Under the Influence (frasrgrl)

Summary:  An old friend of Ben’s comes to visit. Why does he have so much influence over Ben, and will it damage Ben’s relationship with Joe beyond repair?  

Word Count: 82,946  Rated: T

 

                                                               Under the Influence

 

Story Notes: A ton of thanks goes to idmarryhoss for all her help in betaing this and all her valuable input.

Authors note:  The quote from Marie is an actual quote from another very strong woman. Eleanor Roosevelt. I did tweek the last part of it. The actual quote is “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I have always liked that quote and I felt Marie was the perfect person to say it.

** Historical note:  St. Ignatius Academy was issued a charter in 1859 by the State of California under the name of St. Ignatius College. In 1930 St. Ignatius became the University of San Francisco.


 

The three oldest Cartwrights sat at the dining room table, enjoying their morning meal.  Ben Cartwright kept glancing at the staircase waiting for his wayward youngest to appear. As usual, Joe was late.

“Hoss would you please…” Ben didn’t finish his sentence to his middle but biggest son because at that moment footsteps were heard coming down the stairs.

“Good morning Pa, Adam, Hoss,” Joe mumbled sleepily as he slipped into his chair.

“Well, it’s about time you graced us with your presence.” Adam, the oldest of the three sons, remarked sarcastically before anyone else could say a word.  

Looking towards his father and seeing the irritated scowl on Ben’s face, Joe decided silence was the best course of action. Although he couldn’t help glaring at his oldest brother as he reached for the platter of eggs.

As Joe started on his breakfast, Ben and Adam discussed what needed to be done on the ranch that day.

“Joe, I want you to ride out to the south pasture and round up any strays you find. I was out there yesterday and noticed that the herd was starting to wander,” Adam instructed his brother.

“Aw, come on Adam, it’s a long ride out there. Just because you’re still mad at me about the other day doesn’t mean ya need to stick me with every lousy job on the ranch. I told ya I didn’t mean to knock ya into the horse trough. It was an accident, I swear,” Joe pleaded with his brother, using his best puppy dog eyes.

“We all do our fair share, Joe. As I told you yesterday you need to start pulling your weight around here,” Adam lectured.

“I do pull my weight. I work as hard as ya and Hoss do,” Joe looked at Hoss and waited for confirmation. Instead Hoss kept his head down and applied himself to his breakfast as if his life depended on it. “Well Hoss?” Joe pressed.

“Now ya jest leave me out of this, Little Joe. I don’t want ta get in the middle one of your fights with Big Brother here,” Hoss said motioning towards Adam with his fork.

Joe glared at both of his brothers and let his fork fall to his plate, his appetite suddenly gone.

“Also, make sure you’re home on time, Little Joe” Ben told his son. “Remember the Strouds will be here today.”

“I promise Pa, I’ll be home on time,” Joe said as he stood up from the table and dropped his napkin on his plate. “I better go so I can get out ta the south pasture and back on time, if I wanna ta keep that promise.”

“You haven’t finished your breakfast. Sit down and finish eating, Little Joe,” Ben instructed.

“I’m not hungry, Pa,” With that, Joe walked away from the table. He stopped at the credenza, strapped on his gun belt, grabbed his jacket and hat and was out the door, with a loud bang as the door slammed behind him.

“Joseph!”  Ben yelled after him. “When will that boy ever learn to close a door properly?”

“Don’t hold your breath if you’re expectin’ that ta happen,” Hoss remarked as he put his fork down.  “Cuz it’ll never happen, Pa.  Well, I best be on my way too. Ya comin’ Adam?”

Adam wiped his mouth with his napkin, laid it on his plate and stood up. “Yeah, I’m coming.”

Ben rose with his sons and followed them out the door; he wanted to have one last word with Joe before he left.

 

 

Chapter 2

Ben watched Joe ride away after a final reminder about that night and prayed that the boy would keep his promise and be on time for once. Ben was nervous and uneasy about this visit, he just hoped that everything would go smoothly and no major disasters happened.  He had been nervous all week and knew he was driving everyone to distraction. Hop Sing was ready to quit after Ben asked him about the readiness of the guestrooms and the menu for the duration of the visit for what seemed like the hundredth time. The boys started making themselves scarce.  Adam continually found reasons to go up to the lumber camp.  Hoss would head out on the pretense of checking the herds. And Joe, he kept himself busy at the corral with the horses.  Ben knew he was driving them crazy, but he just couldn’t help himself.

His mind wandered back to his childhood and the part that Alex Stroud played in it. He had known Alex all his life.  Alex was Ben’s oldest brother’s, friend was and twelve years his senior. Whereas Ben’s childhood home was full of laughter and love, Alex was an only child whose parents didn’t care where he was or what he did. While Ben was growing up, Alex had already become a part of the family; the Cartwright’s home, in a sense, had become his, even when Alex went to college, he spent all his breaks with the Cartwrights. In a large hard working family such as Ben’s, the children often didn’t get as much attention as they did in smaller families, for work was the top priority. Being the youngest, this was the case for Ben, but he always knew that he was loved by his family.  Alex had the opinion that it was up to him to take on the role of a surrogate father to Ben.  Ben’s own father was a strict disciplinarian, but in comparison to Alex he was a pussy cat, for Alex demanded absolute perfection and obedience. No one thought anything of Alex taking Ben under his wing.  They felt it was a blessing that someone was taking an interest in him and was able to keep the rambunctious child in line. None of them knew the extent of the relationship between Ben and Alex.  Ben grew up respecting Alex, but there was something more to it.  He felt that he never measured up to the expectations that Alex had.  More than once he found himself across Alex’s knee for the slightest infraction, even after he had become a teenager. Ben always promised himself that he would try harder to be what Alex expected him to be, and not a disappointment. He knew that somehow he would make something of himself. He had dreams and someday they would come true.

Alex had gone to medical school and became a well respected surgeon whereas Ben ran off as soon as he could and signed on with the first clipper ship that would have him.  Alex made sure that Ben knew he felt that Ben was throwing his life away. One time, when Ben was on leave, and able to visit his family, Alex took him aside to have a little talk with him. “Benjamin I’m so disappointed in you. You’ll never make anything of yourself by becoming the basest of society. Is this what you want to become?  Sailors are unrefined drunkards; you can be so much more. With the proper education and the right connections you could go far.”  No matter how much Ben protested, he couldn’t make Alex understand that this was what he wanted.  That was the last thing that Alex said to him during that visit.  Alex’s disappointment in him was hard for Ben to accept, and it stayed with him throughout the years. Ben swore that we would prove Alex wrong, that he was not a disappointment.

Alex met and married a woman who had strong connections in all the right social circles of New York. They had three sons, two of which were older than Adam and the youngest was a just a year older than Joe. All three had attended the finest of schools and the older two went on to become successful in their own right. The oldest followed his father’s footsteps and became a surgeon, joining his father’s medical practice  His middle son became an attorney and was now pursuing a career in politics. He was on his way to becoming a congressman, but he had his sights set much higher. Alex’s youngest son was still in school and attending one of the finest universities.

Years back, just after Ben had met and married Marie, Alex had made a trip west to conduct a seminar on the latest surgical techniques. On his way to San Francisco, he stopped to see Ben.  The Ponderosa at that time was still growing. They had just completed the house, and were quite proud of their accomplishments so far. Adam was ten and Hoss was four when Alex arrived, and nothing that Ben had done was up to Alex’s standards. As far as Alex was concerned, John’s little brother wasn’t making anything of his life by coming out to the middle of nowhere and trying to scratch out a meager living. He even went so far as to make subtle remarks about the newly married couple and Marie’s background.  Ben was devastated and offended; he loved Marie so much that he was willing to forget what Alex’s opinion meant to him and defend his wife.  Knowing what this man meant to Ben, Marie pleaded with him not to do anything that he would regret. “After all, mon amour, no one can make you feel inferior unless you allow it, and I refuse to allow it.” 

At this time, Alex’s oldest two sons were attending the finest prep schools in the East and were the perfect sons. They had to be since Alex was an extremely strict father and would not stand for the slightest infraction, just as it was when Ben was a child. During the whole visit Alex would comment about how rough and uneducated Ben’s sons were, even going as far as to say that they weren’t much better than the savages that lived in the area. Ben naturally tried to defend his son’s and his way of life, but he was still intimidated by this man, as he had been since childhood. The criticism found its mark in Ben’s heart and stayed there.

Now, nineteen years later, Alex was back and Ben was determined to prove that he had made something of himself and his son’s were just as accomplished and just as perfect. He would do anything to impress this man whose opinion meant everything to him. Ben knew that Alex’s wife has passed away about nine years ago leaving him with a ten year old son to raise. Ben was hoping that Alex would have mellowed over the years, but he wasn’t counting on it.

Chapter 3

It was a glorious early spring evening.  The meadow grass was green and thick, perfect for grazing.  The last of the winter snow had melted away.  The sun was setting in a spectacular show of orange, reds and pinks.  The trees were green again, and the Ponderosa pines were tall and strong.  But all of this beauty went unseen by the young man riding down the road on a black and white pinto.  To anyone watching, the horse and rider moved as one, in a graceful show of trust and love, but there was no enjoyment in the ride for the young man.  He sat slumped in the saddle from exhaustion, a scowl on his face, soaking wet from head to toe and splattered with mud.

“Darn that Adam!  He did this on purpose, Cooch.”  Joe Cartwright grumbled to his horse.  “He already knew what that pasture was like before he sent me there.  He knew there were large mud holes, and that the waterhole needed cleaning.  And those beavers!  It felt like it took years to tear that dam apart.  And then what happened when it came apart?  I got soaked, that’s what happened!”  Joe was on a rampage now.  “Let’s not even mention that cow getting stuck in the mud.  The stupid thing didn’t even have the sense to realize it was being helped.”   He stopped his complaining for a moment and sighed.  “’Go round up the strays, Joe’, he says.  ‘When I was out there the other day I noticed that the herd was starting to stray,’ he says.  But does he say one thing about beavers, waterholes or mud?  Heck no!  Just send stupid little brother out there ta find it, all by himself.  You know darn well Cooch, that if I didn’t take care of any of it, and just rounded up the strays like he told me, he would have said I was lazy and couldn’t pull my weight on the ranch.”

Joe pulled his horse to a stop and looked down the road.  The house was now in sight, and there was a buggy and a horse out front.  “Pa’s going to be fit to be tied, Cooch.”  The 17 year old bowed his head as the horse nodded, as if in agreement with his rider.  Joe remembered his father’s words from that morning before he rode out of the yard.

“Remember I want you home early today, Joseph.  We have guests coming, and I want you here and presentable.”  Ben Cartwright ordered as he glared at the bruise that marred the young mans cheek from the fight he had gotten into at the Bucket of Blood earlier in the week.  It didn’t matter to Ben that it wasn’t Joe’s fault.  Or that the drunken miner became angry because Joe had won yet another hand of poker.  It wasn’t his fault that said miner grabbed him by the shirt and punched him in the face.  By the time Joe knew what was happening, he was lying on the floor, shaking his head to clear it and the miner was gone.  “There will be no sneaking off to town as you’ve been doing all week.”  Ben paused for a moment.  “I mean it Joseph.”

“Yes, Sir.  I promise I’ll be home in plenty of time, Pa.”  Joe said as he rode off, not knowing what lay ahead of him and that there wouldn’t be any way he could keep that promise.

Now here Joe sat, more than just a little late, and he was filthy.  Looking at the house he could tell that the horse belonged to Sheriff Coffee and the buggy to Dr. Paul Martin, both long time friends of the family.  But that wasn’t where the problem lay.  Both men were well acquainted with the youngest Cartwright and his judgment of time.   The problem was that his father was also expecting an old friend and his son from back East.  They were stopping for a visit before continuing on to San Francisco.  Joe knew how anxious his father was about this visit and how he wanted everything to be perfect.  Dr. Martin had been invited because being a doctor Ben knew he would enjoy catching up on the latest medical advancement.  Sheriff Coffee was a long time friend and his company was always enjoyed when he could get away from town.

“Pa’s going to kill me.”  Joe swallowed hard, straightened his shoulders and looked straight ahead.  “No use in delaying it, Cooch, it’ll only get worse.”

Chapter 4

Ben heard a horse approaching, “That should be Joe now.”

“He’s awfully late, Ben.  Haven’t you taught that boy the meaning of punctuality?”  Alex demanded.  “It’s quite inconsiderate of him to keep us waiting.  Maybe taking a strap to him will teach him some manners.”

“I think Little Joe’s a might ta old ta be getting’ a tannin’,” Hoss said in defense of his brother.

“Nonsense, a boy is never too old.  Isn’t that right Ramsey?”  Alex turned to his son who was sitting on the settee listening to the conversation around him.

“Yes Father,” Ramsey answered promptly.

Adam took this opportunity to once again voice his complaints about Joe.  Maybe this time his father would listen to him.  “You know Pa, Mr. Stroud is right to a point.  Something needs to be done with Joe.  He’s really turning into a handful.  He’s constantly sneaking out at night.  The drinking, poker playing and fighting is just getting out of hand.  I’m getting tired of chasing after him and trying to keep him out of trouble.  I’m surprised we didn’t have to bail him out of your jail the other night, Roy.”

“Now Adam, that whole thing was…”  Roy’s explanation was interrupted by Alex.

“See there Ben, that boy is out of control.  Mark my words he’ll come to no good if you let this continue.  You need to stand up and put an end to it.  Do you think you would be half the man you are now if I hadn’t used a firm hand with you?”

Roy and Paul exchanged a worried look.  Neither one liked how things seemed to be shaping up for the youngest Cartwright.  When Roy opened his mouth to defend both his old friend and Joe, Paul shook his head.  Now wasn’t the time.

Ben stared into the flames in the fireplace.  The more he listened to Alex, the angrier he became.  Unfortunately that anger was directed at Joe.  To have to sit here and listen to Alex point out all the shortcomings of his parenting skills, embarrassed Ben, made him feel less than adequate as a parent.  “You’re right, Alex.  I need to use a firm hand with Joseph.”

“Sure, Joe’s a bit wild Pa, but he’s young.  He’s gonna be okay.  How can he not with you as his father,” Hoss argued in his baby brother’s defense.

“No Hoss, I’m too lenient with him.  I have let him get away with too much.  As of tonight that all stops.”  Ben replied with determination.

Chapter 5

Joe rode into the yard and slowly dismounted. He led Cochise into the barn, and gave him a thorough grooming, fresh water, hay and a bucket of oats. Joe rested his head against the horse’s neck for a moment before he turned and slowly headed to the house, like a man headed to his execution. He hadn’t taken more than a couple of steps onto the front porch when the door opened and Ben walked out. Ben shut the door behind him and stood there with his hands on his hips, glaring at his youngest son.

“Where have you been?” Ben demanded.

Joe looked up into his fathers eyes, and saw the anger blazing there. He quickly lowered his head, to avoid looking at his father.

“Well? I’m waiting for an answer, Joseph.” His father’s voice was quiet, deadly quiet. All three boys knew when Ben used this tone there was a storm approaching. And this time wasn’t any different.

“I wwas…”

“Never mind” Ben interrupted.  “I don’t want to hear any of your lame brained excuses, or one of your long drawn out stories. What I want is you cleaned up and downstairs in 15 minutes. Needless to say, I’m very disappointed in you. You made a promise to me this morning, and apparently you could care less that you broke it. What did you do, sneak off to town again?” Ben didn’t wait for an answer before continuing. “Now get upstairs, we’ve waited long enough for you.”

Unable to get any words out past the lump that had formed in his throat when Ben told him he was a disappointment, Joe nodded and headed for the front door.

Ben grabbed Joe’s left arm and stopped him. “Through the back, Joseph.” He said through clenched teeth. Ben did not notice the condition of his son was in, the exhaustion in the dull green eyes, or the way Joe flinched when he grabbed his arm. All he saw at that moment was his own anger, and embarrassment at having this son absent when his guests arrived.

“Yes, Sir,” Joe said quietly, determined to hold back the tears that were brimming in his eyes. He turned and went into the house through the kitchen door.

As soon as he entered the kitchen, he was set upon by a tirade in Chinese from their cook, Hop Sing. Joe’s shoulders slumped even more at the criticism thrown his way. Joe considered Hop Sing, as they all did, a member of the family. He was another father figure to Joe, since he had helped raise him after the death of his mother, just before Joe turned five.

“I’m sorry Hop Sing” Joe apologized, knowing exactly what was being said to him, having learned the language when he was a child.

Hop Sing stopped and really looked at Joe. “Num’er three son go to room and get out of wet clothes. Hop Sing bring hot water so you can clean. Then you come down to dinner, before father get more angry.”

Joe nodded his head, not having the energy to answer and headed up the back stairs. Soon, true to his word, Hop Sing was there with the promised hot water, soap and clean towels.

“Lit’le Joe hurry, dinner not wait much longer or be ruined and Hop Sing throw out, and make father more angry,” he grumbled as he walked out the door.

“Thank you,” Joe softly called after him.

Chapter 6

After Hop Sing shut the door, Joe removed his gun belt and dropped it and his hat on a chair.  He walked over to the wash basin and looked in the mirror and shook his head at the filthy reflection staring back at him. With a sigh, Joe started unbuttoning his shirt. He took a deep breath, and held it for a moment, before slowly releasing it. Slowly, he peeled off his filthy, sodden shirt, and let it drop to the floor. Every time he moved his left arm white hot pain shot down it. Once his shirt was off he stood there staring at the neckerchief that he had tied around his arm. It was already soaked with blood. As quick as he could and with as little pain as possible, Joe quickly stripped off the rest of his clothes and poured part of the hot water Hop Sing had brought him into the basin.  He took one of the towels wet it, soaped it up and started the painful process of washing off his dirt encrusted, sore body.

After he had finished washing, he carefully removed the makeshift bandage from around his upper arm. The gash was deep and about three inches long. It had stopped bleeding, but looked red and swollen. Joe took a clean towel and dunked it into the water that remained in the pitcher. After wringing out the excess water, he soaped up the towel took a deep, fortifying breath and started cleaning out the wound that was caused by a sharp rock when he fell in the steam after the dam finally came apart without warning.

“Stupid beavers,” he muttered.

As he cleaned the wound it started to bleed again. Joe gritted his teeth against the pain and continued. Once he was satisfied that he had gotten all the dirt out, he pulled on a pair of dark pants with pinstripes in them, held a clean towel against him arm and went down the hall to a small cabinet where the family kept a supply of first aid items, and clean towels. Joe grabbed some bandages and swatches of cloth and went back to his room. He sat down on his bed and kept the pressure on his arm until he had the bleeding under control. He put a few of the pieces of cloth over his arm and wrapped a bandage around it, using his teeth to help tear the end of it and to tie it in place.

Joe carefully finished dressing, which wasn’t an easy task. Being naturally left handed, it was difficult for him to have to rely mainly on his right hand. After struggling to pull on a pair of stocks, Joe grabbed another towel, wet it and cleaned off his boots. After he had them clean and on, he pulled out a clean white shirt put it on and added a black string tie. He had to move slowly and carefully to avoid causing the wound to start bleeding again.

He tried his best to tame his brown curls into some kind of order. “All I need is for Pa ta start in on me about my hair tonight.”

Once finished, he took a final look at himself in the mirror, and felt reasonably comfortable that Ben would find his appearance acceptable. Well, for the most part anyhow, Ben still wouldn’t find the bruise on his cheek acceptable.

Joe straightened his shoulders as he turned towards the door. “Might as well go an meet the guests.”

 

 

 

Chapter 7

As Joe came down the stairs, he looked at Ben trying to gage his mood. The anger he saw glowing in Ben’s eyes, when he looked up at Joe, told him he was still treading on thin ice.

“I’m sorry I’m so late,” Joe said quietly when he stepped off the last step.

 Ben stood and walked over to his son. “Alex, Ramsey, I’d like you to meet my youngest son, Joseph. Joseph, this is Alex Stroud and his son Ramsey.”

Joe turned to the older man and held out his right hand. “It’s nice ta, meet ya Mr. Stroud.”

Alex looked Joe over from head to toe, assessing the young man before him, and apparently finding him lacking, before accepting the hand offered to him. “Same here, young man.”

Joe turned to Ramsey and repeated the process. Ramsey looked at the hand offered to him with so much disgust, as if Joe had cow manure all over it. He turned away without accepting the greeting. Joe looked around but everyone had already gone back to their conversations.

“Oh this is gonna be good,” Joe muttered.

Joe turned to the other guests, “Hey Doc, Sherrif Coffee.”

“Well Hello Little Joe,” Roy said with a fond smile. He had seen the look on Ben’s face and the encounter between Joe and Ramsey, and decided the boy needed to see a friendly face.

“How are you tonight, Little Joe,” Paul asked.

“I’m still in one piece,” Joe joked.

“I can see that. I guess that means I can enjoy my evening,” Paul countered. Joe smiled at him and started towards the fireplace. Paul’s frown slipped from his face as he noticed that an area on Joe’s upper arm seemed a bit thicker than the other arm. That boy did something to himself again. Paul thought to himself, and sighed.

“Dinner ready, come eat while hot,” Hop Sing called from the table.

Once everyone was at the table, since there were more people than normal, Ben instructed everyone where to sit. Joe found himself seated at the end of the table, between Adam and Roy.  Alex was in Joe’s normal place on Ben’s right, with Paul seated next to him, and Ramsey on the end, across from Joe. Hoss was in his normal spot on Ben’s left, giving the man the extra room he needed. Adam, as always, was at the end of the table.

Platters were passed around the table, and even though Joe wasn’t hungry, he made the pretense of eating, so he wouldn’t draw any attention to himself. When he tried using his left hand he was barely able to stifle a gasp as pain. As dinner progressed he found it increasingly painful to continue using that arm, and ended up switching to his right. For the naturally left handed Joe, this proved to be awkward. Thinking no one else was paying attention to him, Joe just played with his food, pushing it around his plate, trying to make it look like he was eating.

Unknown to him, he had two observers and both men were quite familiar with the youngest Cartwright and his tricks. Paul, who was sitting across the table from Joe, watched Joe as he grimaced with pain each time he moved his left arm. He also noticed when Joe switched to his right hand. With a doctor’s keen eye, he could see the exhaustion written all over Joe, from the cloudy, dull green eyes, to the slump of his shoulders. Paul looked around the table to see if anyone else had noticed. Normally, Ben picked up on every nuance of Joe’s behavior, but not tonight. Ben was deep in conversation with Alex, which Paul was only half participating in. Adam was engaged in a conversation with Ramsey about the places he knew back East, and changes that had taken place. Hoss was talking with Roy about the happenings in Virginia City. When Paul’s eyes met Roy’s, Roy nodded his head towards Joe, silently asking if Paul had also noticed.  Paul acknowledged that he had.

He definitely did something to that arm. Paul watched Joe all through the meal. He noticed the way Joe just picked at his food, with only the barest amount making it to his mouth. He also noticed how Joe was making an effort to not draw any attention to himself, or his injury. By this point, Paul decided that one way or another, he was going to have a look at that arm, whether Joe liked it or not.

 

After dessert, everyone settled in the great room for coffee, or an after dinner brandy. Joe declined the coffee offered to him as he sat down on the settee. He tried to follow the conversation, but found his eyes getting heavier and heavier by the moment.

“That was a good meal, Ben.  Better than I expected,” Alex commented.

“Thank you Alex, I’ll be sure to pass that on to Hop Sing,” Ben acknowledged. Good?  Better than he expected? Hop Sing put himself out trying to make the perfect meal, and it’s only good? What do I need to do to please him?  Ben glanced over to where Joe was sitting next to Hoss, and watched how his eyes were slowly closing.

“Joseph, is there a problem?” Ben demanded.

Joe’s head snapped up at the sound of his father’s irritated voice. “I’m sorry Pa. May I be excused? I’m awfully tired and I think I’ll turn in.”

“If you must,” Ben replied with more irritation in his voice then necessary. The evening just wasn’t going as Ben had planned.

Joe said his good nights and went up the stairs to his room.

Roy and Paul watched him go.

 

 

 

Chapter 8

“I’m sorry Gentlemen, but if you’ll excuse me, I need to step outside for a moment,” Paul said as he stood up and headed towards the door, where he very discreetly picked up his black bag from the credenza. Once outside he turned towards the side entrance to the kitchen and went in. Hop Sing turned from the dishes he was washing to see who was coming into his kitchen. “Doctor need something?” he asked.

“No Hop Sing, I just want to go up and have a private word with Little Joe,” Paul said as he crossed the kitchen and headed up the back stairs.

—-

When Joe started to remove his shirt, there was a knock on the door. He quickly pulled it back on and went to answer the door. He was surprised to see Dr. Martin standing there.

“Doc, what are you doin’ up here?”

“You mind if I come in?” He asked as he walked past Joe.

“Do I have a choice?” Joe grumbled, as he shut the door.

“All right off with that shirt and let me have a look at your arm,” Paul said.

“My arm?  Why?  There’s nothin’ wrong with it,” Joe protested.

Paul just stood there looking at Joe with a look that said, ‘don’t even try it’.

With a sigh, Joe carefully pulled his shirt off. He was just too tired to put up a fight tonight.

“Why don’t you sit down and let me have a look at it,” Paul said, motioning to a chair.

Joe did as he was instructed. Paul removed the bandage. As he went through the layers a spot of blood started appearing and became bigger. As he removed the last of it he shook his head. “Leave it to you. What happened Joe?”

“I cut it on a rock when I fell in the stream,” When Joe saw the questioning look on Paul’s face he said. “Don’t ask.”

Paul looked over the wound carefully. “I’m going to have to clean it out and put some stitches in it.”

Completely defeated, Joe just nodded.

Paul placed a folded towel against Joe’s arm. “Here, hold this while I tell Hop Sing I need some hot water.”

When Paul headed for the door, Joe called out to him. “Please, don’t tell anyone, ‘specially Pa.”

Paul looked at the young man sitting on the bed. “Joe, your father would want to know.”

“Please, Doc. He’s ta busy ta be bothered with this.” Joe pleaded.

“Joe…”  Paul saw the pleading look on Joe’s face, and gave in. “Alright, but you have to promise me you’ll take it easy with that arm.”

“I will,” Joe replied, as some of the tension left his body.

Paul snorted and walked out the door. Paul met Hop Sing on the stairs. Hop Sing was carrying a tray with two bowls. One was just hot water, the other was one with soapy water.

“Hop Sing know Num’er Three son hurt if doctor sneak up to see him.”

“Thank you Hop Sing. Let’s get this done before I’m missed,” Paul said as he turned around and headed back to Joe’s room.

When they entered the room, Joe looked up at them. He looked at Hop Sing and opened his mouth to say something.

Before Joe could utter a word Hop Sing spoke up. “No worry, Hop Sing not tell.”

“Thank you,” Joe said softly.

Paul picked up the glass on a glass that was on the dresser added a packet of powder to it and some water from the pitcher next to it. He handed the glass to Joe and said: “No complaining, just drink it.”

With a small smile Joe took the glass and drank it down. When he was finished he wrinkled his nose and handed the glass to Paul.

Paul chuckled at the look on Joe’s face. He knew that if Joe wasn’t fighting him about taking the medication, then he must be as exhausted as he looked. He dropped his needle in the bowl of plain hot water to sterilize it. While he waited he washed his hands in Joe’s water basin and proceeded to clean out the wound with the soapy water. Once it was clean he washed his hands again and retrieved his needle. He threaded it and turned to Joe.

“You know your father will probably know once I start stitching.”

“You wanna make a bet?” Joe asked through clenched teeth. His arm was still burning from being cleaned.

Paul knew how stubborn this particular Cartwright was. Once Joe made up his mind, he carried through with it. “I don’t think I’ll take that bet. Now, hold still.”

As Paul began stitching the wound close, Joe let out a small gasp, tensed up, closed his eyes and bit down on his lower lip.

“Joe, try to relax your arm, it won’t hurt as much.” Joe tried to do as requested, but it was almost impossible.

Once Paul finished, he bandaged Joe’s arm. “Now I want you to get in bed and go to sleep. You need it.”  Seeing Joe nod his head in agreement, Paul packed up his bag and left the room.

Joe got up, changed into his nightshirt then sat down on the edge of the bed.

“I don’t understand,” he said to the empty room. “It wasn’t my fault that I was late. Why wouldn’t Pa let me explain?”  He sat there a little longer trying to make sense of the situation. “Why was he so angry at me?”

Joe got up and walked over to the window. He pulled back the curtain and stared out into the clear night. “Why?” he whispered as he leaned his forehead against the cool glass.  When Joe’s eyes started drifting shut, he made his way over to his bed. He was asleep seconds after his head hit the pillow.

 

 

 

Chapter 9

Adam and Hoss came in the door, after finishing their morning chores. As they rounded the corner to the dining room, Hoss rubbed his hands together. “Boy howdy, I sure do hope breakfast is ready, cuz I’m starvin’.”

Adam snorted before replying. “What’s new? You’re always starving.”

“Aw, Adam, I can’t help it, I’m a growin’ boy.”

“You’re growing alright,” Adam laughed and poked Hoss in the stomach. “You grow any more and you’re going to founder your horse.”

Ben and Alex joined in the laughter, while Ramsey sat staring at the brothers with a confused look on his face. He didn’t know what to make of the interaction between Adam and Hoss, since he never shared anything like it with his brothers.

“Oh you’re real funny,” Hoss replied good-naturedly as he and Adam took their seats at the table.

Ben looked at Joe’s empty chair and sighed. “Was your younger brother outside with you?”

“No, Pa, we haven’t seen him this morning,” Adam responded as he poured himself a cup of coffee.

“That boy,” Ben grumbled. “Hoss, would you…”

“I’m already goin’, Pa,” Hoss interrupted, as he got up and headed for Joe’s room.

As Hoss disappeared around the upstairs corner, Alex turned to Ben and started his lecture. “This is exactly what I was referring to last night. It’s extremely rude, not only to guests but to his own family, not to be punctual.”

“You’re right, of course,” Ben agreed, as he remembered Alex drilling that lesson into his head at a young age, and all the years that followed. After all, being punctual had benefited Ben in getting where he was today. It gave him a respectable reputation as a businessman and a leader in the community.  This is a lesson that Little Joe needs to learn. Ben told himself.

 

 

 

Chapter 10

Joe had just put his shirt on when there was a knock on the door.

“I’m up,” he called out.

Hoss opened the door and stuck his head in. “Ya best hurry. Ya’re already late, an’ after last night, I suggest ya don’t push it with Pa any more.”

As Hoss started to close the door, Joe called out to him. “Hoss?”

“What?” Hoss asked, letting his annoyance at being kept from his breakfast, show in his voice.

Joe looked at him, and saw the irritation written all over his face. “Never mind, it ain’t nothin’.”

“Hurry up, Little Joe.” Hoss closed the door, and hurried back downstairs.

Joe stood staring at the door, unable to believe that his brother, his best friend, wouldn’t even listen to him. He finished dressing and headed downstairs. “It’s a new day, a fresh beginning. Pa will be okay today, he never stays mad at us for long,” Joe said as he walked down the hall.

 

 

 

Chapter 11

Joe came downstairs, wished everyone a good morning, and started to slip into his seat, when Ben’s voice stopped him.

“Just a moment, Joseph.”

“Pa?” Joe asked as he straightened up.

“You have chores that need to be done.”

“I’ll take care of ‘em right after breakfast,” Joe said as he started to sit down again.

“No, you’ll take care of them right now,” Ben informed him.

Joe stared at him, dumbfounded. Since he didn’t eat the night before, he was hungry this morning. “But, but what about breakfast?”

“Since you decided it wasn’t important enough to be up on time, I guess you’ll have to do without,” Ben paused before adding. “From now, on you will be on time for meals.  If you’re not, then you’ll go without.” Ben turned back to Alex, received an approving nod, and continued his conversation with him.

Joe stood frozen to the spot, unable to comprehend what Ben was saying.

At Alex’s glance towards Joe, Ben looked at him, “Now, Joseph!”

“Yes, Sir,” Joe said, turned and left.

“Oh, and Joseph,” Ben called out, causing his son to turn back with a hopeful look on his face. “You’ll be showing Ramsey around the ranch, and I expect you both back in time for lunch.”

“Yes, Sir,” was all Joe could get past the lump in his throat.

Adam and Hoss looked at each other with questioning eyes.  Never had Ben told any of his sons that they would go without a meal, for any reason.  Neither one could comprehend what had just happened.

Alex nodded his head in approval, once more.

Ramsey, on the other hand, sat with his head down, in order to conceal the grin on his face.  Now, this could prove to be entertaining, after all.

 

 

 

Chapter 12

Joe had just finished cleaning out the last stall, when Ramsey walked in.

“Your father said you were to show me around the farm today.”

“It’s a ranch, not a farm,” Joe corrected.

“Ranch, farm, what’s the difference?” Ramsey mocked.

Joe looked at Ramsey, and saw the haughty expression on his face. Frustrated, Joe took a deep breath, and explained. “The difference is, on a farm you grow crops. On a ranch ya raise cattle, or horses, or even sheep.”

Ramsey yawned, and studied his fingernails. “Does it really matter out here? After all, you’re all a bunch of uneducated ruffians.”

“We’re not…” Joe stopped himself, and turned away from Ramsey. Come on, Joe, you’re in enough trouble, ya can’t lose your temper with this arrogant…  Joe stopped that thought, and turned back to Ramsey. “Ya can ride, can’t ya?”

“Of course I can ride. What do you think I am, uncivilized, like you people?” Ramsey huffed.

“Ya don’t want me ta answer that,” Joe said under his breath. He turned, and started saddling a black gelding that had been brought in for Ramsey’s use.

Ramsey walked over to Cochise’s stall, and studied the horse. “I’ll ride this one.”

Joe turned to see which horse Ramsey was referring to. “Sorry, that’s my horse,” Joe said, and went back to saddling Maverick.

“So?”

“So, no one rides ‘im but me.”

“I believe, I am a guest here, and if I want to ride this horse, I’ll ride this horse,” Ramsey told Joe.

Joe stood there clenching and unclenching his fists. He took a couple of deep breaths before explaining once more. “As I said, no one rides Cochise but me. Now, I have Maverick saddled for ya.”

“I am…” Ramsey started.

“Ya are gonna ride Maverick, or you’re not gonna ride at all.”

They stood there staring at each other, waiting to see which one would back down first.  Ramsey felt confident that Joe would be the first because he was, after all, a guest.  What he didn’t count on was Joe’s ability to be more stubborn than a Missouri mule.

Joe had finally had it, with a new strategy in mind, he smiled sweetly at Ramsey, turned back to Maverick and started to undo the cinch.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Ramsey demanded.

“Unsaddling him of course,” Joe said slowly, as if he were talking to a small child.

“What? You’re to show me the ranch,” Ramsey spluttered.

“Nope”

“Your father told you to.”

“Yep, but ya don’t wanna go.”

“I WHAT?” Ramsey yelled.

 “I said ya don’t wanna go.”

“But, I do,” he protested.

“Really?” Joe stood there acting surprised. “I could of sworn ya didn’t, since ya don’t wanna ride Maverick.”

“Fine, I ride him, anything, to get away from this house.”

“Good.” Not bothering to hide the smug smile on his face, Joe turned back to the horse and tightened the cinch. First point to me.

Once he finished with Maverick, Joe handed the reins to Ramsey, who led the horse out of the barn, and Joe started saddling Cochise. “This sure is gonna be a fun day, Cooch,” Joe whispered, and Cochise snorted in agreement. Once finished he led Cochise out into the yard, and swung up into the saddle.

Ramsey sat on his horse dumbfounded. He had never seen anyone mount a horse like that before, he didn’t even know it was possible.

“Let’s go,” Joe said as he turned Cochise to head out of the yard.

Just then, Ben came out of the house. “Joseph, hold up a minute. I want a word with you before you leave.”

Now what did I do? And I’m still Joseph, Joe thought as he dismounted and walked over to Ben. “Yeah, Pa?”

“I want to remind you, that no matter what, you are not to go into town,” Ben instructed his son once more.

“But what if Ramsey wants ta go?”

“Then Adam or Hoss will take him,” Ben said. “You are not to go anywhere near Virginia City until I say so. Is that clear?”

“Yes,” Joe answered, hanging his head down, and watching the toe of his boot scuffing at the dirt.

“What was that? You’ll look at me when I’m speaking to you, Joseph.”

Joe’s head snapped up. “I said it was clear. May I leave?” Joe said defiantly.

“Watch your tone, young man,” Ben warned. “Remember to be back on time for lunch.”

“We will be,” Joe replied, with a trace of defiance still in his voice, as he walked away.

Once he was back on Cochise, Joe looked at Ramsey, but didn’t even notice the wicked gleam in Ramsey’s eyes, and said. “Let’s go.”

 

 

 

Chapter 13

“We’re gonna ride over ta Beaver Creek first,” Joe told Ramsey as they rode away from the house.

“Why?” Ramsey questioned.

“I tore a dam down yesterday; an’ I wanna make sure it’s not back again.”

“Why is it called Beaver Creek?”

“Cuz, we’ve always had a lot of problems with beavers there, seems like there’s more and more of ‘em all the time. It use ta be called somethin’ else, but I can’t remember what.”

“Oh,” was all Ramsey said.

“That’s Lake Tahoe,” Joe said pointing the lake out to Ramsey. “There’s a really good fishin’ spot just a little further on. Hoss and I spend lots of time there whenever we can.”

“I don’t fish.”

“Ya don’t? I can’t imagine not fishin’.”

As they rode on Ramsey noticed a small, well used trail leading off towards the lake.  “What’s over there?”

“My mother’s grave,” Joe answered, not even glancing towards the trail that Ramsey was inquiring about.

When Joe kept going, Ramsey called out to him. “Hey, aren’t you going to take me there?”

“No.”

“Why not? You’re supposed to be showing me the ranch. Isn’t that part of the ranch?”

By this point, Ramsey was testing Joe’s already strained patience.  He took a deep breath, and slowly released it before answering. “Yeah it is, but it’s a place for family only.”

“It’s a cemetery, they’re public places.”

“I said no!” Joe snapped. Joe closed his eyes and mentally counted to ten, doing everything he could to control his temper. When he finally spoke, it was slow and clipped.  “As I said; It’s a family place. Now, let’s go and check that creek.” Pa would be so proud of me for controllin’ myself, Joe thought as a small smile graced his face.

They rode in strained silence, while Joe searched for something to talk about.

“So, why are ya headed for San Francisco?”

“Father is sending me to school there,” Ramsey answered with disdain.

“What school?”

“St. Ignatius College.”**

Joe rolled his eyes. Getting him to talk is like getting Hoss away from Hop Sing’s chocolate cake.

“San Francisco is a long way from New York. Won’t ya miss your family?” Joe persisted.

“Not really, I’m use to it. Father has always sent us away to school,” Ramsey said shrugging his shoulders.

“I can’t even begin ta imagine being that far away from my family, or even the Ponderosa.” Joe stopped and thought about it for a minute before continuing. “Ya know, Adam wanted me ta go ta college.”

“You?” Ramsey looked at Joe as if he had grown a second head. I can’t imagine any school taking a backwoods bumpkin like him.

“That’s how I reacted. I asked Adam what school in their right mind would take a stupid cowboy like me,” Joe said, not realizing he was echoing Ramsey’s thoughts. “Besides, I hated school. Being cooped up in a room all day ain’t my idea of fun. I’d rather be out here in the open, where I can breathe, ride my horse, and just enjoy life. Now Adam, he’s the smart one. He liked school.  He always has his nose stuck in a book. I swear, if he could figure out a way ta drive cattle while readin’ Shakespeare without losin’ nary a one, he’d be in heaven. It’s bad enough he recites it on drives,” Joe stopped when a thought hit him, and laughed. “I guess that would be better than havin’ ta listen ta it,” Joe thought again for a moment as they rode on, before quoting something from memory.

“And thus I clothe my naked villany

With odd old  ends stol’n out of holy writ

And seem a saint when most I play the devil.’”

“I bet you don’t even know what that’s from or what it means,” Ramsey taunted.

“Sure I do. Ol’ Adam made sure of it. It’s from King Richard III. Basically, Richard is braggin’ about his deceit and desire ta be king. He’s proud of being able ta make people think he’s a saint when he’s actually the devil. He’ll do whatever it takes ta get what he wants, and to feed his pride, no matter who gets hurt,” Joe explained, not knowing how this was actually going to relate to his life. “Just don’t let Adam know I know this stuff.”

“I never would have imagined someone like you knowing that.”

“I know lots of things.” Joe pulled Cochise to a stop and looked around. “Here we are. Wanna have a look ‘round with me?”

“I’d rather not,” Ramsey sneered.

Joe made a quick inspection and once he was satisfied that all was well he turned Cochise around. “Come on, we’ll head over ta where the herd is. Some of the hands are working there. Ya can see a bit of what goes on, on a ranch.”

“I have a better idea. Why don’t we go into town,” Ramsey suggested.

“Maybe Adam or Hoss will take you later.”

“Ramsey looked at Joe for a minute and noticed the slight slump of his shoulders. “Oh, so you’re not old enough to go to town by yourself.”

“I’m old enough!” Joe replied hotly. “I’m just not interested. Let’s go.”

They rode while Joe was dwelling on the injustice of it all, and Ramsey plotting what kind of trouble he could cause the youngest Cartwright.

“I might as well have some fun on this stupid trip,” Ramsey said quietly enough that Joe didn’t hear him.

When they got to where the herd was Joe started to point out various aspects of the work that was taking place. He pointedly ignored the bored expression on Ramsey’s face. In fact, Joe tried as hard as he could to make it as mundane as possible.

“Hey Little Joe, you got a minute?” called Kevin, one of the hands that was working with the herd.

Joe looked over at Ramsey, who was sitting on Maverick with his eyes closed. “Sure I do.”

“Would you come over here and have a look at one of the pregnant cows.”

“I’ll be right back,” Joe called over his shoulder as he followed Kevin.

Fifteen minutes later, Joe glanced back to where he had left Ramsey, only to find the area empty. Joe started looking frantically around, hoping to catch sight of him.

“Have you seen Ramsey?” Joe asked Kevin.

“Who?”

“The idio… er, the other fella I was with.”

“Nope, not since we rode over here.”

“Doggone it!” exclaimed Joe.

Joe stood there, not knowing what to do. “Pa’s going to kill me if I’ve lost him,” he muttered.

“I gotta go,” Joe yelled as he ran to Cochise and took off at a fast gallop.

 

 

 

Chapter 14

Ramsey rode slowly into the yard. He saw his father and Ben sitting on the porch, playing a game of cards. The two men looked up when they heard a horse ride into the yard.

“Ramsey,” Alex called as he got up and walked over to his son, with Ben following him.

“Where’s Little Joe?” Ben asked.

“I don’t know, he just left me,” Ramsey said.

“He left you!” Ben bellowed.

“What?” Alex demanded.

While working in the barn, Adam and Hoss heard the commotion in the yard and went to investigate.

“What do you mean, he left you?” Ben asked, not bothering to keep his voice down.

“He, uh, said something about town and rode off. I… I had to find my way back. I got lost, and I didn’t think I’d ever make it back here,” Ramsey explained, letting just the right amount of fear creep into his voice.

“This is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been warning you about, Benjamin. You gave him a responsibility, and he can’t be trusted to do even the simplest of requests,” Alex said in exasperation  “Are you going to tolerate this type of behavior?”

Ben was so angry his face turned crimson, and you could almost see the steam coming from his ears. When he saw Adam and Hoss outside the barn, he turned towards them.

“Hoss, take the horse and stable it,” he ordered.

“Yes, Sir.”

Hoss hurried over, took the horse from Ramsey, and led it into the barn. Adam turned and followed Hoss.

“Adam, ya don’t think Little Joe would do somethin’ like that, do ya?”

“No, Hoss. There has to be more to it. Little Joe may be irresponsible at times, but he would never disobey Pa like that, especially with all the trouble he’s already been in.”

“No, he wouldn’t.” Hoss was quiet for a minute. “Adam, I really don’t care for Mr. Stroud. He took a dislike ta Little Joe right from the first. Little Joe ain’t done nothin’ really bad. Nothin’ out of the ordinary, any how.”

“I agree, Hoss. It also seems like Pa is taking everything Mr. Stroud says to heart. I just don’t understand it. It’s not like Pa to let someone influence him like this, especially where Little Joe is concerned.”

“What are we gonna do?”  Hoss asked when he finished grooming Maverick and giving him fresh water and oats.

“I’ll talk to Pa. Maybe I can find out what’s going on.”

“I sure hope so Adam, before somethin happens that can’t be fixed,” Hoss said as they walked out of the barn together.

 

 

 

Chapter 15

Hours later, long after lunch was over, a very dejected Joe rode into the yard. He dismounted Cochise, and after tying him to the hitching post he headed for the house. He slowed when he heard the door open, then close. Ben came striding out. Joe saw the anger glowing in Ben’s eyes and swallowed hard. Here’s another meal I’m going to miss, and just wait until I tell him about Ramsey.

“Pa, I um, I had a problem. I kinda lost Ramsey.”

“What do you mean, you kind of lost Ramsey?” Ben growled.

Joe looked down at his feet, unable to look his father in the eyes. “Well, we were at the south pas…”

“Don’t you mean you were in town, and left Ramsey on his own,” Ben all but shouted.

Joe’s head came up at that. “What?  No Pa, I wasn’t in town.”

Ben interrupted once more. “Take care of your horse, Joseph, then go to your room, and stay there.”

“But Pa,” Joe pleaded.

“No buts, Joseph. I gave you very explicit orders, and once again you decided to disobey me.”

“I didn’t Pa. Honest.” Joe looked at Ben in complete confusion, not understanding what was going on.

“NOW,” Ben bellowed.

Joe turned, grabbed Cochise’s reins, and headed for the barn. Once in the safety of the barn, Joe poured his heart out to his trusted friend.

“It ain’t fair, Cooch. I didn’t do nothin’ wrong.” He removed his saddle and the rest of the tack as he talked. Joe made sure he kept his movements slow and gentle, so as not to take his anger and confusion out on his horse.

“Where’d Pa get the notion I went ta town? I’d like ta know what Ramsey told ‘em.” Joe started grooming Cochise, letting the soothing movements calm him. “He sure didn’t tell ‘em I was helpin’ Kevin,” Joe continued to brush Cochise. “I have a feelin’ this visit ain’t gonna go ta well for me.” Joe finished grooming Cochise, gave him fresh water, hay and some oats. As he turned to leave, he took his anger out on a crate by kicking it across the barn. When Cochise whinnied in protest, Joe went back to him to comfort him.

“I’m sorry, Cooch,” Joe said as he rubbed the horse’s neck to calm him. He leaned his head against the horse for a moment, soaking in the comfort he always gained from Cochise. Joe stood up, straightened his shoulders, and left the barn.

When he got to the house, he went in, hung his hat up, and put his gun belt on the credenza. He turned and headed for the stairs. He looked at his brothers who each gave him a sympathetic look. He glanced at Ramsey, who was sitting in Adam’s favorite blue chair, and noticed the smug, victorious look on his face. Joe didn’t say a word to anyone, nor did he look at his father. Once he gained the sanctuary of his room, it took everything he had not to slam the door as hard as he could. Once the door was closed, Joe leaned against it breathing hard.

“He ain’t gonna ta get the better of me. I’m not gonna give Pa anything else ta get mad about.”

_ _ _ _

Awhile later, there was a knock on Joe’s door.

“Joe, its Adam. May I come in?”

“Go away, Adam.”

Adam stood outside the door, for once respecting his younger brother’s privacy. “Joe, I just want to talk.”

“There ain’t nothin’ ta talk ‘bout. Please, Adam, jest let me be.”

Adam didn’t know what to do. He wanted to go in and talk to Joe, but he also knew that unless Joe was ready to talk there wasn’t any force on earth that could make him. To try and force the situation would only push him further away.

“Okay, Joe. Just remember, I’m here if you need me,” Adam sighed and continued down the hall to his room in order to wash up for dinner.

_ _ _ _ _

About half an hour after Adam had been at Joe’s door, there was another knock. Joe was standing at his window watching the sun set, taking in the brilliant orange and reds that streaked across the sky.

Joe had to clear his throat before he was able to say anything. “Go away, Adam. I said I didn’t wanna talk.”

The door opened and someone entered the room.

Joe sighed in frustration, but didn’t turn from the window. “I said ta go away.”

“Hop Sing not go way. Bring number three son dinner.”

Joe quickly wiped at his eyes before turning around.

“They’re havin’ dinner?”

“Yes.”

Joe stood there, staring at Hop Sing in total disbelief. “No one told me.”

“Mr. Cartlight say Li’le Joe not come down, so Hop Sing bring dinner to Li’le Joe.”

“Thank you Hop Sing, but I’m not hungry.”

“You eat. You no eat all day and no eat dinner last night.” Joe looked at Hop Sing in surprise. “Hop Sing know all of number three son’s tricks. You no eat, you get sick.” Hop Sing set the tray on Joe’s desk and started for the door. Before leaving the room he turned back to Joe.

“Eat all, or you deal with Hop Sing,” he ordered.

Joe gave him a small smile. “Yes, Sir.”

Once the door was closed Joe turned back to the window, in complete misery. After awhile, he walked over to the desk, and looked at the tray. On it was fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, a cup of coffee and apple pie. Joe ate some of it, until his stomach turned over in protest. He walked away from it, and laid down on the bed.

After awhile he heard footsteps coming down the hall, by the sound of light steps, Joe could tell it was Hop Sing. He turned over, and feigned being asleep. He just couldn’t face being lectured right now.

Hop Sing softly knocked on the door and entered. He saw Joe laying in bed with his back to him.  Hop Sing looked at the tray that had hardly been touched, and shook his head. He wasn’t fooled for a minute that Joe was asleep, but decided tonight wasn’t the night to make an issue out of it. He had seen the sadness in the boy’s eyes earlier, and didn’t have the heart to scold him. He picked up the tray, and silently left the room.

Once Joe heard the soft click of the door closing, he rolled over onto his back, and laid there staring at the ceiling.

“When Pa comes up, I’m gonna explain about today, and last night. Once he listens to me, he won’t be mad anymore.”

