Joe’s hands. ‘Get it off Cartwright,’ he said. Joe hesitated. ‘I said get it off,’ he repeated. ‘Unless ya want me ta rip it off ya!’
Joe took his shirt off slowly, shivering as the cold night air hit his naked skin. ‘Here ya go,’ said Ike with a toothless grin. ‘Ya can have this one!’ He flung Joe his own tattered shirt as he put on the youngster’s shirt in place of it. Joe picked it up with distaste, flinching at the smell of it. ‘What’s the matter?’ asked Ike. ‘Not good enough fer ya?’
Ya’ll have ta get used ta not having any of them fancy duds where ya’re going,’ said Zac as he pulled off Joe’s other boot as well as his socks. ‘Ya won’t have any need fer em down where you’ll be.’
Ike pushed Joe forward to tied his hands behind him and around the tree again. ‘There,’ he said happily when he’d finished. ‘Don’t I look mighty fine in this here shirt?’
Clem looked over at his boys. ‘We may as well get his pants while we’re at it too,’ he said.
Ike looked at the youngster. ‘They won’t fit any of us Pa,’ he said. ‘He’s too small.’
Clem stroked his chin as he gave Joe a long and slow appraising stare that made the boy squirm with embarrassment. ‘True,’ he acknowledged. ‘But we could sell em along the way.’ He reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a rough-looking pair of dirty pants. ‘Git these on him.’
‘Ya heard him,’ said Zac. ‘Help me git them duds off him.’ He and Ike pulled Joe’s pants off in spite of the boy’s kicking and handed them to their father. Joe had never felt more embarrassed in his whole life, lying there in his long-john bottoms as they all looked at him. ‘How bout this fancy underwear?’ asked Zac. ‘Reckon we can sell it too?’
‘Sure,’ said Clem. ‘Hand it over.’ Zac began to pull the long johns off Joe, but Joe kicked out at him and caught him square in the stomach with his foot. Zac gave a grunt. ‘Why ya dirty little …’ he began and reached over and punched Joe hard in the stomach. While Joe was recovering his breath, the two brothers pulled the long johns off him and replaced them with the dirty pants.
‘What’s the matter young Cartwright?’ asked Clem with a sneer as he looked at the obviously embarrassed boy. ‘Don’t like getting changed in front of us? Quite a come-down fer a fancy kid like you ain’t it?’ He fingered the clothing in his hands. ‘We should get quite a bit fer fancy stuff like this,’ he said as he put them into his saddlebag. ‘Pity he weren’t wearing a jacket as well.’
‘We can sell his gun and holster too Pa,’ said Ike as he buttoned up Joe’s shirt on his own body. ‘They should bring in a lot.’
‘We’ll keep the gun,’ said Clem. ‘The holster we can git rid of.’ He grinned at Joe and cupped the boy’s chin in his hand as he stared into his eyes. ‘Seems like we can make quite a bit outta of ya Cartwright don’t it?’ he said. ‘Once we get a good price fer you as well we’ll be doing real fine fer a while.’
‘How much ya reckon we’ll git Pa?’ asked Zac with shining eyes.
‘Ain’t sure,’ replied his father. ‘He’s quality though. Someone’ll be prepared ta spend up big on him.’ He pushed Joe’s face away from him. ‘Yes sir,’ he said in a low voice. ‘We sure is mighty lucky that it was a healthy pretty young fellar like you that did the murdering that’s fer sure! We’re gonna make our fortune on all this!’
Grandma Hoad straightened up and stretched her back. ‘Willow!’ she called. ‘Git over here and clean up this mess!’
Willow walked over and began to clean up the remains of the supper they had all just finished. As she scraped the plates she looked at her grandmother out of the corner of her eye. ‘You okay Grandma?’ she asked.
‘Cause I’m all right!’ said the old woman testily. ‘Jest tired is all! Get that work done so we can all bed down fer the night.’ She looked over to where Bud and the others were looking after the horses. ‘Seems that the horses is a mite jumpy tonight,’ she observed.’ I wonder why.’
Willow opened her mouth to speak, but shut it again as she noticed a movement behind her grandmother. Her eyes widened as Ben Cartwright stepped out from the bushes, followed by Adam and Hoss. ‘Mr Cartwright!’ she exclaimed. ‘What’re you all doing here?’
Ben Cartwright cocked his gun in the direction of the men. ‘Get over here!’ he shouted. ‘Now!’
Willow took a step forward. ‘What’s the matter?’ she asked as the men obeyed and came to stand next to the two women.
Ben ignored her and turned to face Grandma Hoad. ‘Where’s the rest of them?’ he asked. ‘Where’s your brother-in-law and the rest of his sons?’
Grandma Hoad’s eyes narrowed. ‘Now jest ya wait right there!’ she said testily. ‘Who gives ya the right ta come in here with ya guns drawn on us I’d like ta know?’
‘Answer my question!’ demanded Ben. ‘Where are they?’
Grandma Hoad said nothing, but merely stared at the Cartwrights. ‘That’s our business,’ she said haughtily. ‘Ain’t nothing ta do with ya!’
‘Nothing to do with us?’ exploded Ben. ‘I want to know where my son is and I want to know now!’ he shouted. ‘Now where is that brother-in-law of yours and what has he done with my son?’
Willow took a step forward, but Grandma Hoad held onto her arm. ‘We don’t know nothing bout your son,’ she said firmly. ‘Seems like ya’re looking in the wrong place.’
Hoss stepped forward. ‘You tell me where my little brother is or I’ll blow your heads clean off!’ he said to the group in general. ‘Where is he?’
‘Little Joe?’ asked Willow. ‘Is he missing?’
Ben hesitated and turned to the girl. She looked back at him with wide eyes that spoke volumes. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Joseph is missing. We aim to find him ….’ He looked around the camp. ‘He isn’t here?’
‘No,’ said Willow. ‘We don’t know anything bout where he might be. Honest Mr Cartwright … we ain’t seen him.’
Ben’s shoulders sagged. The only thing keeping him going during the past few days had been the thought that they would find Joseph alive with the Hoads and now it seemed that it wasn’t to be. At that moment he wondered if he would ever see his son alive again and the thought all but consumed him with grief.
Adam watched as his father seemed to crumple before his eyes. ‘Pa?’ he said as he laid a hand on the man’s shoulder. ‘Pa we have to find out where the others went.’
Ben nodded and tried to pull himself together. ‘Yes,’ he said faintly.
Adam waited for a moment and then stepped forward. ‘You!’ he said to Bud. ‘Where are they? Where have they gone?’ Bud merely stared at him without saying a word. ‘Adam turned to the next man. ‘How about you?’ he asked. ‘Are you going to tell me?’
