Ruth knelt in front of her brother’s gravestone. Her skirts formed a billowing cushion for her knees, though Ruth barely took note of the comfort. She found herself coming to visit Danny more and more often in recent days, arriving at the cemetery after the store closed and staying until the sun began to set.
She looked down at the playbill she’d brought with her, running two fingers over the grainy, irregular splotches that stained the delicate paper rusty red. Splotches that could only be blood.
This wasn’t Ruth’s playbill. The one that belonged to her was still in her wardrobe, hidden beneath her undergarments. She’d found this playbill in her father’s wardrobe. It must have been Danny’s. She’d warned him. She’d warned Danny that night after the play that he had to hide the playbill some place Papa would never look. Some place Papa would never find it. Of course, Danny promised he would, but knowing Danny, he was careless about secreting it. Or maybe Papa had grown suspicious of Danny’s activities and searched his room. Or maybe someone from Reedsville had seen Danny perform in the play and mentioned it to Papa. Ruth hadn’t seen anyone familiar in the audience that night, but that didn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t someone there who knew Papa.
Ruth dabbed at her wet eyes with a lace hanky. Kneeling in the grass and crying did her no good, but it was something she also found herself doing more and more often. Her own suspicions, the ones she’d harbored ever since Danny’s death, had borne fruit with the finding of her father’s journal, then a few days later, this playbill, followed by the discovery of a leather strap stiff with dried blood that was hidden behind a shovel and axe in her father’s tool shed. The Lord knew, however, this wasn’t what she wanted. It’s what she’d long suspected, but she’d never truly wanted to find evidence to substantiate those suspicions.
The woman took a deep, ragged breath. Her eyes traveled from her brother’s stone to her mother’s where her gaze lingered a long moment before returning to the spot marking Danny’s final resting place. Even with the evidence she’d collected, her chances of seeing justice carried out were slim. First of all, her sisters would never support any claims Ruth made against their father. And second of all, her father was male and the head of the household. Therefore it was unlikely any jury, comprised of men of course, would find him guilty of wrongdoing. After all, by Ohio state law, a father had the right to punish his son in any way he saw fit. If that punishment resulted in a terrible and unforeseeable accident, as Papa would vow was the case, then he’d be found innocent. Given Papa’s position in the community and his advanced years – well, Ruth knew justice for Danny would not prevail.
Because of all she’d uncovered and yet was helpless to do anything about, Ruth had decided she could no longer live under her father’s roof. She wouldn’t be here when he returned from Nevada. She didn’t know where she was going – maybe as far away as New York City, like Danny had wanted her to. What she knew for certain was she had money saved from the weekly wage her father paid her, and on the day he arrived home in the fall she’d be gone to some place where he’d never find her. She had skills ranging from sewing, to cooking, to keeping house, to her many years working in her father’s store. Surely she’d find employment of some sort in a large city that would allow her to support herself.
The woman looked at the playbill again. Tears started once more as she apologized softly, “I’m sorry, Danny. I’m so sorry. He’s. . .he’s a sick man. You used to tell me he wasn’t right in the head, and what did I do but admonish you for speaking ill of your father. Well, now I know the truth. I’m only sorry I found out after it was too late to help you. I know it doesn’t seem like much – me leaving Papa’s house. I know it’s not nearly enough to bring justice for your death. But it’s the one thing I can do to honor your memory. I’ll. . .I’ll go to New York City like you wanted me to. I’ll leave this place – leave Papa’s home, and never return. I only wish I’d left when you wanted me to.”
Ruth rested a wet cheek against the cold smoothness of Danny’s gravestone. She put one arm around the marker as though her brother could somehow feel the warmth of her hug. With her other hand, she clutched the playbill to her chest, wrinkling the delicate paper with the force of her grip.
“Oh, Danny, forgive me for not having the courage to leave with you when you wanted me to.”
Thanks to the box-supper revival the Baptists were holding in Virginia City, Daniel left before the evening meal with a picnic basket Hop Sing packed for him. On any other day, Ben would have gone with his brother in an effort to be a good host. But at the moment, he wasn’t feeling overly charitable toward Daniel. In addition, Daniel’s absence gave him the opportunity to speak to Adam and Hoss alone.
Little Joe never came in for lunch, and had barely filled his plate before he lost his appetite for supper. As a platter of roast chicken was passed around the table, Adam asked, “So, how’d things go with Jim and his boys today?”
Hoss paused in the act of pouring gravy on his mountain of mashed potatoes. “Yeah, Pa. Little Joe. How’d things go?”
Before Ben could shake his head at his older sons to indicate now wasn’t the time for that topic, Little Joe’s utensils clattered against his plate.
“How things went is Pa hopes you two are up to the job of babysitting for me until I’m eighty years old, or until Paul and Charlie are dead, whichever comes first.”
Adam and Hoss did exactly what Ben didn’t want them to – made light of Joe’s upset.
“Well, now, that will be rather cumbersome, but sure. I suppose Hoss and I can be your babysitters. It’s not like we haven’t had plenty of practice.”
“Sounds like a downright awful chore to me, but ain’t no skin off my nose ‘long as Pa pays me a fair wage for the job.”
“Mmmm…” Adam pondered, while gazing at the ceiling. “Now just what would constitute a ‘fair wage’ when it comes to keeping an eye on this rascally little brother of ours?”
“Good point, Adam. We best negotiate that with Pa ‘fore we take on the task of babysittin’ short shanks. No tellin’ what kinda trouble he’ll get into the minute we turn our backs.”
“Boys, come on now, that’s--”
“Yes,” Adam agreed. “There’s no telling. You know, Pa, come to think of it, I’m not sure you can afford us. After all, babysitting for Little Joe is a rather big task. Why, you’d need three or four more sons in order for the job to be done properly.”
“Boys, that’s enou--”
“Yep,” Hoss nodded. “Least three or four. Maybe even five. Little Joe can be a trial when he puts his mind to it and--”
Joe shot to his feet, threw his napkin on his plate, and headed for the door.
“Joseph, where are you going?”
Joe kept his back to his father and brothers, his stance stiff and angry.
“Just outside, Pa. To…to...I’ll go to the bunkhouse.”
“Finish your supper first. You haven’t eaten since breakfast.”
“I’ll eat with the men.”
“Pa, I’ll just be in the bunkhouse. No farther than that.”
“And you’ll eat?”
“Yeah, I’ll eat.”
Ben reluctantly gave his permission. “All right then. Go on.”
After the door opened and closed, he addressed his oldest sons.
“Thank you for that comedy act. Neither your brother nor I find it nearly as funny as you two do.”
“Aw, Pa, we was just funnin’ with him. We didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”
“Yeah, Pa, it’s not like Joe can’t usually give as good as he gets.”
“Well, on this subject he can’t, and you two should have known that.”
“So. . .uh, I take it things didn’t go well at Jim’s today?”
“No, Adam, things didn’t go well.”
As the three men ate, Ben told Adam and Hoss what transpired at the Dunn home, and the subsequent decision he’d made regarding Joe’s limited travels without a family member.
“Sounds like a good job for Uncle Dan’l iffin’ you ask me,” Hoss joked. “Keepin’ track of Little Joe, that is.”
Adam nodded. “I’d wager a week’s pay that he thinks he can do a better job of it than Pa.”
“What do you mean by that?” Ben asked.
“Oh nothing,” Adam dismissed. “Just some nonsense Uncle Daniel mentioned to me today about Joe.”
“Something about Satan residing within him.”
Hoss raised an eyebrow. “Satan? Well now that’s the most dadburn fool thing I’ve ever heard anyone say ‘bout Little Joe.” Hoss looked at his father. “Forgive me for sayin’ so, Pa, bein’ Uncle Dan’l is your brother an’ all.”
“No need to ask my forgiveness, son. Daniel’s said as much to me.”
“Why would he say somethin’ like that?”
“Because he’s a harsh judge of character, for one thing. And for another, he’s intent on constantly comparing Little Joe to Danny, and to our pa.”
“What’s your father, or Danny for that matter, have to do with Little Joe?”
“That’s a good question, Adam. Nothing, as far as I’m concerned. Or at least not anything to be ashamed of. The worst that can be said about my pa and your brother is that Little Joe inherited his Grandfather Cartwright’s laugh, his curly hair, and his enjoyment of good-natured high jinks. And as far as Danny goes – I have no idea why Daniel makes comparisons between him and Little Joe.” Ben pushed his plate aside. “Never mind your uncle. September isn’t that far off. He’ll be going home soon. In the meantime, it’s up to the three of us to keep Little Joe safe until this thing with the Dunns runs its course.”
“Do you think it might be time to get Roy Coffee involved as well?” Adam asked.
“As much as I wanted to avoid that, yes, I think it’s past time. I’ll ride into town tomorrow and talk to him. At this point, I doubt there’s much he can do since it’s Little Joe’s word against Paul’s and Charlie’s. But if nothing else, I can sign a complaint so Roy has my statement on record should something. . .well, should something happen in the future.”
“Don’t you worry none, Pa. Nothin’s gonna happen. Me and Adam’ll keep a close watch on Little Joe until them Dunn boys get tired a’ seein’ us around and give up playin’ their games.”
“Yeah, Pa,” Adam assured, “There’s no need to worry. We’ll keep Joe safe.”
“Just make sure you keep yourselves safe while you’re at it.”
“We will. And that goes for you, too.”
Ben nodded. “I’ll do the same.”
The three men ate dessert; then retreated to the great room. Daniel joined them later that evening after returning from the revival. He immediately inquired of Ben as to Little Joe’s whereabouts.
“He’s in the bunkhouse.”
“Gambling, I suppose. His time would have been better spent at the revival with me.”
“I think his time was best spent right here,” Ben said in return. “And as for what he’s doing in the bunkhouse, he’s with men he likes and respects. That’s all any of us needs to know.”
They’d all gone to bed by the time Little Joe came in. Ben heard him come up the stairs, his footsteps a tad unsteady. He wondered if that unsteadiness simply indicated Joe was tired and should have turned in hours ago, or was a result of the whiskey bottle that had no doubt been passed around the bunkhouse after supper. The drinking aside, he also figured Joe had probably lost a week’s worth of wages playing poker with the men, but unlike Daniel, Little Joe’s gambling habits were the least of his concerns right now.
Knowing his youngest son was safely in the house allowed the father to finally drift toward sleep. Unfortunately for Ben, he didn’t realize that the danger to Joe wasn’t outside his four walls, but rather, within them.
Nan stood in the dining room, soft white cloth scrunched between her fingers, polishing the Sunday silver. It was a chore she did one Saturday each month for Mrs. Dunn. It was boring, and tedious, and on a hot summer morning like this one, when not so much as a wisp of air was fluttering the curtains away from the big windows, sweat trickled down the back of her neck and plastered her bangs to her forehead. She glanced through the delicate lace of the curtains, checking on her young charges. The little girls were playing jacks in the ranch yard, while the little boys played “stallion” with a length of twine Timmy had fashioned into a lasso. Henry ran in circles throwing his head back and snorting like an angry horse, while Gerald tried to rope him. Fortunately for Henry, Gerald wasn’t especially skilled at this game.
Any notion Nan might have once held about having her very own set of Sunday silver someday in the future had long ago been disregarded as foolish. After all, why would any woman want to spend part of an already busy day polishing silver? Just plain old every day flatware would be good enough for her when the time came that she was married and keeping house.
Of course, if she married Little Joe, maybe he’d want a Sunday silverware set. She supposed the Cartwrights were used to fancy things same as the Dunns were, though she didn’t know for certain as she’d never been to the Ponderosa.
Well, now, Nanette April Henning, you just best chase any thoughts of marrying Little Joe Cartwright out of your head, silly girl. Despite the way you two were making eyes at each other yesterday, he’s still the son of a wealthy rancher, and you’re still just the daughter of miner who can no longer make a living for his family.