With that decision made, Joe got up, changed into his nightshirt and laid and waited for Ben to come upstairs.

Later, Joe heard Hoss’ heavy footsteps go by, followed by the opening and closing of the door. Soon after, Adam’s lighter steps followed as he went down the hall to his room. Joe heard him pause outside Joe’s door for a moment before continuing on.

Shortly after Adam went by, Joe heard someone else coming down the hall. He assumed it was Ramsey since the steps were lighter than what he expected Mr. Stroud’s to be.

Joe continued to wait, and an hour later he heard Mr. Stroud go by.

“That only leaves Pa.”

Joe knew Ben was banking the fire, and making sure all the lamps were extinguished for the night, before he headed to bed.  Joe heard Ben’s steady and sure steps coming up the stairs. Joe got up, and went out into the hall.

When he saw Ben coming down the hall, Joe started to plead his case. “Pa, I can explain everythin’ that’s happened, if you’ll just let me.”

“Not tonight, Joseph,” Ben said, as he walked past Joe, and into his room.

“But, Pa,” Joe pleaded.

“No.”

Joe watched Ben go into his room and shut the door. Joe stood in the hall looking at Ben’s door, unable to believe what just happened. Joe went back into his room, and softly closed his doors. He leaned against it, and slowly sank to the floor as tears filled his eyes and slowly slid down his face.

“But Pa has always listened to me. He’s never turned his back on me before,” Joe said in utter despair.

 

 

 

Chapter 16

When Adam came down for breakfast the next morning, Ben was already at the table and drinking his coffee.

“Morning, Pa,” Adam said as he sat down and poured himself some coffee.

“Good morning, Adam. Hop Sing should have breakfast ready soon.”

“Pa, I’d like to talk to you before anyone else comes down.”

“What’s on your mind, Son.”

“Um, well, it’s Little Joe.”

Ben looked down at the coffee cup in his hand, and sighed. “What’s he done now?”

“Nothing, Pa. That’s just it; he hasn’t done anything to deserve what’s been happening to him.”

“He hasn’t done anything? You call being late for dinner the other night, after I stressed to him how important it was, nothing? Not to mention, that he’s been late to every meal since. Then yesterday, he left Ramsey alone and went to town after I forbid him to go. And you call that nothing?” Ben said, as he glared at Adam.

“Pa, you know Little Joe’s sense of time isn’t the greatest. It’s never bothered you before when he’s been late for breakfast. Oh, sure you’ve grumbled a bit, but never made him go without, especially knowing how little that boy eats at times.” Adam stopped and watched the thunder clouds roll in, then hurried to continue pleading his case. “Do you honestly believe that Joe would leave Ramsey on his own and go to town? Especially after you specifically told him Virginia City was off limits.”

“Why would Ramsey lie about something like that? He has no reason to. I’m surprised at you, Adam. Aren’t you the one who’s always telling me that I’m too easy on the boy?”  Ben grumbled. “Alex says something needs to be done with Joseph, that I can’t let him continue on the path he’s on. He says being late for meals is rude and a display of disrespect. I tend to agree with him, now that I see what’s been happening. I should have listened to you before.”

“I know what I’ve said.” When Adam noticed Ben was about to interrupt he quickly continued. “Wait, Pa, hear me out before you say anything.” Ben gave a sharp nod and Adam continued. “When have you ever allowed someone to influence you on how to raise your sons? That’s what you’re doing now. You’re letting Mr. Stroud’s opinions and disapproval override your own beliefs and feelings. You have never been like that, especially where Little Joe is concerned. You and I have had many arguments on this topic, and I’ve never been able to sway you. I believe your response has always been, ‘He’s my son and I’ll raise him as I see fit. After all, I am his father and you are not.’ I never thought I would hear myself say this, but you’re being too hard on him, all because of Stroud’s opinion. He doesn’t like Little Joe for some reason. Both Hoss and I can see that, why can’t you?”

“HOW DARE YOU!” Ben shouted. “What gives you the right to pass judgment on me, and worse, on Alex?”

“But Pa,” Adam tried to interject.

“No, Adam, Alex is a good man. He has played a big part in my life when I was growing up, and I respect his opinion. He has raised some fine sons and I pray I can do the same.” Ben glared at Adam, ignoring the slight shudder that ran through him. “You crossed the line this time, Adam!”

Adam sat there, staring at Ben for a minute before throwing his napkin on his plate and standing up. “If you’ll excuse me, I have some chores to do.”

Unknown to either man, Hoss stood at the top of the stairs, just out of sight, and heard every word.

 

 

 

Chapter 17

Breakfast was a quiet affair; the only conversation at the table was between Ben and Alex. Hoss, for the most part, kept his eyes on his plate. Once in awhile he would glance up at Joe, but his brother never looked up. Hoss would also glance over at Adam’s empty chair. He didn’t know what to do, or say. He yearned to have his family back to how it was, but he knew that wouldn’t happen until the Strouds were gone. As far as Hoss was concerned, that couldn’t happen a minute too soon. He just hoped that by the time they did leave, the damage in Ben’s relationship with his sons wouldn’t be beyond repair, especially with Joe.

Ben finally turned his attention to Joe.

“Joseph.”

“Yes, Pa?”

“I want you and Ramsey to go out to Carson’s Meadow and check on that herd of horses Hoss spotted last week. See if you think any are ready to be brought in. We have that Army contract coming up soon.”

“Pa, how ‘bout if Ramsey comes with me today?” Hoss suggested, hoping to give Joe some peace today.

“No Son, I want him going with Joseph. You’re going to be much to busy today, with getting the hands ready for round up,” Ben said, and turned his attention back to Joe.

“I also want to remind you, once again, that you are not to go into town, no matter what.  Is that understood?”

“Yes, Sir,” Joe answered softly.

“I mean it, Joseph.”

“I won’t go ta town, Pa. I promise.”

Ben turned to Ramsey. “Ramsey, tomorrow you’ll go to town with Hoss. He needs to pick up supplies, so he can show you around. Is that alright with you?”

“Yes, Mr. Cartwright, that sounds just fine,” Ramsey answered with an innocent smile on his face.

 

 

 

Chapter 18

Hoss finished his breakfast and quickly left the table. When he entered the barn, Adam looked up from the bridle he was repairing.

“I tried talking to Pa this morning.”

“I know, I heard.” Hoss paused and rubbed the back of his neck. “Pa’s got Ramsey goin’ with Little Joe again today.”

Adam stared at Hoss, unable to comprehend what he had just heard. “You’re kidding.”

“Nope.”

“I don’t understand, Hoss. Pa has always been so set in his ways when it comes to Little Joe.” His stopped and pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration. “I’ll be glad when I see the back of them.”

“Me too, it can’t happen fast enough, as far as I’m concerned. What’ll we do before then?”

“I don’t know, Hoss. What I do know, is that I have a bad feeling about today.”

“By the look on Ramsey’s face when Pa said he’d be goin’ with Joe, I’d say he was up ta somethin’. I tried ta get Pa ta let him go with me, but he said no.”

“Where are they going today?” Adam asked, as he set the bridle down. He went over and started to saddle Sport.

“Carson’s Meadow, Pa wants Joe ta take a look over them horses, I saw the other day.”

“Carson’s Meadow… Well they shouldn’t be able to get into too much trouble there.”

“I don’t know, Adam,” Hoss said as he started saddling Chubb.

“Come on, and stop worrying, we have work to do,” Adam tried to reassure his brother, but he had the same misgivings about today that Hoss did.

 

 

 

Chapter 19

“I’ll go out an’ saddle the horses. Come out when you’re ready.” Joe set the napkin on his plate, and started to leave the table.

“Joseph, remember what I said,” warned Ben.

“I will, Pa.” Joe grabbed his hat, jacket, gun belt, and headed for the barn.

_ _ _ _

By the time Ramsey finally showed up, Joe had Cochise saddled and was almost finished with Maverick. When Joe heard Ramsey enter the barn, he finished tightening the cinch, and turned to him.

“Look, I’m sorry. We seemed ta have gotten off on the wrong foot.” Joe held out his hand as a peace offering. “No hard feelins?”

Ramsey ignored Joe’s hand and instead said. “I want to go to town today.”

“You heard what my Pa said.  I can’t go ta town. Hoss is gonna take ya tomorrow,” Joe finished and lowered his hand.

“I don’t want to go tomorrow. I want to go today.”

“There’s nothin’ I can do about it. I have my orders from Pa.”

“What’s the matter, Little Joe, you chicken?” Ramsey taunted. “Are you afraid Daddy will yell at you again?”

“I’m not afraid of nothin’. I gave my word, an I stand by it,” Joe snapped. “Pa gave us a job ta do an I aim ta get it done.”  The sooner I can finish, the sooner I can get rid of you, Joe thought as he tied his jacket to the back of his saddle.

“You’ll be sorry, Cartwright,” Ramsey muttered under his breath just low enough that Joe didn’t hear him when Joe led Cochise out of the barn.

 

 

 

Chapter 20

Joe and Ramsey headed out to Carson’s Meadow, and neither spoke to the other. Ramsey tried to figure out how he could get to town. Joe, on the other hand, just wanted to get this over with. He normally enjoyed the ride there on a spring day like today, when the air was fresh and clean with the scent of pine trees, a soft breeze blowing, the sun shining down to warm you, and a good horse under you. The ranch was in all its glory this time of year. All this had always worked together to provide Joe with a feeling of utter peace, and contentment.  But not today, today the beauty went unnoticed; it was ruined for Joe but the man riding beside him.

Adam says I’m spoiled, but I don’t hold a candle ta him. What Ramsey wants, Ramsey gets.  But not today.  There’s no way I’m gonna risk making Pa angry again. I don’t think I can take anymore.

Not to far down the rode, Joe noticed a change in Cochise’s gait.

“Whoa, Boy, Somethin’ wrong?”

Joe stopped his horse and dismounted. Ramsey, on the other hand, kept on going.

“Hey, Ramsey, hold up.”

Ramsey ignored Joe and kept going.

Joe sighed. “Oh what I wouldn’t give ta knock him on his backside. Okay Cooch, let’s see what’s wrong.”

Joe lifted Cochises’s right front hoof, and examined it. “Oh, come on, it’s just a little pebble, ya big baby.”

Cochise looked around at Joe and snorted, showing his displeasure. Joe pulled a knife out of his saddle bag, and popped the pebble out.

“There, that ought ta do it.”

He mounted up and gave Cochise a kick. “Let’s go catch up with ‘im, not that I wanna.”

Joe rode at a gallop, expecting to catch with Ramsey pretty quickly. After about two miles he pulled Cochise to a stop.

“There’s no way he got this far ahead of me, not the way he was ridin’.” Joe looked around hoping to catch sight of Ramsey.

“Where the devil is he?”

 

 

 

Chapter 21

Joe sat on Cochise, pondering where Ramsey could have gone.

“Well, we know he didn’t go back ta the house, he would had ta go by us.”

Joe looked up the trail, hoping the answer would come to him. Suddenly, it hit him like a bolt of lightening.

 “Oh no, not that. Please not that, don’t let it be that,” Joe pleaded. He felt his stomach start to twist into knots. He gave Cochise a kick, and took off down the road. When he reached the Virginia City cut off, he stopped, and look down that road, and back to where he had come from.

“If Pa finds out I went ta town, he’ll kill me, but if he finds out that Ramsey went, an’ I didn’t do anythin’ about it, he’ll kill me.”

Joe didn’t know what to do. He looked up toward Heaven, seeking advice.

“This ain’t fair,” he ranted, and he turned Cochise towards town and took off at a run.

 

 

 

Chapter 22

When Joe entered Virginia City, he kept an eye out for Ramsey or Maverick. When he came to the Bucket of Blood, he spotted Maverick hitched just outside the saloon.

“Doggone it!”

He tied Cochise next to Maverick. “If we get outta here fast, Pa never needs ta know, right?” Cochise bobbed his head up and down in agreement.

He went into the saloon, and stood just inside the doors, letting his eyes adjust to the low lighting of the room. Joe scanned the smoky room, and spotted Ramsey standing at the bar, with a glass of whiskey in his hand.

“Hey, Little Joe, haven’t seen you in awhile,” the bartender called out when Joe strode over to the bar.

“Hi, Sam, been busy at the ranch.”

Joe walked up to Ramsey, and pulled him around to face him. “What are ya doin’ here?” Joe demanded between clenched teeth.

“Having a drink.”

“I can see that. What I wanna know is why ya came ta town?”

“I told you, that I wanted to.”

Joe sighed in frustration. “And I told ya we couldn’t. Let’s go, I have work ta do.”

“Go on and do it, little boy. I’m staying.” Ramsey turned back to the bar and called out. “Give me another one.”

“No, Sam, we’re leavin’.”

“I’m not.”

Joe grabbed Ramsey by the arm and started to pull. Joe spoke to him as if Ramsey were a small child. “I said… we… are… leavin’. NOW!”

“And I said, no.” Ramsey pulled away from Joe, and in doing so bumped into a miner on the other side of him, causing the miner to spill his drink.

The man turned and grabbed Ramsey by the collar. “What the hell you think you’re doin’?”

Ramsey looked down his nose at the man. “I suggest you take your filthy hands off me.”

Joe closed his eyes, dreading what was to come. “Oh Lord.”

The miner balled up his fist and punched Ramsey right in the eye.

“I’m dead,” Joe muttered.

Joe stepped between the miner and Ramsey, who was lying on the floor, and put his hands flat against the miner’s chest.

“Come on Ted, ya don’t wanna do that. Let ‘em alone an’ I’ll buy ya another drink,” Joe pleaded, trying to pacify Ted.

“What’s it to ya, Cartwright?”

“He’s a guest of Pa’s, that’s what it’s ta me.”

“In that case…” Before Joe knew what was happening he found himself flat on the floor.  By this time Ramsey was on his feet and taking a swing at Ted, who easily dodged it and sent Ramsey sprawling on the floor once more.

Joe was on his feet, but unlike Ramsey, his fist connected with Ted’s jaw. That was all that the other miners in the bar needed to join in, in their opinion, it was two against one.

Joe gave as good as he got. He was able to dodge a whiskey bottle that was aimed for his head, but not the punch that sent him flying over a table. He was right back on his feet, swinging.

Meanwhile, Ramsey found himself a nice, safe corner, where he could stand and watch the fight.

“This is better then I could have hoped for,” he said, laughing, as he watched Joe go down under a pile of miners, who were swinging away, trying to beat Joe to a pulp. “I told you, you’d be sorry.”

 

 

 

Chapter 23

“Alright, break it up!” Sheriff Coffee yelled as he came in. “Ya heard me; ya had your fun for today!”  When he was ignored he pulled out his gun, aimed it at the ceiling and pulled the trigger. “Sorry ‘bout that, Sam,” Roy said, turning to the bartender, who just nodded.

The sound of the shot and the falling plaster caught everyone’s attention. Slowly, the miners began moving away from the center of the room, revealing Joe, who was lying on the floor.

“Joe Cartwright! I should of known! If there’s trouble to be had, you’re right in the middle of it.”

“But Roy,” Joe tried to interrupt.

“Every time somethin’ happens in here, you’re involved.”

“But Roy,” Joe tried again to explain, but Sheriff Coffee was on a roll.

“Boy, ya need to learn to control that temper of yours. Maybe a night in my jail would teach ya a lesson.”

“Roy, if ya would only let me explain.”

“I don’t wanna hear one of you cock an’ bull stories. What was it about this time, a girl or a poker game?”

Joe hung his head in defeat, and had to fight to hold the tears of injustice back. Every inch of his body hurt and he was totally miserable. Why won’t anyone just listen ta me?

“Let’s go, you’re comin’ with me, Little Joe. I really think that night with me will do ya a world of good. Your Pa can come an’ collect you in the mornin’.” Roy took hold of Joe’s right arm and started leading him out of the saloon.

“Well, so much for Pa not knowing,” Joe mumbled.

 

 

 

Chapter 24

“Roy, would you stop and listen to the boy,” Sam interjected. “It wasn’t his fault. He didn’t start it, and he most certainly didn’t throw the first punch or even the second. In fact, Little Joe tried to stop it.” Sam stopped his defense of Joe, and looked around the room. Spotting Ramsey standing in a corner, grinning like a cat that just ate the canary, Sam pointed his finger at him. “If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s his. Little Joe tried to get him to leave.”

Sheriff Coffee turned to Joe. “Is this true, Little Joe?”

Joe nodded his head and whispered. “Yeah.”

“I’m sorry ta go jumpin’ ta conclusions. Are ya okay?”

Once Joe had his emotions under control, he looked up at the sheriff. “I’m fine.”

Sheriff Coffee looked him over, taking note of the various cuts, and bruises, and noticed the blood on the left sleeve of Joe’s shirt.

“Yeah, you’re fine, alright. Ya get yourself over ta Doc’s, an’ I’ll take care of that one for ya,” he said motioning towards Ramsey.

“I said I’m fine,” Joe grumbled.

“Humor me, will ya?”

Joe stood there and looked around the saloon. “Sam, I’ll take care of the damage…some how. Just let me know how much.”

“Little Joe, the damages aren’t your fault,” Sam told him. “For once,” he added with a smile.

“But I’m responsible for ‘im,” Joe said motioning towards Ramsey. “So I need to take care of damages,” he pleaded. “Please, nothin’ else needs ta be said ta anyone.”

“Little Joe, your Pa needs to know about this,” Roy told him.

“No! Please, Roy,” he begged.

Sheriff Coffee, stood there studying Joe, and took pity on him. Apparently things haven’t improved at home, Roy thought.  “Alright, but keep him out of town.”

“Thanks, Roy.”

Sheriff Coffee nodded, then pointed at the door, “Doc’s.  NOW!”

Joe turned and slowly made his way to Dr. Martin’s.

 

 

 

Chapter 25

Joe slowly walked into Dr. Martin’s office, and looked around. “Maybe he’s not here.”

When Joe turned to walk out the door, there was a noise behind him.

“No such luck,” Dr. Martin said coming out of the examination room. “What brings…” He stopped when he got a good look at Joe and sighed. “Never mind, I see what. Come on.” Dr. Martin turned and walked back into the examination room, reluctantly Joe followed him.

Dr. Martin looked Joe over with a doctor’s well trained eye. He noticed the split lip, the cuts and bruises, the stiff way that Joe was moving, but most of all he noticed the blood on his arm.

“Well, what did you do this time?”

A defiant look crossed Joe’s face. “Why is it that lately everyone thinks everythin’ is my fault? I didn’t do nothin’,” When Dr. Martin looked at him with a look of disbelief in his eyes, Joe added. “Honest.  Ramsey started it.  I should of just let that miner beat the, um, daylights out of ‘im.”

Dr. Martin held his hands up in front of him. “Okay, okay, I believe you. Now, off with that shirt, and up on the table.”

“Doc, I’m fine,” Joe protested.

“Sure you are, you’re always fine. But since you’re here, I might as well have a look.”

“I’m fine.”

“Little Joe, don’t make me…” Dr. Martin left the implied threat hanging in the air.

The two men stared at each other, waiting to see who would be the one to give in first. Dr. Martin had the advantage…Seventeen years dealing with this particular Cartwright. Pretty soon Joe was unbuttoning his shirt, unwillingly, but he was doing it.

Dr. Martin chuckled as Joe sat on the table. When will you ever learn, you can’t win. “How many were there?”

“I think the whole dang saloon. Lest that’s what it feels like.”

Paul ignored the arm at first and looked over the other injuries. Finally he turned his attention to Joe’s arm. Carefully, he removed the blood-soaked bandage, and shook his head in disgust. The stitches were torn out; some had been done before today. The wound was red, slightly swollen, bleeding and not even close to healing. The parts that had actually started to heal were now torn open.

“Joseph Cartwright, I thought I told you to take it easy, and take care of that arm!”

“I have,” Joe protested.

“Really? Then how do you explain this mess?”

“Um, tthe fight?”

“Try again. Some of those stitches were pulled out before today.”

“Um, I guess maybe it might have, maybe been the um, swing mount.” Paul kept staring at him. “And maybe saddling the horses haven’t helped.” Paul nodded his head and waited for Joe to continue. “And helping with that cow the other day.”

 That’s what I thought. Haven’t you been taking care of it, and keeping it clean?”

“Yes.”

“Didn’t you notice anything wrong? No bleeding, pain, or swelling? Nothing?”

Joe hung his head, and mumbled. “Well, yeah, um, maybe. But not a lot.”

“I see. It never crossed your mind to come and see me?”

“Couldn’t.”

“And why not?” Dr. Martin was starting to get frustrated with the evasive answers he was getting.

“I’m not allowed in town, an’ I’ve been busy with Ramsey.”

“Not allowed in town? Then what the devil are you doing here?” Dr. Martin demanded.

“Ramsey,” was Joe’s one word answer.

Dr. Martin nodded his head and continued. “Alright, this is what we have here. Your ribs are bruised not badly, but enough to be quite uncomfortable. I’m going to bind them, and hopefully they’ll be a little more comfortable for you. They should be fine in a few days. You have an array of bruises, which are going to cause you some discomfort,”

“They already do,” Joe mumbled, causing Dr. Martin to smile.

“The split lip, as you know will heal. I’m going to need to put a couple of stitches in the cut above your eye. That arm is a different story,” Paul stopped and examined the arm again. “I’m going to have to clean it out all over again, and then stitch it close. Again.”

Dr. Martin went over to a cabinet to gathered what he would need. He handed Joe a a piece of cloth, “Put some pressure on that arm until I can get to it. I’m going to clean out the other cuts and stitch the one above your eye first, and then I’ll take care of that arm. I’m going to give you a mild sedative to take the edge off the pain for you.”

“No, I’ll be fine without it.”

“Little Joe, this is going to hurt.”

“I know, but I have ta ride home, an I need ta have a clear head ta make sure I get Ramsey there. I can’t be all dopy, cuz Lord only knows what he’ll do then.”

“Little Joe…”

“Please, Doc.”

Dr. Martin shook his head in exasperation. “You are the most stubborn, most exasperating person I know.”

“I’ve heard that before.”

“I bet you have. Alright, have it your way,”

Joe flinched when the alcohol made contact with the first cut. Dr. Martin just looked at him and shook his head.

“Ouch! That hurts,” Joe exclaimed, and tried to shift away when Dr. Martin started on his arm.

“It’s your own fault. Now, hold still.”

Once Dr. Martin finished cleaning, stitching and bandaging the arm, he turned to his patient with a scowl on his face.

“Now you listen to me and take heed of my words. You are to take it easy with that arm.  You are NOT to do any heavy lifting or anything that will put any type of strain on it. I want you to keep it clean and put fresh bandages on it at least once a day, more if needed.  Understood?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“I’ll be out to the ranch later, to talk with your father. I want to make sure he keeps an eye on you.”

“No!” Joe insisted, looking up at Dr. Martin. “Please Doc, don’t do that. Pa’s gonna be mad enough at me for the fight. If he finds out ‘bout this, he’ll explode,” Joe begged. “Not that he ain’t gonna anyhow,” Joe muttered under his breath.

“Little Joe, your father needs to know about this.” Joe kept shaking his head. “He’ll want to know.” Joe gave him his best puppy dog eyes. “He needs to keep you from doing anything stupid, again.”

“I won’t, Doc, honest.”

Dr. Martin stood there studying the young man in front him, and his heart went out to him. “Alright, I won’t tell him, but you have to promise you will.”

Joe swallowed hard. “Sure, Doc.” No I ain’t. There’s no way I’m telling Pa about this.

Dr. Martin handed Joe his shirt, and a supply of bandages. “Go on, get out of here.”

 

 

 

Chapter 26

Joe left Dr. Martin’s office, and made his way back to the Bucket of Blood. He collected the horses, and headed to the jail. When he walked in to Sheriff Coffee’s office, he was surprised not to see Ramsey sitting in the chair next to the desk.

“Where is he, Roy?”

Roy looked up from his paperwork. “He’s here. What did Doc say?”

“Cleaned me up, an’ said I’m fine.”

“Uh huh, I’m sure he did.” Roy picked up the keys for the cells.

“Ya put ‘im in a cell?” Joe was astounded that Roy would do that. After all, Joe’s had learned that no one would dare do something like that to Ramsey.

“You bet I did. He’s darn lucky he’s not spending the night there, after everything I heard from Sam. I’m lettin’ him go as a favor ta you, Little Joe.”

“Thanks, Roy. I appreciate that.”

 He looked at Joe before going to get Ramsey. “Do you want ta tell me about it?”

“About what Roy?”

“Don’t go playin’ with me, Boy. You know what I’m talking about.”  He watched as Joe straightened his shoulders in defiance.

“Now don’t you go getting an attitude with me. I could tell there was something wrong at dinner the other night. Now today you don’t want anyone talking ta your Pa.”

“There’s nothin’ wrong.”

Roy’s eyebrows lowered, and he stood there waiting for the truth. Years of being a sheriff had taught him to trust his gut instinct, and now they told him something was definitely not right.

Joe started to squirm under Roy’s intense glare. He dropped his head before whispering. “Everything’s fine at home.”

“Little Joe, if you need me ta go and talk ta your pa…”

“No! Look, everything’s okay at home. I don’t need ya or anyone else talkin’ ta Pa.” I just know I can take care of this myself.  “Now, could ya please let ‘im out, so I can get home.”

Roy stared at Joe for a minute longer before he turned and going to the back of the jail to let Ramsey out.

Ramsey walked right past Joe. “It’s about time,” he snapped as he walked out the door.

Joe just shook his head. “See ya, Roy.”

“Remember what I said, Little Joe. I don’t want him in town with you again.”

“Yes, Sir.”

Roy walked out with Joe, watched him take his jacket from the back of his saddle, and slowly put it on before pulling himself onto Cochise. He took off at a gallop, in pursuit of Ramsey.

“Slow down!” shouted Roy. Joe just waved his hand in the air as he continued down the street.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do with that boy.”

Roy turned to see Dr. Martin standing beside him.

“There’s somethin’ wrong, but I just can’t put my finger on it,” Roy pondered.

“I noticed that too. He didn’t have the normal fight in him, like he normally does when he has to see me.” Dr. Martin stared down the street to where Joe had been just moments before. “He’s very set on Ben not finding out about that arm, which isn’t like him. He’ll fuss a bit about it, but I think he secretively enjoys those moments with Ben.” Dr. Martin stopped and shook his head in disgust. “I had to stitch his arm up again.”

“I figured ya would  have to when I saw him in the saloon. He begged us not to tell Ben about what happened, told Sam he’d pay for everything. I reckon that fella has something to do with it all. Seems like he’s nothin’ but trouble. Sam told me the whole ruckus was his doin’. The only thing Little Joe did, was try to calm Ted down, and he found himself on the floor, for all his efforts. Sam said that dandy just stood in the corner laughin’,” Sheriff Coffee chuckled then. “You should of seen the fit he had when I threw ‘im in a cell.” Roy started laughing. “It sure did my heart a world of good ta hear him carry on. I sure would have liked ta keep him there, but I think that would of caused more trouble than it’s worth.”

“Well, at least this is one time Little Joe’s not going to get in trouble with Ben for getting in a fight,” Dr. Martin said.

“Poor kid, I tore in ta ‘im somethin’ awful when I first saw ‘im.  I thought it was his doin’ again.  I was goin’ to keep ‘im over night to teach ‘im a lesson.  Sam sure set me straight on that one.”

 

 

 

Chapter 27

Joe caught up with Ramsey a couple of miles outside of town. “I hope you’re happy now.” Joe said through clenched teeth, trying to keep the pain at bay, running Cochise as he did, didn’t do anything to help ease his discomfort.

“Happy about what? Having that scum lay his hands on me, or that backwoods, so called sheriff, putting me in that filthy, flea ridden jail cell. You just wait until my father hears about this.”

“Oh, I can wait,” Joe muttered. “Ya know, you’re the rudest person I’ve ever met. I’d rather tangle with a grizzly, than be around ya. It sure would be a lot more pleasurable.”

“Why you uncouth, little…”

“Would ya shut up!” Joe interrupted, giving Cochise a kick.

_ _ _ _

Once they reached the ranch and took care of the horses, they headed for the house, which was the last thing Joe wanted to do.

Ben, Adam, and Hoss were sitting around the great room listening to Alex telling what pillars of society his older sons were. Again.  When Joe and Ramsey entered the house, Joe immediately turned, hung up his hat, and removed his gun belt, slowly coiling it up and placing it on the credenza. He heard Adam and Hoss gasp, and just stood there waiting for the inevitable eruption from Volcano Cartwright.

“What the devil happened to you?” Ben demanded.

“Joe insisted that we go to town, and to a saloon,” Ramsey whined.

“He WHAT?” Ben bellowed.

Joe spun around and his voice went up several octaves. “I what?”

“He made me go to town, and he started a fight.”

“JOSEPH!”

Joe cringed. There’s the eruption.

“Pa, that’s not what happened. I swear it didn’t happen like that. Ramsey’s the one who took off…”

Ben was fuming by this point. “Get to your room, I’ll be up and deal with you in a minute.”

“But Pa!”

“NOW,” he roared.

Joe turned, and headed for the stairs. When he reached them, he turned back to Ben.

“Pa, please.”

Ben turned his back on Joe. Joe ran up the stairs and into his room.  The sound of the slamming door caused Adam and Hoss to flinch, and look at each other.

“Ramsey, go upstairs and get cleaned up,” Alex told his son.

“Yes, father.”

Adam was the only one who saw the smirk on Ramsey’s face when he turned and headed for his room. They’ll be gone soon, and all this will be over. Pa and Little Joe will be back to normal.

When Ben sat down, Alex turned to him. “Benjamin, that was totally unacceptable. Once again he disobeyed you, forced my son to go to town. He then started a fight, in which my son was badly injured. Then he has the nerve to lie, to try and place the blame on Ramsey.  I won’t even mention that tantrum he just threw.”

“Ya just did,” Hoss mumbled.

“Eric!” Ben chastised.

Hoss turned to Adam, and mouthed ‘Eric?’  Adam’s only response was to shrug his shoulders.

His son getting’ hurt? He has one measly black eye, where Little Joe looks like the whole durn saloon jumped him, Hoss thought.

“Ben, you need to do something about this,” Alex demanded. “You know how I would have handled this.”

“I know, Alex,” Ben acknowledged, yet he hesitated.

“Benjamin! You can’t let this go. Your father and mother let things go with you. If I hadn’t been there to keep you in line, you wouldn’t be the successful man you are today.  Do you want your son to become some hooligan, who ends up in prison, or worse? I was firm with you so you wouldn’t end up there. You have to be the same with him.” Alex glanced up the stairs for a second before turning his attention back to Ben.

Ben ran his hands over his face. “Of course, you’re right, Alex. Ben rose from his chair, and started for the stairs.

“Pa, you’re angry. You have always said never to punish when you’re angry,” Adam pointed out.

“Adam, stay out of this,” Ben said, and walked up the stairs. 

 

 

 

Chapter 28

Joe was standing at his window, looking off into the distance, past the majestic Ponderosa pines, towards Lake Tahoe, to a small clearing on a bluff overlooking the lake.

“How I wish you were here, Mama. If you were, Pa would listen, you would make him.  You would see what’s happening.” Joe’s voice cracked as tears slowly trickled down his cheeks. “Am I really as bad as everyone says I am?” Joe stood in silence as his emotions got the better of him.

Ben stopped out side of Joe’s door and took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. He entered Joe’s room without knocking. He saw Joe standing at the window, and noticed his shoulders shaking slightly. Ben wanted to go to him, pull him into his arms, and tell him everything would be alright, just like he did when Joe was a child. But then Alex’s words from a previous day ran through his mind. See there Ben, that boy is out of control.  Mark my words, he’ll come to no good if you let this continue.  You need to stand up and put an end to it.  Do you think you would be half the man you are now, if I hadn’t used a firm hand with you? Ben closed his mind to his son’s pain and sorrow. I have to be strong for him. I can’t let him ruin his life.

“Joseph.” Ben saw his son stiffen at the sound of his voice, but he didn’t turn around. “Face me when I’m speaking to you.”

Joe wiped his eyes, took a deep breath, and composed himself before turning to face his father.

“Yes, Pa?”

Ben ignored his son’s red eyes and tear-streaked face. “I’m very disappointed in you, Joseph. Your actions today were extremely childish.” Ben’s lecture had started. “For the last two days I’ve told you that you were not allowed in town, but you chose to defy me.”

Joe lowered his head at his father’s words, refusing to let Ben see the moisture shimmering in his eyes, and the pain his words caused.

“Today you just had to drag Ramsey with you and put him in danger. He was your responsibility, and he came home all beat up. You promised me that you would not go to town. How can I trust you, now? This isn’t the first promise you’ve broken in the last few days. Alex has told me before that we need to have a necessary talk.” Ben watched as Joe’s head snapped up, his hands clenching and unclenching, and his jaw jutting out.  “At this time though, I’m of the opinion that you’re too old for that. But, any more of this childish behavior, and I just might change my mind.” Ben watched the defiance built in Joe’s green eyes. The boy before him was angry, and Ben braced for the explosion that he knew would come at any moment. He cleared his throat before continuing. “Since you have insisted on acting like a child, then you will be treated like one. You’re restricted to the yard tomorrow. You will be up early to collect the eggs for Hop Sing. You will also clean the chicken coop and do the chores that I’ve set for you, and any that Hop Sing gives you.”

“But Pa, I haven’t done those since I was a kid,” Joe protested.

“As I said Joseph, if you act like one, you’ll be treated as such. You’ve acted like a child today, and you threw a tantrum when you were caught doing something you were not allowed to.”

“Pa, I didn’t do nothin’ wrong.!”

“You went to town,” Ben shouted.

“Yes, but only to get Ramsey.”

“JOSEPH! Do not add lying to your list of transgressions.”

“I AIN’T LYIN’!” Joe shouted.

“ENOUGH!” Ben stopped and took a calming breath. “You will stay in your room for the rest of the day. Hop Sing will bring your dinner up to you. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Pa, please listen ta me,” Joe begged.

Ben turned, and walked towards the door, ignoring Joe’s pleas.

“Please Pa…”

“No, Joseph.” Ben walked out the door, shutting if firmly behind him.

“Pa,” Joe called out.

 

 

 

Chapter 29

After Ben had gone upstairs, Adam and Hoss excused themselves, saying they had some chores to do in the barn before dinner.

Once they were safely in the confines of the barn and well out of hearing, Hoss turned on Adam. “What the devil is Pa thinkin’?” he shouted.  Hoss was angry, and the recipient was someone who Hoss was rarely angry with; Ben. “Little Joe looks like he took a pretty good poundin’. Heck Adam, normally, Pa would be mad as all get out about Little Joe brawlin’ an’ the damages, but he’d be cluckin’ over Little Joe like a mother hen with her chicks. He’d have Little Joe in bed an’ Doc called out faster than I can eat Hop Sing’s donuts.”

“I know, Hoss. Did you see that cut above his eye? He had had stitches put in, so we know Doc got his hands on him. I’ll also lay odds that his ribs are bound, too. He may have run up those stairs, but I’m sure he regretted every step once he got to his room.”

“Yeah, he seemed pretty stiff. I bet that that ride home was just as bad as a behind full of porcupine quills.”

Adam winced at the image Hoss drew. “Yeah, but I think he would have enjoyed the quills more than the company.”

“Ain’t there somethin’ we can do?”

“Nothing I can think of at the moment. You heard the success I had when I tried talking to Pa.”

“Yeah I did. He about skinned ya alive. The way he went on, you’d a thought ya told him he had ta marry Widow Hawkins.”

 “I’ll tell you Hoss, I’d rather hear her calling Pa, ‘Ducky,’ all day than hear one more word out of either of the Strouds.”

Hoss and Adam laughed at the image of Ben and the Widow Hawkins together.

“One thing’s for sure, Adam; once they’re gone things’ll get back ta normal. Well, that is after Pa stops yellin’ when he gets the bill for them damages at the saloon,” Hoss said with a hopeful smile.

That yelling will be a lot different than the yelling now. They’ll be gone soon and we’ll have our little brother back to normal, and driving me to distraction.” Adam smiled at the image of Joe with that mischievous twinkle in his eyes as he plotted his next prank. Nine times out of ten, Adam was the recipient. Just don’t let it be the horse trough, again.

 

 

 

Chapter 30

Joe was the first one at the breakfast table the next morning. The fact that he hadn’t slept the night before had helped him achieve this feat.

Adam was the next one down. “Good morning, Little Joe.”

“Morning,” Joe said as he nursed a cup of coffee, deep in thought.

Adam studied his brother. He noticed the dark circles under Joe’s eyes, and how red they were. The kid looks as he hasn’t been sleeping, and I would place money on it, that he’s been crying. Hell, who could blame him.

“You’re up awful early, you even beat Hoss up,” he joked.

“Mmmm,” was the only sound from Joe.

Hoss’ heavy steps could be heard coming down the stairs, and over to the table. “Mornin’ brothers. Breakfast ready? Cuz I’m powerful hungry this mornin’.”

“You’ll just have to wait until Hop Sing is good and ready to bring it out,” teased Adam.

“Dadburnit,” Hoss grumbled.

Joe hadn’t said a word, not even to poke fun at Hoss’ ‘hunger’. He just gave them a small smile.

Hoss noticed the same things as Adam. He looked towards his older brother, who just shook his head.

At that moment Hop Sing came out with platters filled with food.

“Boy howdy, that sure does smell good, Hop Sing. Don’t ya think so, Little Joe?”

Joe’s head came up, and he looked around the table as if he was surprised to see his brothers there. “Yeah, it does. I sure am hungry, Hop Sing.”

Hop Sing looked at Joe and smiled. “Plenty to eat.”

Hoss passed the platters, and each of them filled their plates.

“Hey! Leave me some eggs, will ya?” Joe exclaimed as Hoss shoveled eggs onto his plate.

“Can’t help it if you’re slow, Little Brother.”

Ben came down and greeted his sons. “Good morning.”

“Morning, Pa,” all three of them said at the same time.

Hoss passed the platters to his father and they started to discuss the day’s activities.

“Hoss, remember you’re taking Ramsey to town with you today.”

“I remember, Pa,” Hoss said, and gave Joe a wink.

Joe thought about letting them know what Roy told him about keeping Ramsey out of town, but decided it was for the best not to bring yesterday up. Besides, Roy told him to keep Ramsey out. He didn’t say that he wasn’t allowed there with anyone else. Joe was looking forward to a Ramsey free day, no matter what kind of chores he had to do.

“Adam, I want you to go up to the lumber camp and see how things are going.”

“Sure, Pa.”

“Joseph, that list of chores is on my desk. I expect them done by the time I get back. I’ll be checking that they’re done right.”

“Yes, Pa,” Joe responded. “I’ll have everything done, I promise.”

Ben started to say something, but Hop Sing came out with a fresh pot of coffee, and Ben turned to him.

“Thank you, Hop Sing.  Did Joseph gather the eggs for you this morning?”

“Num’re Three son up and had eggs in kitchen before Hop Sing even up.”

Ben nodded his head in acknowledgement. He avoided looking at Joe as he ate his breakfast. He couldn’t afford to, not if he was going to stick with the stand he was taking regarding Joe’s actions.

“Well, I’ll be, miracles do happen, Adam. Joe was up even before Hop Sing.”

“We better watch out, or he’ll start making us look bad,” Adam laughed.

“Ha ha, ya two.  You’re both regular comedians,” Joe joked.

Just as Joe finished eating, Alex and Ramsey came down the stairs, and morning greetings were exchanged.

“May I be excused, Pa? I’d like ta start on that list.” Joe was in a hurry to get out of the house, now that the Strouds were at the table.

“You may, Joseph.”

“I’ll hitch up the wagon for ya, Hoss.”

“Ya don’t need ta do that, Little Joe.”

“I want ta,” Joe responded as he walked away from the table, retrieved the list, and left the house.

After finishing their breakfast, Adam and Hoss excused themselves from the table.

“Hey, Ramsey, come on out when you’re done, an we’ll head ta town.”

“Remember to get the list of supplies from Hop Sing, Hoss,” Ben reminded him.

“Already did, Pa. Got it last night.”

_ _ _ _

When they entered the barn, Hoss looked around.

“He’s probably out cleaning the chicken coop,” Adam said, knowing who Hoss was looking for.

“Chicken coop! He ain’t done that for years, Adam. Besides, he hates them chickens.”

“I know. I had a look at that list Pa made for him. A lot of the things on it, he hasn’t done for years.”

 

 

 

Chapter 31

As the day progressed, Joe started to make progress on his list of chores. He was out behind the house working in the garden when Hop Sing came out.

“Li’le Joe no have to do that.”

“I do Hop Sing, it’s on the list.”

Hop Sing went off in a rush of Chinese, and Joe cringed at the words. Hop Sing reverted back to English. “You do child’s work. Not right for you to do child’s work. You not child anymore. Go do other work.”

“I can’t. If Pa finds out, I’ll be in more trouble. I can’t…” Joe didn’t finish his sentence as he went back to his weeding.

“You finish, then come to kitchen, and eat lunch.”

When Hop Sing saw Joe start to say something, he added. “No argue with Hop Sing.”

_ _ _ _

When Joe finished in the garden, he washed up and had lunch with Hop Sing. This was something he hadn’t done a long time, and took solace in something that provided so many fond memories of days gone by.

The two men chatted away, sharing memories and dreams yet to come. The only thing Joe refused to talk about was what was currently happening with his father.

Joe helped Hop Sing around the house with the chores that Ben left for him. When he was done he asked if there was anything else Hop Sing needed. Hop Sing’s response was to chase him out of the house. Joe went out to the barn and started on the next item on the list, cleaning the tack room, then moved on to mucking out the barn. Once he finished and all the soiled hay had been removed and dumped, he climbed up into the loft. While he stood there trying to decide how many bales of hay needed to be brought down, he unconsciously rubbed his left arm, which was already throbbing. One by one, Joe moved some bales to the edge of the loft, hooked the pulley to them and lowered them one by one to the ground. He stacked them with the ones that were already there, completing the last item on his list. There was plenty of light left, and instead of risking his father’s wrath for not taking the initiative to finding something else that needed to be done, Joe looked over at the corral fence. Seeing some loose boards he pulled them off and replaced them.

Finished and not seeing anything else to do, other than chopping the wood, which he didn’t think he was up to, Joe went to his room to clean up for dinner.

When he started to take his shirt off, Joe noticed a small spot of blood on it. He closed his eyes and sighed in frustration. He pulled the shirt off, and threw it in a corner. He pulled off the offending bandage, and surveyed the damage.

“Well, here’s another thing ta add to my list of transgressions. What do I have ta do ta get a break?”

He could hear Dr. Martin’s words in his mind. Alright, but you have to promise me you’ll take it easy with that arm.

“As I’ve been told, I just can’t obey anything.”

He cleaned it up as best as he could, rebandaged it, finished washing up, and went down for dinner. He had already heard his brothers arrive home, followed by Ben and Alex. Joe made sure he was downstairs in plenty of time for dinner. He couldn’t risk being late, again.

 

 

 

Chapter 32

Conversation buzzed around the table during dinner. Adam reported that they were ahead of schedule at the lumber camp. Hoss passed on all the latest gossip from town.

“I guess Mrs. Lambert is finally havin’ that baby of hers. Bert at the livery said Doc left town early this morning headin’ out there, an’ hasn’t been back.” Hoss stopped to take a bite of his steak before continuing. “And Clem said Roy left last night for Carson City. He said he had ta go an’ testify at some trial up there.”

“Hoss you’re just as good as the Virginia City Ladies Society at gathering information,” Adam teased.

“Gotta stay on top of things. Oh, Little Joe, Jenny was askin’ ‘bout ya, today.”

“Okay,” was the only reply Hoss received.

“She shore is one pretty little gal, and I hear she sure can cook, too.”

“You better look out, Little Brother. If Hoss says that gal can cook, he’s going to start sparking her himself,” teased Adam.

“Hmm?” Joe asked, not even looking up at his brothers.

Hoss had hoped the banter about Jenny would cheer Joe up, especially since he knew she was a girl that Joe had started paying attention to lately, but by the looks of it, it didn’t have any affect at all. Shaking his head, Hoss went back to his dinner.

Little did Hoss know, Joe was a thousand miles away, trying to figure out what he could do to get back in Ben’s good graces.

“So Ramsey how was town today?” Ben asked.

“It was just fine, Mr. Cartwright. After Hoss dropped off the supply list, we picked up the mail, he showed me around, and then we had a beer at the Silver Dollar before picking up the supplies. I had a real nice time, Hoss. Thank you,” gushed Ramsey with a sweet smile on his face.

Ben nodded his head in acknowledgement before he turned to Joe. “I saw that you finished all the chores that I left for you, and even fixed the coral fence. Thank you, Joseph.”

“You’re welcome, Pa,” Joe answered, giving his father a small smile.

_ _ _ _

After dinner everyone adjourned to the great room. Joe accepted the coffee offered to him and sat down in front of the fire. Once again, conversation flowed around the room, but Joe was silent. When Hoss offered to play a game of checkers, Joe declined. Adam tried to start up a conversation with Joe about the church social next month, and who might bid on whose baskets. Adam finally gave up after receiving one word answers, if any answers at all, and left Joe to sit in silence. To Adam and Hoss Joe’s silence was deafening.

I never thought I’d miss Little Joe’s constant chatter, Adam thought.

As soon as Joe thought it was polite, he excused himself and went to bed.  He was exhausted, and his arm was hurting.

 

 

 

Chapter 33

Joe arrived for breakfast at the appointed time. He greeted everyone at the table, taking note that Ramsey was nowhere to be seen. Alex noticed Joe looking around.

“If you’re looking for Ramsey, he left to go on an early ride.”

Good, at least I’ll get one peaceful meal, without having to hurry off. Joe ate his breakfast in silence, dreading another day around the house, doing jobs meant for a child.

“Joseph, I want you to check the fences out by Willow Creek,” Ben said, breaking into Joe’s thoughts.

Joe perked up, hearing he was going to be able to leave the yard, even though it was only to ride fence. Even better, he was going alone. No Ramsey today. My day couldn’t get any better.

“Yes, Pa,” Joe responded. He finished his breakfast, and waited for a lull in the conversation. After how the week had been so far, Joe was bound and determined to get back into Ben’s good graces, and if that meant having the manners of a saint, he’d do it.

“Excuse me, I’m sorry for interrupting, but may I be excused? I’d like ta get started on my work,” Joe asked in an extremely polite and respectful tone.

Ben glanced at Alex, hoping to see that he approved of the change in Joe, before looking at Joe. “Yes, you may, Joseph. Make sure you’re not late for dinner tonight. I expect you here, dressed appropriately, and on time. Understood?”

“Yes, Pa,” Joe laid his napkin on his plate, rose and went to the front door. He put on his gun belt, grabbed his hat, and was out the door. As he started for the barn, Hop Sing came rushing out the kitchen door. “Li’le Joe, Hop Sing make lunch for you. Long day, you need to eat.”

Joe accepted the wrapped package. “Thanks, Hop Sing.” He continued on to the barn whistling. When he entered, he turned to Cochise’s stall, and stopped dead in his tracks dropping his lunch on the ground.

“What the Hell!” he exclaimed, as he looked at the empty stall. Immediately, Alex’s words came to him.

Ramsey went out for an early ride.

“He went for an early ride alright, on MY HORSE!” Joe quickly saddled Maverick, and walked him out of the barn.

Joe surveyed the ground looking for Cochise’s tracks. He was now thankful to Hoss for putting that new shoe on the other day that had a nick on it. At the time, Joe accused Hoss of doing it on purpose. Which he did. He said it was so they’d have an easier time following him.

Once he spotted the tracks, he mounted up and started tracking Ramsey. Joe paused when the tracks reached a small but well worn trail that branched off from the main road. Joe sat there studying the tracks, trying to make sense of them.

“Why would he go there?” Then the argument from the first day came to Joe and he knew that Ramsey was going there for a reason. But why? Joe wondered.

 

 

 

Chapter 34

Ben and Alex rode out together shortly after Joe left. While they sat on top of a hill, overlooking a pasture with a herd of horses grazing there, Ben turned to Alex.

“Joseph wants to take over the horse operation, but Adam thinks he’s too young and isn’t responsible enough. Personally, I think he’d do well. He has a way with horses that I’ve never seen in anyone before.”

“I believe Adam’s correct, Ben. You really do need to do something with that boy, other than rewarding him for bad behavior.”

“What do you mean by that?” Ben asked, turning his full attention to the man beside him.

“He’s wild, Ben. You were lucky with the other two. They turned out okay, despite everything. But this one, this one is different.”

“He’s young Alex. He has a lot of growing to do yet. He’ll learn.”

“He’s spoiled, he doesn’t have an ounce of respect or responsibility in him. You told me yourself about all the trouble he gets in when he’s in town, the drinking, gambling, and fighting. He’s never on time. I’ve seen it all myself.”

“He’s a hard worker, Alex. He takes his responsibilities on the ranch quite seriously. He’s just high spirited,” Ben said, trying to defend his son.

“Does he? I’ve heard Adam talking, saying how the boy has to constantly be told what to do, and then his work has to be checked to make sure he’s done it, and done it correctly. Those ‘high spirits,’ as you call them, will get him into nothing but trouble. Look what happened with Marie and her ‘high spirits.’”

“What does Marie have to do with this?”

“You told me he’s a lot like her. Because of her ‘high spirits,’ she rode too fast, because of those ‘high spirits’ she got herself killed. You’ve even said he rides just like his mother. Do you want the same thing to happen to him?” When he saw Ben shake his head, Alex continued. “I’ve seen a lot of this in my practice. Rich boys, who are ‘high spirited,’ and allowed to run free, No one has any control over them,” Alex explained.

“They do what they want, without any consequences, or having to take responsibility for their actions. You have to take control of him, Ben. You have to do something with his ‘high spirits’, break it, or it’ll lead to his ruination. If you don’t, you’ll lose him, Ben, one way or another.”

Ben sat contemplating Alex’s words. Break his spirit? But that’s what makes Joseph, Joseph. “I don’t know, Alex.”