‘No one’s gonna tell ya,’ interrupted Grandma Hoad. ‘I done told ya before … ya ain’t got any right ta be here holding guns on us like this.’ She glared at the Cartwrights. ‘Now why don’t ya all jest git!’ she snarled. ‘There ain’t no one here’s gonna tell ya nothing!’
Willow stepped forward. ‘They was headed fer Mexico,’ she said in a low voice.
Grandma Hoad turned on her grand daughter and slapped her hard across the face. ‘You shut up!’ she yelled. ‘What’d ya wanna go and say that fer?’
Willow held her hand up to her cheek. ‘Little Joe helped me Grandma!’ she declared. ‘He helped me when he didn’t haveta! I aim ta help him iffen I can!’
Ben looked at the girl gratefully. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘Thank you very much Willow.’ He glanced at the others and then back to her again. ‘We could take you with us if you want,’ he offered. ‘You don’t have to stay here.’
Willow shook her head and held out her hand to Bud who stepped forward to take it. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I belong here with my kin.’
Ben nodded as he turned away. ‘Come on boys,’ he said. ‘We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.
The Hoads watched as the Cartwrights mounted up and rode away. Willow gave her grandmother a defiant look and took a step closer to Bud. ‘I done what I hadta do grandma,’ she said.
Grandma Hoad hesitated a moment before speaking. ‘I guess ya did girl,’ she said. ‘I guess ya did.’
The days were all beginning to blend into one as far as Joe was concerned. Every one followed the same routine as he was dragged ever closer to the border and he felt himself gradually losing control of his will to appear strong in front of the Hoads and their daily torment of him. It was all becoming too much for him and he longed for nothing more than to be able to break down in front of them and sob out his despair. Yet somehow he held himself together and suffered in silence.
He was fed adequately and given enough water, but beyond his personal needs the Hoads left him to himself and hardly ever spoke to him … apart from the taunting that they inflicted upon him each night as they sat around the fireplace. They seemed to take great delight in the fact that he was gradually looking more and more unkempt as the days passed. The clothing he’d been forced to wear was ill fitting and he longed to be able to have a wash.
‘Ya stink ya know Cartwright,’ said Ike one night. ‘Not really the pretty fellar ya used ta be is ya?’ Joe forced himself ta say nothing to the man, as he had realised that to answer them back only riled them even more. He longed to tell them that they stank as well, but knew that he’d pay for it if he did.
‘We’ll be reaching the border sometime tomorra,’ said Clem thoughtfully. ‘Reckon we can take it a bit easier then.’
‘Where ya reckon on getting rid of him Pa?’ asked Zac. ‘How much more do ya reckon we haveta put up with him?’
‘Not long,’ answered Clem. ‘Once we’re over the border it don’t much matter.’
‘Still reckon we shoulda jest kilt him and be done with it,’ said Ike as he glared at Joe. ‘He ain’t worth the trouble.’
‘You’ll do as I say!’ said Clem angrily. ‘It ain’t that he’s worth the trouble,’ he spat. ‘Cause we all know that he ain’t.’ He gave Joe a baleful look. ‘He’ll wish we done kilt him fore long and that’s what counts.’ He smiled evilly. ‘That and the fact that his daddy won’t ever know what done happened ta him.’
‘My Pa will so know!’ said Joe in spite of himself. ‘It doesn’t mater how far into Mexico we go … my Pa won’t rest till he’s found me and then he’ll come after you!’
Clem leant forward and cupped Joe’s chin in his hand as he bent close to him. ‘You shut up!’ he said. ‘Did anyone tell you ta speak boy?’ Joe stared into the man’s evil eyes and said nothing. Clem squeezed Joe’s chin and tilted his head backwards. ‘I asked ya a question boy!’ he said angrily. ‘Did anyone tell ya ta speak?’
Joe flinched as the man’s grip got tighter and his head was tilted even further back. He felt as if his neck would snap and he began to find it hard to breathe. In a panic, he shook his head firmly. ‘What was that?’ asked Clem. ‘No,’ croaked Joe softly.
Clem let go of the youngster. ‘Then don’t speak until ya told to!’ he said. He drew back his hand and slapped Joe hard across the face and then spat in his direction. ‘Uppity,’ he said. ‘That’s all ya is Cartwright. Downright uppity boy!’ He gave a short chuckle. ‘Well we’ll jest see how uppity ya stay after we’s finished with ya, won’t we?’ He stood up and stretched lazily. ‘You take first watch tonight Ike. We need ta get some sleep so’s we can git going early in the morning. I aim ta get over that border by noon.’ He looked down at Joe. ‘Then we’ll see some fun won’t we pretty boy?’ he said.
‘This is it,’ said Clem as he looked at the town in the distance. ‘La Joyita. We’s in Mexico now fer sure.’ He glanced over at Joe who was seated in front of Ike on his horse with his hands tied behind his back as usual. ‘Reckon we can afford ta go a bit slower now,’ he said and jerked his thumb at Ike. Joe immediately gave Joe a huge push and he slid from the saddle and hit the ground with a hard thud. Without the use of his hands to break his fall he felt dazed for a few moments … enough time for Ike to get down and tie him to the saddle horn with a long rope.
‘About time,’ said Ike as he got back onto his horse and looked down at Joe who was still recovering on the ground from his fall. ‘I was sick of riding with the likes of ya. Git up or I’ll be dragging ya from here.’ Joe got to his feet as quickly as he could, sure that the man meant what he said. Without hesitation Ike turned his horse and began to follow his father and brother with Joe having no choice but to walk behind.
‘Not so uppity now, eh Cartwright?’ Clem called over his shoulder. ‘Beginning ta wish we done kilt ya back there eh?’ Joe put his head down and refused to look at the man. ‘Suit yaself,’ said Clem with a shrug. ‘We’ll be shed of ya soon enough.’
He stopped as they came close to the town. ‘Ike you wait here,’ instructed his father. ‘Zac and me will get in there and make some money off these things of pretty boy’s and scout around ta see what our prospects might be. I want ya ta make sure that he don’t cause no trouble while ya wait.’
Ike gave Joe a hard look. ‘Don’t ya worry Pa,’ he said as he jerked on the rope. ‘He won’t give no trouble nohow. I’ll see ta it.’ He jerked on the rope again and Joe almost lost his balance. ‘Steady Cartwright,’ said Ike in an easy voice. ‘Ya don’t wanna go and hurt yaself do ya?’ He slid down from the saddle as his father and brother rode off. ‘Now let’s git ya settled eh?’ He dragged Joe over to a nearby tree and threw the rope over a branch before pulling on it. Joe’s hands, which were still tied behind his back, were raised up until his shoulders began to ache and as Ike noticed his uncomfortable position he smiled and began to tie off the rope. ‘That’ll hold ya,’ he said in the same easy tone.