It was funny the way Nan heard her mother’s voice in her head at times like this. Practical and sage, that was Mama for you. Her advice had always been both wise and sound in Nan’s experience, and as she’d gotten older, she found she could clearly hear that advice even when Mama wasn’t anywhere around. Like right now, for instance. If Mama were here she’d say one Saturday night dance did not a marriage make. Besides, as far as Nan knew, Little Joe hadn’t gone to her father yet to ask if he could court her, and until he did so, she refused to be just another girl who’d been a passing fancy of his, like so many other girls before her.
But still, that didn’t mean they couldn’t continue their friendship. Although maybe having a friendship with Little Joe wasn’t right, considering he was a boy and she was a girl. Nan’s experience with friends thus far had always been friends of the female sex, like her best friend since she was six-years-old, Ellie Newport. Nan wasn’t sure what the Reverend Grady would say about a girl calling a boy her “friend” if the relationship didn’t extend to courting. Maybe she would have to ask him after Sunday service tomorrow.
Regardless of the reverend’s opinion, Nan knew when you shared a friendship with someone you didn’t want anything bad to happen to your friend. And she also figured that if you knew something bad was going to happen to your friend and you could prevent it by telling her – or him, in this case – then you were wrong not to make every effort to do so.
The problem with working for the Dunns was exactly what Nan had told Little Joe some weeks back in that alley – she heard things at times that she wasn’t supposed to. After Mr. Cartwright and Little Joe left yesterday, Mr. Dunn, Paul and Charlie sat at the table until the younger children came in for lunch, plotting, planning, and scheming. They must have forgotten Nan was in the kitchen and could hear every word they said. Or maybe they just didn’t care, assuming that her loyalty to them extended far beyond any loyalty she’d feel for the Cartwrights. Maybe if she hadn’t gotten to know Little Joe better this summer, that would be a correct assumption. Though Nan wanted to believe that wasn’t so. After all, to inflict cruelty on someone for nothing other than revenge over the loss of some timber contracts was just plain wrong. Mr. Dunn was a wealthy man. Not having a timber contract with the railroad this year wasn’t going to change that fact, or cause his children to go hungry or without shoes come winter. As Nan’s pa often said, better to be an upstanding poor man than to be a rich man with a sour reputation. Not that most people knew what a bad apple Mr. Dunn was, though Nan suspected Ben Cartwright now realized it.
Nan pondered her next move. On Saturday afternoons, Mr. and Mrs. Dunn ran errands in Virginia City. Nan always rode along in their buggy because they dropped her off at the little house her parents’ rented, where she spent the remainder of the day and evening with her family. After services at the United Methodist church on Sunday morning, Nan met the Dunn family outside of St. Ignatius, the only Episcopal Church in Virginia City. She rode back to the ranch with them, helped Mrs. Dunn put Sunday dinner on the table, and got ready for another week of being a “mother’s helper” as Mrs. Dunn referred to her.
Nan wondered if she’d have time to meet up with Little Joe as his family came out of the Congregational Church. Sometimes the Dunns were invited to Sunday dinner at the homes of various friends in Virginia City, which meant Nan didn’t have to meet them for the ride back to the ranch until late in the afternoon. Maybe she’d get lucky and they’d have a noontime dinner invitation for this Sunday. She’d have more time to seek out Little Joe that way. Mrs. Dunn always told Nan of their Sunday plans during the Saturday ride into Virginia City. If there was no mention of a dinner invitation, then Nan would see if she could get to the Ponderosa later today. Her pa didn’t own a buggy, or even a horse, so having her own means of transportation was impossible. She did have some money saved from her job, though, so maybe...just maybe, she could rent a rig from the livery and drive herself out there. Pa might not allow it, though. And admittedly, Nan had never driven a buggy. But her younger brother Robbie had. He worked for Mr. Nickels, the wagon maker. Part of Robbie’s job was to hitch Mr. Nickels’ old horse up to wagons they’d made or repaired and make sure everything was aligned correctly. Maybe Robbie could borrow a wagon from Mr. Nickels, and his horse too, and then drive Nan out to the Ponderosa.
These thoughts rushing through her mind made Nan hope Mr. and Mrs. Dunn didn’t dawdle after lunch today, but instead, were ready to leave for Virginia City immediately after the meal ended. Sometimes Mr. Dunn even suggested they leave before lunch so he could treat his wife to the noon meal in town. He left Margie and Polly in charge of the lunch preparations then, and allowed Nan to end her workweek that much earlier.
Nan was so lost in her own plotting and planning that she didn’t hear him approach her from behind. She didn’t know Mr. Dunn was there until his right hand came to rest on her shoulder. She startled and began turning around, only to have him hold her in place by pressing his body into hers. Through her skirt and petticoats, she could feel the hard part of him that made him a man. She wasn’t experienced in the things men and women did behind closed doors, but her ma had told her a little bit about the birds and the bees. Enough for Nan to know what the firmness of Mr. Dunn’s male part meant. It was a reaction meant for a man to have with his wife, not with the sixteen- year-old house girl.
Nan’s eyes flicked around the limited view she had of the dining room. She prayed Mrs. Dunn or one of the children would suddenly appear.
“Hush, now, Nan,” he shushed quietly while lifting a few stray hairs from her neck that the heat had caused to fall from her hairpins. He ran two fingers over her bare skin, softly tickling. “I have some concerns.”
“Con. . .concerns?”
She was already pressed up against the table, but he pushed with his hips again, bruising her thighs.
“I’m awful curious as to how Little Joe Cartwright came to the conclusion that my boys had something to do with that fight he had in that alley.”
“Fight? I don’t know anything about a fi--”
“Oh now, I think you do.” He slowly rolled her dress collar down and laved his tongue across her damp skin. “Funny thing, but I just don’t see how Little Joe and Ben could have thought my boys had anything to do with that fight unless someone in this household told them.” Mr. Dunn chuckled as Nan shivered and tried to pull away from him. “Now granted, Timmy can’t keep a secret to save his soul, but Timmy was never around when the boys and I. . .talked. I made sure of that. The only person who has been around is you.”
Nan’s voice was weak and shaky as she pleaded her case.
“Mr. Dunn, I work for you, not for Mr. Cartwright. Even if I did overhear things I wouldn’t tell him or Little Joe.”
“Don’t lie to me, Nan,” the man ordered. He reached around to the front of her dress and gave her left breast a hard squeeze. “I might believe you if I hadn’t heard that Little Joe was seen walking you home from the dance last Saturday night. So you’re not good enough for my Paul or Charlie, but good enough for Little Joe, is that it?”
In a moment of stubborn defiance, Nan declared, “I might be good enough for Paul or Charlie if they treated me like a lady deserves to be treated. But then, they learned well from their father, didn’t they?”
The man spun her around. “Why you little--”
Before the open hand he’d raised could connect with the side of her face, a voice called from the big porch.
“Jim, are we leaving for town soon?”
The man released Nan so fast she would have swore her skin was burning him. He shot backwards four steps.
Mrs. Dunn entered the house through the front door, carrying a basket brimming with vegetables from the garden. Margie followed in her mother’s wake.
“Here, Margie, take these to the kitchen for me. You can wash them, then take them to the fruit cellar.”
As Marjorie walked through the dining room with the basket, Mrs. Dunn removed her bonnet, hung it on a hook in the foyer, and then entered the room.
“Well, Jim, are we?”
“Are. . .are we what?” the man stammered, his unsteady voice evidence of the close call he’d just had.
“Leaving for town soon.”
“Oh. . .uh no. No, Rilla. You’re not going to town today.”
“Not going to town? But why?”
“You need to rest. You know what Doc Martin said.”
“Oh, Jim, I’ve been in the family way many times before and never had problems that amounted to anything.”
Mr. Dunn walked over to his wife and slipped his arms around her waist. “But you’re not a blushing bride any longer, dear, just like I’m no longer a young groom. Remember the concerns we had when you were carrying both Nora and Henry. You need to stay off your feet as much as possible.”
This was the first Nan had heard that Mrs. Dunn was expecting another a child. She didn’t look as though she was in the family way, so she must be in the early months – the months when a miscarriage was most likely, especially for a woman over forty. From something Nan had overheard Mrs. Dunn say to some lady friends once, she knew there had been problems of some sort that caused Doc Martin worries about her ability to carry first Nora, and then Henry, to full term.
“Well, I hope you don’t plan to keep me locked up here in this house forever,” the woman teased.
“Not forever,” Mr. Dunn said lightly. “Just until Doc assures us any danger to the baby, and to you, have passed. Humor me for the next few months, please. I’m as excited about baby number twelve as I was about baby number one.”
The woman turned and beamed up at her husband. “I can see that.”
Mr. Dunn kissed his wife on the cheek; then came to stand behind Nan once again. The light hand he placed on her shoulder could be perceived as an innocent “fatherly touch,” by Mrs. Dunn. However, Nan knew Mrs. Dunn couldn’t see that he’d placed his other hand at the small of her back. That hand slid seductively to Nan’s waist and then pinched a fold of skin.
“And the good news is, Nan has agreed to stay on through the weekends to help out, haven’t you, Nan.”
“Oh, Nan, no. I can’t let you do that. You should be home with your family on Saturday evenings and attend church with them on Sundays, as was our agreement when Mr. Dunn hired you.”
“She doesn’t mind, do you, Nan.”
Nan didn’t know what was worse. The pain from the pinch, or feeling the man pressed against her buttocks once more.
“No…uh, no, I don’t...I don’t mind, Mrs. Dunn.”
“Then as soon as Doctor Martin says any worries of losing this baby are past, I’ll see to it that my husband gives you an entire week off to spend with your family – with pay, too.”
“Yes, Ma’am. Thank you. That’s...that’s very kind of you.”
“In the meantime, Jim, what about Nan’s parents?”
“What about them?”
“We need to send word that Nan won’t be coming home on Saturdays until sometime in the fall. By the end of October any danger should be past.”
“I already thought of that. I’ll stop and give them the word myself when I go into town this afternoon.”
“Good. Then it’s all settled.”
As Mrs. Dunn approached to take Nan’s hand and give it a grateful squeeze, Mr. Dunn stepped away.
“I surely do appreciate your presence, Nan.” Despite the woman’s kind words, there was an underlying sadness to her tone that made Nan wonder if she knew exactly what inappropriate actions her husband was engaged in before she entered the room. “You’ve been such a big help ever since you hired on with us last year.”
“Yes, Ma’am. That’s...that’s nice of you to say.”
“Now enough of you being on your feet for this morning,” Mr. Dunn insisted. “Go up and lie down until lunch. Nan can get the meal together while Margie keeps an eye on the young ones outside.”
Mrs. Dunn chuckled at her husband’s solicitous behavior. “If you insist. Though I still feel as though I’m being held prisoner in my own home.”
As the man escorted his wife up the stairs, Nan couldn’t help but think that it wasn’t Mrs. Dunn who was being held prisoner, but rather, it was she.
Daniel had become quite an accomplished horseman in the weeks since he’d arrived on the Ponderosa. Or so he thought, anyway. Unbeknownst to him, his nephews weren’t impressed with his abilities. As Joe muttered to Hoss one day when Daniel was bragging about his newfound skill, “So the old coot can climb on the back of a horse and plod along like a little kid taking his first ride. Don’t see why I’m supposed to think so much of that. I just hope he doesn’t expect me to pick him up the first time he takes a fall, ‘cause if he does, he’s gonna find himself on the ground until you or Adam come along and take pity on him.”
But Daniel was prone to thinking highly of himself, ignoring the Bible’s directive to remain humble in the sight of the Lord. As Joe also pointed out to Hoss on more than one occasion that summer, what was good for the goose wasn’t necessarily good for the gander as far as Uncle Daniel was concerned.