“Ben, look at my boys. I was hard on them, true, but I kept them on the straight and narrow. Lawrence is a prominent attorney in Boston, and on his way to becoming a congressman or better. Daniel is a brilliant surgeon. He joined me, and is the talk of the medical community. Look at yourself, Ben. You’re a successful rancher, a leader in the community. Because of me, all of you have become prominent, successful men.” Alex hoped that by trying to acknowledge Ben’s ‘success’ and making him sound like he was in the same class as his older sons, Ben might take his words to heart and really listen to him this time. Then again, Alex knew he could play Ben just like a fiddle.

“You’re son, Adam, started on the right track. He went to one of the best schools in Boston; he was at the top of his class. But what did he do when he graduated? He came back here and threw everything away. I give him credit for how he is with the boy. He’s hard on him, much harder than you are, but he’s still not hard enough. Hoss, even though he never completed his education, is an extremely hard worker. But he’s worse than you are with the boy. In Hoss’ eyes Joseph can’t do any wrong. You have to do something with Joseph, before it’s too late. That ‘high spirit’ of his needs to be broken.”

“You may be right, Alex. The last thing I want is to lose that boy.” Ben sat there thinking hard on this. If he lost Joseph, he didn’t think he could survive it. He had to do something to help him, and if that meant he had to break that spirit, then he would have to do it. He looked back down at the herd of horses, and then looked at Alex. If being like Alex means saving Joseph’s life, then I don’t have a choice. I can’t let anything happen to my son.

 

 

 

Chapter 35

Joe turned Maverick and headed up the familiar trail. When he reached the bluff overlooking the lake, he spotted Cochise. He tied Maverick to a bush, and walked over to his mother’s grave. He saw Ramsey standing there looking down at the grass covered mound, with a look of disgust on his face.

“What are ya doin’ here?” Joe demanded.

Ramsey’s head snapped up startled to see Joe standing behind Marie’s headstone.

“I just wanted to see if it was true,” Ramsey replied with a sneer.

“If what was true?” Joe asked, who immediately going on the defensive, when he heard the condescending tone of Ramsey’s voice.

“That your father actually did marry a filthy, Creole whore.”

“I suggest ya take that back,” Joe demanded through clenched teeth. He was doing everything he could to keep his temper in check. It wasn’t easy; everything he felt told him to bash in Ramsey’s face, to make him pay, and pay dearly for what he said. Out of everything that had happened in the past week, this was the one thing he couldn’t turn the other cheek to. No one insulted his mother and got away with it. For Joe this place was sacred. It was his sanctuary, his place to come and seek the comfort of the mother he could barely remember. When the world seemed to be falling down around him he could come here and tell her all his woes, and not worry about her passing judgment on him.  He would tell her his fears and his dreams, he told her everything, even things he never told Hoss. She was the world to Joe, and he loved her dearly. For Ramsey to come here, and say what he did was blasphemy, as far as Joe was concerned.

Ramsey just stood there, with a superior look on his face, not saying a word.

Joe, with his hands tightly clenched into fists, once again demanded. “Ya… Take… That… Back… NOW!”

Ramsey just laughed. “I’m just telling the truth. My father said she was nothing, but a well made up whore, who would give her favors…” Ramsey never got to finish what he was saying. Joe came at him so fast that Ramsey never saw him move. A left hook caught Ramsey square on the chin, and was followed by a right to the face. The next thing Ramsey knew he was lying on his back, on top of the soft, fragrant pine needles that carpeted the ground around Marie.

 

 

 

Chapter 36

Joe stood over Ramsey, breathing hard, his hands clenched so tightly his knuckles were turning white. “I oughta kill ya for saying that,” Joe said as he pulled out his gun, pointed it at Ramsey, and cocked the hammer. Joe was fighting to control the rage that was rushing through his veins. “Ya get on that horse, an’ get outta here, before I change my mind.”

Ramsey scrambled to his feet and ran for his horse.

“AN’ DON’T YA DARE TAKE COCHISE!”

Ramsey jumped on Maverick and rode away as fast as he could. “You’ll pay for this, Cartwright!”

“I’m sure I will,” Joe said softly, as he watched Ramsey until he was out of sight.

After Ramsey was gone, Joe walked over to his mother’s grave, took off his hat and knelt down.

“I’m sorry ‘bout that, Mama. I just couldn’t let ‘im say all those lies about ya.” Joe’s voice cracked as his emotions overwhelmed him. “I just don’t understand. Why he’s like that? What did I do to him?”

Joe brushed angrily at the tears that slipped down his face. “Ya know, I’m really gonna get it now. Pa told me not ta do anything else childish. But ya know what? I don’t think this was, but I’m sure Pa will. I just couldn’t let ‘em say that, Mama, not matter how much trouble I get into.”

Joe wiped some of the leaves off the grave. “If Pa will only listen this time, he’ll understand. He just needs ta listen,” Joe said while he picked up the dead flowers that were lying in front of the headstone. “Guess I need ta bring ya some more flowers, but I have a feeling that I’m not gonna be back here any time soon.” Joe ran his hand over Marie’s name.

 “No matter what I do, I just can’t seem ta do nothin’ right. Ever since the Strouds got here, Pa acts like I’m stupid and a huge disappointment to him. He wants me to be like Ramsey, Mama. Or at least the Ramsey he sees. The perfect son.” Joe sighed and cleared his throat. “If he only knew.” Joe sat quietly, looking down at Marie’s grave, as if he was listening to what she was saying.

 

 

 

Chapter 37

Ramsey arrived at the house shortly after Ben and Alex. By this time, the bruise on his chin was clearly visible, as was the one on his cheek, and his split lip too.

“What happened, Son?” Alex asked as he took a hold of Ramsey’s face and surveyed the damage.

“Joe hit me, and then he threatened to kill me,” Ramsey whined. He flinched as his father prodded the bruises.

“What?! Why would Joseph do something like that?” Ben asked, his heart sinking in despair.

“He got mad because I went up to that bluff, overlooking the lake. I didn’t know his mother was buried there. He told me I had no right to be there, then he hit me. He pulled out his gun and pointed it at me. Before he could do anything, I got on my horse, and rode out of there as fast as I could.”

“Benjamin, this is the last straw! He can not go around assaulting and threatening my son.  Something needs to be done and done now!” Alex was livid. “This was an unprovoked attack on Ramsey!  He threatens his life, and for what? For going up on a bluff? You need to do something more than sending the boy to his room, without dinner.  Apparently, that hasn’t made any type of impression.”

Alex walked over to Ben and stood in front of him, glaring at him. “I would never have accepted this kind of conduct from you. You knew what the consequences would be if you did, they would be quite severe. You can not let him get away with this, Benjamin.”

Ben looked at Alex, seeing the man who ruled his childhood, the one who demanded complete obedience, and felt like that child again. Ben hung his head, he didn’t realizing how much this reaction was so very much like Joe. “You’re right, of course.”

 

 

 

Chapter 38

Much later, Joe rode made it back to the house. He dismounted and walked Cochise into the barn. He noticed that Maverick was back in his stall, he also noticed that his brothers and father were back, too. While he was unsaddling the horse, he heard a noise behind him. Turning, he saw Ben standing in the doorway of the barn.

“Um, D-did… y-you… need something, P-pa?” Joe asked, nervously stumbling over his words.

“Finish taking care of your horse, Joseph.”

“Pa?”

“I said, finish taking care of the horse,” Ben commanded.

Joe swallowed hard and turned back to Cochise. He knew Ben was standing just outside the stall, waiting for him to finish. He also knew better than to linger over the task as he normally did. Once finished, he stepped out of the stall and faced Ben.

“Pa?”

“You hit Ramsey today?” Ben asked, in deceptively calm voice.

“Yes, I did, but he…” Joe began.

“No excuses, Joseph.”

“He deserved it!”

“He deserved it? I can’t believe that, Joseph.”

“Would you listen ta me? He was at Mama’s grave. He…” Joe tried to explain, but just couldn’t get through the cloud of intimidation, and childhood fears that were overriding Ben’s normal intuitions and feelings where his sons were concerned.

“I know where he was, and I know what happened. You had no reason to hit him, or to threaten his life.”

“Then he shouldn’t of said what he did!” Joe argued.

“I can’t imagine Ramsey doing or saying anything to deserve that kind of treatment. He’s a polite, educated, well-mannered young man. No man could ask for a better son. You would do well to learn from his example.”

Joe’s green eyes darkened, and snapped with anger. “His example!” Joe yelled, throwing all caution to the wind. “He is nothing but an arrogant, lying bas…”

“JOSEPH FRANCIS CARTWRIGHT,” bellowed Ben. “You will watch your mouth and your tone.” Ben turned and walked away, trying to compose himself, before turning back to Joe. “You really have become a disappointment. You have constantly embarrassed me since Alex arrived. You have done nothing but lied to me. You haven’t been pulling your weight on the ranch, to a point where either myself or your brothers have to tell you what to do and we still have to check up on you. The only thing you seem to care about is going to town, where all you do is cause trouble. Don’t you have any common sense?” Ben didn’t realize he was actually parroting Alex’s own word.

Ben was on a roll, no longer able to hold back. Everything that Alex had said about Joe and all of Alex’s criticisms were ringing in his ears. Ben was completely lost to the influence that the man had over him, and he had lost all common sense in dealing with his own son.

This man was not the father Joe loved and respected. Joe stood glaring at his father, as Ben continued to list his shortcomings.

“You abandoned Ramsey the first day he was here. Then you drag him to town, where you start a fight, causing Ramsey to be injured. Now, today, you hit him and pulled you gun on him, threatening his life. I’ve had it, Joseph. You’ve pushed me too far.” Ben began unbuckling his belt.

Joe started backing away from his father. “W-what are y-ya gonna d-do?” he stuttered.

“What I should have done before.”

“No, Pa, please. I’ll… I’ll be the son you want. I can be like Ramsey. I promise, I can be,” Joe pleaded.

“You promise? All you’ve done is promise. Your promises aren’t worth anything, after this past week.” Ben took a step forward, and Joe took another one back. “Do not make this worse on yourself.”

Joe straightened, and looked straight ahead with tears glistening in his eyes. Who is this man? What happened to my father?

 

 

 

Chapter 39

After all was said and done, Joe walked stiffly into the house and straight up the stairs, refusing to look at anyone. He wasn’t about to give them the satisfaction of seeing his pain, physical or emotional.

_ _ _ _

Adam and Hoss looked at each other in disbelief. From the way Joe was walking, they both knew what had happened in the barn. They had heard about what happened at Marie’s bluff when they returned home, but they never thought Ben would resort to such extreme measures.

Neither realized what type of hold Alex had on their father.

Pa hasn’t done that since before Little Joe turned fifteen, Hoss thought as he glared at Ramsey.

Ramsey is the cause of this. Why can’t Pa see that? Little Joe wouldn’t have done anything, unless Ramsey said something about Marie… Adam thought. He didn’t realize it, but his next thoughts would echo what Joe had been feeling earlier by the lake. Joe worships his mother, he’d never let anyone get away with saying something against her, especially there. That place is sacred to him. It’s his sanctuary; he finds peace there with her. As far as he’s concerned, saying something about Marie is blasphemy.

Alex watched Joe walk up the stairs with a satisfied look on his face. It’s about time Ben listened to me, and did something with him. Alex looked at his own son and sighed.

Ramsey sat on the settee gloating over what he knew had just happened. Better him than me. That’ll teach him to hit me.

 

 

 

Chapter 40

Joe entered his room, softly closed the door, and locked it. The tears he had been fighting so hard to hold back finally escaped and spilled down his face.

“No more! I’m done with this. He’s not gonna do this ta me again, I won’t let him.” Joe pulled a satchel from his closet and started throwing clothes in it.

Joe wasn’t sure what he was feeling at this moment in time. Was it anger, hurt, disappointment in his father or maybe all three. “If he doesn’t want me here, if he doesn’t love me anymore, then I’ll leave. I’ll get outta his life. He won’t have ta be bothered with me.”

Joe grabbed his brushes and threw them in the bag. “If he’d rather have Ramsey, then fine!” Joe grabbed his mother’s picture, started to put it in the bag, but stopped. He stood staring at the picture, and slowly sat down on the bed.

“Ow,” he yelped as he jumped off the bed.

He looked back down at his mother then over at the satchel. “If I leave, I leave you. I also leave Hoss and Adam. Can I do that? Can I leave the only home I’ve ever known? I love the Ponderosa, I’ve never been able ta see myself livin’ anywhere else. How can I leave the only two people that love me? How can I leave you, Mama?”

With a heart felt sigh, Joe put the picture back on his bedside table, slowly unpacked his satchel, and put his clothes away. “I can’t.”

Feeling totally defeated, Joe changed into his nightshirt. He looked up into the mirror on his dresser, and made a promise to his mother and to himself.

“No matter what it takes, I’ll make ‘im love me again. I’ll be the son he wants. I won’t cause anymore trouble. I swear, I’ll be what he thinks Ramsey is.”

Joe climbed in bed, laid on his stomach, and fell into a restless sleep. It finally happened; Joe Cartwright’s spirit had been broken.

 

 

 

Chapter 41

Ben sat in the barn, staring at the belt in his hand, lost in a world of his own doing.

“He didn’t even make a sound. So unlike when he was younger; then he would howl until I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

Ben stopped and remembered looking into Joe’s eyes when the deed was done. “There was so much anger, so much …hate? In trying to save him, did I actually lose him?”

Ben got up and walked over to Cochise’s stall and rubbed the horse’s neck, trying to find the comfort that his beloved son always found with cherished horse.

“Did I do the right thing? Is Alex right? He must be, look how Ramsey has turned out. How his other sons are. Look at Adam and Hoss, especially Adam. I was much harder on them, harder than I have ever been on Little Joe… Until now. I’ve always overlooked a lot of what he’s done. Maybe I’ve overlooked too much, given him too much freedom. Just given him too much.” Ben paused, and looked at the horse in front of him. He felt like Cochise was looking at him with condemnation in his eyes.

“Don’t you go looking at me like that, too. I did what had to be done. It was for his own good.” Cochise continued to stare at him.

“It was.” But who was he trying to convince, Cochise or himself?

 

 

 

Chapter 42

The next morning, Joe made his way stiffly down the stairs and over to the table. On his chair was a cushion from the settee. It had been placed there by Adam, in a show of sympathy. Joe knew who had left is and without really looking at Adam, Joe gave him a small smile of appreciation. Joe picked up the cushion and returned it to the settee. He wasn’t going to give the Strouds even the slightest bit of satisfaction when they came down. He slide gingerly into his seat and did his best to hide the grimace of pain when his back end made contact with the chair. He was hurting, but he refused to let anyone see it.

“Morning, Little Joe,” greeted Adam and Hoss.

“Morning,” Joe said softly, keeping his eyes glued to his plate.

“Good morning, Joseph,” Ben said with a smile.

“Good morning, Sir.”

“Ya want some coffee, Little Joe?” Adam asked, as he picked up the coffee pot.

“Please.” Joe took the coffee pot from Adam, and poured himself a cup.

“I figured you could use it, since you’re giving us the honor of your presence so early in the morning,” teased Adam.

The only response Adam received from Joe was a small nod of his head.

“Here ya go.” Hoss offered Joe the platter of eggs. When Joe looked up to take the platter, Hoss had to stifle his gasp of surprise. The green eyes that he saw were not Joe’s eyes. There wasn’t any spark to them. Even considering what happened the night before, there should have been something there. When Joe was younger, and he had had a ‘necessary talk’ with Ben, there was always something in his eyes; whether it was anger or remorse, there was always something there, but now… there wasn’t anything.

“Thank you.” Joe took the platter, and put a spoonful on his plate. He accepted the plate of bacon and took a slice.

“Hey, Little Joe, whatcha trying ta do? Make sure I have enough for thirds?” Hoss joked, trying to get the normal smart answer from Joe. All he got was a slight shrug of Joe’s shoulders.

Upon hearing Hoss’ comment, Ben turned his attention from his paper to Joe’s plate, and frowned.

“Joseph, you need to eat more than that. Hoss, pass him the pancakes.”

 Hoss reached for the pancakes and held them out to Joe. Hoss waited for Joe’s normal ‘I ain’t hungry,’ and was surprised at Joe’s response.

“Yes, Sir.”

Hoss watched as Joe took a couple pancakes from the platter, and then passed him the butter and syrup.

Joe put butter and syrup on his pancakes, and cut them up. Ben sat watching him, to see if he was going to eat. When Joe raised his fork to his mouth and took a bite of his eggs, Ben nodded in satisfaction, and went back to his paper.

Joe spent the rest of the meal pushing his food around his plate. His brothers tried to engage him in conversation, but only received the barest of answers or just a shrug. They soon gave up, and concentrated on their own meals.

Adam studied his brother. Joe’s reaction this morning wasn’t normal. Whenever Joe had been punished in this manner, he would be sullen and always dramatize the injustice of his punishment. Usually, after some cajoling, either he or Hoss could usually draw him out and have him laughing again. Today was different. Today; Joe wasn’t sullen, he wasn’t protesting his innocence. Today, Joe just sat there playing with his breakfast, and not saying a word, unless it was required. Only once had he made eye contact with anyone. Other than that, he kept his eyes down.

Both Adam and Hoss knew Joe had been unnaturally quiet the last few days, but today was different. It wasn’t just the silence; it was his whole attitude. Joe was there physically, but that was it. Adam and Hoss could feel him withdrawing from them, and it scared them.

“Pa, could Little Joe come with me today? I need some help at the mill,” asked Adam.

“I’m sorry, Adam. Hoss can go with you.”

“Uh, Pa, I was gonna ask if Little Joe could go with me. I need ta get a tally on that herd out by the lake. There ain’t any hands out there ta help.”

Ben looked at his older sons, who were watching him, hoping to get a reprieve for their younger brother, knowing Joe would had been told he was to stay at the house and do more chores. Ben looked at Joe. Normally, he would be right there in the middle of it, trying to convince him to let him go. But not today; today Joe’s head was down and he was focused on his plate. It was as if he didn’t care what the outcome of the conversation was. It was like he didn’t even hear it.

Ben was about to let him go with Hoss, when he heard a throat being cleared to his right. He looked up, and found Alex and Ramsey standing there; he hadn’t heard them come into the room. Alex gave a quick shake of his head, and a look that said: ‘You have to be firm.’

“No, Hoss, find a hand to help you. Adam, I’m sure you can manager at the mill on your own. Joseph will be staying here today. He has some work to do around the yard.”

“Yes, Pa,” Both, Adam and Hoss said.

When breakfast was done, everyone went off to their appointed jobs.

“Joseph, come over here, please,” Ben said, as he walked over to his desk.

Joe followed him. When he reached Ben’s desk, he kept his eye directed to the floor, in a display of submission.

“Yes, Father?”

Ben looked up at Joe, surprised at his choice of words. He studied his son, who stood perfectly straight, except for the bowed head, while he waited for his assigned chores.  Ben wasn’t sure what to do or say to his youngest son. Maybe I should just…

“Ben, when will we be leaving?” Alex asked.

Ben cleared his throat before answering. “As soon as you and Ramsey are finished with breakfast.”

Ben turned his attention back to Joe. “Joseph, you’ll be working around here today. Both the barn and house roofs need to be repaired. I want you doing that today. I’m taking Alex and Ramsey into town, so you’re going to be left on your own, and I want to see results by the time I get home.”

“You will,” Joe said quietly.

“Alright, go on and get started.”

Joe nodded his head in silent acknowledgement, and left the house.

 

 

 

Chapter 43

Joe was up on the barn roof when Hop Sing called out to him. “Lunch ready, Li’le Joe come eat.”

Joe looked up from where he was nailing a shingle onto the roof. “I’m not hungry.”

“You come eat,” Hop Sing ordered, bracing for the argument that was to follow.

Joe nodded his head; he made sure his tools were secured, and came down off the roof.

Hop Sing was stunned when Joe gave in so easily. He expected more of a fight. For Joe to give in without a fight wasn’t normal.

“You wash, and come to kitchen.”

Joe did as he was told. When he entered the kitchen, Hop Sing had a sandwich, and a glass of milk waiting for him.

“Li’le Joe work hard all morning, you sit and eat all on plate,” scolded Hop Sing as he pointed at the table.

Joe sat down, picked up the sandwich and took a bite.

“How roof go?” asked Hop Sing as he rolled out bread dough.

“Almost done,” Joe answered. His voice was flat and emotionless.

“Then you do what?”

“The house roof.”

“Father be happy with you.”

“I guess.”

“When done, what you do next?” Hop Sing kept up his questions, hoping to get Joe talking.

“I’m not sure, I’ll find something,” Joe answered as he unconsciously rubbed his arm.

Hop Sing saw the movement. “Li’le Joe arm still hurt?”

Joe immediately dropped his hand. “Um, no. It’s fine.”

“You keeping it clean? Washing it at night?”

“Yes, I clean it out every night and put a clean bandage on it just like Doc said.”

“You let Hop Sing look at it.” Hop Sing started to move around the table towards Joe.

Joe stood up so fast he nearly knocked his chair over, and rushed to the door. “It’s fine, Hop Sing. I have to get back to work.” Joe was out the door in a blink of an eye.

Hop Sing looked at the door, then to the table where Joe had been sitting. He saw the half eaten sandwich, and the glass of milk that had barely been touched, and shook his head before returning to his work.

_ _ _ _

Joe had just started on the house roof, when Adam rode in. Hoss came in shortly after Adam.

Adam was unsaddling Sport, when Hoss entered the barn, leading Chubb. “Ya see ‘im up on the roof?”

“Yes. I also noticed the repairs that have been done on the barn already. He’s been working hard.” Adam shook his head. “You know as well as I do that’s a two man job. He shouldn’t be up there alone. What if he fell?”

“I know. I just don’t understand what Pa’s thinkin’.”

“It’s hard to tell anymore.”

They walked out of the barn together and stood looking up at Joe, who seemed not to notice them.

Adam elbowed Hoss in the side, and motioned towards Joe. “Well, look who’s actually doing some work around here, for a change.”

Joe glanced down at his brothers. “I know.”

Hoss looked at Adam. He knew what Adam was trying to do; he wanted to get a rise out of Joe. Hoss decided to give Adam some help.

“If ya know what’s good for ya, Short Shanks, ya’ll have it done before dinner.”

“I know.”

“I don’t know, Hoss. I don’t think the boy is industrious enough to even get it done right, let alone before dinner.” Adam purposely called Joe a boy, knowing how much Joe hated it.

“I promise, I’ll do it right.” Joe went back to pulling off bad shingles and replacing them with new ones.

“I don’t get it, Hoss. Normally, he would’ve been down here swinging away, ready to take my head off.”

“He didn’t even raise his voice, Adam. He just sounded so… so not Little Joe if you know what I mean,” Hoss said while they watched Joe.

Adam shook it head, helplessly. “I know, Hoss. Come on, let’s go get cleaned up.” Adam started to walk towards the house.

“Hold up, Adam. Hey, Little Joe, Ya want some help?”

Joe glanced back down at his brother. “No thanks, I’ll get it done.”

“Okay, if you say so.” Hoss nodded at Adam and started for the house.

 

 

 

Chapter 44

When Adam and Hoss reached the door, Hop Sing came out the side door. “Mr. Adam. Mr. Hoss, Hop Sing talk to you?”

“Sure,” Adam said. “What is it?”

“Come in kitchen.” He looked up towards the roof. “Where more private.”

Adam and Hoss followed Hop Sing into the kitchen. Once the door was closed, Hop Sing turned and studied the brothers.

“Hop Sing scared for Num’er Three Son. He gone away.”

“What do ya mean, Hop Sing? Little Joe’s up on the roof,” Hoss asked, completely confused.

“He here in body, but not here.” Hop Sing laid his hand over his heart. “Heart and soul gone. No spirit left.” He looked at Adam and Hoss, his eyes pleading for understanding.

“No spirit? You mean kinda like a horse that’s had all the gumption whipped out of ‘em…” Hoss stopped in mid sentence and looked at Adam. “Do ya realize that he hasn’t laughed or really smiled since the Strouds arrived?”

“I believe the last time he laughed was when he accidentally knocked me into the horse trough.” Adam chuckled at the memory.

“Yeah, I thought he was goin’ to bust a gut, he was laughin’ so hard.” Both men smiled at the memory that had happened only a few days ago, but felt like a lifetime.

“That what Hop Sing mean. He no get into trouble, good trouble. No play tricks. He not Li’le Joe no more.” Hop Sing paced the room, ranting in his native tongue, before turning back to the brothers. “The other boy, he no good. He cause problems for Li’le Joe. And man tell father what to do. Father in’imida’ed by him. Almost like he scared. They not what they say. You watch, you see.”

Adam turned to Hoss. “I think he’s on to something. It would explain a lot. I’m going to try to talk to Little Joe again.”

“Let me talk to him, Adam. He might just open up ta me.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” Adam said.

“No thank Hop Sing. You bring Li’le Joe back,that thanks enough.”

“We will,” promised Adam.

 

 

 

Chapter 45

Ben, Alex, and Ramsey arrived home from town shortly before dinner. Joe was still making repairs on the roof. Ramsey hopped out of the buggy and looked up at Joe.

“Working hard, Little Joe?” he laughed, and put just enough emphasis on the word little, so that no one else other than Joe noticed.

“I guess,” was Joe’s soft reply.

One of the hands came out of the bunkhouse, having heard the buggy. “I’ll take care of the horses for you, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Thank you.” Ben looked up at Joe. “Are you about finished, Son?”

Joe stopped nailing a shingle into place, but didn’t look up. “Almost, Sir.”

“Well, why don’t you come down, and get cleaned up for dinner.”

“Um, I’d rather get this done today.”

“You can finish it tomorrow. Come on down and eat.”

“I’m not hungry, P..Sir.”

Ben frowned slightly while he stared up at Joe. “Joseph, you need to eat. Come down, and go clean up.”

Joe sighed, “Yes, Sir.” He carefully climbed down the ladder while holding the box with the hammer and nails in it.

Ben came over to the ladder, and reached up. “Here, let me take that for you.”

“Thank you.” When Joe reached the ground, he took the tools from Ben, and went to the barn to put them away.

Alex looked at Ramsey and motioned towards the house. “Let’s go clean up.”

“Yes, Father.” Ramsey walked away and into the house.

Ben stayed in the yard, and waited for Joe. When Joe came out of the barn and saw Ben standing there, his heart sank.

“D-did I d-do something w-wrong?”

“No, Little Joe, I just wanted to thank you for all your hard work today.” Ben smiled at his son, and reached out to put his hand on the back of Joe’s neck, in a show of affection.

Unconsciously, Joe stepped away from Ben, avoiding any physical contact. “Thank you, Sir.”

“Is something wrong, Son?” Ben asked, concerned about Joe’s reaction.

“No, I, um, I’m going to go get cleaned up.” Joe practically ran to the house, before Ben could question him any further.

“Little Joe,” Ben called, but he was talking to an empty yard. With a sigh he followed the others into the house.

 

 

 

Chapter 46

Alex walked into Ramsey’s room without knocking. “I want a word with you.”

Ramsey turned and raised his eyebrows. “Anything you want, Father,” he said sarcastically.

“You will watch your tone with me.”

“Oh, and what will you do, take a strap to me?” Ramsey walked over to the basin, and poured some water into it. “I’ve done everything you asked. I’ve been the perfect son. I have them all convinced that I’m as perfect as my brothers. What more do you want?”

“I want you to back off of Joseph. He may be very undesirable, but if you keep on, they’ll start thinking that you’re not so perfect, as you call it.”

“You know, I’ve haven’t been able to figure out why you dislike him so. After all he’s such a do-gooder.” Ramsey looked at his father and noticed the frown. “Besides, he’s so much fun and I need to have some fun on this trip. I still don’t understand why we had to come all the way out to this God-forsaken country.”

“You know why. You’re going to school to further your education. And you know why you’re going to that specific school.”

“I still don’t see why I have to do that. I’m perfectly happy with the way things are.”

“Well I’m not. I think it’s about time things change, and I’m going to make sure they do.”

“And how do you expect to do that?” Ramsey challenged.

“I’ll do it the same way I did with your brothers.” Alex growled.

“I think it’s a little too late for that, Father.”

“It’s never too late.”

“I don’t know about that. After all, there’s going to be a whole country between us. There’s nothing to stop me from doing what I want, when I want.”

“Mark my words, Ramsey, there are always ways and I have the money to insure it.” Alex glared at his son before continuing. “You will behave while we’re here. I don’t want anymore of this nonsense. Stay away from Joseph,” Alex demanded.

“Yes, Father, I know. I’ll make sure that I stay the perfect son.”

“You make sure you do, Ramsey.” Alex left the room.

“Of course I will, like always,” Ramsey mocked, when the door closed.

 

 

 

Chapter 47

Joe came down the stairs, stopped on the landing and observed everyone in the great room. As usual, Alex was talking to Ben. Tonight’s conversation was centered on how to run the ranch. Alex had a lot of ‘suggestions’ on things that would improve it, and how efficient it would be once Ben put them in place.

Ramsey was sitting in the blue chair, while Adam sat on the table in front of Ramsey, and Hoss was sitting on the hearth. Adam and Hoss looked as if they were determined to find something out.

I know that look, I’ve been at the receiving end of it often enough. What are they be after? Joe pondered as he continued down the stairs.

“Hey, little brother,” greeted Hoss.

Adam looked Joe over before making a comment. “Looks like you got yourself cleaned up. Did you finish the roof?”

“No, but I will tomorrow.”

“See that you do, and that it’s done right.” Adam was once again egging Joe on, trying to get a reaction.

“I will,” Joe promised, as he sat down on the settee.

Ben knew when Joe came into the room and watched him out of the corner of his eye, and was only paying partial attention to Alex. Because of that, he was able to hear the conversation between his sons and was surprised at Joe’s reaction to Adam’s barbed comments. He didn’t fly off the handle, like he usually does. Maybe he’s starting to grow up. He watched as Joe sat staring into the fire, seeming to be a thousand miles away. When Alex paused in his lecture, Ben took the opportunity to address his son.

“Little Joe.” Joe was so far away, that he didn’t even hear Ben.

“Ben, that boy is…” Alex started.

Ben held up his hand to stop Alex. “Please, Alex, let me handle this, this time. He’s not doing anything wrong.”

“Joseph,” he said a bit louder.

Startled, Joe looked up at his father. “Yes, Sir?”

“Are you…”

“Dinner ready, come eat before cold,” Hop Sing announced, as he brought the first platter out.

Ben watched as Joe headed for the table, and his opportunity to talk to him was gone. I’ll speak with him later.

Hop Sing continued to bring food out. He purposely went around to Joe’s side of the table to set a platter down. When he leaned over, he whispered in Joe’s ear. “I make your favorites, you eat this time.” Joe nodded his head in response.

Adam watched the interaction between Alex and Ramsey, or rather the lack of any interaction, and frowned.

“So, Ramsey, why are you going all the way to San Francisco for school?” Adam questioned.

“Because it’s a good school.”

“But all the best schools are in the East. I should know – I attended one of them.”

Ramsey glanced at his father before replying. “St. Ignatius is just as good as any of them.”

Adam’s mouth dropped open in surprise at Ramsey’s statement, and he quickly shut it. “I see,” was all he could say.

“Say, Ramsey, what do ya like ta do for fun?” inquired Hoss.

I wonder what Father would say if I told them the truth? Ramsey thought, before answering Hoss. “Oh, a lot of things, I like to ride and spend time with my friends.” He looked at his father before continuing. “I enjoy attending parties. You know, that kind of things.”

Adam noticed the slight shudder that ran through Alex’s body, that wouldn’t even been noticed, unless you were watching him. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Hop Sing came out of the kitchen to clear the plates, before he brought out the dessert. When he picked up Joe’s plate and saw that he had hardly touched his food, he went back into the kitchen ranting in Chinese. Joe cringed at Hop Sings words. He was the only one that knew the words were directed at him. When Hop Sing reached the doorway to the kitchen, he turned back to the table. “Li’le Joe come help with dessert.”

Joe looked up at Hop Sing in surprise, before excusing himself. When Joe got to the kitchen, Hop Sing continued to give him a verbal lashing.

“I ate!” Joe protested.

Out at the table, three heads turned towards kitchen when they heard Joe’s outburst. Adam looked at Hoss and smiled. “Leave it to Hop Sing to get a rise out of him. I’d love to know what he said to Joe.”

“So would I,” agreed Hoss.

Hop Sing shook his head at Joe. “You move food around on plate, that not eating,” Hop Sing accused as he lowered his voice.

In a louder more annoyed voice he added, “You take plates to table.”

Joe looked at Hop Sing for a minute, ready to defend himself, but then he remembered his vow to himself. One could literally see him deflate and withdraw. He nodded and picked up the plates.

Hop Sing knocked a pan to the floor in frustration. “Foolish boy.” He picked up the apple pie and left the kitchen.

When Joe set the plates on the table next to Ben, his father looked at him. “Is everything alright, Joseph?”

“Yes, Sir.” Joe returned to his seat.

Ben put a slice of pie on each plate and passed them around the table. Joe passed a plate to Adam. When Hoss handed a plate to him, Joe shook his head. “No, thank you.”

“But, Little Joe, apple pie is your favorite,” Hoss said.

Joe just shrugged.

Adam watched the interchange, and shook his head in frustration. He looked over at Ramsey, and saw the smug smile on his face. Adam was now all the more determined to get to the bottom of this. Tomorrow he would start looking for answers, and he knew the first place where he’d start.

Shortly after Joe excused himself for the night, Hoss did the same. Adam looked at Hoss, and raised an eyebrow in question. Hoss nodded in response.

 

 

 

Chapter 48

Joe stripped off his shirt then carefully removed the bandage from his arm. Looking at it in the mirror, Joe sighed. “Well, it doesn’t look too bad.” There was dried blood where some of the stitches had been pulled. With a shake of his head, Joe proceeded to clean it out and put a fresh bandage on.

He had just changed into his nightshirt when there was a knock on his door.

“Come in,” Joe called.

Hoss entered the room and closed the door behind him. “Ya okay, Little Joe?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Ya sure? Ya seem awful quiet of late.” He saw how tense Joe looked. “Mind ya, I’m not complainin’ one bit,” he joked, hoping to put Joe at ease.

“I’m fine, Hoss.”

Hoss walked over, sat down on Joe’s bed and studied his brother. Joe started to squirm under the intense blue gaze.

“I know better, little brother. Ya being quiet is either a sign that somethin’s wrong, or you’re up ta somethin’. Now, which is it?”

Joe just shrugged.

“Joseph?”

Joe withdrew into himself even more when he heard Hoss use his full name. “Don’t ya start that too,” he pleaded.

“I ain’t startin’ nothin’. I just wanna know what’s goin’ on.”

“There ain’t nothin’ goin’ on.” Joe looked away from his brother. “Other than tryin’ ta be the perfect son that Pa wants.”

“What’s this about Pa wantin’ a perfect son?”

Joe hadn’t even realized that he had spoken out loud. “I didn’t say nothin’, Hoss.”

“Yeah, ya did. If ya think Pa wants somethin’ other than what ya are, than you’re mistakin’. Pa loves all of us just the way we are. To ‘im we’re already perfect, no matter how much trouble any of us get inta. He loves ya, Little Joe, so much that I don’t know what would happen to ‘im if he ever lost ya.”

“If ya say so.”

“I say so.” Hoss was now getting angry. “Little Joe, just talk ta me. Why do ya think Pa wants ya to be perfect?”

“Just forget it.”

“I ain’t forgettin’ it.”

Joe shook his head and turned away. He walked over to his window and looked into the darkness beyond the glass.

“Come on, Little Joe, tell me.” Hoss waited for Joe to open up, but when he didn’t even turn around, Hoss shook his head sadly. “Ya are most mulish person I know.” Hoss waited, and when Joe didn’t turn around, he left the room.

_ _ _ _

Hoss went directly to Adam’s room after he left Joe’s. He knocked softly and went in.

Adam was lying on his bed, and when Hoss entered, he looked up. “Well, how did it go?”

“Not good. He wouldn’t talk. He always talks ta me, Adam.” Hoss’ eyes shimmered with the sadness he felt for his younger brother. “He did say somethin’ that bothers me.”

“Oh, and what was that?”

Hoss sat down in the chair by Adam’s desk. He looked down at his hands for a moment before continuing. “He said he was tryin’ ta be the perfect son that Pa wants.”

“He said what?!” Adam exclaimed.

“He said he wants…”

“I heard you, Hoss. Where would he get an idea like that?” Adam got up from the bed and started to pace the room. “What else did he say?”

“Nothin’. I think he let that slip. When I asked ‘im about it, he looked like he didn’t realize he even said it out loud. I just don’t get where he’d get a fool idea like that. I tried ta tell ‘im that Pa loves ‘im just the way he is, but I don’t think he believed me.”

“He said he wants to be the perfect son?” Adam asked again.

“Yeah, that’s what he said.”

“You know, I think it’s tied into all this trouble and what happened last night. Ever since the Stroud’s got here, it’s been nothing but trouble for Little Joe.”

“But still, how could he believe Pa don’t love ‘im?”

Adam sat down on his bed and looked at his brother. “Think about it, Hoss. Put yourself in Little Joe’s shoes. With the way Pa’s been acting towards him, the things that have been done, and said, how could he not feel as he does. Wouldn’t you? I know I would.”

Adam stood again and resumed his pacing. The more he thought about the past week, the more his anger grew. “You know Hoss, I’m really getting fed up with this. It’s gone to far. In my opinion, Little Joe hasn’t deserved anything that’s happened.” Adam stopped his pacing and looked at Hoss. “This has to stop and stop now, before we lose out little brother.”

“I reckon you’re right. But what can we do?”

“I’m not sure, Hoss, but I’m going to town tomorrow and check into a few things. I have some suspicions about the Strouds, and I want to see if I’m right.”

 

 

 

Chapter 49

At the end of the night Ben headed upstairs. He was headed for his room when he saw a light shining from under Joe’s door. He knocked softly. When there wasn’t any reply, he slowly opened the door. The lamp in the room was turned down low, bathing the room in a soft golden glow.

“Little Joe?” When there still wasn’t an answer, Ben walked over to the bed. Joe was lying on his side, facing away from the door. By his slow, even breathing, Ben realized he was asleep. He laid a hand on Joe’s head, feeling the soft curls underneath.

“Good night, Little Joe.” Ben extinguished the lamp, and quietly left the room, closing the door softly behind him so he wouldn’t wake his son.

After Ben was gone, and his footsteps faded as he went down the hall, Joe opened his eyes and rolled over. “Good night,” he whispered.

 

 

 

Chapter 50

The next morning when Joe came down to breakfast, he stopped next to the table and addressed Ben. “Do you mind if I go straight out an’ start on the roof?”

Ben set his coffee cup down and looked at Joe. “I would prefer you to eat breakfast first.”

“I’m not very hungry. May I please go an’ start on the roof?”

“I would like you to sit down and have breakfast with us. The roof can wait awhile.”

Joe lowered his eyes. “Yes, Sir.”

Adam waited until Joe took his seat next to him, then handed him the coffee pot. Adam cleared his throat before speaking. “Pa, if you don’t mind, I need to go into town this morning. I have a few things that need to take care of.”

“That’s fine, Adam. Hoss, what do you have planned?”

“I figured to go out and see how the boys are fairing down in the south pasture.”

Ben nodded his head in agreement. “Alex, if you like, you can ride out with me. Ramsey, since the boys are busy this morning, you can do whatever you want.”

“That sounds just perfect, Mr. Cartwright,” agreed Ramsey.

_ _ _ _

Ramsey excused himself from the table, saying that he wanted to for a ride.

Adam and Hoss finished their breakfast. When they got up from the table, Joe laid his napkin on his plate and followed them out. They walked out into the yard just as Ramsey was mounting up… on Cochise. Adam and Hoss looked at Joe, waiting for the inevitable explosion. Both were taken aback when none came.

“Ramsey, get off that horse,” Adam barked.

 Ramsey ignored him, and turned Cochise away from them.

“You get off that there horse, before I throw you off!” Hoss shouted.

This was also ignored and Ramsey rode off laughing.

“Don’t worry about it,” Joe told his brothers.

“Little Joe, are you just going to let him ride off on Cochise?” Adam asked.

Joe shrugged and started for the barn. Hoss grabbed his right arm and pulled him around.

“Don’t ya care that he has Cochise? Ya ain’t gonna do anythin’ about it?”

“No, he was told he could do whatever he wants. He wanted to ride Cochise, what can I do?” Joe said as he walked away.

“Adam?”

“What can we do? Apparently he doesn’t care.” Adam looked down the road where Ramsey had disappeared. “I’m going to town.”

 

 

 

Chapter 51

Adam rode into Virginia City and straight over to the telegraph office.  “Good morning, Rudy.”

“Mornin’ Adam. What brings you to town so early?”

“I need to send two telegrams.”

“Sure thing.” Rudy handed him two pieces of paper and a pencil. “Here you go. Just let me know when you’re ready.”

Adam thought about how he wanted to word the telegrams in order to find out what he wanted. Once he was finished, Adam reread them, and was satisfied that they were to the point and would produce the answers that he was hoping for.

“Here you go, Rudy.”

“I’ll get these sent out right away. When I get an answer, do you want them brought out to the Ponderosa?”

“No. Hold on to any replies. I’ll be in town in tomorrow to check. Whatever you do, do not bring them out to the ranch, or give them to anyone else but me.”

“Will do, Adam.” Rudy went over to the table, and started sending the first telegram.

Before Adam could get on Sport and leave town, Roy approached him. “How ya doin’, Adam?”

“I’m good, Roy. How are you?”

“Doin’ good, especially that it’s been quiet around here. Haven’t had any excitement since that ruckus Little Joe was involved in.”

“Yeah, that. How much were the damages? I’ll cover them.”

“Little Joe said he’d take care of ‘em, being he felt responsible.”

“I’m sure he did. I’m surprised though. He usually leaves it to Pa to clean up his mess.”

“You got it all wrong, Adam. It weren’t his mess.”

“What do you mean? He started the fight.”

“No, it was that Eastern fella he had with him.” When Adam’s brow wrinkled in confusion, Roy gestured down the street. “Come on down to the jail an’ I’ll tell you all about it.”

Adam and Roy went down to the jail, and after Roy poured two cups of coffee, he told Adam everything that happened in the Bucket of Blood.

After talking to Roy, Adam was able to piece more of the picture together and things started to finally make sense. If he thought he was angry before, it was nothing compared to what he was feeling now. “If those telegrams provide the answers I think they will, Pa won’t be the only one who hears them.” He headed out to the south pasture to fill Hoss in on what he had found out.

 

 

 

Chapter 52

Joe was almost finished with the house roof, when he became careless. Not watching where he was placing his foot as he moved across the roof, he hit a loose shingle and slipped. He barely had time to catch hold of an exposed beam with his left hand and stop his momentum. Joe recovered his balance and sat down taking a shaky breath. He looked down at the drop from where he was sitting under his window. He rubbed at his arm, and when he pulled his hand away when he felt something warm and sticky… it was blood.

“Great, just great.”

Ignoring the pain in his arm, Joe went back to work and finished the last part of the roof.  He had just put everything away and was almost to the house when Hoss and Adam rode into the yard.

“Hey ,Little Joe…” Hoss called in greeting.

Joe looked over his shoulder, gave a wave, hurried into the house and up to his room.

Joe sat down on his bed. He hurt all over and was exhausted. All he wanted to do was lay down and sleep for a week. Joe brought his hands up and started to rub his face. “Ow!” he yelped He had forgotten about the cut above his eye.

He got up and went over to his basin, and poured some water into it. He took off his shirt, and looked at the bloody bandage on his arm. Dr. Martin’s words come back to him once again.

“Now you listen to me and take heed of my words. You are to take it easy with that arm.  You are NOT to do any heavy lifting or anything that will put any type of strain on it. I want you to keep it clean and put fresh bandages on it at least once a day, more if needed.  Understood?”

Once Joe had the bandage off, he looked at the torn, bleeding, red edges of the wound. “Well, I guess doing the roofs could be called strenuous.” Joe stopped and a small smile graced his face. “So could hitting Ramsey, but it sure was worth it.”

“Alright, I won’t tell him, but you will.”  Joe shook his head. “Sorry, Doc, but I can’t tell him. I just can’t.”

Joe took a towel and washed the blood off his arm, and cleaned it out as best as he could. “Nothing I can do about it. I can’t go see Doc, he’ll tell Pa for sure this time. It’ll heal… sooner or later.” Joe put a clean bandage on it and changed into clean clothes. He was ready for dinner.

_ _ _ _

Dinner that evening was pretty much a repeat of the night before. Joe was moving slowly, he was just too overwhelmed to care about anything else. Adam watched him throughout dinner. He could tell something was wrong with Joe, other than the events of the last few days, but he just couldn’t figure out what.

“What’s wrong with him?” he mouthed to Hoss, once he caught his eye.

Hoss shrugged his shoulders. “Tired?” he mouthed back.

Once again, after dinner was over, Joe excused himself, saying he was tired.

“You must be, after all the work you put in on the roofs the past two days,” Ben remarked. “Good night, Joseph.”

“Good night. Night everyone.”

_ _ _ _

Joe was changing into his nightshirt when there was a knock on the door, and the door knob rattled when someone tried to open it.

Adam stood on the other side of the door, surprised when he found the door locked. He knocked again and called out. “Little Joe, may I come in?”

“Not tonight, Adam. I’m tired.”

“I’m not going away until I can come in and talk to you. If I have to bang on this door all night I will. But I don’t think you’ll like that, since I’m sure it’ll bring everyone else up here to see what’s going on.”

On the other side, Joe rolled his eyes before unlocking the door, and walking away. Adam opened the door, and walked in. He watched his brother as Joe turned down the bedding, preparing to go to bed.

“What do you want, Adam?” Joe asked without turning around.

“I want to talk to you. Can’t a brother talk to his own brother, anymore?”

“Since when do you come in here just to talk? You want to know something, now what is it?” Joe asked, completely irritated at Adam.

“I want to know what’s going on.”

“Nothin’s goin’ on.”

“Why don’t I believe that?” Adam continued to push.

“I don’t know. You’re the one with all the book learning, ya figure it out.”

“Come on Little Joe, talk to me. You always use to come to me when something was wrong.”

“Well, things change,” declared Joe.

Adam was getting annoyed at how Joe was avoiding the subject.

“I know something’s wrong. After all, you told Hoss that Pa wanted you to be a perfect son.”

“Nothin’s wrong, and Hoss misunderstood what I said.”

“I don’t think there was any misunderstanding. Look, Little Joe, I’m concerned about you. You haven’t been acting like yourself. Heck, you haven’t tried to pick a fight with me in days.”

“Would ya just leave it alone, I said everything is fine.”

“Little Joe…”

“Just leave it alone, Adam. I don’t have anythin’ ta say. I’m tired an’ I want ta go ta bed.”

“I’ll let it be for tonight, but I’m not letting it go.”

“Good night Adam,” Joe said as he walked to the door, and opened it.

Adam nodded his head, and left the room.

 

 

 

Chapter 53

The next morning at breakfast, the daily jobs were discussed and assignments were given out.

“Joseph, I would like you to go check the fences over by the Montgomery place. Matt was telling me the other day that a few of them looked like they could use some work. Check it out, and let me know,” Ben informed Joe.

“Yes, Sir.”

“You should be done before lunch, so come on back,” Ben added.

“Yes, Sir.”

Once breakfast was finished, Joe went out and saddled Cochise and headed out to do his assigned job. He was grateful for having an easy, quiet day.

Adam and Hoss watched Joe ride off when they headed for the barn.

“So, did he talk ta ya?” asked Hoss.

“Nope, he wouldn’t say a word except to say everything was fine and to tell me to leave.” They walked their horses out of the barn before Adam continued. “Would you mind going out on your own today? I want to see if there are any answers to the telegraphs I sent.”

“No, I don’t mind at all, especially if it’s somethin’ that could help Little Joe.”

“I’ll see you at lunch then.”

They mounted up and rode out.

_ _ _ _

Just like the day before, Adam rode up to the telegraph office. Rudy saw him coming and pulled two envelopes out of the slot behind him.

“You have two telegrams here, Adam.”

Adam took them from Rudy and opened them. As he read a frown appeared on his face.

“Bad news?” Rudy asked.

Adam looked up at him. “I’m not sure, but I think it might actually be good news.”

 

 

 

Chapter 54

Adam was already home when Joe and Hoss arrived. The two younger Cartwrights took care of their horses, and went inside for lunch.

“How’d ya beat me home, Adam?” Hoss called good naturedly as he came through the door.

“Easy, I work faster than you do,” quipped Adam.

Hoss glared at his brother, while he rolled up his gun belt. “Very funny. I guess I just let ya have the easy job this mornin’,”

Joe silently hung his hat behind the door, and rolled up his gun belt and set it next to the others on the credenza.

Ben came around the corner form his study. “Why don’t you boys go get cleaned up for lunch.”

“Sure thing, Pa,” Hoss said as he headed for the stairs. “Come on, Little Joe.”

Joe followed Hoss up the stairs and to his room, not saying a word.

_ _ _ _

“Joseph, what did you find out about the fences?” Ben inquired as he ate lunch.

Joe kept his eyes down as he answered. “They’re not too bad. There’s some spots that need fixin’. Shouldn’t take more’n a day.”

“Tomorrow, you and Hoss can go and take care of the repairs.”

Joe nodded and went back to his lunch.

_ _ _ _

Once lunch was finished, Hoss and Joe started to leave when Adam’s voice stopped them. “I have something that I would like to discuss with everyone.”

Ben looked at his son. “Is something wrong Adam?”

“It all depends on how you look at it, Pa.”

Hoss started to walk back to the great room, but stopped when he noticed Joe still standing next to the door. Hoss put his hand on Joe’s back and gave him a gentle push.

“If you’ll excuse us, Ben, we’ll leave you to your family discussion.” Alex said, and turned to leave the room.

“Mr. Stroud, this actually concerns both you and Ramsey,” indicated Adam.

Ben sat in his red, leather chair. “Alright, Adam, you have our attention.”

Adam stood in front of the fireplace, facing the Strouds. “I’ve been bothered about a few things, lately. Yesterday, I sent a couple telegrams looking for answers.” Adam looked at Ben. “My answers came this morning.” Adam pulled the telegrams out of his pocket.

