“Repent, sinner! Repent! Ask the Lord to forgive you! Ask for his forgiveness!”
“No! Stop it! Leave me alone! Stop!”
“It won’t stop until you repent. Until you admit to being a sinner in God’s eyes!”
“I won’t! You can’t make me!”
“Oh, I can’t, can’t I? Well we’ll just see about that, young man.”
The booming voice was his father’s, and as the pace of the lashes across his bare back slashed with blinding speed, it was his father who demanded his repentance.
“Obey thy father, boy! Obey thy father!”
“Stop!” He bit his lip, trying not to beg. But the violence of the strap forced the words out of him. “Please stop! Pa, please! Please stop, Pa! Please!”
“Not until you repent. Not until you promise to obey your father! Not until you repent!”
Tears filled his eyes as the strap split his flesh open and blood splattered his face.
“I. . .I repent! I repent! Stop! Stop, please, Pa! Please stop! I repent! I repent! Oh God, Pa, I repent!”
He flew up in bed, heart slamming against his chest. His breaths came in harsh uneven pants, sweat and tears mingled to trickle down his face.
His eyes darted around the dark space. It took him a moment to realize he wasn’t lashed to a slab of rock in a cave, but safe in his own bed. No one was taking a strap to his back, though the welts seemed to have come alive with the vividness of the dream. They smarted and bit, protesting the memories.
Joe tossed back the covers and swiped a sleeve of his nightshirt across his face. He didn’t know what time it was, but by the heavy darkness outside his window and the silence in the house, he guessed it was after midnight.
Gingerly, he swung his feet over the side of the bed and sat on the edge of the mattress. He waited, eyes on his closed door, shoulders hunched and tight with anxiety. When several minutes passed and no one entered the room, Joe knew he hadn’t cried out during the nightmare. He slowly exhaled the breath he’d been holding; thankful he hadn’t awakened his father or Adam.
Joe rubbed a shaking hand over his eyes, wiping away the remnants of tears. He hated himself for the weakness displayed in the dream. He hadn’t begged when it really happened. He was sure he hadn’t begged. He might have cried out in pain. He might have shouted for his tormentor to stop, but he hadn’t begged. Joe Cartwright didn’t beg.
Joe took a deep breath and tried to let the tension flow from him body. This is what Adam always advised him to do whenever he had a nightmare.
“It was just a dream, Joe. It can’t hurt you. Relax, and let it come back to you in bits and pieces as your mind sees fit. You never know, you might learn something from it.”
When Joe was younger, he though that was dumb advice. What could you possibly learn from a dream that scared the pants off a’ you? But tonight. . .tonight that advice suddenly didn’t seem so dumb for some reason. Adam always said that a dream – good or bad – was your subconscious mind trying to send you a message. Or at least he’d said that ever since he’d returned from college. As Hoss said, evidently when a feller went away to a fancy school that cost his pa a lotta money, he learned things like there was some other kinda consciousness ‘sides the one we walk around with in our heads ever’ day.
Joe wasn’t too certain about this subconscious idea of Adam’s, but on the other hand, he wasn’t ready to discount it either. This was the first night he hadn’t slept heavily and devoid of dreams since his kidnapping. He attributed that to this being the first night he’d refused a dose of laudanum. Prior evenings, he’d needed it to control the pain enough to sleep. But tonight he hadn’t need it, and refused Adam’s offer of the medication when he’d stopped in after finishing his work in the barn.
Aside from the pain having lessened, Joe didn’t want to be dopey and slow in the morning from the after affects of the medication. He wanted to join his family for breakfast, then spend the day downstairs. Maybe even venture outside. If he were half loopy from the laudanum, he wouldn’t wake up until well after breakfast time, and wouldn’t be motivated to move around too much until close to noon. By then, Pa would decide he should spend another day in bed. Something Joe was determined not to do.
So, now the dreams start, is that it? It’s bad enough I had to live through the experience once. Now this subconscious mind Adam claims we all have has to go and remind me of something I’d rather forget.
An owl gave a lonely hoot somewhere outside of Joe’s open window as he sat in the dark, allowing the nighttime sounds to comfort him. The distant whiney of a horse coming from the barn. A single cough that sounded like Pa. Bed springs creaking from down the hall as Adam shifted position in his sleep. If Hoss were here and not up at the timber camp, there was no doubt his snores would be rumbling the windowpanes. They all tried to hurry and fall asleep before Hoss, otherwise those buffalo snores of his could keep a man up all night. Joe was the one who generally ended up in his big brother’s room, socking him on the arm while ordering, “Roll over, Hoss. Roll over and quit that darn snorin’. You’re wakin’ the dead again, not to mention those of us who’d like to get a few hours a’ sleep before dawn.”
As much as Joe tried to skirt away from the dream, it kept resurfacing like a fish determined to jump from the water and make its presence known. He finally sighed with defeat, giving into its insistence.
He tried to think of what Adam would do. Perhaps ponder what he could remember about the nightmare and figure out what reflected the actual events, and what was out of place? Well, if that’s how you started this whole subconscious process, then Joe would have to say that the lashes across his back were actual events, ‘cause he had the torn skin to prove it. And the cave – he was pretty sure he’d been held captive in a cave. He recalled the smell of damp earth, a chill that raised goose bumps on his bare flesh, and a heavy dimness, as though the ability for sunlight to reach the area was limited.
As far as what wasn’t true – he was certain he hadn’t begged. And though he’d wanted to tell the man to stop, and even reached a point where he was willing to ask forgiveness as the man demanded of him, he was pretty sure his injuries had left him unable to speak by then.
“Repent, sinner! Repent!” Joe heard again as clearly as if he were back in that cave. “Ask the Lord to forgive you! Ask for his forgiveness!”
The man demanding he repent accurately reflected a portion of what happened. As well, the demand that he obey his father – that had happened, too. Joe closed his eyes, trying to force his mind to bring forth the man’s face. He’d never gotten a good look at him. Only bits and pieces of clothing – a glimpse of a shirtsleeve, a fleeting look at a trouser leg, a brief view of one boot. Since everyone around these parts bought their clothes in Virginia City, he supposed it was possible that someone wore the exact same shirt, trousers and boots that his father favored. But the voice – there was no explanation for the voice. The voice in the dream was the same voice Joe heard in the cave. But his pa. . .his pa would never hurt him like that.
Or would he?
Joe sighed and dropped his head into his hands. Something wasn’t right. Something was odd about the events of that day, and his dream was attempting to tell him that. Or so Adam would claim.
As Joe slowly eased back to his pillows, he wondered just how much stock he should put in Adam’s theory of the subconscious mind, versus how much stock he should put in his belief that the voice in the cave was the same voice that lulled him to sleep with a bedtime story each night throughout his childhood.
Either way, subconscious mind or reality, Joe supposed it didn’t make much difference. Because now, whenever memories of that voice surfaced, they didn’t bring with them the nostalgia of years past, but instead, harsh demands of repentance, while the man the voice belonged to beat him senseless.
Sunday morning Joe went downstairs for breakfast, Adam walking along side him to the table despite Joe’s insistence that an escort – or a nursemaid – was no longer necessary.
It was a quiet day, as Sunday was meant to be. Hoss was still at the timber camp. His absence brought a disapproving comment from Uncle Daniel.
“No one should be working on the Sabbath, Benjamin.”
“Normally I’d agree with you, but that fire set us back some. We have no choice but to keep working until we’ve fulfilled the obligations of that contract.”
“There are always choices.”
Pa let the discussion end with his brother’s pointed comment. Uncle Daniel was due to go home on Friday. Joe supposed Pa was determined to be a gracious host for the short time his brother had left with them.
Since Joe wasn’t ready to travel as far as Virginia City, he didn’t attend church that morning. Pa insisted on staying home and keeping him company, despite Joe’s attempts to convince his father it wasn’t necessary.
“I’ll be fine. Hop Sing’ll be here. You go ahead and go to church with Adam and Uncle Daniel.”
“No, not today. I’d feel better if I stayed here considering this is your first full day on your feet.”
Joe couldn’t explain the unease he felt. The nightmare suddenly came back to him, almost making him afraid to be alone with his father. Joe tried to shake that feeling off. He had to keep in mind that, if Adam was correct, the dream was sending him a message that might reveal truths that had been muddled by pain, shock, and a hard knock to the head.
Unlike times in the past when Joe was determined to get his way, or at least say his piece, he didn’t argue with his father. That action earned him a smile and a fatherly pat on the arm from Uncle Daniel. Joe looked after the old man as he left the dining room to get dressed for church. He shook his head slightly, wondering at his uncle’s sudden benevolence. Maybe the old guy was feeling sentimental now that his visit was drawing to a close.
As soon as Uncle Daniel and Adam left for town, Pa tried to engage Joe in a game of checkers.
“No, thanks, Pa. Think I’ll take a walk outside.”
“Then I’ll go with you,” Pa insisted as he started to stand from his chair at the table.
“No,” Joe negated sharply, then swiftly changed his tone for reasons even he couldn’t fully identify. “I. . .I just wanna be by myself for a while.”
Pa chuckled. “Well, Joe, you’ve been by yourself in your bedroom for three days now. I thought you’d like some company.”
“I’ve had plenty of company between you, Adam, Hoss, and Hop Sing. I just need. . .I just need to be alone for a few minutes.”
At first, Joe thought his father would deny him permission to venture outside by himself. But finally the man gave a reluctant nod.
“All right. But don’t go any farther than the barn, please.”
“And when you get tired, have a seat on the front porch. I’ll be out to check on you in a little while.”
When Pa placed a hand on his arm, Joe pulled away. He saw the hurt in his father’s eyes and immediately regretted his action. His hand seemed to tremble of its own volition as he forced himself to reach out and grasp his father’s.
“Son, please,” Pa begged, as he locked hands with Joe. “Please tell me what’s troubling you. Tell me what I’ve done.”
“I. . .” Joe tried to speak around the lump that suddenly filled his throat. “You haven’t done anything. I’m just. . .that knock on the head has me mixed up is all.”
“Mixed up how, Little Joe?”
“I. . .I don’t know. That’s why I need some time to myself to sort things out.”
Pa studied him so intently that Joe finally grew uncomfortable and broke eye contact with him.
“Pa, I’d like to go outside now if that’s okay with you.”
Pa didn’t say anything for several seconds. When he spoke, it was simply to give his permission.
“Sure...yes, sure. You go on outside.”
Before Joe could turn away, his father gave his hand a gentle squeeze. That action was such a contrast to what Joe experienced in the cave that it brought tears to his eyes.
God, but he was confused. How could you be so certain of something, and yet so uncertain of it at the same time?
Joe took a deep shuddering breath and hurried from the house. Maybe time alone to sort things out was just what he needed. Maybe time alone would reveal the message his dream had been trying to send him.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The dream returned that night. The events were the same as the previous night with one exception. The dream didn’t end when Joe screamed out his repentance to his father. At that point, the dream seemed to skip ahead in time and Joe saw himself traveling with Uncle Daniel on a train bound for Ohio, while Uncle Daniel read Bible passages to him about obedience.