However, all of these thoughts were never voiced in front of Daniel, and no one mentioned that his riding skills were rudimentary at best. Nonetheless, as the summer passed, Ben felt comfortable enough with Daniel’s abilities to let him ride off on his own. He’d given him the gentlest horse on the Ponderosa, Sweet Daisy. Joe said it was a darn shame such a pleasant animal got stuck with such a cantankerous old goat, though Ben wasn’t supposed to overhear that remark, so he diplomatically ignored it while silently agreeing.
In recent days, no one paid much attention to Daniel’s lone comings and goings on Daisy. He supposed they’d gotten so used to his presence that they no longer paid him much mind. In addition to that, this latest upset with Joseph had their thoughts occupied elsewhere, which was all the better. Daniel’s thoughts were on Joseph as well, but there was no use in sharing his concerns with Benjamin. His brother’s chance to assist with driving the evil from Joseph had long since passed. Daniel knew now that the Lord sent him so far from home to show Benjamin the error of his ways, and to help him rectify those ways. But Benjamin wanted no part of his help, and Satan closed his ears to any reasoning Daniel offered. Therefore, it was Daniel who must purify the boy; transforming him into the man God wanted him to be.
It was truly a gift from the Lord, how easily Daniel could spot evil intentions in a young man. For example, those two young men up ahead lurking in that grove of pine trees, not wanting to be seen on Ponderosa land for some reason. Daniel rode on a little ways. He pretended he didn’t spot the boys until he was adjacent to them.
“You there! You two! Come out and show yourselves,” he demanded. “Move along! You’re not in trouble. I just want a word with you.”
The boys didn’t run off like Daniel half expected them to. He didn’t see their horses anywhere nearby. Possibly they’d crossed onto Ponderosa land on foot, or had their horses tethered a fair distance away. Whichever the case, they must have thought he’d chase them down if they fled. All the better for Daniel then, that the pair didn’t know Sweet Daisy had two speeds – slow and slower.
“Come along!” Daniel thundered. “Be men and step out here where I can speak with you. Only little boys and sissies hide behind trees.”
When the two finally appeared and got a close look at him, they appeared confused and uncertain. As though they had mistaken him for someone else. For Benjamin perhaps, since Daniel and his brother strongly resembled one another. Their voices were difficult to tell apart too. Now that they saw he wasn’t Benjamin, they seemed to regret showing themselves. They also adopted an attitude Daniel instinctively knew they wouldn’t have the courage to display to his brother.
“Look, ol’ man, you’re the one who should move along if you know what’s good for you.”
“Yeah, if ya’ know what’s good for ya’ you’ll forget ya’ ever saw us.”
The young fools hadn’t noticed the leather strap he carried, nor did they expect it to strike with the speed of an ill-tempered rattlesnake. He’d gotten good with a strap over the years, thanks to Danny.
The strap left an angry welt on the cheek of the dark haired boy. The fair-haired boy lost his gun when the strap lashed the hand he drew the weapon with. As they cowered, one cradling his face and the other cradling his wrist, they didn’t look nearly as menacing as they gave themselves credit for. That was the thing about boys. You could easily call their bluff if you had the right tools at your disposal.
“Now that I have your attention, gentlemen, answer me this. Is your last name Dunn?”
Neither boy said a word until Daniel raised his strap again and thundered, “The Lord commands you to respond to me! Is your last name Dunn?”
The boys hesitated a moment; then gave reluctant nods.
Daniel did something rare for him. He smiled.
“Good.” He climbed off Daisy. “Then I’ve got a business proposition for the two of you.”
“Business proposition?” the dark haired boy – the one Daniel guessed to be the oldest – questioned.
“Yes, a business proposition.”
The younger boy’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “What kinda business proposition?”
“The kind that involves my nephew, Joseph Cartwright. Are you interested?”
The boys exchanged glances.
worry,” Daniel assured. “I believe what
I have in mind you’ll find to your liking.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because it involves accomplishing what you’ve been trying to do all summer.”
“And what’s that?”
“Teaching him a lesson, boys, that’s what.” Daniel smiled while his fingers lightly caressed the strap he’d brought from home without fully knowing why he’d packed it until now. “Teaching Joseph Cartwright a lesson he’ll never forget.”
All was quiet during the three weeks that had passed since Ben and Little Joe visited the Dunn ranch. Despite Joe’s ascertains that the personal protection provided by his family was no longer necessary, Ben didn’t loosen any restrictions he’d placed on his youngest. He knew Joe was itching for freedom. He hadn’t been anywhere beyond the ranch yard without his father or one of his brothers at his side. This wasn’t exactly the ideal situation for an eighteen-year-old boy to find himself in, especially not when that boy – or “young man” as Ben continually reminded himself – was Joseph Cartwright. Nonetheless, it was how things were going to remain for a while yet. Ben wouldn’t risk his son’s life just because that son was complaining about his “nursemaids and tattletales,” for the fourth time this week.
“Perhaps your brothers wouldn’t need to be tattletales if you hadn’t tried to sneak off to Mitch’s on Adam, and if you hadn’t tried to slip away from Hoss in Virginia City.”
Joe opened his mouth to argue, but before he got a word out, Ben held up a warning hand.
“Unless you want me remind you of several other instances in recent weeks when you’ve tried to shake loose of your brothers, you’ll end this discussion now.”
Joe had the good grace to look sheepish. As he walked out the front door, headed for the barn that had become his oasis when he was feeling penned in by his family, he teased, “Least I haven’t tried to sneak off on you, Pa. You keep too close of an eye on me for that.”
“And I plan to continue to do so!” Ben called as the door closed.
Had Daniel been there, he’d no doubt lecture Ben on Little Joe’s impertinence, or encourage Ben to follow the boy to the barn and give him a good strapping. Thankfully, Daniel was nowhere around. In recent weeks, he’d gotten in the habit of taking a long, lone ride on Sweet Daisy after lunch. Perhaps Ben should question his manners as a host if the guest in his home took to disappearing each afternoon, but in this case, Ben didn’t dwell on it. Admittedly, at a time when tension was running high in Ben’s house, he didn’t need the additional tension his brother’s presence brought. As well, Ben assumed Daniel was growing just as weary of them as they were of him. It had been a long summer for many reasons. Ben was ready for his brother to depart, and for his home to once again be a private sanctuary for himself and his sons, where Daniel’s strong opinions didn’t interrupt their discussions, their joking, their teasing, and their disagreements. As he’d told Adam the other day, “After your uncle Daniel leaves, I don’t think I’ll be up to any overnight visitors for a while.”
Adam’s eyes had twinkled as he looked up from the ledger sheet he was recording figures in.
“Pa, after Uncle Daniel leaves, I don’t think any of us will be welcoming to overnight guests for at least six months. Probably not for a full year where Little Joe is concerned.”
Ben chuckled. “No, probably not. If Little Joe has his say so, the Ponderosa likely won’t see hide nor hair of guests for the next decade.”
And now the time for Daniel’s departure was finally in sight. In just five more days, August would give way to September. Although the heat of summer was still upon them during the day, the evenings were growing cooler once the sun set. No longer did the heat hang on all night without breaking. And the days were growing shorter as well – sunrise coming later than it had just two months ago, and likewise sunset coming earlier. Daniel was scheduled to depart by stage from Virginia City on September 10th. His journey home would be a long one, but he should arrive well ahead of any snowfalls that would cause travel delays, or make travel impossible until spring.
Ben glanced around the main floor of the ranch house. Though it was ninety degrees outside, he was picturing a cold winter evening with a glowing fire taking the chill out of the air, Hop Sing’s beef stew simmering on the stove, an applesauce cake baking in the oven, and his sons gathered safely near him. Though winter was several months away yet, Ben held onto that picture as he went outside to find his youngest and assure him that things would be better soon.
Joe took off his black hat and ran a shirtsleeve across his forehead, wiping away the sweat trickling down to sting his eyes. Beneath his hat, his curls were limp and damp. At least “limp and damp,” meant Uncle Daniel wouldn’t fuss at him about needing a haircut. He was worse than Pa where the length of Joe’s hair was concerned. Thankfully, Uncle Daniel wasn’t with them today. He’d chosen to remain behind and do what, Joe wasn’t sure, other than to assume the old man would take his usual afternoon ride on Daisy.
“Can’t wait until I’m twenty-one,” Joe thought for not the first time this summer. “Then no one’s gonna tell me when I gotta get my hair cut. Might even let it grow until it hits my shoulders.”
Joe laughed to himself, enjoying the thought of how mortified his father would be if he allowed his thick, unruly curls to reach his shoulders.
“What’s so funny, little brother?”
“Yeah, kid, would you mind sharing the joke with us. On a day like today, I’d welcome something to laugh about.”
Adam’s reference to a “day like today” meant you could already fry an egg on a rock, and only long, hot hours of back breaking work lay ahead of them up here at the timber camp.
Joe scowled. He’d been enjoying a few precious seconds alone until his babysitters ambled over and ruined his solitude.
“You might as well quit frowning,” Adam said. “Pa’s not ready to give in on this yet, and quite frankly, neither are Hoss and I. Though I have to admit, as much as I never thought I’d hear myself say this, you were considerably more sweet natured the last time I had to keep track of your every move.”
“Yeah, short shanks. For some reason this job was a might easier when you were still in diapers.”
Joe’s scowl deepened at the teasing, which only caused his brothers to laugh.
Ben walked up just then, taking a long drink of water from the barrel. Like the Cartwrights, the timber crew was getting a much-needed mid-morning break. The deadline for the lumber due the railroad was looming ever closer. Once this project was completed the fall roundup would be upon them. Joe didn’t see an end in sight to their long days until cold weather and snow signaled the arrival of winter.
If nothing else, maybe by then I’ll have my freedom back.
This was the last day of August. There’d been no trouble from the Dunns in a month now. Joe believed any concerns over Paul’s and Charlie’s pranks could be put to rest. Unfortunately, Pa didn’t agree. When exactly Pa would agree, Joe wasn’t sure. However, it had better be soon, ‘cause if it wasn’t, then the next time he decided to slip away from Adam or Hoss, you could damn well bet he’d be successful at it.
For now, Pa seemed intent on keeping Joe busy and nearby. Not that he wouldn’t have been kept busy without the additional worry of what the Dunns might do. It was that time of year on a ranch – a lot to get accomplished before the days grew short and bitter cold. But if it weren’t for the Dunns, at least Joe would have been given occasional errands to run into Virginia City, thus allowing him to hook up with Mitch and Tuck, or to squire Nan about town on a Saturday evening.
He hadn’t seen Nan since that morning he’d been at the Dunn home with his pa. For all he knew, she’d taken up with another fellow by now. Not that he could blame her if she did. He hadn’t sent word to her regarding his forced imprisonment. He supposed he could have asked one of his brothers to take a message to her, but that would have meant revealing he had feelings for her. Since those feelings were still in the early stages, and since he wasn’t up for any more teasing than he already endured on an almost daily basis from his sibling nursemaids, Joe decided he didn’t want to use Adam or Hoss as messengers. His only other options were Tuck or Mitch, and he hadn’t seen them in weeks either. They were probably wondering why he hadn’t been in town on Saturday nights, but they hadn’t stopped by the ranch to find out. More than likely because their fathers were keeping them just as busy as Joe was. This wasn’t generally the time of year when a rancher, or a rancher’s sons, went calling on neighbors unless someone needed help.
Pa took several long swallows of water, then put the dipper back in the barrel. His gaze took in the fallen trees, and then the thick stand of Ponderosa pines that stretched for acres up the rise of land beyond them. Those trees wouldn’t be harvested this year, and maybe not for several years to come, depending on what their needs were with regard to future timber contracts.
“Well, boys, I’d say about another week up here, two at most, and we’ll have met our obligation to the railroad.”
“Then it’ll be ‘bout time for round-up,” Hoss said.
“Yes, it will.”
“Maybe you two’ll be off babysitting duty by then.” Joe’s comment was directed at his brothers, but meant for his father.
“We can only hope,” Adam droned.
“An’ pray,” Hoss added, glancing upward as though taking his plea right to Heaven.