“Before I read these, Pa, I wanted to tell you what Roy told me yesterday.” Ben nodded at Adam to continue. “Roy told me that the fight the other day was not Little Joe’s fault. He said that Sam told him, Ramsey was in the Bucket of Blood long before Joe showed up. He also said that Ramsey was the one who started the fight, Little Joe actually tried to stop it.”

Ben looked at Joe who was standing next to Hoss, by the blue chair. “Is this true, Joseph?” Joe just shrugged and lowered his head.

“What’s the meaning of this?!” demanded Alex as he jumped to his feet.

“I’m sure the meaning is quite clear, Mr. Stroud. If not, then I’m sure the telegrams I have will make it all crystal clear.” Adam pulled the first one out of the envelope and read it out loud.

“To Adam Cartwright STOP

From St. Ignatius College STOP

Ramsey Stroud on probationary status STOP

Expelled from previous schools STOP

None other would accept him in the East STOP

Discipline problems STOP

Low academic achievement STOP

Dean Anthony Maraschi STOP”

Adam handed the first telegram to Ben, then looked at Alex, and saw the man pale. Ramsey, on the other hand just sat there with a smirk on his face.

“The other one I have is from Harold Vickers was a long time friend and a very influential judge in New York.” He opened the next one and read that out loud.

“To Adam Cartwright STOP

From Harold Vickers STOP

Ramsey Stroud arrested frequently STOP

Drinking fighting stealing STOP

Never convicted due to father STOP

Harold STOP”

Adam also handed this one to Ben. Ben sat there re-reading both telegrams. He looked up at Alex. Ben’s eyes were dark with anger.

“Are these true, Alex?” he demanded.

“Yes.” It was now Alex’s turn to hang his head in shame.

Ben slammed the telegrams down on the table and stood up. “You can’t even control your son, and you tell me how to raise mine?” Ben stared at Alex, his anger growing by the second, not just at Alex, but also at himself, when he realized what he had put Joe through.

“Why?” Ben asked.

“You have to understand, Ben. I’ve never had any problems with my other two boys, or you for that matter. But Ramsey, I guess when Helena died, I just let go, I allowed him to run wild, to do things I normally would never allow. He went bad.”

“Now, Father, don’t be overly dramatic,” sneered Ramsey.

 Alex turned to his son. “Shut up, Ramsey.”

“Yeah, or what?” Ramsey asked in total defiance.

Ignoring his son, Alex turned his attention back to Ben. “I don’t know what to do with him anymore. When I came here and saw that Joseph was exhibiting some of the same behaviors, and you weren’t doing anything about it, I knew I had to step in, and take control. I didn’t want him to turn out to be like Ramsey.”

“Take control? The same behavior? My son is nothing like yours. All the trouble he’s been in, is apparently due to your son!” Ben turned away from Alex and stared into the fire for a moment before facing Joe. “I’ve done nothing but hurt my son. I can only pray that he’ll find it in his heart to forgive me.”

Joe continued looking at the floor. A multitude of emotions were running through him.

Ben turned back to Alex. “I want you and your son out of my house in an hour!” Ben bellowed.

“I understand, Ben,” Alex said as he stood up, grabbed Ramsey’s arm and pulled him up.

“No, I don’t think you do, Alex. Hoss will have the buggy ready for you. Leave it at the livery.”

When the Strouds had left the room, Ben looked at Joe.

“Little Joe,” he pleaded.

Without even looking up Joe walked out of the house, slamming the door behind him.

Ben sat down in his chair, and with his elbows resting on his knees, he put his face in his hands. “Oh, God, what have I done?”

 

 

 

Chapter 55

Ben started towards the door, and the son he desperately needed to talk to.

“Wait, Pa.” Adam put up his hand to stop Ben.

“What is it, Adam?” Ben looked anxiously at the door.

“Let me talk to him first,” Adam implored.

“Adam, I need to straighten this out with him.”

“Pa, you know Joe. He’s angry; however I don’t think that’s not even close to what Joe’s feeling right now. Give him time to cool off, or I’m afraid he’ll say something you’ll both regret,” explained Adam.

“Alright, Adam, but let him know…”

“I will, Pa,” Adam said, interrupting his father.

When Adam walked past Hoss he paused, and whispered: “Keep him here. Whatever you do, don’t let him come outside. I have a feeling this is going to get ugly.”

“I will,” promised Hoss.

When Adam walked out the door, he saw Hank coming out of the barn. “Hank, hitch up the buckboard, please. The Strouds are leaving.

“Sure thing, Adam,” Hank called out, and disappeared around the corner of the barn.

Adam came around the corner of the porch, and was surprised to see Joe standing on the front porch. His fists were clenched, his jaw jutting out, his nose was flaring, and he was breathing hard, like he’d been running a long distance. His whole body was ridged.

“Little Joe?”

“Leave me alone, Adam”

“I can’t do that this time.” Adam walked over and stood next to Joe, careful not to touch him, instinctively knowing that any contact wouldn’t be welcomed.

“Little Joe, Pa is really sorry about all this.”

“He’s sorry! I think it’s a little late for that,” Joe barked.

“You know Pa loves you. He thought what he was doing was in your best interest. Stroud, for some reason, had a huge influence over him.” Adam watched Joe while he spoke. “He’s hurting, Little Joe.”

“HE’S HURTIN’! What the devil do ya think I’ve been doing for the last week?” Joe yelled, and his voice continued to rise. “I’ve been accused all week of doin’ things I didn’t do. I’ve been called a liar. And worse of all, I got a tannin’ for defending Mama!”

“Defending Marie? Why?” Adam asked. He was surprised by this revelation.

“Because, that… that… He went to her, and said she was… she was…” Joe choked on a sob, unable to voice the things that were said.

“He said she was what?” Adam asked gently. He could feel his temper rising. He knew what Joe was going to say. It wasn’t anything he hadn’t heard before.

Joe’s back became so straight, that it looked like a steel rod had been shoved down his spine. “He…He called her a… a filthy, Creole whore!” Joe roared. Joe glared at the barn, remembering the incident at Marie’s grave, and everything that followed.  All of a sudden, his resolve broke. “Why Adam? Why did this all happen?” Joe’s legs could no longer hold him up, and he sank down onto the porch. He pulled his knees up to his chest, wrapped his arms around them, and dropped his head down on them. All the anger was gone, only to be replaced by overwhelming pain. Adam looked away for a minute, unable to bear seeing his brother hurting so much. Finally Adam sat down next to him and put his arm around Joe’s shoulders, offering what comfort he could.

_ _ _ _

Inside the house, Ben paced the floor. When he heard Joe yelling, he stopped dead in his tracks. When Joe told Adam, not so quietly, what was said about Marie. All the color drained from Ben’s face.

“He’s never going to forgive me, Hoss. I can’t say that I blame him, not after what I’ve done to him. All because I felt intimidated by Alex.”

Hoss stood there in no-man’s land. He had promised Adam to stay there and keep their father in the house, but his heart wanted to go outside and be with his little brother. He could hear beyond the anger, to the devastating hurt Joe was feeling. Another part of him wanted to go upstairs and rip the Strouds apart, piece by piece.  Instead, Hoss stood where he was and watched his father. At this moment in time, he couldn’t find it in himself to go to Ben, or to even offer any words of comfort.

_ _ _ _

“I can’t stay here, Adam,” Joe said so quietly Adam almost didn’t hear him. But he did.

“Little Joe, you can’t leave, not yet.”

“Why? Why should I stay here? Why stay somewhere, where my own father turns on me, just because of someone from his past doesn’t like me?”

“You’re upset right now. You’re not thinking straight. Besides, where would you go?” Adam said trying to reason with Joe.

“I don’t know. Anywhere, but here.”

“Look, give it a few days or so before you make a decision you’ll regret,” Adam pleaded.

Joe sat there staring out in space for awhile before answering. “Alright. But I’m doing it for you, and Hoss. I ain’t makin’ any promises.”

“That’s all I ask, Little Joe.” Adam kept his arm around Joe’s shoulder, and to his surprise, Joe leaned into him, seeking comfort from his oldest brother, as he had done when he had been a child after his mother had died. Back then, Joe felt like his world had been ripped to shreds. Now, almost twelve years later, it was happening again.

 

 

 

Chapter 56

In less then an hour, the Strouds came down the stairs with their luggage. Neither Ben nor Hoss offered to help. They did follow the Strouds out the door, making sure they left the Ponderosa.

When Joe heard the door open, he pulled away from Adam, wiped the tears from his face, and stood up. He remained standing on the porch with his brother and didn’t look at any of the men who came out of the house.

As if on queue, Hank came around the corner of the barn with the buckboard. “Do you want me to drive them to town, Mr. Cartwright?”

“No, Hank, they can make do on their own. I’m sure you have better things to do than that,” Ben remarked with utter disdain in his voice.

“Yes, Sir” Hank acknowledged and left the yard.

After Alex had put his and Ramsey’s luggage in the buckboard, he turned to Ben and opened his mouth to say something, but the frigid look on Ben’s face stopped him cold.

“Let’s go, Ramsey.”

Ramsey stood where he was, glaring at Joe.

“Now, Ramsey.” Alex grabbed his son’s arm, and started to pull him around, but Ramsey jerked away from him, and took two steps forward.

“This is all your fault!” he screamed at Joe. “None of this would have happened if you would have kept you mouth shut!” Ramsey looked back at his father, before continuing to rant at Joe. Ramsey would never admit that he was at fault for anything, and Joe hadn’t done anything to cause their abrupt exit from the Ponderosa. Everything was always someone else’s fault as far as Ramsey was concerned. “You did this. All of it.” Ramsey was panting now, his fury getting the better of him. “Why didn’t you leave it alone? Why couldn’t you just let me do what I wanted?”

Joe shook his head, and turned to Adam. “I’m going for a ride, Adam. I’m not putting up with this.” Joe motioned referring to Ramsey.

“Want some company?”

“No, I think I’ll go… I just want to be alone.”

“Okay,” Adam said and he nodded his head.

Joe stepped off the porch, and started across the yard. Ramsey took a run at Joe, and tackled him to the ground. Joe was taken by surprise, and didn’t react in time. Joe had his breath knocked out of him, giving Ramsey the advantage. Ramsey was able to get in a couple of solid punches before Joe recovered and threw Ramsey off of him. Joe was immediately on his feet, as was Ramsey, and the two men squared off.

When Ramsey first attacked Joe, Ben started forward, but Hoss grabbed him.

“Let ‘em be, Pa. Ramsey deserves what he’s gonna get.”

“But, Hoss, what if…”

“Don’t ya worry none, Pa. Little Joe knows when ta stop.” Hoss also kept telling himself the same thing, but he was ready to step in if needed.

When Adam saw Ramsey tackle Joe, he started forward to help his brother, but stopped when he saw Joe get up. Alex had stepped forward, and in a few strides, Adam was there and grabbed his arm.

“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you. Unless you want to get what your son is getting,” Adam insinuated.

“You wouldn’t dare,” huffed Alex.

Adam smiled at him, a smile so cold it could have frozen Lake Tahoe to its deepest depths. “Try me,” Adam challenged.

Just one look at Adam made Alex backed down.

Adam turned back in time to see a left hook connect with Ramsey’s jaw, which spun him around and dropped him to the ground. Joe stood over him, breathing hard.

“I’d stay down, if I were you,” he growled, his eyes shining with rage.

Looking at the two men, it was easy to tell who was getting the worse of it. Even though Joe was seventeen, and Ramsey had size on his side, Joe had already been educated in the finer points of fighting. He was experienced at fighting, everything from school yard fights to bar room brawls. He’d even taken on his brothers, but always came out of those worse for wear. This time Joe had the advantage; adrenaline was rushing through his veins, and he used this opportunity to take all his anger and rage out on someone.

Ramsey, on the other hand, had been raised in polite society, where there were no bar room brawls. He had been in street fights, but it was always with the gang of delinquents he ran around with. They always had the advantage of outnumbering their victims, and Ramsey usually let the others do all the work. Ramsey had never had to fight one on one.

Not using the brains that God had given him, Ramsey staggered to his feet, and threw a punch at Joe, which he easily dodged, and came back with one of his own and more. A fist to the face and two to the stomach had Ramsey staggering back. Joe caught him by the front of his shirt, pulled back his arm and plowed his fist into Ramsey’s face, hearing a sickening crunch, there was no doubt his nose was broken. Ramsey fell to the ground in a daze. Joe grabbed Ramsey and pulled him to his feet. A punch to his stomach had Ramsey falling forward into Joe.

Joe felt a tugging at his hip, and when Ramsey stepped back he had Joe’s gun. Ramsey pointed it at Joe and cocked the hammer.

 

 

 

Chapter 57

Joe found himself looking down the barrel of his own gun. Everyone else was frozen in place, knowing that Joe’s gun had a hair trigger, and they didn’t want to startled Ramsey and have the gun go off by accident.

“You don’t have the guts to do it,” Joe taunted, knowing that above all else, Ramsey was a coward.

Ramsey looked at Joe, and without a second thought pulled the trigger.

Joe took a couple steps back due to the impact, and felt a burning pain in his side. His hand automatically went to his side and he felt something warm and sticky seep between his fingers. He pulled his hand away and stared at the blood in disbelief.

Adam rushed Ramsey, knocking him to the ground and sending the gun flying across the yard. Adam grabbed the front of his shirt, and hauled him to his feet, and with one well placed punch, knocked him out cold.

Ben and Hoss snapped out of their trance when they saw Joe fall to his knees. Hoss got to Joe first, and was on the ground next to him as Joe collapsed completely. Hoss caught him and gently lowered him the rest of the way to the ground. Hoss pushed down on the wound with his hands trying to control the bleeding. Joe moaned and tried to pull away from him.

“You’re goin’ ta be okay, Little Joe, but you need to hold still.”

“Hoss?”

“Shh, don’t talk. Save your strength, Punkin.” Hoss turned to Adam.

“Adam, get some towels,” ordered Hoss, and watched Adam run to the house.

“Joseph, I’m here, Son,” Ben assured him as he knelt down beside Joe.

Joe looked up at Ben. “Go away,” he said and turned his gaze back to Hoss.

“He shot me,” Joe said stating the obvious.

“He sure did,” Hoss confirmed.

“I…I didn’t think he would. D-didn’t think h-he had it in ‘em.” Joe moaned.

“Hoss, let me have him,” insisted Ben.

When Hoss started to pull back to give his father room, Joe grabbed his vest. “No!”

“I’m just gonna let Pa in here.”

“No, keep ‘em away from me,” urged Joe.

When Ben started to take Joe from Hoss, Joe started to struggle against his father.

“Take it easy, Little Joe, you’re going to hurt yourself more,” Ben said, trying to calm his son.

“Get away! Hoss, Adam!” Joe cried out both in anger and pain.

Adam appeared at Joe’s side and handed the towels to Hoss. “I’m here, Little Joe,” Adam assured his brother as he took hold of his hand.

Joe still fought against Ben’s hold. “Adam please, get him away.”

“Pa, please, let me back there. I need to get the bleedin’ ta stop. He needs ta calm down, and this ain’t helpin’ him none,” Hoss beseeched his father.

Ben pulled back and allowed Hoss to take his place. Hoss quickly placed a towel over the wound and pressed down.

“Stop…Please Hoss…Hurts,” Joe pleaded, trying to pull Hoss’ hand away.

“I know, but we have ta stop the bleedin’.”

Ben stepped back to give his older sons room to help their brother, Alex approached him. “Ben, I can help. Please, let me see what can be done.”

“Hoss how bad is it?” Ben asked.

“Bad enough, but we can wait for Doc Martin,” Hoss said, knowing what his father was asking.

Ben glared at Alex, he wasn’t going to trust him anywhere near his son, not with all the damage he’s already done. “You will not touch my son. You’ve already done enough damage.”

“Ben, I can help him.”

“Get off the Ponderosa. If I ever see you on my land I’ll be the one doing the shooting!”

Ben turned his back on Alex, and watched his sons tend to Joe. Alex placed a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Ben, please.” For everything else that Alex was, he was still a doctor first and foremost.

When Ben felt the hand on his shoulder, he swung around, pulled back his fist, and planted it in Alex’s face, knocking Alex to the ground.

“Take that excuse of a son, and get off my land!”

Alex wiped the blood off his mouth and got to his feet. “Ben, I’m so…”

“NOW!” Ben turned away, unwilling to waste another second on someone he was starting to believe was the devil incarnate.

Alex walked over to Ramsey and pulled him off the ground, where he was laying moaning. He was able to get Ramsey in the buckboard and they headed for town.

“Adam, ride to town and get Dr. Martin. Hoss and I can take care of Little Joe,” Ben instructed.

Adam started to release Joe’s hand only to have Joe tighten his grip. “Don’t leave me. Please, Adam,” Joe pleaded.

Adam looked from Ben to Joe and back again.

“Please, Adam,” Joe begged.

“Pa, I think it would be better for you to go. He needs to stay calm, and right now that isn’t happening.”

“Adam, I can’t leave him.”

“Pa, to put it bluntly, he doesn’t want you near him,” Adam pointed out. “I’m sorry, Pa,” he added when he saw the devastated look on Ben’s face. “He needs Dr. Martin, and there’s no one else to go.”

Ben didn’t know what to do. “Little Joe?”

Joe turned his head into Adam’s chest and moaned, still trying to pull away from the Hoss and the pain.

“Adam,” cried Hoss.

“Pa,” Adam pleaded with his father.

Ben nodded his head, ran to the barn, and saddled Buck. He left the ranch in a cloud of dust, riding like the wind.

“Adam, let’s get Little Joe up to his room.”

Adam looked down at Joe. “Little Joe, I’m not going to pretend this isn’t going to hurt. You and I both know it will,” Adam warned Joe about what was to come. “Hoss is going to pick you up and take you upstairs.”

Joe nodded his head, acknowledging that he heard and understood. Joe clenched his teeth to hold back the moan that Hoss caused when he picked him up. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t prevent it from escaping.

“Oh, God, Adam, it hurts.”

When Hoss started for the house, Adam looked down at the ground where Joe had been lying. He was astounded by the amount of blood there.

When they reached the stairs, Joe shuddered and went limp in Hoss’ arms.

“Adam,” Hoss asked in a shaky voice, fearing what he had told Ben about Joe’s condition was wrong.

Adam came around Hoss and pressed his finger to Joe’s neck. He held his breath, and then he felt it, strong, but too fast for Adam’s peace of mind.  “He’s just passed out. Let’s get upstairs.”

When Hoss started up the stairs, Adam turned back to the great room. “Hop Sing,” he called out.

Hop Sing came around the corner from the kitchen. “Already have water on, will have upstairs in minute.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing.” Adam ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time.

When Adam entered Joe’s room, Hoss was already working on removing Joe’s clothes. “Here, let me help,” he offered, and took hold of one boot and gently pulled it off. “Hop Sing will be up soon.”

Hop Sing walked in the room as Adam said those words. “Hop Sing here.” He set the tray with the water and towels down by the bed.

Adam and Hoss got Joe’s boots and pants off of him, but when they saw how the fabric of his shirt was embedded in the wound, they didn’t want to risk removing it and having the bleeding start again now that they had it under control.

 

 

 

Chapter 58

When Ben rode into Virginia City, he didn’t slow down until he reached Dr. Martin’s office. He jumped off Buck and ran to the door, only to find on note pinned to it.

          At Sheriff Coffee’s office

          If you need me, come

          get me.

Ben turned and remounted Buck. Without any concern for anyone on the streets, he raced across town to the jail. Reaching it, he jumped off Buck before the horse even stopped moving, and ran to the jail. Ben flung the door open, slamming into the wall, startling the two men sitting at the desk drinking coffee.

“Paul, we need you out at the Ponderosa,” Ben panted, his eyes wild with panic and fear.

“What’s wrong, Ben?” Paul asked, feeling the urgency of the situation.

“It’s Little Joe, he’s been shot.”

“I’ll get my buggy and head straight out,” Paul said as he grabbed his black bag, stepped around Ben and left heading to the livery stable, not even asking for an explanation.

Ben started to follow him when a voice from behind called out. “Ben, who shot him?”

“Ramsey. I’ve got to go, Roy.” Ben started to leave again.

“Now, you just hold up a minute, Ben. I’m sure Doc knows his way to the Ponderosa by now. I need to know what happened.”

Ben looked at the door; he desperately wanted to get back to the ranch, and his son.

“Ben, sit!” Roy commanded.

Ben took a deep breath to calm himself, and sat in the chair Roy was pointing at. Roy went to the stove, poured a cup of coffee, and handed it to Ben. He took his seat behind the desk, and waited for Ben to begin.

“Adam found out some things about the Strouds. He confronted them, and I told them to leave.” Ben stopped and shook his head. “I made such a mess of things, Roy. I don’t think Little Joe will ever forgive me.”

“Now, Ben, you know that boy loves you more than his own life. I’m sure everything will be fine,” Roy offered, trying to comfort his friend. “Alright, what happened with the Strouds?”

“They went to leave, and Ramsey was trying to pick a fight with Little Joe. Little Joe didn’t want any part of it. When Little Joe headed for the barn, Ramsey attacked him, and  there was a fight.”

Ben gave a choked laugh before continuing. “It was clear from the start that Ramsey was outmatched. Little Joe made short work of him.”

“I can see that happening,” Roy said with some pride.

“Ramsey went down, Little Joe told him to stay there.” Ben shook his head in amazement. “You know, Roy, with everything he’d been through, he showed tremendous restraint. He’s a better man than I am.”

“Now, Ben, everything he is, he’s learned from you.”

“I wish that were true, Roy. He’s far more than that.”

“What else happened?”

“Ramsey, despite everything, got up, and went at Little Joe again. Little Joe stopped him with a few punches, and Ramsey fell into him. When he pushed Ramsey away he had Little Joe’s gun. He aimed and shot Little Joe.”

“Where are they now?” asked Roy.

“I would imagine here in town. After Adam knocked Ramsey out,” Ben paused with a smile on his face for his oldest son, “I told them to get off the Ponderosa and never to come back. I took the smaller trail in, so I can’t be sure where they are. As far as I’m concerned, they can be vulture bait.”

Roy nodded his head, before asking the next question. “Why did you come after Doc? When one of the boys is hurt, especially Little Joe, a herd of wild horses couldn’t pull you away. You always send one of the boys or a hand.”

Ben bowed his head in shame. “Joe wouldn’t let me near him. I can’t say that I blame him. Not after everything I did,” Ben choked out.

“Alright, Ben, you get on back to the ranch, I’m going to find those two, and I’m going to arrest Ramsey this time. I should have done it when that ruckus broke out the other day. I’ll be out as soon as I can.”

Ben didn’t even hear Roy’s last remarks, so he wasn’t able to ask Roy what he meant by it. He was out the door in a flash and headed back to the Ponderosa.

_ _ _ _

After Ben left, Roy grabbed his hat and headed for the stage office. “Any strangers getting on a stage within the last hour, Pete?” Roy asked.

“Nope. Haven’t had any strangers, or a stage in since this mornin’.”

Roy nodded his thanks, and headed for the hotel. “Hi Jack,” Roy greeted the clerk behind the desk.

“Afternoon, Sheriff. What can I do for you?”

“You have someone by the name of Stroud staying here?”

“They just checked in a few minutes ago,” Jack confirmed.

“What room are they in?”

“210. Is something wrong?”

“Sure is.” Roy turned, went up the stairs, and knocked on the door.

Alex opened the door, and stood there looking at Roy. He stepped aside and allowed Roy to enter.

Ramsey was laying on one of the beds, and promptly stood when he saw Roy. He face drained of what color that was left, knowing what was to come.

Roy smiled when he saw the condition Ramsey was in. Good for you Little Joe. Must admit that I’m a bit surprised he can still move.

“Ramsey Stroud, you’re under arrest for attempted murder.”

Ramsey looked at his father, his eyes beseeching his help. “Father?”

Alex shook his head. “There’s nothing I can do this time. I can’t help you here.”

Roy led Ramsey out of the hotel and to the jail. With exorbitant pleasure, Roy closed the door of the cell and locked it.

 

 

 

Chapter 59

Paul was barely out of his buggy when the door was opened by Hop Sing.

“Li’le Joe in room. Hop Sing bring up more water for you.”

“Thank you. Hop Sing,” Paul said as he went up the stair and to Joe’s room.

When he entered the room, the first thing he saw was Adam and Hoss. They were sitting next to the bed, and talking to Joe, trying to get him to wake him up.. When they heard the door open, they turned to see Paul standing there.

“Doc, glad you’re here,” Hoss said as he stood up.

“How is he?” Paul asked. He looked at Joe and wasn’t happy with what he saw. Joe was almost the same color as the sheets he was lying on.

“We seemed to have the bleeding under control, but other than that, I don’t know,” explained Adam.

“Let me in there to have a look.”

Hoss and Adam stepped back, but continued to hover around the bed.

“How long has he been out?” Paul asked.

“Since we brought him upstairs,” Adam informed him.

When Hop Sing came in with more water Paul looked at Hop Sing, then over to Adam and Hoss. “I want the two of you out of here. Hop Sing, I’d like you to stay and help me.”

“Paul,” Adam started to protest.

“Out, now.” Paul pointed at the door.

Hoss took Adam’s arm and guided him from the room. Once they were gone, Paul turned to Hop Sing. “Help me get this shirt off him.”

Together they were able to get the shirt off Joe as carefully as they could. When it was off Paul not only had a clear view of Joe’s side, but he also saw the blood soaked bandage on Joe’s arm.

Joe moaned and his eye’s fluttered open. He looked up at Paul and Hop Sing, obviously confused. “Doc, what are ya doin’ here?

“Where else would I be when my favorite, most cooperative patient needs me?” Paul joked.

Joe started to laugh, but ended up groaning. He started to reach down to his side, only to have Hop Sing grab his arm. “No touch.”

“Hop Sing? What happened?”

Paul’s brow furrowed. “You don’t remember?”

“I…” Joe closed his eyes, trying to remember. “Adam, he had telegrams… They were about Ramsey… I remember I was angry, and went outside and Adam came out to talk.” Joe scrunched up his forehead trying to remember. “The Strouds went ta leave. Ramsey said things. I… I was going for a ride. There was a fight, with Ramsey.” Joe’s eyes snapped open. “He shot me. That weasel shot me!”

‘Take it easy, Little Joe,” Paul cautioned. “Now, hold still and let me have a look.”

Paul examined the wound, and shook his head. “Bullet’s still in there, it’s going to have to come out. Let me have a look at that arm,” he said more or less to himself.

Paul cut the bandage off, and sighed in frustration. “Don’t you ever listen to anything you’re told?” Paul put his hand against Joe’s forehead and “tsk’d.”

“From what I’ve been told lately, no.” Joe’s voice was full of bitterness.

“Little Joe, the bullet is still in there. I have to operate to get it out. And I have to do something with that infection you have in your arm.”

Joe nodded his head. “Please, no ether,” he pleaded.

“I’m sorry, Little Joe, but I have to. I know how sick it makes you, but it’s unavoidable.”

“Doc…”

“It’ll be over before you know it. When you wake up, everything will feel better,” Paul assured him.

“Yeah, and I’ll be sick,” Joe moaned.

“Hop Sing, would you hold this over his face.” Paul handed the mask to Hop Sing, who nodded and held it over Joe’s mouth and nose as Paul dripped the ether onto the mask. Joe kept moving his head, fighting the anesthesia. “Relax, Little Joe. Don’t fight it.”

When Joe finally succumbed to the ether, Paul turned to Hop Sing. “Let’s get to work, Hop Sing.”

 

 

 

Chapter 60

Ben arrived back at the ranch and found Adam and Hoss in the great room. Adam was sitting in his chair trying to read, but he couldn’t get past the first sentence. His mind was in the room at the top of the stairs with his little brother.

Hoss stood in front of the fireplace with a foot on the hearth, he as poking at the logs with the poker, lost in thought.

When the door opened, both men looked up when Ben walked in.

“How is he?” Ben asked.

“Doc’s with him now. He was unconscious when we left,” Hoss explained.

Ben started for the stairs, but Adam’s voice stopped him. “Pa, Dr. Martin doesn’t want us up there. You know how he is. Besides, I think it’s better for Joe, if you don’t go in there and take Dr. Martin’s attention away from him.”

Ben nodded his head. “You’re right, Adam.” Ben started to pace around the room.

When there was a knock at the door, three sets of eyes turned towards the door. At the second knock, Hoss went to open the door, and when he did Roy Coffee standing there.

“Come on in, Roy.”

“How’s Little Joe?” Roy inquired.

“Paul’s with him,” Ben responded.

“I arrested Ramsey and left Clem to watch over him.”

“Roy, what did Clem do to make ya so mad?” Hoss asked.

“Nothing. Why?”

“Ya left ‘im to watch over that skunk. I figured he did somethin’ wrong.” Any other time, the four men in the room would have found that statement humorous.

“When Little Joe’s up to it, I need to get a statement from him,” Roy said wanting to get business out of the way before moved on to the personal side of the situation.

“Sure, Roy.” Ben walked over to the stairs and looked up. “I had no idea, how many lies Ramsey had told. As far as I knew I had a son who was completely out of control. I was sure  Little Joe had drug Ramsey into that fight.”

“What? Little Joe didn’t drag him into anything.” Roy exclaimed.

“I know that now, Roy. When they came home they were all bruised and cut up. Little Joe even admitted to going to town.”

“Did you give him a chance to explain to you what happened?”

“I didn’t need him to explain. It was all right there in front of me.”

“Ben Cartwright, I’m ashamed of you,” Roy said chastising Ben. “He was in town alright, but it was to drag that Ramsey out of the Bucket of Blood. Sam said Ramsey was there long before Little Joe ever showed up. Little Joe tried to get him to leave.”

“I know, Roy.” Ben was completely ashamed of his actions over the past week.

Roy glared at Ben before continuing. “Ramsey was the one who picked the fight with Ted, and left Little Joe to clean up after him, while he hid in a corner.”

“TED?” Hoss exclaimed. “Why, he’s more than twice the size of Little Joe.”

“That ain’t all, Hoss. Little Joe had the whole darn place on him. I had to send him over to Doc’s.” Roy paused, thinking about how he had jumped to conclusions that day.

“I have to admit, I jumped to the same conclusion, I was so sure Little Joe started it, but then I didn’t know about Ramsey. I should have listened to the boy when he tried to explain. All he was guilty of was trying to protect Ramsey.” Roy shook his head and snorted. “That boy of yours even said he’d take care of the damages.”

“Why would he do that if it wasn’t his fault? And how is he going to get the money to do it,” Adam asked.

“Cuz he said that Ramsey was his responsibility, Adam. Little Joe said he’d take care of it somehow.” Roy looked Ben straight in the eye. “He didn’t want you to know, Ben.”

“Tell Sam I’ll take care of the damages. If it’s anyone’s responsibility, it’s mine,” Ben rubbed the back of his neck as he started to pace again, realizing all the damage he had done to his son.”

“Ya should have known, Pa. Little Joe was all beat up when he came home. Ramsey only had one bruise on him. I just can’t believe ya didn’t see it,” Hoss accused.

“Pa? I have a confession to make while we’re at it.” Adam admitted.

“What?” Ben asked.

“That first night, I should have said something, but I guess I was still mad at him. When I sent him out to the south pasture, I knew there was a lot more to do than rounding up strays. I knew about the dam and the water hole that needed cleaning, I just didn’t tell him. I guess that’s why he was late.”

Ben walked over to his chair and sat down. He put his face in his hands. “Why didn’t I listen? If only I would have listened to him.”

 

 

 

Chapter 61

Paul was rolling his sleeves down when he came down the stairs. The four men in the great room stood and faced him.

Paul walked past them to the settee. “Could I have a cup of coffee, please?” he asked as he sat down.

“I just put a fresh pot on. I’ll go and get it.” Adam headed to the kitchen while the others stood watching Paul expectantly. Paul looked angry; they also knew that when he was in this kind of mood, they would have to wait until he was ready to tell them anything.

Adam came out of the kitchen with a tray that held 5 cups and the coffee pot. He immediately poured Paul a cup and handed it to him, then poured a cup for everyone else. Paul took a sip, leaned back and sighed.

“I can understand it from Little Joe, but how could you let him do that to himself, Ben?” Paul berated.

“Do what?” Ben asked.

“His arm! I told him to take it easy, not to do any strenuous work. Hop Sing informed me that you’ve had him moving hay, repairing the roof and more. Quite frankly, Ben, I’m disappointed in you.”

“His arm? What are you talking about? I don’t know anything about his arm.”

Paul sighed in frustration. “He didn’t tell you?” Paul saw the blank expression on the Cartwright’s faces. “Why am I not surprised? That first night that the Strouds were here, Joe came home with a nice little gash in his left arm. He said it happened when he fell into a stream.”

“The beavers,” Adam whispered.

“How could you miss that, Ben?” Roy asked. “Paul and I both noticed it at dinner.”

Ben looked at Adam and Hoss. “Did either of you know about this?”

“No, Pa,” they both answered.

“I cleaned it out that night and stitched it up. When I saw him again in town, he had torn every stitch out. Some had been done before the fight. He had bruised ribs, along with all the other cuts and bruises. I had to bind the ribs and stitch the arm again. He promised me,” Paul stopped as he remembered Joe’s actual words. Sure, Doc. “Well, I guess he didn’t actually promise.” Paul stop and shook his head. He couldn’t believe he fell for that one. And here I thought I knew all his tricks.

“That boy is the orneriest person in the territory of Nevada.” Paul looked down into his coffee before continuing. “I had to operate on him and I was able to get the bullet out. I thoroughly cleaned it out, and stitched and bandaged it. His arm is another story. He had pulled the stitches out again and infection started to set in. I cleaned it out and I think I got all of it, but I want you to keep a close eye on it. He has a slight fever right now, but if it gets worse, send for me. I stitched it closed and bandaged it. I want him to stay in bed for a week, at least. He is not to get up until I say so. He isn’t to lift anything heavier than a fork, or a glass with that arm. I told him if I see anything what so ever wrong with it, I’ll strap it down.” Paul glared at Ben again, still unable to comprehend the fact that Ben didn’t know. “

“Once he woke up from the anesthesia, I gave him some pain medication. I left more of it on his dresser. He’s sleeping right now, and Hop Sing is sitting with him.”

“Ether?” Adam asked.

“Yes,” Paul answered.

“And?”

“The normal. He was immediately sick. He was in quite a bit of pain because of it.”

Adam nodded his head. Everyone knew that Joe’ system always reacted violently to ether.

“On top of everything else, he’s exhausted. He needs to sleep, and stay calm. I also left some sleeping powders incase he does has trouble sleeping.” Paul stopped and glared at Ben. “Hop Sing told me what’s been happening around here for the past week. Frankly, Ben, I’m disappointed with you. If you’d only stopped and listen to that boy maybe you would have seen the light. He’s not just physically hurt, Ben, but emotionally too. You’ve done to him, what Alex has been doing to you all week. I’ve always thought you were a lot stronger than that.” Paul stopped and looked at his friend and couldn’t believe what had been happening. “I’ll be back tomorrow to see how he’s doing.” Paul placed his cup on the table and got up. “I’m going to have one more look at him before I leave.”

Adam and Hoss looked at Ben, and saw the forlorn look on his face, and the pain that Paul’s words had caused.

“Paul, may I see him?” Ben asked.

“As if I could keep you away, but I do not want you upsetting him. As I said I want him calm and resting. He needs to sleep.” Paul walked up the stairs, with Ben following him.

Hoss looked at Adam before he went up the stairs. Adam was right behind him.

 

 

 

Road to Redemption

Chapter 62

It was well into the night when Joe started to wake up. The lamp was turned down low, and Ben was dozing in the chair next to Joe’s bed. He heard Joe moan as he shifted on the bed.

“Little Joe,” Ben called as he leaned forward.

Joe rolled his head on the pillow. “Come on, Son, it’s time to wake up.” He watched as Joe’s eyes fluttered, and finally opened.

Joe looked around the room, and green eyes bright with fever met dark brown ones filled with worry. Joe’s mind was in a haze. “Pa?”

“I’m here, Son.” Ben caressed Joe’s cheek and brushed a stray curl off his forehead, noticing how hot his son was. “You’re going to be alright, Little Joe.”

The haze started to clear and the memories rushed back in startling clarity. Joe turned his head away from Ben.

“Little Joe?”

“Go away.”

“Please, Little Joe, listen to me.”

“Why should I? Ya don’t listen ta me anymore,” he accused.

Ben felt like someone had just shoved a knife into his heart. “I’m so sorry for not listening, Little Joe. I’m so sorry for everything I’ve done to you. I know I’ve hurt you. If I could take it all back, I would.”

Joe was breathing hard as all the anger and hurt came flooding back. “Ya can’t take it back.”

“Little Joe,” Ben started.

“No! I don’t wanna hear any of your excuses, just like ya don’t wanna hear mine. Just get outta my room!” he yelled and tried to pull himself up, but ended up moaning as pain shot through not only his side, but his arm also.

“Son, please,” Ben pleaded.

“Son? How can you call me that? After all, I’m not the son ya want. I’m the bad one, remember?”

“That’s not true, Little Joe.”

Joe was in a rage now. He was not only angry at his father, but also at himself for his inability to move away from everything that was tormenting him. “It is! An’ if that’s what ya want, that’s what I’ll be!”

“No, I want you just the way you are. I’d never want you to change.”

“Get out,” he screeched.

Hoss and Adam rushed into Joe’s room when they heard the shouting. “You stay with Little Joe, I’ll get Pa out,” Adam told Hoss.

Adam went over to his father, and gently pulled him aside. “Come on, Pa, you’re both tired. Why don’t you go to bed and get some sleep,” Adam cajoled.

“Adam,”

“Let him calm down, Pa. You heard what Dr. Martin said. He needs to stay calm.”

Ben looked at Joe, his eyes pleading for understanding.

“His fever has gone up,” Ben said to both Adam and Hoss.

“Come on, Pa, we’ll send one of the hands for Dr. Martin.”

With a nod of his head, Ben turned and left Joe’s room.

While Adam was trying to calm Ben down, Hoss was on the other side of the room trying to do the same with Joe.

“Now, ya just hush up, Little Joe. You’re workin’ yourself inta one fine fit.” Hoss sat down on the side of the bed, and gently put his hand on Joe’s arm. Of the three brothers, Joe was the one who responded to touch, in fact he craved it. Just a loving touch could work wonders.

“Hoss, please keep him away from me.”

“Little Joe, its Pa.”

“Please Hoss,” Joe begged as his eyes filled with tears.

“Alright, Little Joe.” Hoss saw Joe visibly relax. He also saw Joe flinch and let out a low moan when he tried to move. “Ya, hurtin’?”

“Yes.” Hoss knew for Joe to admit he was in pain, it had to be bad.

“Ya want some of that pain medicine Doc left for ya?”

“Yes.”

Hoss got up and poured a glass of water, and mixed the power into it. He went over to the bed and helped support Joe’s head as he drank the water.

Hoss set the glass back on the dresser. He poured some water into the basin, and grabbed a towel before sitting down in the chair that Ben had recently vacated. “Now, ya just rest, ya hear,” Hoss said as he soaked the towel in the water and laid it on Joe’s forehead. “Better?”

“Yes.”

Joe reached out for Hoss. Hoss took his hand, and held it. The brothers sat in comfortable silence while Joe drifted off to sleep.

 

 

 

Chapter 63

When Paul arrived at the Ponderosa he went straight to Joe’s room. “How is he, Hoss?”

“He’s pretty hot, Doc. I’ve been tryin’ ta cool him off.” Hoss moved out of the chair next to the bed so Paul could get to Joe.

Paul put his hand on Joe’s forehead and felt the heat radiating from him. Joe started to stir and his eyes fluttered open, closed and then open again. Joe looked up at Paul in confusion.

“Doc?” Joe whispered.

“How are you feeling, Little Joe?”

Joe cleared his throat before answering. “Fine, just a little cold, and thirsty.”

“Hoss, would you go and get some more blankets,” Paul asked as he poured a glass of water for Joe, and helped him drink it.

“Sure thing Doc.”

When Hoss left the room he saw Ben and Adam standing just outside the door. Adam had his hand on Ben’s shoulder in a show of comfort.

“He’ll be okay, Pa.”

While Hoss was out of the room, Paul explained to Joe what he was going to do. “I need to take a look at your arm and your side, to see what’s causing that fever.”

Hoss came back into the room with the requested blankets. “Here ya go, Doc.”

“Set them in the chair, I’m going to need your help.” Paul looked at Joe before continuing. “Now, let’s see what’s going on with you.”

Paul pulled back the blanket to have a look at Joe’s side. Joe gasped in pain and reached out to Hoss when Paul started examining his side. Hoss took Joe’s hand and held tight, giving his brother the support he needed. The incision in Joe’s side looked as good as could be expected, considering a bullet had been removed no more than 11 hours ago. Paul pulled the blankets back over Joe and turned his attention to Joe’s arm. When he had the bandage off, Paul shook his head and glared at Joe. “You just can’t do it the easy way.” Paul turned his attention to Hoss. “Hoss, go tell Hop Sing I need some hot water.”

When Hoss started to get up, Adam spoke up from the doorway. “You stay, Hoss, I’ll go downstairs.”

“Little Joe, I have to open this back up and clean it out,” Paul explained.

“No ether, please,” Joe pleaded.

“No ether, but I am going to give you something for the pain.”

“Thank you.” Joe breathed a sigh of relief.

When Hop Sing brought the water up, Paul turned to the door. “Hop Sing’ll help me now. I want the rest of you out of here.”

Joe looked at the door and saw his family standing there. When his eyes met Ben’s, he turned away, not even acknowledging his father.

Hoss closed the door when he walked out of the room.

_ _ _ _

When Paul made his way down the stairs, there were four men standing at the bottom waiting for him.

“Apparently, I didn’t get all the infection removed earlier. I had to reopen the arm and clean it out. It’s now been thoroughly cleaned, stitched, and bandaged. The fever should start going down now. I want the bandages changed often and if you notice it getting any worse, send for me right away.”

“How’s he doing, Paul?” Ben asked, the worry and guilt clearly visible on his face.

“As well as can be expected. I didn’t use ether this time, but I did give him a pretty strong pain killer. He’s sleeping now, and will most likely be out until late morning. You already have the pain medicine and the sleeping powders that I left earlier. I want you to give those to him, no matter what he says. He’s exhausted and needs his rest. Right now the more he gets the better.”

“We’ll make sure he gets it.” Ben assured.

“As for the rest of you, make sure you get some sleep and eat. I don’t need anymore patients.” Paul looked up at the top of the stairs before continuing. “That one is more than enough.”

 

 

 

Chapter 64

The day after the shooting Roy came to see Joe to get his statement.

“Afternoon Ben,” Roy greeted, when Ben opened the door.

“Hi, Roy,” Ben replied a bit cautiously. “What can I do for you?”

“I was hopin’ that Little Joe would be up to givin’ a statement today.”

“I believe he’s awake, Hoss is with him right now.” Roy followed Ben up the stairs.

Ben tapped on the partially opened door. “Hoss, Roy’s here to talk to Little Joe.”

“Sure thing, come on in, Roy.” Hoss got up from the chair next to the bed, and offered it to Roy.

“How are you feelin’, Little Joe,” Roy asked when he sat in the chair.

“Fine, Roy.” Joe was sitting up today, and actually looked a lot better than the day before.

“I’m sure you are, Little Joe. I’m sure you are.” Roy rolled his eyes at Joe’s normal reply. “I need to get a statement from you about what happened the other day.”

“Why?”

“So I have it when the judge gets here, and we have the trial,” Roy explained.

“You arrested ‘im?” When Roy nodded in the affirmative, Joe sighed. “I’m not gonna press charges.”

“What,” chorused the two men present, and Ben who was standing outside the door. He didn’t want to upset Joe, so he chose to stand out of sight.

“I said I ain’t pressin charges.”

“But Little Joe, you gotta,” Hoss protested.

“No, I don’t.”

“You mind explain’ that to me.” Roy demanded.

Joe was getting frustrated with them. “I don’t ever wanna see ‘em again. I just want ‘em out of my life,” Joe said with a touch of bitterness creeping into his voice. “If there’s a trial, then I have ta see ‘em again, an’ testify against ‘im. Can’t ya understand?”

“Are you sure that’s what you want?” Roy asked, irritated with this turn of events.

“Yeah, that what I want. Just make sure they leave an’ don’t ever come back.”

“You don’t need to worry about that one. They’ll be out of here on the first stage, no matter where it goes.”

“Thanks, Roy.”

Joe closed his eyes and tried to turn on his side, but quickly changed his mind when pain shot through him, just another reminder of everything that had happened. Joe turned his face away from them, trying to get his anger under control.

“You take care of yourself, Little Joe. I’ll see you, Hoss.”

“Bye, Roy,” Hoss said when Roy left the room.

– – – –

Roy walked downstairs with Ben. “I don’t understand it, Ben. After all that’s happened and he’s lettin’ him off the hook?”

“I think I know what he’s thinking, Roy. As he said, he doesn’t want to relive any of it. He’s refused to talk to anyone about it. To have to testify about it is more than he can take right now. Just let them go, get them out of town. If I had my way, they’d never set foot on this side of the Mississippi ever again.”

“Can’t say I blame you,” concurred Roy. “I’m going to hold Ramsey in jail until there’s a stage, and I’ll personally make sure they’re on it, even if I have to shot them to do it.”

Ben walked Roy out to his horse and watched him ride off.

 

 

 

Chapter 65

The first week after the shooting Paul took the stitches above Joe’s eye out. He was concerned over how quiet Joe was, but figured it was due to his fight with infection and the exhaustion. According to his brothers, Joe was still slept quite a bit. Paul hoped Joe would be back to himself in a matter of time.

 After that, time rolled by, one week became two, and yet Joe was a model patient. Not once did he complain about being confined to bed. He did everything he was told, except for one thing… he still refused to allow Ben in his room, or anywhere near him. Anytime Adam or Hoss brought up the subject it would result in a fight between them, which ended with Joe refusing to speak to either of them.

_ _ _ _

Three weeks after the shooting Dr. Martin stopped at the Ponderosa, making his weekly visit.

Ben opened the door when he heard the knock. “Paul. It’s good to see you.”

“Good morning, Ben.” Paul shook Ben’s hand. “How’s Little Joe doing?”

“From what Adam and Hoss tell me, he’s doing a lot better, and Hop Sing says he’s eating.”

“By that, I take it he won’t let you anywhere near him.”

Ben had to clear the lump out of his throat before he could answer. “No, he won’t. If he’s awake I can’t even get near his room. I’m only able to check on him at night, and I’m able sit with him for awhile when he’s sleeping.” Ben stopped and cleared his throat again, that lump was back. “Paul, I don’t know what to do.”

Paul put his hand on Ben’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Be patient, Ben. The boy’s hurting; he needs time to heal, not just physically but emotionally as well. He’s been through a lot, and holding it all in isn’t helping.” Paul gave a little chuckle. “Just remember this is Little Joe we’re talking about. He does everything on his own schedule, always has, even before he was born.”

“Yes, it’s always been on his schedule.” Ben smiled, remembering how Marie complained about how active he was and at the most inconvenient times. Joe decided he was ready to be born, no matter if he was on schedule or not. Ben chuckled as he remembered every time Adam would complain Joe’s schedule.

“Don’t push him. We all know that boy worships and loves you. He just needs to get his head around a few things, and remember the love.” Paul gave Ben a pat on the shoulder before heading up the stairs. “I know my way.”

Ben watched Paul until he was out of sight. “I hope you’re right.

Chapter 66

“Come in,” Joe called when he heard Paul knock on the door.

“How’s my favorite patient this morning?” Paul asked with a chuckle, knowing what the answer was going to be.

Joe didn’t disappoint him. “Fine.”

“We’ll see about that,” Paul said while he held his hand against Joe’s forehead. “Good, the fever’s completely gone now.” Paul removed the bandage from around Joe’s arm, and prodded at the wound. “Looks good. The infection is completely gone, and it’s healing nicely. I’ll go ahead and take out the stitches today.” Paul gave Joe a stern look. “Now, do you see what happens when you do what I tell you? This whole thing would hardly even be a memory by now. But no, you have to do it Little Joe Cartwright’s way.” Paul snorted. “I’ll never know why I even listened to you.” He took a pair of scissors from his bag and cut each knot and gently removed them with a pair of tweezers. Paul examined his handy work. “You’ll hardly have a scar to show for it. Now, let’s have a look at your side.”

Paul helped Joe to sit up a little more before pulling the blanket down. Joe settled back against the pillows with a grunt, which Paul heard. “It’s still giving you trouble?”

“I’m fine, Doc.”

“So that was just a grunt of happiness, was it?”

Joe just looked away. Paul cut the bandages away and examined Joe’s side. As he pushed on the skin around it, Joe flinched. Paul cleaned it, and wrapped a clean bandage around Joe’s waist. “Looks good, I’ll probably take the stitches out in a couple of weeks.”

Joe looked at Dr. Martin, with a frown.

“Have you been up out of bed yet?” Paul asked.

“Um, it’s… it hurts ta much ta get up,” Joe hedged..

“Joseph Cartwright! I have never known you to want to lay around all day. Normally, after the first few days, your Pa and I can’t keep you down.” Joe turned his head away again. “Besides, if you’re fine, then there’s no reason for you to stay in bed.”

Caught by his own words, Joe just shrugged.

“I want you out of this bed as of today. You’re to start moving around, take short walks down the hall, and I want you sitting in a chair instead of lying around. Tomorrow you’re to start taking your meals downstairs with your family. It’s warm enough, so if you want, you can go sit on the porch.” Paul watched Joe’s expression darken with each word Paul said. “You’re also not to do any of this alone, until I say so or your family thinks you’re strong enough. Lying around in bed hasn’t helped you. What with the injuries, blood loss, infection, the fever, and staying in bed you’re going to be quite weak. Now, you either do as I tell you, or I’ll have Hoss pull you out of that bed, whether you like it or not.” When Joe didn’t respond, Paul began to get irritated. “Did you hear me?”

“Fine!” Joe snapped.