Stupid dream, the young man thought as he straightened his tangled bedcovers. If Adam’s right and this is my subconscious mind tryin’ to tell me something, it’s sure got a strange way of goin’ about it. First I’m in a cave with Pa, then I’m on a train with Uncle Daniel.
Joe lay back down, but it took him a good hour before his mind quit churning enough that sleep started to overtake him. Just as his eyes finally started to grow heavy and his mind started to slip into a dormant state, an idea came to him. An idea so simple and straightforward, it was a wonder it’d taken him this long to think of it.
There was one way he could find out for certain what happened in that cave. And first thing tomorrow morning, he planned to pursue it.
“No, Little Joe, you’re not going over to the Dunn ranch today. You’re not going anywhere until your back heals and you’re stronger.”
“I’m strong enough, and my back feels fine.”
“That may be so, but the answer is still no.”
“Joseph, I’ve barely had two bites of my breakfast and I have a long day ahead of me. Please don’t start things off on the wrong foot.”
“Pa’s right, Little Joe.” Hoss reached his fork to the center of the table and stabbed three more pancakes from the platter. He’d arrived from the timber camp on Sunday evening to fill a wagon with supplies and spend the night in his own bed.
“ ’Sides, what you wanna go over there for?”
“I. . .I just have some personal business to attend to.”
Adam’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “What kind of personal business?”
“I just wanna ask Paul and Charlie a question.”
“Paul and Charlie aren’t even around for you to ask them a question.”
Joe looked at his father. “What? Why? Where they’d go?”
“According to Roy, their father sent them on a business trip.”
Forgetting his unease around his father, Joe sounded like himself for the first time in a week. Now that he had an idea of how to discover what happened in that cave, his determination to carry it out overrode his common sense.
“All I was gonna say was exactly what I did. Anyway, Pa., come on. You know as well as I do that they weren’t sent on any business trip.”
“Joseph, if anyone is going to visit the Dunn ranch, it will be me. Which I fully intend to do when the time is right.”
“What do you mean when the time is right?”
“Never you mind. Your father will take care of this.”
“Oh, right, Pa. Just like you took care of it the first time Paul and Charlie jumped me. Just like how you thought it would take care of things when you and I went together to talk to them and Mr. Dunn. I’m through waiting for you to take care of things where the Dunns are concerned. Now let me take care of things in the way I see fit.”
Joe ignored his uncle’s admonishment of, “Joseph, hold your tongue and obey your father!”
Pa ignored his brother as well. His eyes bore into Joe.
“Young man, no son of mine is going to talk to me that way.”
“Well you don’t seem to listen to me when I talk to you any other way! You didn’t listen when I asked you not to talk to Mr. Dunn. And you didn’t listen when I tried to tell you about those miners’ kids jumping me and the Dunn boys bein’ behind it all. And you--”
“Joseph! Enough! That’s enough now.”
If Joe hadn’t been letting his temper get the best of him, he’d have realized he’d struck a nerve with his father and kept his mouth shut. But because he wasn’t a father himself, he didn’t understand that for Ben Cartwright, there was nothing worse than knowing you’d failed your child because you wouldn’t hear him out – and then, nothing worse than having that thrown back in your face by said child.
“Oh, so you’re just not gonna listen to me again, is that it?”
Ben slowly pushed his chair back and stood. He loomed over his youngest, taking a deep breath and silently counting to ten. If the boy hadn’t been eighteen, he swore he’d put him over his knee and give him a lesson in listening he wouldn’t soon forget.
Ben settled for pointing a stern finger. “I’m only going to say this once, Joseph, and I expect you to obey me. You will not go anywhere near the Dunn ranch. You will not leave here today. Your brothers and I have no choice but to go to the timber camp like we planned. I’m leaving your uncle behind to make sure you do as I’ve instructed. If I find out you so much as put a little toe beyond the boundaries of this ranch yard,
Joe looked up with defiance. “You’ll what, Pa? Take a strap to my back again?”
“Joe!” Adam exclaimed.
“Little Joe, how can you say that ta’ Pa?”
“I can say it because it’s true.”
Joe threw his napkin down and headed for the stairway. His father called his name in a voice that almost sounded anguished, but Joe refused to turn around.
“Don’t worry, Pa. I won’t disobey you. I’ll stay right here in my room and be the good son you want, instead of just bein’ the son I am.”
Joe heard the confusion and hurt in his father’s tone when Pa called his name again, but by then he was up the stairs and headed to his room.
He heard his father’s boots on the first step, and then the second. At that point, Adam must have placed a restraining hand on Pa’s arm.
“Pa, let him be. Give him time to cool off. You can talk to him tonight.”
Then came Hoss’s, “Yeah, Pa. Things’ll be better after you and Little Joe have spent some time apart. He didn’t mean what he said ‘bout that strappin’. You’ll see. Ifin’ I know Little Joe, by the time we get home he’ll be ready to apologize to you.”
“That may be so,” Pa agreed in a quiet, defeated voice. “But that he said it all – regardless of whether he meant it or not--”
Before Pa could finish his sentence, Uncle Daniel interrupted. “Benjamin, I’m not excusing the boy’s insolent behavior, but you must remember he suffered a head injury. You heard your doctor say confusion and false memories brought on by head injuries can last for weeks. Now go on about the business you have planned. I’ll remain here and make certain he stays put.”
Whether Pa would have given into the suggestions to leave Joe alone had one of the timber crewmen not ridden into the ranch yard at that moment, Joe didn’t know. He could sense the hesitation coming from below, as though Pa was contemplating ignoring the advice of his sons and brother, when a shout came from outside.
“Mr. Cartwright! Mr. Cartwright! Hey, Mr. Cartwright!”
Joe’s family headed toward the front door. The excitable messenger said something about needing more saw blades and axes in that supply wagon Hoss was bringing, and that three of the men were sick this morning with a fever and stomach upset.
“Great,” Adam muttered. Joe could picture him grabbing his hat from the rack. “At a time when we’re already behind, we’ve now got some kind of illness being passed around.”
“It’ll be okay, Adam,” Hoss said. “We’ll head on up there lickety split and git the day started.” He spoke to the waiting crewman next.
“Andy, go into Virginia City and see if you can hire on some men for us. As many as you can git, as long as they ain’t drinkers and wanna work.”
“Okay, Hoss. I’ll do that. I’ll join ya’ up at the camp just as soon as I can an’ bring as many men with me as I can find.”
“All right then,” Adam said as Andy left the house to do as Hoss instructed. “Let’s get a move on.”
What Joe couldn’t see from his room, was that after his father put on his hat and strapped on his gun belt, he gave one last long look up the stairs. If Joe had seen Pa’s face, he’d have known Ben was uncertain about leaving.
“Comin’ Pa?” Hoss asked.
“Uh. . .yes. Yes, I’m coming.” Joe’s father called, “We’re leaving now, Joseph!” but he refused to answer the man.
Once again, Joe sensed hesitation, then came Uncle Daniel’s voice assuring, “He’ll be fine, Benjamin. Boys have to go off and lick their wounds every now and again as our pa used to say.”
“Yes. . .yes, I guess that is what pa used to say, isn’t it.”
If any other words were exchanged, they weren’t spoken loud enough to reach the second floor. A few minutes later, Joe’s father and brothers rode away from the ranch yard, and Joe was left alone in his room with Uncle Daniel sitting downstairs serving as his watchdog.
Obedience wasn’t always Joe Cartwright’s strong suit when he felt he had a good reason to go against his father’s directive. Therefore, despite his declaration to Pa that he’d be a “good son” Joe found himself being “the son I am” as he slithered out of his bedroom window two hours after lunch. He’d gone to the table and eaten silently with the uncle who spent the duration of the meal giving him a cold stare of reproach. It must have been due to God’s grace that Joe didn’t spend the entire thirty minutes having to listen to one of Uncle Daniel’s lectures. Perhaps God figured Joe had already experience a pretty rotten week, and didn’t deserve any more punishment. Or perhaps He’d grown as weary of Uncle Daniel’s litanies as Joe had.
When everyone was away from the Ponderosa for the afternoon, it wasn’t unusual for Hop Sing to take a nap. Thankfully, he was doing that today, making Joe’s escape easier. Not that Hop Sing could stop him, but he would sure make a lot of noise while chasing after Joe jabbering, “Number 3 son be sorry for not doing as Father say! Number 3 son not come crying to Hop Sing when Father temper blow roof off house.”
Hop Sing being unaware of Joe’s escape down the trellis meant he didn’t alert Uncle Daniel, who was seated in the great room reading his Bible. He’d taken his responsibilities to Pa seriously when it came to keeping an eye on Joe. By the way the old man appeared to be intent on guarding the front door, he was evidently foolish enough to think there was only one way in and out of this house.
Joe carefully peered around the corner of the house, making sure the front door was closed and that Uncle Daniel hadn’t come out to sit on the porch. When he discovered all was clear, he silently scampered across the ranch yard to the barn. He winced when Cochise nickered in greeting. He put a finger to his lips, as though the horse would understand that he was to shush.
It took Joe longer to saddle the horse than usual due to his tender back. Once Cochise was ready, Joe peeked out from the barn to again make sure he could exit undetected. When he didn’t see anyone, he led the horse from the building and didn’t mount him until the house was out of sight. Once he was on Cochise’s back, Joe nudged him into a slow trot. He could already tell that his bruised body wasn’t going to stand for a lot of jostling. Pa had been right. It was too soon for him to undertake a journey to the Dunn ranch. Nonetheless, he was determined to accomplish the trip. He didn’t want Pa confronting Mr. Dunn. He’d heard what Roy said about that.
“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.”
Though the happenings in that cave left Joe with a lot of conflicting thoughts and feelings regarding his father – many he didn’t even understand the source of because that day was still so muddled in his brain – he didn’t want Pa in trouble with the law. Despite the level head Pa usually displayed, there was a side to the man that wasn’t much different from the way Joe lost all sense of reason when his temper got the best of him. Pa didn’t like to admit that, and he rarely displayed it. But when it came to someone causing trouble for his sons – well, Pa was like any father would be, Joe supposed. Protective, and like a hen with one chick. Or better put, a mama grizzly bear with one cub. And a mama grizzly who’d been awakened from hibernation to boot.
No, to Joe’s way of thinking he wasn’t doing anything wrong. True, there was the issue of having promised Pa to stay his room, but then, technically speaking, Pa never asked him to make that promise. Joe had made it of his own accord, so really, when you gave it some thought, he wasn’t disobeying Pa. And besides, if he could just talk to Paul and Charlie without any fathers interfering – if he could just ask them the one question he needed to know the answer to, then Mr. Dunn and Pa could fuss over that timber contract until the cows came home for all Joe cared. Timber contracts weren’t important to him any longer. Finding out who had been with Paul and Charlie was.
All I’m going to do is ask them who was there. Maybe it was nobody. Maybe it was just my imagination. Or maybe it was some drifter they paid a few bucks to help them beat the tar outta me. Or maybe they’ll refuse to tell me. Maybe this trip will be a waste of my time. But it’s like Pa says, nothing ventured nothing gained.