Ike sat down in the shade and began to help himself to a drink of water. ‘Guess ya’d like some of this eh Cartwright?’ he asked in between swallows. Joe’s mouth was indeed as parched as he could ever remember, but he refused to answer the man. In spite of himself his eyes watched the man drinking and a low groan escaped from him before he could stop it. Ike smirked at him. ‘What’s that Cartwright?’ he asked. ‘Did ya say something?’ He took another swallow and then put the stopper on the canteen. ‘No? Well I think I might jest have a bit of a rest while we wait eh? Make myself comfortable so ta speak.’ He gave Joe a grin and leant back against a tree while he watched him. ‘Pity ya can’t do the same, ain’t it pretty boy?’
Joe said nothing, but stared at the ground in front of him in order to avoid looking at the man. His arms and shoulders ached and he prayed that the others wouldn’t take too long as he didn’t know how long he could maintain his position before he began to tire of standing upright. It wasn’t long before he realised that his legs were beginning to give way and he began to sag in spite of the rope that held him. As he sank lower the weight of his body began to rest more heavily on his shoulders and he gave a small groan in spite of himself. Instantly Ike sat up again. ‘Ya say something Cartwright?’ he asked with a huge smile on his face. When Joe didn’t respond he got up and walked over to him. ‘I asked if ya said something?’ he yelled into Joe’s face. ‘Answer me!’ Joe looked at Ike’s feet in front of him and didn’t answer. Suddenly his head was jerked up and he was forced to stare straight into the man’s eyes. ‘I said ta answer me!’ Ike yelled again,’ spraying spittle all over Joe’s face.
Joe flinched involuntarily. Ike gave him a grin and drew back his fist before punching him full in the stomach. Joe gave a gasp and closed his eyes as the force of the blow hit him and knocked the breath out of him momentarily. ‘Well?’ asked Ike again.
‘No,’ said Joe in a low voice.
Ike let go of his head. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘Make sure ya don’t disturb me again then, ya hear?’ He walked over and sat down under the tree again and tilted his hat back as he stared at Joe. ‘You and me’s gonna get on real fine Cartwright,’ he said. ‘Long as ya remember ta mind ya place. Yes sir … we’s gonna get on real fine.’ Joe stared at the ground and prayed silently for the others to return.
‘What’s he doin tied up like that fer?’ asked Clem as he dismounted from his horse.
Ike sprang to his feet immediately. ‘I’m sorry Pa,’ he said. ‘But he gave me a hard time,’ he lied. ‘It was the only way I could keep him quiet. I know that ya don’t want him damaged so I’ll cut him down now that yer both back.’
Clem waved him away. ‘Don’t matter now,’ he said gruffly.
Ike looked confused. ‘What do ya mean Pa? Ain’t we gonna sell him here?’
‘I reckon not,’ said Clem as he sat down and took a drink from his canteen.
‘We got run outta town,’ said Zac with a dark look at Joe. ‘It was all we could do ta git some money fer his things. Once Pa and me started ta ask round town bout offloading him,’ he jerked a thumb in Joe’s direction. ‘Things got ugly.’
‘How do ya mean .. ugly?’ asked Ike.
‘Some smart mouthed Mexican lawman warned us outta town,’ said Clem. ‘Reckoned we had no business being trying ta drum up a sale fer pretty boy over here.’ He glared at Joe. ‘Reckon we’s gonna do no good here now.’
Zac sat down next to his father ‘What we gonna do now Pa?’ he asked. Joe listened with fear in his heart as the two sons waited for their father’s reply. He knew full well that without the possibility of a sale his life was worth very little to them.
Clem stroked his chin. ‘I reckon we’d best be heading back towards California,’ he said. ‘Ain’t no use staying round here. We could head up through Escondido and catch up with ya aunt Aggie and the others.’
‘What about Cartwright?’ asked Ike.
‘I reckon they would caught up with em long before we get there,’ answered his father. ‘They’s got nothing ta go on iffen they have, so things should be fine once we get there. They’ll be long gone.’ He glanced at Joe again. ‘Reckon they’s gone back home ta mourn their dead.’
Zac gave a chuckle. ‘Reckon they’ll be right then,’ he said as he drew his knife and ran his finger along the edge of it in a way that made Joe’s blood run cold. ‘Ya want me ta do it Pa?’
Clem thought for a minute. ‘Nope,’ he said finally. ‘We done dragged him this far … I reckon we should git paid back fer our trouble fore we git rid of him.’ He jerked his thumb in Ike’s direction. ‘Cut him loose,’ he instructed.
‘How come?’ asked Ike as he did as his father bid. He watched casually as Joe hit the ground with a thud as the rope loosened from the branch above. ‘What ya got in mind Pa?’
Clem gave a chuckle. ‘I reckon he can jest earn his keep round here,’ he said. ‘After all, we’ve been feeding him fer a while now and he ain’t done nothing ta earn it.’ He leant forward and stared at Joe as he lay on the ground trying to ease some feeling back into his arms and shoulders. ‘Have ya pretty boy?’ he asked. ‘I reckon we got the right ta git some work outta him fore we get rid of him, don’t ya agree boys?’
‘Sure do,’ said Zac with a sneer and gave Joe a kick. ‘Get up!’ he said. Joe tried to struggle to his feet, but couldn’t. ‘I said ta get up!’ shouted Zac. ‘Do ya hear me Cartwright? Either ya get up or we can end it right here … your choice.’ Joe tried again and managed to make it to his knees this time.
‘Tie him to the tree with a long rope,’ said Clem in an easy voice. ‘Make sure his hands is untied so that he can work though.’ He watched as Zac pulled Joe to his feet and untied his hands. Joe groaned softly as the blood rushed back into them for the first time in ages and he closed his eyes as the pain of it hit him. He felt his head pulled back again and the rope pulled tight around his neck as Zac fastened the other end to the tree behind him.
‘Now,’ said Clem with a contented sigh. ‘Those horses need watering boy. Git to it.’ Joe looked at the man and didn’t move. Clem fingered the gun that was in his holster. ‘Suit yaself,’ he said. ‘Tend ta the horses or we’ll finish it now boy. It’s all the same ta me.’
Joe swallowed as he looked into the man’s pale eyes, not for one minute doubting that he meant exactly what he said. If Joe hesitated, then he’d shoot him right here and now and probably leave his body for the buzzards to clean up after they’d gone. With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach and in his heart he turned towards the horses.
Joe stumbled for the tenth time that morning and quickly right himself again with an effort. He had to run for several steps to keep up each time it happened and he reasoned that in doing so he was wasting energy that he couldn’t afford to … so he kept his eyes on his feet and watched carefully in order to minimize such occurrences.