“While you’re at it, stop feeling sorry for yourself.”

“I’m not feelin’ sorry for myself!” Joe shouted.

“Really, now? I’d think about that one if I were you.” Paul saw Joe’s chin jut out in anger, and decided he had nothing to lose, so he brought up another touchy subject. “I also suggest you think about talking to your father.”

“YOU STAY OUT OF THAT! IT’S NONE OF YOUR CONCERN!” Joe yelled loud enough to be heard in the barn.

Paul glared at him. “For your information, young man, it is my concern. The well-being of my patients and friends is my concern, no matter what you think,” chastised Paul. He shut his bag with a snap. “I’ll be back next week, and I better see a change in you.”

Joe didn’t answer, he just sat there with his arms folded across his chest, and his eyes shooting daggers at the wall in front of him.

Paul shook his head and left the room.

Chapter 67

“That sounded like it went well,” Ben said as Paul came down the stairs.

Paul laughed. “To say he’s mad at me, would be the understatement of the year, probably the century. Hopefully I gave him something to think about. Ben, I’m worried about him. He hasn’t been out of that bed since he was shot. He hasn’t even complained about being in it.” Paul sighed and looked towards the stairs. “I told him I wanted him out of that bed today. He’s to walk up and down the hall and spend some time sitting in a chair, instead of his bed. Tomorrow morning he’s to come down and start having his meals at the table.” Paul saw Hop Sing over by the dinning room table. “Hop Sing, I want you to make sure he eats. Don’t take any of his nonsense about not being hungry.”

“Num’er Three Son, will eat, Hop Sing promises.”

“Until I come back, or you think he’s strong enough, I want him to have help moving around, especially on the stairs. He’s allowed to sit on the porch. I told him that if he doesn’t get out of that bed, I’d have Hoss pull him out. And I mean it. Ben. You tell Hoss that for me.”

Ben smiled at Paul. He knew that Joe had met his match long ago where Paul was concerned. “I’ll make sure Hoss knows.”

Paul was walking to the door when he stopped and turned back to Ben. “Oh, I took the stitches out of his arm, and I’ll probably take the stitches in his side out in a couple of weeks. That is, unless he does something stupid. Again.”

Ben shook his head. “I don’t understand why he kept quiet about that.”

Paul gave him a hard look. “What did you expect? No offense Ben, but you weren’t exactly there for to him. You weren’t listening to anything he had to say. Roy and I were astounded that you, of all people, didn’t notice it that first night, you didn’t even notice his over all condition.” Paul saw the shame and hurt darken Ben’s eyes, and softened his words. “Don’t completely blame yourself, neither Adam nor Hoss noticed.”

“But I’m his father, Paul. I should have noticed the minute I saw him on the porch.”

“Don’t beat yourself up, Ben. There were a lot of factors that caused all this. I just hope everyone learned something from it, including Little Joe.”

Ben nodded his head. “By the way Paul, what was he yelling about? He almost shook the roof right off the house.”

Paul started laughing. “I told you, he’s mad at me. I told him to stop feeling sorry for himself. That started it, and I didn’t make it any better when I told him he needs to start talking you. That’s when he really blew up.”

“He does have a temper.”

“To say the least. I’ll see you in two weeks. If something happens – which I don’t expect, but then again we’re talking about Little Joe – send someone for me.”

“Thank you, Paul.” Ben shook Paul’s hand, before Paul left the ranch and headed back to town.

 

 

 

Chapter 68

Joe sat in bed, contemplating Paul’s words. “Doc’s right. I’m ain’t doin’ myself any favors just lyin’ here.”

Joe threw back the blanket and swung his legs over the side of the bed while he pushed himself up. There was a sharp tug at his side when he sat up. He reached across with his right arm to put some pressure on his side.

“If I wanna get strong enough ta leave, I have ta start movin’.” With that said, he pushed himself up off the bed.

Joe had to grab the bed post to steady himself, when his world started tipping back and forth, exactly how a clipper would do on a stormy sea. Once the clipper reached smooth waters, Joe grabbed his robe from the foot of the bed, put it on and looked at the bedroom door.

“He did say to walk the hall.”

Taking a deep breath, Joe shuffled across his room to the door. Grabbing hold of the door jam for balance, he leaned against it, and tried to catch his breath. Joe looked back at his bed, trying to decide if it would be wiser just to go back. But then the Missouri mule took over what little common sense he had, and he walked out of his room. Joe stepped into the hall and slowly walked towards Adams room. He got about a couple of feet from his door before his legs gave out and he collapsed.

Downstairs, Ben heard a loud crash from above.

 

 

 

Chapter 69

Ben ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time. When Ben reached the hall he found Joe lying on the floor in a heap.

“Little Joe,” Ben called as he ran to Joe’s side and knelt down next to him. Ben placed a hand on Joe’s back, in a show of affection and concern. “Are you alright, Son?”

Joe weakly tried to push Ben away. “Leave me alone.”

“Let me help you get to your feet, Little Joe.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Call you what?” Ben was confused by Joe’s words.

“I ain’t Little Joe ta you. Remember, I’m Joseph.”

Ben didn’t know what Joe was talking about, but decided to let it go for now and concentrate on the problem at hand.

Ben started to reach under Joes arms to help him up. Once again Joe pushed him away. “I can do it myself.” To prove his point, Joe pushed himself to his knees, but then he had to sit there and wait for his world to stop spinning.

Ben stood back and watched, ready to catch Joe if he fell.

Joe reached up to the table next to him, took hold and started to pull himself up. His first attempt was unsuccessful, but his second brought him to his feet. He stood there holding on to the table for dear life, bound and determined to get back to his room his own.

It was agonizing for Ben to watch his son struggle inch by inch to make it back to his room. Every instinct told Ben to reach out and help his son, but he also knew that as soon as he touched Joe, he’d be pushed away. If that happened, Joe would lose the tenuous grasp he had on his balance and end up on the floor again. Thus Ben did the next best thing: he followed his son’s every step.

When Joe made it back to his door, he was beyond exhaustion, and he realized this created another problem for him. How was he going to make it to his bed? There wasn’t anything for him to hold on to between the door and the bed. With a deep fortifying breath, he let go of the door, and took two steps into the room before his legs gave out on him, again.

Luckily, Ben was right behind him, and was able to catch Joe before he hit the floor.

“Get your…”

“That’s enough, Little Joe,” Ben commanded. “Let’s get you in bed.”

“I told you,” Joe stopped gasping for breath. “not ta call me that. An’ I can…”

“No, you can’t.” By this time Ben already had Joe to his bed. He helped Joe with his robe, and then helped him to sit down.

“Here, let me check those stitches.” Ben reached for Joe only to have his hands knocked away. Ben sighed in frustration.

Joe was able to get his legs onto the bed and lean back on the pillows. His body was shaking all over and he was breathing hard from the exertion.

Ben pulled the blanket over him. “I thought Dr. Martin told you not to get up without someone with you.”

“What do you care?” Joe asked, his tone was definitely belligerent.

“I care a lot, Lit…Joseph.” Ben decided to go along with Joe’s wish regarding his name, for now.

Joe just snorted and turned away.

Ben was about to take his son to task for his rudeness, but stopped when he saw Joe’s shoulders shaking with silent sobs.  Haven’t I done enough to him already? He thought. “I’ll send Adam or Hoss up when they get home.”

Joe didn’t respond.

 

 

 

Chapter 70

Hoss was home in time for lunch. “I could smell Hop Sing’s cooking all the way home from Virginia City.”

Ben smiled at his son’s enthusiasm. “I’d hate to see you faint from hunger – especially since no one would be able to pick you up – so you better get cleaned up.”

“Already did, Pa. Already did.”

Just as Hop Sing was putting the food on the table, Adam strolled in. While he hung up his hat and took off his gun belt he called out to Hoss. “You better have left me some of that food, Hoss, or you’ll be sorry.”

“Don’t ya worry none, Adam, I saved ya a few bites.”

After Adam was seated and his plate filled, Ben cleared his throat. “Dr. Martin was here today.”

“Oh yeah? What’d he say?” Hoss asked between bites.

Adam laughed while he watched his brother. “You’re almost as bad as our little brother. At least you swallow before you talk. Barely.”

Hoss glared at Adam, and shook his fork at him. “I’ll have ya know…”

“Boys! As I was saying, Dr. Martin was here today. He took the stitches out of Joe’s arm, and said the ones in his side will most likely come out in a couple weeks.”

“That’s good news, Pa.” Adam saw the devastated look on Ben’s face. “It is, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is, but he’s worried about Little Joe, or should I say, Joseph.”

“Joseph? Why not Little Joe?” Hoss asked.

“He told me in no uncertain terms, that I was not to call him Little Joe. He’s Joseph to me. I don’t understand that one.” Ben looked down at his hands, trying to collect his thoughts. “Dr. Martin is worried about Joseph still being in bed. He gave orders for him to be up and walking the hall today. Tomorrow he’s to be down here with us, and is to stay down here. He doesn’t want Joseph moving around alone until he gets his strength back.” Ben snorted. “So what does that fool boy do? He starts walking the hall by himself. Of course, it was too much for him and he fell. When I got up there he wouldn’t even let me touch him, let alone help him. That’s when he told me that he was Joseph. Out of sheer stubbornness he was able to make it to his door by using to wall for support. But when it came to getting to his bed, he couldn’t do it. He had to accept my help, whether he liked it or not.”

Adam thought about this revelation. “I can’t be sure, but I think it’s his way of distancing himself from you. Ever since the Strouds got here, you’ve called him nothing but Joseph. I would tell you to keep calling him ‘Little Joe’, but then again, knowing him he would take that as another sign of you not listening to him. It could push him further away. It’s a double edged sword, to say the least.”

“Ya know what else I’ve noticed? He doesn’t call ya Pa anymore. Ever since that, er, discussion in the barn, it’s either been Sir or nothin’ at all,” Hoss piped in.

“I’ve noticed that, too. Once again, it’s probably his way of protecting himself and not letting you in. Give him time, Pa. You know he never stays mad for very long, especially with you. He forgives and forgets as fast as he looses his temper. He’ll probably be apologizing to you in a couple of days,” advised Adam.

“I’d like to agree with you, Adam, but it’s been three weeks now. If this was a normal disagreement between us, it would have been done and over with long ago.” Ben pushed his untouched plate away from him. “I lost him that night in the barn. I still can’t believe I did that. If only I’d listened to him. Had I known what was said at the lake I’d have taken a strap to Ramsey myself. But what did I do? I listened to what Alex told me earlier that day, about losing him unless I took control. I took control alright and lost him anyway.”

This was news to Adam. “What exactly did Alex tell you?”

Ben went on to explain the conversation he had with Alex the morning of that fateful day.

“Well, ain’t that the pot calling the kettle black,” Hoss said in disgust.

“I was so blinded by my own fears and wanting to prove to him that I had made something of myself, and that my sons were just as good as his.” Ben got up and walked over to the fireplace. He shoved his hands deep in his pockets and stared into the flames.

Adam and Hoss followed, bringing their coffee with them. Adam sat down in his blue chair as he listened to his father.

“Then Little Joe came home late that first night and that just set everything in motion. All of a sudden I was that little boy again who could do nothing right. It didn’t matter how hard I tried, nothing was good enough for him. It didn’t matter what kind of man I’d become, or how much pride I had in my sons, all three of them. I went back to that dark time of my life.”

“Well. At least we found out the truth about them. Compared ta that Ramsey, Little Joe’s an angel,” claimed Hoss.

Adam had just taken a drink of his coffee, and ended up spraying it all over the floor and himself. Some went down the wrong way and sent him into a coughing fit as he tried to breath. “Angel?” he was able to gasp between coughs.

Hoss went over and patted Adam on the back, trying to help him catch his breath. Adam about fell out of the chair with each so called pat.

“Fallen angel is more like it.” Adam said as he grabbed hold of the arm of the chair. “Stop it, you’re going to knock my spine clear through the other side of me,” Adam pleaded.

“I said, compared ta Ramsey he is,” Hoss reasserted.

Ben kept studying the flame, looking for answers that weren’t there.

Hoss set his cup down on the table, while he watched Adam mop up the coffee with his handkerchief. “I think I’ll go help that mule take another stroll,” Hoss said and tossed his handkerchief to Adam.

 

 

 

Chapter 71

Hoss knocked on Joe’s door and then stuck his head in. “Ya wanna go for another walk?”

Joe turned away from his intense study of the crack in his wall. “Sure, Hoss.”

Hoss noticed the red rimmed eyes and tear streaks on Joe’s face, but didn’t comment. “Let me have a look at them stitches. If ya pulled those out, Doc’ll have a fit,” Hoss said while he helped Joe to sit on the edge of the bed. He carefully pulled the bandage back a little and looked at the stitches. “You’re lucky, everythin’ looks good.”

Hoss helped his brother to stand, and handed him his robe. “Here, put this on. We can’t have ya wanderin’ around in nothing but them long johns.”

Once Joe’s robe was on, Hoss put his arm around his waist to help steady him.

“I can do it myself,” Joe protested.

“Sure ya can, Little Brother. That’s why you landed on your face earlier.”

Joe glared at Hoss, but let him help him to the hall, and up and down it. After the second lap Hoss noticed how tired Joe was getting, and figured this was as good of a time as any to talk to him. Hoss figured Joe was too tired to put up much of a fight, but he forgot who he was about to talk to.

“Don’t ya think this has gone on long enough?”

“One more time, Hoss, an’ then I’ll stop,” Joe pleaded.

“That ain’t what I’m talkin’ about, an’ ya know it.”

“I have no idea what you’re talkin’ about,” Joe maintained.

“Don’t ya go pretendin’ you’re dense. Ya know darn well that I’m talkin’ about all this nonsense with Pa.”

“Let it drop, Hoss,” Joe warned.

“I’m not gonna. Both ya and Pa are hurtin’, an’ ya don’t need to be.”

“If you’re going ta keep jabberin’ about that, ya can go right now.”

“Oh? And how do ya reckon on gettin’ back ta your room?” Hoss challenged.

“I can do it myself.”

“Sure ya can, little brother. Then I’ll just go on back downstairs,” Hoss said. He called Joe’s bluff and let go of Joe, who promptly fell to the floor. Hoss turned his back on Joe and headed for the stairs.

Joe looked up at his brother. “Fine,” he yelled.

Hoss turned and saw Joe pull himself up to his knees. Joe knew there was no way he could get up and walk back to his room, but he’d be hanged if he was going to ask for help. Instead, he took the only option left, he started crawling towards his room.

“Ya dadburn, stubborn, ornery, mule-headed fool!” Hoss stomped over to Joe, grabbed him under his arms and walked him to his room, where he promptly dropped him in the chair furthest from his bed. “Doc says ya have ta sit up for awhile. Ya just stay in that there chair ‘til someone decides to help ya.” Hoss left the room, slamming the door behind him.

Hoss stomped down the stairs, and all eyes turned towards him.

“What happened…”

“Don’t even ask,” Hoss barked, went straight out the front door, and slammed it.

Adam looked at Ben. “Maybe I should go up and see if he’s in one piece.”

“No, Adam, let him be for awhile. If Hoss is that mad, then I hate to imagine how mad Little Joe is.”

Adam nodded his head in agreement. “You’re right, Pa. I value my hide too much to approach either one of them.”

Later that evening Hoss went up to help Joe back to bed, and found him already there. Hoss shook his head and left the room without saying a word.

 

 

 

Chapter 72

The next morning Adam, who had literally drawn the short straw, knocked on Joe’s door, and went in. He expected to find Joe in bed and still asleep. Instead, Joe was not only awake, but also dressed.

“Morning, Little Joe, how are you feeling this morning?”

“Fine,” Joe snapped. He stood up from the bed, and this time he didn’t have to grab the bedpost for support.

Oh, this is a great start to the day, Adam thought to himself as he looked Joe over. He was dressed in a black shirt and grey pants, he even had his boots on, but he hadn’t bothered to tuck his shirt in. “You’re going down dressed like that?”

“What’s wrong with how I’m dressed?” he challenged.

“Hmm, let me see, your shirt isn’t tucked in and your hair isn’t even combed.”

“So?” Joe’s tone was already belligerent, and the day had just started.

“Joe, you know Pa doesn’t like for us to come to the table dressed like that.”

Joe looked Adam straight in the eye. “I don’t care what he likes.”

“Joe, you do…”

“If you’re goin’ to start on me, then you might as well leave.”

Adam closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose while he prayed for patience. “I won’t start. Let’s go to breakfast.”

Adam helped Joe down the hall and the stairs. Ben looked up at Adam with questioning eyes. Adam shook his head, indicating Joe’s dark mood. Adam helped Joe over to the table. There were four place settings, all back in their normal spots. Ben was sitting at the head of the table with Hoss to his left. Adam had been sitting in his normal spot at the foot of the table, before he drew the losing straw. Adam started to lead Joe over to his normal place to Ben’s right. Joe pulled back before he reached the table and tried to turn back to the stairs.

“Oh, no you don’t,” Adam said as he turned Joe back to the table.

“Then let me sit there.” Joe indicated Adam’s chair.

“Nope, that’s my spot, Little Buddy.” Keeping a hand on Joe, Adam used his other to pull out the chair.

Joe lowered himself into it, and was grateful to finally being able to sit down. His legs had turned to jelly and he didn’t think he could go another step, no matter what he thought about the seating arrangement.

Adam poured Joe a cup of coffee while Hop Sing brought out the last dish. “Here you go, Little Joe.” Adam handed Joe the dish of eggs.

“I’m not hungry.”

“Dr. Martin said…” Adam began.

“I don’t care what he said. I said, I’m not hungry.”

Hop Sing slapped Joe upside the head with his towel. “Ow! What’s that for?” Joe yelped.

Hop Sing slammed the towel on the table, causing everyone to jump. “You eat. Honorable Doctor say Num’er Three Son eat, and Hop Sing make sure Num’er Three Son eat.”

“I’m not…”

“You EAT!” commanded Hop Sing .

“Alright.” Joe started picking at his food. He glanced up, and Hop Sing was still standing next to him. “What?”

“Hop Sing not leave until plate empty.”

“But…”

“Eat.”

“Fine.” Joe ate.

When breakfast was almost over, Ben and his two older sons were discussing what needed to be done on the ranch. Everyone participated in the conversation, everyone except for Joe. He finished his breakfast and waited for either Adam or Hoss to finish so they could help him outside.

Ben watched his youngest son throughout the meal, his heart going out to him. Joe’s defenses had dropped and Ben could see all the hurt in his son’s eyes, hurt he had caused. Ben reached out to place his hand on Joe’s arm, only to have Joe pull away from him. Ben felt like someone had just ripped his heart out. Once again, Ben found himself apologizing to Joe. “Joseph, I’m so sorry about everything that happened. I never want you to be anyone except for yourself. I’m very proud of the young man you’ve turned into.”

“I’m sure you are,” Joe said in a condescending tone. “You know, no one can make you feel inferior unless you allow it. And guess what? I allowed you. I let you make me feel less than nothing. Well, no more.” Joe turned to Adam and Hoss. “Will one of you please help me out to the porch?”

“Little Joe, why don’t we talk this out first,” Adam suggested.

“Go right ahead!” Joe pushed himself up from the table, turned around and very slowly stepped away.

“Stubborn, mule headed…” Hoss muttered as he got up, and went around the table. He grabbed Joe by the arm and helped him out to the porch. “Where do ya wanna sit?’

“The rocker’s fine.”

Hoss helped Joe settle into the chair. “You have to talk to him.” Joe’s only response was to turn his head and close his eyes.

 

 

 

Chapter 73

The following weeks passed in the same manner as the first breakfast did. Joe steadfastly ignored Ben. No matter what Ben said, Joe refused to acknowledge his presence. This wore thin with Adam and Hoss. Hoping to push matters along, they began refusing to help Joe get around. This didn’t stop him: if no one would help him, then he would do it himself. In doing so, he regained his strength faster than he would have with help. He found that if he took it slowly, he could make it down to the corral, where he would spend his days with the hands. The hands respected Joe and his knowledge of horses. There he felt wanted and had a purpose. Two weeks later he didn’t have to take it slowly. He had his strength back and wanted to move on.

_ _ _ _

It was a little more then two weeks before Dr. Martin showed up at the ranch. Ben, hearing the approaching buggy, went out to the yard to greet his guest.

“Paul! It’s good to see you.” Ben held out his hand to his long time friend.

“Good morning, Ben. It’s good to see you, again. How are things going?”

“The ranch is doing well. That hard winter we had, with all that snow, is keeping our meadows and pastures green and lush. It’s also providing a good supply of water.” Ben put his hand on Paul’s back and guided him into the house. “Come on in. Hop Sing has fresh pot of coffee on.”

Paul studied Ben as he walked with him to the house. He could see the dark circles under his eyes and the drawn, haggard look to Ben’s face. “Ben, are you taking care of yourself?”

“Of course I am. Why do you ask?” Ben forced a smile that didn’t come anywhere near to reaching his eyes.

“Why do I ask? Well frankly, Ben, you look like death warmed over.”

“Is that your professional opinion?” Ben asked motioning for Paul to sit down.

“Yes it is. Now, tell me about my good friend and his obstinate youngest son. What’s going on, Ben?”

Ben just about collapsed into his chair. “What’s not going on is a better question.”

“Then nothing’s changed?”

“No. That first morning when he came down for breakfast, he put up a fight with Adam over where he was going to sit. The only place was next to me, and that was the last place he wanted to be. Then he tried to tell us he wasn’t hungry.”

“I told him…” Ben held up a hand to stop Paul.

“Yes, you did. Hop Sing also made you a promise, and he kept it.” Ben laughed, his first honest one in quite awhile. “He about scared us to death when he started in on Little Joe. You should have seen Little Joe’s face when Hop Sing refused to leave until his plate was empty. He thought he was going to get away with his old trick of pushing his food around, but not that day. Now, Hop Sing stands there until Little Joe starts to eat, and continues to check on him throughout the meal.”

“I figured when I got that promise, Little Joe didn’t stand a chance. What else has happened?”

“At the end of breakfast, I apologized, again.” Ben looked down at his hands, finding it hard to go on.

“Ben?” Paul prodded.

Ben cleared his throat. “He basically told me that my apologies weren’t welcome.” Ben closed his eyes, lost in a memory from long ago. “I’ve always said that boy is so much like Marie, and he proved it to me again.” Ben’s voice became soft as he remembered a conversation long gone. “Years ago before Little Joe was even born, Alex came to visit. He took an instant dislike to Marie, just like he did with Little Joe. I wanted to say something to Alex about it, but Marie wouldn’t hear of it. She knew what that visit meant to me. She told me, ‘No one can make you feel inferior unless you allow it, and I refuse to allow it.’”

“That sounds like Marie.” Paul smiled at the memory of the beautiful, gracious, caring, yet srong-willed woman Ben married.

Ben nodded his head in agreement. “That morning after I tried to apologize, Little Joe said the same words to me, but with a slight difference. He told me, ‘No one can make you feel inferior unless you allow it. And guess what? I allowed you. I let you make me feel less than nothing.’ Paul, those words are burned into my brain and heart. I never thought I would make any of my sons feel like that.”

“Ben, you just need…”

“Don’t tell me I need to give him more time,” Ben snapped. “No amount of time is going to repair what I’ve done to him. He’s just a boy, Paul. No matter how much he wants to believe otherwise, he’s still a boy. My boy. I’m his father, I’m suppose to protect him from things like that. Instead of protecting him, I do it to him. I ripped his heart and soul right out of him. And what for!?” By this point Ben was yelling and pacing the floor in front of the fireplace. “Because I wasn’t man enough to stand up to Alex, and tell him my son is perfect just the way he is. But do I do that? No! I cowered to him.” Ben stopped pacing and faced Paul. “What was I afraid of, Paul? Was I afraid that he’d take the strap to me, like he did just before I ran off and went to sea?”

“Ben, no one knows how the mind is going to react to things. You experienced years of abuse that was disguised as someone caring about you and who wanted to guide you through life.” Paul was stopped by the look of disbelief on Ben’s face. “Yes Ben, abuse. He abused you. Don’t you think that’s why you went to sea, and later moved out here? Subconsciously, you tried to get as far away from him as possible.” Paul got up from the settee, went over to his dear friend and put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “This too, shall pass.” When Ben’s eyes met Paul’s, Paul nodded his head. “It will, Ben. Maybe not as fast as you want, but it will be in the Good Lord’s time and no faster than that.”

Ben wiped away the moisture that was glistening in his eyes. “Thank you, Paul.”

“My pleasure, Ben. Now, where is that other patient of mine?”

“He’s down at the corral. He walks out there each morning and supervises the work with the horses.”

“Why don’t you send someone for him?”

Ben nodded his head and walked out the door. When he saw a horse in front of the bunkhouse he headed over, rapped on the door then walked in. He found Hank there, putting on a clean shirt.

“Everything okay, Hank?”

“Yes, Sir. Dadburn jughead decided to take a chunk out of my shirt. I’m just dang lucky he didn’t get a piece of me.”

Ben laughed. “I’d suggest you take a wide berth around that horse.”

“Hell, he comes near me again, I might just take a bite out of his hide.”

“You’re just the man to do it, too,” Ben laughed. “Say, Hank, when you go back, send Little Joe back to the house. Tell him Dr. Martin’s here to see him.”

“Will do, Mr. Cartwright.”

 

 

 

Chapter 74

Joe walked into the house to find Ben and Dr. Martin talking over a cup of coffee.

“Hi, Doc,” Joe greeted.

Both men turned when they heard the door open. Paul watched how Joe studiously refused to acknowledge Ben, and kept his eyes on Paul.

“Good morning, Little Joe. How’re you feeling today?”

“As good as new,” Joe replied, without any type of enthusiasm.

Joe’s answer and his body language bothered Paul. Normally, Joe’s face would have been lit up in anticipation, and he would have been, literally, bouncing around begging to have the stitches removed and to be allowed to ride. The Joe before him was extremely sedate. There wasn’t a smile, or even a hint of a bounce.

“Let’s go up and take a look at your side,” Paul suggested.

Joe led the way up the stairs and to his room. Paul looked at Ben and tried to give him a reassuring smile.

_ _ _ _

Paul followed Joe into his room. “Alright, off with the shirt, and have a seat.”

Joe pulled his shirt off and sat on the edge of his bed. Paul pulled a chair over, and examined the wound. He finally sat back with a smile. “How does it feel?”

“Other than it itching all the time, it feels great.”

“Well, if it’s itching, then I’ll have to do something about it. Maybe one of Hop Sing’s poultices will help.”

“Doc,” Joe whined.

Paul sat there laughing at the look of horror on Joe’s face.

“That ain’t funny,” Joe grumbled.

“If you would have seen your face, you would’ve thought so.” When Joe didn’t even crack a smile, Paul sighed. “Alright, let’s get them out.”

Paul pulled a pair of scissors and tweezers out of his bag. He removed the stitches and examined the area one more time.

“It healed really well. Let me take a look at that arm, too.” Paul looked it over with a grunt of satisfaction, then got up and walked away from the bed.

“Come here, Little Joe.” When Joe was standing in front of him, Paul gave him a hard shove. Caught unaware, Joe took a few steps back before regaining his balance.

“Hey, what’s that for!” Joe demanded.

“Just checking.”

“Checkin’ what?”

“I wanted to see if you’ve actually gotten your strength back. According to that shove, I would say you’re almost as good as new.”

“Can I ride?”

Now, there’s the Little Joe I know. “Yes, you can, but only Cochise, or other saddle horses.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Joe said as he grabbed his shirt and started to put it back on.

“Little Joe.” Paul’s voice was stern, immediately catching Joe’s attention. “You are not to break any horses. You will stay off those for another three weeks. Got it?”

“I didn’t plan on it, anyway.” Joe walked out of his room and straight to the barn, leaving Paul standing in the middle of the room completely stunned. Something about Joe’s last statement, and the way he said, it set off warning bells in Paul’s mind.

_ _ _ _

When Paul came down the stairs, Ben was already waiting for him. Before either man could say a word, they heard to sound of a horse leaving the yard fast…very fast.

“I take it, you told him he could ride.” Ben said.

“Yes, I did, but I didn’t tell him he could ride like that. I’ll tell you Ben, that boy of yours has no idea what the word fear means.”

The door slammed open and Hoss came bounding in. “Everyone okay?”

“We’re fine, why?” Ben asked.

“The way Little Joe tore outta here, you’d of thought the house was burnin’ down. I ain’t never seen him ride like that.”

“How’s that, Hoss?” Paul asked.

“It was like, um, he didn’t care what could happen if there were an accident or somethin’”

Paul shook his head. “That boy isn’t making any sense. I told him he couldn’t break any horses, and he acted like he didn’t care, yet he rides out of here like that.”

Ben and Paul looked at each other, their eyes filled with dread.

 

 

 

Chapter 75

Joe rode hard until he noticed Cochise was beginning to tire, that’s when he realized he was on the road to Virginia City. Joe slowed Cochise to walk and continued on the road to town. Once Joe reached Virginia City, he headed straight for the Bucket of Blood. Just before he entered Joe heard a voice call out to him. Turning around he saw Roy approaching him.

“Little Joe, haven’t seen you in quite a spell. I take it Doc’s finally taken the leash off you.”

“He did just today, an’ I plan on making the most of it.”

“You just stay out of trouble, you hear.”

“I heard ya.” Joe turned and walked into the saloon.

Friends called greetings and good natured ribbing. Joe returned them with a smile and walked up to the bar. “Hey, Sam, could I get a beer?”

Sam handed a mug to Joe. “Are you feeling better, Little Joe?”

“Sure am, nothin’ could be better, except maybe a good poker game an’ a pretty girl.”

Sam laughed at Joe’s remark at and the mischievous smile on Joe’s face. “Say, Little Joe, about those damages…”

“Sorry, Sam, I forgot.” Joe reached into his jacket and pulled out his wallet. “Here’s some of it. Is it okay if I send ya the rest a bit at a time?”

Sam held up his hands. “You got me all wrong. I just wanted to let you know that all the damages have been paid for.”

Joe cocked his head to the side. “My brother’s father?”

“What’s the matter, Little Joe, you mad at him, or something?” Sam said with a chuckle.

“You could say that. What were you saying about the damages?”

“I just wanted to tell you they were paid. That Stroud fellow paid them for his kid.”

Joe nodded his head in satisfaction, and threw some coins down on the bar. “Here’s for the beer.”

“No, that one’s on the house.”

“Thanks Sam.” Joe turned and surveyed the room. There was a poker game going on in the back corner.

Joe picked up his beer and walked over. “Mind if I join in?”

The men looked Joe up and down. They figured the boy in front of them would be easy pickings. “Sure, friend, have a seat.”

Joe sat down at the table and was dealt in. One game turned into two, and continued. It happened to be Joe’s lucky day, much to the displeasure of the other men at the table.

“That’s it, I’m out,” grumbled one of the men while Joe once again pulled his winnings towards him. “You got all my money, Kid.”

“You’ve got to be the luckiest cuss around.”

The other men left the table leaving Joe sitting there alone. “Another beer, Sam,” Joe called out.

Sally walked over to Joe, her hips swaying seductively. She set the beer down in front of Joe and herself in his lap. “Haven’t seen you around much, Little Joe,” she purred as she ran her fingers through his hair.

“I’ve missed you too, Sally.” Joe put one arm around her, while he lifted his beer with the other and took a drink.

“I heard you got hurt awhile ago. You okay?”

“Good as new.” Joe gave her his most tantalizing smile, the one that made all the girls, not matter their age, weak in the knees. To prove how good he felt, Joe pulled Sally closer for a playful kiss.

“Hey! What do you think you’re doing? This here’s my girl.” A stranger new to Virginia City, pulled Sally off Joe’s lap.

“Look fella, just cuz I had a drink with you last night, doesn’t make me your girl.” Sally tried to pull her arm away. “Let go of me!”

“I think ya best let go of the lady,” Joe demanded as he stood up.

“Lady? I don’t see no lady around here. Best mind your own business, Boy.”

Before he could say another word, Joe’s left fist introduced itself to the stranger’s face, sending him staggering back.

The man shook his head to clear it, then launched himself at Joe, catching Joe with right hook that sent Joe crashing into the table he’d been sitting at, and right over it.

This was the perfect outlet for all the anger that had been building up ever since the Strouds had set foot on the Ponderosa. Joe was up and barreled into the stranger, returning the favor, knocking him over a table. The man got up with a beer mug in his hand and threw it at Joe. Joe ducked the mug and it went sailing over the bar, barely missing the mirror by mere inches. It still did some damage when it smashed into several bottles of whiskey.

Charlie, one of the hands from the Ponderosa, had just walked in the door when Sam yelled at him. “Go get the Sheriff!”

Charlie took one look at the fight and took off at a run.

A well aimed punch to Joe’s stomach sent him to the floor. Joe kicked out at the stranger’s feet, bringing him crashing down to the floor, giving Joe a chance to get up.

Joe and the stranger were well matched. Sam cringed each time he heard something break.

 

 

 

Chapter 76

Roy came running through the door with Charlie on his heels. “That’ll be enough!” Roy yelled to no avail.

When Roy pulled out his gun, Sam yelled at him: “Please, Roy, not that. I just had the ceiling fixed from the last time.”

“Alright.” Roy put his gun back in the holster and turned to Charlie. “Give me a hand, Charlie.”

Charlie grabbed the stranger under the arms, effectively stopping him. Joe was able to get in one more punch before Roy was able to get a hold of him.

“That’ll be enough, Little Joe!” Once Joe stopped struggling, Roy looked around the room and shook his head. “Well, I guess my peace and quiet’s over.” Roy let go of Joe, and turned towards the bar. “Sam?”

“Both, Roy.”

“Charlie, help me get these two down to the jail.”

“What?” Joe squeaked.

“You heard me, Little Joe. You’re going to get that night I’ve been promising you.”

“Ya can’t do that,” Joe protested.

“Watch me.” Roy gave Joe a push towards the door.

Joe picked up his hat and slapped it against his leg to get the dirt off it. “I can’t believe you’re goin’ ta do this.”

“Believe it, Boy.” Roy and Charlie marched Joe and the stranger to the jail, Joe and the stranger glared at the other the whole way.

Roy had the good sense to put each in a separate cell. “Now you two, just settle down and keep quiet.” Roy glared at Joe. “And I don’t want to hear one word out of you, Little Joe.”

Joe opened his mouth to protest, but was cut short. “I said, not one word.”

Roy left the room and slammed the door behind him. Charlie was waiting for Roy by the desk.

“Do you want me to tell Mr. Cartwright, Sheriff?”

“Please, Charlie. Tell him he can come and collect his boy in the morning.”

Charlie nodded his head and left the jail.

 

 

 

Chapter 77

Adam and Hoss were in the barn finishing up some chores, while Ben sat at the small table on the porch trying to work on the ledgers, when Charlie rode into the yard.

“Hey, Charlie,” Hoss called out.

“Hoss, Adam…”

“Charlie,” Adam said in greeting.

“Mr. Cartwright, I have a message from Sheriff Coffee.”

“Oh, no,” Ben moaned.

“Well… Little Joe was in a fight over at the Bucket of Blood,” Charlie said, starting to deliver the message.

Both Adam and Hoss groaned.

“And?” Ben prodded.

“Sheriff Coffee said you can come and get him at the jail in the morning.”

“Thank you, Charlie.” Once Charlie was gone Ben looked at Adam and Hoss. “I’m going to town and getting that brother of yours.”

“Pa, let him sit for tonight, it might do him some good. In the morning Hoss and I will go after him,” Adam suggested.

Ben started to argue, but then saw the wisdom in Adam’s suggestion. “Alright Adam, it’s probably for the best right now.”

 

 

 

Chapter 78

“Howdy, Boys,” Roy greeted when Adam and Hoss walked into his office the next morning.

“Roy,” Adam said in greeting.

“Hi, Roy,” Hoss said.

“So, what did he do?” Adam asked.

“Tore up the saloon.”

“It hasn’t even been twenty four hours since Dr. Martin gave him the okay to ride.” Adam let out a frustrated sigh, lowered his head and pinched the bridge of his nose; he was feeling a headache coming on. “Well, we can be sure of one thing.”

“What’s that, Adam?” Hoss asked.

“It’s not Ramsey’s fault.”

“That ain’t funny, Adam,” Hoss protested.

“No, it isn’t. What was it over this time?”

“Sally,” Roy said.

“Should’ve known. It’s usually over a pretty gal.” Hoss said.

“He tore up the saloon pretty good this time. Ben’s going to have quite a bill to pay.” Roy informed them.

“Just tell Sam to send the bill to Pa.” Adam shook his head in irritation. “We’ll take him home, Roy.” Adam looked at Hoss. “Hoss, go get his horse.”

_ _ _ _

Joe looked up when he heard the door to the outer office open, and sat up on the cot, glaring at Roy when he unlocked the cell door. At the moment Joe was mad at the world, and that world included Roy.

“You just going to sit there?” Roy asked. Little Joe just raised his eyebrows, but didn’t move. “Let’s go, Little Joe.”

“Am I allowed to talk now?” Joe’s voice dripped with sarcasm.

“No.”

“Ya know, ya can lock me up, but ya can’t make me shut up,” Joe challenged.

“I’d watch it, Boy. I can always change my mind and keep you here.”

“On what charge?” Joe shouted.

“On the charge of being a smart mouth.” Roy was completely fed up with Joe. “You just watch that attitude or I might have to put you over my knee.”

Joe visibly paled and slid further back on the cot away from Roy. He swallowed hard, but he didn’t say a word. Joe knew his reaction to Roy’s words wasn’t logical, but he couldn’t stop himself.

Roy was puzzled by Joe’s reaction to his words. Just a minute ago he was belligerent and was ready to take on the world, now he looked like a frightened little boy.

“Little Joe, what’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry, I’ll be good,” Joe promised. “I’ll be good,” he repeated in a whisper.

Roy scratched his head; he was completely confused by Joe’s words. “Come on, Son, Adam’s waiting for you.”

Joe meekly followed Roy from the room.

“Hey! What about me?” the stranger called from his cell.

Roy turned to glare at the man. “What about you?”

“Aren’t you going to let me out?”

“I don’t see anyone here to bail you out, so I guess you’ll have to wait.”

Roy shut the door to the cells, and turned to Adam. “He’s all yours, Adam.”

Adam looked at Joe’s pale face and his heart skipped a beat, thinking that there was more to Joe’s injuries other than the bruises.

“You okay, Little Joe?”

“Yeah,” Joe said in a soft voice.

“Roy?”

“Don’t know, Adam.”

Before Adam could say another word Hoss walked through the door. “I got Cochise.”

“Little Joe, go out with Hoss while I clear up some things with Roy.”

Joe nodded his head and left the office. Hoss watched as Joe walked past him. This wasn’t the belligerent brother they’ve been dealing with over the past few weeks. This was the brother they had before the shooting.

“Adam?” Hoss asked.

“I don’t know yet, go out and stay with him.”

Once Hoss was gone from the office Adam turned to Roy. “What happened, Roy?”

“I honestly don’t know, Adam. One minute he’s sassing me and the next he’s as pale as a ghost.”

“I heard him yelling, and then it got real quite. Was something said?”

“Not really. I told him I’d keep him locked up for being a smart mouth, and told him if he didn’t watch his attitude I’d put him over my knee. That’s when he became quiet and all.”

“You’re joking, right?” Adam said and closed his eyes.

“No, I’m not, but you know I’d never do that to him, Adam.”

Adam looked up saying a prayer that he had heard wrong. “Roy, please – tell me you didn’t say that to him,” Adam pleaded.

“Yes I did, I was hoping it would get him to pipe down.”

“Now I understand,” Adam groaned. He looked at Roy, took a deep breath and ever so slowly released it. “Pa, he… Well he…” Adam hedged, trying to find the right words to explain a difficult subject. “After Little Joe hit Ramsey up at Marie’s grave, Pa…” For once, Adam was at a loss for words. This was a touchy subject. Touchy – Hell, it was damn right volatile.

“He what?” Roy asked.

Adam just looked at Roy.

“He didn’t?” Roy was able to piece together what Adam was trying to say. Between his words to Joe, his reaction and now Adam’s reaction, Roy knew exactly what happened.

“He did.”

“I would have thought Little Joe was too old for that.”

“He is. That’s one of the things that’s making the whole thing so hard for Little Joe to forget. If it weren’t for that, I believe it would have blown over by now. Joe beating Ramsey to a pulp should have ended it.”

“I’m sorry, Adam, I didn’t know.”

“Outside of Hoss and me, no one else knows, except the Strouds, and they’re long gone.” Adam slapped Roy on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, Roy. He’ll forget you said it and be back in town giving you grief.”

With a weak smile for Roy, Adam walked out the door and saw that both his brothers were on their horses waiting for him. Adam watched Joe, he had his head down and his shoulders were slumped, his body language showed complete defeat.

“Little Joe, can I have a word with you?” Adam kept his voice soft and gentle, not wanting to add to Joe’s despair.

Joe looked up at Adam; his face was still very pale. “Sure, Adam.”

Adam watched Joe’s posture when he dismounted and walked over to him. Joe didn’t raise his head he kept his eyes glued to the ground as he walked towards him.

“Give us a minute, will you, Hoss?”

“Sure thing, Adam.”

“Let’s go over here, Little Joe, so we can talk.” Adam indicated the alley next to the jail.

“Could you look at me?” Adam asked, still keeping his tone soft and gentle, like he would if he was approaching a scared horse.

Joe raised his head, but his eyes couldn’t meet Adam’s. When Roy threatened to put Joe over his knee his mind involuntarily went back to that night in the barn. All the pain, hurt and confusion flooded his mind. He saw his father standing there with his belt in his hand. The shame, anger and disappointment weren’t only in his words, but they were in Ben’s eyes. The anger wasn’t what hurt Joe the most, he’d dealt with that before, it was his father telling him he was ashamed and disappointed with him. All Joe ever wanted to do was to make his father proud. Now, here Joe stood, again, with the threat looming over him. Then Adam was there…

“Little Joe, you know Roy didn’t mean what he said, don’t you?”

“No, Adam, it wasn’t Roy who said it, it was Pa,” Joe whispered. “I… I disappointed him again.”

Adam caught Joe’s used of the word ‘Pa,’ it wasn’t ‘Sir’ or ‘him,’ it was ‘Pa.’ Maybe there’s still hope. Adam put his arm around his brother. “Little Joe, Pa’s not here. It’s just me and Hoss.” Adam could feel the slight trembling in Joe’s shoulders. “You have to believe me no one’s going to do that to you again.”

“But, he’s disappointed in me. He’s ashamed of me.”

“No, Little Joe, he love’s you and he’s sorry for everything.”

Joe shook his head. “No, he wants me to be perfect, an’ I can’t be.” Joe finally looked at Adam. All the walls that Joe had erected since the shooting, to protect himself and shut everyone else out, were down. Adam could see the devastating pain that Joe felt and his heart broke for his little brother.

Adam pulled Joe close and wrapped his arms around him, while Joe clutched at Adam’s back, seeking the comfort he’d been denying himself for weeks. This was what Joe had been needing, craving, since the moment he came home that first night wet, exhausted and hurt. The person he needed it from the most turned his back on him, more than once. Joe’s shoulders shook, but he didn’t make a sound. Adam could feel the wetness on his shirt where Joe’s head rested.

“It’s going to be okay, Little Buddy. I promise… it’s going to be okay.”

Adam held his brother until the silent sobs had subsided. Joe stepped back from Adam, he went to use his sleeve to wipe the tears from his face, but Adam was one step ahead of him and handed Joe his handkerchief. Joe accepted it and dried his face.

“You ready to go now?”

Joe nodded his head, unable to trust his voice.

Together the brothers walked out of the alley. Hoss looked at Adam with questioning eyes, wanting to know if their brother was okay. Adam nodded his head. The three left town riding side by side. Adam and Hoss instinctively flanked their brother.

 

 

 

Chapter 79

About half way home the color started to come back to Joe’s face and with it came the defiance. He knew his fear was irrational, there wasn’t anything to be afraid of anymore. He wouldn’t ever let anyone do that to him again.

“I didn’t need ya two ta come and play nursemaid ta me.” Joe was embarrassed about what happened in the alley and in Roy’s office. He was furious with himself for letting Adam get that close. Joe was acting out, pushing everyone away in an act of self preservation. He didn’t know how to open up anymore. But then again, he didn’t want to. To do so would only bring pain again, overwhelming, life shattering pain.

All those weeks that he had laid in bed he didn’t care what happened to him anymore. He felt the need to run, to put as much distance between his father and himself, but he was incapable of doing it. Joe’s world had always revolved around Ben. Ever since his mother died, Joe thought his father hung the moon. He had always thought he was loved unconditionally. Then, suddenly, there were conditions placed on that love. If Joe couldn’t meet his father’s conditions, that love was withheld. Joe had been devastated and he had been broken.

When Dr. Martin’s words sunk in, Joe hardened himself against the world. No longer would he care about anyone or anything, even himself. The only one who was an exception to this was Cochise. The horse was the only one who never let him down and understood how he felt. As a result Joe built up walls to protect himself and to keep everyone else out.

“What did ya plan on doin’, stay locked up in Roy’s jail until the judge came ta town?” Hoss grumbled. He was always amazed at how quickly Joe could go from one emotion to the next. This time it angered him. Hoss saw how Joe opened up to Adam and had hoped things were going to come to an end. Now Joe was back to being mad at the world again.

 “Roy would of let me out,” Joe snarled.

“Don’t even start with me, Little Joe,” Hoss warned.

“What I do in town is my business, not yours.”

“Not when you tear up the saloon,” Adam admonished.

“What’s it matter? He’ll pay for it.”

“I’m warning you, you’re not going to start acting up in town,” Adam ordered.

 “What if I do?” Joe snapped.

“You’ll keep a civil tongue in your mouth when you talk to me, Boy.”

“I ain’t a boy, an’ I’m sick of everyone callin’ me that!”

It was on the tip of Adam’s tongue to ask if ‘kid’ was any better, but decided now wasn’t the time.

“Ya couldn’t wait a little longer before startin’ trouble?” Hoss asked.

“Weren’t my fault. That other guy shouldn’t of grabbed Sally,” Joe protested.

“I think Sally can take care of herself,” Hoss advised his brother.

Joe stared angrily at his brothers, kicked Cochise and took off.

“He’s spoilin’ for a fight, Adam.”

“I know and it scares me. I think we’re in for a lot of trouble.”

“Not unless Pa put’s his foot down.”

“Do you really think that’s going to happen? Little Joe’s been nothing but insolent and Pa hasn’t done anything about it.”

“In-si… What?”

“Insolent. He’s being quite rude, among other things.” Adam explained.

“Why didn’t ya just say so?”

“I did… Oh, never mind. The point is, Pa’s been letting Little Joe get away with being inso… rude to him ever since the shooting. I know he feels guilty, but doing a complete about face, and letting Little Joe run wild isn’t going to make things better. He needs to do something and get Little Joe to talk to him.”

“I’m not sure about that, Adam. I don’t think he’s running wild. I think Little Joe was just lettin’ off some steam last night. He’s been cooped up for so long, he’s antsy right now. It’ll be better tomorrow, you’ll see.”

“I hope you’re right.”

 

 

 

Chapter 80

Joe reached the house well before his brothers. He tied Cochise to the hitching rail in front of the house. “I’ll be back in a bit, Cooch”

Joe walked in the house and almost ran straight into Ben. “Little Joe, what happened?” Ben reached out and placed his hand on the side of Joe’s face to get a better look at the bruises.

Joe knocked his hand away, and pushed his way past Ben. A soft, heartfelt sigh escaped Ben when he turned to watch his son stomp up the stairs and slam the door to his room.

_ _ _ _

When Adam and Hoss rode into the yard and dismounted, they noticed Cochise in front of the house.

“That’s strange. Wonder why Little Joe left his horse like that?” Hoss pondered.

“If he thinks we’re going to take care of him, then he has another thing coming.” Adam grumbled.

Only after they had their horses groomed, fed and watered did they go into the house.

Ben was sitting in his chair, looking completely dejected. He didn’t even look up when Adam and Hoss entered.

“Little Joe?” Adam asked, even though he already knew the answer.

“Yes.”

Adam shook his head in disgust. “I’m going to go talk to him.”

“Hold up, Adam, let me. Ya go up there right now, an’ a fuse is goin’ ta be lit. I just don’t know which and I don’t think the house could handle that,” Hoss reasoned with his brother.

“Fine, you go.” Adam turned away from the stairs and plopped down in the blue chair.

Chapter 81

 

 

 

Hoss knocked on Joe’s door. When there was no answer, he knocked again. “Little Joe, it’s Hoss.”

Still, there wasn’t an answer. “Don’t matter,” Hoss muttered. He opened the door and walked in. “Little Joe, I think we…” Hoss stopped in midsentence when he saw what Joe was doing.

Sitting on the bed were Joe’s saddle bags and his satchel, and Joe was at his dresser pulling shirts from a drawer. Without even acknowledging Hoss, Joe walked over to the bed and dumped the shirts into the satchel.

“Where do ya think you’re goin’?” Hoss demanded.

Ignoring Hoss, Joe walked back to his dresser and grabbed his brushes. When he turned to add them to his satchel, Hoss grabbed his right arm and pulled Joe around to face him. “I asked ya a question, Boy.” Hoss was getting angry at Joe. The situation was serious, and Joe refused to even look at him.

“Let me go!”

“I ain’t lettin’ go until ya answer my question.”

Joe tried to pull his arm free, but Hoss had a firm grip on him. In one movement Joe threw his brushes across the room, into the wall, pulled on his right arm while he pushed with his left. The movements startled Hoss and caught him by surprise. Hoss stumbled back, releasing Joe’s arm.

“Dadburn your ornery hide, Little Joe,” Hoss shouted.

_ _ _ _

Ben and Adam both looked up the stairs when they heard what sounded like something hitting the wall.

“What the…” Adam broke off when he heard Hoss shouting.

Both men followed the noise up the stairs and to Joe’s door. Ben’s breath caught when he heard the argument coming from the room. “Dear Lord.”

_ _ _ _

Once Joe was free from Hoss, he retrieved his brushes and threw them in his satchel. Joe grabbed it and his saddle bags off the bed and started for the door.