Joe swallowed hard as a small amount of common sense came back to him.
Gee, I sure hope he understands that if he finds out I left the house today.
The young man momentarily considered turning around. Within seconds, he discarded that thought and rode on toward the Dunn ranch. If his dream was indeed sending him a message, then he was hell bent on finding out what it was.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
If Joe had only turned around like he’d contemplated, he’d have seen he was being followed, and right then, would have realized what his dream was trying to tell him.
Ben Cartwright was so preoccupied on the ride to the timber camp that he barely paid attention to the path his horse traveled. It was a good thing Buck was familiar with the route and needed little guidance from the man on his back.
Ben assumed Adam and Hoss engaged in conversation along the way, but once they arrived at the camp, he honestly couldn’t say what his sons discussed on the trip, or if they’d discussed anything at all. He wasn’t sure how many times he’d thought of saying to them, “Boys, you head on up without me. I won’t feel right about things until I go home and talk to Little Joe,” but he knew he’d thought it more than once.
The only thing that kept Ben from heading back to the ranch house was the sickness spreading through the camp. If illness prevented men from working for a few days, then they needed all the hands they could come by. As it was, they were already down one man – Joe. Doctor Martin didn’t want him doing more than light chores around the barn for at least a week, maybe two. And Ben was in full agreement with Paul where that was concerned. That head injury of Joe’s – well, it had his father worried, and rightfully so.
Until this kidnapping the Dunns orchestrated, Joe had never been afraid of him. Never. Oh sure, he’d been afraid of his father’s wrath when he knew some prank he’d pulled or wrongdoing he’d engaged in was going to land him in hot water, but Ben could never recall Joe acting as if he feared his father would purposely harm him. Not even back in the days when he was escorted to the woodshed every now and again.
Which brought Ben to the words Joe said at the breakfast table.
“You’ll what, Pa? Take a strap to my back again?”
Again. What did he mean by that particular word? That he thought Ben had something to do with the beating he’d suffered? Or in anger, had Little Joe simply meant that someone already had taken a strap to him, and was his father going to do the same thing, given their heated argument?
Ben sighed. With Joseph, it was so hard to guess. When the boy was riled he often said things he didn’t mean, as Hoss pointed out. Or said things that he knew would get everyone lathered up. Joe was clever that way. He might appear angry to the point of not knowing what he was saying, when actually, he knew exactly what he was saying, and had calculated every word. Which might also explain Joe’s other words this morning.
“I can say it because it’s true.”
Did he really mean that? Did he really mean that he thought Ben beat him? Or was he just so furious over being denied permission to ride to the Dunn ranch that he hurled words he knew would upset his father for the rest of the day?
Joseph, I swear. You’ll be the death of me yet.
In addition to mulling over those thoughts, Ben took the head injury into consideration. As Daniel reminded him, confusion and false memories often accompanied a bout of unconsciousness due to a blow to the head. Ben hadn’t raised three boys, nor employed numerous ranch hands, not to have learned that long ago. He’d even seen head injuries cause a person to lose his entire memory of the day the injury occurred, and sometimes even lose his memory of several days leading up to the injury. And then there could be personality changes, too. Paul told Ben that once, but so far, he’d never witnessed such a thing. Or at least not until now. Maybe that’s what was going on with Little Joe and this fear he displayed. Maybe he’d undergone some kind of personality change due to his head wound.
Put together, it made a lot for a father to worry about. A few years back a boy Little Joe went to school with died a week after suffering a head injury. Everyone thought he was fine after he fell out of a tree house. His mother said he’d lost consciousness for no more than two or three minutes, and he’d even gone to school the next day. But a few days later he complained of a severe headache, and within hours collapsed and died. Paul Martin said it was likely due to bleeding in the brain from the fall he’d taken. What if something like that was happening to Little Joe? What if he had a more serious injury than they realized?
Then atop those worries loomed Jim Dunn and his boys. Ben wasn’t concerned that they’d try to harm Little Joe again. Or at least not any time soon. If he were, he wouldn’t have left Joe home with just Daniel and Hop Sing to protect him.
Ben knew Jim well enough to suspect there was one thing he hadn’t lied to Roy Coffee about – Paul and Charlie being sent away. No, they hadn’t been sent on a business trip the day before the fire like Jim claimed. But sometime following the fire Jim sent them off somewhere to hide out. Ben was sure of it. Jim would do all he could to protect those boys from trouble with the law. The longer they were gone, the less likely that they’d ever be found guilty of any wrongdoing. Especially if Little Joe could never testify with absolute certainty that it was Paul and Charlie who grabbed him that day. He’d seen the little girl he was certain was their sister, and he’d even heard her call Paul’s name. And at sometime during his captivity he was certain he’d heard both Paul’s and Charlie’s voices, but Ben knew a good lawyer would tear apart Joe’s testimony in seconds. With no eyewitnesses, and with Little Joe unable to say he’d gotten a good look at either Dunn boy, and added to that with the entire Dunn family and their house girl testifying that Paul and Charlie were away on business prior to the fire being set – well, any charges Ben might try and bring against those two would be an effort in futility.
So now it was up to him to decide what to do next. Roy warned him not to take the law into his own hands, and though he’d threatened to do so and was still fighting the urge not to, he was left with two choices. He could either go to the Dunn ranch and give Jim the same kind of beating Little Joe had received, or when he got the money for the timber, he could deliver the check to Jim in exchange for a promise that the nonsense that had gone on this summer was over, and over for good.
In many ways, the thought of doing that rankled Ben. It wasn’t much different than being blackmailed and paying your blackmailer off. But to keep his son safe – to keep any of his sons safe – he’d pay the money without thinking twice about it. If nothing else, after delivering the cash, he could at least have the satisfaction of also delivering a strong right hook to Jim’s jaw.
If Ben decided the only way to end this feud was to pay Jim off, he wouldn’t share that with his boys. Not even with Adam. The only thing they’d need to know was that their father had taken care of the problem, and that he expected them to steer clear of the Dunn family. It wasn’t a perfect solution, and there was no guarantee it would work, but at the moment it was the only solution Ben could come up with short of dragging Jim to a cave and whipping the skin off his back with a leather strap.
“Pa? Hey, Pa?”
Hoss’s voice pulled Ben away from his heavy thoughts.
“Huh? What? Did you say something, son?”
“I said we’re here.”
Ben looked around, surprised to find they were at the timber camp.
“Oh...um yes…yes, I guess we are, aren’t we.”
Ben dismounted his horse and tied him to a makeshift hitching post.
“Come along, boys. The sooner we get this day underway, the sooner it’ll be over.”
Ben didn’t see the glances his sons exchanged behind his back, as though they knew what he’d left unsaid. That the sooner the workday ended, the sooner he could get home and talk to Little Joe.
Daniel watched from the window behind Ben’s desk. The foolishness of eighteen-year-old boys never ceased to amaze him. Joseph must think his uncle too decrepit and senile to know what tricks he had up his sleeve. Danny snuck out of his bedroom window on several occasions, too. Therefore, Daniel assumed Joseph might try the same thing, and kept an ear tuned to the second floor. The noises were subtle and muffled, but Daniel recognized them when they came. A chair carefully pushed away from a desk. Cautious boot steps barely gracing the floorboards. The faint sound of a window being raised as high as it would go. Then a slight scraping sound against the side of the house – a sound Daniel would have likely never noticed if he hadn’t been anticipating it.
The man moved away from the window and opened Ben’s middle desk drawer. He took out a piece of paper, then plucked the pen from its inkwell. Using the desktop as the hard surface he needed he wrote,
I fear Joseph went to the Dunn ranch. I have gone after him. Don’t worry, all will be fine. We’ll be home in time for supper.
Daniel folded the note in half and wrote Ben’s name on the outside of it. He returned the pen to the inkwell and walked through the great room. He propped the folded note against the bowl of fruit setting in the middle of the dining room table. Once that was done, he turned and entered his bedroom.
Daniel quietly shut the door, then crossed to the dresser. He opened the top drawer. He removed a stack of neatly folded trousers and shirts until he came to the bottom of the pile. He quickly changed his clothing. His brown trousers and charcoal shirt were twins of those his brother favored. He opened the wardrobe and reached to a far end. He pulled the tan leather vest off its hanger and slipped it on. The wide brimmed, light colored cowboy hat came out of hiding next. As he passed the full length mirror on the opposite side of the room, he was pleased to see once again how, with just a change of clothing, he bore a remarkable resemblance to Benjamin.
Though some would call this deceit, Daniel didn’t see it as such. It was exactly what God sent him here for. If he had to dress like his brother to pull it off, then it was the Lord who had directed him to purchase the clothing at the same store in Virginia City Benjamin favored. If the shopkeeper found his choice of clothing odd, he didn’t comment on it. Possibly he thought it made sense that a visiting brother from far away would want to dress like the well-respected Ben Cartwright.
Daniel left the house as quietly as Joe had so as not to awaken Hop Sing. He saddled Sweet Daisy and looped a lasso around her saddle horn, grateful to the ranch hand who’d so graciously taught him how to use it this summer. He then filled two saddlebags with the things he needed. He mounted the horse and rode out of the barn, taking the same path his nephew had.
The man shook his head with disappointment as he trailed after the boy. He thought Joseph had learned his lesson in that cave. He thought he’d cast the devil out of the boy that day. But based on the way Joseph spoke to his father this morning, and now this most recent act of blatant disobedience, it was apparent that, just like Danny, Joseph hadn’t learned his lesson at all. It was apparent that Joseph needed another lesson, just like Danny had needed further lessons.
It wasn’t something Daniel looked forward to. He truly didn’t want to harm the boy, just like he hadn’t wanted to harm Danny. But God commanded that evil be driven out of young men who refused to obey, and although Daniel had failed to fulfill that command where his own son was concerned, he was determined not to fail it where Benjamin’s son was concerned.
Joe sucked in a sharp breath as he tried to stretch in the saddle. He’d never admit it out loud, but Pa was right. He wasn’t strong enough for a trip on Cochise yet. The motion of even the horse’s slow walk caused the tender skin on his back to rub against the fabric of his shirt. And now that he was in the saddle, Joe was discovering all the bruises that dotted his body. He couldn’t sit comfortably, which he found odd considering his injuries were above his waist, but still, for whatever reason, riding Cochise was painful. And because of the way he had to keep adjusting his position, Joe was rapidly growing weary. One of the first things he’d learned about riding when he was no more than five or six years old, was that the rider and horse had to be as one. If you were constantly fighting against the rhythm of the horse’s gait, you wore yourself out in a short amount of time. That lesson was reiterated today. Several times Joe wondered if he’d make it to the Dunn ranch, or if he should just give up on his idea, turn around, and head home.