“Now come on, boys,” Ben said in a lighthearted tone, “it hasn’t been all that bad, has it?”
“Depends on who you’re asking, Pa.”
“Yeah,” Joe agreed with his oldest brother, “depends on who you’re asking.”
Ben laughed. “Well, actually, I’m not asking anyone.” He put an arm around Joe’s shoulders. “Come on, let’s get back to work. Men! Back to work! Noon will arrive soon enough and then we’ll break for lunch!”
Joe could already detect appealing smells coming from the chuck wagon. The one good thing about working at the timber camp was that Hoss managed to find the best darn chow cook this side of the Rockies.
Ben led his boys back to work, his protective arm not dropping from Joe’s shoulders until they’d all picked up their axes and returned to stripping fallen trees of their branches.
For the first time since their scheming and plotting against the Cartwrights began, Paul Dunn wasn’t keen on the idea his father and Charlie had come up with. The potential for loss of innocent lives was too great, and as well, to use a little girl as bait – well, it left an uneasy feeling in Paul’s gut. He wondered what his mother would say if she knew the real reason why Daphne was allowed to leave the ranch that morning, riding in front of Paul on his horse.
As with any large family, various members of the Dunn siblings were close with one other, while others were not as close. In Paul’s case, amongst his sisters, it was Daphne he felt the most affection for, for reasons he couldn’t explain. Maybe it was her spunk he liked, or the way she gave as good as she got when Timmy, Matthew and Gerald were teasing her. Or maybe it was the gentle way she “mothered” Nora and Henry, making sure they didn’t wander behind old Bossy when she was being milked, or making sure their hands and faces were clean before they sat down to eat lunch. Or it could have been the way she ran to Paul and hugged him around the waist while telling him she’d missed him each time he’d been gone from the ranch for more than an hour or two. Regardless of the reason, he and his seven-year-old sister shared a special bond, which was why he hated this plan all the more. He’d never forgive himself if something happened to her.
If there was one good thing about the plan, it was hooking up with Daniel Cartwright. Exactly what the old man had against Little Joe, Paul didn’t know, nor did he care. He and Charlie had met with the guy several times since they’d first run across him. Once they’d decided they could trust him, and that he wasn’t a spy Ben Cartwright sent to entrap them, he’d proven to be a valuable source of information. No longer did they have to guess where Little Joe would be and when, or simply run across him by chance.
Still, as they rode toward the timber camp, doubts clouded Paul’s mind. He turned to Charlie.
“I don’t know about this.”
“Look, it’ll be okay. Everything’ll go fine ‘long as we do things just as Pa laid ‘em out.”
“And I’m gonna help!” Daphne declared from in front of Paul, though she really had no clue as to how her presence would come into play, or even where they were going or what they were up to.
“Yeah, sweetheart,” Paul agreed, laying a tender hand on her dark hair pulled back today in two long braids, “you’re gonna help. But you have to do exactly as I say, you understand?”
The girl nodded.
“And it might get a little scary, but don’t you worry. I’m not gonna let anything happen to you.”
Paul couldn’t help but smile at her happy-go-lucky, “Okay.” Proof again that this girl had more spunk than most. Any other child her age who was told something frightening was about to happen would cry for her mama, but not Daphne.
Charlie nodded to the narrow trail up ahead and the figure waiting there for them.
“There he is.”
Paul looked. For a moment his heart skipped a beat, sure they’d been set up. But as they got closer he saw it was Daniel Cartwright, and not Ben. Daphne, however, couldn’t tell the difference.
“There’s Mr. Cartwright!” she announced gaily.
“Yeah,” Paul agreed, not explaining, nor planning to explain, this wasn’t the Mr. Cartwright she knew, “that’s Mr. Cartwright waiting for us.”
And he did look like Mr. Cartwright, right down to the clothes and hat he was wearing. The horse – well, it was still that old nag from the Ponderosa. There wasn’t much that could be done about that, but Daphne didn’t seem to notice the man’s mount.
She greeted the man as they drew closer. “Hi, Mr. Cartwright.”
Paul had already explained to Daniel that he’d have to be civil to the little girl, as she’d know something was wrong if he didn’t greet her warmly like Ben always did.
Paul wasn’t sure if the stiff, “Hello, child,” could really be considered a warm greeting, but it seemed to pass Daphne’s inspection.
“I have an important job to do today,” she revealed. “Except Paul says it’s a secret.”
“Is that so? Important jobs are pleasing in the eye of the Lord, aren’t they.”
Daphne’s response came with a hint of uncertainty, as though she suddenly didn’t think Mr. Cartwright sounded like the Mr. Cartwright she knew.
“Um, yes. . .yes, sir.”
Paul quickly covered the man’s slip, taking the lead in the conversation. Thanks to their mother, Daphne had been taught that children don’t interrupt adult conversations, nor speak unless spoken to, so if she had any misgivings about “Mr. Cartwright” she kept them to herself.
The three men talked softly as they rode toward the timber camp, being careful to keep their conversation as covert as possible given Daphne’s presence. They’d gone over the plan numerous times during the past several days, so there was little need to go into it again other than to calm Paul’s nerves.
As they reached the outskirts of the camp, Paul and Charlie brought their horses to a stop while Daniel rode on ahead. He was to confirm Joe’s presence in the camp below, ideally without being seen. If he was seen their plan would probably fall through, but at least no one would have spotted the Dunns on Cartwright land, while at the same time, no one would question Daniel’s right to be up here.
Twenty minutes later Daniel returned. He nodded to the brothers. “He’s down there.”
“You’re sure?” Paul questioned.
“I’m as sure as am that Jesus is my savior.”
Paul thought the man’s reference to Jesus was rather odd considering what they were about to do, but then, it wasn’t lost on him that Daniel Cartwright was just plain odd in general.
“All right then. I guess. . .” Paul swallowed hard. “I guess it’s now or never.”
Paul climbed off his horse, took a deep breath, wiped his sweating palms on the legs of his trousers, then smiled at Daphne while holding out his arms.
“Come on, Lady Daphne, let’s get you down off that horse and put you to work.”
It happened so fast, Ben was hard pressed to recall all of the details after the crisis ended and he realized Little Joe was missing. Someone shouted, “Fire!” and Ben looked up to see smoke and flames rising over Settlers’ Ridge. With as dry as it was, the fire could have reached them in minutes. Only a gentle wind blowing in the opposite direction prevented loss of life.
Ben remembered that they’d all raced toward the fire – himself, his sons, and the entire crew, including their cook. Everyone grabbed a tool of some sort that would help in fighting the fire – axe, shovel, blanket, or bucket of water. Little Joe ran ahead of him as they raced up the ridge, Adam by his side. Ben and Hoss lagged behind a bit, lost in the sea of running men. Ben didn’t recall being worried about Joe or his whereabouts, though he realized later that was his first mistake. All his mind could focus on was the fire they had to put out before it spread to the timber they’d already cut, or burnt hundreds of acres of trees they’d need in the future.
It took hours to get the fire under control. Thank heavens for the sudden storm that blew in. Had it not been for the thirty minutes of heavy rainfall, the fire would still be burning. As it was, morning had turned to late afternoon before they had all the flames extinguished and the hot spots covered with dirt. Ben’s pocket watch revealed it was a quarter past five when they were finally hobbling down the ridge to the timber camp, where they doused themselves with cold water and begin lining up for one of the sandwiches the cook slapped together.
“Was a bad ‘un,” Hoss said in-between bites of his sandwich. The streaks of soot on his face made it appear as though he’d just cleaned every chimney between here and Carson City, and his sweat-soaked shirt clung to his back. “But not nearly as bad as it coulda’ been.”
“That’s for sure,” Adam agreed, taking a large bite of his own sandwich. He wasn’t any cleaner than his brother, but right now food took precedence over washing more than his hands.
Ben scanned the crowd of men waiting to eat. He wouldn’t get a sandwich until he was certain everyone else was fed.
“Where’s Little Joe?” Ben asked.
“He was with Hoss.”
“No he wasn’t. Last time I saw ‘im he was runnin’ up the ridge ‘long side you.”
Adam shook his head. “Well if he was, I never noticed him.”
Ben renewed his visual search. “He must be around here somewhere. I remember seeing him at my elbow while we were fighting the fire.” He headed off for the line of men, sure that his son’s slight stature had him hidden from view. “He’s probably in line for a sandwich.”
“Probably,” Adam nodded.
“Yeah, an’ have ‘im get me another sandwich or two while he’s at it, will ya’, Pa.”
Ben shot Hoss a disapproving look. “You can have more after everyone else has been fed.”
“Uh. . .right, Pa. Sure. Yes, sir.”
As he walked away, Ben heard Hoss mumble something about fainting dead away from hunger. His son’s mutterings brought a smile to his face, but the smile quickly faded when his search for Little Joe proved fruitless.
“Have you seen Little Joe?” He asked every man he ran across as his search continued. “Have you seen my youngest son?” He asked those who wouldn’t know Joe by name. “Eighteen years old, black hat, dark curly hair, slight build, and stands about this high,” Ben held a hand to his shoulder as he described Joe to any man who was new to the crew.
Again and again, men told Ben they hadn’t seen Joe, or at the very least, hadn’t seen him in quite some time.
“Think I saw him right after the fire started, Mr. Cartwright,” one man said. “But haven’t seen him since then.”
“Yeah,” another chimed in. “He helped me stamp out some flames not long after we got up that ridge, but don’t believe I ran across him again.”
And that’s when Ben realized none of them had seen Joe since the fire began. Hoss had seen him racing up the ridge with Adam, and Ben remembered Little Joe being at his elbow while swinging an axe, but that had been hours ago.
Ben marched toward his sons.
“Adam, Hoss. Come on! We need to look for your brother.”
“No one’s seen him?” Adam asked.
“No, not since the fire began.”
“If he used this as an excuse to sneak off--”
“Joseph wouldn’t do that, Adam,” Ben growled. “Not in the middle putting out a fire. Now come on. Help me find him.”
Ben didn’t hear Hoss take up where Adam ended. “If Little Joe did sneak off, Pa’s gonna ring his darn fool neck.”
“Not if I get a hold of him first,” Adam vowed. “Come along. We’d better get a move on or Pa’s gonna be halfway up that ridge before we’re even on our horses.”
And so their search for Little Joe began. It ended when it grew too dark to see. Any thoughts Adam or Hoss might have had about Joe sneaking off left them as they saw their father’s worry steadily increasing.
Once night fell, Ben had no choice but to call off the search. He thanked the timber crew who’d readily joined in and helped them.
“You want us to start searching again at first light, Mr. Cartwright?” the crew’s foreman asked as they all gathered together back at the camp.
“Yes, Slim, I do. Thank you. I appreciate it.”
“Mr. Cartwright!” a young man hailed from the back of the crowd. He pushed his way through the men. “Me and Jed found this. Does it belong to your boy?”
Ben took the pale blue jacket from the young man whose name he didn’t know. It was charred and smeared with soot, as though Joe might have grabbed it from his saddle horn as they ran from camp and used it to smother flames. Ben tried to recall if he’d seen his son using the jacket in this manner, but no clear memory came forth.
Ben turned the jacket over, inspecting it. He didn’t see any signs of what he was looking for – blood, or other indications of physical trauma – but that didn’t bring him any great relief. His hand wrapped tightly around the jacket as though he was clinging to Little Joe, he thanked the young man who’d brought it to him and turned to his sons.
“Come on, boys, let’s bed down for the night. We’ll start searching again with Slim and the men at first light.”
Ben shook his head at whatever Adam was about to say. Perhaps, “Let’s head home, Pa, so you can get a good night’s sleep in your own bed.” Or maybe, “Pa, why don’t you head on home. I’ll send one of the men with you. Hoss and I’ll stay up here and start searching again in the morning. We’ll send word when we find him.”
“It’s my fault,” Ben said softly as he and his sons walked away from the men.