“Ain’t ya forgettin’ something’ important?” Hoss held a silver picture frame and locket in his hand.

Joe spun around and glared at Hoss. “Give ‘em ta me!”

“Nope.”

Joe stomped over to Hoss and made a grab for his mother’s pictures, only to have Hoss raise them out of reach.

“I said, give ‘em ta me!” Joe shouted.

“Not until ya tell me where ya think you’re think you’re goin’,” Hoss insisted.

“I’m leavin’,” Joe said stating the obvious.

“Well, that tells me what you’re doin’, but not where you’re goin’.”

“Fine!” Joe snapped and turned back to the door.

“I know ya ain’t goin’ to walk out that there door an’ leave these behind, Little Brother. They’re your most prized possessions.”

Joe’s shoulders sagged in defeat, Hoss had called his bluff. Joe hung his head and closed his eyes. “I don’t know,” he mumbled.

“I didn’t catch that,” Hoss pushed.

“I said, I don’t know!”

“If ya don’t know where you’re goin’, then why are ya leavin’?”

“Cuz I can’t stay here. Now that I can ride, I’m leavin’”

Hoss scuffed at the floor with the toe of his boot. “Little Joe, the Ponderosa has been your home your whole life. You belong here, she’s in your blood. How can ya up an’ leave?”

“How can I stay?” Joe dropped the bags on the floor with a sigh and walked over to the window. “I don’t wanna leave, Hoss. But how can I stay with everythin’ that’s happened?”

“Little Joe, ya know Pa didn’t mean nothin’ by it.” Hoss protested.

“Didn’t mean nothin’ by it?!” Joe shouted and he spun around. “So all them extra chores I got didn’t mean nothin’? I guess that tannin’ didn’t mean nothin’ either!?”

“Come on, Little Joe, Ya know there was a lot of things involved with it.” Hoss tried to reason with his brother.

“Like what, Hoss?” Joe demanded.

“The Strouds…”

“The Strouds!” Joe snapped. “Your father had so little faith in me, that he took everthin’ that Ramsey said as the truth!”

“He’s your father too, and don’t ya go forgettin’ it!” Hoss said, his temper rising.

“No he’s not! He left that title in the barn that night.” Joe looked down at his feet, took a deep breath and slowly released it. “Look, Hoss I gotta go. Would ya please give those ta me?”

Hoss looked at the picture in his hand. “Can ya really leave her, Little Joe?”

“Hoss…” One word, just one word, but if was packed with sorrow and a plead for understanding.

“Can ya? Can ya leave the one person ya tell everything ta?” Hoss knew he was hitting below the belt, but he would do whatever it took to keep Joe from leaving. Hoss knew if Joe left, he’d never come back, and would never be able to work things out with Ben. His family would be torn apart forever.

“Cuz, that’s exactly what you’d be doin’” Hoss saw Joe’s shoulder’s slump and knew he was getting through to Joe.

“Hoss, please…” Joe begged.

“I can understand your reasons for wanting to leave, but I hope ya thought it through. Pa’s not the only one you’re goin’ leave behind. You’re leavin’ Adam and me too. How do ya think we’re gonna feel?”

Adam was standing in the doorway listening to the conversation and decided it was time to add his voice. “Yeah, Joe, how do you think I’ll feel if you just up and leave?” Adam walked into the room and over to where his younger brothers stood. “Don’t you think your leaving is going to hurt me? If that’s what you think, let me set you straight on that matter. It will hurt me… a lot.” Adam was doing something he rarely did. He was showing his feelings. “You’re my little brother, how could it not hurt. I would always worry about you. I’d always wonder if you were all right, if you were in trouble, or if you needed me.”

“I feel the same way, Little Joe. It’d be like a part of me died if you leave.” Hoss stopped and gave Joe a sad pitiful smile. “Besides if you leave Hop Sing will up and quit, he’ll go back to China, cuz Number Three son left.” Hoss walked over to Joe, put his hand on Joe’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze.” Please, don’t leave,” Hoss pleaded.

Adam also put his hand on Joe’s other shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. ”Don’t leave, stay with us…” Adam paused to let his words sink in before he added what he hoped would be the ultimate plea. “Don’t leave Marie.”

Joe looked up at his brothers, his eyes glistening with unshed tears. He felt torn apart. He didn’t want to leave his brothers and he especially didn’t want to leave his mother. But on the other hand, he didn’t want to stay with his father. What was he to do?

A warm, gentle breeze bringing the scent of the spring evening with it, came in through Joe’s open window and brushed across Joe’s cheek. Joe brought a hand up to his cheek where the breeze had caressed it. Joe felt warmth and sense of being loved flow through him. He looked at his brothers and saw the love shining in their eyes, and he knew what his decision was. It’s a big house an’ even bigger ranch.

“I’ll stay on one condition.”

Adam raised his eyebrows in question.

“It’s only you and Hoss that I deal with. I’ll stay here, but it’s the two of you that give me my work assignments. I don’t want anything to do with him.”

Adam smiled at Joe before looking at Hoss and his smile grew bigger. “You heard him, Hoss. He just gave me permission to tell him what to do.”

“I heard ‘im all right.”

Joe looked at both of them and frowned. “Maybe I should just go, anyway.”

“NO!” both men yelled at the same time.

“Here, let me help ya unpack.” Hoss picked up the satchel and dumped the content out on Joe’s bed.

_ _ _ _

Outside in the hall Ben released the breath he didn’t realize he was holding. He looked up and mouthed “Thank you.”

 

 

 

Chapter 82

The next morning Joe came down to breakfast and took his normal seat.

“Good morning, Joseph,” Ben said as Joe sat down.

Joe acted like he never heard Ben. This attitude continued throughout the whole meal; Joe didn’t acknowledge Ben’s presence in any way. After last night Ben knew he was treading on eggshells and wasn’t going to do anything to risk losing his son.

As long as he’s here there’s a chance we can repair what I tore apartBen told himself.

“Hoss, I need you to go to town for supplies and the mail.” Ben started handing out the assignments for the day.

“Sure thing, Pa.”

“Adam, go out to the timber camp and see where we’re at. I want to make sure we’re on schedule for the Gould and Curry contract.”

Adam nodded his head as he drank his coffee.

“Lit…Joseph, I would like you to ride out to the south pasture and see how the grazing is holding up, or if we need to move the herd.”

“Hoss, ya goin’ ta eat those last few pancakes,” Joe asked as he started to grab the pancakes in question, ignoring Ben, but he was too slow. Hoss’ stabbed them with his fork and had them on his plate before Joe’s fork was even half way there.

“Joseph, did you hear me?”

“Hey! Ain’t you had enough already?” Joe protested.

Ben sighed and looked to Adam for help.

“Little Joe, I need you to go out to the south pasture and check on the grazing.”

“No problem, Adam.” Joe looked at the pancakes that Hoss was devouring and shook his head. “Since Hoss decided he needs fourths I may as well get started.” Joe laid his napkin on his plate and stood up. “See ya, Brothers.” He grabbed his hat and gun belt and was out the door.

 

 

 

Chapter 83

Hearing whoops and cheers coming for the corral, Adam turned Sport, curious to find out who was causing such a commotion with his ride. He saw Joe on a horse and sat back on Sport to watch the show.

“Ride him, Little Joe!” the hands at the corral yelled. Joe was on the horse that had tried to take a chunk out of Hank the day before.

A twist, a sharp right and a hard buck had Joe rolling on the ground. He jumped to his feet and dusted himself off.

Adam grimaced when Joe hit the ground, but it quickly became a smile when Joe was back on his feet and asking for more.

“Get ‘im back in there, Hank. I want another try at ‘im.”

Once they had the horse in the chute, Joe climbed on and made sure he had a good grip on the rope. “Let ‘im go!”

The door swung open and the horse was out in a blink of an eye. Even though Joe had been away from the horses for over a month, he had found his balance earlier in the day and now he rode the horse like there was no tomorrow.

Adam smiled while he watched his brother. Watching Joe on a bronc was like watching poetry in motion. “No one can sit a horse like that boy,” Adam told Sport. Adam joined in with the cheers when Joe rode the horse to a standstill.

“Great ride, Little Joe,” Adam called out to Joe.

Joe looked up to see Adam sitting on Sport, smiling. Joe waved at him and made his way over to the fence.

“This doesn’t look like the south pasture,” Adam joked.

“’Cuz it ain’t. I finished up there and decided to give Hank a helping hand.” The smile on Joe’s face shone brightly through the dust on his face. It was the first honest smile Adam had seen in a long time. Leave it to Little Joe to be his happiest on a wild horse, Adam thought while he returned the smile.

“You’ve been here most of the day?”

“Sure have,” Joe acknowledged, his smile growing even bigger. “Got here late morning.”

“So you didn’t have any lunch?” Things were still touch and go when it came to Joe eating.

“I had lunch with the men.” Joe saw the doubtful look on Adam’s face. “Honest. You can ask them if you want.”

“I believe you. It’s getting late, why don’t you call it a day and head home with me, Hop Sing should have dinner ready soon.”

“You got it, Adam.” Joe turned back to the corral. “Let’s call it a day, Boys.” Joe grabbed Cochise’s reins and swung up into the saddle. “Race you home,” Joe challenged and was off in a flash. Adam watched how Joe rode without any regard for his own safety, he gave Sport a kick and was off, but with quite a bit more control.

The ride back to the house was a short one. When Adam reached the yard and started for the barn, he saw Joe standing next to the hitching rail with Cochise.

“Bit slow there, Older Brother.”

“You best watch it, Younger Brother, remember I’m the one who gives out the work. I’m sure I can find a water hole or two that needs to be cleaned.”

“Gee, thanks.”

When Joe turned towards the house Adam called out stopping him. “Joe, aren’t you going to take care of Cochise?”

“I will after I get some of this dust off me.”

 

 

 

Chapter 84

Joe came bounding down the stairs washed and in clean clothes. Adam looked at him and raised an eyebrow, in the way that only Adam could do. “You going somewhere?”

“Sure am.” Joe picked up his gun belt and started strapping it on.

Ben looked at Adam with questioning eyes. Adam shook his head and shrugged.

“What about dinner?” Adam asked.

“I’ll get dinner in town.” Joe saw the look on Adam’s face. “I promise.” When Joe said the last word he looked Ben straight in the eye, daring him to say something.

Unable to continue looking at the condemnation in Joe’s eyes, Ben looked away. When Ben turned away, Joe grabbed his hat and jacket.

“Do you think going to town is a good idea after last night?”

“I don’t plan on causin’ trouble.”

“You never do,” Hoss piped in.

“Look, I’m goin’ ta town, an’ I ain’t gonna get into any trouble.” Joe lowered his tone, hoping to keep peace with his brothers.

“I would think you’d be too tired after checking on the herd then working with the horses.”

“What horses?” Ben asked, dreading to hear the answer.

“Little Joe was out at the corral most of the day. He was able to break that jughead who tried to eat Hank,” Adam said with a hint of pride.

“What?!” Ben stood up and looked at Joe, who’s only response was to put his hat on and walk out the door.

“JOSEPH!” Ben bellowed and went after his youngest son.

By the time Ben was out the door, Joe was swinging up onto Cochise, who was already in motion.

“Joseph!” Ben yelled again, only this time out of worry instead of irritation. He had never seen Joe ride like he had just done… Reckless and without restraint.

“Pa, is something wrong?” Adam asked, standing behind Ben.

Ben spun around and glared at Adam. “You know what’s wrong!” Ben charged before stomping back into the house.

Hoss had to jump aside or risk being plowed over.

“Adam?”

“You got me.” Adam walked back into the house to find Ben pacing in front of the fireplace.

Adam nudged Hoss in the side and tipped his head towards Ben.

Hoss’ eyes widened. He shook his head and mouthed “You.”

Adam sighed in frustration. Why is it always me? Just once I’d like to be the youngest. “Pa, I know I’m not always the brightest one around,” Adam said trying to inject some humor into the tense atmosphere. “But could you tell us what it is that has you so upset.”

Ben stopped his pacing and looked at his sons. The confusion they felt was written all over their faces. Ben took a deep breath and slowly released it. “Little Joe’s not allowed to be on any of those broncs until Paul lets him. He was told this yesterday.”

“Oh lordy,” Hoss groaned.

“I didn’t know, Pa,” Adam apologized.

“Was he thrown?”

“Yes, at least once. I got there just before he was thrown the last time.”

“Was he okay?”

He seemed to be, and judging by the way he came down those stairs and rode off, I’d say he’s just fine.”

“Dinner ready,” Hop Sing announced coming out from the kitchen.

“Ain’t those the prettiest words you’ve ever heard, Adam?” Hoss said and started for the table, hoping to change the subject and the oppressive atmosphere that was hanging over the room.

Hop Sing looked around the room and frowned. “Where Li’le Joe?”

“He went to town, Hop Sing. I don’t know how you could’ve missed that exit,” Adam said with just a hint of sarcasm.

“Was in cellar, no hear nothing.” With a few choice words in Chinese, Hop Sing left the room.

 

 

 

Chapter 85

The first stop Joe made in Virginia City was Daisy’s Café. After a good meal and an even better conversation with Daisy, Joe headed for the Bucket of Blood.

On his way Joe spotted Mitch picking up his family’s mail. “Hey, Mitch, wait up,” Joe called and made a beeline for his friend.

Mitch was just putting the mail in his saddle bag when he heard Joe call out to him. “Hi, Little Joe. Good to see you up and about, Old Buddy.”

“Buy ya a beer,” Joe offered, longing to spend some time with his friend that he hadn’t seen in what felt like years.

“If you’re buyin’, I’m drinkin’. Seth and Tuck are supposed to meet me there.”

Joe groaned. “Guess I’m buyin’ for all of us. But only one round, ya hear?”

When the two friends entered the saloon, Sam looked up from where he was polishing glasses and frowned. “Little Joe, why don’t you just…”

Joe held up his hands in front of himself. “Easy, Sam, I’m not gonna cause trouble tonight,” Joe said interrupting Sam.

“See that you don’t!” Sam warned, not catching the emphasis Joe put on ‘tonight’.

“Mitch, Little Joe, over here,” Tuck called.

“Be right there.” Joe turned to Sam. “Four beers, Sam.” Joe tossed some money on the bar, grabbed two of the beers, while Mitch grabbed the other two.

“Hear you had some trouble at home awhile ago,” Seth asked.

Joe took a long drink from his beer before answering. “If you mean a visit from the Devil an’ his son, then yeah we had a lot of trouble,” Joe said bitterly.

“Yeah, that’s what I mean. Heard you took Ted on cuz of that.”

“Oh, I took him on alright, and plenty of extra chores ta boot.”

“Why’d you get extra chores? From what I heard you didn’t start it.” Mitch added.

“Didn’t matter, I was in a fight an’ I had Ramsey with me.” Joe finished off his beer and called for another.

“I can’t believe you’re in town today. I heard you’re responsible for this.” Tuck waved his arm indicating the damage from the night before that hadn’t been repaired yet. “What you do, climb out your window, again?”

“Nope, walked down the stairs an’ right out the door.”

“You mean your Pa let you?” Tuck was astonished at this miracle.

“He didn’t have a say in the matter,” Joe responded.

Mitch, Tuck and Seth looked at each other. This was unheard of, Ben Cartwright always had a say when it came to his sons.

“I guess it’s my turn to buy,” Seth said trying to fill the silence that had descended.

The four friends talked for hours, trying to catch up on all that had happened.

“You mean to tell me that Jenny is seeing Trevor Benson?”

“She sure is,” Mitch confirmed.

“What does she see in him? He’s just so…so… I don’t know. He works in the bank, after all.” Joe complained.

“Is that jealousy I hear?” Mitch teased.

“No,” Joe protested. He started to squirm as his fiends continued to stare at him. “Yeah, ok I’m jealous. I just can’t believe I lost my chance.”  Joe finished off his beer and motioned for another. “That just one more thing ta add ta the list,” he muttered.

One by one the friends parted ways until only Joe was left sitting at the table.

Joe called for another beer. He sat back, slowly drank his beer and contemplated his life. Joe stared into his beer, looking for answers to all the questions he’s had since the Strouds arrived, but the only one who could supply the answers Joe was refusing to talk to.

_ _ _ _

It was late in the night when Joe looked around and realized there weren’t many people left in the saloon. A poker game was going on at one of the tables and some of the girls were drinking with the other men that remained. No one approached Joe, instinctively knowing he wasn’t receptive to any company, no matter how pretty she might be. Joe looked at the glasses on the table in front of him and shook his head. He got up from the table, put his hat on his head and walked out of the saloon.

Cochise was waiting patiently for him. “Sorry about that, Cooch.” Joe pulled himself up into the saddle. “I guess it’s time to go home. Everyone’s should be in bed by now.”

 

 

 

Chapter 86

Inside the house, a lone occupant sat by the fire, waiting. He looked at the clock when he heard the slow, steady sound of a horse approaching. He continued to wait until he heard the slow, not so steady sound of boots approaching the door. When Joe entered the house, Ben waited until he hung his hat and removed his gun belt. Joe had started for the stairs when he was stopped by his father’s voice.

“It’s a little late isn’t it, Joseph?” Ben asked, keeping his voice soft and gentle.

Joe spun around to face his father, and stumbled. Joe wasn’t completely drunk, but he wasn’t close to being sober either.

“Does it matter?” he snapped.

“Yes it does… Joe.” Ben yearned to go back to the familiar ‘Little Joe’ and away from the now hated ‘Joseph’ he’d been told to use. Ben had decided to try something in between the two.

Joe looked at his father, not sure what to say. “What are ya gonna do about it? Use your belt again!?” Joe challenged.

“No, Joe, What I did was unforgivable…”

“You’re damn right it was.” Joe looked at his father with eyes as cold as the hardest Sierra winter in history, before continuing in a voice dripping with sarcasm. “Now if you don’t mind, Sir, I’m going to bed.”

Joe staggered up the stairs and came face to face with his brothers at the top of the stairs. Adam and Hoss stood shoulder to shoulder effectively blocking Joe’s path.

“Move,” Joe demanded.

“Can’t do that, Little Joe,” Hoss told his brother.

“I suggest you go back down and apologized to, Pa.” Adam instructed.

“Not in this lifetime,” Joe slurred and pushed past his brothers.

“Why do I feel we’re no better off than we were when the Strouds were here? Only this time it’s reversed,” Hoss asked.

“Because we’re not. I wish I knew what to do to get through to him.” Adam looked at Joe’s door. “Hoss, we need to talk,” Adam told his brother and they headed for Adam’s room.

 

 

 

Chapter 87

The next morning, after breakfast was over, the brothers were in the barn saddling their horses, not a word was exchanged between them. Hoss started to lead Chubb out when Adam caught his eye, shook his head, and tipped his head towards Joe. Hoss gave a slight nod that he understood and turned back to Chubb and started to adjust his saddle. Joe finished with Cochise, led him out of the barn, and once more rode out of the yard leaving a cloud of dust behind him.

“What’s up, Adam?”

“Do you think you can be back here before lunch?”

“Yeah, I guess so. Why?”

Adam closed his eyes before continuing. “I want us to have a talk with Pa about Little Joe.”

“Well, if that’s why, then I’ll make sure I’m here.”

“I just hope this talk goes better than the last one I had with Pa about Little Joe.” Adam and Hoss led their horses out of the barn, and headed off in separate directions.

_ _ _ _

Just before lunch, Adam rode up to the house to find Hoss waiting for him.

“I was wonderin’ if ya chickened out,” Hoss laughed.

“In some ways I wish I had.” Adam tied Sport to the hitching rail and started for the house. “We may as well get it over with.”

Adam and Hoss walked into the house, hung up their hats and took off their gun belts.

“Hey, Pa?” Hoss yelled.

“I’m right here, you don’t need to yell, Hoss,” Ben called out.

Ben was sitting at his desk working on some contracts to supply horses to the army. Adam and Hoss came around the corner and each sat down in one of the chairs in front of the desk.

Ben looked up at his sons. “Is something wrong?”

Adam and Hoss looked at each other, Adam inclined his head towards Ben, and Hoss shook his head no.

“I did it last time,” Adam mouthed.

“Well, what is it?” Ben demanded.

“Well, Pa, we…er, Adam an’ I were talkin’ an’ we felt we needed ta talk with ya about what’s goin’ on with Little Joe,” Hoss hedged.

“What about him?” Ben was curious about what had his sons so tongue tied, but he was also concerned about his youngest son.

Hoss looked to Adam for help. Adam rolled his eyes at his brother. Once again it falls to me. “Pa, Hoss and I have talked about it, and, well, we don’t like how things are with Little Joe.”

“And just how are things with Little Joe?”

“You’re pampering him, Pa. You’re letting him get away with everything. He’s rude to you, or just completely ignores your presence, and you ignore it. He was in that fight the other day and you didn’t do anything about it. Last night he didn’t come in until after one, and all you did was ask him if it wasn’t a bit late. You then let him get away with being belligerent with you. The things he said were completely out of line.” Adam paused and waited for his father to respond. When he didn’t, Adam continued. “Before the Strouds came here you would never have tolerated that type of behavior from any of us. Little Joe would have extra chores piled on top of his normal ones, that is once you were done with the lecture. Yet, you didn’t say a word.”

“He also never acted like this before the Strouds came.” Ben looked at his two oldest sons before he continued. “What would you have me do, Adam? Give him a tanning?” Ben asked his voice bitter and full of self condemnation.

“Isn’t that going a bit overboard?” Adam asked sarcastically.

“You watch your tone with me, young man!”

“That’s the point here, Pa. You’re willing to discipline Hoss or myself, but not Little Joe.”

“I can’t, Adam. I put him through so much; he’s just acting out right now. He’ll come around, just like everyone keeps telling me. I have to believe that. If I take a stand right now it’ll just push him away. I can’t take that chance. What if he decides to leave again? Do you think that you’d be able to talk him out of it, again? I don’t and that’s not a chance I’m willing to take.”

Ben stood and walked away from the desk. As was becoming his habit of late, he walked over to the fireplace and stared into the flames for awhile before turning back to his sons.

“I can’t do it, Adam. I can’t chance pushing him farther away. He’s still here and I’m thankful for that, even if he does have that attitude. He’s home with me, and that tells me I still have a chance.”

“But, Pa,” Hoss started to protest.

Ben held up his hand to stop Hoss. “No, Hoss. I’m his father, and right now that’s my decision. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Sir,” Both Adam and Hoss answered.

 

 

 

Chapter 88

The next morning everyone was at the table for breakfast, everyone that is except Joe. Ben waited, but there wasn’t any sign that he was coming down. No noise, no nothing.

Ben turned to Hoss. “Hoss, would you go and get your brother?”

Hoss looked at Adam. “I’ll draw straws with you.”

“Nope,” Adam said while he sipped his coffee.

“Matches?” Hoss pleaded. Getting Joe up on a good day was always a fight, but when he was in a black mood, the meanest bear couldn’t hold a candle to him.

“Nope. I’m going to sit here and enjoy my coffee. Besides, you don’t want me going up there, a fuse might be lit and the house would never survive that.” Adam grinned at Hoss.

“Good excuse,” Hoss grumbled.

_ _ _ _

Hoss pounded on Joe’s door. “Ya up!”

When there was no answer, Hoss opened the door. “Ya just can’t make things easy, can ya?” Hoss asked the lump on the bed.

Joe was lying on his side, facing away from the door. Hoss walked over to the window and snapped the shade open letting the bright sunlight shine into the room. There still wasn’t a response. “LITTLE JOE!” Hoss bellowed.

Joe muttered something and snuggled deeper into his pillow. Hoss shook his head and walked over to the bed. Joe was tangled up in his blankets as usual. With a smile, Hoss grabbed hold of them and pulled…hard. The blankets fell to the floor bringing Joe crashing down with them.

“Hey!” Wide awake now Joe glared at Hoss. “What’s the bright idea?”

“Breakfast’s ready.”

Joe rubbed at his eyes. “Give me a minute an’ I’ll be down.”

“Make sure ya are, or else,” Hoss threatened, when he left the room.

_ _ _ _

Breakfast was much like it was the day before, only this time Adam told Joe what he was going to do without a word from Ben. After the meal was over they headed for the barn to start their day.

“After I finish up today I’m goin’ out an’ work at the corral,” Joe told Adam and Hoss while he saddled Cochise.

“No ya ain’t, Little Joe,” Hoss informed his brother.

“Why not?” Joe demanded.

“Because Dr. Martin told you, you couldn’t, and until he says otherwise you will stay off those horses,” Adam explained.

Joe glared at Adam before leading Cochise out of the barn and tearing out of the yard. Adam and Hoss ran to the barn door, but all they saw was a cloud of dust where Joe had been.

 

 

 

Chapter 89

Once Joe finished the work Adam had assigned him, he headed straight for the corral, completely ignoring what Adam told him about staying away from the corral.

When Joe got to the corral he grabbed his chaps and put them on. “Hey, Hank, I’ll take the next one.”

“You got it, Little Joe,” Hank replied with a smile on his face. Now, the excitement will really begin. No one can ride like that boy.

Joe climbed up on the fence when the next horse was put in the chute. He eased himself onto the horse, which immediately started trying to buck.

“You’ve got your work cut out for you on this one.”

Joe was finally ready and signaled for the horse to be released. It shot out of the chute like a ball of fire. Joe rode the horse like he didn’t have a care in the world. The horse was finally able to get rid of the unwanted burden on its back when Joe fell to the ground, shoulder first. He laid on the hard ground of the corral trying to catch his breath. The men were able to direct the horse away from Joe, while Hank ran over to him.

“You alright, Little Joe?”

Joe sat up and rotated his shoulder. He was able to move it without a problem, except for a small amount of pain.

“Just fine, but I’m gonna have one heck of a bruise.” Joe pulled himself to his feet and looked at the horse. “Get ‘im back in.”

“You sure about that? You took a pretty good fall.”

“Yeah, I’m sure. The two of us have an understand’ ta come ta.”

“And what’s that?”

“Who’s boss.”

Hank laughed as he turned away. “This I gotta see.”

Joe was back on the horse, each was determined to show the other who was boss. It was a battle of wills between horse and man. Joe met each buck and twist, moving with the flow. Suddenly, a buck from the horse had Joe leaning forward when it threw its head back, catching Joe with a glancing blow on the cheek right next to his nose. Joe was on the ground in an instant. He rolled away, grabbed his face and curled up in a ball with blood  dripping from between his fingers.

“Joe…” Hank could see the blood and was instantly concerned. “Red, get up to the house and get Mr. Cartwright.”

“NO!” Joe yelled, his voice muffled by his hands.

Hank shook his head. “Let me take a look and we’ll see how bad it is.”

With Hank’s help Joe was able to sit up. He slowly lowered his hands. Blood was still running from his nose while Hank pinched his way down, trying to determine if it was broken or not.

“Ow!” Joe protested.

“Either hold still or I’ll send someone up to the house.” Hank continued to examine Joe’s nose and his cheek. Hank had been working on the ranch and around horses for too many years to count. Out of necessity, he had learned to tell what a broken nose, and other body parts, felt like. He had had enough of his own to be an expert.

“I can’t believe it. I would’ve thought for sure it was broken, but you sure do have a bleeder.” Hank pulled out his handkerchief and handed it to Joe, who gladly accepted it. Joe held it to his nose until the bleeding finally stopped.

Joe felt around his nose and cheek. “Well, there’s another bruise to add to my shoulder.” Hank gave Joe a hand up, and once he was on his feet Joe looked around the corral. He spotted the horse in a corner of the corral, boxed in by a couple of the men. “Get that blasted thing back in there!”

“I think you should call it a day, Little Joe. I think it’d be a good idea what with that nose and all,” Hank suggested.

“My nose is fine, ya said so yourself. It was just a bloody nose. Get ‘im back in.”

Hank stood there looking at Joe, with a shake of his head he turned back to the corral. “You’re the boss. Boy’s get him back in.”

Joe strode over to the chute and waited while the horse was readied for him.

“Okay, let ‘im go.” Joe was bound and determined he would win this battle of wills… And he did.

 

 

 

Chapter 90

Hours later Joe strode into the house and headed straight for the stairs.

“What in tarnation happened ta ya?” Hoss demanded when he saw the blood on Joe’s shirt and face, along with the bruise on his cheek.

“Horse,” was all Joe said and he was up the stairs before anyone could say anything else.

When Joe came back down, there wasn’t a trace of blood on him and he had had clean clothes on. The only visible trace of the battle he had with the horse was the bruise on his cheek. Without a word to anyone, Joe headed straight for the door.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Adam demanded.

“Town.”

Before Joe could open the door, Adam was there and had a hold of Joe’s arm. “You want to explain to me what you were doing at the corral today when I told you no?”

“I wanted ta work with the horses.”

“I told you no.” Adam was getting frustrated with Joe.

“I know ya did.” When Adam glared at him and started to say something, Joe hurried to interrupt before he could get started. “Look, Adam, I’m fine. There’s nothin’ wrong with me an’ I wanna get back ta work. If I can fix fences, I can break horses.”

“A fence doesn’t throw you.”

“No, but diggin’ post holes an’ replacin’ the posts is almost just as bad. I’m gonna work with the horses.”

“And if I say no?”

“I’ll still do it.” Joe was standing his ground, fighting for what he wanted.

“I’ll tell Hank, and the rest of the men, that you’re not suppose to be there.”

“You wouldn’t,” Joe snapped.

“I would.”

Joe shrugged. “Don’t matter none. If I have ta put the horse in the chute myself an’ kick the gate open, I will.”

“You wouldn’t dare.” It was Adam’s turn to go on the defensive.

“Try me,” Joe challenged.

The two brothers stood glaring at each othe,r until Joe wrenched his arm free and started to open the door.

“At least have dinner,” Adam suggested, trying to bring peace back between them. Deep down, Adam could understand how Joe was feeling. He knew Joe was feeling better physically and just wanted to get on with life. I guess this Ol’ Granithead could give in once in awhile.

“I’ll eat in town.” Joe tentatively accepted the olive branch Adam was offering.

“Like you did last night?” It wasn’t so much a question as it was an accusation.  That came out wrong, Adam chastised himself.

“I ate at Daisy’s. Don’t believe me, ask her,” Joe said through clenched teeth. “It’d be nice if someone would believe me once in awhile. I don’t lie.” Joe opened the door and walked out, not even bothering to close it when he left.

“He means it, Adam.” Hoss told his brother, referring to Joe working with the horses.

“I know he does, and that’s what’s bothering me.”

“I don’t like it. You saw what he looked like when he came home. I’d like to know what happened today,” Ben added.

“There’s one way to find out. I’m going to talk to Hank.” Adam shut the door when he left.

_ _ _ _

Adam returned to the house fifteen minutes later and sat down in the blue chair. He had a far away look on his face, like he was trying to find the answers to all the problems in the world.

“Son, are you alright?” Ben asked concern in his voice.

“What?” Adam asked and looked up at Ben.

“I asked if you were alright.”

“Yes, I’m fine, Pa.”

“Well… What did you find out?”

“I spoke with Hank, and I don’t like what he told me.”

“Well?” Hoss chimed in. He was getting as frustrated with Adam as Ben was.

“Hank said that the last two days Little Joe’s been breaking one horse after another, with no break in between. He said that Joe’s riding is different too. He said it was hard to pinpoint exactly what it was, but if he had to find a word to describe, it he would use ‘reckless’.” Adam looked at Ben to see how he was reacting to his words.

Ben looked troubled.

Adam went on to tell Ben and Hoss what Hank had reported to him about the events of the day.

Ben shook his head. “He should have been too exhausted to eat dinner, let alone go to town.”

“Sounds like that boy is tryin’ ta get himself killed,” Hoss observed.

 

 

 

Chapter 91

Joe left Cochise at the livery before he went to have dinner at Daisy’s. After dinner Joe, once again, headed for the Bucket of Blood. He wasn’t the least bit tired, and it was still early. First thing Joe did once he was in the saloon was to get a beer, he scanned the room. There were a couple poker games going on, and while Joe watched, one of the hands from a nearby ranch threw his cards down and walked away. Seeing this, Joe picked up his beer and sauntered over to the table.

“Looks like you could use another player.”

“You’re money’s always good with us, Little Joe,” greeted Ernie, one of the hands from the Double M ranch.

“Hi ya, Little Joe,” greeted Pete, another hand from the Double M.

“Hi, Boys. How’s it going, Shorty?”

“Same as always, Little Joe.”

Joe knew everyone at the table except for one man. Joe held out his hand and introduced himself before he sat down.

“Joe Cartwright.”

The man looked Joe up and down. Typical rich boy, he thought before accepting Joe’s hand. “Frank Harper.”

Joe sat down and the cards were dealt.  After awhile Joe started watching Harper, he didn’t like how the man won every hand that he dealt. Finally, Joe saw what he was waiting for. Oh, he’s good, but not that good. When Harper started to deal himself another card, with impeccable timing, Joe slammed his hand down on top of the deck, trapping Harpers as he started to palm a card from the bottom. The other men looked up from their cards, and their faces hardened.

“He’s cheatin’,” Shorty yelled.

Harper glared at Joe. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Nothin’ much, just showin’ your style of dealin’. From the bottom.” Joe let go, reached over and flipped Harper’s cards over.

“Ernie, Pete, Shorty, let’s see what you have.” They flipped their cards over and Joe did them same. “Now let’s see what Harper’s last card would have been. Joe flipped the card and added it to Harper’s hand… The winning hand.

“Well ain’t that just as convenient as all get out,” Pete snapped.

“Sure is, Pete. What do you think, Shorty?” Ernie turned to see what Shorty had to say.

“I say he’s a cheat!”

Joe glared at Harper. “I suggest ya leave town immediately. People here in Virginia City don’t take kindly ta cheats,” Joe informed Harper.

Harper jumped from the table and took a swing at Joe. He was expecting it and easily blocked it.

Everyone in the saloon heard the click of hammer being pulled back.

 

 

 

Chapter 92

Every head in the room turned towards the bar and Sam, who was standing there with a shotgun in his hands.

“That’ll be enough! Take it outside, or one of you will be carrying my buckshot!”

Harper turned to Joe. “I’ll meet you outside, Cartwright.” Harper patted his gun so Joe knew exactly what was going to happen, and stormed out of the saloon.

“I’ll be there.” Joe started for the door, but stopped at the bar. “It wasn’t my fault, Sam.”

Sam lowered his shotgun. “I know that, Little Joe. I didn’t say who was going to get the buckshot, but you sure do have the dangest luck lately. Bad luck that is.” Sam saw Joe turn to the door. “Little Joe, you don’t have to go out there.”

“I know that… I want to.” With that said Joe walked out the door.

 

 

 

Chapter 93

Harper was standing in the middle of the street, waiting for Joe. Cartwright won’t show, rich boys never do. He had to do a double take, when Joe sauntered out of the saloon like he didn’t have a care in the world. Everyone  in the saloon clambered out after him, wanting to see the excitement of a gunfight.

The sun was just starting to set, but there was enough light for the two men to conduct business. Harper took the advantage and made sure his back was to the sun, forcing Joe to look into it.

Joe took his position across from Harper. “Ready when you are,” Joe said casually.

Both men stood in the middle of the street, waiting for the other to make the first move. All noise and movement were filtered out of Joe’s world; his full attention was centered on the man in front of him. Joe waited and watched for the slightest twitch of Harper’s hand. Adrenaline pumped though his veins, every nerve was on high alert, every sense focused on the man in front of him. Waiting… Waiting… There it was, the twitch.

 

 

 

Chapter 94

Joe drew his gun before Harper’s even cleared his holster, and fired. Harper’s gun fell to the ground as he dropped to his knee, clutching his arm. The crowd started cheering and slapping Joe on the back while offering their congratulations. Roy came running down the street, he had only been a few blocks away when he heard the shot.

“What’s going on here?” Roy demanded  as he pushed his way through the crowd.

“Little Joe just out drew a cheat,” Pete proclaimed, his voice full of pride.

“You want to tell me what this is all about, Little Joe?”

Before Joe could answer, Dr. Martin made his way through the crowd and headed straight for Joe.

“Not me, Doc. Him…” Joe pointed at Harper, who still sat on the ground holding his arm.

“Would someone answer my question?” Roy shouted.

With utter calmness, Joe looked at Roy. “He cheated at cards, was caught, started a fight, Sam threatened ta shot us full of buckshot, he called me out, drew on me, an’ I shot him. Anything else you want to know?” Is there anything else that can happen to me? Joe thought, reflecting on all the trouble he’d been in the last couple of months. Wait, I shouldn’t ask that, I’m just invitin’ more trouble.

“That’s what happened, Roy,” Ernie said verifying Joe’s short but accurate account of the events. Other bystanders shouted their agreement.

“How is he, Paul?” Roy asked.

“It’s just a flesh wound.”

“Just a flesh wound? You losing your touch, Little Joe,” Roy teased.

“Nope, hit him where I wanted to,” Joe laughed.

“Come on, Little Joe, I’ll buy you a beer,” Shorty shouted.

“And I’ll buy you the next one,” Ernie seconded.

More offers of drinks rang out. Cheating was one of the things that was highly frowned upon in Virginia City. Not counting murder, it ranked just below rustling and stealing a man’s horse.

Joe turned to Roy with a smile on his face. “Ya done with me?”

Roy sighed in exasperation. “Can’t you come to town without causing problems? This is the second time in three days.”

“Yeah, I can. Did it last night,” Joe said and gave Roy a cheeky grin.

“You were in town last night?”

“Sure was.”

“Imagine, Little Joe Cartwright, in town and it was a quiet night,” Roy snorted before continuing. “Will miracles never cease to happen? Go on, but stay out of trouble?”

Joe looked at Roy with those innocent, puppy dog eyes, and dramatically put his hand over his heart. “Why, Roy, I’m injured, down right injured. You act like that’s all I do.”

Roy rolled his eyes. “Get outta here.”

As Roy led Harper away, the man looked at Joe. “I’ll get you for this, Cartwright.”

Joe shook his head and turned away. “Seems like I’ve heard that before.”

Joe walked back into the saloon to more shouts of congratulations and slaps on his back. At the bar a beer was placed in front of him. One beer became two, two became three. Joe paced himself; he had to be up early working with the horses and he knew better than to do that with a hangover. The clock was creeping towards midnight and Joe could feel the day catching up with him when decided to call it a night.

Joe stood outside the saloon, looking around, not sure what he wanted to do. He finally decided and headed for the International Hotel.

“Hey, Jack, could I get a room for the night?”

“Certainly, Little Joe.” Jack spun the register around for Joe to sign while he turned to grab a key for Joe. “Heard about all the excitement earlier. That sure was something.”

“Sure was,” Joe mumbled.

“Here you go, room 203.”

“Thanks, Jack, and put it on the Ponderosa’s account.” Joe carefully made his way up the stairs and into his room.

 

 

 

Chapter  95

The next morning once again there were three Cartwrights at the table and the fourth had yet to make an appearance.

“Did either of you hear him come in?” Ben asked his two older sons.

“Nope,” Hoss answered.

“I didn’t hear a thing. Think he snuck in his window, again?” Adam asked.

“It’s possible, but why would he bother when he could careless how any of us feel about the hours he keeps?” Ben wondered.

Both Adam and Hoss shrugged.

“Hoss, would you…”

“Nope. It’s Adam’s turn.”

“My turn? Why is it my turn?” Adam gasped as he choked on his coffee.

“Cuz I did it yesterday. Ain’t no way I’m doin’ it two days in a row. He’s a bear on the best of days. Either good or bad day’s I hate waking him, so it’s your turn.” Hoss sat back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest.

With a sigh, Adam surrendered. When he reached Joe’s door he pounded on it. Adam’s continuous pounding was so loud it could have wakened the dead. “That kid could sleep through a stampede,” he grumbled.

Adam flung the door open, making as much noise as he could, and strode into the room.

“Get your lazy…” Adam stopped mid-rant when he saw the empty bed. “Now wonder he didn’t hear me.”

Adam went back downstairs, dropped into his chair, and picked up his coffee cup.

“Is he coming?” Ben asked.

“Nope,” was all Adam would say.

“And why not? You made enough noise to wake everyone in Virginia City.” Ben was starting to get aggravated with his sons, all three of them.

“Because he’s not there. By the looks of it, he never came home last night. That is unless he’s gotten into the habit of making his bed now.”

“Ha! That’ll happen when Hop Sing stops threatening ta go back to China.” Hoss quipped.

At that moment Hop Sing walked into the room, oblivious to what Hoss has just said. He looked around the room, when he didn’t see who he was looking for he turned back to the table.

“Where Li’le Joe?”

“He didn’t come home last night,” Ben explained.

“Not come home? He no here for dinner, he no here for breakfast, he no eat. Hop Sing cook food and he no here to eat! Hop Sing quit, go back to China !”

The words were barely out of Hop Sing’s mouth when all three men busted out laughing. Hop Sing stood staring at them like they had all lost their minds.

“Humph! Foolishment! Too much foolishment, and not enough eating.” Hop Sing said and left the room. The next sound they heard were pots and pans banging around while he ranted in Chinese. Once in a while they’d be able to catch words like, ‘foolishment’ and ‘ China ’, which would set them off all over again.

“I guess I should go down to the corral and see if the men need anything,” Adam grumbled. He’d gotten use to Joe doing this and now he had to take time out of his day to do it, which didn’t make him very happy.

“I’ll do it for ya, Adam,” Hoss offered.

“Thanks, Hoss. At least we don’t have to worry about him getting hurt today. I’m sure he’s in town sleeping it off.”

 

 

 

Chapter 96

Hoss headed down to the corral after he finished his yard chores and those of his little brother. He could hear the cheers of encouragement being called to the rider before he and Chubb even got there. Hoss tied Chubb under a tree and walked over to the fence. What he saw turned his blood cold. Joe was up on the horse, and as Hoss watched he could tell his brother had a light grip on the rope. He was holding on to it, but it was like he was tempting fate and daring the horse to do its worse.

Joe was dirty; you could see where sweat had left streaks down his face. Hoss could also see where Joe’s shirt was sweat soaked, dirty, and torn in a few places. As he watched, Joe was thrown from the horse and missed going into the fence rails by mere inches. Hoss was over the fence and half the way to Joe when he stood up and brushed the dust from his chaps, laughing the whole time.

“Get ‘im back in there,” Joe yelled. Without argument the men working with Joe complied. Over the past few days they had learned it was a waste of breath to argue, no matter how many times he was thrown, he got right back on. Joe had been working hard the past few days, he pushed himself to the limit and beyond as he tried to banish his inner demons.

“Don’t ya think ya had enough, Little Joe?” Hoss asked when he reached Joe’s side.

Joe hadn’t seen Hoss approach, but when Joe heard his voice he turned around and smiled. “Hey, Brother.”

“Don’t ya ‘Hey, Brother,’ me!”

“What’s wrong with ya?” Joe asked. He couldn’t understand what was wrong with Hoss. He was in a good mood and just couldn’t phantom anyone being in a bad mood today.

“Where were you all night?”

“He’s ready for you, Little Joe,” Hank called.

“I stayed in town,” Joe said as he started to walk away.

Hoss grabbed his arm, and pulled him back around. “Where?”

Joe pulled his arm free. “I got work ta do!” He started for the chute again.

“Where, Little Joe?”

“At the International House.”

Next thing Hoss knew, Joe was up on the fence getting ready to get on the horse, and he realized he was still standing in the middle of the corral. He hurried to get on the other side of the fence before they turned that horse loose.

The horse was out of the chute and the battle began. Unknown to Hoss, this was Joe’s third ride on this particular horse. When the horse slowed to a walk and came to a stop, Joe figured his job was done. He pulled his hand from the rope, but before he could get off or any of the hands get a hold of the horse, it gave a hard buck, throwing Joe to the ground at its feet. The horse reared up and Joe had to roll in order to avoid being stomped on. The horse went after Joe, not giving him a chance to get to his feet. All Joe could do was try to maneuver his body out of the way, and pray for divine intervention. Just when he thought the horse finally had him, his prayers were answered. The intervention came in the form of his brother.

Hoss stood over Joe and waved his hands in the air. He was able to get the horse change directions, allowing the hands to take control.

Hoss grabbed Joe and roughly pulled him up.

“Hey, whatcha think you’re doin’?” Joe demanded as Hoss manhandled him.

“Savin’ your scrawny hide!” Hoss was scared, which made him angry. “I think you’ve had enough for today, you’re going back ta the house with me.”

“I told ya, I got work ta do.” Joe turned around towards the hands. “Put ‘im back in. I think we got ‘im this time.”

“Hank, he’s done,” Hoss yelled.

“I’m not done.” Joe glared at Hoss while he called out the Hank. “You heard me, put ‘im in, Hank.”

“No, Hank, and that’s an order!” Hoss glared right back at Joe.

“Please don’t do this, Hoss,” Joe pleaded, keeping his voice low so no one else could hear.

Hoss, on the other hand, didn’t care who heard. “I don’t care, Little Joe, you’re going back to the house. Now you mind me and do as you’re told.”

Joe looked at the men who were standing around trying to act like they hadn’t heard the argument between the brothers, but a few chuckles could be heard. Joe was absolutely mortified. He couldn’t believe Hoss, of all people, was treating him like a child in front of the other men. How was he supposed to have their respect and take orders from him, when his own family didn’t respect or trust him? When they treated him like a child. He had worked so hard to get where he was, and now Hoss had torn it all apart.

He looked up at Hoss as if he had lost his best friend. “I can’t believe ya did that.” Joe turned his back on Hoss and walked away. It was everything he could do not to run. He grabbed his gun belt, strapped it on as fast as he could and slapped his hat on to his head. He swung up onto Cochise and left the corral at a run. Instead of heading for home, Joe headed for town.

 

 

 

Chapter 97

Hoss was dumbfounded as he stood in the corral watching his brother ride away. “What I do?” Hoss asked when Hank walked up to him.

“It’s not my place to say, but I’ve know that boy since he was yay high.” Hank indicated a spot just below his knee.  “But you treated him like a child in front of the men.”

“I didn’t mean ta.”

“I know you didn’t. None of you do, but you do all the same. He tries hard to be accepted by them and to prove himself. Then one of you come along and tear apart everything he’s accomplished. Try looking at it this way, how would you feel if Adam came out here and ordered you back to the house like you were a two year old?”

Hoss shuffled his feet in the dirt and pushed his hands deep into his pockets. “I wouldn’t like it none, but they way he was riding… And by the looks of ‘im he was thrown quite a few times.”

“He’s not a boy, Hoss. Even though everyone continues to call him that, myself included, the fact is, he’s a young man. He’s in that awkward spot where he’s not a boy anymore, but not quite a full grown man, and needs to be treated that way. You have to trust him and his judgment.” Hank looked at the horse Joe had been working with. “There’s a lot going on with him right now, and treating him like a child isn’t helping him sort them out.” Hank looked back at Hoss, the worry he felt for the youngest Cartwright cas clearly visible in his eyes. “I agree with you, he’s being reckless, he’s taking a lot of chances, but what can you do about it?”

“I can pound him a good one.”

Hank chuckled at Hoss’ response, which was so like him. “You can’t stop him. You know darn well if you forbid him from doing something, he’ll just try even harder to do it. That’s just how he is, always has been.”

“I know that. It’s just he’s my little brother, I have ta protect him.”

“Just be there for him, Hoss. When he needs you, be there for him.” Hank looked around the corral. He watched how the men were laughing about something and frowned. He knew what was happening with the family, they all did. He could see it was tearing Joe apart and the worse Joe felt, the more he threw himself into his work. “Why do you think he’s been coming here every day, even when he was hurt?” When Hoss shrugged, Hank continued, “Because, here no one’s putting any pressure on him, telling him what to think or how to feel. Remember he’s only seventeen, that in between spot, it’s hard in the best of times, but right now isn’t the best of times for him, Hoss.” Hank turned back to the horse again and shook his head. “He would’ve had him, too.”

“When did ya get so smart?”

“I’ve always been, you just don’t listen.”  Hank smiled at Hoss and walked away, going back to the men. Hoss could see him having a serious talk to all of them and wondered if it was about what had happened.

“I’m sorry, Little Joe,” Hoss whispered. He looked in the direction of Virginia City and contemplated following his brother, but he knew he wouldn’t be welcomed. The last thing he wanted to do was make things worse for Joe.

 

 

 

Chapter 98

When Joe reached town, he left Cochise at the livery and told Bert he would get him in the morning. After putting on his jacket, to cover his torn shirt, he headed to the hotel.

“Hi, Jack,” Joe greeted the clerk behind the desk.

“Little Joe, how are you doing?”

“Good. I need a room for the night, again”

“No problem.” Jack spun the register around and reached for a key. “Same room as last night okay with you?”

“Just fine.” Joe accepted the key and started for the stairs.

“Ponderosa account again?”

“Yeah.”

_ _ _ _

After cleaning up the best he could, Joe left the hotel and headed for the Sazerac. He didn’t feel like company tonight, he wanted the anonymity that the Sazerac would provide.

He threw some money down on the bar. “A bottle of whiskey.”

The bartender gave Joe a curious look, it was rare that a Cartwright came in here, let along the youngest. “Sure thing.” He handed Joe a bottle and a glass before picking up the money.

Joe picked them up and walked away. He found himself a table in a dark corner and poured himself a glass of whiskey. Joe sat studying the amber liquid for a minute. Hoss’ words came back to him. “I don’t care, Little Joe, you’re going back to the house. Now you mind me and do as you’re told.” The laughter that followed taunted him. Joe downed the whiskey; it burnt his throat on its way down, causing Joe to grimace. Joe wasn’t a heavy drinker, he preferred beer to whiskey, but tonight beer just wouldn’t do it. He wanted to escape. Just for one night he didn’t want to think, but most of all he didn’t want to feel.

“Buy me a drink, Cowboy.”

Joe looked up to see a woman standing in front of him. She had on a garish orange dress; her hair was almost the same color as the dress. He couldn’t tell the color of her eyes because of the heavy eye makeup she wore, her cheeks were dark with rouge and her lips were painted dark red. She was the polar opposite from Sally at the Bucket of Blood. Whereas Sally was young and fresh, with a bubbly personality, this woman on the other hand seemed quite a bit older. Her tired smile and resigned body language spoke of a woman who had had a hard life. She wasn’t what was he was looking for that night; no woman was.