It had been like this for the past two days and he was beginning to wonder just how long it would be before his legs refused to obey his mind when he told them to keep moving. He could slowly feel the will to keep going ebbing away from him, and it was only the fact that he knew that the Hoads were wanting him to give up so that they could shoot him that kept him going. He found himself counting his steps in order to concentrate on them. It was the only way he could hope to keep going … one step at a time.
Joe felt another jerk on the rope that was tied around his neck and heard an exclamation from in front. ‘Ya’d better keep up pretty boy,’ said Ike as he turned in his saddle and stared down at Joe. ‘We ain’t got all day ta wait fer you!’ He grinned down at the youngster behind him. ‘Iffen ya can’t keep up we can always leave ya here ya know.’ He looked around at the desolate landscape. ‘Yes sir,’ he mused happily. ‘I reckon ya’d last bout two hours out here by yaself. ‘What do ya reckon Zac?’
Zac laughed. ‘I’d give him one,’ he said. ‘At the most.’ He took a sip of water from his canteen. ‘Want a drink Cartwright?’ he asked.
Joe continued to look at the ground, knowing full well the game they were playing. It was one that they repeated over and over with him at least ten times a day and never seemed to tire of it. If he answered yes they’d refuse and if he answered no they’d laugh and say that was fine. Either way they had no intention of giving him a drink. If he refused to answer they’d kick him until he did and then start over again. So he responded in the only way he could and still maintain what little dignity he still had left. ‘Go to hell,’ he croaked between his parched lips.
Both Hoads laughed loudly at his remark as they always did. ‘Suit yaself,’ said Zac gleefully. ‘Reckon you’ll be there before us though.’ He turned to his father who was scanning the distance with his hand up to shield his eyes. ‘How much further Pa?’ he asked. ‘Can ya see the mountains yet?’
Clem pointed. ‘Over there,’ he said. ‘We won’t make it before sundown, so I reckon we may as well camp here fer the night.’
‘Hear that Cartwright?’ asked Ike as he slid down from the saddle. ‘Time fer ya ta go ta work. See to them horses first.’ He crossed his arms and watched as Joe took hold of the two horses and led them into the shade. ‘Sure is good ta have help round here ain’t it Zac?’ he said. ‘Make’s life more pleasant so ta speak don’t it?’
‘Sure do,’ said Zac with a grin. ‘Hurry up Cartwright. Git a fire going fore it gets dark.’
As Joe stooped to gather some twigs into his arms he surveyed the country around him, looking for any possible means of escape, but with a sinking heart he realised that the Hoads had once again picked a position that would make it very difficult to even contemplate. It was only for short periods of time such as this that the rope around his neck was loosened enough for him to even move around as during the day he had no choice but to follow the horses and all night he was tied to a tree. For a couple of hours each evening he worked for the Hoads in setting up their camp and if they felt generous enough then got to eat and drink their leftovers before being tied up again.
As he worked, Joe wondered where his family was right at that moment. He wondered if, as the Hoads had implied, had given up on him and considered him dead. Clem had said that given time Joe would indeed wish he was and he wondered how much longer it would take before that were true. He couldn’t see himself lasting much longer, as his body was really feeling the effects of too little to eat and drink and the abuse that he’d been forced to endure day after day. The only thought that kept him going was if his family were still out there searching for him. Please God! he prayed silently as he began to build up a fire. If they’re coming for me make it quick … I can’t hold out much longer God … make them come quick or make it end for me soon.
‘Pa it’s no use,’ said Adam as he pulled his horse up beside his father’s. ‘We all know that they could have taken a dozen routes into Mexico. We could be searching down here for weeks.’
Ben turned sharply. ‘I don’t care if we’re searching for years!’ he retorted. ‘I’ll stay down here for the rest of my life if I have to in order to get Joseph back from those …. those ….’ words failed him and he fell silent.
Adam gave Hoss a frustrated look. ‘That’s not what I meant Pa,’ he said softly. ‘You know both feel the same as you do. What I meant was that it might be better to go back and send out wires from Virginia City to all the lawmen in these parts to watch out for them. It would be quicker than riding from one town to another the way we’ve been doing.’
Ben stroked his chin as he thought. ‘You might be right,’ he said. ‘But I’m not turning back. We’ll send the wires from a town down here and then keep going.’
Adam shrugged his shoulders at Hoss. ‘All right Pa,’ he said. ‘Anything you say.’
Hoss scanned the area in front of them. ‘La Joyita is up ahead,’ he said. ‘I reckon it’ll be big enough fer a telegraph office.’
‘Then La Joyita it is,’ said Ben as he spurred his horse forward. ‘Hurry up boys.’
As they rode into the town people stopped and stared at them. Ben reasoned that visitors didn’t come through this small community very often and so they must have been a bit of a novelty. He stopped outside a small telegraph office and dismounted. ‘We’ll send the wires first,’ he said. ‘And then we’ll keep going west.’ He strode over to the door and was about to go through it when he heard an exclamation behind him.
‘Pa!’ shouted Adam. ‘Quick … over here!’
Ben walked quickly back to join his two sons who were staring into a window of a shop next to the telegraph office. ‘’What is it?’ he asked.
‘Look,’ said Adam as he pointed to the window. ‘That’s Joe’s holster. See? There’s his initials on it.’
Ben looked and his heart lifted as he saw that it was indeed Joseph’s holster. He practically ran through the narrow doorway and over to the window and pulled it out.
‘Please senor!’ said a voice behind him. ‘Can I help you?’
Ben turned sharply. ‘Where did you get this?’ he asked.
The man behind the counter put up his hands. ‘Good quality,’ he said with a smile. ‘You like?’
Ben strode forward and grabbed the man by the collar. ‘I said where did you get this?’ he shouted. ‘Answer me!’
The man tried to free himself. ‘Please senor!’ he said. ‘I do not know what you mean. It is for sale. You like?’
Ben shook him. ‘Answer me!’ he shouted. ‘Answer me or I’ll ….’
‘That will do,’ said a voice behind them and the three Cartwrights turned to see a man standing behind them pointing a gun directly at them. ‘I am the law here,’ he said. ‘What is going on senor?’
‘I want to know where he got this holster,’ said Ben, loosening his grip on the man.
The man with the gun studied the holster in Ben’s hand and then turned to the shopkeeper and spoke to him at length in Spanish before turning back to the Cartwrights. ‘He says that it was sold to him by a drifter,’ he said.
‘Who?’ asked Ben sharply as he turned back to the man and shook him again. ‘Tell me!’
The lawman put his gun away. ‘Perhaps I can be of service to you,’ he said. ‘I know the men he is speaking of. I ran them out of our town three days ago.’
‘How many were there?’ asked Adam, stepping forward eagerly.