“What’s yer fault, Pa?”
“I should have been keeping an eye on him. I should have known something like this would happen.”
“Pa, you couldn’t have predicted an act of nature.”
“Yes, Adam, I suppose that’s true. But what I could have predicted was a fire purposely set.”
“Purposely?” Hoss questioned. “By who?”
“Aw now, Pa, doncha think you’re carryin’ this thing a bit too far. The Dunns startin’ a fire and then. . .and then doing what ta’ Little Joe? Kidnappin’ him? More than likely he got hisself turned around up there in them woods and’ll come walkin’ out tomorrow mornin’ wonderin’ what all the fuss is about.”
“Yeah, Pa, I agree with Hoss. I think--”
“I don’t care what either of you think. Call it. . .call it a father’s instinct. I just know.”
Ben didn’t see the looks his sons exchanged behind his back, but then, he didn’t have to. He could hear the disbelief in their voices. Regardless, their opinions didn’t sway him from his own. As he climbed into his bedroll to face a long restless night, he clung to Joe’s jacket, and the hope that his son would be returned to him unharmed.
The pain was beyond anything Joe had ever experienced. It stung like a thousand angry hornets were attacking his bare back, and burned like his skin was on fire. Fire. There was a fire! That much his muddled brain recalled. And then a little girl darting in and out of the trees screaming for help. He raced toward her, scooped her up and ran with her away from the flames. After that, he couldn’t remember so well what happened next. Something hit him hard on the back of the head. He was falling, trying not to drop the girl, when someone slipped her from his arms. She was crying, as though what was happening frightened her. He thought he heard her scream, “Paul! Paul!” with raw terror, and in a fleeting moment realized where he’d seen her before. She was on of the Dunn children, though he couldn’t recall her name.
As he started to climb back to his feet, a wad of cloth was shoved against his nose and mouth. He recognized the smell of chloroform, and fought to wrench his face away, only to have a larger, stronger hand join the first one in holding his head still. As consciousness began to fade, he caught a glimpse of a broad shouldered man with a wide, strong chest and muttered, “Pa,” sure in that moment that everything was going to be all right.
But everything wasn’t all right. He didn’t know where he was because a blindfold covered his eyes. He was secured to something smooth and cold – a slab of stone perhaps. Whatever it was that bit into his back kept lashing him over and over again in a rhythm that wouldn’t quit while his father’s voice demanded he repent.
Joe didn’t want to cry out. He didn’t want to voice his pain, but as that pain reached new heights he couldn’t help himself, which only seemed to spur his tormentor on.
“Repent, sinner! Repent! Ask the Lord to forgive you! Ask for his forgiveness!”
Joe couldn’t have asked for the Lord’s forgiveness even if his pride would have let him. His mouth was as dry as a desert, and the pain was so severe he couldn’t get more out than an anguished cry. He heard other voices, and then someone was telling his tormentor to stop. That this was enough, that things had gone too far. And crying – the little girl from the ridge was crying again. In between her choking sobs she begged, “Stop! Stop hurting him! Please stop hurting him!”
A struggle ensued behind him, but Joe was losing consciousness again. Even if he hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have been able to see because of the blindfold and the way he was secured by the rough horsehair rope, with stomach and chest against the slab.
Joe never felt it when they cut him loose. He slid off the slab, landing on the cave floor. The little girl’s crying receded as feet ran away and someone muttered, “You’re crazy ole’ man, you know that?”
The old man Charlie Dunn spoke to as he ran past stood there smiling down at his nephew. Despite the sissies those Dunn boys had turned out to be, his work here was complete. As he looked at his nephew’s torn and bloody back, Daniel knew the devil had been driven out of Joseph Cartwright.
The search for Joe resumed as dawn broke. Several of the men had helped the cook get breakfast on. Adam and Hoss encouraged their father to eat, but to no avail. He drank two cups of coffee, then ordered, “Let’s head out.”
They split up shortly after the search began, deciding that fifty men searching in fifty different directions was the best way to proceed. A single gunshot meant you’d found Joe, or at least something of interest. Adam prayed that “something of interest” didn’t prove to be a body, and still clung to the same belief as Hoss – that Joe had gotten turned around during the fire and ended up several miles away. It wasn’t unheard of by any means when men were fighting a fire, and even last night, several crewmen straggled in after dark. Unfortunately, none of them had seen Joe.
Right before the search got underway this morning, Pa sent Slim to town with a handwritten message for Roy regarding the missing Joe and his theory that Jim Dunn was involved. He also instructed Slim to ride out to the Ponderosa and leave word with Hop Sing and Daniel about their delay at the camp. Adam wondered if Uncle Daniel would ride up and join the search. He hoped not for two reasons. One, Uncle Daniel didn’t know this part of the country and they didn’t need to end up searching for him as well. And two, Pa didn’t need the strife Uncle Daniel seemed to bring to even the best of situations.
Adam rode along slowly, eyes alternating between the ground and the area around him. After almost two hours of riding, he saw no signs of Joe – not a glove, not a kerchief, not his hat, nor not Joe himself, walking over the charred landscape headed for camp.
“Joe!” he called for what seemed like the hundredth time. “Little Joe!”
Unlike when he found Joe in the hole a few weeks back, no return answer came on the heels of his calls.
Adam rode on, faintly hearing the calls of other men as they yelled Joe’s name. He didn’t like the thought of his father searching alone, and hoped Hoss had managed to stick near Pa, as he and Hoss had agreed should be the case before they left camp. If the worst had somehow happened and Joe got caught in the middle of the fire. . .well, Adam didn’t want his father to be alone if he was the one who found Little Joe’s remains.
Adam pushed those dark thoughts aside and moved along, continuing his search. As the morning wore on, he strained to hear a rifle shot. He wasn’t sure if he should wish for such a sound or not. It could mean good news, or it could mean bad news. He’d have no way of knowing until he arrived at the location it came from.
When he first spotted the figure coming over a distant blackened ridge, Adam assumed it was another searcher. A good number of the timber crew was on foot because they’d ridden to the camp in wagons. By the way the man was shirtless and staggering, Adam also assumed he’d brought along his own “pick me up.” He was about to lay into the guy for drinking on the job, let alone in the middle of a search for a missing man, when the person drew close enough for Adam to identify him despite his soot streaked face.
Adam jumped off Sport and ran toward his brother, scrambling on all fours up the steep ridge. Joe didn’t seem aware of his presence. He kept stumbling along, putting one foot in front of another like a man trudging through a mud filled bog.
“Joe! Little Joe! Wait right there! Let me come to you.”
Adam’s words didn’t register with his brother. Joe continued his drunken stagger, as though his mind was determined to get him to a specific destination despite the inabilities of his body.
It wasn’t until Adam was upon his brother that he saw the bruises dotting the boy’s face, neck, and arms, and the blood running from some injury hidden by Joe’s wildly tangled hair. The clear outline of a rope was visible in the red streaks tattooing his bare chest. Someone had roughed the kid up but good.
“Joe. Little Joe.” Adam gently grasped his brother’s upper arms, “Joe, it’s me, Adam. You’re okay, Joe. You can stop walking now. I’ve got you. I’ll get you back to camp.”
Joe blinked several times as though Adam’s voice was rousing him from a medicated stupor.
“Ad. . .Adam?” Joe’s hands rose, then fell, then rose again. Trembling fingers grasped the material of Adam’s shirt. “Adam?”
“Yes, little brother, it’s Adam.”
“Ad. . .Ad. . .Adam,” Joe repeated, as though he had something important to convey his brother. “Adam. . .Adam tell Pa. . .tell Pa. . .”
“Tell Pa what, Joe?”
Joe’s knees finally gave way. As he sagged against his older brother’s chest, Adam got his first look at the torn flesh on his back.
“Oh my God. Who did this to you, Little Joe? Who did this to you, boy?”
As consciousness rapidly faded, a lone tear tracked a muddy trail down Joe’s face as he looked up at Adam and softly beseeched, “Tell Pa. . .please tell Pa I repent.”
To Ben Cartwright, the trip home seemed to drag on for days. He rode in the back of a wagon with his injured son, Adam beside him to help in any way he could. Hoss drove the wagon, not entrusting that job to anyone else. Ben sent a man to fetch Doc Martin, telling him to have the doctor meet them at the ranch house. Other men from the timber crew followed on the Cartwrights’ horses, while the remainder returned to work under the guidance of a well-seasoned crew boss.
The battered, bruised and bloody Joe lay against his father’s chest during the ride home. They’d given him what medical care they could before leaving the camp. Given their limited resources, that care didn’t extend much beyond washing his wounds with water and determining the source of the bleeding head wound. It was Hoss who located the bump on the back of Joe’s head, a few inches from his left ear.
“Someone’s hit ‘im good and hard. There’s a deep gash here.” Hoss cleaned the wound, then lightly bandaged it. “Doc’s probably gonna have to stitch it closed.”
Adam washed the blood from Joe’s back, doing his best to be gentle as he tried to flush out dirt and gravel. “That explains why he was so out of it when I found him.”
Ben was seated on the ground. He held the unconscious Joe while his sons tended to him, and some of the men hitched a team to the wagon and loaded its bed with blankets, clean towels, and fresh water.
“He didn’t tell you anything? Give you any clues as to what happened?”
“No. The only thing he said was to tell you that he repents.”
“That he repents?” Ben looked down at his son and brushed damp curls from his forehead. “What’d he mean by that?”
“Probably didn’t mean anything by it. Like I said, he was out of it.”
“Yeah, Pa, it was likely just crazy talk brought on by this here bump and that fever he’s got.” Hoss rested a hand on his brother’s forehead a moment to gauge the fever. “Don’t you worry none. Little Joe’ll be all right once Doc’s patched him up and he’s gotten some rest.”
Hoss’s words contrasted with the concern showing from his eyes, which told Ben there were plenty of reasons to worry. Reasons Ben knew well when it came to raising boys and dealing with the types of injuries Joe had. Infection from the wounds on his back, the fever that was steadily rising, to an array of problems caused by the bump on his head – Ben had an abundance to worry about it, but there was no use in saying so to Adam and Hoss. They were also well aware of all the reasons to worry.
Despite how furious Joe’s injuries made Ben and his sons, none of them spoke of that fury during the trip. Getting Little Joe home and providing him with the medical care he needed was the priority. Ben knew there would be time enough later to hunt down the bastard who’d taken a strap to his son’s back and give him a taste of his own medicine.
Joe grew restless several times throughout the ride. His head rolled back and forth against his father’s chest, and his left leg moved back and forth as though he was fighting pain. He called out for his father as though crying for Ben’s help, and finally looked up into Ben’s face with eyes clouded by fever and whispered, “I. . .I’m sorry, Pa. I repent. I repent, Pa.”
Ben thought it was an odd phrase for Little Joe to use, but given the boy’s injuries, he didn’t dwell on it, or think further as to the possible source of it. Instead, he grasped Joe’s questing hand, gave it a gentle squeeze, then cradled it against his cheek.
“You don’t have anything to repent for, son. It’s all right. You’re with Pa and Hoss and Adam now, and you’re going to be fine. You’re going to be just fine. You’ll feel better soon, I promise. We’re headed home. Doc Martin’ll be waiting there for us. He’ll fix you up good as new in no time.”
“Sorry. . .sorry, Pa. I. . .stop, Pa!” Joe cried, arching his back against what Ben guessed was both real and imagined pain. “Please stop. Oh please stop, Pa! Please stop!”
“Sssh,” Ben soothed. He caressed Joe’s cheek with his free hand, all the while uncertain as to what his son wanted him to stop. “It’s okay, Joseph. No one’s going to hurt you again. You’re with Pa now. I promise I won’t let anyone hurt you. I promise, son. I promise.”
As Joe continued to beg for an end to the pain, Ben didn’t realize his promises meant nothing to the feverish boy who thought his father had demanded his repentance with help from a leather strap.