Which was the exact action he should have taken. But Joe Cartwright was never one to give up, and was often too stubborn for his good, as Adam was fond of reminding him. Despite his discomfort and increasing exhaustion, he knew getting an answer from Paul and Charlie was a “now or never” situation. He’d been able to slip away from the house undetected, and had several hours ahead of him before his father and brothers returned home. If he was going to talk to the Dunns, he had to do it this afternoon, because the opportunity might never present itself again. Or at least not in the near future if Pa had anything to say about it.
The first call of, “Joseph!” caused Joe’s heart to skip a beat. The second time Pa yelled, “Joseph!” he stopped Cochise, swallowed hard, and reluctantly turned around. The dreaded anticipation on Joe’s face changed to confusion as the rider approached. What was Pa doing on Sweet Daisy?
It wasn’t until the man was upon him that Joe realized it was his uncle and not his father following him. But why was Daniel dressed like Pa?
Before Joe could give that thought the time it deserved, Uncle Daniel began demanding obedience from him. Something that immediately set Joe’s temper to simmering.
“Joseph, come home with me now, boy.”
“I’m sorry, Uncle Daniel.” Joe fought to keep his tone civil. This old man might be Pa’s brother, but regardless, he had no business butting into Joe’s personal affairs. “I’m not coming home right now. I have some things to attend to.”
“You heard your father this morning. You were told not to leave the house.”
“I heard my father,” Joe acknowledged.
“Then what do you have to say for yourself, young man?”
“I don’t have anything to say to you, and as for my father, what I have to say to him when the time comes will between Pa and me. It’s none of your concern.”
“How dare you talk to me like that!”
“I’m sorry, Uncle Daniel. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I have business to attend to.”
“The only business you need to attend to, young man, is the business of obeying your father by returning home with me.”
Joe shook his head as he urged Cochise to start moving again. “No, Sir. I can’t do that. Now if you’ll excuse--”
Who the hell taught the old guy to use a lasso Joe didn’t know. The rope caught him from behind, surprising him as it tightened around his chest.
Joe was yanked off Cochise. He landed on the ground with a pain filled, “Umph!” as the breath was driven out of him. Before he could wrestle possession of the rope from his uncle, Daniel was on top of him. The old man was stronger than Joe would have given him credit for. As Joe struggled and fought against him, Daniel maintained a solid seating on his nephew’s chest.
“Stop your struggling Joseph! Stop it now, young man!” A hand slapped Joe’s face. “You’re going to repent, evil doer! Before this day is over, you’re going to repent!”
Joe spit out blood. He looked up into the man’s face and saw the features that were his father’s, and yet at the same time weren’t. Then the voice that was Pa’s, yet wasn’t; demanded again that he repent, and that’s when Joe Cartwright realized it. That’s when he realized the danger he was in. That’s when he realized what his dream had been trying to tell him. That’s when he realized it wasn’t Pa who’d hurt him the day he was kidnapped; it was his uncle.
Joe, you idiot, he berated himself as his uncle slapped him again. You complete idiot. You should have figured this out days ago. You should have known it was him. He’s been a thorn under your saddle all summer long. You should have known. . .
Joe’s thoughts trailed off as the white cloth came toward his nose. He increased his struggles, bucking and kicking, trying to throw his uncle off his chest.
As the chloroform soaked cloth was pressed roughly against his face, Joe’s last conscious thought was, I’m sorry, Pa. I’m so sorry. I was wrong about so much. I should have known. I should have known you’d never hurt me.
Five minutes later, Joe’s limp body was hanging across his saddle, trussed to Cochise’s back as the horse was led in the opposite direction of the Ponderosa ranch house.
Ben didn’t stable Buck when he arrived home that evening. He dismounted the horse outside of the barn, turned the reins over to Adam, said, “Thanks, son,” and headed toward the house. Hoss remained outside with Adam to unhitch the team from the wagon.
All in all, they’d had a productive day. Andy arrived at the camp shortly after noon with six men in tow. In addition to that, the sickness going through the camp seemed to be of the twenty-four hour variety. The three men who’d been ill that morning were feeling much better by late afternoon, and all of them said they’d be fit to work the next day. Ben hoped that meant if any other men got ill, they’d recover just as quickly.
Another week of days as fruitful as this one, and we should have that contract fulfilled with time to spare.
Ben thought of that time to spare with satisfaction. It was always nice to have a few days built in for an emergency. As he reached the front door, his feeling of satisfaction left him. The ride home had been devoted to thinking of the best way to get Little Joe to talk to him this evening. Ben had finally decided he’d wait until after they’d eaten supper and then ask Joe to take a walk with him. He wanted to speak to his youngest in private, without the opinions of older brothers – anyone’s older brothers – interfering in the discussion. On the ride home, Adam and Hoss had promised Ben they’d keep Daniel occupied and out of his way.
Now if I can just get him to keep silent during supper, both Little Joe and I might actually remain in the right frame of mind for a father and son talk.
As Ben entered the house, he immediately noticed how empty it seemed. The dining room table was set, and the smells coming from the kitchen indicated a ham and sweet potatoes were baking, but there was no sign of Daniel or Joe. He glanced to his left and saw Daniel’s door was open. He stuck his head in the room, but didn’t see any sign of his brother.
Ben walked through the great room and looked toward his desk. Neither Daniel nor Little Joe was sitting there. He stopped at the foot of the steps.
“Little Joe! Joseph!”
When he got no answer, Ben called Little Joe’s name again, then switched tactics.
Ben’s voice brought Hop Sing from the kitchen.
One Brother and Number Three Son not here, Mr. Cart’light.”
“Where are they?”
“They not tell Hop Sing where go. But here.” Hop Sing plucked a piece of paper from the table that the plates and glasses had obscured from view. “I think Mr. Daniel leave note. This not look like Little Joe writing.”
Ben took the paper from Hop Sing. “No, it doesn’t.”
Joe’s cursive writing, with its distinct left sided slant, also bore another distinction Ben had learned over the years was common to many left-handed men and women. The letters of his words weren’t always connected, as though he was doing a combination of both writing and printing. Ben had always been amazed at how fast Little Joe could scrawl something out that way, and how despite its odd appearance, his penmanship was usually quite legible.
But as soon as Ben saw his name he knew Hop Sing was correct. This note was from Daniel. He opened it and read it, then read it again, almost as though he didn’t believe the words the first time through.
“Why that little. . .Joseph Francis Cartwright, when I get my hands on you. . .”
Like many threats fathers make when they’re at the end of their rope with a child, Ben’s trailed off because he wasn’t sure exactly what he’d do to Little Joe when he got a hold of him, but for now, he had plenty of time to think about it. He thrust the note back at Hop Sing.
“How long ago did they leave?”
“Hop Sing can’t say. Very busy in kitchen all afternoon. But guess two ’clock.”
Ben didn’t bother to tell his housekeeper that he knew perfectly well he’d been napping and not cooking at two o’clock. It didn’t matter anyway. It wasn’t Hop Sing’s fault Joseph decided to do exactly what his father told him not to.
Ben turned for the door.
“Where you go?”
“I’ve got an errand to attend to. I’m taking Adam and Hoss with me. If Little Joe comes back home, you tell him to wait right here.” As he ran out the door, Ben added, “And tell him he’d better believe it when his father said he’ll live to regret it if he doesn’t!”
Ben was already halfway to the barn when Hop Sing trotted back to the kitchen muttering, “Now must keep supper warm ‘til who know when. Humph! Hop Sing half mind quit and go work for man whose sons behave themselves.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Ben ran outside, calling to Adam not to unsaddle the horses, then calling to Hoss to get Chubb saddled.
“What’s wrong, Pa?”
“Yeah, Pa, what’s the matter? Where we gotta go to in such a hurry? I was lookin’ forward to some of Hop Sing’s good cookin’. I ain’t ate darn near a thing since lunch.”
“It’s your brother.”
Adam’s eyes narrowed with exasperation. “What about our brother?”
“He went to the Dunns’.”
“What? Why that little--”
“Oh dadburn it, what in tarnation did he go and do that for?”
“Because he’s Joseph, and because he’s as headstrong as a Missouri mule, and because he’s eighteen and sometimes as foolish as the day is long, and. . .and because I wouldn’t listen to him.”
“Pa, come on. You can’t blame yourself. Besides, just because he went to Jim’s doesn’t mean anything has happened. Where’s Uncle Daniel?”
“He went after him.”
“Well, then, now see there, Pa. It’s gonna be okay. Uncle Dan’l’ll bring Joe home.”
“Maybe he will, but we’re riding out to meet them. Now come on.”
“All three of us?”
“Hoss, quit worrying about your stomach and get Chubb saddled.”
“But, Pa, I don’t see why all three of us have ta go.”
“Because if I don’t find Joseph between here and the Dunn ranch, I’m going to need you and Adam with me.”
“So you stop me from putting a bullet into Jim, that’s why. Now get a move on.”
Ben’s words finally caused Hoss to forget about his empty stomach. He hurried to saddle Chubb, then joined his father and brother in riding away from the ranch yard.
“Jim! Jim! Jim, get out here now!”
Jim Dunn yanked his front door open and stepped onto the porch in the fading daylight.
“Ben, what’s the meaning of this? Rilla’s trying to get my little ones down to sleep.”
“That’s fine, because I’m not here to see Rilla or your little ones, I’m here to see you.”
Jim stomped down the steps to meet Ben in the ranch yard. The two men drew an audience as curtains were pushed aside and young faces pressed against the dining room windows.
“Here to see me about what, Ben?”
“What about him?”
“Where is he?”
“I couldn’t tell you.”
Ben’s fists clenched. “Can’t tell me, or won’t.”
“Can’t, because I don’t know.”
“He and my brother were headed this way earlier today.”
“Well I haven’t seen either one of them.”
Ben reached for his gun. Hoss’s hand flew out and clamped onto his father’s wrist.
“Pa, come on, now. Take it easy.”
Ben ignored his son. “If you haven’t seen them, then you won’t mind if we have a look around.”
“I do mind, because now you’re calling me a liar. I haven’t seen them, Ben, and that’s the God’s honest truth.”
“Coming from you, that doesn’t bring me much peace of mind.”
“I can’t do anything about your state of mind. But I’m telling you, I haven’t seen Little Joe.”
“What about those boys of yours?”
“Paul and Charlie?”
“Well I’m not talking about Timmy and Matthew. Yes, Paul and Charlie.”
“They’re away on business.”
“They’d better be away on business, because if I see hide or hair of ‘em, they’ll know what a strapping is by the time I’m finished with them.”
“Cartwright, get off my property and take your boys with you. Little Joe isn’t here. Your brother isn’t here. I haven’t seen either one of them, and I don’t have anything else to say to you.”
Jim turned toward the house.
“Oh really, you don’t have anything to say to me, is that it? Well, Jim, I have something to say to you.”
Before Adam or Hoss could stop him, Ben grabbed the man’s arm, spun him around, and landed a solid right punch to his jaw. He flew backwards and landed on his rear end in the ranch yard amidst gasps and cries from the children inside.
Ben planted a boot in the center of the man’s chest.