Ben frowned. ‘Two?’ he asked. ‘Are you sure there were only two of them?’
‘Si senor,’ replied the Sheriff. ‘However I am convinced that there were more.’
‘What makes you say that?’ asked Ben.
‘They were causing trouble,’ said the Sheriff obliquely. ‘They were asking around town for the best way to sell their property.’
‘What’s that got to do with it?’ asked Ben impatiently. ‘We need to know how many of them there were!’
The Sheriff studied him for a moment before replying. ‘May I ask why?’ he asked.
Ben sighed. ‘They have my son,’ he said. ‘I have reason to believe that they have kidnapped him.’
The sheriff nodded his head. ‘I see senor,’ he said. ‘And would your son be a young man?’
‘Yes,’ said Ben. ‘Did you see him?’
The sheriff shook his head. ‘No senor,’ he said. ‘But I am sure that he was alive at the time the men were here. I believe that there would have been another in their party outside of town holding the young man in question.’
‘What makes ya say that?’ asked Hoss eagerly.
‘They were asking about selling a young man,’ continued the sheriff. ‘That is why I ran them out of town. We do not trade in human beings here in our town.’
Ben felt his heart lurch. ‘Selling him?’ he asked. ‘Are you sure that’s what they said?’
‘Si,’ answered the man. ‘They were after selling him senor.’
‘And you did nothing to find out about where he might be?’ asked Adam, his eyes blazing.
The sheriff shrugged. ‘We have a peaceful town here,’ he said. ‘We do not become involved in such things.’
Ben felt the adrenaline draining out of him. ‘Do you know which direction they took?’ he asked.
The sheriff nodded. ‘I rode out and checked their tracks after they had left,’ he said. ‘To be sure that they had really gone. He pointed west. ‘Three riders and one walking to the west.’
‘One walking?’ asked Ben.
‘Si senor. If this young man is indeed your son I would advise you to hurry,’ replied the Sheriff. ‘At this time of year in the heat and on foot he will not get far.’
Adam glanced at his father knowing the thought that was in both their minds. Joe would get just about as far as the Hoads would let him … and given their probable state of mind that wouldn’t be too far at all. ‘Come on Pa,’ he said as he placed his hand on his father’s shoulder. ‘We need to move quickly.’
Ben nodded shortly. ‘Yes,’ he said as if in a daze. ‘We do.’ The three Cartwrights ran from the store without a backward glance.
Joe sat and watched the Hoads enjoying their supper, hoping that tonight there’d be some leftovers for him. His stomach growled loudly as he smelt the appetising stew that they were scoffing down and he tried to stop his mouth watering visibly. ‘Mighty nice,’ said Zac as he put another mouthful in. ‘Tasty … don’t ya reckon Ike?’
Zac grinned at his brother before glancing at Joe. ‘Sure is,’ he said. ‘Reckon I’ll have some more. Here Cartwright … fill up this plate again.’ He thrust the empty plate under Joe’s nose and smirked at him. ‘Hurry up,’ he said.
Joe stared at the metal plate for a moment before taking it. He willed his mind to think about something other than the food that he spooned onto it to stop himself from grabbing it and shovelling it down his own throat. He’d tried that yesterday and the Hoads were on him immediately, punching him until he lost consciousness. The bruises from his beating were still very painful and he didn’t care to have them added to, no matter how hungry he got. It took all his willpower to hand the plate back to Zac without touching its contents and it was only the thought that there was still more in the pot leftover that gave him the willpower to let go of it.
Ike licked his lips and then his fingers as he put down his own plate. ‘That was good,’ he said. ‘Ya want some more Pa?’
‘Nope,’ said Clem as he lay down and put his hat over his eyes. ‘I’m gonna get some shut-eye.’
‘Good idea,’ said Ike. ‘Come on Cartwright … bedtime fer ya too.’ He jerked on the rope that was tied around Joe’s neck and hauled him over to the nearest tree. Joe pulled back on the rope as he felt it tightened and Ike looked down at him angrily. ‘Move!’ he said.
‘I haven’t …’ Joe licked his lips and tried again. ‘I haven’t eaten yet,’ he said in a low voice.
‘Ain’t ya?’ asked Ike with a chuckle. ‘Well how bout that? Cartwright here says he ain’t eaten yet Zac.’
Zac grinned at his brother. ‘Really?’ he said. ‘Don’t see how he can eat when there ain’t nothing left.’
Joe stared at the man incredulously. ‘There is,’ he said. ‘There’s still some in the pot.’
Zac glanced into the half-full pot. ‘Nope,’ he said. ‘Can’t say there is. You see any stew in there Ike?’
‘Nope,’ said Ike with a chuckle. ‘Don’t see none. Reckon there ain’t any left fer ya tonight Cartwright. Pity ain’t it?’ Joe pulled on the rope and tried to crawl back towards the pot in desperation, but Ike was too quick for him and pulled him backwards with a force that nearly choked him. ‘You git back here!’ he said. ‘Iffen we say there ain’t any stew, then there ain’t!’ He pulled the rope even tighter and dragged Joe along the ground towards the tree where he tied him securely before standing over him and giving him a few swift kicks.
‘Well what do ya know!’ said Zac suddenly. ‘There is some stew left after all. Pity we didn’t see it afore you was all tied up, ain’t it Cartwright? Reckon ya missed out on it now.’ He laughed as he tilted his hat over his eyes and lay down. ‘Yes sir,’ he said. ‘Sure was mighty fine stew. Pity ya had ta miss out.’
Ike gave Joe another hard kick before walking over to join his brother. ‘Ya shoulda spoke up iffen ya was hungry pretty boy,’ he said. ‘Now ya’ll jest haveta go hungry till morning won’t ya?’ He lay down to sleep as well and covered himself with a blanket.
Joe sat propped up against the tree, beating his head in frustration against the trunk as he stared at the three men sleeping. He could still smell the stew in the pot and the thought of it nearly drove him crazy as he listened to his stomach rumble loudly again. He hadn’t eaten anything since early that morning and then it had only been a few scraps that Clem had thrown to him … and he knew that he was likely to get nothing the next morning either.
In spite of himself he lowered his head and felt the tears begin to trickle down his cheeks as he considered his position. In some ways he knew he was lucky to still be alive. It was five days since they had left Mexico and he wondered why the Hoads hadn’t killed him yet. The only reason he could think of was that they enjoyed their taunting of him too much. Yet on the other hand he didn’t know how much more of this he could stand. There was a part of him that willed them to get it over with, but something inside him just fought it and willed him to stay alive.