“He was crazy, Pa. Plumb outta his mind crazy. Once he got started with that strap he was like a wild man. He’d a’ killed Little Joe if we hadn’t stopped him.”
Jim Dunn ran a hand through his hair as he paced the floor of his office. Only his two oldest sons were present. Right before he’d closed his office door he’d made it clear to the rest of the family that they weren’t to be interrupted. Not that the children or Rilla would be foolish enough to knock on the door given the mood Jim had been in at the breakfast table.
“Why didn’t the old man stick to the plan?” Jim muttered with disgust. “Why would he do something that stupid?”
“Because he evidently had a plan he didn’t share with us,” Paul said.
“The only thing he was supposed to do was confirm Little Joe was at the timber camp, then leave the rest up to you boys. Little Joe wasn’t supposed to get hurt. Not seriously anyway.”
Jim shook his head at how everything had unraveled because of one conniving old man they thought they could trust. That fire was meant to destroy some Cartwright timber and create a diversion so that just like a calf being separated from the herd, Little Joe was separated from the protection of his family. Then the boys were to kidnap Joe and leave him trussed up in that cave until a few days had passed, and he was sufficiently hungry, thirsty and had wet himself often enough to be miserable and humiliated, before word sent anonymously would reach Ben Cartwright as to where he was. The beauty of the original plan was that no one would ever know for sure Paul and Charlie were involved. They were to overpower Joe from behind, blindfold him, and remain silent in his presence. When all was said and done, the message to Ben should have been clear. Don’t mess with Jim Dunn again. Would Ben have assumed Jim and his boys were involved in Joe’s kidnapping? Of course he would. But could Sheriff Coffee do anything about it without proof? No, he couldn’t.
“For all we know he could have killed Little Joe after we left,” Paul said. “He could have killed Joe and right now be pinnin’ the blame on us.”
“And if he didn’t kill him, Pa, then Little Joe saw Daphne. We told her to stay far enough away from the fire that she wasn’t in danger, and so’s all Little Joe would hear was her calling for help just like you said. But the wind blew the fire toward her. He ran to her, picked her up, and carried her outta there. That’s when me and Paul caught up with him.”
“But he didn’t see the two of you?”
“I’m pretty sure he didn’t. But like I said, he saw Daphne. He carried her for cryin’ out loud.”
“Would he have known who she was?”
“I. . .I don’t know,” Charlie said, starting to pace with agitation just like his father. “Probably. Maybe not by name, but I bet he got a good enough look at her to know she’s our sister.”
Jim fought to quell the rising panic he could hear in his sons’ voices. Things would fall apart quicker than a shot gun wedding where the bride’s father had an itchy trigger finger if he didn’t calm their fears.
“Look, boys, the best thing we can do right now is send the two of you away.”
“I’ve got that land in Wyoming territory. There’s an old house of some sort on it. We’ll get you boys there and let you start homesteading the place.”
“Homesteading?” Paul’s voice was filled with doubt. “Pa. . .”
Jim held up a hand. “You’re men now. Not much younger than I was when I came out here on my own with only a few dollars to my name. You can do this. And you’ll have all the money you need at your disposal.”
“But how long’ll we have to stay?” Charlie asked.
“I don’t know. Until this thing blows over.” Jim offered a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry. I’m not abandoning you. I won’t abandon you.”
Jim walked toward the safe in a far corner of the room. “I’ll give you the money you’ll need to travel on, then wire you more once you get there. You’ll ride to Carson City and catch the stage from there. Rent stalls at the livery for your horses. Glen and I’ll ride over and get them after you’re gone.”
“But we don’t even know where we’re going,” Charlie protested.
“You will by the time you’re ready to leave. I’ll have everything written down for you. Now go on. Hurry. Get yourselves packed and say your goodbyes to your Mother. There’s no time to waste.”
Spurred on by their father’s urgency, the boys rushed from the room.
Jim opened the safe, counted out some cash and gold coins, then grabbed a land deed and a map. He hurried to his desk, where he began charting his sons’ escape route to the acreage he’d purchased in Wyoming last year sight unseen.
Paul and Charlie had been gone a mere twenty-four hours when Roy Coffee showed up at Jim Dunn’s door shortly before lunch on Thursday. It was bad enough that Rilla was upstairs crying over her sons’ unexplained departure, that Daphne had woken up four times the previous night screaming, and that the other children were in a state of confusion over the tension, secrets and lies in the house. The last thing Jim needed was Roy nosing around and asking questions.
It was Nan who led the sheriff to Jim’s office. Jim feigned a welcoming smile at the man’s sudden appearance.
“Roy, this is an unexpected surprise.” Jim stepped out from behind his desk and extended his hand. “What can I do for you today?”
Roy shook the offered hand. “I need ta’ talk to you for a few minutes, Jim.”
“Well, then, we shouldn’t have a serious conversation without some lemonade to whet our whistles. Can I have Nan bring a plate of cookies, too?”
“No, none for me. And I’ll pass on the lemonade too.”
“All right.” The man looked at Nan. “Please leave us alone, Nan. And shut the door on your way out.”
“Yes, Mr. Dunn.”
After Nan shut the door and Jim heard her footsteps recede down the hall, he indicated to a chair across from his desk.
“Have a seat, Roy.”
“No need.” Roy remained standing, holding his hat. “What I’m here for won’t take long.”
“Where’re your boys, Jim?”
“I imagine they’re outside doing their chores. Or playing hide and go seek. Depends on which boys you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about Paul and Charlie.”
“Oh. Well, Paul and Charlie aren’t here.”
“And where exactly would they be?”
“I sent them on a business trip.”
“Yes. They left on Monday.”
“I see. And can anyone verify this?”
“My children can. And Rilla, of course.”
“Anyone outside the family?”
“Outside the family?”
“That’s what I said. Can anyone besides your family members verify that your boys left here on Monday?”
“Well. . .our house girl can I suppose.”
“That would be Miss Henning?”
“Can I speak with her on my way out?”
“Certainly. Roy, what’s this about? Why are you asking after Paul and Charlie?”
“There was a fire on Cartwright land on Tuesday. Up at Settlers’ Ridge.”
“Oh really? I hadn’t heard that.”
“Little Joe was hurt pretty bad.”
“Not burned I hope.”
“No, not burned. Appears someone grabbed him during the confusion and worked him over pretty good.”
“Oh. . .oh, well I’m sorry to hear that. Please convey to Ben my concerns and best wishes for Little Joe’s recovery.”
“I will. Jim, I didn’t come out here ta’ beat around the bush. I know your boys have been dustin’ it up with Little Joe this summer. Ben thinks they mighta’ had something to do with that fire, and with Little Joe gettin’ hurt.”
“My boys?” Jim said with indignation. “How dare Ben. . .my boys would have already been miles out of the territory when that fire started.”
“I see. And you’re sure ‘bout that?”
“Of course I’m sure! Exactly what are you insinuating, Roy?”
“They wouldn’t have had reason to double back and make a stop up there on Settlers’ Ridge, would they?”
“No, they wouldn’t have had reason, and I don’t appreciate you claiming such.”
“I’m not claiming anything. I’m just trying to find out who it was set that fire and hurt Little Joe.”
“Good. That’s what you should be doing. Which means you’re wasting your time here.”
“Little Joe seems to think one of your girls was up there.”
“One of my girls?”
“He doesn’t know her name, but said the child he saw was somewhere ‘round six or seven years old. Now you got a girl ‘bout that age, don’t you?”
“Can I talk to her?”
“No you can’t. She’s taken to her bed sick.”
“Yes, that’s what I said.”
“Then maybe I should get Doc Martin to come out an’ take a look at her.”
“That’s not necessary. Rilla and I haven’t raised eleven children by sending for Doc Martin every time one of them gets a little feverish with a summer cold.”
“You’re sure you don’t want Doc to check her over? I can send him out when I get back ta’ town.”
“No,” Jim shook his head. “There’s no need. Like I said, it’s just a summer cold. The children have been passing it around the last couple of weeks.”
Roy studied him so long that Jim finally broke eye contact.
“You look a little peaked there yerself, Jim. I surely hope yer not comin’ down with that summer cold your girl’s got.”
Roy nodded his thanks for Jim’s time. “Best be on my way. Can you tell me where I’ll find Miss Henning?”
“She should be in the kitchen preparing lunch. It’s this way.”
Jim led the sheriff into the kitchen.
“Nan, Sheriff Coffee has a question for you.”
The girl slowly turned from the chicken she was frying. “Yes. . .Yes, Sir?”
The sheriff waited silently, staring at Jim until the man said, “Uh. . .I’ll leave you two alone.”
Jim did just that, but he didn’t go farther than the dining room. He heard Roy tell Nan there had been a fire on Cartwright land and that Little Joe was injured. He smiled, pleased that Nan answered the sheriff’s questions about Paul and Charlie’s whereabouts in the way he’d instructed her to. When Roy then asked her if it was her job to keep track of the younger children, she responded, “Yes, Sir.”
“Did the little girl – Daphne, I believe her name is. Did she go missing on Tuesday for any length of time?”
“Missing? Why. . .um. . .no, Sheriff. She’s. . .uh. . .she’s been up in her room sick the past few days. The children are passing around a summer cold.”
“I see. Well thank you, Miss Henning.”
“You’re welcome. Sheriff?”
“Is Little Joe going to be okay?” There was a brief hesitation as though Nan was embarrassed for asking after Little Joe. She rushed to add, “Um. . .the reason I ask is because we uh. . .we were schoolmates.”
“He’s got a few rough days ahead of him, but yes. Doc thinks he’ll be all right provided infection don’t set in.”
Jim could picture Roy nodding his head to Nan as he said again, “Thank you,” then exited the kitchen.
The sheriff didn’t say anything to the lurking Jim other than, “I’ll see myself out. Good day to you and Rilla.”
“Yes, Roy. Have a good day.”
Jim walked to the dining room windows, watching as Roy crossed the porch, went down the stairs, and took the reins of his horse from Timmy. He thanked Timmy, but didn’t linger to ask him any questions. Nor did he question any of the other children before riding out of the ranch yard.
Jim let out a sigh of relief. They’d dodged one bullet. Now hopefully that daft old Daniel Cartwright would keep his mouth shut where this mess was concerned.
Nan hated herself for the way she’d lied to Sheriff Coffee, but she’d been too scared to do anything other than what Mr. Dunn demanded. She and the children had been told what to say about Paul and Charlie’s whereabouts, and they’d also been told to say Daphne was in bed with a summer cold. She knew the children were confused by all these falsehoods, but like Nan, they were too frightened to defy their father. Not that Nan had ever seen the man hurt any of them. Beyond the occasional trip to the woodshed most of the Dunn boys had experienced, Jim Dunn was a loving father to his offspring. But like most fathers, he commanded and expected respect as the head of the household. If he told the children to lie, and then readily supplied them with the lie, they’d go along with it. Nan could tell Glen and Margie had more reservations where this was concerned than the younger children did, but even they wouldn’t be likely to go against what their father instructed them to do.
Perhaps Nan was simply a stupid hired girl. A smart girl would have told the sheriff what she knew, and would have had the courage to tell him she was being held here against her will. But what if Sheriff Coffee hadn’t believed her about her imprisonment? What if he’d ridden off and left her here to be subjected to Mr. Dunn’s wrath? So far she’d avoided the man’s advances, but if he was angry with her. . .well, it was hard to predict what he might do to retaliate. That’s why she had her sights set on the latter part of October when she’d finally be going home. She’d already vowed to herself that once she was free of this place, she’d never return, no matter how much Mrs. Dunn and the children begged her to, or how much money Mr. Dunn offered her to.