“Now you listen to me, Jim, and you listen good. This trouble between us is over, ya’ hear? It’s over as of right now. If you really haven’t seen Joseph today, then I’ll let bygones be bygones. But if I find out my son was here and that you’ve harmed him in any way, I’ll come after you and I swear I’ll do to you exactly what you did to him ten times over.”
Once Ben had his say, he removed his foot, turned and headed for Buck. Adam and Hoss remained on guard until Jim got to his feet and stumbled into his house cupping his injured jaw. After Adam and Hoss were on their horses, Ben led the way from the Dunn ranch.
“Let’s go, boys. We have to find your little brother and uncle before dark.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
While the children gasped and cried with alarm when Mr. Cartwright punched Mr. Dunn, Nan Henning silently cheered. Like the children, she was pressed against the windows watching the drama unfold.
For once, Mr. Dunn hadn’t lied. Little Joe hadn’t been here today, and neither had Mr. Cartwright’s brother. Nan had never seen Daniel Cartwright, but there hadn’t been any visitors stop by until Mr. Cartwright, Adam and Hoss arrived.
As Mr. Dunn entered the house, Nan gathered the children around her skirts. Glen and Margie went to their father. Nan figured that was sufficient. They were old enough to help him in whatever way necessary. Under the guise of getting the younger children off to bed, she herded them upstairs. She had to get out of this house and tell Mr. Cartwright that if Little Joe had gone off alone with his uncle then he was in the kind of trouble that could leave him dead. As she supervised children washing their hands and faces and getting into their nightshirts and nightgowns, she hit upon a plan that might finally get her out from underneath the watchful eye of Jim Dunn.
When he got a hold of the person who’d wrapped a leather cinch around his skull and tightened it until his blood slammed against his brain in rhythm to each beat of his heart, he swore he’d knock them senseless. Not to mention the Mojave Desert dryness that had returned to his mouth, leaving his tongue thick and swollen. His face stung and burned as though an indignant saloon girl had given him a hardy slap for some fresh remark he couldn’t recall because his thoughts were dull and slow.
Man, I sure hope the night I had in Virginia City was worth it, ‘cause when Pa gets a hold a’ me I gotta feelin’ I’m gonna be real sorry.
Funny thing was, though, Joe couldn’t remember being in Virginia City. He didn’t recall going to town with his brothers, or any of the ranch hands, or meeting Mitch or Tuck there. And then it was when he rolled from his side to his back with an agonized groan that he realized he was on the ground and not in his bed. He struggled against the rough rope that bound his hands behind his waist and his bare feet at the ankles.
What the. . .?
He opened his eyes, his blurred vision revealing nothing but darkness. He squinted against the pain in his head, uncertain of its source. Aside from having removed his boots and socks, someone had removed his hat and shirt as well. Under other circumstances, he’d have been thankful they’d at least left him with his trousers, but he suddenly had an ominous feeling he wasn’t the victim of a bushwhacking.
A deep, rich voice came from somewhere behind him. He could vaguely make out the glow of a fire. He shivered, thinking of the fire’s warmth. It was cooler tonight than it had been all summer long, as though autumn picked this night to remind Joe her arrival wasn’t far off. The ground beneath his bareback held a chill, and dampness hung in the air as the sound of water lapping against a shoreline reached Joe. Though on the other hand, that sound could have just as easily been the blood pounding in his aching head.
Spoken Bible verses seemed to flow with the movement of the water.
“For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.
“Keep all my decrees and all my laws and follow them. I am the Lord.
“See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering and take possession of it.”
As further realization of his predicament solidified, Joe interrupted the litany in a hoarse, weak voice.
“Uncle Daniel? Uncle Daniel!” As his voice gained some strength, he demanded, “Uncle Daniel, untie me right now,” and hoped like heck he sounded as firm as Adam would in this situation.
“Moses summoned all Israel and said, “Hear, O Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them.”
Joe switched tactics and hoped that this time he sounded as amiable as Hoss.
“Uncle Daniel, come on now. You don’t really wanna do this. Cut me loose and we’ll let bygones be bygones.”
Regardless of whom he sounded like, Joe continued to be ignored.
“If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed.”
This time when he spoke, Joe tried to be as reasonable as his father.
“Uncle Daniel, please. This isn’t the way to resolve whatever it is that’s gone wrong between us. Untie me so we can talk things out.”
“Like the nations the Lord destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the Lord your God.”
As the man went from one verse to the next without seeming to take a breath, Joe forgot about trying to be firm like Adam, or amiable like Hoss, or reasonable like Pa. Instead, he reverted to being the young man whose temper could shoot from simmering to boiling in a matter of seconds.
“Uncle Daniel! Uncle Daniel, I mean it! Cut me loose and do it now!”
The Bible verses finally ceased. Joe heard his uncle stand and move toward him. Footsteps came closer, then stopped as a blurry shadow loomed over him.
“Uncle Daniel, let me go.”
“You’re more impertinent than I recall, Danny.”
“I’m not Danny!”
“You shouldn’t speak to your father that way.”
“You’re not my father you crazy old--”
A swift kick to the ribs caused Joe’s sentence to trailed off with a breathless, “Ugh!”
“It’s apparent to me you still haven’t learned your lesson. Being stubborn will get you nowhere, Daniel Weston Cartwright Junior. You must learn to be obedient.”
As the smell of chloroform drew closer, Joe realized why his head hurt so much. The times Doc Martin had reason to put him under with that stuff, he always woke up with a whopper of headache. He scooted across the ground, trying to get in a position to ram his feet into the old man’s chest. However, being forced to fight like a bound turtle didn’t lend to positive results. The cloth was once again pressed against his face. Joe shook his head back and forth, trying to free himself from Daniel’s grip, but to no avail. The last thing he heard as unawareness once again claimed him was his uncle’s voice reciting Bible verses about obedience.
“So that you, your children, and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, so that you may enjoy a long life. Amen.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
A touch so tender that Joe wouldn’t have believed it belonged to his uncle rested on the side of his slack face.
Daniel’s tone was filled with sorrow as he gazed down at the unconscious young man.
“Oh Danny, Danny, Danny. How far must this go before you learn to obey me? How far must this go before you learn to obey God?”
The man sighed heavily, then stood and walked back to the fire. He picked up his Bible and returned to reading.
“Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you. Observe the commands of the Lord your God, walking in his ways and revering him. Love the Lord your God and keep his requirements, his decrees, his laws and his commands always.”
Daniel’s smooth voice filled the quiet night as stars shone overhead, seeming to twinkle in cadence to his words. The sight would have left a visitor to the man’s campfire with a sense of God’s wonder and grace – provided the visitor didn’t know what Daniel Cartwright had planned come morning.
After she got the younger children down for the night, Nan finished cleaning the kitchen and putting the supper dishes away. Those chores gave her the chance she needed to leave the house. The pan of dirty dishwater had to be emptied. She headed out the door located at the end of a long hallway behind the kitchen where during the winter months the children lined up their boots and hung their coats, mufflers, and hats.
Though Mr. Dunn would be able to see her from his office window if he took a notion to look out, Nan wasn’t concerned he’d pay her much mind. First of all, he was probably too angry and humiliated as a result of Mr. Cartwright’s thrashing to focus on her. And second of all, even if he did track her movements, it was doubtful he’d know her usual routine when it came to how far behind the outhouse she walked each evening before tossing the dishwater.
As soon as the outhouse blocked Nan from view, she threw the water, set the pan on the ground, and dashed into a thicket of brush. She ignored the thorny pricks that poked her bare hands and snagged her skirt. She picked the plump purple berries hanging from those thorny branches as fast as she could and popped them into her mouth. She didn’t know the real name of the berries that proved so bitter to the taste that Nan screwed her face with displeasure. She only knew what her brother Robbie called them – “skippin’ school berries.” Upon eating them, a boy could earn himself a severe case of stomach cramps that resulted in numerous sprints for the outhouse.
The affects of the berries never lasted long – not more than two or three hours from Nan’s past observations. Just enough to make Ma think Robbie was under the weather and should stay home from school. And therein lied the magic of the skippin’ school berries. Ma would no more than go off to work, and Robbie would feel fine, leaving him a whole day to run wild about town. That is until Ma got wise to him, which if Nan recalled correctly was the third time Robbie tried to pull that trick. Not only did he have stomach cramps, but he also had a sore backend thanks to Ma’s wooden spoon. He didn’t appreciate it any either when Ma marched him to school the next day by his ear and informed Miss Jones of his misdeeds, then demanded he be kept after school for an entire week to work on his sums and clean blackboards.
After Nan had eaten as many berries as she thought it safe to, she carefully weaved her way out of the thorny thicket, picked up her dishpan, and headed for the house. She wasn’t sure if it was just wishful thinking on her part, but by the time she entered the kitchen she swore her stomach was rolling, and she could feel the first twinges of the kind of cramps she normally associated with her monthly.
Never one to enjoy being sick, this time the signs of illness caused Nan to smile as she set the dishpan by the sink and rubbed a hand over her aching middle. If all went as planned, in a short while she’d be free of that wretched Mr. Dunn for good, and on her way to help a friend.
Nan raced over the rugged terrain, shoving branches aside, zigzagging around fallen logs, and dodging bramble bushes. She’s chosen this challenging route because she wanted to steer clear of Virginia City Road for fear Mr. Dunn might be looking for her by now.
A noise behind her cinched her stomach. Nan stopped; worrying her lower lip as she risked a glance over her shoulder. She raised the kerosene lantern she carried, the trembling of her arm causing the flame to flicker back and forth. She peered into the night, cold sweat sending an ominous chill down her spine. The light from the lantern didn’t travel nearly far enough to calm Nan’s anxiety. She never realized just how dark it was after midnight when there wasn’t a full moon overhead. After all, she was a town girl. It was unheard of for Virginia City to ever be completely black. Lanterns glowed from the saloons and brothels on Main Street until dawn. And if one had reason to walk around town late at night, light shone from the windows of various homes as a mother rocked a fussy infant, or a teenager completed his school lessons, or a woman waited up for her husband to return from his shift at the mine.
But this was a new experience for Nan; being out in such a desolate area by herself and traveling alone on foot. She might have taken a horse from the Dunn barn if she’d had the confidence she could ride one – and the confidence that Mr. Dunn wouldn’t charge her with stealing. Horse thieving was punishable by hanging in Nevada. So rather than risk such a horrible fate, the only thing she took when she left was the lantern she carried. She wasn’t concerned that anyone would miss it. Mrs. Dunn had dozens of them lined up on a pantry shelf. Nan hadn’t even bothered to pack her clothes and toiletries in the satchel she kept beneath her bed. Maybe Sheriff Coffee would accompany Robbie out to the Dunn ranch to pick those things up at a later date. If not, then Nan wouldn’t have lost anything she couldn’t sew again, or earn the money to replace once she found a job in town.
When the noise Nan heard scurried off into the underbrush she decided all that had frightened her was a rabbit or squirrel. She refused to consider any larger predators, like a wolf or mountain lion. She swallowed hard and looked up, hoping the glow of the lantern would scare off anything that might be ready to pounce on her from a tree or rocky ledge.