When he thought about it though, Joe didn’t know why he bothered. It had been weeks now and still there was no sign of his family. He knew in his head that it must be true … they weren’t coming for him or they would have been here by now. His heart was very heavy as he sat there and he wished that he had had the opportunity to say goodbye to his father and brothers before this was all over. He would have given anything at that moment to be held in his father’s arms just one more time before the end.
Joe closed his eyes and drifted off into a light sleep as he dreamed about his father. If he could have just told him how he felt about him before it was all over … an image of his Pa came into his mind and he smiled as he felt his light touch on his face. ‘Pa,’ he said softly in his sleep. ‘Pa.’
‘I’m here Joseph,’ said his father. ‘I’m right here with you boy.’
Joe sighed. ‘Pa,’ he repeated in a low voice and opened his eyes reluctantly, not wanting the dream to end. To his surprise he still saw the image of his father’s face in front of his and he smiled up at him as he felt the touch of his hand on his cheek. If only he could have felt it in reality, he thought. Just one more time. He knew exactly what he would say to the man. ‘I love you Pa,’ he whispered softly.
‘I know you do Joe,’ said his father. ‘I love you too son. Everything will be all right now.’
Joe smiled up at the image in front of him again and his heart lifted. He suddenly felt at peace for the first time since this whole nightmare had begun and he knew now that no matter what the Hoads did to him that he would be able to die in peace now … for he had said goodbye to his father and was ready. He closed his eyes again and gave a small sigh.
A sudden gunshot rang out in the air and he jerked his eyes open again. Another shot rang out and then another and he looked up at the image of his father’s face which still hovered above him. The face smiled at him and he felt the light touch of his father’s hand again. ‘It’s all right now Joseph,’ the image said.
Joe smiled again as he stared. His father’s image bent down and stroked his hair gently and it was at that moment that reality kicked in with a force that caused Joe’s mouth to drop open. The image in front of him was real … his father’s touch was real …. and around him ….. he looked around at the three bodies that lay still and then up at the faces of Adam and Hoss beside that of his father. ‘Pa?’ he said incredulously. ‘Are you real?’
‘Of course I’m real,’ said Ben as he gave the boy a hug. Joe felt the ropes around him being loosened and he slumped forward into his father’s arms as he felt himself freed from the tree. For a moment he allowed himself to be held in the tightest embrace and he laid his head on his Pa’s shoulder. As soon as he felt the man’s grip being loosened a little he drew himself back and began to crawl in desperation towards the pot on the fire. He reached over to it and drew it close, ignoring the burning sensation that shot up his arm from his hands.
‘Joseph!’ he heard his father call behind him. ‘Let go of that!’ He felt hands gripping him and pulling the pot away from him and he fought them desperately, trying his hardest to get closer to the pot and its contents.
‘Let me go!’ he croaked as he fought. He lashed out at the hands that held him and once more grasped the pot, spilling its contents all over the ground in the process. Without hesitation Joe put his mouth to the ground and began to lick up the spilt stew as it dripped out of the pot, watched in amazement by his father and brothers.
‘Joseph!’ shouted Ben after a moment. ‘Stop that!’
Joe ignored his father and continued to slurp up the meat, the juices running down his chin in the process. ‘I said to stop that!’ shouted Ben as he hauled his son away from the mess on the ground. ‘You’ll make yourself sick!’ Just as he said it, the hot food hit Joe’s empty stomach and he began to retch. Ben held the boy as the food made it’s way up again and spewed out onto the ground in front of him. His heart constricted as he held onto the heaving boy in his arms and he wondered just what tortures he had endured to make him act in this way. It was almost as if he were a starving animal!
Ben looked up at Adam and Hoss and noticed that they, like him, had tears in their eyes as they watched the boy in Ben’s arms. Ben stroked his son’s hair and drew him closer to him as he slowly stopped vomiting and struggling. ‘Its all right now Joe,’ he murmured softly as he tried to convince himself as well. ‘Everything will be all right now son … I promise you.’
‘Here,’ said Ben as he lifted Joe’s head off the ground and held the canteen to the boy’s parched lips. ‘Take it slowly now … like last time.’ Joe looked up into his father’s eyes as he drank slowly, ready to obey him to the letter about whatever he told him to do. At this point if his father had told him to jump off a cliff he would have done it, so grateful he was to have him there beside him. All night the man had sat with him and held onto him as Joe slept fitfully, giving him small sips of water like this and even small tastes of delicious food that had made Joe groan with pleasure. He couldn’t quite believe that his ordeal was over and he felt that if he took his eyes away from his father the man might just disappear … so he stared at him whenever he had his eyes open with an intensity that made Ben feel somewhat uneasy.
‘It’s all right Joseph,’ he said for the hundredth time since they’d entered the camp. ‘Everything is going to be all right now son.’ He gently brushed the curls off the youngster’s forehead and smiled down at him and Joe returned the smile.
‘Pa?’ Adam’s voice behind his father caused Ben to turn and look over his shoulder.
‘Yes?’ he asked.
‘It’s getting light,’ said Adam. ‘You want us to take care of the bodies now?’
‘Yes,’ replied Ben. ‘Thank you son.’
Joe looked over his father’s shoulder and looked at the three bodies on the other side of the fire. He stared back at his father and gripped onto his arm. ‘Are they dead?’ he whispered.
Ben smiled down at his son. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘They’re dead son. They can’t hurt you any more.’
Joe’s first thought at his father’s words was one of utter relief. He struggled to sit up, but Ben pushed him down again. ‘Keep still,’ he said. ‘Just lie down Joe.’
Joe continued to struggle to sit up. ‘No,’ he whispered. ‘I gotta … see … Pa.’ He managed to sit up and watched in silence as Hoss and Adam dragged one body after another away from the camp. As he watched the bodies of his tormentors being dragged past him he couldn’t help but remember what they’d said to him days before and he looked up at his father. ‘They said I’d be in hell before they was,’ he said softly. ‘They were wrong.’
Ben nodded. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Don’t think about it Joe. It’s all over with now son.’
Joe lay down again and stared up at his father’s face. ‘I don’t …. feel … I don’t feel like I thought I would,’ he said in a dazed voice. ‘I don’t feel ….’ He shook his head. ‘I don’t feel happy that they’re dead Pa. I don’t feel anything.’
Ben leant forward until he was close to the boy’s face. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘You’re still in shock Joe and you just need to take some time to come to terms with all of this son. Try not to think about them now. What you need to do is concentrate on getting well so that we can get you home.’
Joe nodded slowly. He knew his father was right. He desperately wanted to get home and as far away from this nightmare as he possible could … but there was a part of him that felt …. he didn’t know what he felt. All he knew was that there were three more men dead and he was the cause of it again. He sighed as he closed his eyes. ‘I’ll get well Pa,’ he said softly. ‘We need to get home now, don’t we?’
‘We do indeed Joseph,’ said Ben softly. ‘We do indeed son.’