If there was one thing Nan had perfected this summer, it was her eavesdropping skills. She’d stood outside the closed door of the study and managed to catch most of what was said between Mr. Dunn, Paul and Charlie the previous morning, and then again, when Sheriff Coffee and Mr. Dunn had their talk. She’d almost cried out with sorrow when she’d heard Paul and Charlie tell their father about Little Joe. At least now she had confirmation from Sheriff Coffee that he wasn’t dead, and that he’d likely recover from his injuries.
Scowl lines etched her forehead as she piled chicken onto a platter. Recovery – that was more than could be said for poor little Daphne. Whatever she’d witnessed up there on that ridge had terrorized her. Mr. Dunn hadn’t lied to the sheriff when he said Daphne had taken to her bed sick. Only the child’s illness had nothing to do with a summer cold, and everything to do with those stupid men using her as a pawn in their game. Nan wondered if Daphne would ever get over it, and she suspected Mrs. Dunn wondered so too. But whether she’d ever confront her husband about the hysterical condition Daphne had been in after returning from her day out with Paul, Nan couldn’t predict. Lately, Nan got the feeling Mrs. Dunn knew perfectly well what was going on in her home on all accounts, but simply chose to ignore the happenings. Would she ignore the affect it had on Daphne too? Again, Nan couldn’t predict.
As the family gathered for lunch in the dining room, Nan prepared a plate of chicken and mashed potatoes for Daphne. Once she had everyone served, she’d go upstairs and try to get the traumatized little girl to eat.
Nan entered the dining room with the platter of fried chicken and set it in the center of the table. She then went back for the basket of rolls, bowl of mashed potatoes, and bowls of steamed vegetables, while Margie retrieved a pitcher of milk. As she watched Mrs. Dunn pour milk for Nora and Henry as though her oldest sons hadn’t been sent into hiding, and as though her seven year old wasn’t sitting upstairs in bed staring blankly at the wall, and as though her husband wasn’t making inappropriate advances toward the teenaged house girl, Nan vowed she wouldn’t be like this woman. She vowed she wouldn’t remain meek and silent when speaking up was the right thing to do.
But most of all, she vowed she’d somehow get word to Mr. Cartwright that it was his own brother who tried to kill Little Joe.
“Ben, I can’t arrest someone when I have no proof he did anything wrong.”
“Proof! What more proof do you want? You saw what they did to my boy! What more proof can you possibly need beyond bruises, welts, and torn flesh? Do I need to lay a corpse at your feet, Roy? Does Little Joe have to be dead before you’ll do anything about this?”
“Aw now, Ben, git off your high horse. You know perfectly well that I need the kinda proof that puts Paul and Charlie up on Settlers’ Ridge. I need the kinda proof that tells me it was them who started that fire and hurt Little Joe. Problem is, even Little Joe can’t say for sure it was them.”
“But he saw their little sister.”
“He thinks he did, I’ll give you that. But as far as him bein’ able to testify to that in a court of law – Ben, you heard him say that he didn’t know for certain who the child was. That he thought she was one of the Dunn children, but when I asked him which one he couldn’t give me her name.”
“I couldn’t give you the names of all Jim’s children either, but I know them when I see them.”
“Fine. So you know them when you see them. It’s likely Little Joe does too. But right now we have no proof that the little girl. . .or any little girl, was up there.”
Though he didn’t know it, Ben’s actions mirrored those of Jim Dunn in recent days. He paced the great room floor, shaking his head with disgust.
“So you think the Dunns are innocent. Is that it?”
“I never said that. If you’re askin’ me if I’ve got a feelin’ that Paul and Charlie were the ones behind that fire and Little Joe’s injuries, then yeah, Ben, the ache in my gut’s tellin’ me it’s so. Somethin’ fishy’s goin’ on over at Jim’s place. I could tell it the minute I set foot on the property. The children were jumpy as bullfrogs in the spring, Miss Henning wouldn’t look me in the eye, and I never caught so much as a glimpse of Rilla, but I swear I heard her crying upstairs. Added to all that, the little girl Joe claims he saw is sick with a summer cold according to Jim, yet when I offered to get the doc for her, he was firm ‘bout no doctor bein’ needed.”
“And Paul and Charlie are supposedly away on business. That’s the story, huh?”
“Yeah, that’s the story. Jim said they left on Monday, and Miss Henning confirmed it.”
“Jim could have ordered her to lie.”
“I suspect he did, but there’s not much I can do ‘bout it. Miss Henning wasn’t under oath when she spoke to me. Unfortunately, there’s no law that lets me put someone in jail for fibbin’ to the sheriff.”
There was no anger in Ben’s voice when he said, “If she did lie, it’s because she’s nothing other than a scared teenager. And because she needs her job.”
“I ‘magine so. Either way, don’t matter much ‘cause as I said, without proof of wrongdoing, I have no reason to go lookin’ for Paul and Charlie, or to question Miss Henning further.”
Ben glanced up the stairs to where his bruised and battered son lay recovering in his room.
“Well, you might not have reason to go looking for them, but I have reason. Good reason.”
The man who’d been sitting quietly in the blue chair next to the stairway now stood and approached Ben. He slipped a solicitous arm around Ben’s shoulders and gave a brotherly squeeze.
“Remember, Benjamin. Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord.”
Ben moved away from Daniel. “That may be, but the Bible also says that the Lord helps those who help themselves. Perhaps this is one of those times when He expects me to act without His intervention.”
Roy shook his head. “You’d better listen to your brother, Ben. Seeking revenge against the Dunns is only gonna bring you a passel of trouble with both them and me.”
“Then you go upstairs and tell my son – the son who for some reason is afraid of me now, who shies away from my touch because of something those Dunn boys did to him – you go upstairs, Roy, and you tell Little Joe that his father is going to stand by and do nothing. That his father is going to let them hurt him again.”
Ben turned away, but not before the sheriff had seen the tears in his eyes.
“I won’t let that happen, Roy. I promised Little Joe I wouldn’t let them hurt him again, and it’s a promise I intend to keep.”
“It’s my fault.”
“Joe, it’s not your fault.”
“Yes, it is.” Joe was propped up in bed, sitting back against a pile of pillows. He gingerly turned his head and faced the wall. “It’s my fault Pa’s so upset and yelling at Roy.”
“Look, it’s only natural that there’s going to be some upsets in this house for the next few days. Some. . .debate over what needs to be done. But none of it’s your fault.”
“I should have never told Pa about the Dunns to begin with.”
“If I remember correctly, he didn’t leave you much choice that day you came through the door with a black eye and a hand wrapped around your ribs.”
“But I asked him not to make a fuss over it. I asked him not to go see Mr. Dunn.”
“Joe, I don’t think Pa talking to Mr. Dunn changed the outcome of things one way or another.”
“That’s not the point. The point is I asked. If it had been you doin’ the asking, he would have respected what you wanted.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
“He would have.”
Adam sighed. He was sitting in a chair at Joe’s bedside, trying to help his younger brother while away some hours of enforced bed rest by reading the Territorial Enterprise to him.
“Is this going to turn into one of those discussions where you claim Pa listens to me because I’m the oldest of the family, and doesn’t listen to you because you’re the baby of the family?”
“I prefer to be called the “youngest of the family,” if you don’t mind.”
Adam resisted the urge to smile. Most of the time, Joe would have said that with good humor, but today, it came out sharp and angry.
“Okay, ‘youngest of the family,’ have it your way. And I’ll concede that maybe you’re right. But then, I’m thirty years old to your eighteen, so don’t you think that’s what makes a difference where Pa’s decisions about us are concerned?”
Joe tried to scowl, but given the bruises and cuts on his face, his expression changed to a makeshift frown.
“Shouldn’t make a difference.”
Adam chuckled. “Oh, but Joseph, as Pa is often fond of telling me, someday when you’re a father, you’ll understand that it does make a difference.”
When Joe didn’t respond, Adam apologized.
“Hey, I don’t want to argue with you. I’m sorry I’m not better company. You’d probably prefer a game of checkers with Hoss to me reading aloud.”
“As long as you’re not reading Shakespeare or Thoreau, I don’t mind. And as long as you leave the word puzzle for me to do later.”
“You’re a man of many facets, little brother.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing really. And anyway, it was a compliment, so quit trying to scowl.”
Joe’s eyes traveled to his brother. This time, Adam could tell he was stifling a smile.
“Hoss is staying at the timber camp tonight, so maybe Pa will play checkers with you after supper.”
Again, Joe’s eyes drifted to the wall.
Adam let silence linger in the room a long moment before finally taking the plunge and asking, “Okay, enough of this. What’s going on with you where Pa’s concerned?”
“I believe that about as much I believed your “nothing” when you were thirteen and I asked what you were up to when I spotted you and Mitch sneaking away from Leon Ferguson’s outhouse. It wasn’t five minutes later that it blew sky high.”
“Okay, so that time I lied to you. This time just. . .just take my word for it when I say nothing and leave it go at that.”
Based on Joe’s demeanor alone – the way he retreated somewhere deep inside himself each time Pa was mentioned – Adam wouldn’t have been fooled into taking his word for it, even if he hadn’t been sitting next to Joe on that wagon ride home and heard him begging their father to stop hurting him. After they’d arrived at the house and gotten Joe settled in his room, it was Adam he reached for in his half delirious state, not Pa. And it was Adam he wanted to draw comfort from while Doc Martin began the painful process of cleaning the torn flesh on his back, not Pa. And he’d leaned into Adam’s chest while Doc worked, fighting Pa’s efforts to hold him until Doc finally told Pa to leave the room.
At first, it was easy to explain it all away. It was easy to assume that pain, fever, dehydration, exhaustion, and the confusion brought on by Little Joe’s head wound, caused him to behave irrationally. Adam even had Pa believing it for a while, because Adam himself believed it. But now, three days had passed since they’d brought Joe home, and though he was still recovering, it could no longer be said he was running a fever, or was suffering the effects of dehydration, or that his head wound prevented him from recognizing his father. So what could be said? That Joe was afraid of their father for reasons known only to him? No amount of cajoling on Pa’s part, pleading on Hoss’s, or logic on Adam’s, had managed to get Joe to reveal more than, “Nothing” when asked what occurred while he was missing that had so greatly altered his relationship with his father.
Because he’d run out of ways to try and get an answer other than “nothing,” Adam returned to reading the paper to his brother. Apparently, it was a wasted effort, because a few minutes into the story about a brawl between some miners and cowboys that left the Bucket of Blood in a shambles, Adam’s reading was interrupted.
“Adam, when a man is. . .is in a bad way , can his mind think something is happening that really isn’t?”
Adam stopped reading, slowly folded the paper and set it aside. Joe was facing him again, his expression reminding Adam of the little brother who used to turn to him for answers to those unanswerable questions like, “How come the sky’s blue and not yellow?” And, “How does the air know it’s supposed to be cold in January and hot in July?” And, “If God loves all of us like we’re his kids, how come he let Tuck’s little sister die from that fever? She was just a baby. How come God didn’t make her well?”
In answer to Joe’s current question, Adam said, “Well, I’m not a doctor, which means I’m no expert in this area. But yes, I believe when a man is in a bad way physically speaking, his mind can conjure up a lot of things that aren’t really occurring. It’s not much different than the delirium that accompanies a high fever.”
When Joe only chewed on his lower lip in thought, Adam finally asked, “Why? Did you think something was happening the other day that you realize now wasn’t actually happening at all? Something that has to do with Pa?”
Joe appeared to be contemplating a revelation of some sort. When he spoke, however, Adam gained no further insight.
“Didn’t realize anything one way or another. I was just asking.”
“Joe. . .”
“I’m tired, Adam. Think I’ll sleep a while before dinner. Thanks for readin’ the paper to me.”
“Joe, if you want to discuss something. . .get my opinion about--”
“No. I don’t need anyone’s opinion, but thanks for the offer.”
“You sure can be a stubborn son-of-a-gun when you want to be, you know that?”
“Yeah,” Joe smiled with a twinkle in his eye. “I know. My big brother’s mentioned it often enough over the years.”