The girl took a deep breath and willed her legs to stop shaking as she moved forward again. She paid close attention to her path, not wanting to veer off in the wrong direction and end up miles from her intended destination of the Ponderosa ranch house.
Thanks to the skippin’ school berries; it hadn’t been difficult to flee the Dunn house. They’d done their job and made her good and sick. She lost count of how many times she’d ran to the outhouse after she reached seven. She was surely miserable there for a while with stomach cramps and diarrhea, to the point she even pondered the wisdom of her idea. Nonetheless, she really fooled Mr. and Mrs. Dunn. Evidently a girl gone pale with hair hanging limply from its clips, perspiration beading on her upper lip, and the need to bolt to the outhouse every ten minutes, wasn’t appealing to Mr. Dunn. He went to bed while Mrs. Dunn brewed her some peppermint tea and fussed over her as though Nan was one of her own. Those actions made Nan feel guilty about her ruse, but not so guilty that she was willing to confide in the woman. Nan had lost all respect for Mrs. Dunn. Not only did the woman refuse to acknowledge what was going on in her household; even when that information was handed to her on a silver platter she turned a blind eye to it.
Little Daphne was slowly recovering from her trauma. She’d finally begun leaving her bedroom and venturing into the rest of the house, though so far she hadn’t expressed interest in playing with her siblings. She seemed to take comfort in Nan’s presence. Maybe because she sensed that Nan was the only one who really wanted to know the truth about what happened that left her plagued by nightmares and troubling memories.
Two days ago, while Daphne was alone in the kitchen with Nan baking cookies, the little girl told her what she’d witnessed on Settlers’ Ridge. The story came out in whispered bits and pieces, and with long pauses in-between words. But Nan heard enough to conclude that Daphne witnessed her brothers starting the fire, and then placed her right in the center of it with instructs to call for help as soon as she spotted Little Joe. It was bad enough the child was frightened out of her wits, certain she’d burn to death. Added to that trauma was she then witnessed Little Joe’s uncle beating him. Or rather, witnessed Little Joe being beaten by “Mr. Cartwright” as Daphne referred to him. Nan got the impression the little girl thought it was Ben Cartwright who had hurt Little Joe, but by now, Nan knew better than that.
When Nan stood from hugging the crying child while assuring her nothing like that would ever happen again, she saw Mrs. Dunn hurrying from the doorway. The woman never said a word to Nan or Daphne about what she’d heard, nor did she confront her husband about it. It was then Nan decided it was better to have a poor man for a father who was honest and loving, rather than having a wealthy father who encourages his children to do wrong. And better to have a mother who knows what’s going on in her home and isn’t afraid to speak her mind when the situation calls for it, rather than a meek mother who chooses to ignore the actions of her husband and the needs of her children.
It was after her second cup of tea that Nan encouraged Mrs. Dunn to go to bed as well.
“I’ll be fine, Ma’am. I’ll just sit right here at the table until my stomach settles.”
“Are you sure? Perhaps you should come upstairs where you’ll be more comfortable. Oh dear, but I do hope you don’t have what Daphne did.”
Nan looked up, not caring if the woman saw anger in her eyes.
“No, Ma’am. I don’t think I have what Daphne did. I think Daphne’s sickness was very uncommon, don’t you?”
“Well. . .um. . .yes, perhaps so.” Mrs. Dunn turned away. “Are you sure you won’t be more comfortable upstairs in your own bed? I’ll tell the girls not to wake you in the morning.”
“No, no. That’s all right. I can sleep on the sofa after my stomach settles some. I don’t want to wake anyone by running down the stairs if I have to make another trip outside.”
Mrs. Dunn reluctantly agreed that Nan remaining downstairs was a good idea. Thankfully, the Dunn house contained no servant’s quarters. Nan didn’t know how she would have protected herself from Mr. Dunn’s advances had that been the case. All the bedrooms were on the second floor, where Nan shared a big room with the Dunn daughters. The younger boys shared an equally large bedroom at the opposite end of the hall, with Paul and Charlie having shared the smallest bedroom the house contained. Glenn and Matthew now occupied that bedroom, which indicated to Nan that Mr. Dunn didn’t plan on his oldest sons returning anytime soon.
The remaining bedroom, the one closest to the stairway that included an adjoining room the family referred to as the “nursery”, belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Dunn. Its location was one reason Nan had been hesitant up until now to sneak out of the house in the dead of night and race for home. Mr. Dunn was known to be a light sleeper. She’d feared he’d alert Paul and Charlie, and then all three of them would chase her down.
But so far tonight, good fortune seemed to be smiling on Nan. Thanks to the berries, Mr. Dunn thought Nan was spending the night on the parlor sofa. Little did he know that the last trip she’d taken to the outhouse hadn’t been necessary, but instead, had enabled her to slip off into the night, then make a run for it.
The girl estimated she’d traveled three miles as her pace began to slow. Her instinct was to reach the Ponderosa as fast as she could. Yet, she couldn’t run all the way there, or she’d collapse in a heap before she ever arrived. She slowed more, until she’d gone from a trot to a walk. She regretted not bringing a canteen of water with her. Even though the night air was cool with a hint of autumn brushing her flushed face, all of that running had left her thirsty.
With the light from her lantern guiding her, Nan continued on. After all, if Little Joe could survive a beating from his uncle, then she could survive a walk through the dark without water. She lifted her skirt with her free hand, determined to pick up her pace once again. She’d taken no more than three steps when she heard something behind her. This time it wasn’t the scurrying of a small animal.
Horses hooves clacked against the ground. Nan turned and ran. She paid no attention to the branches slapping her face or the thorns snagging her clothes. The horse grew closer as she gasped in uneven rhythm, her attempts for air coming in frightened gulps. Mr. Dunn was after her, and when he caught her he’d do unspeakable things to her. Things he should only be doing with his wife. She knew that was her fate for running away. Somehow, she just knew it. That thought made her run faster, but even if she’d been the fastest girl in the entire territory, she couldn’t have fled a man on horseback.
Nan cried out as she stumbled over a log, her lantern flying from her grasp. Before she hit the ground, a hand grabbed her upper arm. For a moment, she dangled like a rag doll in the man’s grasp. The man dismounted his horse, setting her firmly on her feet. Without her light, and with her mind numbed by terror, Nan couldn’t see the man’s face. She struggled within his hold, beating his chest with her fists.
“Get away from me! Let me go! Let me go I said! Let me go!”
But her struggles proved fruitless. As she drew back her foot to kick him in one last desperate attempt to free herself; he spun her around and wrapped her tightly in his arms, making escape impossible.
Nan tried to be brave, but bravery quickly gave way to terror. Fear made her cry, along with the heartbreaking thought that for as much as she’d wanted to help Little Joe, all she’d done was fail him.
“Hey there, Miss, it’s okay. It’s all right now. No one’s gonna hurt ya’.”
Hoss loosened his hold on the sobbing bundle in his arms. He wasn’t even sure of who he’d been chasing. Given the darkness, all he’d caught was a glimpse of someone fleeing ahead of him. He’d called Little Joe’s name, but when the person didn’t stop Hoss urged Chub to go faster.
As he turned the girl around and got his first good look at her, Hoss questioned with surprise, “Miss Henning? Whatta’ you doin’ way out here by yerself this time a’ night?”
Hoss’s questions only made the girl cry harder as her taunt body went slack and she sank into his chest. Awkwardly, he patted her back, not certain if this was what a feller should do when he suddenly found himself with a hysterical teenage girl in his arms. He sure wished Adam or Little Joe were here. Dadburnit, but they’d know what to do better ‘an him.
“Miss Henning? Miss Henning, I can’t help ya’ none if ya’ don’t stop cryin’ and tell me what’s wrong.” Hoss reached around for the back pocket of his trousers. As near as he could recall, his hanky was clean.
“Here ya’ go, Miss. Use this ta’ dry yer eyes. Ya’ take a few minutes to collect yerself now, then maybe you can tell me what’s got ya’ frettin’ so.”
The girl barely let loose of Hoss when she took the offered hanky. His big hand continued to pat her back as she sobbed, wiped her eyes, blew her nose, and then started the cycle all over again. Just when Hoss was beginning to wonder how long it was proper for a feller to comfort a young woman he wasn’t courtin’, the girl stepped from his arms.
Thick strands of her hair had fallen their clips, and her eyes were red and nose running like she’d been on a weeklong bender.
“I ran away.”
“I ran away from the Dunns. Bad things happen there.”
“Bad things…” Hoss’s eyes narrowed with anger. “Ya’ mean like bad things happenin’ to you? Things that ain’t proper like?”
Nan nodded, then just as quickly shook her head. “They could have, only they didn’t.”
“Uh? Whatta ya’ mean by that?”
“Never mind. It’s not important right now. I ran away because I can’t trust Mr. Dunn to do the right thing.”
“To come and tell your father that Little Joe’s in danger.”
“Danger? You mean Paul and Charlie--”
“No, not Paul and Charlie. Oh, they’ve caused plenty of trouble for Little Joe all summer long, that’s for sure, but the real danger is your uncle, Hoss.”
“Mr. Cartwright – Daniel. He’s the one who’s the biggest threat to Little Joe.”
“Miss, I don’t know where ya’ came by yer information, but beggin’ yer pardon, I think someone’s been tellin’ tall tales.”
“No, Hoss, no they haven’t, because I heard it all myself. I know what’s been going on. I probably know it better than anyone else, other than those involved. I know it as well as I know my own name.” The girl grabbed Hoss’s vest and latched on, her eyes wide and certain of her beliefs. “You have to listen to me, Hoss. You have to. Little Joe’s life might depend on it.”
“Aw, now, Miss, I think maybe you’ve had yerself an awful fright an’--”
“Don’t! Don’t do that! Don’t treat me like I’m just. . .just some stupid house girl who doesn’t have an ounce of sense. Who doesn’t know when a friend is in danger. I do know, Hoss. I know. And if you don’t get me and yourself up there on that horse and headed toward your father as fast as you can, then by golly I’ll set off on foot again and walk until I reach his doorstep.”
Hoss pondered his next move. He, his father, and Adam had split up once it grew dark and their search for Little Joe and Uncle Daniel proved fruitless. They were to meet back at the house when they’d covered the areas between the Dunn ranch and the Ponderosa that Pa assigned each of them. Hoss had been headed home when he’d run across Miss Henning. He figured that by now, Adam and Pa were waiting for him there.
Though he was still doubtful of the girl’s story, he decided it wouldn’t hurt none to hear her out. Even if all he ended up doing was clearing up false notions on her part. Besides, he couldn’t hardly leave her out here to fend for herself. And from the sounds of things, he couldn’t return her to the Dunn Ranch, either. If any of what she’d hinted at was true, it wasn’t safe for her there.
Hoss lumbered over to where Nan’s lantern had landed, picked it up, and blew out the flame.