“Sure thing, ma’am, but if ya don’t mind, I’d rather be alone,” Joe said as he dropped some coins on the table.

The woman studied him for a minute. “It’s a shame; I think we could’ve had some fun.” She picked the money up off the table. “Thanks, Cowboy.”

After she walked away Joe poured another drink, and another followed that one. He was well on his way to drowning his sorrows.

That night in the barn and his father’s words flashed through his mind. “You really have become a disappointment. You have constantly embarrassed me since Alex arrived. You have done nothing but lied to me. You haven’t been pulling your weight on the ranch, to a point where either myself or your brothers have to tell you what to do and we still have to check up on you.” Joe poured himself another drink, but he could still hear his father. “You promise? All you’ve done is promise. Your promises aren’t worth anything, after this past week.” Months later and he was still wasn’t any closer to understanding why his father had turned on him. His mind was a constant whirlwind as he kept trying to figure out how it all went wrong. He wracked his brain trying to find the one moment, the one defining moment that had set everything in motion. He kept coming back to that first night when he was so late getting home.

Why wouldn’t he listen?

Joe took another drink.

What did I do to Ramsey to make ‘im hate me?

Joe took another drink.

Why did Pa believe everything Ramsey told him? Why didn’t he believe me, believe in me?

Joe took another drink.

Why ‘idn’t he listen?

Joe took another drink. The whiskey sloshed over the side of the glass when he picked it up.

Why’d do that in the barn?

Joe took another drink.

Why ‘idn’t I talk to the devil… No, Stroud… No not ‘em, Pa, why ‘idn’t I make ‘im listen? Tell ‘im I can’t be perfect.

Joe took another drink. This time when Joe poured, quite a bit of the whiskey missed the glass before it was full.

Need to change Cooch’s shoes. Tell Hoss no… not follow… No, no… Why’d I so dumb? I ‘idn’t have ta do none o that… I tell A’am no do beavers. His beaver’s. He break them.

Joe took another drink.  “Stupid beavers.”

Joe’s head was spinning and it was difficult for him to concentrate on any one thought.  Joe picked up the bottle, intending to pour himself another drink. He upended it, but nothing came out. Joe shook it a few times before holding it up to his eye and looked in it only to find it empty. Disgusted, he dropped it back on the table.

Joe was extremely unsteady on his feet when he staggered out of the Sazerac. He started down the street, but stopped and looked around. Joe pushed his hat back and scratched his head.

“I go… go home… No, not home… Cooch… gotta get Cooch.” Joe looked at the hitching rail, then up and down the street. “Hey! Umone take Cooch. Gotta tell Roy.” Joe turned around and started for the jail, but stopped. “No, go there he make me stay. Say causin’ trouble. I always cause trouble. Nope, ain’t stayin’ there.”

Joe wasn’t sure what to do. Suddenly, a light came on. “O yeah, Cooch’s at livery sleepin’.” Joe’s thoughts were muddled and jumping all over the place. He went to snap his fingers when he remembered where he was supposed to go, but his thumb missed the finger. Joe studied his hand like it was a foreign object. He kept trying to snap his fingers, but each time they missed each other. He finally gave up with a disgusted snort.

“What was I… O yeah, hotel.” With that thought in mind Joe staggered off in the direction of the hotel.

_ _ _ _

Unknown to Joe, Roy was on the other side of the street watching him. He was close enough to hear every word Joe said. He knew he should take him down to the jail to sleep it off, but it was too amusing watching him. When Roy heard the word ‘hotel’, he knew it would be better if he let Joe go and sleep it off there. He didn’t want the honor of having to deal with a hung-over Joe in the morning.

Roy followed Joe down the street, making sure he got to the hotel and his room without any mishap. He followed Joe half way up the stairs, but stopped once Joe made it to the top, which was surprising considering how many times he missed the steps and stumbled. “Thank God for the banister.”

When he heard Joe fumbling with the key and a few choice words followed, Roy started back up the stairs, but once again stopped when he heard the door open and close. Roy went back down the stairs, chuckling the whole way down.

“He sure tied one on,” Tim the night clerk said.

“He sure did. That boy is quite amusing when he’s like that.” Roy started laughing when he thought about Joe standing in the street and how he kept turning around not knowing where he was to go.

“You’re right, Little Joe, I would have kept you there.”

 

 

 

Chapter 99

Ben was in town early the next morning to take care of some important paperwork with his attorney, Hiram Wood. He was just getting off Buck when Roy walked up.

“Morning, Ben, you in town to collect that boy of yours?”

“Little Joe?” Ben asked. He knew Joe didn’t come home again last night, which was no surprise considering what Hoss had told them about what happened at the corral.

“Who else, Ben?” Roy smiled at Ben “You should have seen him last night, drunk as a skunk, he was.” Roy started laughing at the memory. “Do you realize he’s been in town the last four nights?” Roy snorted in amusement. “Trouble sure follows that boy.”

“What do you mean, Roy?”

“Between that fight and then the trouble with Harper, let’s just say he’s had an eventful week. Funny though, I didn’t even know he was in town a couple nights ago until he told me after everything was said and done with Harper. Imagine that, Little Joe’s in town and I didn’t even know. I wouldn’t of known last night if it weren’t for seeing him standing in the street trying to figure out where he was suppose to be.”

“So, he’s in your jail?”

“Nope, he’s at the hotel sleeping it off. He finally remembered where he was supposed to go.” Roy started laughing again. “For a minute there I thought he was going to go and sleep with Cochise.”

“Who’s this Harper?”

“You mean you don’t know?”

“No, Roy, who’s Harper?”

“Now, I just can’t believe you don’t know what happened.”

“What happened, Roy?” Ben was getting frustrated.

“You really don’t know?” Roy was shocked that Ben didn’t know what had happened.

“NO!”

“Ben, the whole durn town knows.”

“Well, I don’t! So help me, Roy, if you don’t tell me, I’ll – I’ll back your opponent in the next election.”

“You wouldn’t?” Roy gasped.

“Try me!” Ben glared at Roy, took a deep breath and tried to keep his voice calm. “Who is Harper and what does he have to do with Little Joe?”

Roy stared at Ben in disbelief. “You really don’t know. Why I’ll be…”

“ROY!”

“Now you just simmer down there, Ben.” Once Ben nodded his head and seemed under control, Roy told him what happened. “Little Joe was in a gunfight with Harper.”

“A GUNFIGHT!” Ben was loud enough to be heard all the way to the Ponderosa. “What do you mean he was in a gunfight?!”

“You mean he didn’t tell you about it?”

“No, Roy, he didn’t. Would you mind explaining it to me?”

“Let’s go have a cup of coffee and I’ll tell you all about it.”

_ _ _ _

An hour later, Ben stormed out of Roy’s office with Roy right behind him.

“Ben, the boy is just fine. Like I told you, Harper never got a shot off, and Little Joe just winged him. I kept Harper here overnight and ran him out of town the next day.”

“I don’t care, Roy. That ‘boy’ has gone too far.”  Ben looked towards the International House and turned away, deciding it would be better to confront Joe at home.

 

 

 

Chapter 100

When Joe finally turned up at the house late that afternoon, he was pale, his head felt like it was going to split in half, and his stomach was trying to stage a major revolt, despite all that he some how, he muddled his way through taking care of Cochise. When Joe walked into the house, he hung up his hat and placed his gun belt on the credenza. He was half way across the room when a voice stopped him.

“Joseph!” Ben’s voice boomed across the room.

Joe grimaced, he felt like his head was going to explode at any second and all he wanted to do was reach his room before it happened. He was just about to start up the stairs when the voice rang across the room once more.

“Hold it right there, young man!”

Joe stopped with one hand on the newel. He straightened his shoulders as best as he could considering his condition. He had stopped, but he didn’t turn around.

“You will turn around when I’m talking to you.”

 Joe heaved a petulant sigh. God, my head hurts too much for this. Joe slowly turned around to face his father. “Yes, Sir?”

“Would you like to explain to me what happened in town the other day?”

“Which other day do ya mean, Sir?”

“You know what other day I mean, and I want an answer now.”

“And if I don’t wanna give an answer?”  Joe asked belligerently.

“Don’t test me, Joseph. This whole thing has gone far enough, and I think it’s time it ends.”

Joe’s chin jutted out and he glared at his father. The look would have been more impressive if it weren’t for his pale complexion and bloodshot eyes. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Sir.”

“You know exactly what I’m talking about. I suggest you start explaining.” Ben watched as Joe’s skin started to take on a sickly green tint and became clammy. Joe’s eyes widened and he bolted back out the front door.

“Hop Sing?”  Ben called.

“Yes, Mr. Car’wrigh’?” Hop Sing asked from the kitchen doorway.

“Little Joe is going to need that special tea of yours, now.” Ben gave Hop Sing a knowing look which Hop Sing correctly interpreted.

“Have all ready.”

“Thank you.” With a chuckle Ben sat down in his red chair and waited.

Joe finally dragged himself back into the house and started for the stairs once again.

“We’re not done yet.”

Joe froze and closed his eyes in prayer. Please kill me now, just put me outta my misery. Please. Joe slowly turned around to face his father.

Ben pointed at the settee. “Have a seat, Joseph,” Ben sighed when Joe continued standing where he was. “Let’s put it this way…” Ben had started off quietly, but his voice rose in volume with each word. “I highly suggest you sit down… NOW!”

Joe put his hands up to his head holding tight, hoping the sledge hammers would soon stop, before he embarrassed himself again. In order to keep his father from yelling again, Joe complied with the order and sat on the settee, in the corner furthest from Ben. With a groan, he rested his elbows on his knees while he kept a firm grip on his head, willing it to stay in one piece

Ben’s lips twitched, trying to keep the smile at bay. So this is how to do it. Wait until he has a hangover and is too sick to fight.

Hop Sing entered the room, set a tray on the table that contained a coffee pot, a tea pot and two cups. Hop Sing poured a cup of coffee and handed it to Ben. He picked up the tea pot and poured a cup for Joe. When he offered it, Joe pushed it away.

“No, coffee.” Joe moaned. Just saying the words brought the green twinge back.

“Li’le Joe have tea. You no argue, or Hop Sing get angry and make head hurt more.” Hop Sing held the cup out to Joe, daring him refuse it.

With a resigned sigh, Joe accepted the cup, and sniffed at it. He jerked his head away in disgust.

“You drink all or deal with Hop Sing.”

“Yes, Hop Sing.” Joe brought the cup up to his lips and took a sip. His nose wrinkled in distaste, and he lowered the cup back to the saucer.

“ALL!” Hop Sing demanded. “Make ungrateful child feel better. Then you listen father.”

Joe glared at Hop Sing and opened his mouth to say something.

“No. You sit, you listen. Li’le Joe no talk!”

“Bossy,” Joe muttered.

“Li’le Joe have no idea,” Hop Sing said as he walked away leaving a surprised Joe behind.

When Hop Sing passed Ben, he slowed and winked. Ben smiled back and mouthed. “Thank you.”

Ben waited patiently while Joe slowly drank his tea. As he watched, Ben could see the tea taking affect. In a much more calm voice he started over. “Explain to me what happened with Harper.”

The sledgehammers had slowed but hadn’t stopped. Keeping his bleary eyes focused on the tea, Joe decided it was better to cooperate. The sooner her drank the tea and told the story, the sooner he could go to bed and die.

“I’m waiting.”

“Nothin’ to it. He cheated at cards an’ got caught.” Joe set the cup down and started to rise.

“Not quite so fast. Sit down and have another cup of tea.”

Joe glared at his father, and Ben glared right back, a dark look in his eyes. With shaky hands, Joe poured another cup of tea. In order to get this ordeal over with, Joe drank the second cup in two swallows. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. With a deep breath, Joe let his body begin to relax.

Ben watched his son with a slight smile. Whatever Hop Sing put in that tea, it’s sure working. Anymore relaxed he’ll be asleep.

“You do know how dangerous it is to expose a cheat?”

“Yeah, so?” Joe kept his head back and eyes closed.

“I’m waiting, Joseph.”

“Keep waiting,” Joe muttered.

“JOSEPH!”

Joe’s eyes popped open and he sat up, a little too fast. With a moan Joe dropped his head into his hands. The sledgehammers where back full force.

“I would like an explanation about what happened in Virginia City and with Harper.”

 “Sounds like ya already know it all,” Joe mumbled from the recess of his hands.

“I’d watch that mouth if I were you.”

“Oh? And what do ya plan on doin’, takin’…”

“THAT’S ENOUGH, JOSEPH!”

Joe cringed, but kept his mouth closed.

“I will say this one more time, and this is the last time I’ll say it. Yes, I went over the line with you. I tore you apart for a week. I degraded you; Like you said, I treated you like were nothing. I hurt you Little Joe, I hurt you a lot. But worse of all I took my belt to you in anger. You will never know how much I hate myself for doing that to you. If I could take it all back I would. I won’t use the Strouds as an excuse; there is no excuse for what I did. I promise you, it will never happen again. You have my word on it.”

“Your promises, your word isn’t…”

“Stop!” Ben held up his hand for silence, and his dark eyes bore into Joe. “I want to know what happened with Harper. If it takes us all night, so be it.”

“Fine!” Joe snapped. He wanted this over, and away from his father. “I was playin’ cards with Pete, Ernie and Shorty from the Double M. There was this other fella playin’, his name was Frank Harper. He was cheatin’ us an’ got caught. He didn’t like it none. He took a swing at me, but missed. Sam ran us out. That’s when he called me out. That’s it.” Joe leaned his head back against the settee again. He stomach was settling, and the hammering in his head was diminishing too, all thanks to Hop Sings wonder tea. It was also calming Joe and making him sleepy.

Ben saw Joe’s features start to relax again. “Is that all, Little Joe?”

“Uh huh.”

“Did you go out to face him?”

Joe yawned. “Yeah, he called me out. Had ta… No, I wanted ta.”

“He could have been faster than you.” Ben didn’t like what he was now hearing. “Why did you want to?”

“Cuz, he called me out… I didn’t care if he was faster.” Joe yawned again. He was starting to drift away.

Ben looked down at his hands, realization was hitting him full force. He could have lost his son and nothing would have been repaired. Maybe now was the time, to try and get through to his son while Joe was calm and talking.

“Little Joe?”

“Mm…” Joe was almost completely out.

Ben shook his head. Hop Sing’s tea works too well. Here was another wasted opportunity. “Little Joe, come on, wake up, Son.” He gave Joe’s shoulder a shake.

“Mm…”  Joe shifted.

“Come on, Son, why don’t you go on up to bed?”

Joe took a deep breath and slowly released it. He stretched and opened his eyes. There in front of him was his father. Joe shook his head to clear it and scrambled to his feet. He turned and ran up the stairs. The slamming of his door signaled the end of his flight.

Ben sighed and sank down into the comfortable folds of the soft, supple leather chair. “What are we going to do, Little Joe?”

 

 

 

Chapter 101

Adam and Hoss showed up at the house shortly before dinner. Ben was at his desk doing some paperwork that he needed to take into town, when they came into the house.

“Pa, are you here?” Adam called while he removed his gun belt.

“Over here.”

Both brothers walked over to the desk. Ben looked up from his paperwork when Adam sat down on the corner and Hoss stood to the side.

“I see he made it home,” Adam said.

“Is he okay?” Hoss asked, concern for his little brother evident in his voice.

“He came home a few hours ago, and other than a pretty bad hangover, he’s fine.”

“Hangover, huh?” Adam and Hoss looked at each other and smiled.

Ben caught the look between them and frowned. “Whatever you two think you’re up to, I suggest you forget it right now. If he comes down for dinner I want the two of you to leave him alone. I think I made some progress with him, and I don’t want anything to push him away again.”

“Sure, Pa,” Hoss agreed, hope starting to shine in his eyes.

“I won’t say a word, but what happened to make you think you gained some ground with him?” Adam concurred.

“We sort of had a father, son discussion about the gunfight he was involved in.”

“Gunfight!” both Adam and Hoss shouted at the same time.

“Ssh, keep it down you two. I’ll tell you about that in a minute.” Ben paused, trying to decide if he really did gain any ground or not. “To be honest with you, and myself, I’m not a hundred percent sure if I gained any ground or not. It may have been that he was too hungover and Hop Sing’s medicine too good, for him to put up much of a fight.” The more he thought about it and Joe’s reactions, the more he wasn’t sure about what actually happened. “He sat there, but I have no idea if he was listening or not. I think between the hangover and Hop Sing’s tea he didn’t have the energy to fight.” Ben chucked at the memory of how the discussion started. “At one point he did have to make a mad dash outside. He was pretty green for awhile there.”

Adam and Hoss laughed at the image of their brother running from the house, but the laughter died away as they remembered times they had to do the same thing.

“It wasn’t a perfect conversation, and he wasn’t exactly polite, but once he realized I meant business he told me what happened, grudgingly, but he told me. But then again, he told me after Hop Sing’s tea took affect and he started to relax. Only problem, he fell asleep during the conversation. When I woke him, and he realized where he was, he hightailed to his room.

Adam and Hoss were quiet for a minute as they digested what Ben had told them. They, too, were afraid to believe that things were changing.

“Do you think he’ll come down for dinner?” Adam asked.

“I don’t know, but if he does, I want things to remain calm. I would like him to stay home tonight, and I don’t want anything chasing him away.”

Adam and Hoss agreed. Ben suggested they move into the great room before he told them about the gunfight.

_ _ _ _

Shortly after the three men had sat down to dinner, Joe dragged himself down the stairs and over to the table.

“Hi, Little Joe,” Adam greeted his brother.

Joe raised bleary eyes to him and tried to smile. “Hi, Adam.”

“Hey, Little Joe, I’m real sorry about what happened out at the corral yesterday. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. I was just worried about ya,” Hoss said trying to apologize to his brother.

“’S okay.”

“How are you feeling, Son?”

Joe glanced up at his father, and didn’t say a word, but he did give a slight nod of his head.

That was enough for Ben, at least for tonight.

Hop Sing brought the rest of the food out. When he saw Joe sitting at the table scowling at the food, he hurried back into the kitchen and returned with a bowl of soup and a cup of tea, which he placed before the young man.

“You eat soup with some bread, good for stomach, and drink tea, make you feel better.”

Joe looked up at Hop Sing. “’Kay,” he whispered.

All through dinner Joe remained quiet, not really listening to the conversation around him, instead he was concentrating on trying to keep the sledgehammers at bay.

“Little Joe?” Adam said for the second time and placed a hand on Joe’s arm.

Joe looked up at his brother with tired eyes. “Huh?” Joe asked.

He sure did tie one on last night. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him this bad, Adam thought. “I was telling you that I want you to go and help out with the branding tomorrow.”

“I can do that.” Joe set his napkin next to his bowl and stood up. “I think I’ll call it a night.”

“Sounds like a good idea. Good night,” Adam told his brother.

“Night, Little Brother.”

“Good night, Little Joe,” Ben said, holding his breath to see what kind of reaction he was going to get.

Joe turned his head and glared at Ben before leaving the table.

Once Joe was in his room Ben sighed. “Well, maybe I didn’t make any progress.”

“I don’t know about that, Pa. He didn’t fly off the handle at ya.” Hoss encouraged.

“Maybe…”

 

 

 

Chapter 102

The next morning Joe rode into the south pasture. Once he spotted Hank, he dismounted and walked Cochise over to where he was talking to another hand, and waited not wanting to interrupt.

Hank looked over at Joe when the hand walked away. “So, you’re the one who gets stuck with us today.”

“Yeah, it’s my lucky day,” Joe joked. “What do ya want me ta do?”

“Oh, so I’m the boss.”

“If you’d rather chase strays, gather wood, or work on the pens and let me stand around all day supervising, then be my guest. I won’t complain,” Joe said, trying his best to look innocent.

Hank started laughing at the look on Joe’s face. “When you put it that way, why don’t you go chase strays.”

“I can do that. If you need anything else when I come back in, just let me know.”

“Will do, Little Joe.”

_ _ _ _

Joe swung up on Cochise and was off in search of strays.

When Joe came back in for the third time, one of the hands he noticed earlier was still sitting on his horse watching the work going on around him. Once Joe had the strays in a pen, he headed straight for Hank.

“Hank, who’s that over there under the tree?” Joe asked.

Hank looked over towards the tree. “The one Lem’s talking to?”

“That’s the one.”

“That’s Ralph. Adam just hired him. He’s not a bad worker, just needs a little prodding once in awhile.”

Joe nodded. “I guess it’s time for some prodding.”

_ _ _ _

Lem looked around the pasture when he approached Ralph. He saw Joe talking to Hank and was pretty sure he knew what the conversation was about.

“A word of caution, Ralph, if I were you I’d get back to work right now.”

“I will in a minute,” Ralph said lazily.

“I suggest you do it right now, if you want to keep your job. The boss is here.”

Ralph glanced around looking for Adam. “I don’t see him.”

Lem smiled, he knew what was going happen. It always did when new hands with an attitude like Ralph’s met Joe. “You can’t miss him. He’s the one on the pinto talking with Hank.”

“Who? That kid?” Ralph asked, his voice laced with disgust.

“That’s Little Joe, Mr. Cartwright’s youngest son.”

“I don’t work for him. Adam Cartwright hired me. Not some wet-behind-the-ear kid.”

Lem smiled even more. “If you say so.” He rode away, but didn’t go far. He wanted to make sure he was close when the show began.

_ _ _ _

Joe pulled Cochise to a stop in front of Ralph. “There a reason you’re not workin’?”

“Taking a break, what’s it to you?” Ralph taunted.

“You’re not working, that’s what it’s ta me. Now, I suggest ya take that horse of yours and get busy.”

“Who the Hell do you think you are?” Ralph sneered.

Here we go again. Why do I always have ta prove myself ta them? “I’m Joe Cartwright, that’s who I am, and for today I’m your boss.”

Ralph looked Joe over. “Sorry, I work for Adam; he’s the one who hired me, not some snot-nosed kid.”

Joe took a deep breath. He’d been through this before with some of the new men, and knew he had to earn their respect the hard way. “Ya work for the Ponderosa, which means ya not only work for Adam, but ya work for my father, Hoss and me. Ya also work for whoever we put in charge.”

“I don’t think so. Why don’t you run home to mommy and leave the work to the real men.”

To Joe those were fighting words, and he didn’t need any further encouragement. He launched himself off of Cochise and into Ralph, knocking them both to the ground. Joe rolled when he hit the ground and was on his feet in an instant.

All the hands in the vicinity that saw Joe approach Ralph stopped what they were doing and waited for the inevitable to happen. When it did, they drew close in order to cheer on their young boss. Ralph may have been another hand, but he wasn’t quite accepted by the others yet. They didn’t like his attitude or the way he made it a habit of leaving the work to others. Whereas, Joe never tried to pretend he was better than any of them. He worked just as hard as they did, if not harder, and he never expected them to do anything that he wouldn’t do. He never showed up and tried to take over. He always pitched in and did what was needed to get the job done. They all liked and respected the youngest Cartwright. The only ones that had a problem with him were new hands who thought he was just another spoiled rich kid, and Joe would have to prove himself over and over again.

 

 

 

Chapter 103

The two men squared off, each waiting for the other to make the first move. Ralph was bigger than Joe, but that didn’t mean anything to him. He’d been in this situation before and knew what needed to be done. Joe relied on his size, speed and agility to get him through. He didn’t have time to think, he only had time to act and relied on gut instinct to get him through it.

Ralph made the first move. He came at Joe with a right that caught him in the chin and sent him to the ground. Joe got up and charged Ralph, knocking them both to the ground. They wrestled around, each trying to gain the advantage over the other. Ralph pulled Joe to his knees and hit him with a left hook. Ralph got to his feet and pulled Joe up by the front of his shirt.

Joe struggled to free himself; he finally brought both hands up under Ralph’s and was able to knock his hands away and send his fist right into Ralph’s stomach. Ralph came back at Joe, hitting him with right then a left in the face, sending Joe to the ground.

Joe looked up at Ralph and smiled while he wiped the blood from his mouth. He was at Ralph in a flash, returning the favor, with interest. Ralph backed up, clasped his hands together and hit Joe in the stomach causing him to fall forward across Ralph’s arms, allowing him to grab Joe from behind. He brought his arms around and under Joe’s arms, pulling them up so he was able to clasp his hands together across Joe’s throat. Joe twisted back and forth, trying to free himself. Out of desperation Joe lifted both arms straight into the air, allowing him to slide down out of Ralph’s grasp.

Joe spun around and landed first a left to Ralph’s stomach, then a right to his face, knocking him to the ground. Ralph got up and took a swing at Joe’s face. Joe was able to block it, but ended up taking a fist to his stomach. When Joe doubled over, Ralph clasped his hands together and hit Joe across his shoulder, sending Joe straight to the ground. While he was down, Ralph rushed him. Thinking fast, Joe rolled over, brought both his feet up, grabbed Ralph’s wrists and flipped him over his head. Joe staggered to his feet the same time Ralph did, and took a run at him, head-butting him in the stomach and sent Ralph flying back.

Ralph was back on his feet, refusing to let a kid get the best of him. He grabbed Joe by the shirt and hit him with a solid right. Joe pushed away freeing himself and advanced. Before he could get a punch off, Ralph caught him in the stomach again, and brought his knee up into Joe’s face. Joe was able to straighten up enough that he didn’t get the full force of Ralph’s knee to his face, but it still sent him to the ground. Joe lay there a few seconds gasping for air, and trying to shake the cobwebs loose. When he heard Ralph approaching, he flipped over and swept his leg across the ground effectively knocking Ralph’s feet out from under him.

Joe didn’t have time to rest, or to think, he knew he had to do something, and fast, or he was going to lose this fight. Losing was something he couldn’t afford to do. Joe rolled to his feet the same time that Ralph got to his. He came at Joe, who side-stepped him, clasped his hands together and swung sideways, connecting with Ralph’s stomach. Ralph was brought up short. Joe grabbed his shoulder and spun him around and sent an upper cut to his chin, once again sending Ralph to the ground. Sensing the fight was just about over, Joe grabbed Ralph and pulled him up. Joe hit him with everything he had, a quick left and right to the stomach and followed it up with a left and right to the face. With a groan, Ralph fell to the ground, struggled to get up, but just fell right back down and stayed down. Joe stood, bent over with his hands on his knees, gasping for breath.

Knowing the fight was over, the hands started cheering. Hank came over to Joe and handed him a canteen.

Joe took a mouthful, swished it around in his mouth and spit it out onto the ground. Then he bent over and poured some water over his head. “Thanks.”

Joe half walked, half stumbled over to Ralph and dumped the rest of the water on him. Ralph came to, sputtering and saw Joe standing over him.

“Now, get to work,” Joe ordered.

Ralph slowly pulled himself to his feet and looked at Joe. “Yes, Sir.” Joe had just proven himself to Ralph and in doing so earned his respect. Joe had just taught him a lesson about life on the Ponderosa. You either worked or you paid for it one way or another. This was the one and only chance Ralph was going to get. He looked around for his horse, seeing one of the men holding it; he staggered over and slowly pulled himself into the saddle and rode off.

“Here you go, Little Joe,” Hank said handing Cochise’s reins to Joe. “For a minute there, I thought he had you.”

Joe turned away and spat out some more blood onto the ground. He wiped his sleeve across his mouth before answering. “For a minute there, I thought so, too.”

“You did good, Boy.”

Joe smiled at Hank. “Thanks.” He stepped into his stirrup and swung up into the saddle.

“What, no swing mount?” Hank teased.

“I think if I tried that I’d end up on the ground instead of on Cooch.”

Hank started to laugh at the image Joe’s words created. “Why don’t you come on over to the chuckwagon and let Cookie have a look at you?”

“You know I can’t do that, Hank. If I do I’ll lose what I just gained.”

Hank nodded his head knowing what Joe said was true. “Just be careful.”

“Yes, Grandma.” Before Hank could swat his leg, Joe gave Cochise and kick and rode away.

 

 

 

Chapter 104

Adam and Hoss were already home when Joe walked through the door. Keeping his back to the room, he hung up his hat and removed his gun belt. Joe kept his head down and headed straight for the stairs. He knew he was going to have to face the questions sooner or later, but right now he wanted it to be later.

“How are things coming along with the round up, Little Joe? Adam asked Joe.

“Good. We found quite a few strays today.” Joe kept heading for the stairs while he answered.

Adam noticed the stiff way Joe was moving, the dirty clothes and the way he was keeping his head down. “What happened to you?”

Ben and Hoss looked up to see what Adam was referring to.

“Nothin’.”

Adam was on his feet and to Joe before he could put a foot on the first step. Adam placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder, effectively stopping him. “Little Joe?”

Joe heaved a heartfelt sigh. Why can’t I, just once, make it to my room without someone stopping me? “What?”

Now that Adam was close to Joe, he could see the blood on his shirt. Gently, he turned Joe around.

Joe kept his head down; he didn’t want anyone to see the damage until he had had a chance to clean up. “I’d like ta go clean up for dinner… Please.”

“Look at me, Little Joe,” Adam coaxed.

Slowly, Joe raised his head and looked at his brother. A collective gasp resounded through the room.

“Who did that ta ya?” Hoss demanded.

“Ralph.”

“Why?” Adam asked.

Joe rolled his eyes, and then grimaced, even that movement hurt. “Why’d ya think?” Joe stepped away from Adam and turned to start up the stairs. He stopped and looked back at Adam. “Do me a favor, Adam.”

“What’s that?”

“Next time you hire someone, warn me please.”

“I’ll try to remember that.” Joe had started up the stairs when Adam called out to him. “Who won?”

Joe turned on the landing and grinned. “I did.”

Adam returned the smile. “Get some clean clothes; I’ll have Hop Sing get a hot bath ready for you.”

Joe started to protest, but changed his mind. Not only was he stiff and sore, but he felt like every bit of dirt from the Ponderosa was stuck to his sweaty skin. “Thanks, Adam.” Joe disappeared up the stairs and into his room.

Ben got up from his chair, intent on following his son and reassuring himself that Joe was alright.

“Let him be, Pa,” Adam said. “He’s okay, and any coddling right now will take this victory away from him. Besides, you should be use to this by now. It’s not the first time it’s happened and it won’t be the last. There’s always going to be a hand challenging him because of his age.”

“I’ve seen that Ralph. That was no easy fight. If Little Joe looks that bad, I can only imagine how bad Ralph looks,” Hoss said, his chest swelling with pride for his little brother. “I’ll go tell Hop Sing ta get that bath ready.”

“You’re sure he’s alright, Adam? You don’t think we need to send for Paul?” Ben asked, concerned, as always, about his youngest.

“He’s sore and stiff, but a bath will help that. He’s bruised and has a few cuts on him, including that split lip, but nothing that needs any stitches. He took a beating, but he’ll live.” Adam assured his father. “The boy did good today, Pa, and it was something he had to do. From past encounters, I know he wasn’t out there looking for trouble. Besides, you know Little Joe; he doesn’t pick fights on the job…” Adam smiled before continuing. “Unless it’s with me.”

 

 

 

Chapter 105

Joe had just walked into the washroom when there was a knock on the door. “Come in,” Joe called out, assuming it was Hop Sing.

 “I just wanted to make sure you’re alright, Son,” Ben said when he entered the room.

Joe had his back to the door and was unbuttoning his shirt when he heard his father’s voice. Every muscle in Joe’s body tensed. “I’m fine,” he said through clenched teeth.

Ben put a hand on Joe’s shoulder, only to have Joe step forward and away from his father’s touch.

Joe closed his eyes and clenched his fists. “Would you… please leave, I’d like to take that bath.”

“Joe?” Ben sighed when Joe didn’t respond or even turn around. “I’m sorry I bothered you.” Ben walked out of the room closing the door behind him.

When Joe heard the door close he turned around and looked at it. “Why can’t I…” He shook his head and continued undressing.

 

 

 

Chapter 106

After dinner was finished, Joe said his goodnights, explaining that he was tired and was going to turn in early. He had just closed his door when there was a knock on it.  Not again. He thought. “Who is it?”

“Hop Sing.”

“Come in.” Joe said and sighed in relief. The last thing he wanted tonight was another encounter with his father. Joe studied Hop Sing’s face when he came into the room. He was unable to discern the look on it, but he didn’t like it. “I ate, so I know I’m not in trouble for that.”

“Hop Sing wants to know why Num’er Three Son not talk to father.” As usual Hop Sing came right to the point.

Joe turned away from him. “You know why.”

“That long gone, time to forgive.”

“I can’t, Hop Sing. It-it still hurts. It may seem like a long time ta all of ya, but it seems like yesterday ta me.” Joe pushed aside the curtain and looked out at the barn. “Every day I go inta the barn, and each time I remember that night. I remember his anger, the feel of his belt, but most of all I remember his words and the look on his face when he said them.” Joe turned around and looked at Hop Sing, tears glistening in his eyes. “He–he wasn’t my father then. I needed him t–to believe in me. But he believed in Ramsey. He chose Ramsey over m–me. Please, Hop Sing, don’t ask that of me. I-I can’t right now, I just… I just can’t.” Joe stopped as he choked on a sob.

Hop Sing walked over to Joe and placed his hand over Joe’s heart. “It’s all here. Heart remembers love for father. Num’er Three Son just needs to remember. Once you listen to heart pain go way.”

“But it hurts.” Joe placed his hand over Hop Sings. “It hurts there.”

“Love there, just buried deep. Li’le Joe just need find it.” Hop Sing removed his hand, reached up, and wiped away the lone tear on Joe’s cheek. “My boy remembers. He knows how to find. Ibelieve in you, Li’le Joe.”

Hop Sing turned and left, leaving Joe standing in the middle of the room with his head down.

 

 

 

Chapter 107

Joe had just put on his nightshirt when there was another knock on his door. “Come in,” he said. Joe gave a frustrated sigh when Hoss and Adam walked into the room and closed the door.

Hoss smiled at his brothers. “Hi, Short Shanks.”

Joe looked at them warily, not sure what their intentions were.

Seeing the look on Joe’s face, Adam held up his hands in front of him. “Easy, Joe, we just wanted to make sure you’re alright.” He leaned against the door and studied the damage done to Joe’s face.

Joe shook his head and sat down on his bed. “I told ya, I’m fine.”

Hoss sat down next to Joe, angling his body so he could get a good look at his face. Hoss took hold of Joe’s chin, mindful of the bruises, and turned it back and forth. He prodded at an ugly looking bruise on his cheek.

“Ow! Would ya knock it off?!” Joe swatted at his hand and tried to pull away, but Hoss had his chin in a firm but gentle hold.

Hoss let go of Joe’s face and turned his attention to Joe’s ribs. With a grunt of satisfaction, he looked at Adam. “You’re right, Adam, he’s pretty banged up, but he don’t need Doc.”

“Well, thank you for that.” Joe scooted away from Hoss, trying to put some distance between his bruises and Hoss. “What do the two of ya want?”

“Adam told ya, we wanna  make sure you’re okay,” Hoss claimed.

 “Yeah, and Cochise ain’t black and white.”

“I’m downright offended at that, ain’t ya, Adam?”

“I sure am. Seems to me our little brother is getting a might uppity.”

“I know this ain’t no social call, so tell me what ya want so I can go ta bed. I told ya, I’m tired.” As if to prove his point, an involuntary yawn escaped him.

“I’m sure you are, after the day you had.” Adam smiled at his youngest brother, but didn’t move. “First off, I’d like to know what happened with Ralph.”

“I told ya.”

“No, you told me you were in a fight with him, but you didn’t tell me what happened.”

Joe rubbed the back of his neck. He was tired and sore; all he wanted to do was go to bed. The way he that felt right now, he could sleep for a month straight. Joe glanced behind him at his pillows that were beckoning him to lay his head down into their feathery softness, and slip into a world of promised dreams. Joe closed his eyes and groaned. “He wasn’t doin’ anythin’, an’ hadn’t been for awhile. I told ‘im ta get ta work, an’ I’m sure ya can figure out what happened from there.”

Joe looked down at his hands, like they were the most interesting pair of hands in the world. “Adam, I’m so tired of being called a snot-nosed kid an’ other things. Why do I have ta constantly prove myself to them with my fists?” he whispered.

Joe looked so defeated and dejected; Hoss couldn’t stand to see him like that and put his arm around Joe’s shoulders to comfort him.

Adam contemplated Joe’s words, mulling over the reasons, and what he could say to his little brother. “I don’t know, Little Joe. You would think, if anything else, the name would be enough, not to mention how hard you work.” Joe’s head shot up and he looked at Adam with an incredulous look on his face. Adam smiled at Joe. “Yes, I said it. Enjoy it because you’ll probably never hear it again. But some men resent taking orders from someone as young as you, and for some reason a fight seems to show them what you’re made of, that you’re worthy of giving them orders.”

Joe nodded his head. He knew Adam was right, he may not like it, but he was right. Trying to put the melancholy feelings behind him, Joe pushed to find out what his brothers were really there for. “Okay, that’s the first reason, what’s the other?”

Adam nodded to Hoss, they had discussed it before coming up and decided Joe would take this discussion better coming from Hoss then himself.

Hoss acknowledged Adam with his own nod. “We’re worried about ya.”

Joe had seen the interaction and knew he was in for a long, unwanted, discussion. “Worried? Why?”

“Cuz ya seem ta be takin’ a lot of chances lately.”

Joe looked thoroughly confused. “I don’t know what ya mean.”

“Come on, Little Joe, ya know what I’m talkin’ about. Seems like ya have a death wish or somethin’. You’re ridin’ too fast, breakin’ them horses like the devil’s on your tail. You’ve been fightin’ in town, not ta mention that gunfight ya were in. Do ya realize ya coulda been killed? You’ve been mighty reckless of late, Little Brother.”

“I ain’t being reckless an’ I ain’t got no death wish.”

“Don’t have a death wish,” corrected Adam.

“Yeah, that’s what I said.”

“Ever since Doc said you could do things, there hasn’t been a second ya ain’t been doin’ somethin’ ya shouldn’t. He told ya not ta break them horses, an’ the next day ya were out there on them, have been everyday, except today.”

“Hoss, I’m fine,” claimed Joe.

“But that’s not the point, Little Joe. The point is you’re putting yourself in danger. It’s like you don’t care what happens to you,” Adam explained.

“Ya may not care but we do, all of us.” Especially Pa. Hoss knew to leave that last part unsaid unless he wanted this to turn into an argument. “We almost lost ya once, we don’t want ta do that again.” Hoss looked at Joe, and saw he was staring at the wall across from him, a mutinous look on his face. “Little Joe…” Hoss waited until Joe looked at him. “I know ya have a lot ta work out, me an’ Adam …”

“Adam and I.” Adam couldn’t help himself it just slipped out.

Hoss glared at his older brother. “As I was sayin’, me an Adam, well, we get it. We’re willin’ ta let ya do that, we just ask that ya be more careful, not take so many chances.”

Joe was looking down at his hands again, he knew what they were saying was true. He didn’t really care. He just wanted to… What do I want? What am I tryin’ta do?

 Forget, his mind cried out.

Joe looked at each of his brothers and nodded his head. “I’ll try.”

“That’s all we ask for, Little Joe. Just take care of yourself. Think before you do.” Adam told him.

“I do think,” Joe protested.

Adam raised an eyebrow at that statement.

“I do!” Joe declared. “Just not the way you’d want me ta.” He knew he was guilty of everything they had said.

“Well, we’ve said what we came to say. You get some sleep, Little Joe,” Adam said.

“Thanks.”

Adam and Hoss left him to think about what they said. Once the door closed behind them, Joe grabbed a pillow and threw it at the door with everything he had in him. “Remember… Try… What the Hell are ya doin’, Joe?”

 

 

 

Chapter 108

Adam stood on the landing watching his father, who was sitting on the table in front of the fireplace. He was concerned about what he was seeing. Ben’s shoulders were slumped, he had his head in his hands, the over all image was of a defeated man.

Adam continued down the stairs. “Pa?”

Ben slowly turned around to face his son. He had a hard time drawing away from his thoughts, thoughts of the past and thoughts of the future, but most of all thoughts of his sons. “Is there something wrong, Son?”

“That’s what I was going to ask you.” Adam sat down in the blue chair and watched his father.

“Just the usual. Adam, how am I to make any progress with Little Joe if he won’t stay in the same room with me for more than five minutes? When he’s not working, he’s in town.” Ben turned back to the fire and stared into its fiery depths. “Except for tonight, I think he was too sore to sit a horse in order to go anywhere.”

When Ben turned back to Adam, he could see the worry in his father’s face. “I don’t know what to say anymore, Pa.”

“I know, Adam. None of us do. I’m not ashamed to admit it, but I’m scared. I’m scared for him, for his safety. He’s gotten so reckless; it’s like he doesn’t care what happens to him. It’s the fighting, the way he rides; not just Cochise, but at the corral too. Then there’s that gunfight. He could have been killed, and he didn’t care.” Ben looked down at his hands.

_ _ _ _

Unknown to the two men downstairs, there was another person listening to the conversation.

Joe stood on the top landing, just out of sight, listening to every word his father was saying.

_  _ _ _

“Adam, if something were to happen to him, I don’t know what I would do.” Ben looked up at Adam, and he could see all the pain and fear in his father’s eyes. “There’s so much anger in him, Adam, anger that I put there. If I could go back and change all of it, I would, even if I had to take everything that was done to him on to myself. Alex was a cruel man, I knew that, but the minute he started chastising me… Well, it was like I was that teenager again. I know how Joe feels, how he wants to leave, to get away from the man that hurt him so badly. I was just like him… And I did run away. I got as far away from him, and his control, as I could. Until now, I never realized that in some ways I also blamed my parents for everything that happened. They weren’t the ones who performed the acts, but they allowed Alex to. All these years later, I did even worse than they did to my own son. I not only allowed it, I did it. I withheld my respect, compassion, and most of all, my love. I, no one else, made him feel like he was nothing. Why did I do it, Adam? All because of some childhood fears.”

Ben turned back to the flames and was quiet as he contemplated everything that had happened. “He gets along with you and Hoss. With the two of you, he’s almost like his old self. It’s just my presence that drives him away. He’s lost all his love for me.” When Ben turned back to Adam there were tears shimmering in his eyes. “I can fix this, Adam, I now know how.” Ben straightened his shoulders before continuing. “I’m going to turn the horse operation over to him. All of it. He’ll handle the contracts, everything.” Ben held up his hand when Adam started to interrupt. “Hear me out, Son. He can do it. I have that much faith in him. He won’t let you and Hoss down.”

“Hoss and I? What about you, Pa?”

Ben took a deep breath before continuing, he knew how his son was going to react to what he was going to say. “I’m going to take a trip. I haven’t been back home in some time. I thought I might go visit John and his family. Maybe even see some old friends.”

Adam was at a loss. Other than going to New Orleans the time he met Marie, and then leaving for a short time after her death, Ben had never left the Ponderosa, except for short business trips.

“How long are you planning on being gone?” Adam was afraid to hear what the answer was going to be.

“I honestly don’t know, Son.”

“You are going to come home, aren’t you?” Adam was starting to worry.

“It all depends.” Ben was trying to be evasive and hoped Adam would let it go, but he should have known better.

“It depends on what?” Adam demanded. When Ben remained silent, Adam had his answer. “Little Joe,” he whispered.

Ben nodded. “I’m hoping my absence will give him a chance to heal. My presence is only keeping the wounds open and festering. Maybe some day he’ll be able to forgive me. If that happens and all of you boys want me back, I’ll be more than happy to return.” This was the hardest thing he’d ever had to do… No, the hardest was yet to come. The day he has to say goodbye and leave. “I was going to tell you and Hoss in the morning.”

“What about Little Joe? When are you going to tell him?” Once again Ben’s silence answered his question. “You’re not going to. But why, Pa?”

“I don’t think it matters one way or another. He’s young, he needs the security of his home. I’m afraid if I don’t leave he will. At least this way I know he’s safe. Besides, the three of you can run the ranch just fine.”

Adam had to swallow past the lump in his throat. “When do you plan to leave?”

“I was thinking the day after tomorrow.”

“That soon?” Adam was shocked by his father’s decision. “Hoss and I won’t be back from Sacramento yet. Pa, that doesn’t give us any time…”

“Time for what, Adam? Time to sit here and worry ourselves sick, waiting for him to get himself killed?” Ben saw the devastated look on his son’s face and sighed. “I know it’s hard, Adam, but I think it’s best if we say our goodbyes when you and Hoss leave in the morning. If I were to stay longer it would only make it more difficult.”

“What about the round up and branding? No one will be here for it.”

“Little Joe will.” Ben held up his hand to stop Adam from interrupting. “Like I said, I have complete faith in Little Joe. He’ll also have Hank to help him. Give him a chance, Adam, he won’t let you down.”

“I just wish we didn’t have to go to Sacramento. Maybe Hoss and I should postpone the trip.”

“No, Adam, this has been planned. You need to take care of those contracts, and Hoss is due some time off.”

“But, Pa…”

“No, Adam, my mind’s made up,” Ben admonished, before making a request. “I do ask one thing of you and Hoss.”

“What’s that, Pa?”

Ben looked Adam straight in the eye. “No matter what, I do not want either you or Hoss taking this out on Little Joe in any shape of form. This is not his fault. He didn’t ask for any of it to happen.”

“We won’t, I promise.”

“I’ll make sure you always know where I am. And of course I’ll write.”

“Pa, please don’t do this,” Adam beseeched.

“Adam, I told you, my mind’s made up. Please, don’t make this any harder than it already is,” Ben begged, his heart breaking with each word he had to say.

Adam simply nodded his head. He couldn’t get anything past the lump in his throat. Pa’s leaving. Oh, God, Pa’s leaving.

“I’ll be in town most of the day tomorrow. I have quite a few things I need to take care of before I leave.”

Adam went over and sat down on the table next to his father. He looked at his father with misty eyes. “Pa…”

Ben pulled Adam in to his arms and held tight to his oldest son. Words weren’t needed to tell each other how they felt.

_ _ _ _

Up on the landing, Joe’s heart kept telling him to go down there, tell his father everything he felt, and to ask him not to leave… Beg him to stay. But his feet just wouldn’t obey his heart. He was frozen at the top of the stairs while tears spilled down his face and landed on the rug he was standing on. Finally, Joe turned and went back to his room and closed his door with a soft click.

Joe had finally listened.

 

 

 

Chapter 109

Joe paced his room like a caged animal. He didn’t know what to do. He wanted to go down there and tell his father he couldn’t leave, but then he would remember everything that had happened and the anger would start to build. “What do I do?” Joe pleaded to the empty room.

Normally, with a problem of this magnitude he could go to his father or one of his brothers for help, but he couldn’t do that this time. The only answers he felt he’d get would be the ones that would make them happy; they wouldn’t understand his dilemma. For the first time in his life, Joe had no one he could talk to, seek advice from. Joe felt he was completely alone.

He continued to pace. When he turned and started another circuit his gaze fell upon his mother’s picture, he stopped dead in his tracks, and he continued to stare at her.

“I’m not alone.”

Joe got dressed, and not wanting to run into anyone downstairs, he climbed out his window, down the roof, and ran to the barn. He saddled Cochise and walked him away from the house until he knew he wouldn’t be heard. He swung into the saddle and kicked him into a gallop.

Joe was going to see his mother.

 

 

 

Chapter 110

It was a warm, clear night. A full moon lit a starry sky. The smell of pine was heavy in the air, the night birds were singing their songs, and waves could be heard softly lapping against the shore of Lake Tahoe. The night air was still, there wasn’t even a whisper of a breeze flowing through the tall Ponderosa pines. The moonlight shone softly down on the bluff by the lake surrounding Marie’s grave in shimmering silver.

Joe walked slowly towards his mother’s grave. He hadn’t been here since the confrontation with Ramsey. Something — Joe didn’t understand what — but something had been keeping him away from her. Now he stood next to his mother, confused and lost.

Joe sat down on the carpet of pine needles next to his mother and lovingly traced the words on the headstone. He bowed his head not knowing what to say, or even where to start. Joe quietly sat there listening to the sounds around him. Somewhere in the distance he could hear a whip-poor-will singing with an owl occasionally joining in. A soft, gentle breeze started to gently blow threw the pines and around Joe, caressing his face and ruffling his hair.

“Mama, I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t want…” Joe trailed off, it was hard to use a word that he hadn’t used in months, but had always felt in his heart. “I don’t want Pa to leave, but how do I get past this?”

The breeze picked up in its intensity and stirred the pine needles around Marie’s grave as Joe sat in silence, then it died back down. “Help me, Mama,” he pleaded. Again, the breeze picked up, this time blowing Joe’s hair into his face. He reached up and pushed the wayward curls out of his eyes. “He left me, Mama. I felt like I lost him as completely as I lost you.”

Joe jumped to his feet and strode over to the edge of the bluff and looked out over the lake. “What do you want from me?” he screamed.

The breeze became a wind, and there was nothing gentle about it, swirling pine needles and dirt around Joe, blowing through his hair, and feeling like a slap to his face. He grabbed a rock from the ground and threw it as hard and as far as he could. This did nothing to relieve the anger building up in him. Joe’s hands were clenched into fists and he was breathing hard as emotions coursed through his body.

He grabbed another rock and threw it at the lake. “Why did you do that?” Joe began to pummel the lake with rocks. Each one followed by a pleading cry of “Why?”

When his anger peaked, Joe turned and buried his right fist into the tree next to him. “It’s not fair!” He leaned into the tree, rested his forehead against the rough bark and closed his eyes as sobs wracked his body.

Exhausted, Joe pushed away from the tree and stumbled over to Marie’s grave where he sank down to the ground next to her headstone. Joe leaned against it like a child would lean into his mother and have her arms wrap around him, making him fell safe and loved. One by one each hurtful and hateful memory tore away from Joe’s heart leaving it free and fertile for a new crop of emotions. As each one left something was unburied, the soil of his heart had been tilled and planted. The love Joe felt for his father was starting to grow and bloom again, brighter and more beautiful than ever before.

The wind died down into a soft, gentle breeze again, caressing Joe as a mother would her hurt and frightened child. She held and protected him in her warm, loving arms allowing him to cry. This time the tears were cleansing and healing. They washed away all the pain, hate and fear and allowed Joe to begin the healing process at last.