As Adam set the paper on Joe’s nightstand and stood, he warned, “Just don’t let your stubbornness rue the day, Joe.”
“If I knew what that meant, I wouldn’t.”
“A person who can do the paper’s word puzzle in ink and not make any mistakes knows perfectly well what that means, but have it your way. I’ve got work to tend to since I’m doing chores for both of my brothers today.”
“That’s good for you.”
“As Uncle Daniel would say, idle hands are the devil’s workshop, Adam Cartwright.”
“Don’t you worry, I know who spends the most time in the devil’s workshop around this place, and it’s not me. And since you’re laid up at the moment, Satan is getting a well deserved break.”
Joe laughed, the sound a welcome one to Adam’s ears. But as he left the room and turned to shut the door, he saw the tormented expression on his little brother’s face, and wondered exactly what ghosts were haunting the boy.
“You’re doing fine, son. We’ll go one more round, then it’s back to bed for you.”
“I can make it down the stairs. Maybe sit out on the porch for a while.”
“No. Not tonight. Paul said bed rest for three days.”
“Pa, in five hours it’ll be day four. I think it’ll be okay.”
For the first time since they’d brought Little Joe home from the timber camp, he and his father were having what Ben deemed a normal exchange. In other words, there was an exasperated tone to Joe’s voice as he tried convincing his father he should be allowed to do something that had been forbidden. But before Ben could capture this moment and figure out how to build on it, he made a fatal mistake. He reached out to place a hand on Joe’s elbow, only to have Joe shy away from his touch.
Ben gave an internal sigh. To his son, however, he offered a smile that probably looked as weak as it felt.
“Uh. . . no, Joseph. Not tonight. Going downstairs, I mean. Tomorrow morning for breakfast will be soon enough.”
As uncharacteristic as a ninety-degree day in January, Joe didn’t continue the debate. He broke eye contact with his father and gave a terse nod.
“Sure, Pa. Sure. Whatever you say.”
“Well, now, that’s nice.”
“You being so agreeable. However, I do kind of miss that spunky youngest son of mine.”
Joe started to shrug beneath his nightshirt. He grimaced, halting the movement that tugged on torn flesh. He continued walking, his steps stronger and more self-assured than they had been even at noon when he’d taken this trip with Adam while Ben watched from a distance. Until Little Joe was recovered enough to go downstairs, Paul Martin wanted him to walk the hall three times a day to prevent pneumonia from setting in.
“No reason to miss me,” Joe said. “I’m right here.”
“Yes,” Ben nodded, as he traveled along side his son. “And for that I’m grateful.”
Joe didn’t respond this time. He just nodded again and kept on walking.
It was rare that conversation didn’t flow easily between Ben Cartwright and his youngest boy. As Roy Coffee was fond of saying, a roomful of cloistered monks who’d taken a vow of silence didn’t have a prayer if coming up against Little Joe Cartwright. Not only would he convince the monks to talk, he’d make the conversation entertaining to boot.
But ever since Joe had been hurt, no matter how many times Ben tried getting a dialogue underway between the two of them, Little Joe remained mute, or answered with as few words as necessary. Ben almost wished for a display of Joe’s infamous temper. At least he knew how to handle the boy’s short fuse, as opposed to this burdensome silence Joe seemed to guard as though he feared if caught with his defenses down, he’d reveal some secret he didn’t want his father to know. But what secret? What had happened during those hours Joe was missing that left him wary and on-edge whenever Ben came near him?
Ben wasn’t destined to get answers to his questions that night. Nothing about the silence changed as father and son walked the hallway, other than it seemed to grow heavier and more oppressive. When they reached the doorway to Joe’s room, Ben took a step back so his son could enter first. Watching Joe walk into the room of his own accord reiterated to Ben what he’d said minutes earlier – that he was grateful Joe was here. As Joe made his way to the bed, Ben recalled the happenings from three days ago, when his semi-conscious youngest was carried into the room.
By the time they’d arrived from the timber camp, Doctor Martin was at the house. As soon as the wagon entered the yard, Paul rushed out the door with Hop Sing on one side and Daniel on the other. Ben couldn’t remember what orders were given, or even who gave them – himself or Paul, or possibly even Adam. Regardless, they got Joe lifted from the wagon bed without doing him further harm, then carefully transferred him to Hoss’s arms. Hoss followed Paul up the stairs, where Hop Sing already had a basin of hot water waiting, along with a stack of clean towels and bandages setting beside it.
It was while they were getting Joe settled in bed and stripped of his boots and trousers that he seemed to become more aware. Later, Hoss claimed it was the fever that made Little Joe act as he did, while Adam claimed it was a combination of many things – shock, pain, dehydration, fever, and the head injury – that caused Joe to struggle against his father, trying to push him away. In the melee that consisted of tangled arms, thrashing legs, jumbled bed sheets, and a Chinese housekeeper speaking in rapid Cantonese while trying to assist the doctor, Joe somehow managed to free himself from Ben’s arms and end up in Adam’s. He leaned into Adam’s chest, shoving his father away again when Ben tried to reclaim him.
“Leave me alone! Don’t touch me! Leave me alone!”
“Joe. . .Joe, son,” Ben soothed, reaching out to lay a hand on the side of Joe’s face. The fever burned hot against Ben’s palm. “It’s Pa, son. It’s Pa, Little Joe. You’re home now. No one’s going to hurt you.”
“Get away from me! Go ‘way! Adam, make him go away! Get him outta here, Adam! Make him go.”
“Adam, I can’t get a look at these injuries if he’s thrashing around like that,” Paul scolded.
“I’m trying to hold him still!”
“Well do a better job of it.”
“I’ll hold ‘im,” Hoss said.
“No, I need you right where you are. You’re going to have to keep a firm grip on his shoulders when I start swabbing his back with this disinfectant.”
Hoss’s nose wrinkled at the sharp smell when Doc Martin uncorked the bottle he was holding. “Disin what?”
“Disinfectant. Something brand new to medical science thanks to a Doctor Lister. It’ll sting to high heaven, but I don’t have a choice. I have to get these wounds clean, or we risk an infection setting in that I’ll never be able to control.”
As Ben reached for Joe again, the boy struggled to thrust his father away from the bed.
“Leave me alone! Don’t touch me! Leave me alone!”
“Pa, leave him be,” Adam ordered, sweating almost as heavily now as his injured brother. “I’ve got him.”
“Ben, for whatever reason your presence is only making things worse on the boy,” Paul snapped, short tempered over having to man-handle a struggling patient. “You need to leave.”
“Go on, Pa,” Hoss urged with gentle understanding from where he stood at his brother’s back, waiting to help the doctor. “Go on and wait downstairs. Little Joe don’t mean none a’ what he’s sayin’. It’s the fever, Pa. It’s got him half outta his mind right now, but he’ll be okay once Doc gits him patched up.”
Ben didn’t know for certain if he would have let them chase him from the room had it not been for Daniel. He felt an arm slip around his shoulders.
“Benjamin, come with me. Joseph doesn’t want you here right now. He’s confused. He’s just confused. This is just like it was with my Danny. Come along. You’ll help him more by leaving than by staying.”
Ben had never felt so close to his brother as he did in that moment. An older brother speaking calmly and reasonably to him was exactly who Ben needed, just like it was Adam who Joe needed. Ben allowed Daniel to lead him from the room and then walk beside him down the stairs. Daniel even brewed a fresh pot of coffee for them and brought a plate of sandwiches to the great room. Ben was too worried to have an appetite, but he did appreciate the coffee. He’d never known his brother could be so caring and attentive. Admittedly, he was surprised that Daniel refrained from quoting Bible verses. Nor did he give a long lecture on the evil that occurs when an eighteen-year-old boy has a run-in with the neighbors. Instead, he asked Ben if he could offer a prayer for Little Joe’s recovery. When Ben nodded, Daniel bowed his head and spoke out loud, but kept the prayer brief and heartfelt.
“Dear Lord, please watch over young Joseph. Lay your healing hands upon him Lord, and rise him up from his sick bed healthy and whole, just like you healed the crippled man at the Pool of Bethesda, then ordered him to rise from his mat and go home. Bless Joseph, Lord, and bless all who are in this house who serve your name with honor. Amen.”
“Thank you, Daniel,” Ben said as he lifted his own bowed head. “I appreciate your prayer for Little Joe.”
“You’re welcome. Trust in the Lord, Benjamin. He’ll see both you and Joseph through this, and you’ll both be stronger for it.”
For a little while, Ben was willing to believe that might be true. But as Joe began to recover and it could no longer be said that he wasn’t in his right mind due to fever or shock, Ben began to doubt that any good could come from the cruel actions of a vengeful neighbor and his sons.
And now, as Ben pulled back the covers so his son could climb back into bed, he doubted it even more.
As Joe settled against his stack pillows, Ben asked brightly, “How about a game of checkers, young man?”
“Uh. . .no, thanks, Pa.”
“Well then, a game of cards?”
“No, I’ll just finish reading the paper Adam left here.”
“I can read it to you if you’d like.”
“That’s okay. I’ll read it.”
Ben switched tactics, trying a new way to gain an invitation to remain with son.
“Would you like me to bring up some dessert? Hop Sing made the chocolate cake especially for you.”
“I know. He brought me a piece on my supper tray. I don’t want anymore right now.”
“Then how about later?”
“Don’t think so. I’ll just read the paper and call it a night.”
“It’s early yet. I could sit up here with you for a while. Keep you company until Adam comes back inside.”
“Thanks, but I’m tired.”
“Well. . .all right then. Guess I’ll go downstairs. If you need anything, call.”
Ben stood over his son a moment longer. When Joe wouldn’t look up and meet his eyes, he finally said, “Good night, Little Joe.” He bent to kiss the top of Joe’s head, but stopped in mid-action when Joe slid his upper body toward the wall.
With Ben’s action effectively thwarted, he said simply, “Good night,” again, turned and left the room.
There was no, “good night,” called in return. No anything. Just the silence that suddenly seemed an insurmountable fence erected between a loving father and the son who, until recently, had always adored him.
When Ben arrived downstairs, Daniel was seated on the settee reading his Bible. A preoccupied Ben walked to his chair and sat down.
“So, he seems to have learned his lesson.”
It took Ben a moment to realize Daniel had spoken.
“Joseph. I heard you complimenting his newfound compliance when you were walking the hallway with him. It’s as I told you, Benjamin. Trust in the Lord.”
“Trust in the. . .? I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Remember? I said if you trust in the Lord you might find that you and Joseph are stronger as a result of this experience.”
“As a result of my son being kidnapped, and then beaten half to death?”
“Yes. He’s a good son now. A submissive son. The Lord taught him a lesson – a painful one to be sure, but a lesson nonetheless, and now he knows he must obey you.”
“Daniel, Little Joe didn’t do anything wrong. He didn’t sneak off the day of the fire if that’s what you’re thinking. He was right where he should have been when Jim Dunn’s boys managed to grab him.”
“I’m not talking about that day in particular. I’m talking about all the days in general. About Joseph’s obedience in general. About the Lord’s commandment that a child honor his father. I see Joseph doing that now, so once again I know it’s true that the Lord does indeed work in mysterious ways.”
“If by the Lord working in mysterious ways you mean someone taking a leather strap to Little Joe’s back, then I’m sorry, Daniel, but I don’t want anything to do with those ways. And as far as obedience goes – you’re confusing obedience with fear. My son isn’t obeying me. For some reason he’s afraid of me.”
“Inspiring fear in our children is what the Lord wants of us.”
“I apologize for disagreeing with you, but to my way of thinking that’s not what the Lord wants at all.”
Ben stood, suddenly feeling the need to get away from the brother whose company he’d appreciated just three days earlier.
“I’m going to help Adam finish chores. If Little Joe calls out, please come get me.”
As Ben left the house, his brother returned to reading the Bible. Ben shook his head as he walked to the barn. He wondered where Daniel had come by the notion that obedience was motivated by fear, rather than by love.