“All right, Miss. Come along. I’m gonna get on old Chubb, then give ya’ a hand up. There’s no call to be afraid. He’s real gentle. You just climb on behind me and once yer settled, we’ll be to my pa in two shakes of a lamb tail. In the meantime, why don’t ya’ start tellin’ me ‘bout what’s been goin’ on that’s got you so sure my uncle might hurt Little Joe.”
At that invitation, the girl was talking a blue streak before Hoss even mounted Chubb. By the time they’d ridden through the darkness and the lights of home were shining a welcoming glow across the ranch yard, Hoss no longer doubted Nan Henning’s story. From all he’d gathered, what started as schoolboy revenge on the parts of Paul and Charlie, had turned into something much more dangerous thanks to Uncle Daniel.
What Hoss couldn’t figure out was why. Why would Uncle Daniel want to hurt Little Joe?
As he climbed off Chubb, then paused beside the horse to lift Nan down, Hoss decided he’d leave the whys to Pa and Adam. All he cared about right now was getting Little Joe away from Uncle Daniel.
As they walked past Buck and Sport, who were tied to a hitching post, Hoss hurried the girl along, no longer caring if it wasn’t proper to be clasping her hand. She had to tell her story to Pa, and then they had to find Little Joe before it was too late.
Upon the initial impact of something hard and solid sending waves of pain between his shoulder blades, Joe was certain he’d overslept again, and his brothers thought they were being funny by dragging him out of bed and down the stairs. Bounce, bounce, bounce. Know he knew just how Old Sam felt each morning, when Joe was a small boy and hauled him down the stairs to the breakfast table by one foot. But Old Sam was a toy – a rag doll Joe had been fond of, not someone’s real live brother. He wanted to shout, “Hey, you two, stop it! That hurts! If you think this is funny, just wait ‘til I get the chance to drag the two of you down a set of stairs.”
Joe started to open his eyes, then just as quickly squeezed them shut at the sharp “whack!” to the back of his skull. It felt like he’d been bounced right over a rock! He wondered where his father was, and why he didn’t put a stop to this craziness. He tried to call for help, but the only sound his voice could produce was a weak and breathy, “Pa?”
“You who were as numerous as the stars in the sky will be left but few in number, because you did not obey the Lord your God.”
“Pa?” The confused Joe questioned again in recognition of the soothing, baritone voice that had chased away so many of his childhood fears and nightmares. “Pa, make…make it stop, Pa.”
“I abhor the assembly of evildoers and refuse to sit with the wicked.”
“Pa? Pa, stop,” Joe pleaded, as he was dragged carelessly over rough ground as though he were made of the same rags that had given Old Sam his shape.
“In the night I remember your name, oh Lord, and I will keep your law.”
As Joe’s eyes opened, the first rays of light from the breaking dawn brought forth a fuzzy, out of focus world. A medicated fog made it difficult for his thoughts to collate in a logical fashion. He looked around, trying to make sense of this nightmare. Trying to make sense of the Ponderosa Pines towering above him, and the cold, hard ground beneath him. His brothers weren’t hauling him down the stairs, nor was his father sitting at the breakfast table passively watching their high jinks. He shivered as the morning chill kissed his bare skin. He glanced down, seeing that his black trousers were his only covering, and even they looked worse for wear. Their fabric was torn in spots, and shredded in others. Even during the most rough and tumble moments of his boyhood, he’d never arrived home from school with his trousers in this condition.
Pa’s gonna kill me for bein’ so careless with my school clothes.
That thought made no sense. He wasn’t in school any longer. Hadn’t been for over two years now. Where was he? Why was he so confused? Why wouldn’t this bad dream end?
“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness.”
That voice! Those words!
Joe struggled to sit up, even as he was being pulled toward Lake Tahoe. Uncle Daniel kept a firm grip on the rope that bound Joe’s ankles, dragging him across the ground like a man might drag a roped calf.
With his hands secured tightly behind him yet, Joe clawed at the ground as it moved beneath him. He found his voice, sounding more like his father than he’d ever realize, as he demanded, “Uncle Daniel! Uncle Daniel, stop! Uncle Daniel, untie me! Do you hear me? Untie me!”
“Be quiet, Danny!”
“I’m not Danny! I’m Joe. Now untie me!”
“If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.”
Suddenly, the answers came to Joe with clarity as pure and pristine as the water stretched out beyond the hillside. Suddenly, he knew why his uncle had been intent on tormenting him since the day he arrived. He reminded his uncle of Danny. Danny, the person Daniel Cartwright wanted most to control. But despite all of his efforts, and rules, and punishments, and Bible verses, Danny proved to be the one person he couldn’t control at all.
“No one can be your treasured possession, Uncle Daniel. No one! Not your son, and not me. Children aren’t meant to be possessions. They’re meant to grow up and make their own way in the world.”
The man stopped and whipped around to face Joe.
“No they’re not, Danny! They’re not! Children are meant to obey their parents. It says so in His word.”
“But Danny wasn’t a child any longer, was he? That was the problem, wasn’t it? You couldn’t make him obey you, because he’d grown up. Because he wasn’t a little boy any more. He was a man. A man who was making his own decisions, regardless of whether you approved of them or not.”
“Be quiet! Be quiet I say! Your father should have taught you proper obedience years ago, Joseph, but since he so obviously did not, the Lord has left that job to me.”
With one mighty yank backward, Joe wrenched his ankles free from his uncle’s grasp. As the man came at him, Joe brought his knees to his chest and then kicked harder than an angry bronc. He caught Daniel square in the chest. The old man stumbled and fell. That’s all the opportunity Joe needed. He pushed himself to his feet, hopping barefoot toward their distant campsite.
There must be a knife there! There must be something I can use to get these ropes off.
Because he was young and invincible – or so he thought – the notion never crossed Joe’s mind that escape was impossible. As soon as he cut himself loose, all he had to do was climb on Cochise and hightail it for home. His uncle wasn’t a skilled enough horseman to catch up to him. Especially not when riding Sweet Daisy.
Joe flew forward with a startled, “Humph!” The body slamming into his at full force threw him to the ground. He fought to get back to his feet, surviving now on nothing but adrenaline and the desire to escape the clutches of a deranged man.
Daniel Cartwright, who outweighed his nephew by sixty pounds, was easily able to keep the youth pinned face down in the dirt. He pulled the rag from the pocket of his vest, shoved it against Joe’s nose, and waited for the struggling boy’s body to go slack. When it did, Daniel stood. He took a moment to catch his breath, then grabbed Joe by the ankles and once again began dragging him toward the lake. He paused to look out over the water. It was so beautiful. Upon seeing the shimmering waves dancing like diamonds, how could one doubt the existence of God?
As Daniel resumed this journey of salvation, he glanced back at his unconscious nephew and said with a note of regret in his voice, “Just as it pleased the Lord to make you prosper and increase in number, so it will please Him to ruin and destroy you.”
The early morning dawn was just beginning to give Ben Cartwright enough light to see by. With each passing minute, came additional light that made it less perilous to urge Buck to increase his speed. Sport kept pace with Buck, as did Chubb, despite the long night he’d already put in for Hoss. Lake Tahoe lay ahead of them. Ben could feel the change in the air – the dampness and chill – that indicated they were getting closer to her shoreline. Closer, but not close enough, as they were still too far away to see the water, or to confirm Ben’s worst fears and suspicions.
It was during the darkest portion of the pre-dawn hours that Ben and Adam had been sitting at the dining room table, trying to determine where they’d next search for Daniel and Little Joe, while at the same time hoping further search wouldn’t be needed. Hoping that when Hoss arrived, he’d have his uncle and younger brother in tow.
When they heard Hoss’s heavy footsteps clomp across the wooden boards that made up the floor of the front porch, and when Adam said, “It sounds like he’s got someone with him,” Ben was sure their long night of worry had ended. He wasn’t certain if he was going to hug Joseph, wring his neck, or do a little of both, and he was still undecided in that regard when the door burst open.
“Pa! Hey, Pa!”
Ben rounded the dining room wall with Adam at his heels.
“I’m right here, Hoss. You don’t have to holler. And before you say anything, don’t try and protect that little brother of yours, or make excuses for him. Young man,
I don’t know what you think you were doing when you left this house. . .”
Ben’s tirade died off when he saw it wasn’t Little Joe standing behind Hoss, unless Little Joe had taken to wearing a dress, that is.
“Oh. . .oh, Miss Henning. I apologize. I assumed – wrongly, I see – that Hoss had Little Joe with him.”
“That’s what Miss Henning here has gotta tell ya’ ‘bout, Pa.”
“Tell me about?”
“Little Joe and Uncle Dan’l. She’s gotta tell you somethin’ about ‘em.”
Ben scowled. “Were they at the Dunn place today? Did Jim lie to me?”
Nan shook her head. “No, Sir. They weren’t there – honest they weren’t. But it was Paul and Charlie who set that fire and kidnapped Little Joe with help from your brother.”
“Oh now, Miss, you must be mistaken. I realize you’ve likely been exposed to a lot of hearsay about my family, given the tensions this summer between us and the Dunns, but--”
“Pa, please,” Hoss interrupted. “I know it sounds plumb loco. I thought so too, at first. But hear Miss Henning out. I don’t cotton to holdin’ one mean thought against Uncle Dan’l, but for Little Joe’s sake, you gotta hear what she has to say.”
Thank heavens for Adam’s clear head at a time of crisis. Given that none of them had eaten supper, and that Miss Henning looked ready to faint from exhaustion, Adam called for Hop Sing to bring them whatever food he could put together quickly, along with something cold for Miss Henning to drink.
Hop Sing made good use of the meal he’d cooked hours earlier. Despite the fact that their housekeeper should have been in bed, he was evidently expecting Adam’s request to come sometime before the long night was over. It seemed to Ben as though they’d barely sat down before a platter of ham, a plate stacked high with slices of bread, a bowl of sweet potatoes, a dish of apple butter, a basket of corn bread muffins, and a pitcher of water were on the table.
Ben’s, “Thank you, Hop Sing,” was preoccupied, yet grateful. It might seem odd to an observer to eat at time like this, but regardless of what Miss Henning told them, Joseph and Daniel were still missing. They couldn’t resume the search on stomachs that hadn’t seen a meal since noon the previous day.
As food was passed around the table, Ben said, “Please, Miss Henning, don’t wait until we’ve filled our plates. Tell me what it is you’ve heard.”
The girl’s story came forth quickly between bites of ham and a warm muffin she slathered with apple butter. As for Ben, his appetite only diminished further despite the way his stomach had growled when the food was first brought to the table.
When Nan’s story drew to a close, Adam looked at his father for what Ben could only assume was either confirmation or denial. Ben didn’t know if he’d gone as pale as he suddenly felt. As though all the blood had drained from his body because of his own mistake. Because he’d invited his brother to come for a visit. Because since childhood he’d always known Daniel was odd. Had always known Daniel’s view of the world was off-kilter at best. Because if Little Joe had been hurt – or worse – at Daniel’s hands, then the blame was Ben’s to carry with him for the remainder of his life.
Thankfully, Adam didn’t make Ben confess his thoughts. Perhaps he easily read his father’s face, or perhaps he was too busy bearing some of the blame himself.