‘His shoulders and burnt hands are much better today,’ said Dr Paul Martin as he got to the bottom of the stairs. ‘He told me that he’s not feeling much pain at all in them now.’
‘I’m surprised you got him to say that much,’ said Ben with a sigh. ‘It’s more than I’ve been able to get out of him.’
Paul shrugged. ‘Sometimes it’s easier to talk to outsiders than your own family,’ he said. ‘Give him time Ben. He’ll come around eventually.’
‘I certainly hope you’re right,’ replied Ben as he stared into the fireplace. ‘We’ve been home for nearly a week now and he’s still just like he was when he first found him.’ He looked over at his friend. ‘I know in spite of it all that he blames himself for everything that’s happened.’
‘But that’s just crazy,’ said Paul. ‘How could he possibly be to blame for the Hoads’ actions. It wasn’t as if he wanted them to kidnap him was it?’
Ben shook his head. ‘No, of course not. But he does blame himself for them being killed. He thinks that if he hadn’t killed Jeb and Dodie in the first place then none of the rest of it would have happened either. Even though a part of him wanted Clem and his sons dead another part of him didn’t want any more killing.’
‘The Hoads are to blame for all of this Ben. They had their fate in their own hands all along.’
‘I know that,’ replied Ben. ‘Of course you’re right. I just wish that Joe would come to the same conclusion.’
Paul patted his friend’s shoulder. ‘Just be gentle with him,’ he said. ‘He’s young Ben and he’ll bounce back in time.’
Ben nodded. ‘I certainly hope so. Thank you Paul.’ He went back to staring into the fireplace as the doctor shut the front door behind him and thought about their trip back to The Ponderosa. Out of necessity it had been a slow and laborious journey, as Joseph hadn’t really been strong enough to go at any great pace. Along the way Ben had gradually come to the realization that what he had told Paul was true. All the killing over the past weeks had weighed heavily upon his son and he had ended up taking the burden of it onto his own young shoulders.
In a way Ben could understand why the boy was feeling as he was. It was hard to have so much killing go on around you and not be affected by it in some way, especially at Joe’s age. Ben wasn’t quite sure how to help his son overcome it. Lord knows that he’d tried during the last couple of weeks, but Joe just didn’t seem to want to come out of the depression that he seemed to have locked himself into over it all. Ben sighed and looked at the stairs. It was time to try again.
Wearily he climbed them and headed for his son’s room. As he had expected, Joe was sitting next to the open window staring out at the sky outside and as his father entered the room he didn’t even bother to turn his head. ‘Joe?’ said Ben as he sat down next to his son. ‘Doc Martin’s gone now. He said that he’s quite pleased with you.’ Joe nodded his head and said nothing. ‘How about coming downstairs for a while?’ said Ben. ‘Adam is working with that new batch of horses and you could watch for a while.’
Joe shook his head. ‘Not today Pa,’ he said. ‘I really don’t feel much like it.’
Ben bit his lip. ‘Well how about coming for a ride with me?’ he asked. ‘I could do with some fresh air I’d like the company.’
Joe shook his head again. ‘If you don’t mind Pa, I’d rather not,’ he said. ‘I just feel like resting for a while.’
‘You’ve been resting a lot up here in your room Joe,’ said his father. ‘I know that you needed to when we first got home, but I think it’s time you started to come downstairs now.’ He watched his son’s face intently, but the boy didn’t react to his words at all. ‘You need to get out of this room son,’ he said as he put his hand on Joe’s shoulder.
Joe looked at his father. ‘Not yet Pa,’ he said. ‘I really don’t want to.’
‘Joe you can’t hide up here forever.’
‘I’m not hiding.’
‘Yes son you are,’ said his father. ‘You feel responsible for the deaths of those men and you shouldn’t. You can’t …’
‘If it wasn’t for me they’d all be alive,’ said Joe in a low voice. Ben waited. ‘Five Pa,’ continued the boy. ‘I’m not talking about one man dead … there are five of them dead and all because of me.’ He hesitated. ‘I hated Clem and Ike and Zac … I really did … and in a way I’m not sorry that they’re dead. But Jeb and Dodie … if I hadn’t acted like I did then they’d all be alive and none of this would have happened. There would have been no reason for the Hoads to take me away in the first place and none of us would have had to go through this.’
‘Joseph I’ve said this to you before. You can’t erase the past son. You have to just go on from here.’
‘I know,’ sighed Joe. He smiled at his father. ‘Maybe I will come down for a bit,’ he said. ‘I’d like to see those new horses.’
‘That’s the spirit,’ said Ben slapping him on the back. ‘Let’s go down.’
Later that afternoon as he watched his son, Ben wasn’t so sure that it had been such a good idea to coax Joe out of his room. The boy had spent the entire afternoon sitting on the corral fence watching his brother and some of the hands put the new horses through their paces, but it was the way he had done it that made Ben feel anxious. He watched as if he wasn’t really seeing them … as if they weren’t even there. Normally Joe would have been itching to try one of the animals himself and would have pestered Adam about it until his brother gave in and allowed him to try, but this afternoon he hadn’t even asked. In fact he’d actually declined to ride when Adam had offered to let him.
‘No thanks,’ Ben heard him say. ‘Maybe another time.’ He hadn’t even urged the men on either. He watched as if they were apart from him … as if he was removed from them all.
That night at supper Ben tried desperately to draw Joe into the conversation and spark some animation into him, but it was very hard going. ‘All of you did well with the horses this afternoon Adam,’ he said. ‘Don’t you think so Joe?’
‘What? Oh … yeah.’
Adam watched his brother intently. ‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘Maybe you could take a couple of them on tomorrow Joe.’
Joe nodded. ‘Maybe,’ he said in a flat voice.
‘Tell ya what shortshanks,’ said Hoss. ‘How about you and me going fishing tomorrow? Sure do feel like catching me a big trout or two.’
‘Yeah sure,’ said Joe in the same flat tone. ‘Whatever you want Hoss.’
Hoss shrugged at his father and shook his head. Ben sighed.
‘How was the fishing boys?’ asked Ben as Hoss and Joe came through the front doorway.
‘Fine,’ said Joe as he put his hat on the credenza near the front door.
‘Did you catch anything?’
‘I did,’ said Hoss with a shake of his head at his father behind Joe’s back. He headed off towards the kitchen. ‘I’ll give em ta Hop Sing ta get ready for supper.’
‘Joseph come over here and sit down,’ said his father. ‘There’s something I need to talk to you about son.’ Joe sat down next to his father. ‘We had some visitors this afternoon Joe,’ said Ben.
‘Yeah?’ Joe sounded not the least bit interested.
‘It was Willow and Bud.’