He fell asleep against his mother’s headstone while the breeze stroked his hair, the smell of wild flowers drifting over him, and the whip-poor-will singing into the night.

Chapter 111

 

 

 

It was early in the morning when Adam and Hoss were preparing to leave for Sacramento. Ben went out to the barn with them and saddled Buck for his trip to town. He watched his sons work, knowing this was the last time he was going to see them in quite some time. No matter how hard he tried to steel his heart against the pain, it was still there, white-hot, searing his heart for all time to come.

“Have a safe trip, Boys, and have some fun.” Ben watched Adam while he pulled himself up onto Sport, trying to memorize every detail of his oldest son.

“Pa, ain’t there another way?” Hoss asked, his crystal blue eyes pleading with his father to change his mind.

Once it was discovered Joe had left some time during the night, Ben didn’t delay in telling Hoss of his decision, and he could see how each word he said affected his middle son. If there had been anything he could have done to spare them the pain they were suffering, he would have. Hoss had used every argument he could think of to convince his father to change his mind, and Adam had even joined in the fight. They desperately didn’t want their father to leave, and Ben desperately didn’t want to leave his sons, but this was a time when the needs of the one out-weighted the needs of the many.

“Hoss, we’ve been through this. There’s no other way.” Ben placed a consoling hand on Hoss’ shoulder, drinking in every touch and sight of his son, like a man who had been stranded in the desert would with water. “I’m sorry, Son, but I have to think of Little Joe right now and you know that.”

“But, Pa…”

“No, Hoss, my mind’s made up.” Ben closed his eyes as a sense of déjà vu washed over him, taking him back to his late night talk with Adam. “Now, you and Adam need to get out of here, if you ever plan on reaching Sacramento.”

Hoss looked at his father long and hard; he wanted to plead and beg Ben to stay, but just looking at him made Hoss realized how worthless the effort would be. And what made it worse was that Hoss knew deep down in his soul that Ben was right. If Hoss were in his father’s shoes he would do the same thing. “Maybe something will happen before ya leave.” Forever the optimist, Hoss couldn’t give up, and he prayed for a miracle.

“Yes, Hoss, we can hope.” Ben slapped Hoss on the back. “Now, git!”

“Yes, Sir.”

Adam watched the tender scene in front of him. He knew he had to get out of there or he’d be right there with Hoss, begging his father to change his mind, but that would only make things worse for Ben. Adam cleared the lump out of his throat before speaking. “Come on, Hoss, we have to go.”

Ben looked up at his oldest son, gratitude shining in his eyes. He knew what it was costing Adam to ride out. He knew what it was costing all three of them.

Hoss gave Ben one last hug. He didn’t want to ever let go, but he knew he had to. Hoss stepped back from Ben, and without any shame, wiped the tears from his face. “Have a good trip, Pa. Keep in touch, ya hear?”

“I will, Hoss.” Ben felt the tears welling in his own eyes, but fought them. He had to be strong for himself, but most of all he needed to be strong for his sons. “You boys take care of Little Joe for me.”

“We will, Pa. Have…” Adam had to stop and take a deep breath. “Have a good trip, Pa.” With a final wave, Adam gave Sport a kick and rode out of the yard.

“I’ll take care of ‘im, Pa, I promise.” Without another word Hoss was gone.

Ben stood in the yard and watched his older sons ride away. He knew today was going to be hard. They said their goodbyes at breakfast, but watching them ride away was like a knife slicing through his heart, leaving it exposed, raw and bleeding. Ben was no fool, he knew tomorrow was going to be much worse. To leave his home was bad enough, but to leave Little Joe, especially, without a word said between them or even a last touch was paramount to ripping his soul out and casting it away.

 

 

 

Chapter 112

After watching his sons leave, Ben returned to the house for one last cup of coffee and to gather up the papers he needed for his meeting with his attorney.

He stood just inside the door and looked around the room. He remembered so many long talks he had had with Adam when they had built this house. Even though Adam had been young, Ben had wanted his input on their home; even little Hoss had chime in here and there.

Adam… Adam had been the one constant in Ben’s life ever since leaving Boston after Elizabeth died. It wasn’t an easy decision, to take his infant son and leave everything he knew in order to pursue of his dream. It was slow going with no one to share the responsibilities of taking care of a baby. But as Adam became older and didn’t need constant care, things became easier. Money was always tight; in order to survive, Ben had had to take odd jobs here and there as they made their way across the country, into a new life.

It was on one such occasion when he met Inger. Ben’s world expanded, when he fell in love with the beautiful Swedish woman who stole his heart. Things had become easier for Adam after that, he was able to spend more time being a child and less time taking on the responsibilities of an adult.

Crossing the vast prairie had been dangerous and hard, but life had been good for Ben and his family… That is, before that fateful had day arrived. They had left St. Louis with a guide and three other families bound for the west. They set off down the Oregon Trail and headed for Ash Hallow, Nebraska, to meet up with another group of pioneers. Shortly after reaching their destination they had been forced to take shelter when they had been attacked by a band of Indians, seeking revenge because their guide, Rockwell, had killed one of their braves. They fought hard to hold off the Indians and save their lives. Inger, the brave woman she was, gave Hoss to Adam, grabbed a rifle and took over defending a window when Rockwell took a bullet in his shoulder.

The Indians were falling back, and it looked like they might just live to see another day, or so Ben had thought, until suddenly his world careened out of control, plunging him into the depths of Hell. Ben heard Adam cry out to him, and when he turned he saw an Inger with an arrow buried deep in her back. Without a thought, except getting to his beloved wife, Ben left his post and rushed to her side. He held his wife as she took her last breath.

Ben had thought his life was over. He had barely survived Elizabeth’s death, but how could he survive Inger’s? He had wanted to walk out the door and let the Indians put an end to his misery, but then his eyes had fallen on Adam and Hoss. They baby had been crying, but Adam… He sat there, trying to comfort his baby brother while his world crumbled and his heart broke. He had just lost the only mother he had ever known. Ben had had to pull himself together for his sons. He had to go on. He had to do it for the legacies that Elizabeth and Inger had left behind.

They had moved on, leaving behind a piece of their hearts buried in a grove marked with only a simple cross. They had continued traveling west, looking for the place of Ben’s dreams, his own piece of Heaven. A place he could put down roots, raise his family, and they theirs for generations to come. The day had finally came, when Ben had laid eyes on Heaven itself, at least it had been such in Ben’s eyes. Lake Tahoe. Ben was home. Together, the three Cartwrights created and built their home; blood, sweat and tears had etched out what would one day become the mighty Ponderosa.

Just when Ben had thought he had everything he could ever want or need, he made a trip to New Orleans that would change his life once again. He had the sad task of deliver the news and a final message from a husband to a wife. Ben had to tell her that she was now a widow. Her husband had been killed saving Ben’s life, and he had felt it was his obligation to deliver the news to his family personally.

Something happened while he had been there, something he never expected to happen again. He had fallen in love. She had been a vision, a breath of spring air, with her honey colored hair, hazel eyes and a smile that would light up any room she was in. Yes, she had had a questionable past as a hostess in a gambling parlor, but Ben hadn’t cared, the only thing that had mattered was the here and now. He had been completely, without a doubt, hopelessly in love with her. With her by his side he could do anything. When he had returned home it had been with his new bride, Marie.

Marie had brought changes with her. She had left her mark on everything she touched, especially Ben’s heart. As the years passed, he had felt a contentment he had never known. Marie immediately fell in love with Adam and Hoss. From the first she ahd treated them as her own. One would have never known they weren’t hers by watching or listening to her. Hoss had been young enough that he took to her immediately. It had taken Adam longer to accept her into his life, but in the end Marie had won his heart, too

Then that autumn day came and changed their lives once again. In one horrifying moment everything they loved was ripped away from them when Marie was thrown from her horse. Ben was devastated. Twice, he had survived a love that had been torn from him.

The last time seemed so much worse. Unable to come to terms with his grief he had ran. He ran from the memories of their life together, he ran from all the reminders of her that remained. He ran until he remembered what he left behind – His sons. Like his other wives, Marie had left behind a precious reminder of the life they had had together. A reminder he didn’t want to run from, a reminder that would heal his heart, bring joy and comfort to his life: their son, Joseph. As the boy grew, he reminded Ben more and more of Marie, in looks and in spirit.

Spirit… Ben had done his best to crush that irresistible spirit. When it had happened, Ben didn’t stop to think how devastating a loss that would have been to him. Fortunately, the boy still had his spirit, but Ben no longer had the boy. Joseph was lost to him. But had he lost him forever? Only time, and distance, would tell.

Ben was willing to pay what he thought was the ultimate sacrifice. He was leaving his home and his sons, perhaps for the last time. No matter how much pain it caused him he would not sacrifice the safety and well-being of his youngest son. He had to go, in order for one of his cherished sons to heal.

The memories continued to assault Ben. Everywhere he looked, there were memories, the table that he had to keep telling Joe to take his feet off of, the blue chair where Adam would spend most of his evenings reading, the checkerboard, how Hoss loved a good game of checkers, even if Joe cheated.

Ben picked up the statue of a horse that sat on the table just behind the settee. He remembered the day, ten years ago, when Joe had first seen it. The boy had immediately fall in love with it, and relentlessly pestered his father for it, telling him it was just the thing they needed for the house. Ben smiled when he recalled the words Joe used to win the argument. “But, Pa, Mama would love it. She’d want it sittin’ on the table where she could see it everyday, and it would make her smile.” As Ben paid for it he saw the excitement dancing in his son’s eyes. Joe had held that statue all the way home. When he had walked into the house he had reverently placed it in the middle of the table and smiled. “See, Pa, it’s meant to be there.” And there it had stayed. Seven years later it still sat on that table, a testament to how easily his youngest son could wrap him tightly around his middle finger.

Ben’s eyes fell on Marie’s beloved settee, like Joe and his statue; he could remember how excited she had been when it arrived. She had been very pregnant with Joe at the time, she had been radiant as it was, but the day it arrived, she had put even the sun to shame. “A touch of color,” she told him,“will make this room so much warmer.” Not only had she ordered the settee, but she also ordered the red leather chairs and the blue velvet one. She had been wrong in one thing though. The color wasn’t what had warmed the room, the house; it had been her, her smile, her laughter, her beauty and that of his sons. His family was what made this room warm, it made it a home.

“I’m so sorry, Marie. Look what I’ve done to your son. He’s at the point that he doesn’t care if he lives or dies, in his anguish he’s willing to destroy himself. I’ve done that to him, no one else.” Ben bowed his head and was overcome by his emotions. “Watch over him, Marie. Help the boys keep him safe,” Ben whispered to the room. He raised his head and looked around, drinking in the sights and memories.

Ben choked back a sob. Clearing his throat, he brushed a shaking hand across his shimmering eyes, trying to remove the moisture that kept gathering there.

“You’re a fool, Ben Cartwright, nothing but an old fool.”

With a last look around, Ben strode over to his desk, gathered the papers he needed and walked out of the house.

 

 

 

Chapter 113

Ben had just started to ride out of the yard when Joe came galloping in. Ben watched him with a profound feeling of sadness. If only I could reach him, get past all of his anger.

Joe saw his father starting to leave the yard, and stop when he rode in. Joe pulled Cochise to a stop at the hitching rail, dismounted and tied his horse to it. He kept his back to Ben while he took a moment to compose himself and put his thoughts into some kind of order.

Ben watched Joe dismount and turn his back on him. Just for a second Ben thought he saw something on his son’s face when he rode, but when Joe deliberately turned his back on him, he knew he was wrong. Without a word, Ben turned Buck and rode out of the yard. As he rode, He let his mind wander to happier times, times when Joe’s face would light up when he saw him, when a simple touch meant the world to both of them.

Joe took a long deep breath and slowly released it, trying to chase away the remorse and guilt he felt, and to calm the trembling that had taken over his body. His next words had to be right; they had to restore what he had had with his father. Joe straightened his shoulders and turned around. The small smile on his face faded away, his father was gone. Joe had been so lost in thought that he never heard Ben ride out.

Joe moved so he could see down the road, there Ben was, riding off into the distance. “Pa!” he yelled. When Ben didn’t stop, or even turn in his saddle, Joe tried again. “Pa, stop!”

Ben was out of range and so lost in his memories, he never heard Joe call out to him. If he would have, he’d have known everything was at an end. Just one word told it all… Pa.

Joe watched his father ride away and frowned. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep next to his mother, but the conversation he overheard and the emotional conflict he went through left him thoroughly exhausted. Once his decision was made, and he had let go of all the hurt and pain, he felt such an immense feeling of relief and contentment for the first time in months, he had drifted off to sleep with visions of the reunion he and his father would have.

“We can talk tonight. It’s not too late. I have time, and this isn’t something I want to do on the road or in town.” Joe grabbed Cochise’s reins and led him into the barn. Once he was done taking care of his horse, he went into the house, changed into fresh clothes, had something to eat – Much to Hop Sings disgust –  and collected the supply list from Hop Sing before he hitched the team to the wagon and headed for town.

 

 

 

Chapter 114

“Good afternoon, Mr. Schone,” Joe said in greeting to the store owner.

“Afternoon, Little Joe.” Mr. Schone looked up from what he was doing when he heard a Joe’s cheery greeting. “You sound awful chipper today.”

“Oh, I am, it’s the best day ever,” Joe said, as he flashed one of his famous smiles that caused girls everywhere to swoon.

Mr. Schone couldn’t but smile. Joe’s eyes were sparkling with a brilliance that could rival the sun, and the smile that lit up his face could have melted even the most hardened heart. “What can I do for you?”

“Got a list of supplies that we need.”

“I wondered when one of you would be in to do Hop Sing’s shopping.” He took the proffered list and looked it over. “Give me an hour or so to get this together. Go on over and get yourself a beer.”

“I won’t argue with that. See you later, Mr. Schone.” Joe literally bounced out of the store.

Mr. Schone watched Joe leave his store and laughed. “I didn’t think you would.”

 

 

 

Chapter 115

“Thanks, Hiram, I appreciate all your help with this,” Ben said as he offered his hand to his attorney.

“I’m glad I could be of help, Ben. I just wish things were different. You’re going to be missed by quite a few people, but I can understand your reasoning.” Hiram accepted Ben’s hand and the two men parted.

Ben left Hiram’s office and headed to the bank. There were only a few more matters that he needed to take care of before he could head home. On his way Ben noticed the back of a familiar figure crossing the street directly in front of him and smiled fondly. I should have known he’d head for the Bucket of Blood after dropping off that list. The smile turned bitter sweet when Ben remembered why he was in town. Oh, Little Joe, I hope you find the peace you desperately need. You’re too young to let your heart turn to stone.

Ben caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. When he turned his head he saw a man standing in the middle of the street taking aim at his son’s back.

 Dear God, no! This can’t be happening!

The thought flashed through his mind as he watched what was unfolding in front of him. With no time to call out a warning or even draw his own gun Ben ran to Joe, intent on pushing his son out of harm’s way.

The man pulled the trigger at the same time that Ben ran into the street.

 

 

 

Chapter 116

Joe heard the report from the shot and felt a hard impact on his back which sent him stumbling forward, barely managing to stay on his feet. Out of sheer reflex he drew his gun and turned around in one fluid motion. He saw Harper standing down the street from him, his gun out and a cloud of gray smoke surrounding it. In an instant Joe know that Harper had shot him, he could feel the ache in his back, but figured that the bullet had only grazed him. He saw Harper take aim at him once more; before he could fire Joe pulled the trigger on his own gun. This time Joe’s bullet didn’t wing him, it hit Harper directly in the chest. He was dead before he hit the ground.

Joe stood waiting for the onslaught of pain to hit him. Confusion washed over him when there wasn’t any. But I felt it. When Joe looked down at the ground the pain hit him full force, but instead of it being in his back the pain was ripping through and shredding his heart without mercy. Lying at his feet was his father, blood pouring from a hole in his chest.

 

 

 

Chapter 117

All the color drained from Joe’s face and he fell to his knees. “Pa!” he called, but Ben was beyond hearing his son. Joe pulled his father close to him. “No, no, Pa, please, Pa, don’t leave me,” Joe begged as tears streamed down his face. He looked up at the crowd gathering around him. “Someone get the Doc!” Joe screamed in desperation.

Paul and Roy were already pushing their way through the crowd. They had heard the shot and when they got closer to the crowd they heard the desperate cry for help. Both men stopped cold in their tracks when they saw the scene before them.

Paul was the first to take action. He knelt down next to Joe. “Little Joe, let me have him,” Paul gently coaxed.

Joe didn’t hear Paul; he kept a tight hold on Ben while he continued to beg. “Please, Pa, don’t leave me. I didn’t mean none of it. Please, don’t leave me. I need ya, Pa. Please…”

“Joseph! You have to let go,” Paul ordered. When Joe didn’t do as he was told Paul looked up at Roy for help.

Roy saw that Joe had no intention of letting go and allowing Paul to help, if there was any help left to give. Roy saw the vast amount of blood that was soaking into the dusty street where Ben laid. He looked at Joe and it seemed like the boy was drenched in it. There was blood covering his shirt and pants. His hands seemed to be painted dark gruesome red, and there were streaks of blood on his face.

“Come on, Son, you have to let Doc in there.” Roy took hold of Joe and as gently as he could pulled him away.

“NO!” Joe screamed as he tried to pull away, but Roy wrapped his arms around Joe and kept a firm grip on him.

Paul pushed his fingers against Ben’s throat praying for a pulse, even though he had no expectations of finding one. With his fingers against Ben’s neck, Paul waited and held his breath praying, and hoping beyond hope, to feel that pulsating beat that meant life.

 

 

 

Chapter 118

There it is! Paul had found it. Ben’s pulse was weak and too fast for his comfort, but it was there all the same. Ben was still alive and he was going to do everything in his power to keep it that way. “You men, help me get him to my office.” They picked Ben up from the ground and started towards Paul’s office. “Be careful with him,” Paul admonished.

Joe was still struggling against Roy. His only thought was getting to his father. “Let me go!”

Roy pulled Joe around and gave him a hard shake. “Joseph! You stop this right now. You just calm down, do you hear me? You’re not going to help your Pa none unless you simmer down.” Roy kept a hold of Joe until he stopped fighting against him. “Come on, Little Joe.” Roy started to follow Paul, but stopped where Harper was lying on the ground.

“He’s dead, Roy,” Paul called out to him.

Roy looked at Harper, his gun, then over to where Ben had been laying on the ground. He saw Joe’s gun on the ground where it had been dropped. Looking at everything, Roy was able to read the whole story, and the plot was perfectly clear. Later, he would take statements as a formality. Harper was dead. It would save the town the expense of a trial and a possible hanging.

“Get this trash off my street!” Roy ordered.

 

 

 

Chapter 119

Roy guided Joe into Paul’s office and pushed him down into a chair. The door to Paul’s surgery was already closed, telling Roy that the fight for Ben’s life had begun.

Roy looked back at Joe and his heart went out to him. Joe was pale as a ghost. The white pallor of his skin was in stark contrast to the streaks of blood on his face. Joe sat hunched over, his arms were wrapped tightly across his stomach, his whole body was shaking and his gaze was locked onto the floor. Roy looked down to where Joe’s eyes were fixated and gasped in shock. There was a trail of blood leading from the front door right to the closed surgery door.

Roy knew Paul kept extra blankets in a cabinet in the backroom, and went to retrieved a couple them. Yes, Ben was in desperate need of medical attention, but his son would be there too unless something was done for him. He wrapped the blankets around Joe’s shoulders before heading to Paul’s office. There was a pot of coffee sitting on the small stove. He filled a mug with it, added a liberal amount of brandy to it, and took it back out to Joe. He sat down in next to Joe and handed the mug to him.

“Here, Little Joe, drink this.”

Joe shook his head and kept staring at the floor.

“Come on, Boy, drink it, it’ll help,” Roy persisted as he pressed the mug into his hands and guided it to his mouth. Joe automatically took a drink, then another. Satisfied, Roy sat back in his chair. He kept watching Joe, who still had his eyes locked on the bloody floor. Roy shook his head and went to get a mop and pail then proceeded to mop the floor. This is all Ben’s blood, my friend’s blood. Dear Lord, please be with him and Little Joe, they need you right now. Please guide Paul’s hands so he can save our friend. Please Lord, Roy silently prayed while he wiped away every last trace of blood.

“Roy?” Clem walked into Paul’s office and saw only Joe sitting there.

“Here, Clem,” Roy answered walking back into the waiting room after putting the cleaning supplies away. “What do you need?”

“I just wanted to let you know Harper’s been taken care of, and to return this.” Clem handed Roy Joe’s gun.

“Thanks.” Roy looked back at Joe, who still hadn’t moved. “Do me a favor, Clem, go down to the mercantile and pick up a set of clothes for Little Joe. Ask Mr. Schone for help, he should have an idea what his size is.” Roy looked back at Clem. “Also, send someone out to the Ponderosa to get Adam and Hoss.”

“Can’t… Not there… Sacramento,” Joe whispered.

Roy turned to Joe. His head was up and he was looking at Roy. His green eyes were shimmering with unshed tears, his lower lip was quivering and there was the look of profound grief written all over his too pale face.

“What did you say, Little Joe?” Roy asked, keeping his voice soft and gentle.

“Adam and Hoss, they left for Sacramento early this morning.”

Roy nodded his head. “Send a telegram to Sacramento and every town in between that they would pass through.”

“I’ll make sure it’s done, Roy.” Clem left the office to do what was requested. When he returned with a new set of clothes, the door to the surgery was still closed and Joe hadn’t moved from the chair he was sitting in. Clem handed the clothes to Roy, and with one last look at Joe, he left the office.

“Damn it, Ben, don’t even…” Paul’s voice filtered through the wall and Joe’s face became even more pale, if that were possible.

“Come on, Son, let’s get you cleaned up.” Roy helped Joe from the chair and guided him to the backroom. He set the clothes on a table and poured some water into a basin. “There you go, Little Joe. You wash up and put on those clean clothes. I’ll be right outside if you need me.”

Joe nodded his head, acknowledging Roy’s words. When he heard the soft click of the door closing he walked over to the basin and looked in the mirror above it. He squeezed his eyes closed when he saw the blood on his face and shirt. He opened them and looked down at the rest of his shirt and pants. He was covered in blood. His father’s blood. Joe looked at his hands and saw more blood.

“Oh, God,” he cried and fell to his knees. He immediately grabbed the bucket that was sitting on the floor next to the stand and was violently ill. Long after his stomach was empty, Joe continued with dry heaves. When the spasms subsided, he pushed it away and wrapped his arms around his stomach and doubled over, his forehead coming to rest on the floor while hot tears spilled from his eyes leaving a white trail through the copper streaks on his face.

With a groan Joe pushed himself to his feet. He poured himself a glass of water and rinsed his mouth out. Not being able to stand the coppery smell of the blood drying on his clothes, Joe all but ripped them off as fast as he could, not caring about any damage he caused. For all he cared someone could take and burn them; he never wanted to see them again. Joe quickly washed every inch of his body. When the water in the basin turned a crimson from the blood, Joe dumped it in the bucket and poured fresh water in it.

Once he was clean, or as clean as he felt he could be, Joe put on the clothes Roy had left for him. Even though he had clean gray slacks and a black shirt on, Joe still felt like he was covered in blood, a feeling he knew would last the rest of his life. As far as Joe was concerned, it was his fault that his father was in the other room possibly dying.

Roy looked up when he heard the door to the backroom open and Joe walked out, still pale as ever, but blood free.

“Pa?” Joe whispered.

“Doc’s still with him,” Roy said as guided Joe to a chair once again.

 

 

 

Chapter 120

An hour later the door to the surgery opened and Paul walked out. He took one look at Joe and at that moment hated his job. The boy looks like he’s ready to pass out.

Joe looked up when he heard the door open and started to stand up.

“Sit down and stay put,” Paul told him and walked to his office. When he returned he had a glass of brandy in his hand.

“Doc…” Joe started to ask,only to have the glass pushed into his hand.

“Drink it,” Paul ordered when Joe looked at him with questioning eyes. He didn’t know which was worse, the Joe out on the street screaming to be set free so he could get to his father, or the one sitting in his waiting room looking like his whole world had ended and he had no reason to be there.

Paul sat down in the chair next to Joe. “Adam and Hoss?” he asked Roy.

“No, they’re on the trail.”

Paul nodded. Little Joe’s going to need them now more than ever. He’s too young to go through this alone.

“Joseph…” Paul waited until Joe looked at him. Paul tried to find the right words to tell a seventeen-year-old that his life was about to change.

 

 

 

Chapter 121

“Joseph, I was able to get the bullet out…”

Joe gave a heartfelt sigh. “Pa’s going to be okay, then?”

Paul slipped his arm around Joe’s shoulders. “That’s not what I said, Son. I got the bullet out, but it wasn’t easy. It went in pretty deep, just below his shoulder, and did some damage, but the blood loss…” Paul had to stop to clear his throat. It was bad enough to have to give families this kind of news, but to have to tell a family that he considered himself part of was almost impossible, but he had to do it.

“Then he’s – he’s…” Joe couldn’t bring himself to say the word. He felt his world start to spin, there was a buzzing in his ears, and he felt like there was a band around his chest constricting his lungs until he couldn’t breathe.

Paul saw what was happening and pushed Joe’s head down between his knees. “Roy, get me some more brandy.”

Roy jumped from his seat and all but ran to Paul’s office. The news was devastating, but right now he had to put his own feelings aside and help Ben’s youngest son. Ben would want him to do that and that’s what he was going to.

Roy was back at Paul’s side with the decanter of brandy. He took the glass that Paul handed him and refilled it.

“Listen to me, Joseph. I want you to take slow deep breaths…  Easy now… That’s it… Now, I want you to sit up and take it slow and easy.” When Joe was upright Paul pressed the glass into his hands.

Joe shook his head. “No… Sick again.” Joe was swallowing hard, trying to fight the nausea that was churning in his stomach.

“It’ll help you calm down and I need you calm so I can explain everything to you.” Paul kept his voice soft and gentle.

Joe looked to Paul for reassurance, when Paul nodded he hesitantly put the glass to his mouth and took a sip.

“All of it,” Paul coaxed when Joe tried to hand the glass back. Once Joe had finished the brandy Paul took the glass and handed it to Roy. “Are you ready to listen to me now?” When Joe nodded, Paul continued. “Your father lost a lot of blood and he’s extremely weak; if an infection sets he won’t have the strength to fight it. As it is, his chances of waking up are quite slim. How he’s survived this far is beyond me.”

“You mean he’s…” Joe looked at Paul with a glimmer of hope shining in his eyes. “You mean he’s still alive?”

“For the moment. Little Joe, you need to understand that he most likely won’t make it through the night, as it was, it was touch and go during the surgery.”

Joe swallowed hard and his voice was shaky. “Can I see him?”

“Yes.” Paul stood and waited for Joe to get to his feet. He was ready to catch him in case he collapsed. Paul led Joe into the other room where Ben laid on a bed, the white sheet that covered him had more color to them than Ben did. Roy grabbed a chair from the other side of the room and set it next to the bed for Joe.

Joe sat down and immediately took hold of Ben’s hand. “I’m here Pa,” he whispered.

Paul and Roy watched Joe for a minute before Paul motioned for Roy to follow him.

“Where exactly are Adam and Hoss?” Paul asked once they were in the waiting room and the door was closed.

“Little Joe said they were on their way to Sacramento.”

Paul sighed. “What happened, Roy?”

“I don’t rightly know.” Roy shook his head. “I haven’t wanted to leave Little Joe, and I didn’t want to talk to Clem about it in front of him. But by the looks of it that Harper must have drawn on Ben and Joe killed him.” Roy thought about what he had seen out on the street. “Harper’s gun was on the ground next to him and I saw Joe’s gun lying closed to where he and Ben were, I don’t rightly see any other explanation.”

“Ben’s gun was still in his holster when he was brought in,” Paul added.

“I thought as much.” Roy looked towards the door where his friend was lying in critical condition and his young son was trying to deal with something no one his age should have to deal with. “I’m going to go and take care of things. Send for me if you need any help.”

“I will. I just wish there was something more I could do.”

 

 

 

Chapter 122

“Pa, ya just gotta make it,” Joe pleaded. “I have so much I need ta tell ya… I’m so sorry for everything… Please, Pa, ya have ta wake up – please.” No longer able to hold it in, the dam broke and Joe sat next to his father, holding his hand as tears of guilt and fear rolled down his cheeks.

Hours passed with Joe sitting at Ben’s side, not once letting go of his hand. Paul continued to check on his patient during the day and into the night, but for the most part left father and son alone. Each time he checked, Ben felt warm, but not hot enough to worry about it.

It was after sunrise when Joe started to become aware of the heat radiating from his father’s hand. He reached over and felt Ben’s forehead. Ben was burning up with fever. Joe ran to the door and yanked it open. “DOC!”

Paul rushed out of his office, fearing the worse. “Little Joe?”

“He’s real hot, Doc, ya gotta do somethin’.”

Paul walked past Joe and straight over to Ben. Even thought he could tell the condition of his patient just by looking at his flushed face, Paul placed his hand on Ben’s forehead and frowned. He took his stethoscope and listened to his heart. He checked the wound and found it red and swollen. He had been afraid this would happen. Paul stood over his friend and closed his eyes. “Ben, you have to fight. If for no other reason, do it for that boy of yours,” he whispered.

Paul dreaded turning around and facing Joe, but he had to do it all the same. “Little Joe, I’m afraid it’s gotten infected.”

“Doc, please,” Joe begged.

Paul stood looking between Ben and Joe trying to decide on the best course of action. “The bullet had fragmented and I thought I had it all, the only thing I can do is to operate again and see if I missed anything. But I have to warn you, Little Joe, there’s big risk involved.” Paul paused and Joe nodded for him to continue. “He’s weak as it is, I don’t know if his body can handle another surgery.”

“And if ya don’t operate?”

Paul looked away from Joe. “I don’t think he’s strong enough to fight the infection.”

Joe considered Paul’s words for a minute. “So what you’re tryin’ ta say is he’d – he’d die without the surgery, but he could or couldn’t with it.”

“Yes, that’s what I’m saying, but his chances with the surgery are still very slim.”

“Do the surgery.”

“Little Joe…”

“A slim chance is better than no chance,” Joe said cutting of what Paul was going to say. “I’m the only one here to decide. No matter what happens it’s my responsibility.”

“Why is it your responsibility, Little Joe?” Paul was confused by Joe’s words.

“Cuz it is. Please, Doc, do it.”

Paul studied the boy in front of him before making his decision. He’s right a slim chance is better than no chance. “Alright, go sit with you Pa while I get my things together.”

Joe nodded and went back to his father’s side. He picked up Ben’s hand again and started talking to him. “Pa, Doc’s gonna do another operation so he can fix ya up. Ya just gotta make it, ya just have ta.” A small smile graced Joe’s face. “If for no other reason than just ta prove Doc wrong. Wouldn’t that show him he ain’t so smart. Ya don’t count a Cartwright out until it’s all over an’ done with, isn’t that right, Pa? Ya always said I’m stubborn as a mule; well I got it from ya. If ya don’t agree you’re gonna have ta wake up ta tell me off.”

“Little Joe, you need to go now. Go and get something to eat.” Paul was ready to start. His wife had come into the room and was ready to assist Paul with the surgery, but he had to get Joe to leave Ben before he could do anything else.

“I gotta go, Pa, but I’ll be back. Ya hear me, Pa? I’ll be back an’ you’re gonna be right here waitin’ for me.” Joe stood up, took a deep breath, and straightened his shoulders before turning around and to face Paul. “He’s gonna be just fine. He ain’t gonna give up,” Joe attested.

Paul put a hand on Joe’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. He was touched by Joe’s determination, and prayed the boy was right. “You go eat and we’ll be here when you get back.”Please, Lord, let it be true.

 

 

 

Chapter 123

Joe walked out of the room and shut the door. He had no intention of leaving. He sat down in one of the chairs, but didn’t stay there very long. His fear of what could happen had him on his feet and pacing back and forth across the room. “He’s gonna be fine,” Joe told the empty room. “He’s gotta be fine, he just gotta.”

Joe kept pacing, the enormity of Paul’s prognosis and how Ben looked – like he was already gone- kept him going. Exhaustion finally set in and Joe fell back into the chair. He bowed his head and began to pray. He prayed to his mother and he prayed to God. Joe prayed like he had never prayed before. He prayed like his life depended on it, like his father’s life depended on it. And it did.

“Please, God, don’t take him from me. I need him so much…”

_ _ _ _

It had seemed like an eternity, an eternity in Hell to Joe, but it had been only little more than an hour before the door opened and Paul walked into the room.

Paul looked at the young man before him, his apprehension of what was to come doubled. If Ben doesn’t make it, I’m afraid of what it’ll do to him. He’s everything to that boy. “Little Joe?”

Joe’s head snapped up and he saw Paul standing in front of him, and before he could stand, Paul knelt down in front of him and put a hand on his knee.

“Your Pa made it through the surgery. There was a fragment from the bullet that I missed, but I was able to find it and remove it. Then I thoroughly cleaned the wound,” Paul gently explained.

“So he’ll be okay now?” More than anything in the world, Joe wanted to hear Paul say ‘yes.’ He’d give up everything he had, including Cochise, just to have his father back and healthy.

“I’m sorry, Son, but what I said earlier hasn’t changed. It’s a miracle he made it through the surgery.”

Joe swallowed hard a couple times trying to get rid of the lump that had formed in his throat. “Can I – can I see him?”

“Did you do as I told you and got something to eat?” When all Joe did was look at him Paul sighed. “You can see him after you eat,” Paul ordered.

“I ain’t hungry; and I ain’t leaving,” Joe told Paul; his jaw had the stubborn set that said he wasn’t going to budge.

“Joseph, you’ll do as I tell you,” Paul said and stood up, hoping to intimidate Joe by standing over him.

Joe got to his feet and looked Paul straight in the eyes. “No.” His eyes darkened and snapped with fire, daring Paul to stop him. He pushed past him with grim determination and headed for the room where his father was. “I’m going to see Pa, and you can’t stop me.”

Astonished, Paul watched the door close. Joe had never flat out disobeyed him. This was different from all the arguments he’d ever had with Joe; different from the times that Joe would try to go against his orders to stay in bed. This time Joe didn’t even try to weasel his way around him, before he gave in to his orders. He flat out told him what he was going to do and what he wasn’t going to do. Joe was going to be a force to be reckoned with.

“He’s definitely your son, Ben,” Paul said to the empty room.

 

 

 

Chapter 124

Over the next few days Joe kept a constant vigil over his father. He would eat when Paul brought him food, but he refused to leave Ben’s side, no matter how hard Paul tried to convince him to.

Joe had dozed off in the chair next to Ben when he awoke with a start. He looked around the room in confusion, not sure where he was or what woke him. When he heard a groan close by he remembered where he was and why he was there. When Joe looked at his father, he saw Ben rolling his head back and forth on the pillow. He reached over and felt Ben’s forehead. He was still burning up with fever. Joe picked up the towel he had been using to cool his father, wet it with the cold water in the basin next to the bed and placed it on Ben’s forehead after wringing out the excess water.

“I’m sorry, Pa, I shouldn’t of fallen asleep.” Joe took hold of his father’s hand again and held it, hoping that his strength and faith would pass over to Ben and help him fight. “This sure is a switch, ain’t it, Pa? Me sittin’ by ya. It’s normally ya sittin’ and frettin’ over me.” Joe once again the cloth and replaced it on Ben’s forehead.

“Pa, do ya remember a couple years ago when we ran into that Henry T.P. Comstock fella? He sure did cause a ruckus, didn’t he?” Joe smiled at the memory of all that had happened when he was fifteen. “You were so mad cuz I took Princess Sara ta that dance. I sure thought I was dead when Chief Winnemucca showed up, an’ then there was that Lean Knife. Boy, was I ever glad when ya an’ ol’ Adam showed up. Know what, Pa? I ain’t sorry I kissed her. Ain’t sorry at all.” Joe took the towel and soaked it in the water once more and replaced it on Ben’s brow. “It sure was fun tryin’ ta get Adam ta dance with one of them big gals. Hoss thought so too.”

Ben groaned and shifted on the bed. “Joseph?”

“I’m here, Pa.” Joe moved over to the edge of the bed so he was closer to his father. “Pa, please open your eyes. Please, Pa.”

“He’s a good boy, Alex,” Ben mumbled. Caught in the unrelenting hands of the fever that consumed him, Ben was taken back to a time when his life had turned into a nightmare. “He hasn’t done anything wrong.”

Joe went over and poured some water into a glass; supporting his father’s head he held it to Ben’s mouth. “Here, Pa, drink this. Doc says ya need ta.” Joe was able to get Ben to drink most of the water. He sat back down on the bed next to his father and once again placed the wet towel on Ben’s brow. “See, Pa, you’re gonna be okay. I just know it.”

“He doesn’t mean anything by it, Alex… Oh, Little Joe, I’m so sorry. I never should have done it.” Ben shifted on the bed and moaned.

Joe put his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Pa, ya gotta lie still.”

“Oh, God, the look in Little Joe’s eyes… I should have never let him on my land… Why? I’m a grown man… Not a little boy…” Ben continued to shift on the bed, lost in a world where there was no escape. “No reason to be afraid of him… Please, Little Joe, please forgive me.”

“I do, Pa. I do…” Joe eyes clouded with tears, one gently slipped from the corner of his eye and slid down his face. That one tear was followed by another and another after that. “Pa, if you’ll just wake up I’ll forgive ya anything ya ask… Don’t ya leave me, Pa.”

_ _ _ _

Paul stood in the doorway watching the heartbreaking scene before him. He cleared his throat to make his presence known. He walked over to the bed and checked on his patient. After his exam he turned to Joe. “Little Joe, we need to talk.”

“What?”

“Let’s go in the other room.” Paul left the room, but looked back and saw Joe look at his father before he followed him.

“Little Joe, your father isn’t getting any better. You need to accept that.”

“Don’t ya say that, he’s going ta be fine.” Joe proclaimed.

Paul closed his eyes and released a pent up breath. “You don’t know how much I want to believe that, but it’s just too much for him. I don’t know how he’s made it this long, but the truth is; he’s not getting any better. He just can’t fight it.”

 

 

 

Chapter 125

Joe stood in front of the man he’d known all his life, who he had always put his trust in to make everything better, and couldn’t believe he was giving up. Joe looked down at the ground for a minute trying to come to terms with what he was hearing.

Joe took a sustaining breath, raised his head and looked at Paul. He had made a decision and nothing was going to stop him. “Fine. Then I want ta take him home.”

“You what?” Paul couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“I’m gonna take Pa home.”

“Joe, you can’t. He’d never survive being moved.”

“Does it matter, Doc? Ya said yourself he ain’t gonna make it anyhow.”

“But, Little Joe…”

“No! He’s gonna go home. He’d want ta be in his home, his bed. He’d do it for me, an’ I’m gonna do it for him. If he’s gonna d…” Joe paused. He hated that word, but he knew he had to face it. “If he’s gonna d-die, then he’s gonna do it on the Ponderosa!”

“I can’t let you, Son.”

“Ya don’t have a say. This is one time you’re not gonna win, I’m not backin’ down, Dr. Martin.” Joe stood glaring at Paul. His eyes were ablaze with determination; his jaw was set and locked, nothing, and no one was going to get in his way. Joe was going to take his father home and that was all there was to it.

Paul’s eye’s widened in surprise. Joe hadn’t used the formal form of his name since he was a small child. Paul knew that look and knew it didn’t matter what he said Joe was taking Ben home one way or another. “Alright, but you’re going to listen to what I have to say.”

Joe released the breath he didn’t realize he had been holding. He was determined to get his way, but he was afraid of what it might cost him in his relationship with Paul. “Okay.”

“I’ll get a wagon ready to take him home and give him some more pain medicine so he’ll be more comfortable, I’ll send some home with you also. I want you to have Hop Sing help you care for him. You are to get some rest and eat. In fact, I want you to eat before I allow you to leave. Is that understood?”

“I ain’t leavin’ him.”

“I’ll have some food brought to you.”

Joe nodded his head in agreement and left the room. He took his place next to Ben and picked up his hand. “We’re goin’ home, Pa. Doc said everythin’ is gonna… everythin’s gonna be okay,” Joe choked out.

Paul brought in a plate of food, when Joe started to protest Paul glared at him. “We had a deal, remember?”

Joe picked up the fork and ate.

 

 

 

Chapter 126

Against all odds and Paul’s dire warnings, Ben made it back to the Ponderosa. With the help of some of the hands and Hop Sing, Joe had his father in his own bed and as comfortable as possible. Joe settled into the chair next to his father’s bed and began his vigil.

Day turned into night and night back to day. Joe continued his watch, he ate when Hop Sing brought him food, but he refused to leave the room. A feeling of foreboding had fallen over the house. Hop Sing went about his work in silence, he watched over Joe and Ben and he was never far from them; Hop Sing was determined to be there when Joe would need him the most, it was the only thing he could offer to the youngest Cartwright.

Three days after Joe had brought Ben home there still wasn’t a noticeable change in Ben’s condition. Joe did everything he had been told in order to make his father’s last days, last hours as comfortable as possible. He gave him the medicine Paul had left him; he tried to get Ben to drink as much water and broth as he could, yet there still wasn’t any change. Still delirious with fever, Ben continued to relive the nightmare his life had become.

The times that were the worse for Joe, was when Ben would beg Marie forgiveness for how he had treated her son.

Paul came out to the Ponderosa each day and each day he was surprised to find Ben still with them. He worried about the changes he saw in Joe. He had lost weight, there were dark circles under his eyes and his face was drawn and pale. The boy was exhausted beyond belief, but refused to leave Ben’s side.

Joe might have been young, but he knew the family physician well enough to know to keep his distance when he was there or he could have found himself the victim of a well placed syringe. He had already warned Hop Sing that he’d never forgive him if he put anything in his food or drink. Joe wanted to be with his father when the time came.

On the forth day Paul was once again at the Ponderosa. He once again did a through exam. Ben seemed to be breathing a bit easier, and his heart beat a little stronger, but the fever was still there, taking its toll. Paul thought about using ice, but decided the risk was too high.

“Little Joe, we heard from Adam and Hoss. They’re on their way home. Apparently, they took the long way to Sacramento and didn’t pass through any towns on the way.” Paul and Roy had been frustrated with the silence that had greeted every telegraph they had sent. They were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief when word came that they were on their way home. Paul just hoped they’d make it in time.

“Good.”

Joe kept wishing his brothers were home. He didn’t want to alone when it happened. More than anything he wanted to be that little boy whose brothers would hold him close and tell him everything would be okay. He wanted the brothers who took care of him after his mother died. He wanted the brothers who would chase the nightmares away and stay with him the rest of the night to keep him safe. He wanted his other brothers who protected him against everything any anything that threatened him. They would make this right; together they could make anything happen.

But most of all, more than anyone, he wanted his father.

 

 

 

Chapter 127

Just as dawn was breaking on the fifth morning, Joe sat talking with his father, trying to bring him back. “Pa, I’m so sorry I let so much time go by before I accepted what I already knew. I never stopped lovin’ ya, Pa.” Joe thought about all the times his father had reached out to him trying to mend the gap between them. He also remembered how many times he turned his back on him. “It’s my fault this happened to ya. If I wouldn’t have been so stubborn… So stupid… then ya wouldn’t of been in town.”

Joe shuddered as he remembered the events of that day that changed everything. “That bullet was meant for me, Pa. Not ya. Ya shouldn’t of done it. Ya shouldn’t of even been there.” The tears that had been shimmering in his eyes finally escaped. “I’m nothing without ya. I can’t do it…” Joe dropped to his knees next to the bed, begging for his father’s forgiveness. “I’m so sorry, Pa… So sorry.” The control that Joe had kept such a tight rein on broke, he dropped his head on the bed and heart wrenching sobs wracked his body.

Joe, was so lost in his heartache and grief that he hadn’t noticed the change in Ben’s body temperature, or the sweat that drenched Ben’s body when his fever broke moments earlier.

_ _ _ _

Ben had heard his son’s pleas and turned away from the soft, warm comfort that was being offered to him. The warm light was beckoning him, seducing him with the promises of a pain-free world. A world where he would be reunited with the three loves of his life.

But he had three other loves that lived in a different world. A world that could be cold and harsh, a world filled with pain and sorrow. But it was also a world that could bring never-ending joy to his heart. Just a look, a touch, a smile, the sound of laughter, could fill a dark, cold day full of light and warmth. A world that held this exasperating, hot-headed, stubborn, yet irresistible boy that was next to him, whose heart was breaking. Ben couldn’t leave him. He looked back at what was being offered, but he knew it would be there waiting until the time was right for him to make that journey. The time wasn’t right at this moment. His son needed him, and that was all that mattered.

_ _ _ _

“Little Joe…” Ben’s voice was little more than a whisper. He slowly raised his hand and placed it on top of the soft brown curls that were next to his hand.

Joe heard the whisper and felt the familiar hand on his head, caressing, giving him hope. Slowly, Joe raised his head, afraid to believe what he heard and felt.

“Pa?” Joe looked at his father and saw that there was color back in his face, not much, but it was there. He straightened and placed his hand against Ben’s forehead and smiled.

Ben’s eyes fluttered open and closed again.

“Pa, open your eyes. Come on, Pa, you can do it.”

Ben’s eyelids felt like they weighed two tons, but he forced them open. He blinked several times to bring his eyes into focus. When he was able to focus, his gaze fell on one of the most heart-warming sights he had seen in a long time. Joe’s smiling face and eyes shining bright with tears… and love.

“Little Joe,” Ben croaked.

Joe reached over and filled a glass with water. “Here, Pa.”

Joe helped Ben to drink the water. When he had had his fill, Joe put the glass back down and sat in the chair next to Ben’s bed. “Thank you,” Ben said. His voice was soft and weak.

“Pa, I’m…” Joe started.

“Pa,” Ben repeated in awe. “You called me Pa.”

“Yes – Pa, always Pa.”

Ben reached out for Joe, who immediately took his hand. Ben smiled at the son whom he feared never being able to touch again.

“Pa, I’m so sor…”

“No, Little Joe.” Ben gave Joe’s hand a squeeze to stop him from saying something that Ben felt didn’t need to be said. “You have no reason to…be sorry. I’m the one…” Ben paused to catch his breath. “Who needs to beg… for your forgiveness.”

“No, Pa,” Joe began.

“Joseph, don’t… argue with me. Listen…” Ben fought the fatigue he felt. He had to make his son understand, it had been too long already.  “I’m the one who’s sorry.” Ben looked into Joe’s eyes, searching for the right words that would explain what had happened. “I wasn’t… man enough to… stand up to Alex. I should have…  never let what happened, happen.” Ben looked down at their hands and smiled. Joe’s thumb was slowly rubbing back and forth across the back of his hand, something Ben remembered doing countless times to his son when he tried to comfort him when he was sick or hurt. “I’m so proud of you, Son… Always have been. You’ve never… never been a disappointment. I’m the one…” Ben could see the toll this whole ordeal had cost his son. “Who’s a disappointment to you. I let you down…”

“No, Pa, you didn’t.”

“Yes I did and I’ll never be able to make up to you what I did.” Ben squeezed Joe’s hand again and held on as tight as he could. “I just hope someday you’ll find …it in your heart to… forgive me.”

“I already have. I did along time ago, Pa. I was just too stubborn to see it.”

Ben looked into his son’s eyes and saw the truth shining there, bright and clear. His son not only forgave him, but loved him. Ben could feel the tears welling in his eyes. He had given up hope of ever seeing those emotions directed toward him from this youngest son of his.

“I am so proud… of the man you’ve become.” Ben stopped and took a deep breath. “So very proud.” Ben smiled up at his son, unable to break eye contact with him.

Joe could see the unconditional love in Ben’s eyes, the love that he knew was always there, but like the sun on a rainy day, clouds had obscured it. Now it was shining as bright and clear as ever and it warmed his heart.

Ben released Joe’s hand and patted the bed next to him.

Joe smiled knowing what his father was asking. As so many times when he was little, Joe gently climbed up on the bed next to his father and carefully laid his head on his chest and let the soft steady beat of his father’s heart wash away all his fears.

Ben wrapped his arm around his son and looked out his window. The sun had risen, dawn had broken and it was going to be a magnificent day.

“Little Joe, everything is going to be alright now.” Ben smiled when he heard the soft even breaths coming from his son. “I have my son back.”

Yes, everything was going to be alright now. Ben thought as he rested his cheek on top of Joe’s head and drifted off to sleep.

******The End******

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.

 

7 thoughts on “Under the Influence (frasrgrl)”

  1. OMG…….. I luv this fan fiction!!!! You did a really good job describing how Joe could’ve felt in that situation……… I also liked how Ben knew he was wrong but Joe didn’t accept his apology!! I luv it, frasgrl!! Congrats!! 🙂

  2. That was quite a ride, fras. Nothing came easy for anyone in this story of rejection, betrayal, hurt and growing up in the process. Ben’s long, lost friends always seem to cause trouble on the Ponderosa. Wonder who will wander in next. (smile) Nicely done!

  3. How can one begin to explain all the heartache and emotions involved within this story? The pressure of living up to the expectations of the man he’d placed upon a pedestal. Believing your life is under a microscope, and fearing all you’ve accomplished will not be ‘good enough’. Second thinking the youthful exuberance of a son. Wanting to set a good impression, but not able to see the truth.

    The suffering Ben inflicted upon his youngest was unconscionable. And I cried as Joe tried his best, yet continued to fall from his father’s grace.

    A long suffering road was observed by all. And sometimes, when someone is beaten down in such a fashion, they harden their heart and build walls to protect themselves.

    I applaud your courage to not ‘tidy up’ the conclusion of this story as soon as the Strouds left, there was too much grief to be ‘whitewash’ over.

    1. Thank you! You have no idea of the smile you put on my face. This story is one that means a lot to me. Not only was it my first Bonanza story, but it got me through a very hard year of my life. I hate easy fixes and feel if the angst has been given time and effort so should the ending. Thank you so much for reading.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.