“I should have known.”
“Should have known what, Adam?” Hoss asked.
“I should have known that day after the fire when I found Joe. When he kept saying he repented. I should have tied that word to Uncle Daniel. I should have known it was him.”
“Aw, now, don’t go blamin’ yerself. Ya’ couldn’t have known.”
“Yes, I could have. I should have. Who else but Uncle Daniel uses a phrase like that? Where else would Joe have heard it?”
“Maybe, but still--”
“It doesn’t matter now.” Ben stood. “It’s not your fault, Adam. I’m the one who invited Daniel here.”
“Now, Pa, ya’ can’t go blamin’ yerself, either. Ya’ can’t--”
“I can and I will. Especially if Little Joe is. . .is. . .” Ben couldn’t finish his sentence. He turned toward the kitchen. “Hop Sing! Hop Sing! Get out here!”
For once, the housekeeper arrived without complaint. Either he’d been listening from the doorway, or he sensed the mood of the household.
“Yes, Mr. Cartlight? You call Hop Sing?”
“Hop Sing, come first light we’re leaving to look for Little Joe. I’ll get a horse harnessed to the buggy, then I’ll wake Hiram. I want you and Miss Henning to wait in town for us. Go to Chung Lee’s. Stay there until I send someone for you.”
“Humph! Number Five cousin and Hop Sing not on speaking terms.”
“Fine. Then go to Li Chin’s. Or to Trang Vey’s. I don’t care where you go, just as long as you stay in town. I don’t want to risk Jim Dunn coming after Miss Henning and finding either of you here unprotected.”
Hop Sing nodded and began clearing the table. Ben explained to Nan, “One of my hands is laid up right now. Given our need for men at the timber camp, he’s the only one in the bunkhouse. He can’t run too fast these days, but he’s still a good shot. Hop Sing will drive the buggy and Hiram will ride along. They’ll take you to your parents.”
Nan nodded with what Ben perceived to be gratitude. She seemed relieved at the thought of going home.
As Ben headed toward the door, he stopped abruptly and turned around.
“Oh, and Miss Henning, I’ll be asking Hiram and Hop Sing not to go to the sheriff. This situation with my brother is a. . .a family matter I prefer to take care of myself. While I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t go to Sheriff Coffee at this time either, I have no right to tell you not to. You’ll have to do what you deem best in that regard.”
The girl’s answer came without hesitation.
“I won’t go to the sheriff, Mr. Cartwright. I just want you to find Little Joe. I just want him to be all right.”
“That’s exactly what I want too, Miss. Believe me, that’s exactly what I want.”
As Ben and his sons rode out of the ranch yard shortly before daybreak, the buggy carrying Hop Sing, Hiram Vickers, and Nan Henning left as well. Ben advised Hop Sing to travel Virginia City road. While it might be the road Jim Dunn would travel if he suspected Nan was trying to get home, it was also the quickest and safest route to town. Besides, Hiram was riding “shotgun”, and had been told by Ben not to take any chances where Jim was concerned.
“I don’t want harm to come to Mr. Dunn, Hirman, yet I don’t want him to harm any of you, either. You understand me?”
“Yes, Sir, Mr. Cartwright. I understand straight away.”
After the buggy disappeared into the pre-dawn shadows, Ben swung Buck around in the opposite direction.
“Come on, boys.”
“Come on where?” Adam asked.
“Yeah, Pa, where are we headed? Doncha’ think it’d be better if we split up like we did before.”
“No, I don’t, because I know where your uncle has your brother.”
Ben silently recalled something Daniel said weeks earlier.
I want to thank you for making the time to show me Lake Tahoe today. She’s a fine example of the beauty of God’s work. She’d be the perfect host for a repentance and baptism ceremony.
“Pa? Pa, Adam asked where you think Uncle Dan’l’s taken Little Joe.”
“Lake Tahoe?” Adam’s skepticism was broadcast with just those two words. “Why would he take Joe to Lake Tahoe?”
“For a repentance and baptism ceremony.”
“Never mind. It’s the only idea I have, and if I’m wrong. . . if I’m wrong and he kills your brother, then I’ll never forgive myself.”
Ben didn’t wait for any words to the contrary his sons might have offered. He plunked his heels into Buck’s side and headed the horse toward the road that led to the lake.
When they’d finally climbed the final crest that looked down upon the vast body of water, Ben’s fears were waiting there for him, as though he was an active participant in the nightmare every father has now and again when it comes to the well being of one of his children.
“Daniel! Daniel!” Ben urged Buck into a gallop. “Daniel, let him go! My God, Daniel, stop it! Let him up! Let my son up!”
As he raced to the shoreline, Ben was forced to watch as his brother held Little Joe’s head beneath the water. Joe fought and flailed, but his bound wrists prevented him from obtaining any kind of advantage. Just when Ben’s hand reached for his sidearm, Daniel brought Joe up from the water.
Little Joe coughed and choked, gasping for air and all the while fighting to wrench himself from his uncle’s grasp.
My stubborn, determined child, came Ben’s fleeting thought. That stubbornness and determination that so often led Little Joe to trouble, might just be what had kept him alive thus far.
“Stop fighting me, Danny. Stop it, I say! Obey thy father! Obey thy father, I say unto you!”
“You’re not my father! You’re not my father, you crazy old man!”
For his impertinence, Joe was dunked once again. Ben hollered, trying to break whatever spell had come over Daniel.
“He’s not Danny! Daniel, stop it! That’s not Danny, that’s my Joseph! That’s my son, not yours!”
Daniel either didn’t hear Ben, or was, like Little Joe had just declared, “a crazy old man.” As he held Joe beneath the water, he called up to Ben, “He deserves this, Benjamin! You stay out of it now! This is between Danny and me! He’s evil! He laid with other men, you know. He must be punished! I will not allow him to bring Sodom and Gomorrah into my home! The Lord has commanded that this sinner repent or spend eternity with Satan!”
“That’s not Danny! Daniel, listen to me! That’s not Danny! That’s my Joseph! That’s my son, not yours! That’s my Joseph!”
Daniel took no further notice of Ben as he recited Bible verses while holding Little Joe beneath Lake Tahoe’s waters.
“Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law.”
Ben was dimly aware of Hoss’s voice joining his as Hoss pleaded with his uncle to let Joe go. Ben closed his eyes briefly, then reached for his gun.
He pulled the pistol out of its holster. As Ben Cartwright took aim, he prayed that his parents would forgive him for what he was about to do.
His nightmares usually centered on falling. On plunging from a great height, arms and legs failing for some kind of hold, for some way to stop his terrorizing descent before he hit the ground. He couldn’t recall ever having a nightmare about drowning, like the nightmare he was experiencing now. He fought to wake up. To break the illusion of his head held beneath frigid water until he could no longer hold his breath. He opened his mouth to scream; sure that action would end the horror. Certain he’d find himself safe in his room, all the while wondering at the source of the dream until a day or two passed and he was able to laugh about it, then another day or two passed, and he forgot about it for good.
But when he tried to scream, water poured down his throat. His heart rammed against his chest, as though it wasn’t getting any air either. Joe struggled to free himself from the steel grip that pinned him below the surface. Just as his awareness began to dim, a hard yank on his hair brought him up. He coughed and sputtered and gasped for life-giving air. Until that moment, he’d never realized how much he took for granted the simple act of breathing.
Muffled shouts reached Joe, but who was speaking and what was being said he didn’t know. His ears felt thick and full of fluid, like they had when he was a child and suffered from occasional earaches brought on by a winter cold.
When the sounds finally grew more distinct, words floated past in disjointed fashion. Something about someone named Danny, and lying with men, and Sodom and Gomorrah, and baptism and purification, and then another voice shouting, “That’s my son, Daniel! That’s my Joseph!”
As though a thick fog had finally dissipated, the world around Joe suddenly grew clearer. His uncle was the man intent on drowning him for reasons Joe couldn’t identify, and it was his father shouting at the man to stop.
Joe seized the only opportunity at hand. While Uncle Daniel’s attention was on Pa, he mustered all the strength he could into his cold, stiff limbs and rammed his bound elbows into the soft spot between the old man’s ribs. For just a second, the old man bent forward and struggled to catch his breath, but the incapacitation didn’t last long enough for Joe to get the advantage. His head was plunged downward once more. He heard his father shout, “Daniel, no! No!” And then heard his uncle intone, “There he built an alter, and he called the place El Bethel, because it was there that God revealed Himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother.”
As water filled Joe’s nose, mouth, and finally his lungs, he realized he’d wasted a lot of years worrying that he’d die from a fall.
Mitch had been wrong. Drowning wasn’t a peaceful way to die. If Joe lived through this, he’d have to remember to tell Mitch that. It was a debate he, Mitch, and Tuck engaged in every so often – what would be the best way to die. And the first rule was, you couldn’t say dying in your sleep, ‘cause everyone knew that was probably the best way to go.
So Tuck usually said gettin’ shot real quick right through the heart was probably the best way for a feller to meet his maker. Especially if the guy doin’ the shootin’ did you a favor and shot you from behind. Tuck said that way you’d never see it comin’, and wouldn’t have time to be afraid.
Joe always thought that maybe the best way to go was from a fever. After all, if your fever got high enough you became delirious and didn’t know what was goin’ on anyway, and eventually, your body just kind of gave out and then death took you.
But Mitch had always said that he reckoned drowning was the best way to go. He said he’d always heard it was peaceful. That comment never failed to make Joe laugh.
“How do you know it’s a peaceful way to die? Did someone who drowned come back to life and tell you that?”
“Cartwright, don’t be an idiot. ‘A course not. It’s just what I’ve heard. I suppose people who’ve come close to drowning say that.”
it’s peaceful, huh?”
“Well I don’t see how not bein’ able to breathe can be peaceful. I say a fever’s best.”
“I think both you fellas is wrong. I still say gettin’ shot in the back would be best.”
“And I think you’re both loco. Mark my words, if ya’ don’t get lucky enough to live to a ripe old age and die in your sleep, then drownin’ is what you’d better pick. Like I said, I hear tell it’s the most peaceful way to go.”
As far as Joe was concerned there was nothing peaceful about drowning. Now he knew what a fish on the end of a line felt like, only the fish was fighting to get back in the water, while Joe was fighting to get out of it. If a drowning man wanted to just let the Lord take him, Joe wasn’t sure how you went about doing that when you couldn’t breathe. Seemed to him as though his body was forcing him to fight. As though the instinct for air was too strong to ignore. He pictured himself as a big, thrashing powerful swordfish caught in some fisherman’s net. As his lungs screamed for air, Joe wondered if his father could see him, or if his struggles were far beneath the surface of the water and therefore went unnoticed.
It all changed so quickly, as Joe supposed happened to a person when the end was near, no matter how he died. One moment his mind was sharp and alert and his will to survive strong, when the next moment all grew dim. Joe’s body went slack. As he slowly sank toward the bottom of Lake Tahoe, Joe realized the peaceful part of drowning came only after a man was already dead.