Joe’s head jerked up. ‘What?’ he said. ‘What were they doing here?’
‘They wanted to know if they could camp back at their old site,’ replied his father ‘They want to take me up on that offer of land after all.’
‘What? How come? I mean … all of them? Was Grandma Hoad with them?’
Ben shook his head. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘She and the others are still aiming to settle in California. It was just Willow and Bud. It seems that Grandma Hoad finally gave them permission to get married.’
Joe smiled. ‘That’s good,’ he said. ‘That will make Willow happy.’ He hesitated. ‘I’m surprised that they wanted to come back here though.’
‘Well you know Pa. With everything that’s happened. With everything that … I did.’
‘If you’re referring to what happened to Clem and his sons, well of course I filled them in on the whole story,’ said Ben.
Joe looked at his father fearfully. ‘And they still wanted to stay near us?’ he said. ‘They weren’t angry?’
Ben smiled at him. ‘No they weren’t angry,’ he said.
‘I find that real hard to believe Pa,’ said Joe.
‘Well why don’t you go and ask them yourself?’ replied his father. ‘You know where their camp site is.’
Joe shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I don’t think so. I reckon I’ll just leave them alone for a while.’
Ben sat forward in his chair. ‘Joe you have to face them at some stage,’ he said. ‘We’re all going to be neighbours now after all.’
Joe bit his lip as he thought about it. ‘I guess you’re right,’ he said. ‘I’d best get it over with.’
Ben smiled as he watched the boy walk to the front door. ‘Joe?’ he called.
Joe turned. ‘Yeah Pa?’
Ben nodded at him. ‘It’ll be fine son. You’ll see.’
Joe nodded, obviously not convinced, as he left the room.
‘Joe! Little Joe!’ Willow waved at Joe as he rode into the camp. She put down the bucket she had been carrying and ran towards him excitedly.
Joe dismounted and walked towards the girl. ‘Hi willow,’ he said. ‘Pa told me that you were back.’
Willow grinned at him. ‘Did he tell ya that we’s gonna be neighbours Joe?’ she asked excitedly. ‘Me and Bud got married and we’s gonna settle down here on that piece of land ya Pa done give us.’
Joe nodded. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘He told me.’
Willow frowned. ‘We ya ain’t looking none too pleased bout it. What’s the matter Joe?’ She sidled up next to him. ‘Is it bout what happened tween you and Uncle Clem and his boys?’
Joe gave her a sideways glance. ‘I reckon so,’ he said. ‘Willow I’m so sorry all of this had to happen.’
The girl nodded her head in agreement. ‘So am I,’ she said. ‘It musta been awful fer ya Joe. I know how evil Uncle Clem could be and I can imagine how he musta treated ya.’
Joe gave her a puzzled look. ‘That’s not what I meant,’ he said. ‘I mean … yes it was awful … no one will ever know just how bad … but …’ his voice trailed away.
‘But what?’ Now it was Willow’s turn to look puzzled.
‘Well … if it wasn’t for me then none of this would have happened,’ finished Joe. ‘I killed two men and then three more got killed because of it. Not to mention everything that my family had to go through … as well as myself of course. I don’t blame you if you hate me now Willow.’
Willow put her hand on his arm. ‘Hate ya? Why on earth would I hate ya Joe? Why I’m grateful to ya!’
‘Course I am. Why you were the one what done showed me what a real family can be like. You done did things fer me and showed me things that made me realise that I could have a better life.’ A determined look came into her eyes. ‘And I’m gonna too!’ she declared. ‘Bud and me are gonna have a good life here. I done told Grandma Hoad and she give us her blessing ta come back and settle here. No I don’t hate ya Joe … I’m grateful to ya iffen the truth be known.’
‘But I killed your Pa and your uncle,’ said Joe.
‘I done buried my hatred along with em,’ said Willow. ‘I done it before, but Uncle Clem coming along jest stirred things up agin. Now that he and the others is gone I can be free of em. Truly Joe .. They was pure evil and deserved ta die. I ain’t gonna shed no tears over em now.’
Joe felt as if a heavy weight had been lifted form his shoulders. He gave Willow a genuine smile and drew a sigh of relief. ‘How about Grandma Hoad,’ he asked. ‘How does she feel about it all?’
Willow pursed her lips. ‘I dunno fer sure,’ she said. ‘But I reckon she’ll come around in time. She done give us permission ta come back and that counts fer something don’t ya think?’
‘I reckon so,’ said Joe. ‘Maybe she’ll come back and visit someday?’
Maybe,’ said Willow. ‘Until then Bud and me we’s gonna git ourselves set up here and git settled. Do ya reckon we’ll fit in given time?’
‘I reckon so,’ said Joe with a grin. ‘And you can be sure that my family will help you in any way that we can.’ He gave a short laugh. ‘It’s nice to know that I don’t have to tie you up this time to get you to stay isn’t it?’
Willow laughed as well. ‘Sure is,’ she said. ‘And ya can tell that brother Hoss of yourn that we won’t be needing that bath contraption of his any more neither.’ The two young people’s laughter rang out.
‘So you see Pa I began to think that Willow was right,’ said Joe.
Ben lifted an eyebrow. ‘She only told you what your brothers and I have been trying to get through to you during these past few weeks,’ he said.
Joe nodded ‘I know,’ he admitted. ‘But it was different hearing it from her.’ He thought for a moment. ‘I guess because she was their kin. It was kind of like she was giving me permission to forgive myself. Does that make sense?’
Ben patted him on the shoulder. ‘It makes a whole lot of sense son,’ he said. ‘I’m just glad that you finally saw the truth for what it was.’
Joe nodded. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I guess Willow helped me do that.’
‘Well from what you’ve told me she’s mighty grateful to you as well, so I suppose you might say that you come out even in all of this.’
‘I suppose so,’ said Joe as he stood up. ‘Well I’d better go and help Adam with those horses Pa. He was looking as though he needed my expert guidance the last time I checked out what they were up to out there.’
‘I’d watch that mouth of yours if I were you son,’ warned Ben. ‘Adam is likely to dump you in the water trough if he hears you talking like that.’
Joe grinned at his father. I’ve been there a time or two before,’ he said. ‘It ain’t like it would be a totally new experience for me after all.’ He hesitated at the front door before opening it. ‘Hey Pa?’
‘Do you reckon it would be all right if I took some time before getting back to work full time?’
‘I suppose so. Why? What do you have in mind to do?’
‘Well I’d like to help Willow and Bud get organised on their land,’ his son replied. ‘They’re gonna need ta get a cabin started before Winter sets in.’
‘I think that would be real fine Joe,’ said his father. ‘I have a feeling they’re going to be mighty fine neighbours.’
‘I think so too,’ said Joe as he shut the door behind him.